Thursday, March 08, 2007

Four Films

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

Last year in Marienbad

Someone recently sent me a letter about the vagueness of Resnais' notorious film. A man and a woman stand together in a garden. They discuss whether they have met before, last year, in the Austrian spa at Marienbad. Their memories are inconsistent. So, too, is the setting: Shadows shift in a way only possible in a planet with two suns.

The film has always made sense to me. It is existential (although the author of the screenplay, Alain Robbe Grillet, was a member of the nouveau roman group which, in its objectivity, was in effect anti-existential). The characters, at the end, say, in effect, "We know our memories may be an illusion. We know this world is an illusion (because the sets change in ways inconsistent with reality). We know we ourselves may not exist. However, we resolve to love each other." And, because they have made this resolution...they exist.

Existential...and also romantic. Dante would have agreed: "L'amor che muove il sole e l'altre stelle." — Paradiso Canto 33

The Five Obstructions — recent Danish film

Quite a few years ago, a Danish director named Jorgen Leth made a film called The Perfect Human. The title is sarcastic. It is surreal, dadaist (think Chien Andalou, Bunuel's famous film). In front of a brilliant white background, a dour man dressed in a dinner jacket sits in front of a feast. Glum-faced, he slowly eats, as the narrator says, "This is the perfect man. The perfect man must eat. What is the perfect man thinking of?" There are many scenes like these. And now, Lars von Trier, director of world fame, finds Leth and has him make 5 films remaking The Perfect Man, each with a set of rules, or obstructions. The first must be made using shots each no more than 12 frames long! It must be filmed in Cuba. It must have no sets. The second must be filmed in the most miserable place. It must star Jorn himself. So we see Jorn glumly wolfing a feast in a rancid Bombay slum.

It all seems pointless, but slowly something emerges. It seems that Jorn has become too depressed to film, and Lars is using this as a way to lead him back to film, a kind of therapy. The fifth film, which may or may not plumb the psyche of both directors, is very ambiguous so I don't know if it works.

Time Out, a film by Laurence Cantet

The first thing you see is a man in a car. He is driving on the French equivalent of an interstate. He sees a train pass, and he watches faces in the windows. He looks content. He drives around, stopping at rest areas, watching anonymous drivers buying things in the convenience store. He drives some more, stops at an outdoor area with picnic tables, watches families taking a rest break. He picks up cell phone, phones his wife, "Yes, the meeting went very well, my ideas were well received, but I have a lot of work and will be home late" He comes home late, talks to his kids about their schooldays, offers constructive advice about their problems.

And in future days, more driving, always the most anonymous interstates and rest stops, sometimes he walks through the woods by the side of the highway. He never talks to anyone, just watches. Home each night, more elaborate lies about how he has a great new job, etc.. There are a lot of plot complications, he knows his bubble will burst and resorts to the most elaborate subterfuges to give himself a little extra time, his wife and parents always want to talk, intrude on his space, control him...and he needs to escape...

He is not like me. I don't have the slightest empathy for him. He is the opposite of me. But I loved the film...

The film is called "Time Out". The director is Laurence Cantet. His first film, Human Resources, was about a big factory and how it dehumanizes both workers and managers. Maybe this is a sequel, how one worker escapes. It's like a darker version of that wonderful French film from 1930, A Nous la Liberte.


A few years ago, I was enthralled by Doug Liman's second film, "Go", and its convoluted, time-shifting plot. People told me that his first movie, "Swingers", was better. I finally saw it last night and they might have been right.

On its surface, "Swingers" is the usual story of a bunch of 20somethings kicking around Los Angeles. It's a lot like Fellini's "I Vitelloni", or Barry Levinson's "Diner", for that matter. But the photography -- done by Liman himself -- is excellent. So is the music, which often references other films, other epochs and thus makes a subliminal comment on the action.

At one point, several of the characters discuss their favorite camera shots in film. The nightclub shot using a steadicam in "Goodfellas" is mentioned, and so is an early shot in Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs". Then the characters leave, and the camera duplicates that "Reservoir Dogs" shot. Later I realized that Scorsese's (and veteran German cinematographer Ballhaus') shot from "Goodfellas" was also duplicated. And it suddenly struck me, as indeed it was meant to, that these characters — their self-image, their posturing, and the bonds between them — were a lot like the gangsters in those two movies. Indeed, the strong bond between the men in Swingers was the most appealing feature of the film.

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