Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Persona (1966) - Directed by Ingmar Bergman

I’ve deliberately avoided reading much analysis about one of my favorite films of all time. Persona stands as one of the canonical art house films of its time, and you'll find (from what little I’ve read), that the film is usually considered a kind of visceral and tonal response to the avant garde cinema of the time…..Bergman’s “anything you can do I can do better” response to the Antonionis, Godards, and Fellinis of European cinema. Of any reading I’ve done, perhaps it was Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review that spoke to me best where he comments that “Persona is a film we return to over the years, for the beauty of its images and because we hope to understand its mysteries.” In my own life, I tend to return to this film every couple years just for these reasons. But, in a way, I’m not sure I ever truly hope to understand the film, even if it was possible to do so. Maybe it’s why I don’t read much analysis of the film. I want it to remain a thought process for me, a bafflement but an emotionally grounded bafflement at that. It is the constant hoping for understanding but the comfort of not truly understanding that makes me return to it…. that and the overwhelming beauty (and sometimes terror) of the images and the acting.

Bergman’s plot to Persona, on a literal level, is about a nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) who is charged to care for a patient named Elisabet (Liv Ullmann). Elisabet, a famous actress, has suddenly and without warning, decided to become completely silent, refraining from all forms of verbal communication. All indications are that she has a husband and a young child. Alma, based upon the recommendations of the lead doctor, takes Elisabet to a secluded home near the coast where healing and rest can take place. Over time, the two women seem to bond, as Alma bears her soul to the silent Elisabet, conveying past sins and regrets and a whole host of expressions. However, one day when Alma is taking some mail to be delivered into town, she reads a letter that Elisabet is writing to her husband, whereby Elisabet admits that Alma is an interesting person to study. Alma becomes bitter and feels used by Elisabet. They begin to clash, with confrontations becoming increasingly violent and vitriolic. One day, the two women seem to have some kind of epiphany, where they seem to become one individual. From then on, it's open to interpretation on what it all means. 

The number of films that I would consider to be visually overwhelming, such that the frame is filled with a kind of immersive attempt to convey an obsession of intimacy to thus achieve a heightened emotional response. Only The Passion of Joan of Arc and The Double Life of Veronique come to mind, in addition to Persona. No more prevalent was this feeling than when I watched it last night on the new Blu-Ray Criterion release. I was struck by just how much of the film is shot in close-up, even extreme close-up. These large and detailed images of the faces of the actresses, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman, strike an intense awareness of intimacy for us, with a power appropriated to the images by us as we are not used to being this close and intimate with anyone in our lives….. except lovers or family members. If you are close enough to see every pore on someone’s face for an extended period of time, it is likely you are in some kind of close and intimate relationship. Indeed, Bergman and master cinematographer Sven Nykvist achieve a kind of orgiastic and sensual obsession with the human face. At the same time, there is a duality of nature to these beautiful images, though, in that they appear almost otherworldly, ghostly, horrific or even abstract. Thus, we are simultaneously drawn to and taken aback by the same images. One example of this occurs as both women’s faces look into the camera as they embrace during the dream sequence at night (ghostly), and then later in the film where their faces merge into 2 halves of a whole (horrific). I suppose the early sequence where the boy is face to face with a large and blurry screen with alternating faces of the actresses may also qualify here (abstract). He reaches out to touch the image in a queasy, sickening kind of love caress. I’m not sure if I’m able to articulate the intensity of feeling that the images of the faces convey, but there is something so shocking and intense about being so close to these images. You can show me a close-up of an animal or an object and I may respond mildly….but show me a close-up of a face and there is suddenly an intimacy, or even a voyeuristic projection from the audience into the images, especially if the images are only viewed in one direction, with the audience being in the position of anonymity.

I don’t come to surmise exactly how the film ends or what it all means, but there are moments where I believe I’ve got it all figured out. Moments of mistaken identity, and duality of nature seem to lead to conclusions whereby the women are two halves of the same self. I suppose this reading is enhanced if you view the end of the film when Alma leaves the house all cleaned up and boards the bus by herself, with no trace of Elisabet. I’ve felt on more than one occasion that Alma is perhaps the physical and Elisabet the psychological side of the same person and this would be my preferred interpretation.  I suppose it’s also possible that they are two separate individuals, but that Alma is developing some kind of schizophrenic personality, or that they merge into one being, hence they arrive as two, but leave as one.  But does it really matter? Part of the allure for me, as I mentioned before, is not understanding it, but experiencing it. Even if someone were to explain the film in totality, it would not add to the appeal for me. Bergman's masterpiece stands the test of time because of the imagery and the performances, not the structure per se. Liv Ullman’s near wordless performance in her first film strikes notes of openness and compassion despite her silence. Bibi Andersson gives the performance of her career here, and is likely one of the greatest of turns by any actress. Her voice, her facial expressions and her changes in tone from loving to hateful run the full gamut. Nykvist’s camera is the other star. Probing and framing with impossible perfection, the natural light and curvatures of the women’s faces in Persona is one of cinema’s greatest expressions of beauty. And maybe that’s what the appeal of the film boils down to. Nykvist is able to capture the beauty and texture of the faces while Bergman is able to command and utilize the inherent intimacy of such imagery for deep dramatic and emotional effect. That’s why the film is so powerful for me.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - Directed by Michel Gondry

As I sit down to write this essay, I realize that I haven’t written a thing in nearly 2 months. It is due to both a combination of not really being enthused about any films I’ve seen in the last couple months and also from the sheer burden of keeping up with life in all its vast responsibilities and possibilities. On any given day, it’s amazing how many choices we can make and how many different directions we can go in. It’s a wonder that most of us end up each night in roughly the same place as the night before, probably sleeping in the same bed, under the same roof. When you stop and think of the complexities of life, it’s amazing how our brains have a vast ability to keep us, for the most part, grounded. Some of us are faced with more challenges than others. Some of us thrive on change and pressure more than others. But, for the most part, there are routines that each of us follow, day in and day out. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is many things, but at it's core, it somehow captures a certain quality about how our brains work, and the choices we make (both consciously and unconsciously), while also remarkably capturing a vast humanist element at the same time. This coupling of a structural analysis and a humanistic decomposition of our mind’s process yields one of cinema’s most memorable attempts at capturing our existence. It’s also one of the most beautiful and poignant attempts to show the duality of love relationships….the beauty and tragedy of a life spent trying to preserve ourselves yet also at times risking everything for love and acceptance.

Gondry’s masterful film concerns the current mindstate of Joel, played with a relaxed and almost morose quality by Jim Carrey. At the beginning of the film, we see what looks like the beginning of a relationship between he and a woman named Clementine (Kate Winslet) who happen to meet in Montauk, NY on a day when Joel has decided to ditch work on a random whim…..or maybe not so random. This initial sequence sets up a poignancy after we realize later that this isn’t the first time Joel and Clementine have met. It only FEELS like it to them. In the weeks and months prior, they were both in a relationship together that was filled with lots of beautiful moments and many ugly moments. It got to a point where both of them determined they wanted to erase each other from their memories. Thus, they each hired a firm called Lacuna to conduct such a procedure. Clementine has the erasing done first. When Joel learns of it, he decides to join her in the process. This premise sets up the beautiful second half whereby the Lacuna crew (played by Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, and Kirsten Dunst), attempt to erase each memory of the relationship from Joel’s mind. Meanwhile in Joel’s subconscious, non-waking state, he attempts to preserve and salvage some memory of Clementine as he realizes it would be far better to retain some of the good memories along with the bad memories, rather than remove all memory of their relationship altogether.

The recently deceased Alain Resnais surely must have seen commonalities between his works and Gondry’s film. Being that the screenplay was written by Charlie Kaufman, the film's look and feel is also as much his as Gondry’s, with Kaufman’s unique perspectives of reality on display, which are in turn leveraging processes and techniques that Resnais built back in the 1950’s and 60’s. Resnais was able to blend past and present into a commonality. He didn’t allow for a separation of past and present. As he once stated, “The present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn’t be in flashback.” It could be argued that Resnais’s singular, distilled essence was to emphasize this point. Gondry and Kaufman build upon this foundation, essentially turning the present and past into a common experience, inseparable from each other, with present and past intermingling to such a degree that there is no distinction. So often during the film, we witness Jim Carrey’s current perspective embedded in a past memory, such that he and Clementine exist in two states at the same time, or more simply put.....just a single state of being. In what might be the best sequence in the film, Joel attempts to find a place in his mind where he can hide the memory of Clementine so far deep in his brain that the Lacuna company can’t find it. He places himself and Clementine into a memory when he was 4 years old, hiding under the kitchen table and witnessing the interaction of Clementine and his mother, with Clementine taking the place of his mom’s friend. Clementine and Joel are privy to the fact that they are attempting to hide from Lacuna at the present time, while concurrently existing in an experience from 30 years prior. Thus, the past and present become one experience for them.

What makes the film so desperately romantic, is in fact the idea of a relationship which has gone off track and the duality of wanting to remember and wanting to forget at the same time. For Joel, what starts out as a desire to forget everything, ends up as a fight to preserve at least some of the good along with the bad. We can all recall relationships that either never got off the ground or crashed and burned over time. This film asks, "would we rather maintain the memories, both the good with the bad, or remove them entirely?" The poignancy of this question is posed in such a way that the film emphasizes the sensitive beauty and tragedy of our memories. Memories can stir such different reactions depending on what they are. But to erase them is a scary proposition, not just because of the loss of recollection, but for the loss of experience and learning. What happens at the end of the film, as Joel and Clementine realize the mistakes they made in the past, they learn to overlook the pursuit of the safe approach and choose the messiness of existence over sanitized love. They choose passion over perfection. This is such a relatable and poignant conclusion, it can’t help but conjure a hopeful, humanistic conveyance. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet provide a grounded presence throughout the film with their beautiful and varied performances. Winslet in particular conveys alternate approaches, particularly as she exists post memory loss, ending up in a temporary relationship with the Elijah Wood character, who is attempting to duplicate Joel’s courtship of Clementine. She has this way of appearing lost in a certain spatial plane that is neither here nor there. Gondry’s willingness to lose the audience for periods of time is brazen in his confidence in that he knows he will recover us later as things come together. I must admit it was 10 years between viewings and it’s amazing how beautifully the film comes together upon repeated viewing. Although there is already a dated, low-tech vibe to the film (no cell phones, primitive computer systems), the film hardly suffers from them, with the warmth of human contact taking center stage. Charlie Kaufman’s script is as loose and free as it is deliciously pragmatic. Once you watch the film, it’s amazing how intricately designed it is. No wonder he won the best Screenplay Oscar that year. What stands out for me, are the beautiful sequences as Joel and Clementine race to hide in Joel’s mind, attempting to preserve small semblances of their love and experience together, learning from these experiences on how to be better people and building a greater love and appreciation for each other. It is one of cinema’s most truly lovely expressions of romantic love.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

My Favorite films of 2013

There's no way I've seen all the films I need to in order to do full justice to this list. I still haven't seen Like Someone in Love and am still waiting for Beyond the Hills to get some kind of distribution. But at some point, you just need to put 2013 to bed. I think 2013 was a tremendous year for film. Probably the best year in the last decade. Last year I had a hard time filling out a top 10. This year, my 10 favorite films (actually 11) are all top notch, and there were a several others that I had a hard time leaving off my top 10, including (ahem), Frozen. Anyway, now that we're already 1/4 of the way through 2014, these are my favorite films of 2013. And now I can move on. (ratings are out of 4 stars)

1. 12 Years a Slave (2013) - McQueen ****
- There was no more powerful film last year than this one. It even gained in stature for me after I read Northup's incredible memoir. I will not soon forget this one. McQueen's greatest feat was bringing the stone-cold emotional honesty of the memoir, whilst not selling out to sentiment.

2. Before Midnight (2013) - Linklater ****
- Perhaps the best film of the trilogy, Linklater's labor of love with his stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke is another superb entry in what is turning into more of a lifelong relationship examined on film. As Celine and Jesse age, the entire trilogy continues to morph and shift as our perceptions of past and present perceptions of this couple changes.

3. Gravity (2013) - Cuaron ****
- The funnest and most breathtaking experience I've had in a theater in about 8 years. And when I say breathtaking, I really mean it. I felt out of breath at the end of the film. It's a memorable leap forward for technological effects and the advance of cinema as experience. It's also a deeply felt humanistic tale and well acted by Bullock.

4. The Act of Killing (2012) - Oppenheimer ****
- It's hard to completely fathom how this film got made. But Joshua Oppenheimer has made a documentary for the ages. Scorching, brazen, appalling, and unforgettable.

5. Laurence Anyways (2012) - Dolan ****
- Mostly went unnoticed, this Canadian release from 2012 that played in the US last year is an unabashed love story with tinges of Kubrick and Fassbinder. It's loaded with style and although it has a long running time, it also has an epic and tragic leaning that I couldn't get enough of.

6. Prisoners (2013) - Villaneuve ****
- My favorite procedural since Silence of the Lambs (and without sensationalizing the crime). Villaneuve's film is utterly creepy and gets under your skin. I had this film on the brain for weeks. Jackman and Gyllenhaal have never been better.

7. Blue Jasmine (2013) - Allen ****
- Allen's best film since Match Point, nearly a decade a go. True, though the film is a tremendous vehicle for Cate Blanchett, it also contains a great deal of Shakespearean elements and class dynamics. Superbly acted by the ensemble and really an engaging film.

8. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) - Scorsese *** 1/2
- This was the most talked about film for awhile there, but when you boil it down to pure cinema and bravado, nothing could top it. Hard to believe that Scorsese still has this much energy, but his film made American Hustle look boring by comparison. Scorsese is remarkably successful portraying comedy as grand circus, with DiCaprio an excellent ring leader.

9. To the Wonder (2013) - Malick ****
- Malick's darkest and most doubt-laden film was his most poorly received film yet, mainly due to the public's and critic's misreading of it. If The Tree of Life displays spiritual birth, then To the Wonder examines spiritual doubt. Once all is said and done, the film will likely settle nicely into Malick's canon. It just might take awhile. I found it to be gorgeous, romantic, and unsettling.

10. Short Term 12 (2013) - Cretton ****
- At times the film begins to veer into tv movie territory, but reality and honesty are constantly setting things straight. Brie Larson as a social worker taking care of troubled teens is just amazing. It's as moving and honest as any film from last year.

11. Fill the Void (2012) - Burshtein *** 1/2
- I'm making room for this one on my list. This is the one film that took me somewhere I felt I'd never seen before. Rama Burshtein brought me into the Hassidic Jewish world of arranged marriages and makes it feel simultaneously unique and common, building upon the kinds of societal and relational pressures common to the works of Jane Austen, but transporting them to a world rarely filmed.

Honorable Mention:
Afternoon Delight (2013) - Soloway ***
The Attack (2012) - Doueiri *** 1/2
Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) - Kechiche ***
Captain Phillips (2013) - Greengrass ***
Frances Ha (2012) - Baumbach ***
Frozen (2013) - Buck, Lee *** 1/2
The Kings of Summer (2013) - Vogt-Roberts ***
Cutie and the Boxer (2013) - Heinzerling ***
Mud (2013) - Nichols ***

The rest of 2013: In alphabetical order....

Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013) - Lowrey **
All is Lost (2013) - Chandor ** 1/2
American Hustle (2013) - Russell **
August: Osage County (2013) - Wells ***
A Band Called Death (2012) - Covino ***
Behind the Candelabra (2013) - Soderbergh **
Blackfish (2013) - Cowperwaithe ***
The Bling Ring (2013) - Coppola **
Blue Caprice (2013) - Moors ***
The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012) - Van Groeningen * 1/2
The Butler (2013) - Daniels ***
Computer Chess (2013) - Bujalski **
The Conjuring (2013) - Wan **
Dallas Buyer's Club (2013) - Vallee **
Fruitvale Station (2013) - Coogler ***
The Gatekeepers (2013) - Moreh ** 1/2
Gatsby (2013) - Luhrman **
Gimme the Loot (2012) - Leon ** 1/2
Goodbye First Love (2012) - Hansen-Love **
The Great Beauty (2013) - Sorrentino ***
Hannah Arendt (2012) - Von Trotta ***
Her (2013) - Jonze ***
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) - Lawrence ** 1/2
The Hunt (2013) - Vinterberg **
I'm So Excited (2013) - Almodovar * 1/2
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) - Coen **
Leviathan (2012) - Castaing-Taylor * 1/2
Mama (2013) - Muschietti ***
Nebraska (2013) - Payne ***
Night Across the Street (2012) - Ruiz ** 1/2
No (2013) - Larrain ** 1/2
Only God Forgives (2013) - Refn * 1/2
Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) - Raimi ***
Pain and Gain (2013) - Bay **
The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) - Cianfrance ***
Post Tenabras Lux (2012) - Reygadas ** 1/2
Prince Avalanche (2013) - Green **
Renoir (2012) - Bourdos ** 1/2
Rush (2013) - Howard * 1/2
Saving Mr. Banks (2013) - Hancock ** 1/2
Side Effects (2013) - Soderberg ** 1/2
Something in the Air (2012) - Assayas **
The Spectacular Now (2013) - Ponsoldt **
Spring Breakers (2013) - Korine ***
Stoker (2013) - Park **
Stories We Tell (2013) - Polley ** 1/2
Therese (2012) - Miller ** 1/2
Touchy Feely (2013) - Shelton **
Trance (2013) - Boyle **
Upstream Color (2013) - Carruth ** 1/2
The Way Way Back (2013) - Faxon/Rash ** 1/2
The We and the I (2013) - Gondry ** 1/2
What Maisie Knew (2013) - McGehee **
The World's End (2013) - Wright ** 1/2
You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (2013) - ** 1/2