Friday, January 24, 2014

MANDERLAY: LARS UNCHAINED...


I'm a little embarrassed to say this, but I was pretty intrigued by Manderlay when I was younger. I never thought it was a great film but I remember thinking there was something interesting about it in all of it's heavy-handedness, but not so much anymore...
I used to take Lars Von Trier way more seriously than I think I was supposed to. But now that I've read enough books on the man, kept up with his antics over the years and have re-watched everything he's done over & over, I honestly get that he's trying to be a button-pushing provocateur over everything else (Dancer In The Dark, Breaking The Waves, parts of Melancholia and the final moments of The Idiots being the exceptions) and for whatever reason; I dig that about him. It's in my newfound understanding of Von Trier that I've come to respect him and enjoy his work even more. I just wish more people shared my way of thinking about him. Anyone who STILL gets frustrated over a Lars Von Trier movie in 2014 deserves the aneurysm that they're giving themselves when they get all worked up at the sound of his name. It's like people who saw Terrence Malick's To The Wonder and took the time to write super long scathing reviews of the film or go on verbal rants about how stupid, weird & artsy it is. I personally love Malick's latest work but I can understand if someone were to not like it or brush it aside. But some people's reaction to that film were as if it was his debut and they had no idea that Tree Of Life, The New World & The Thin Red Line existed (sorry, I refuse to believe anyone stumbled upon To The Wonder without knowing about Tree Of Life. You knew what you were getting in to). It's the same thing with Von Trier's recent work. Sure, it's understandable that something like Antichrist would cause the stir that it did given certain scenes and how women are presented in it. But at the same time, were those frustrated critics & cinephiles that were familiar with his work unaware of the abuse that Nicole Kidman & Emily Watson took in the last half of Breaking The Waves & Dogville, respectively? What about Bjork's body just dangling from the noose at the end of Dancer In The Dark? Was it really that shocking to see how Von Trier handled his female character in Antichrist based on his previous two decades of work? To be honest, LvT haters make me like him even more. I liken him to that of a heel wrestler. He's essentially a troll. But what's so strange is that he's a talented troll. When it comes to the technical aspects of filmmaking (which is important no matter how you look at it), having an understanding of the language of cinema and getting excellent performances out of his actors (Emily Watson in Breaking The Waves, Bjork in Dancer In The Dark, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist, etc); I'll put Lars up against your favorite filmmaker any day of the week from Alfonso Cuaron to Christopher Nolan (yeah, I said it).

As you can see I have no problem defending LvT as a filmmaker but unfortunately Manderlay is something I can't get behind no matter how many nuggets of truth or social commentary it contains.

Top row: Confederate States Of America / Cache
Bottom: Django Unchained / 12 Years A Slave

Because of recent films like Django Unchained, 12 Years A Slave & elements of The Butler, slavery & racism has suddenly become a hot topic in cinema again. But this is an echo of 2005 when the subject of racial guilt became a minor deal within indie/art house cinema all of a sudden. You had Cache (one of the greatest modern films ever made), Confederate States Of America (one of the most eye-rolling, almost unnecessary films ever made) and Manderlay, which is somewhere in the middle of those two films although it treads closer to Confederate States Of America. Cache is a film about everything from racism being swept under the rug in Europe to chickens coming home to roost while Confederate States Of America (produced by Spike Lee) is a sort of hybrid mockumentary/fiction story about a modern day America had the confederacy won the civil war. Two out of those three films dealt with slavery (Manderlay & Confederate States) and all three were about racism, guilt and atrocities committed against people of color (I can’t exactly group the Algerian characters from Cache in with the African American characters from Manderlay & Confederate States Of America, but they’re all descendants from Africa in some shape or form so, close enough…). Strangely enough, both Manderlay & Confederate States Of America played at the IFC Center around the same time if I'm not mistaken...
I’ve eluded to my extremely uncomfortable experience watching Manderlay at IFC in previous entries, but allow me to explain in full now that we're actually talking about it...
As I sat watching this in a theater made up of mostly white people, I found myself becoming more & more uncomfortable as everyone around me chuckled & laughed out loud at scenes I honestly didn’t find to be funny as a black person. Not only was I uncomfortable, but I found myself almost embarrassed for a lot of the white audience members because a lot of their laughter was clearly their way of dealing with the discomfort they felt while watching Manderlay. Don’t get me wrong, there are some legitimate humorous moments in the film, but overall there was WAY too much laughter about something having to do with slavery. 
Manderlay is ultimately a failure but at the same time, there is still a reason I bought the DVD at full price and end up talking about it from time to time at length with equal minded friends. I even devoted some time to write about it on here when I could be writing about something else...

Shot in the same stage play style as its predecessor; Dogville, Manderlay is the kind of film where if you were to stumble upon it in the middle, you’d find yourself asking; “whoa, what am I watching here?”

Black face in Manderlay
Lars touches on the (tired) taboo's of interracial relationships in Manderlay
Strange Fruit.

Going back to my troll comment from earlier; the whole motivation behind Lars Von Trier making his Grace/America Trilogy, made up of Dogville, Manderlay and a not yet made third part, was to be just that - a troll. He just wanted to challenge/annoy Americans after the criticism he faced for Dancer In The Dark. In Dogville he criticized the immigration system in America (no matter how much he denies this) while Manderlay is about race issues concerning black people in America.

In Manderlay, we pick up with the Grace character following the events of Dogville. This time around Bryce Dallas Howard takes up the role of Grace instead of Nicole Kidman (John Hurt does return as the film's narrator). Set in the early 1930's, Grace travels with her mobster father (played by Willem Dafoe this time instead of James Caan) and his henchmen through the deep south. In their travels they eventually come across a plantation ("Manderlay") that still practices slavery decades after it's been abolished in America. Apparently this was a deep backwoods southern region where they somehow kept the news of slavery being abolished a secret. Sounds a little far-fetched, I know. But I can let that go. It makes for an interesting story. Grace, along with her father’s henchmen, takes it upon herself to free the slaves but given their institutionalized mindset, they can’t function as free people. Against her father’s wishes, Grace stays back in an effort to help the freed slaves and of course by the end of the film she incidentally becomes the new defacto "master" which is the exact opposite of what she was trying to do in the first place. It's also revealed at the end of the film that one of the elder slaves (played by Danny Glover) is a bit more sinister than what we thought. It's kind of a shame Glover wasted such a good performance on this overall mess of a film. 
Manderlay is a paradox because Grace is self-righteous & obnoxious, yet so is the overall message of this film. Von Trier tries to criticize the Grace character in all of her self-righteousness & know-it-allism in her mission to help the slaves not realizing that Grace is actually a mirror of Von Trier himself in making Manderlay. Lars points his finger at America and criticizes the racism that exists in this country (which it certainly does exist) but he has yet to even step foot on American soil. I'm not saying that he can't have an opinion on racism in America (or even make a movie about it) but for him to go as far as he did with Manderlay without ever witnessing it firsthand is a little strange to me. How could this be truly authentic? Plus, Von Trier is pretty much trying to go out of his way to blame all white people for the plight of black people in America and its SOOO much more complicated than how he presents it. He simplifies such a complex issue (racism) to the point where it becomes insulting. In the final moments of Manderlay, one of the slaves, played by Claire Denis regular; Isaach De Bankole, practically looks in to the camera and says to Grace; "YOU made us this way." I have two major problems with that. One, it's as if Debankole is speaking for all black people (myself included) as if we're one like-minded group of people who all think the same and blame the same. My other issue with that statement is, like I said earlier, it's the biggest oversimplification of what's probably the most complex issue in the world, yet Von Trier manages to whittle it down into a single phrase.


Recently a good friend of mine (Mtume Gant of the site; Alter Eye) offered an interesting perspective on Haneke's Cache which I actually feel applies more to Manderlay. On the subject of Cache, a film we don't exactly see eye-to-eye on, he felt that at the end of the day Cache was about racism & people of color, but it was made by white people and for white people only. I understand that take on it, but in my opinion, Cache is the only kind of film Michael Haneke could make. Had he made that kind of film from the perspective of the Algerian characters in Cache, I feel it would have been out of line & out of place. Cache is told from the perspective of a white European male because Haneke himself is a white European male. If you're going to make an authentic film about racism, it's potentially dangerous to take on the perspective of a black person when you've never walked in their shoes (not saying it can't be done, but it is risky). Even the few parts of Manderlay where Von Trier is on point with his social commentary, I can’t help but feel like it isn’t his place to say anything given he’s spent ZERO time around African Americans outside of a movie shoot and has yet to step foot in a highly populated black area in America. And to add an extra layer to things, Manderlay is the kind of film where mostly white intellectuals will talk about this among themselves without knowing or wanting to know a black person’s opinion on it.

And lets be clear – had a black person made this very exact same film, I still would have had problems with it…


I’m a little disappointed that Lars’ one & only film to date that tackles race head-on turned out to be this. He’s handled minor racial issues in the past (on & off camera) in a way that I’ve respected. The character that Catherine Deneuve plays in Dancer In The Dark was originally supposed to be a black woman but Lars decided to not add to another long list of black supporting, sidekick female characters so he made her white instead (as strange as that sounds, that’s how I personally prefer more filmmakers handle things instead of trying to please black audiences by throwing in an under-developed black character in an effort to make things “diverse”).
I always found it odd that the biggest controversy from the production of Manderlay was John C. Reilly walking off set in protest due to a donkey being killed for a particular scene. 
How were there no reports of racial tension or inner turmoil among the director and his mostly black cast given the subject matter & tone of Manderlay?
This almost feels like what a movie about slavery would be had it been produced by Vice Magazine. Manderlay also suffers from some of the same issues as Django Unchained - another film centered around slavery with a heavy tone of white guilt (conveyed mostly through the Dr. Schultz character) where the white characters are more interesting & complex than the black (MAIN) characters (Danny Glover's performance being the exception). I still place Manderlay above a film like Django but that’s almost like picking the lesser of the two evils. Although this movie is ultimately a failure/mess, I still think it should be seen by anyone with an interest in race issues or the films of Lars Von Trier.
I love Lars to death but I don't know if it’s possible to have something backfire in your face as bad as Manderlay did.

Monday, January 20, 2014

JAPON

Besides being an obvious tip of the hat to the highway scene in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the beginning of Japon is one of the most simple yet effective opening scenes for me in a film in the last 10-15 years (I consider Japon to be one of the 50 best films of the last decade). It's made clear that we're seeing things from the perspective of someone whose trying to get away. If you notice, for those of you who have seen Japon, the scene starts off noisy & slightly chaotic but the further we drive away from the city, things become more hypnotic. Carlos Reygadas is taking us away from the chaos of the big city in an effort to find peace & quiet.
When I was younger I used to think the idea of going off to the countryside to be alone because of some existential crisis was the most cliché thing ever. But now that I’m a lil older, that honestly doesn't sound so bad. But the big difference between me and the nameless main character in Japon who goes off to be by himself, is that I honestly enjoy life and want to live (I just think less distractions, less people and less work is key to obtain the certain serenity I’m looking for in life). The mysterious main character's motivation for retreating off to the Mexican countryside in Japon is to die. But like the car race in Two-lane Blacktop, the nameless main character in Carlos Reygadas’ feature film debut doesn’t seem to be in a big rush to kill himself even though that’s the ultimate goal. He's taking life in one last time before ending it all.

Solaris isn’t the only Tarkovsky film that Japon references. There’s something about the cinematography & shots of nature (specifically the emphasis of the tree, which is one of the most symbolic elements in arthouse cinema next to butterflies, horses & burning houses) that evokes the spirit of Sacrifice. Both films represent “the end” to a certain extent. Japon is the story of a man wanting to end his life while the Sacrifice was Tarkovsky’s final film.

With Tarkovsky, I was seeing something made from reality itself, reality was transformed into a form of beauty, conveying so much feeling. I realized cinema could be as strong as music. It could even go further. You would be seeing real people doing real things, but all could be transfigured by the act of artistic creation. Since that moment, I decided I would like to make filmsCarlos Reygadas, 2013

"The Tree Of Life" in Sacrifice (Tarkovsky) & Japon (Reygadas)
The existential highway scenes in Solaris (Tarkovsky) & Japon
Japon also has a fairly strong connection to the barely seen 2009 Swedish film; The Anchorage – the minimalist/almost dialogue-less story of a middle-aged woman who lives alone out in the woods.
I can’t think of too many examples of my favorite filmmakers finding their voice and/or signature style on their first film. It took Claire Denis a few tries (personally I think she finally found herself somewhere between I Can’t Sleep & U.S. Go Home) but that’s not to say Chocolat & especially No Fear No Die weren’t great films. As Tears Go By doesn’t really define Wong Kar Wai, Ivan’s Childhood isn’t the best representation of Tarkovsky and Bresson’s first few films don’t show his signature style either. But Reygadas nailed it. Japon fits right in with the rest of Reygadas’ work. Actually, he's come full circle with his most recent film. Post Tenebras Lux is more connected to Japon than anything else he’s ever done – both films deal with men living in a form exile that are having a kind of existential/spiritual crisis. The difference between both films is that Post Tenebras Lux is a lot more beautiful & glossy whereas Japon is much more gritty right down to the film that was used (another similarity it shares with The Anchorage). When I watch Japon I feel like it was made in the mid-70’s as opposed to 2002. Reygadas has become more concerned with beauty over the years but Japon shows a kind of grittiness that he has yet to capture again. As you can see in my “Cinema Of Carlos Reygadas” entry, every single theme that he continues to explore in his work all started with his first feature – religious symbolism, spirituality, loneliness & existentialism among men, sex & sexuality and an alternative look at the country of Mexico.
In Japon, we follow our nameless main character; “The Man”/"El Hombre" – a painter who has suddenly become disillusioned with life and leaves everything behind in Mexico City to come out to rural Mexico in order to kill himself. Once he reaches the mexican countryside, he exists among the locals, contemplates life and rents a room from an elderly woman whom he eventually makes a "connection" with. 
Reygadas doesn’t dwell too much on the main character's past. If you liked how Abbas Kiaorstaimi handled the main character in Taste Of Cherry, then you’ll probably enjoy Japon very much.
At first it almost feels like Reygadas is intentionally playing with the most obvious of art house clichés; The depressed painter who wants to die. Carlos is one of my favorite current filmmakers but sometimes I understand why some people call him pretentious. After the beautiful opening sequence of Japon, we start the story off with the killing of an animal (more obvious symbolism that represents our main characters desire to die) and his use of grandiose classical music seems a little out of place at first too. I also recently discovered the reasoning behind the title of the film; Japon (Japan in Spanish). This Mexican film really has nothing to do with Japan but Carlos Reygadas associates the suicidal desire of the main character in his film with the culture of Japan…

Go out into the streets and ask people the first five words they relate to Japan. I am sure that 80% of them with choose words like; Harikiri – Carlos Reygadas, 2002

That’s a pretty ridiculous generalization if you ask me. I'm sure Reygadas didn't mean to insult the country of Japan with that statement (at least I hope not) but somehow the simple one word title fits the film so well. At it's core, Japon is an extremely contemplative film. It's complex and has many layers, but it's execution is simple and straightforward.


At the time of Japon’s release it would have been somewhat understandable if you dismissed it as typical art house based on Reygadas’ previous work. His early short film; Maxhumain felt less like an original work and more like a Bergman/French arthouse knock-off (equip with a climactic scene taking place on a beach of all places) and the constant comparison to Tarkovsky would have you believe the young Mexican director didn't really have a voice of his own. But that's not the case at all. There's a realism to Japon that you wouldn't normally associate with the type of art house it falls under. Besides the film's story and contemplative existential nature, Reygadas is also concerned with atmosphere & the beauty of nature that our main character is surrounded by. The use of non-professional actors makes this feel like a documentary at times. And given that Mexico is heavily immersed in Catholicism, the presence of guilt & suffering flows throughout Japon as well. It makes sense that a filmmaker like Scorsese would love Reygadas's work so much (he praised both; Japon & Silent Light when they first came out). The religious imagery is reminiscent of early/gritty Scorsese films like Mean Streets which also plays on Catholic guilt.
Reygadas’ view of Mexico in Japon is also a tad bit dreary at times as you can see from some of the images used throughout this review. But the vibe of the film also has a strange calming beauty to it (but remember, you’re reading something from the guy who found beauty in some of the imagery from Andrea Arnold’s overall disappointing & dreary Wuthering Heights).

Monday, January 13, 2014

THE WHOLE HISTORY OF MY LIFE PART THREE: SCHOOL DAZE (The Pink Smoke)

We’re now halfway through the whole history of my life over at The Pink Smoke. This time I talk about my college experience, my dear aunt and historically black colleges through Spike Lee’s sophomore feature; School Daze.

Enjoy…


Friday, January 10, 2014

DOUBLE FEATURE: PRINCE AVALANCHE & BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO

These two films may not have much in common to you all but to me they share a few connections. Both Prince Avalanche & Berberian Sound Studio represent "the return" of two separate groups of artists who I love/loved very much. With Prince Avalanche, this was a return to form for director David Gordon Green & his cinematographer; Tim Orr, while Bereberian Sound Studio represented Broadcast's return to recording music after the passing of their lead singer. Both films are also about loneliness among men to a certain extent, and lets also not forget these were both released last year and are set in the past...

PRINCE AVALANCHE

Immediately after posting on facebook about how pleased I was with Prince Avalanche, PINNLAND EMPIRE contributor Matt Reddick's girlfriend; Catalina, noted the film's serious bromantic quality which brought me to the realization that David Gordon Green doesn't get enough recognition for his exploration into the world of male bonding. This lack of recognition is partially his fault due to his last two films being quite bad which turned a lot of people off to his work (myself included). But prior to Your Highness & The Sitter almost every film he made dealt with friendships between males of various ages (All The Real Girls, George Washington & Pineapple Express) or the bond between brothers (Undertow). Hell, even Your Highness is about bonding between two brothers when you really think about it.
Prince Avalanche fits right in with the rest of Green's filmography more than anything he's done in quite some time.
No matter how Malick-ian & artsy Green's past work was, he always expressed the desire to want to make a comedy since he first started making movies (refer to his Charlie Rose Interview back in 2000). It's just his previous two comedies were awful. With Prince Avalanche it seems like he's found a balance. On one hand he went back to the beautiful sprawling cinema he was once known for over a decade ago while at the same time still holding on to the comedic elements that he's been exploring for the last six years.
Prince Avalanche feels like a mixture of All The Real Girls and Pineapple Express (Gordon's one & only successful comedy in my opinion). Paul Rudd & Emile Hirsch's chemistry is pretty similar to Rogen & Franco - the grumpy cynic (Rogen/Rudd) constantly fussing at the dopey idiot (Franco/Hirsch) which is a relationship that dates back to the first comedic duos of stage. And certain moments in Prince Avalanche felt like extensions (or deleted moments) from All The Real Girls. There's an exchange of dialogue between Paul Rudd & Emile Hirsch in Prince Avalanche that reminded of a quote Shea Whigham delivers to Paul Schnieder in All The Real Girls...

Lance (Emile Hirsch): At least I don't go around thinking I'm a great dancer when I actually stink at dancing
Alvin (Paul Rudd): You've never even seen me dance
Lance: I've seen you do a lot of things when you don't think I'm looking
 - Prince Avalanche

Tip (Shea Whigham): No, we ain't friends no more! ...YOU AIN'T EVEN IN MY TOP 10! 
-All The Real Girls

You have to remember that both scenes I just quoted involve grown men. There's something incredibly funny, sad & intriguing about that. Its like David Gordon Green knows there's this level of immaturity that men will never lose no matter how much we age.
When I watch how grown men interact with one another in Green's work I'm sometimes reminded of John Cassavetes, Peter Falk & Ben Gazzara in Husbands...

BRO-ING OUT: MALE BONDING IN THE CINEMA OF DAVID GORDON GREEN...
George Washington (2000)
Undertow (2004)
Pineapple Express (2009)
Prince Avalanche (2013)
I have to give Green credit for crafting a solid film centered around two traditionally frustrating cinematic archetypes: "the idiot" (Emile Hirsch) and "the unpleasant cynic" (Paul Rudd). But in the case of Prince Avalanche, Green twists the screws a little bit and makes Hirsch's idiot character ("Lance") not only stupid but also without much of a conscience (at one point in the film he openly brags about sleeping with his best friend's girlfriend without fully realizing how fucked that is). And Paul Rudd's "Alvin" is one of those unpleasant people who only knows how to communicate through negativity and is just someone you don't want to be around for more than 20 minutes (he's easily agitated for no good reason, prefers to be depressed & lonely and he almost never smiles). And with the exception of two other supporting characters who show up sparingly, Alvin & Lance are all we have to deal with for pretty much the entire film.

Set in the late 80's, Prince Avalanche (a loose remake of the 2011 Icelandic film; Either Way) is the story of Alvin (Rudd) & Lance (Hirsch) - two road workers at odds with each other doing repair to a highway that's been severely damaged by a massive flash fire. Their job, which pretty much consists of painting the yellow divider lines in the middle of a long stretch of highway, forces Alvin & Lance to be away from home for days at a time. Alvin is currently going through a rough break up with his ex, who just so happens to be Lance's sister. As I already said, Alvin is a pretty unhappy guy with no friends who isolates himself from the world (we get the sense he's always been a pretty negative person which is what led to his break up) while Lance is a dopey guy in his early 20's more concerned with women and dreams of leaving his small town for "the big city". As the story progresses, tension in each of their separate personal lives comes to a head along with their relationship with each other. Do they work things out and become buddies or not?
In my opinion, David Gordon Green does Either Way justice with his remake. He maintains the same sparse ambiance and uses the same type of awkward adult humor. Hirsch & Rudd even deliver some of the same dialogue from Either Way line for line a couple of times.
I don't know if I'd label this a dark comedy like so many others have been so quick to do. While Prince Avalanche has plenty of funny moments, there's also just as many serious and/or touching moments that balance everything out making this David Gordon Green's first true dramedy (there's a difference between the two genres). Paul Rudd has worked outside of comedy in the past but this is probably the best non outright comedic performance he's ever given (he really channeled his performance from the 2007 dramedy; Diggers).


Visually, Prince Avalanche is the best looking thing Tim Orr has shot for Green since All The Real Girls. Once again, Orr makes rural/nowhere U.S.A. look nice & calm. There's also a couple of editing moments that are very reminiscent of recent Terrence Malick (specifically The New World & To The Wonder) which was ultimately what showed me that Green had returned to his old style while at the same time still growing and trying out new things as a filmmaker (for those who only started following his post-Pineapple Express work, Green was very much influenced by Malick in the first half of his career)



BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO

Not since Judgement Night (1993) had I been more initially excited about an original soundtrack more than the actual film the soundtrack was intended for. Ever since the untimely passing of Broadcast's lead singer Trish Keenan, I wondered if one of my all time favorite bands would call it quits. Even though they've experimented with instrumental music in the past (Microtronics 1& 2) it was Keenan's voice that really made them so great. But the score they put together for Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio is proof that the remaining members can still make great music even without Keenan's presence (I sincerely hope they don't ever try to find a new lead vocalist because it just wouldn't be the same).


If you refer to my review of 12 Years A Slave you'll recall my growing annoyance with those Hans Zimmer/Howard Shore-style film scores. If I see a slave being brutally beaten on screen (like Chewital Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave) I don't need the heavy handed string music blasted directly in to my ear to remind me that I should feel sad. I know how and what to feel without the added music. Thankfully quite a few filmmakers in 2013 turned to contemporary musicians for more ambient/non-traditional music than any recent year I can think. The Place Beyond The Pines (Mike Patton), Only God Forgives (Cliff Martinez), Berberian Sound Studios (Broadcast), etc. and even though Shane Caruth isn't on the same level as the aforementioned musicians, his work on Upstream Color was great too. Its not like this is some new phenomena. Almost all of Jim Jarmusch's films are scored by contemporary musicians (Tom Waits, John Lurie, Rza & Neil Young), Claire Denis practically works exclusively with various combinations of The Tindersticks lineup and Olivier Assayas has used Sonic Youth a couple of times. But 2013 seemed to be a mini-explosion of contemporary musicians scoring films.
Broadcast's sound is perfect for cinema. They often incorporate visuals in to their live performances and their retro sound is reminiscent of old 60's films like Blow-up which, coincidentally, is a film that had an obvious influence on Berberian Sound Studio.


I know it seems strange that I spent a good portion of 2013 listening to a film score without seeing the film but I was so disappointed by a lot of what I saw last year that I thought Berberian Sound Studio would be just another letdown. The reason I finally got around to watching it is because it landed on a few "best of..." lists in the contributors section of my end of the year wrap-up and its been compared to classic works like The Conversation & Blowout..
After finally watching this (courtesy of Netflix Instant) it makes sense that Berberian Sound Studio is being compared too and group in with The Conversation & Blowout by just about every movie critic out there. All three films are neo-noirs/mysteries about sound engineers in situations that get way out of hand. But to me, Berberian Sound Studio also feels like a mixture of Barton Fink & Roman Coppola's underrated CQ. If you're familiar with either of those films then you know that they're also heavily influenced works. With Barton Fink you have the obvious Eraserhead influence, while CQ is an homage to everything from Roger Corman B-movies & Italian horror films (like in Berberian Sound Studio) to European art house. Like Black Dynamite or Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive & Only God Forgives, Berberian Sound Studio is another retro "movie mixtapes"/movie collage, although slightly less obvious with the movie references...

Berberian Sound Studio / Barton Fink
In Berberian Sound Studios, Toby Jones plays "Gilderoy" - a British sound engineer hired to work on the post-production of a low budget Italian giallo film ("The Equestrian Vortex") in the vein of the style of Mario Bava or Dario Argento. The minute Gilderoy arrives at the Italian movie studio (Bereberian Sound Studio) we realize that he's out of his element. His timid nature causes him to be bullied around by the loud, boisterous, passionate Italians he's working alongside, there's clearly some inner turmoil between the cast & crew which he's now in the middle of, someone is trying to sabotage the film and it's also heavily implied that Glideroy has never worked on a low budget horror movie before. This immediately reminded me of the basic plot to Barton Fink - an off-Broadway New York City playwright (John Turturro) is hired to come out to "Hollyweird" to write b-movie screenplays. And the idea of a foreigner going over to another country to work on the post production of a sabotaged European B-movie is part of the basic plot to CQ. And like CQ, Berberian Sound Studio is a film within a film that's also about the making of a film that schools the audience on the little tricks that went on behind the scenes in order make a cheap movie come to life.
Through the course of the film Gilderoy becomes more & more uncomfortable working at Berberian Sound Studio and he starts to sense that the same mysterious force that's trying to sabotage the film hes working on is also out to sabotage him. There's no visible or immediate threat (outside of the Italians who dislike him for no legitimate reason) but you do start to feel that there's something creepy out to get him. ...Or is there?
Berberian Sound Studio is the kind of psychological thriller in the vein of Fear X or The Tenant where the longer you watch the more you start to question if our main character is really in trouble or slowly going insane. This is the part of the story that I thought got wrapped up a little too quickly. In the last 20 minutes Peter Strickland does a Demonlover/Mulholland Drive to the plot and we're given a sudden twist that felt hurried & rushed. This is a very entertaining film but parts of it felt kind of empty. There seemed to be more effort put in to the style and ambiance and less in to the story. I thought the sudden plot twist/split personality angle was unnecessary. Stirckland could have kept things more straightforward/based in reality like Blowout or The Conversation which I found to be a lot more effective in the end. I don't mean to insult Berberian Sound Studio because, again, I did enjoy it overall, but part of it felt like Peter Strickland couldn't come up with a good enough ending so he threw a hail mary and just decided to make things surreal & Lynchian at the last minute.
This makes the Coen Brothers influence even more evident given that's a common thing they love to do when they cant end a film. SNAP!


I was surprised to learn that director Peter Strickland wasn't a music video director prior to becoming a filmmaker given his emphasis on style over plot which is a trait many music video-turned movie directors have (Anton Corbijn, Mark Romenak, Jonathan Glazer, etc). Even David Fincher, Michel Gondry & Spike Jonze (who all got their start making music videos) get caught up in that from time to time. I think if Peter Strickland hooked up with a talented screenwriter he'd find that one key element that's missing.
But with all that being said, I still highly recommend this for anyone who loves old Italian horror films, psychological thrillers or Roman Polanski. Actually, this is a role I could see Roman Polanski playing. Toby Jones' performance, which is really good, did remind me of Polanski in The Tenant in certain parts.
No matter how empty some of the story may be, this is the kind film that's bound to bring up the kind of discussion brought on by films like Mulholland Drive, 3 Women, Black Swan, Persona, The Tenant or any other film that deals with split personalities, pressure, broken dreams, loneliness, being consumed by the art you create or all of the above.

Friday, January 3, 2014

THE CINEMA OF ABEL FERRARA TOLD THROUGH IMAGES AND STILLS


My existence is about making movies - Abel Ferrara


From slasher films & cult movies (The Driller Killer & Ms. 45) to minor mainstream success (The King Of New York) to the grassroots indie cinema he makes today (Chelsea On The Rocks & 4:44 Last Day On Earth) Abel Ferrara has done it all. He's probably the only filmmaker to get the same type of respect from both European cinephiles and golden era hip-hop fans (not many people can say they've worked with both; Juliette Binoche as well as Schooly D). Following Jim Jarmusch, who had a relationship with hip-hop culture long before he aligned himself with The Rza, Ferrara was the next indie/arthouse filmmaker to embrace hip-hop and incorporate it to in his work.
He was a staple in the American independent film renaissance of the 90's, he directed Harvey Keitel (Bad Lieutenant), Chris Penn (The Funeral) & Forest Whitaker (Mary) in their best performances and has never been afraid to step outside of the comfort zone he's commonly associated with (the gritty streets of New York City) with films like; New Rose Hotel (an adaptation of a science fiction/cyber-punk short story) and Body Snatchers (a remake of the classic horror film).
Only in the last decade has he started to get the recognition he truly deserves. By the late 90's/early00's, he couldn't get a film financed by an American movie studio so he sought out European financing and churned out a series of interesting, unique & original works in a short period of time (Mary, Napoli Napoli Napoli & Go-Go Tales) which eventually got him a second wind in America with 4:44 Last Day On Earth.
What many people also fail to realize is that Ferrara had an additional hill to climb in the world of film in that he started out as a porn director (Ferraea's status in the adult world wasn't that of Al Goldstein but it's still not common/easy to make the transition from porn to "regular films"). But that's the beauty of Abel Ferrara - he breaks all molds and shatters all clichés of what an American independent filmmaker is supposed to be. As you'll see in the images below, Abel Ferrara is tough to pin down and categorize. He isn't afraid to experiment and come up with new techniques but he also has no shame in exploring the materialistic & sometimes cliché world of "money, drugs & women"



RELIGIOUS IMAGERY

Where I come from you're not raised to think on your own. It's not that you're pushed to read the Bible. The Bible is read to you - Abel Ferrara

You don't need to be a film analyst to see that religious imagery (usually Catholic or Christian) is a driving force within the cinema of Abel Ferrara. All of his films (even the ones not represented with images in this section) feature at least one key scene set in a church (Bad Lieutenant & Mary) or Ferrara places a cross somewhere in the open so the audience can see it clearly (notice the tattoo on the back of the male lead in Napoli Napoli Napoli).
And even though we're bombarded with crosses & porcelain Christ figures, Ferrara isn't trying to convert his audience or show that Catholicism is right. His films aren't pro or anti Catholic. It's clear that Catholicism has been ingrained in him to the point where it’s become a part of who he is and it rubs off in to his work (even though he claims to no longer practice the religion). 
Naturally these religious symbols follow & weigh over the heads of characters who make wrong choices or are bad people (see the cross above Drea De Matteo's bed in 'R Xmas) or these religious symbols follow characters in danger as a form of protection (note the cross behind Tony in China Girl)
New Rose Hotel
The Driller Killer
Bad Lieutenant
The Funeral
Mary
'R Xmas
Napoli Napoli Napoli
Chin Girl



CHARACTERS ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN
In a large chunk of Abel Ferrara's films we get a scene where our main characters have been pushed over the edge (usually due to their own poor choices in life) to the point where they have a nervous breakdown and become momentarily helpless. These moments often happen under some type of religious setting or within a church (to a certain degree, this is an extension of the previous category). Towards the end of Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel, a crooked police officer, has a spiritual moment with God and asks for forgiveness. 13 years later Ferrara recreated that same scene in Mary with Forest Whitaker (who plays a fraud talk show host & adulterer). Both Keitel & Whitaker even deliver the same line in their respective movies: "Please forgive me. I've done so many bad things". In The Funeral, Chris Penn snaps after seeing his younger brother (played by Vincent Gallo) dead in a coffin.
What usually follows these breakdown moments are dramatic actions that affect the people around them and it changes the course of the film.
It should be noted that most of these characters, who end up crying like babies, are men played by actors who either have a tough exterior (Harvey Keitel) or are big & intimidating (Forest Whitaker & Chris Penn).
But not all his characters are men that are driven over the edge due to poor choices. In Ms. 45 our main female character is raped twice in the same day which causes her to snap and become a vigilante/serial killer, while in Mary, Juliette Binoche plays an actress who has a breakdown/spiritual awakening after a grueling experience making a religious movie.
Bad Lieutenant
The Blackout
Mary
The Funeral
Mary
Ms. 45


NOT SO RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE
No matter how spiritual or existential Abel Ferrara gets, there's a good chance we'll still get plenty of violence in his work. He's toned it down quite a bit in the last decade but when King Of New York, Driller Killer & Ms. 45 are some of your most popular films (and still maintain a steady cult following) shoot outs, stabbings and other violent acts will always be associated with your work.
Bad Lieutenant
Ms. 45
King Of New York
The Driller Killer
Pasolini
Dangerous Game


T&A...
...and what's the point of having the guns & shootouts without the T&A to go along with it?
Sometimes there's absolutely no depth or legitimate explanation to having half naked women in his films. It's like they're just there as props or eye candy. But other times he does delve in to the hidden dark sexual desires of his characters which makes for interesting cinema.
Similar to the violence in his past work, Ferrara has toned down a lot of the T&A and objectification of women since Go Go Tales (a story set in a strip club)…




MOMENTS OF INTIMACY 
And to counter all the sex, drugs & violence, Abel will occasionally throw in a sweet or intimate moment between his characters (something that usually gets overlooked in his work)
China Girl
Mary
New Rose Hotel
Welcome To New York
4:44 Last Day On Earth



HIP-HOP CULTURE
Abel Ferrara is also one of the few/earliest (prominent) filmmakers to work with Hip-Hip artists (some icons) in front of & behind the camera...
Ice-T (RXMAS)
Pras of The Fugees (Go Go Tales)
Schoolly D (King Of New York)




BLENDED SCENES
Some time during the late 90's Abel Ferrara added a new stylistic touch to his cinema by incorporating blended scenes. I'm not talking about one scene simply bleeding & overlapping in to the next (although he does do that now also). In all of Ferrara's recent work, starting with The Blackout leading up to his last film (4:44 Last Day On Earth) we get these almost collage-like moments where various images and moments from previous scenes all start to play on top of the current scene in an almost chaotic yet hypnotic way...
New Rose Hotel
The Blackout
R 'Xmas
Mary
4:44 Last Day On Earth


RECURRING SHOT: THE FERRARA GLARE
Another overlooked moment in Abel Ferrara’s work is his version of the “glare shot” (something commonly found in the work of Kubrick and more recent filmmakers like Denis & Refn). On numerous occasions we see characters in his films looking directly in to the camera or at someone/something just off camera in a zoned out/creepy manner…
New Rose Hotel
Go-Go Tales
King Of New York
Mary
Ms. 45


RECURRING SHOT: THE SCREEN
A regular moment that's also common in Abel Ferrara's work is a scene involving one of his characters zoning out at the images on a screen (movie screen, laptop or television screen). Although this is highlighted in his most recent film (4:44), where television & video chats are a key element to the story, "the screen" has played a major role in Ferrara's work going all the way back to King Of New York.
King Of New York
The Addicition
The Blackout
Pasolini
4:44 Last Day On Earth


RECURRING SHOT: SIMILAR USES OF LIGHT
Body Snatchers
Dangerous Game
Bad Lieutenant
King Of New York



THE WORLD ACCORDING TO ABEL FERRARA
Like David Lynch, Lars Von Trier and a few other filmmakers we’ve explored in this series, Abel Ferrara places himself in his films whether it be literally (Driller Killer & Ms. 45) or through a character. In Dangerous Game Harvey Keitel plays a movie director that looks like Abel Ferrara around the time he made it. In The Blackout & Mary, Matthew Modine (another Ferrara regular) plays an emotional, passionate, self absorbed, somewhat unstable film director, and you can’t help but wonder if it’s supposed to be Ferrara in the same way Jeremy Irons (the director character in Inland Empire) or Justin Theroux (the director character in Mulholland Drive) are supposed to be David Lynch. 
Abel Ferrara in The Driller Killer
Abel Ferrara in Ms. 45
Harvey Keitel as a film director/extension of Abel Ferrara in Dangerous Game
Matthew Modine as a film director/another extension of Abel Ferrara in Mary
Abel Ferrara directs Matthew Modine on the set of The Blackout
Abel Ferrara in Napoli Napoli Napoli



NEW YORK F*CKIN' CITY

As an old-time New Yorker, it's not that I miss the '70s and '80s or whatever. I miss the fact that there was a certain kind of energy that exists when people can live for nothing - Abel Ferrara

When it comes to the big apple on the big screen, Abel Ferrara deserves to be mentioned alongside the likes of Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, vintage Woody Allen, early Jim Jarmusch and any other contemporary filmmaker who represents NYC. Like the aforementioned filmmakers, Ferrara explores his own little niches & pockets within New York city. While Jarmusch was synonymous with the artsy downtown scene of the early 80's; Spike Lee with specific neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Woody Allen's world of the upper class society of the upper west side; Ferrara explores the crime, shadiness & grittiness of NYC with films like Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, Fear City and the obvious King Of New York. Abel Ferrara also uses a lot of the same New York City actors as Jarmusch, Lee and other fellow filmmakers (Giancarlo Esposito, Steve Buschemi, Paul Calderon, Harvey Keitel, etc).
In recent years Ferrara has used Italy as the backdrop for his work (Go-Go Tales & Napoli Napoli Napoli) but no matter how many films he makes overseas, he still returns to New York (most recently for his last two film; Chelsea On The Rocks & 4:44 Last Day On Earth).
Fear City
King Of New York
Chelsea On The Rocks
China Girl
4:44 Last Day On Earth
Mulberry Street
Welcome To New York




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