Ménage à trois

Woman, man, boy.

Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, released in Europe in 1962 (it won Polanski the FIPRESCI Prize at Venice in September of that year), proved that Polish cinema could be jazzy and sexy: a psychological thriller set almost entirely within the confines of a sailboat, it’s as cool and stylish as something by Antonioni and as quietly suspenseful as something by Hitchcock.  Watching it, you keep assuming that someone is going to end up dead—why else would that titular knife be given such prominence?  Chekhov’s rule of drama states that if a gun is introduced in the first act of a play it must go off in the last.  But Polanski’s knife turns out to be something of a red herring.  It’s typical of his sensibility as a filmmaker that already in this, his first feature, he toys with the expectations of his audience in order to subvert them.  The damage done to the film’s central couple is more sinuous and ironic than if it were triggered by a more overt act of violence, and more reflective of Polanski’s aims as a master of the subtle art of black comedy.

The triangle of Knife in the Water can be traced throughout such later Polanski films as Cul-de-Sac and Bitter Moon (and even Macbeth), which similarly hinge on cunning wives, masochistic husbands, intricate games of dominance and submission.  The power dynamic between Krystyna and Andrzej, and between Andrzej and the lean, blonde drifter they take on board with them, changes as quickly as the direction of the wind, represented visually by the constant swing of the sailboat’s boom.  Does Andrzej control Krystyna, or vice versa?  It would seem that the men fight to stake their claim on her, just as they keep one-upping each other in an attempt to take control of the boat (which is named Christine, of course).  But it’s worth noting that at the end of the film it’s Krystyna herself who takes the helm of the boat—just as she is at the wheel of the car when the film begins, before Andrzej wrests it away from her.  And if she is the one “driving” the actions of the two men, it’s also possible to see Andrzej as desirous, however unconsciously, of being bested by his young rival.  (Such an interpretation would help explain Andrzej’s motives for first picking him up on the road, then inviting him aboard.)  

Krystyna at the wheel.

The end of the film finds Andrzej back in the driver’s seat, but at an impasse as to what to do.  He is faced with two possible narrative explanations for the events of the last several hours: either he is responsible for accidentally causing the boy’s death or he has been cuckolded by him.  It’s a double bind worthy of Polanski’s countryman Krzysztof Kieslowski.  But Polanski doesn’t make an ethical dilemma out of it the way that Kieslowski would have done; instead he plays it as irony, looking at his characters with the same mischievous smirk that he has been wearing ever since.  

The final shot: at an impasse.


The Films of 2017: The Beguiled

Probably the best thing about Sofia Coppola’s new film The Beguiled is the way she shoots Colin Farrell, who plays a Union soldier forced to convalesce at an isolated girls’ seminary hidden away in the woods of Virginia, as he lies against a pillow.  Her camera is as thirsty for him as are the inhabitants of the school, who, after agreeing to take him in while he recovers from a wounded leg, begin to vie for his affection.  (He entertains flirtations with the no-nonsense headmistress [Nicole Kidman], a lonely teacher [Kirsten Dunst], and a coquettish student [Elle Fanning], before all hell breaks loose.)  The power dynamic between Farrell and the women shifts at different points over the course of the film, the title of which is deliberately coy.  Is he a prisoner of the women or is he their manipulator?  Who, exactly, is beguiled by whom? 


Her father's daughter: On Patricia Hitchcock in "Strangers on a Train" (1951)

Patricia Hitchcock as Barbara.

Alfred Hitchcock’s casting of his daughter Patricia in three of his films is as clever and strange a stroke of perversity as any other in his career.  “Pat” appears briefly but memorably in Psycho (1960) as Janet Leigh’s obnoxious co-worker Caroline; in Strangers on a Train (1951) she has a sizable role as Ruth Roman’s wonky kid sister Barbara.  (It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen Stage Fright that I can no longer remember what part she plays in that film other than to recall that it amounts to little more than a walk-on.) 

Before she was to become the steward of her late father’s work she was used as yet another one of his many on-screen jokes, another version of his own cameo appearances.  In Strangers on a Train—a film filled with doubles—she figures as a double for its two most “negative” characters, Bruno and Miriam, as well as for Hitchcock himself.  Like the flamboyant, villainous Bruno (Robert Walker), she takes in interest in crime that’s almost gleeful.  While everyone else is busy wringing their hands over Miriam’s murder, for example, she’s practically panting with excitement.  Her casual attitude toward murder raises almost as many eyebrows as Bruno’s does; when she dismisses the late Miriam as a “tramp,” her senator father admonishes her with the reminder that Miriam was “a human being.”  But then Barbara is, if not exactly a tramp, a bit boy-crazy herself. She nurses a crush on the detective who’s trailing Guy, makes eyes at him in the same way that Miriam (whom she resembles) makes eyes at Bruno at the fairground right before he murders her, and even sizes up Bruno the same way the first time she meets him.  Flickers of the whore and the killer are there in this otherwise mild-mannered, bespectacled dweebette (she’s like a grown-up version of the kid sister from Shadow of a Doubt, another one of Hitchcock’s know-it-all bookworms). 

"Who's the interesting-looking Frenchman?": Barbara sizes up Bruno (top) and flirts with Detective Hennessey (bottom).

But then, Hitchcock’s films ask, aren’t the seeds of the whore and the killer there in all of us?  As audience members, we share Barbara’s interest in sex and violence; we come to Hitchcock’s films to look at beautiful people and to thrill to their imperilment.  As a rabid consumer of detective stories, someone who can appreciate a good thrill and who sees her own reality through the lens of narrative, Barbara is both Hitchcock’s ideal viewer and a figure for himself.  In that sense, this seemingly unflattering character is perhaps the one Hitchcock himself approves of and identifies with most.  While Barbara’s on-screen father is busy wagging his finger at her morbid sense of humor, you can almost feel Pat Hitchcock’s real-life father beaming from just off-screen, saying “That’s my girl!”       

Leo G. Carroll, Ruth Roman, and Patricia Hitchcock (reading a mystery novel).


Lost in the Zone

This week here in Cambridge the Brattle Theatre has been showing a new restoration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), which I had the good fortune to see Wednesday night.  Stalker is to my mind one of the great feats of cinema, one of the purest examples of how a film can create an entire world from the ground up—in this case a vaguely dystopian/post-nuclear police state made up of grimy, leaking bedsits and decrepit pubs, beyond the border of which lies the Zone, a lush and verdant green space where the properties of time and space have a tendency to bend.  The fields of the Zone are littered with industrial waste and rotting machines, and a series of underground tunnels leads to a Room that is a kind of wishing well in which one’s deepest desire may be granted.  It is to this secret place that the film’s titular character guides two intellectual seekers, a writer and a scientist, apparently in the hopes that one of them will be inspired to use the power of the Room to some great end.  But the mission proves abortive, and the men succumb to self-doubt and despair.  The best, it seems, lack all conviction, while the worst are full of a passionate intensity.  (For a film that is strewn with poetry—another one of its many forms of detritus—it’s perhaps surprising that these lines from Yeats aren’t ever quoted.)    

It’s a grand, ballsy conceit for a story, credit for which must go to Arkady and Boris Stugatsky, the authors of the 1971 novel on which the film is based.  But it is Tarkovsky who must be credited with creating the many extraordinary spaces in which it unfolds: its dripping sewers, moldy buildings, mist-shrouded fields.  The tunnels underneath the Zone are overgrown with moss and cobwebs and littered with human bones.  Under the water of the marshes outside we glimpse rusted machine guns, metal hardware, fragments of religious icons and torn pieces of old books.  For Tarkovsky there is always an eerie beauty within such images of decay, because even in this industrial wasteland (shot on the grounds of abandoned hydropower plant) life finds a way.  Stalker is a film that teems with animals and plants, from the reeds that sway under the surface of the water to the black dog that prowls the marsh, oblivious to the remnants of a lost civilization that are everywhere around them.  The film itself behaves like a living organism, which is perhaps what Geoff Dyer means when he writes that it often seems to be “breathing.” 

Jonathan Romney rightly notes that Tarkovsky “privileges the labyrinth of imaginative space over the straight line of narrative,” which is to say that Stalker is not so much about what happens in the Zone as it is about the mesmerizing experience of being there.  Tarkovsky’s expert command of every aspect of this film’s production (its superbly realized art direction, its haunting and evocative locations, its elegant camerawork, its dense physicality, its use of water and objects and animals) transports us to the Zone along with the characters, so that we find ourselves just as enmeshed within its bounds, and just as baffled by its mysterious logic, as they are.  Stalker is as good an example as any of a film that shows off the unique properties of cinema as a medium: its cutting together a combination of spaces and materials in order to create something akin to an alternate reality that we inhabit for two and a half hours as if via time travel.   



Domestic disturbance

Pictured: Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in In A Lonely Place (1950, dir. Nicholas Ray).  While it would be a bit of a stretch to say that In A Lonely Place is “about” abuse, it seems to me one of the only classical Hollywood films to deal in any real way with the experience of living in fear of a violent intimate partner.  The first half of the movie sets up an engrossing but somewhat conventional noir plot in which Bogart’s character Dix Steele—a Hollywood screenwriter sick of churning out hack work for the studios—becomes the prime suspect in the investigation of the murder of a coat check girl; the second half, in which Dix becomes romantically involved with his neighbor Laurel (Grahame), and she becomes increasingly terrified about running afoul of his temper, is nothing short of stress-inducing.  By the end of the film Dix has been cleared of the charge of murder, but (as Laurel says) it’s too late; he’s already revealed himself to be guilty of a pervasively violent nature (we repeatedly see him picking fights with strangers, and we learn that he has a history of assaulting women).  As Dana Polan has written, "In A Lonely Place shows a violence installed within the heart of dominant culture, ready to break out at any moment." 

One of the most quietly upsetting moments in the film occurs when Dix lashes out at his longtime agent, Mel (Art Lippman), slapping him across the face in the middle of a celebratory engagement party gone awry.  Usually when Bogart hits someone in a movie it’s heroic: here it’s awkward and embarrassing and sad, almost too unbearable to watch.  Mel (pictured above) is a character who enables Dix’s abusive behavior throughout the film, makes excuses for him, and tries to encourage Laurel to excuse it, too, in a cringe-inducing speech late in the film.  (“He has to explode sometimes…always violent!  It’s as much a part of him as the color of his eyes, the shape of his head.  He’s Dix Steele, and if you want him, you’ve got to take it all—the bad with the good.  I’ve taken it for twenty years.”)  Mel represents one of the most heartbreaking things about the film: its depiction of how and why people justify and tolerate the behavior of abusive friends and lovers.  He also goes so far as to suggest that Dix’s violent edge is the thing that attracted Laurel to him in the first place: “you knew he was dynamite!”  Just one scene later Mel is the victim of one of Dix’s “explosions.”  In A Lonely Place is a reminder that the enduring appeal of film noir doesn’t really have to do with solving crimes; it has to do with the confrontation—agonized, troubling, stressful—with a violence that is nearly always domestic.  



The Films of 2017: The Big Sick

Those familiar with the work of Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, This Is 40, Funny People) will recognize his influence on The Big Sick: even though Apatow is only a producer on the film, which is directed by alt-comedy maven Michael Showalter and co-written by Khumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, his influence looms large.  Like Apatow’s better films, The Big Sick is a big-hearted, snappy, occasionally digressive comedy about juggling family, work, and love in modern America.  It’s made unique by the culturally specific comedic voice of Nanjiani, playing himself as a fledgling stand-up comic hustling in Chicago and trying to keep his matchmaking mother at bay (his parents, both Pakistani immigrants, insist that he marry a good Muslim girl).  Khumail’s situation gets complicated when he falls for an adorably wonky psychology student named Emily, played by Zoe Kazan (a latter-day Annie Hall to his Alvy Singer); things get more complicated still when she undergoes hospitalization for a severe infection and he is forced to bond awkwardly with her distressed parents, played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter.  The film’s deployment of familiar rom-com conventions—break-ups and make-ups and montage sequences of the rituals of coupledom—is rounded out by its willingness to look beyond the vantage point of its central couple in order to consider other relationships and other conflicts, with both sets of parents acting as foils for Khumail and Emily. 


The long and winding road

Hunter (Hunter Carson) and Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) on opposite sides of the street in Paris, Texas (1984).

I celebrated Father’s Day this weekend by re-watching Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), a movie that arguably sports one of the loveliest and gentlest father-son relationships in cinema.  Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis, who has been absent for half the length of his seven-year-old son Hunter’s life, spends the second act of the movie slowly regaining Hunter’s trust, like someone trying to coax a spooked cat out from under a bed (abandoned by both his mother and father, Hunter has been raised by his uncle and aunt, played by Dean Stockwell and Aurore Clement, whom he has come to regard as his parents).  In one of the many scenes in the film that brings tears to my eyes, Travis sets out to win Hunter’s admiration by dressing up like a dude and walking him home from school, and Hunter, impressed but shy, walks home on the opposite side of the street until finally Travis crosses over to Hunter’s side and the two continue to walk home together, framed in a shot that is all the more powerful for being wordless and static.  The seeds of their reconciliation have been sown in a previous scene in which they watch home movies shot before Travis’ absence—the nuclear family unit still intact.  By the time the home movie ends, Hunter has slowly crept from his position in the corner of the living room to the edge of the couch where Travis sits, father and son brought together by their shared gaze at the screen.  

Family viewing: father and son share a gaze.

Travis is both good father and bad father, deadbeat and hero and, ultimately, enigma: a figure for parenthood riven with mistakes and redeemed by love.  Stanton has never given another performance this staggeringly good, nor has he ever been given the opportunity to do so; a venerable character actor, Paris, Texas marks one of the only times he’s been asked to carry an entire 145-minute film, and he does so effortlessly.  (It’s impossible to imagine another actor playing this role.)  His laconic acting style is perfectly suited to the poetry of Sam Shepard’s screenplay.  Stanton’s face is weathered and drawn—he was nearly sixty when he made the film—but there is immense kindness there, and Travis comes to life, however briefly, at the memory of his lost happiness, captured in flickers in the home movies he watches with Hunter.  Stanton has never been so affecting as he is in the final scenes of Paris, Texas, in which Travis confronts his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) through the two-way mirror of a Houston peep-show booth.  In the pair of monologues that structure these scenes, Stanton and Kinski—and Shepard and Wenders—take the movie to emotional territory that’s so unfamiliar and unpredictable it feels mind-bending.  Stanton’s Travis is in many ways as unknowable at the end as he is at the beginning, when he’s first seen silently wandering through the Mojave Desert. But in the interim we’ve been shown the vast reserves of hauntedness that he carries around with him like invisible weight, just behind those heavy, sad eyes.  Paris, Texas is a road movie in which the journey isn’t so much about traveling the distance between Texas and California as it is about slowly filling in (some of) the gaps in Travis’ long and winding backstory.

Jane (Nastassja Kinski) and Travis reunited.