Thursday, November 29, 2007

Forgotten VHS # 3 – Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons”

Not only is Orson Welles’ never completed follow-up to arguably the greatest cinematic debut of all time a forgotten VHS, it also perhaps the most forgotten film ever made, relative to its importance and greatness. Many cinephiles who rank Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941) among the greatest films ever made have never seen his 1942 sophomore effort, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” which is as ambitious, original, and entertaining as its predecessor. This is mostly a result of the film’s non-availability in the Region 1 DVD format. However, “The Magnificent Ambersons” is available in three different VHS versions, all of which are available for under $15.

“The Magnificent Ambersons” follows the life of a spoiled young man, George Amberson Minafer, raised in an aristocratic family, who’s spoiled nature leads him to become a power-hungry control freak. George seeks success and prominence and his pride results in the prevention of his mother from marrying a rich entrepreneur, eventually causing the Amberson family’s stature to dwindle. The opening scenes of the film exemplify “The Magnificent Amberson’s” tour-de-force style. These opening scenes are marked by Welles’ brilliantly witty narration and a fast-paced, wonderfully rhythmic sequence detailing George’s childhood and the history of the Amberson family, one of the most prominent in Indianapolis in the late 1800s. As in the incredible opening sequence, the film maintains a virtuoso visual style throughout, full of complex deep focus compositions and long, flowing shots that relate the Ambersons’ story with elegance and masterful craftsmanship.

Perhaps as interesting as the actual film is the story and history behind the production and editing of “The Magnificent Ambersons.” The original cut of the film was 148 minutes long, but Welles had to leave the project to work on his ill-fated film about South America, “It’s All True,” leaving him out of the country and unable to complete the re-edits demanded by RKO. The re-editing was left instead to future director Robert Wise, who trimmed the film down to a bare 88 minutes, mutilating the film in Welles’ eyes. Welles was left out of the re-editing process and his suggestions were ignored by RKO. The film as Welles intended is essentially lost, but the edited remains are still nearly perfect, representing just how powerful Welles cinematic prowess is, shining through the restraints put on it by the studio’s manipulation. “The Magnificent Ambersons” is one of the true cinematic masterpieces and its absence from Region 1 DVD is absolutely shameful. However, scooping up a VHS copy of the film is certainly better than missing out on a great film experience.

by Brandon Colvin

*Editor's Note*
There is a Region 5 Spanish DVD of the film, but the quality is supposedly the same as the VHS. Also, we are assuming most people do not have Multi-Region DVD players as of now, which makes VHS the only format that the film are available in. When multi-region players becomes more popular, the rules of this series may become more strict, but as of now the series will allow titles that have non-region 1 DVDs. We will make notes of them, like this, when necessary.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

A Storybook Statement

Since 2D animation has gone to the wayside, the Disney company, and even the Disney brand of children’s film, has had a tough time adapting. While the partnership with Pixar gives them a link to the most powerful (in every sense of the term) children’s entertainment in the world, the true Disney films (“Treasure Planet,” “Chicken Little,” “Home on the Range”) have been marred by stupid plots, second-tier animation, and completely unequivocal success compared to the older films. The 21st Century and the digital age has required a shift in cinema that Disney animation has yet to make. However, with the new film “Enchanted,” it seems like Disney has recognized their product for what it is, was, and, seemingly, always will be. “Enchanted” is self-aware of the Disney history, but uses it as a pastiche that not only serves as one of the strongest Disney films in years, but also a signal that Disney may have figured out how to transfer their product into the digital age.

Starting out in the 2D animated, 4:3 aspect ratio of the Disney days of old, “Enchanted” is recognizing its history and playing with the modes of production and their general plot lines. Giselle (Amy Adams) is a beautiful young lady who lives in the forest and sings to the animals about finding her true love, which can only be recognized through “true love’s kiss.” Prince Edward (James Marden) hears the song and goes off to find Giselle. She falls into his lap while he sits on his horse, they kiss, and vow to be married the next day. However, Edward’s stepmother, the evil Queen Narcissa (Susan Sarandon), wants to keep her throne forever so disguises herself and pushes Giselle into a well where she is sent to a place with no “happily ever afters”: modern day New York City. Giselle, in full wedding attire, rises from the sewers into the widescreen New York City where she immediately misses the courtesy and kindness of her fairly tale land of Andalasia. She gets lost and ends up in Bowery, where she is found by an engaged divorce attorney Robert (Patrick Dempsey) and his daughter. He sympathizes with this poor confused woman and takes her to his apartment.

This plot description is only necessary in noting that from step one onward, the same Disney pattern is being followed even in the live action world. Any astute viewer can predict where the film is going to go and what is going to happen, but if you get caught in this trap of plot it is easy to overlook the smart changes in the Disney message and the updating of their own ideology for the new age. The general complaint about Disney films is that they never apply to real life and the film’s engender some sort of ideology in young woman that they must be thin and beautiful to ever find their Prince Charming. While “Shrek” has notable played with these ideals, it continues to push the same messages. In “Enchanted,” true love is still found in the real world, but only in realizing that there is more to love than what is found in the animated fairy tale world’s Disney has proposed in the past and in Andalasia. “Enchanted” still does very much to present Giselle as a typical princess, but this is only used to play off of their prior films. The underlying message shifts, which in turn should change the way that the proposal of Giselle’s character, a young woman who has to recognize the ways of the real to find true love and get her “true love’s kiss”, as a role model is no longer troubling, as Disney critics of past films have found.

Updated messages and changing philosophies aside, there is so much joy to be found in “Enchanted” that it is difficult, unless you are a total cynic, to not fall under its spell. Amy Adams real-life fairy tale princess is played with a fancy-free attitude that can turn on a dime with the recognition of the darker forces in the world (i.e. divorce.) Adams is beyond perfect in the role and carries the film on her tiara and dresses made of curtains. James Marsden and Patrick Dempsey play along very well, especially in the recognition of the musical elements that somehow don’t make sense to Robert. Giselle’s musical number in Central Park and her calling to the creature’s of the city to clean her new home are two of the best sequences you will see in any movie this year. As if there were any question about it, Adams proves herself fully capable of being a strong leading lady. She displays such a simple grace in her performance, all the while creating such a strong sense of character. As obviously formulaic as “Enchanted” is, and, indeed, is supposed to be, Adams’ great performance helps the audience in recognizing the playfulness of the film and helps it, dare I say, transcend to greater heights. Given her Oscar nomination, but snub all the same, for the wonderful “Junebug,” and an Oscar worthy turn in “Enchanted,” Adams should be fully solidified as a goddess in the acting world (and the love of my cinematic life.)

Maybe the most noteworthy and radical message that comes from “Enchanted” is in the final act where Giselle, who has received true love’s kiss and been revived from a deadly apple, has her final battle with Princess Narcissa who turns herself into a giant, ragingly digital dragon. Giselle climbs the tower in the real world to defeat the digital dragon who has now plagued the animated world of Andalasia and the real world of New York. It is only when the digital dragon has been conquered that the characters can return to the 2D fairy tale land and others can finally find peace and true love and happiness in the real world. If that isn’t a statement on Disney’s major faults and their continuing battle to update and revise at the start of the 21st century, then I don’t know what is.

by James Hansen
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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lost in the Fog

The usually sure-handed Frank Darabont has created a mess of extra-dimensional, tentacled proportions in “The Mist,” his adaptation of Stephen King’s novella of the same name. While Darabont has had success helming adaptations of King’s more “literary” pieces, “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” he handles King’s horror work without the same unity, simplicity, and character-based dynamics that made his previous works excel.

“The Mist” is full of great ideas; however, none are given enough space, time, or care to be examined as thoroughly as they deserve. The film depicts the experience of the citizens of Castle Rock, Maine, particularly the family of David Drayton (Thomas Jane), when a mysterious storm, complete with fatal mist, overtakes their town, trapping many of them within a supermarket where they must discover the nature of their problem and, basically, solve it. It is revealed, rather early in the film, that the mist contains a veritable zoo of CGI monsters, including a mysterious octopus-like entity and some enormous scorpion-locusts. A later (pointless) twist clarifies that the beasts crossed over into our world from an alternate dimension, being granted access by a group of (you guessed it) rogue military scientists. All of this sci-fi nonsense is really secondary (or at least it should be) in a film that is more interesting when it isn’t clear what’s in the mist and when the people inside are fighting amongst themselves.

During their imprisonment in the supermarket, the group of citizens engages in numerous conflicts (not even counting fighting off mutant pterodactyls) involving a variety of interesting theological, philosophical, political, and sociological ideas. The conflicts between the citizens cover issues including the merit of logical thinking, the dangers of faith-based societies, the irreducibility of the unknown, the place of violence in society, the detriments of trusting military establishments, the scary truth of scientific advancement, and the necessity of hope. The problem with “The Mist” is that it attempts to touch on ALL of these issues, leaving them ALL essentially untouched. The film could’ve been saved if a single issue had been selected out of all of these to be covered in greater depth. An excellent example of this approach can be seen in George Romero’s horror classic “Dawn of the Dead” (1978). In the film, Romero covers many of the bases pertaining to consumerism and socioeconomic realities and how they impact American society. “Dawn of the Dead” has an effectively narrowed focus and this gives it the ability to actually say something significant, a goal that “The Mist” seems to have but which it never achieves.

The most visceral, arresting tangent that “The Mist” careens onto deals with the establishment of a cult-like group of supermarket-trapped citizens that is constantly quoting the Book of Revelation and yelling about Biblical beasts and “expiation.” This group, led by an ultra-conservative tight ass named Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), considered the local religious nut, creates a stronghold of power and fanaticism and becomes an oppressive, totalitarian institution within the sequestered community of trapped supermarket shoppers. These power-hungry zealots are infinitely more terrifying that the shoddily animated monsters that fill the screen with half-assed, terrible looking graphics, debasing the terror and suspense to the level of shock-n-gore instead of genuine dread and atmosphere. Shifting the focus from acid-spitting spiders to real people and leaving the mist undefined and mysterious, maintaining its theological significance, could make “The Mist” a potentially incredible, although extremely different, film.

Aside from the film’s scatterbrained content, its style, pacing, and script are completely incompetent. The cinematography of the film is inspired at times, but unimpressive on the whole. Shot by two camera crews from television’s “The Shield,” the film contains many of the handheld, rapidly zooming shots common in “gritty” shows, like “K-Ville” and “24.” This visual schema would be more effective if the characters in “The Mist” were actually rounded and the dialogue and script didn’t sound as if the screenwriter was an angst-ridden high school student. However, flat characters making cutesy, semi-wry remarks and vaguely witty, hackneyed speeches combined with “gritty” cinematography results in a tonal clash similar to what might happen if one tried to make a neo-realist musical.

As far as pacing goes, “The Mist” speeds through what it should really concentrate on: characterization. The introductory portion of the film should define its characters in very subtle, specific ways. This would theoretically allow for the previously established characters to be revealed as more complex and intricate in the rest of the film. However, “The Mist” doesn’t seem to really bother with its characters in a serious sense until the action has already kicked in. Everything is glazed over. The characters aren’t revealed in their normal lives and this forces them to all seem like abnormal, unbelievable people. Only the stereotypical reactions of stock characters in scary situations are available as characterization and this makes the film feel detached, unreal, and ultimately ineffective, when it could be incredibly involving.

“The Mist” is full of ambition but bereft of the focus and the tight storyline that made Frank Darabont’s earlier films so admirable. The potential of the film is obvious and the film may certainly be limited by its source material. If you decide to brave “The Mist,” be prepared for a frustrating amalgam of clichés and misfires, as well as an ending that will probably make you comment out loud, “That’s just stupid as hell.”

by Brandon Colvin

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Opening Shots- "Le Samourai" (1967)

A quick preface to this series that we will be tackling from time to time...a little while ago Jim Emerson on his Scanners site started a project called "The Opening Shots Project." The idea was to analyze and argue for the greatest opening shots in cinema. What makes them work. What they set up for the rest of the film. The definition of a great opening shot varies, but when you see one it can be recognized immediately. We really like the project so we decided to do some of our own entries, which we will be sending to Emerson in hopes of inclusion on his main site. Even if that doesn't happen, consider these our additions to the project anyways. Be sure to take a look at the project here. It hasn't been updated for a bit, but we hope that it keeps going strong. -James Hansen

The opening shot of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 noir masterpiece “Le Samouraï” establishes the tone of Melville’s contemplative crime film, defines its amoral protagonist Jef Costello (Alain Delon), and introduces the connections between Costello, a hired assassin, and the concept of the Japanese samurai, particularly the ronin, or masterless samurai. The nearly three-minute shot maintains a simple but wonderfully expressive composition throughout, remaining within the drab gray-blue confines of Jef’s apartment.

Jef lies stiffly on his white mattress with black polka dots in the bottom right corner of the frame. Two windows, overflowing with soft light, balance the composition by providing visual anchors in the center of the frame. Jeff’s pet bird chirps away in his birdcage, resting on a table centered between the two windows. Chairs and dressers crowd the outskirts of the frame, completing the layout of Jef’s ascetically simple, disciplined apartment. For minutes, the only sound is the constant drizzle of rain outside the windows and the intermittent whooshing of cars on the street below, punctuated by the light cries of Jef’s bird. Jef’s lights a cigarette and when he puffs, the smoke floats up softly, stagnating in the light of the windows, rolling around as if trying to escape. The completely still shot seems as if it’s attempting to emulate the frozen camera of Ozu. Jef lies with solemnity and his imprisonment in his dreary apartment is analogous to the situation of his caged bird.

Following the credits, text appears in the top right corner of the shot. The text reads, “There is no greater solitude than that of a samurai, unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle . . . perhaps . . .” The quote is attributed to Bushido (Book of Samurai), which Melville fabricated for the film, and illustrates the connection between Jef’s disciplined isolation and the social exile experienced by great warriors, like samurai. Particularly interesting is the connection between Jef and ronin, or masterless samurai. Ronin are noted in Japanese storytelling for their lack of morality and existential listlessness, caring for themselves above all and feeling no loyalty to exterior forces. Jef exemplifies this sort of selfish existence, which, as with the ronin, fates him to a sense of dread and, ultimately, death.

Immediately after the text appears in the frame, the shot begins undulating violently from rapid zoom-ins and zoom-outs. The jarring mutation of the shot results in the shot actually being wider, the camera further away from Jef. His isolation and distance is intensified, correlating with the revelation of Jef as a type of modern ronin. Following the widening of the opening shot, Jef sits up in his bed and turns his back to the camera, facing the windowed wall, smoky light dancing over his head. He has turned away from the camera, away from the audience, delving further into his own separation and loneliness. This is Jef’s acceptance of his role as the necessarily solitary warrior, an enforcer of the zeitgeist of “honorable” violence.

The slow, lingering pace of the opening shot of “Le Samouraï” sets the momentum of Melville’s film and the gray-blue dreariness of the color scheme is consistent throughout, almost as if Melville is attempting to make a color film in black and white. This anachronistic quality is ultimately what defines Jef, a remnant of the past, of the legend of the ronin, a pre-vanquished anti-hero seemingly awaiting his own extinction.

by Brandon Colvin

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Forgotten VHS #2- Bresson's "The Devil, Probably"

Robert Bresson’s 1977 masterpiece “The Devil, Probably” is his greatest color work, epitomizing Bresson’s brilliant transition from a mastery of classical black and white to the expanded possibilities of a multicolored cinematic world. The film is the apotheosis of Bresson’s ascetic style, which delves further into nihilism in “The Devil, Probably” than in any of his other films. Along with “Agnes du péché” (1943), “Trial of Joan of Arc” (1962), “Une femme douce” (1969), and “Four Nights of a Dreamer” (1971), “The Devil, Probably” is currently unavailable on DVD, and, sadly, its rights belong to New Yorker Video, a company which has historically released low quality, bare bones DVDs with terrible prints, as is the case with Bresson’s “A Man Escaped” (1956), “Lancelot du lac” (1974), and “L’ Argent” (1983). However, “The Devil, Probably” is certainly worth searching for on VHS and can be found easily on the Marketplace or eBay.

Bresson’s film follows a disaffected youth, named Charles, who confronts and challenges religion (a favorite Bresson topic), industrialism, psychology, politics, and the counterculture during his existential journey through the banal and uninspired streets of Paris. The film addresses one of the primary themes of Bresson’s oeuvre, suicide, in a more direct way than in previous films, truly dealing with issues of unavoidable meaninglessness and bypassing the faith-based semi-miracles that transform many of Bresson’s characters and save them from the void of nothingness, as in “Diary of a Country Priest” (1950), “A Man Escaped” (1956), and “Pickpocket” (1959). “The Devil, Probably” contains many unforgettable scenes, including a great conversation between Charles and a psychoanalyst, as well as a haunting final scene that feels like the immaculate capstone to Bresson’s highly influential and totally inimitable career.

by Brandon Colvin

*Editor and Writer's Warning*
The subtitles on the VHS are not very good, but it is still well worth it. Just don't say we didn't warn you...

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Forgotten VHS #1- Godard's "Numero Deux"

Introducing a new series of entries that will often be found here at Out 1. The forgotten VHS entries are to serve like those "overlooked DVD" entries on so many other sites. Not that overlooked DVDs should not be recognized, but recent reports have shown that there were far more films available on VHS than are currently available on DVD. This leads me to believe that if we don't remember these VHS' then many of these films will be lost and never get the ultimate transfers that they deserve sometime down the line. The shorter entries will be used to highlight these essential films that are currently only available on VHS.

Jean Luc Godard's "Numero Deux," only available through Facets Video, is one of the best and most important films of the 1970's, as well as one of Godard's finest achievements. Though it is usually forgotten in light of Godard's classic works of the 1960's, "Numero Deux" is a film that demands to be watched, especially in the ever present digital age. At once fascinating, demanding and haunting, Godard's "remake" of "Breathless" is a meditation on family life, sex, and alienation in the modern age. Set in, and never moving from, one family's apartment, the viewer watches their lives unfold through multiple superimpositions and juxtapositions within the scope frame. The only full scope shots are in Godard's prologue and epilogue, while he sits, frustrated, at the film's editing table.

It was only recently that I came across this work for the first time, yet somehow I consider that a benefit. The combination of digital, video, and film struck me more today than it would have if I would have seen "Numero Deux" years ago. So many people complain that much of Godard's work is stuck in the moment that it was made. However, "Numero Deux" is advancing and gaining increased relevancy with time. It may be hard to find, but if you are lucky enough to come across a copy, it is an opportunity that should be grasped and will surely be cherished for years to come.

by James Hansen

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Diving Into Hot Water

A young black woman lies wincing on an inclined metal table. A tool that looks like a vacuum appendage or a dentist’s instrument is inserted into her pried open vagina. Liquid material is sucked up through the tool and down a hose, finding its resting place in what appears to be a coffee pot. A doctor dumps the contents of the coffee pot-like container into a metal tray and begins sorting amongst the bloody parts. He finds legs, hands, an ear, and a misshapen head complete with two fishy looking eyes. It was a baby. Or was it a fetus? Does it matter? Was it a human? Did it think? Did it feel pain? Does it have rights? Did the young black woman defy a vengeful God? These are the impossible questions asked in Tony Kaye’s brutal and unflinching “Lake of Fire”, the director’s long-awaited follow up to 1998’s “American History X.”

Produced over a span of 17 years out of Kaye’s own pocket, “Lake of Fire” is a documentary that displays in stark black and white perhaps the grayest issue in the moral spectrum. From start to finish of its 152 minutes, “Lake of Fire” is incredibly stimulating, dynamic and, most importantly, thorough. Perhaps no aspect of the abortion debate is left untouched. The documentary oscillates between interviews with pro-choice intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz to footage of conservative pro-life extremists, including convicted murderers and abortion clinic terrorists, such as Catholic fundamentalist John Salvi and former Presbyterian minister and Army of God member Paul Hill. From the gut wrenching footage of abortions being performed to the mind numbing photographs of murdered abortionists lying in pools of blood, “Lake of Fire” presents a disturbing face-to-face encounter with the true depth of the abortion issue.

One of the more interesting arguments in the film comes from Alan Dershowitz’s close friend, writer Nat Hentoff. A fervent pro-lifer, yet a member of the ACLU and a staunch liberal, Hentoff came out as an opponent of abortion in the 1980s and was alienated from his fellow writers at The Village Voice. An atheist, Hentoff argues that abortion violates the civil rights of the child, which he describes as human, since once the zygote is formed the single celled organism is on an undeniable path toward becoming a “human.” Hentoff believes that since this being is in process to becoming a human, it should be given the same rights that its eventual teleology would allow it: the right to life as granted by the Constitution. His argument is intriguing and serves as one of the lone voices on the left against abortion. It’s especially resonant considering Alan Dershowitz’s claim that when he saw his own child on a sonogram he realized that it was a human, a living person. Dershowitz clarifies his statement, however, pointing out that his defining of his own child as a person was subjective and that for someone else, this classification may be completely different, and that the state has no right to legally enforce an opinion on a certainly arguable point.

Another beautifully crafted sequence details the path taken by Norma McCorvey, also known as Roe from Roe v. Wade. McCorvey, after a long period of depression and experimentation with drugs, turned to the evangelist anti-abortion group Operation Save America, where she continues to work under the tutelage of activist Flip Benham, who baptized her in his backyard on national television in 1995. McCorvey’s sequence illustrates an irrational, but completely understandable stance on abortion, one that is informed by a new hope in life that she attributes to God and the purity she sees shining through two young girls she became acquainted with at the Operation Save America ministry. Her transformation is seemingly miraculous and is treated sincerely and without condescension by Kaye.

Editing defines a documentary more so than a fiction film and Peter Goddard’s editing throughout “Lake of Fire” is absolutely jaw dropping. Goddard, no doubt in cooperation with Kaye’s overseeing vision, manages to transform a sprawling, tangent-ridden, back and forth issue into a cohesive visual research project illuminating each argument by contrasting it with others and placing it in new contexts. The high level of the philosophical, theological, political, and sociological discourse in the film validates the incessantly shocking aspects of the film by rooting them within an academic setting that verifies their necessity. Grisly scenes that could make even Cormac McCarthy blush are portrayed with subtle sympathy and humanism, circumventing the easy path of detachment that could’ve wrecked their presentation.

Almost as impressive as the tour-de-force editing is Kaye’s unfailing success when it comes to choosing iconic, haunting images. One scene involving a group of anti-abortion activists hammering crosses into a knoll in front of the Washington Monument is impressive in its ritualism, sticking in the mind like scenes from some of Ingmar Bergman’s most devastating works. Another iconic scene depicts a liberal man’s reactions to an anti-abortion protester’s statement that everyone who says “Goddamn” should be executed, as well as all homosexuals, fornicators, and blasphemers. The stunned man’s face hangs in disbelief, a symbol for universal liberal astonishment at such oppressive authoritarian mentalities.

Most importantly, “Lake of Fire” leaves no audience member untouched or unchallenged. When leaving the theater, viewers will undoubtedly be digesting a week’s worth of intellectual, ethical, and spiritual questions that will swish and throb in heads like moral migraines, begging to be nourished by serious thought. Even if Kaye never makes another documentary, his legacy as a great documentarian will be secured by the brilliance, originality, and sheer visceral power of “Lake of Fire.”

by Brandon Colvin

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An Art-full Western

Like any great Western, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, Andrew Dominik’s second feature, is bucolic and terse. The landscape of the film, as in the great John Ford Westerns, defines the tone, pace, and visual design of film. Longtime Coen Brothers cinematographer and former David Lynch cinematographer, Roger Deakins (who seems to be on a roll this year) allows his camera to flow into and out of the empty spaces and barren plains of Assassination’s dreary, sometimes frostbitten environment. Shots like that of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) standing in an expansive wheat field, lightly touching the tips of the stalks with coarsened fingers are given an Antonioni-like existential resonance in their juxtaposition of a character against dwarfing, detached surroundings. In fact, the film seems to strive for the creation of a Western done by Antonioni, utilizing his manifesto that moments of boredom, ennui, and characters staring off into space are equally as valid and essential to depicting real life as action and snappy dialogue, which Assassination also contains, particularly in the incredibly tense and awkwardly emotive scenes between Jesse and Bob Ford (Casey Affleck).

As many have noted, Affleck absolutely steals the show. His toothpick-in-the-wind confidence combined with unusual line delivery and speaking rhythm can illicit thoughts like, “Damn, this guy can’t act.” At this point, Affleck has been effective. The entire beautiful complexity of Bob Ford is that he is an actor, although not professionally until the film’s finale. Ford is always presenting an image to please Jesse, his
idol, about whom he collects dime novels and newspaper clippings, like a teenage girl with a collection of Justin Timberlake magazine covers. He tries to seem intelligent, respectful and, most of all, useful, during the opening scenes in which he has just joined the James gang and is attempting to get on Frank’s (Sam Shepard) and Jesse’s good sides. Frank, the adept and cynical older James brother rejects Bob, sensing his insincerity and falseness. Jesse, however, the loose canon wild cat, allows Bob to come along and sparks up a sort of rapport with him. The incredibly insecure Bob tries to please Jesse, until Jesse rejects him by telling him to go home. Once home, Bob’s brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) and some of his outlaw friends tease Bob about his celebrity obsession with Jesse James, driving Bob, in collusion with Jesse’s rejection, to loathe Jesse. Bob then attempts to detach himself from Jesse, exuding his hate in wonderfully subtle moments with so many swirling emotions (not to mention homosexual longing) compacted into so few words.

Jesse experiences a sort of psychological breakdown when he begins learning of various plans constructed by his fellow gang members to have him killed and falls into a vicious cycle of violence and paranoia. Following his Frank’s decision to go straight and dissolve the gang after an unsuccessful train robbery, Jesse experiences incredible loneliness and a lack of identity that is further complicated by Bob Ford’s fervently erroneous conception of Jesse’s identity. Jesse seems to feed off of Bob’s worship, accessing a zeitgeist-like nostalgia for the fame and success he feels slipping away. The re-intersection of Bob and Jesse after a lengthy separation throughout the middle of the film, occurs when Jesse comes to visit the Ford family and takes Bob’s brother, Charley, with him for a fictional robbery that is planned multiple times but never actually played out, an absurd situation ringing harmoniously with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. During their scenes together, Jesse questions Charley about his opinions on suicide, intimating that Jesse’s depression and existential listlessness are reaching dangerous levels.

During Jesse’s excursion with Charley, Bob decides to become an informer to the state and agrees to trap Jesse by meeting up with him and Charley. Eventually, Bob does join up with them and they retreat to Jesse’s home, where he goes by a different name and lovingly cares for his wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) and his two small children. A tense waiting game of paranoia, insanity, and the hovering scent of murder spans the Ford brothers’ stay at the James home, which includes some of the most incredible scenes in any film this year. This results in Bob’s murdering of Jesse in a way that almost seems as if Jesse desires it, his suicidal tendencies coming forth. The assassination’s grace and beauty are indescribable and they achieve an almost Tarkovsky-like transcendent quality. Up to this point, the film is actually very reminiscent of Tarkovsky, particularly his pacing and his “sculpting in time” philosophy.

However, following Jesse’s death and the hoopla surrounding it, the film looses its steadiness and falls into standard biopic mode, jumping 20 years in 20 minutes and breaking with the leisurely, almost meditative pace and tone carried throughout the first two hours of the film. This incredibly jarring inconsistency is perhaps the only major problem in the film. During this final portion of the film, Bob Ford’s downward spiral is tracked, including his foray into acting, where, along with his brother, he recreates the assassination thousands of times. Bob fully realizes his arch that began in his introductory scenes, becoming the actor he trained himself to be under the oppression of Jesse’s deified celebrity status. Bob’s position as an actor is perhaps his ultimate betrayal in that he eliminates the reality of Jesse and perpetuates a new legend, just as false as the old one that haunted Jesse in his final months. This meta-critical aspect of the film deepens the resonance of Affleck’s stellar acting, as well as Pitt’s better-than-satisfactory performance, calling attention to the film’s own existence as a dramatic depiction and a perpetuation of legends and myths. This is perhaps the most mature and well-developed aspect of the film, apart from Deakins’ masterful cinematography. It also calls to mind Brian Henderson’s fantastic analysis of John Ford’s The Searchers and makes an excellent comment about the nature of the Western genre as mythical.

Although Assassination lacks the cohesive pace that would make it a great film, it does have very interesting things to say and does so in a visually appealing, creative way, which makes it a very good film. If for nothing more than the brilliant visuals and sumptuous melancholy, this film is certainly worth a watch. However, the eerie transcendental nature of the assassination scene, the meta-critical commentary found within the film’s themes, and the brilliance of Casey Affleck’s acting demand that it be given an intellectual, critical poring over, preferably in a large theater, where the film’s austere grandiosity can become sufficiently enveloping. It’s a film made for the big screen and I imagine its grandeur will be lost in translation to most television sets.

by Brandon Colvin
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Thursday, November 8, 2007

NYFF: Silent Light

With every great rise in a “national cinema,” there are always essential directors and artists hidden beneath the enormous popularity of the so-called premiere directors. The recent Mexican New Wave has boasted three fabulous talents and pushed their top notch directors into Hollywood success. Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (“Babel”, “21 Grams”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) have transitioned into highly regarded successes in the industry. Guillermo Del Toro moved from Hollywood back to Mexico to create his monstrously successful Spanish/Mexican co-production “Pan’s Labyrinth” and is lined up to return to Hollywood. At the same time, director Carlos Reygadas (“Battle In Heaven”, “Japon”) has worked alongside these directors without being pushed over the border and into the American industry. While his work has not been as economically viable, therefore not as widespread, as the others Mexican works, Reygadas is an equally important director with extraordinary depth and range. Reygadas’ new film “Silent Light,” which has been submitted as Mexico’s selection for Academy Award consideration and was the highlight of the New York Film Festival, deepens Reygadas’ art and should help establish him as one of the premiere directors of the Mexican New Wave.

“Silent Light” opens with the greatest opening shot since Bela Tarr’s stunning opening to “Werckmesiter Harmonies.” The eight minute shot starts staring into a sky full of stars and rotates around into daybreak on the horizon. The shot ends and transitions into more solitude before the silence is broken by the word “Amen.” This opening sequence establishes Reygadas’ change in tone from his earlier works. However, the film is far from muted and finds Reygadas’ characteristic provocations through the drastic changes in character and contains moments that are equally stunning as the opening for “Battle In Heaven” which showcases an attractive young women giving felatio to a fat, uninspired older man.

“Silent Light” has been deemed a more mature work for Reygadas and, while this seems to me an unfounded back handed compliment regarding Reygadas’ prior films, it certainly seems to be a move, in general, to more refined filmmaking. While there is still a fair amount of experimentation, the seemingly conventional feel comes from the more clear cut story that “Silent Light” tells. Johan, the head of a simple Mennonite farming family, is married to Esther. However, there is trouble on the horizon w
hen Johan breaks down into tears after telling Esther that he loves her at the table. Johan is in love with another woman named Marianne who he admits is his “natural woman,” but is afraid to leave Esther because it will hurt her. Johan constantly tries to dodge the fact that it would effect him so deeply, but his religious struggle is key in realizing his desperation.

There is something mystical about the relationship between Johan and Marianne when they are together. Johan and Marianne slowly undress each other, taking time to realize the beauty of their partner. After they sleep together, each bead of sweat on Johan’s face is astonishingly clear. His soul seems to be seeping out of his body, when Marianna tells him that peace is stronger than love and Johan predicts that there will be more pain to come before he finds peace and happiness. Marianne explains that being with Johan is the saddest and happiest time of her life; she has been shut out of her family, but has possibly found her perfect man. The transgression and moral battle is placed squarely on Johan’s shoulders.

Set in a northern Mexican Mennonite community, cast with local non-professional actors, and becoming the first film ever told in the medieval German dialect called Plautidiectsch, “Silent Light” may sound like incredibly non-commercial filmmaking, but the astounding build and emotional resonance of the film’s final act showcases Reygadas’ “maturity” and ability to combine many unique elements without any of them overshadowing the work. The tone may seem lighter and Reygadas may appear to be drifting from his “provacateur” status, over which critics have harshly divided, however, “Silent Light” still manages to contain Reygadas’ classic audaciousness in its quiet moment of revelation. It is in this slight shift that Reygadas may finally find commercial interest in his work, while still maintaining the elements that make him a quintessential filmmaker.

“Silent Light” is the kind of film that the New York Film Festival and, indeed, any great film festival need. Though it may not be as risky a choice as some would like, recognizing previously overlooked films such as Reygadas’ “Battle in Heaven” or Pedro Costa’s “Colossal Youth,” the selection of “Silent Light” signals the selection committees nod of approval to the work of Reygadas. While the approval of “the committee” may signal a deeper problem about the film industry’s frustrating commercialism and unwillingness to take distributive risks, the festival’s commitment to showcasing great films, commercial studio pictures or otherwise, allows a film like “Silent Light” and Reygadas’ work to be written about and given serious thought and opened up to an intelligent and insightful audiences. Whether it is reflected the the festival’s selection or not, for my money, “Silent Light” brings to fruition and seals Reygadas as not only one of the premiere directors of the emerging Mexican New Wave, but also as one of the most interesting and crucial voices in modern world cinema.

by James Hansen

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