Last Year at Marienbad

What a strange movie. The camera pans over a ornate house filled with puppet characters who are never given dialogue worth noting. At least twice I missed dialogue because I didn’t read the subtitles, but it didn’t mar the movie. This may have been because none of the dialogue has any import, or because what I missed had been said a dozen times already, or because I didn’t miss the lines at all, but only thought I must have.

For all the oddity of the movie, it was fascinating. It is like a who done it where the who is know and the it is questioned. What was done, or left undone? Nabokov criticized Dostoevsky and claimed that people who loved his novels mistook vacuity for mystery. That might be the case here, but it doesn’t seem to matter since you are more interested in seeing something, anything, rather than deceitful story you are telling and hoping you yourself might believe.

This film is violent in the way Scorsese’s ‘The Age of Innocence’ is. The narrator repeats again and again the same few lines and is repulsed by the girl, but she does begin to yield and a story and a pass do being to emerge in spite of every effort to reject them. Where Scorsese pits his characters against the fixed rules of society, Last Year at Marienbad pits our desire to know what is what against a desire to repress the unseemly in our past.

I thought this movie was fascinating, but won’t recommend it because I can’t think of anyone who I would recommend it to. If you watch it let me know what you think.

Divided We Fall

This Czech movie is pleasant enough to watch, but seems to love the strangeness of its plot twists just a little too much. It takes an odd crowd and insures their intimate proximity is left to stew into strange and perplexing situations. There are too many quirky circumstances for the film to properly introduce before they cause baffling solutions. We are left half-wondering what exactly is going on and whether their solutions are the only available ones while we should be focusing on appreciating the climax. I don’t surf, but I would imagine sitting on a board in a sea too choppy to ride a wave would elicit a feeling similar to that felt while watching this movie.

Some of the scenes are beautiful and some are touching, but in the moments of excitement and confusion the camera-work manages to confuse without exciting us.

It is good to show that in order to stand against oppression you must unite, but when uniting seems to demand that you let your wife become impregnated by a harbored jew and the baby delivered by a man who has tried to rape her there is no satisfaction. Instead you are left wondering if the film isn’t throwing out all morality (with the well accepted caveat that Nazis are evil) and claiming that in this dog eat dog world we must do whatever we can just to stay alive.

12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s most famous movie, is deceptively simple in its presentation. The tricks employed are famous: the continually sinking camera and the continually narrowing lens bring you closer and closer into the claustrophobic action; the parts of a single heated dialogue were often filmed weeks apart as part of a lighting scheme meant to keep the film within its budget. All of this heartache was for a strange purpose: having a movie that seemed to be shot in a single, small, shrinking room. The smaller the set the simpler and cheaper the production, no? If filming on the smaller set costs so much, why not work with something a bit bigger? There is a Russian adaption of this movie which sidesteps many difficulties by having the jurors meet in a gym, but by doing so the play is irrevocable altered; in such a visual medium as film the sense of place can be protagonistic in its effect.

The room into which the men first file is an uncomfortable one: greasy walls, sticky windows, a broken fan, a bare table and a dozen chairs (trials were probably shorter before the advent of AC). It is a room meant for a single purpose and demanding undivided attention for whatever case is to hand: as the truth is approached there is less room—the walls themselves force confrontation with oneself. What is it like to have the world collapse upon you?

Lee Cobb, credited as ‘Juror 3’ and known as ‘The Big Man’ in our discussions about the film, expresses his boredom and feigns an open mind when he attempts to label the matter a clear-cut case. Since only Henry Fonda’s character does not immediately agree with Cobb the focus seems to shift to Fonda, and also, since Fonda is thwarting a quick and easy decision, around him the conversation centers. There are ways to understand this film while taking Fonda as the protagonist, but I believe there is more here than a good man willing to make space for the truth, and that Cobb is the man to watch—if Cobb had held out for another ten minutes he may well have been the only man left in the room threatening him with isolated self-reflection.

We do not wish to be found guilty of our sins, we hope to deny them, or, finding that impossible, we wish others to take them upon themselves. Not thinking the latter is likely, we choose to impose the guilt upon those around us and use their supposed grime to wash ourselves clean.  A man might wish to blame his boss for his own lousy performance or a father his son for their differences; an uncompromising man, however, would know that to rest there is not to escape guilt, for who is party to the strife but themselves? It must go further, the blame must be attributed to a nature, the nature of bosses, of sons, of whomever else can have the accusation laid at their feet: ‘If all sons, if all bosses, are like this, then clearly it is simply accidental that I am involved—the blame couldn’t be mine’.

There is another way, a way which ends in admitting that all are guilty for all before all. ‘I am guilty’ is the beginning of this way, and an understanding of universal guilt the result of seeing the evil around you. Once you can understand this, you can love Him who is willing to come and take your guilt upon Himself although He alone can truly say ‘I am not guilty’. And in that love, and through Him, you can love those around you for the good He has universally given.

Holding to a belief in your innocence will lead you to a solitary isolation as those around you necessarily abandon you and you abandon them to your despair. In your mind, if not in further ways, they shall switch sides and stand against you and your world shall shrink heedlessly into a cell built of your own pride and hate. Forced to confront the truth you must despair or cave beneath the pressure of a collapsing world, condemn yourself, and say of the other: ‘not guilty’.

Braven

There has been a surge in gritty dramas set back in the woods and trying to give you a solid sense of place: the best is Wind River (although a slight back-look would bring Winter’s Bone, the exemplar, to view); the most highly acclaimed, Three Billboards. Braven follows their lead, and signals the cementation of a niche in film. Frankly, it is formulaic and uninteresting except to show that the genera is now established enough to have a formula.

The film is short, only 90 minutes, but could have readily been cut down to a happy  40 if you would be content with watching a logger, Joe, defend his family by repeatedly neglecting the gun near at hand and wielding instead a burning ax, or a winch, or a bear trap. Some movies are the survival by your wits type; Braven makes you wonder if Joe can survive the onslaught of his wits.

If you are not the sort to be so contented, perhaps watch the opening credits which at least will not disappoint you. The best scene of the movie is the felling of a tree just before the predictable 50 minute character build-up, or pile-up, begins. It was nice to see the absence of a troubled past replaced by the presence of a troubled old man who mistakes the present for the past and causes trouble. Other than that, and the slightest deviation of musical score, we are looking at a man who works, who expresses his deep love for his wife by horseplay and teasing, who is followed, even in restful moments, by a camera man who needs to cut back on the coffee and a director who needs to cut back on the cutting. I don’t know if the advent of drone technology is to blame, but it seems you can’t have a car drive down a snowy road these days without the camera peeping over the top of the trees and looking for an epic shot.

Buster Keaton never shot the same stunt twice, if it didn’t work he found another; a scene lost life when filmed again. Braven tried to mimic shots already produced and then when dead shots was all that it had, it tried to bring itself to life by imitating the musical score of the living members of its genera.

The Truman Show

Sometimes a movie will ask a question; sometimes it will ask so many follow-up questions that you become lost. You might even start to question the honesty of the question, and wonder if what might have been the mystery of unanswered questions isn’t the mere vacuity of the cynic. Film is well able to ask questions, but there is always the fear that in the asking and answering of the question it will devolve into preaching at the expense of art; this is the so-called ‘wholesome’ movie. The strength of a message will seldom pardon a poor script.
     Sometimes, though, a movie will ask questions and seem to be on the cusp of failure, and yet remain a wonderful movie. ‘The Truman Show’ is one of these daring movies. Why does it succeed? It has, in Truman Burbank, a lovable man who endears himself to his audience. This endearment is the secret to his success and also to that of the movie. The questions asked strike us powerfully, but they are yet more powerfully, all-importantly, relevant to our friend Truman. His life depends on the answers. And so we are not presented with a heavy-handed queue of questions, but are instead acquainted with a new friend from idyllic, small Seahaven. And as we see his world start to collapse around him we begin to ask the only question explicitly demanding his attention, buttoned to the blouse of the girl he loves: how’s it going to end?
     All other questions are only distractions for Truman, although they shape his every interaction, and they unambiguously threaten to crop up again in his future life. The cynical idea that life is a zero-sum game, that all interaction is only tempered by the leaden rule of doing the least harm to others in the process of self-interest, that love itself is a facade, manifests itself starkly in the townspeople of Seahaven. Every interaction may be pleasant, but some seem aggressively friendly, and one wonders what ulterior motives lie behind them. There is odd product placement, and a strangely consumerist approach to relationships. All of this cannot fail to influence Truman, but he reverses the process in a touching way. Instead of attending to how he presents himself to others, instead of surrounding himself with pictures of how he would like to be seen (notice the photographs in the houses of Seahaven), instead of searching for the one who might satisfy preconceived ideals of the perfect woman, he takes the very vehicle of person-consumerism and uses it to rediscover, albeit in a strangely imperfect way, his lost love.
     The way he expresses himself may at first resemble the masquerade of those around him, but as we continue to watch him a deeper truth is revealed in him, a truth by which even those who thought they knew him best are flummoxed. Determination and grace are infrequent companions, yet they seem chummy enough in hapless Truman. In his final scene, which brings to mind C.S. Lewis (and may suggest why this is an appropriate movie to watch this week), he effortlessly and almost comically reverts to his original persona, yet in doing so does not lapse into his former life. Instead he bows out with a poise which could only be supplied by the grace of forgiveness.

The Hustler

There is no movie quite like The Hustler for its seemingly bottomless supply of powerful actors portraying weak characters. Now, that isn’t quite properly put, but what is meant by character is at the heart of this film.
     From when Fast Eddie first enters the local pool hall we know that we are looking at a career defining moment for Paul Newman—he stands apart from the midday riff-raff and in his cocky assuredness we believe. But he is waiting for a man, and in doing so, he reveals his boyishness. So the question becomes, who is this man for whom he waits, and for what do we need him? At eight on the dime Minnesota Fats strides into the hall, and at once we are struck by Jackie Gleason’s command of the floor and by how he dwarfs Fast Eddie. He has presence; we say to ourselves Fast Eddie is just a kid, a cocky kid. But somehow Fast Eddie continues to demand our undivided attention, and so we make the best of the bind and give it to the two of them together. The menial nature of the game they play is forgotten for a moment as we see their contest take on the character of something heroic. Surrounded by onlookers, absorbed in the play, even dressed up for it, Fats and Fast Eddie participate in a ritual glossed by talent but relying on character, high-stakes pool. The spell is broken by the entrance of Bert, called onto the scene by Fats, and immediately assuming the dominant role, giving advice and proffering judgement. As Bert, George C. Scott claims the first position, and in doing so makes a distinction between character and talent, which will both bear out our believe that his possession of the one cannot mask his dearth of the other, and reveal the question the movie wishes to pose.
     It comes as a surprise to Fast Eddie when Bert claims that great talent can be paired with a loser and it comes as a surprise to us that Bert himself is betting on the wrong answer. We see Bert refuted in the end, and yet we are not given an answer to the question. What is character?
     I don’t know that this question is answered, but neither am I sure the question is meant to be answered. Strong leading roles permit the question to be merely raised without answer. Think of the recent superhero movies: since the action is clear-cut good versus evil (even if the studios like to indulge in shallow psychoanalysis and love drooling over the lesser of two evils) the character need not act or be interesting; all they must do is hurt the bad guys. If there is no clear right or wrong in such a movie it cannot help devolving into shallow cynicism, the film must emphatically answer any worthwhile questions it raises or fail. And since films are short and our emotions slow I doubt we often see questions at all but only the answering statements, right or wrong.
     There are perpetual questions in the art world, or rather, assumptions (the questions are in the philosophical world surrounding art): how is it possible for a bad man to be a great artist how is it possible for a great man to be a poor artist, how does art contain more than the artist intends and in what manner does it do so? Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats are artists and consider themselves as such (it is evident in their disdain for Bert), but who is the better artist, and who has character?