A mosaic city: "Don't Look Now" (I)

“I was not particularly well in Venice […] I saw the city through a feverish influenza haze.  So it looked more like a hallucination than ever.  In this unusual state, it was the water everywhere that made Venice all so strange.  The enormous, pale, amniotic lagoon that surrounds Venice, and of which you are never unaware, glitters in all the colors of green from jade to oil.  The water invades the city itself, and veins it with those bottle-green canals the water of which never moves.  Venice seems an interuterine city, place of birth and hence (by all the laws of equivalences) of death.  The silence of the night is the claustrophobic hush of the womb.  This is probably why the city has such a regressive effect on its aficionados, especially those from the masculine and Protestant north.  They go to the dogs here.”

-- Angela Carter, “Wet Dream City”
The tragic hero of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), John Baxter (Donald Sutherland), goes to the dogs in Venice, undone as much by his own stubborn rationalism as by his resistance to the chaotic forces that seem to govern the city itself.  Both prove fatal to John and his skeptic’s logic.  Throughout much of the film he argues with his wife Laura, played by Julie Christie, about whether or not a psychic acquaintance has really been in communication with the spirit of their late daughter.  Laura believes; John resists.  And then, in a truly mind-bending twist, it turns out that John is not only undone by his own refusal to listen to the psychic’s premonition that something bad will befall him if he stays in Venice—he turns out to have been psychic himself, having unknowingly foreseen his own funeral cortege floating down the Grand Canal in the days before his murder.

Resistance proves futile in Venice, and, as Angela Carter writes in her essay, all roads lead to death.  In Don’t Look Now John resists against the decadent spell woven by the city and dies; in Death in Venice Count von Aschenbach gives himself over to it and dies anyway.  The psychic’s sister compares the city to rotting leftovers at a banquet for phantoms.  The city itself, which has been sinking into the sea practically since its founding, is a study in mortality and ephemerality. 

John with mosaic tile.

And yet everything about Don’t Look Now—still a gorgeous and haunting film, forty-plus years on—insists upon the beauty of Venice and hence the beauty in decay, in ephemerality, even in death.  As filmed and edited by Roeg and Graeme Clifford, John’s death scene is beautiful in all its surreal horror.  It’s scored to Pino Donaggio’s serene and lilting love theme (previously heard during Sutherland and Christie’s infamous sex scene) and it’s intercut with a shower of images from earlier in the film.  These images are not meant to suggest John’s life flashing before his eyes, since many of them are not sutured to John’s point of view.  Rather, they work to bring the entire film to a kind of sublime consummation.  Roeg’s brilliant montage sequences resemble the mosaic tile work in the Byzantine church John works to restore: dozens of tiny images working to create a bigger picture, but one in which the pieces always remain individuated, jagged-edged.  They fit together, though never exactly, much as Venice itself—a riven, fractured city, a mosaic city—is cut into pieces divided by water.  Don’t Look Now is about the beauty of jagged edges and jagged images, broken glass and broken mirrors, and the unruly flow of water and ink and blood.                  

A blot of ink, a rivulet of blood, a canal.


Malick's Romanticism

Colin Farrell gazing at Q'orianka Kilcher in The New World (dir. Terrence Malick, 2005).

“This is clearly not meant to be an historical account or an epic adventure tale; it’s a dream-movie in which the images wash over you in insistent, steady rhythms.”  So I wrote of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) when I first saw it back in 2009.  Having recently rewatched the film on Blu-ray, I stand by the second half of that statement—it’s as ravishingly beautiful a feat of direction, cinematography, and editing as Malick has ever made.  I might qualify that first half, though.  The film is an historical account of the founding of Jamestown; it’s more accurate to say that Malick, in typical fashion, frames his historical subject matter as a Romantic allegory.  In other words, Malick’s approach to history is mythic rather than factual.  The contact between white European settlers and indigenous Americans is staged as a romantic tragedy.  Just as the childlike purity of the romance between John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahtontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) leads inevitably to betrayal and heartbreak, the innocent curiosity with which colonists and natives (literally) touch each other at the beginning of the film eventually gives way to conflict and bloodshed.  For Malick—in this film and in others like The Tree of Life—history is a series of falls from grace, as individual people, nations, and entire species perpetually kill the things they love.    



Capra's America: Smiling through

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (dir. Frank Capra, 1934).

The sentimentality of Capra can be hard to swallow—especially in swill like You Can’t Take It With You (1938)—but it goes down easy in It Happened One Night (1934), a film whose charms are still going strong eighty-plus years on.  It’s the kind of universally appealing comedy in front of which nearly anyone could be sat down and made to have a good time.  A lot of that has to do with the easy chemistry between Gable and Colbert.  It also has to do with Capra’s populism as a filmmaker.  His comedies don’t have the insane, giddy weirdness of, say, Preston Sturges’; they’re humble and sweet, and only ever take shots at easy targets like snobby/evil rich people.  A harder-hearted critic would dismiss them for being too safe.  But the humble charms of It Happened One Night are pure, innocent, and irresistible.  It’s a film that’s almost impossible to dislike, even when an entire busful of people launch into an impromptu sing-a-long to “The Man on the Flying Trapeze." It's to Capra's credit that, almost against our will, we respond to such a moment with a grin instead of an eyeroll. 

Capra’s vision of America in It Happened One Night is also, somehow, irresistible in its purity and innocence.  This is a Depression-era U.S. in which even the hobos riding the rails meet Gable's salutations with smiles and waves, and the railway crossing guard smiles as he admonishes Gable for impatiently honking his car horn.  America is perpetually smiling in Capra, even sometimes through tears.  That’s the essence of screwball comedy as shared by Hawks and Sturges—smiling in the face of pain—but in Capra it’s never offset by bitterness or snark.  There’s not a cynical bone in the body of this film; for better or worse, you never doubt for a second that Capra believes in every last one of those smiles.     

America smiling.


In memoriam: Raoul Coutard, 1924-2016

Raoul Coutard in front of--and behind--the camera in Contempt (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1963).

Consider Raoul Coutard's resume: he shot Z, Lola, Chronicle of a Summer, three films for Truffaut (including Jules and Jim), and sixteen for Godard (including Breathless, Vivre Sa Vie, and Weekend).  The black and white films are moody, sensuous; rainy-day gray tones have perhaps never looked more romantic than in a film like Bande a Part.  The color films are luscious, ripe, and brilliant; witness the pop-art brightness of Pierrot Le Fou and Made in USA, or Contempt, arguably his masterpiece, a film drenched in Mediterranean sunlight.  It's also the film in which he briefly appears onscreen--as himself (see above). 

His death marks the loss of one of the last remaining figures of the French New Wave.  The films still glow.    


Going broad

Peter Finch as the unhinged Howard Beal, on the air in Network (1976).

Rewatching Network (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1976) earlier this week for the first time in over a decade, it became apparent to me that the film's reputation as a hard-hitting drama has effectively worked to obscure its value as a hugely entertaining comedy.  It's like an Aaron Sorkin movie ratcheted up to an hysterical key: some of the duller notes in Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay anticipate the high-mindedness of Sorkin, but they're mostly tempered--or rather steamrolled over--by the broadness of the satire.  The movie ends, lest we forget, with a deadpan comic set piece in which TV execs calmly sit around a conference table and make plans to get rid of their Frankenstein's-monster of a lunatic pundit (Peter Finch) by scripting his on-air assassination.  Scenes like that one, or the one in which an Angela Davis-type fumes about the terms of her TV contract, or the montage sequence in which Faye Dunaway whips herself into a sexual frenzy by talking about primetime programming, are funny enough to excuse the fact that William Holden is made to deliver not one but two holier-than-thou speeches about how his generation has values and Dunaway's doesn't.   

So Network might not be the most nuanced of films--but that seems to me one of its strengths.  A weaker, more moderate film might have qualified every one of Network's points unto blandness.  The comic edge of the movie works better when it goes big.  The fictional UBS network isn't just a soulless corporation: it's an evil empire.  Diana Christiansen (Dunaway) isn't just flawed: she's a femme fatale who literally devours everyone and everything that crosses her path.  ("I eat anything," she boasts to Max Schumacher [Holden] when he asks her to dinner.  Later we see her watching Howard Beal [Finch] on TV, her eyes glittering as she puts away a hamburger.)  Subtle it ain't, at least not at the level of its characterization.  The hammiest turn of all is given to Ned Beatty, who delivers a thunderous speech about the omnipotence of global capitalism with the zeal of a fire-and-brimstone evangelist.  I like Network for its willingness to be broad and big, even if only to make statements about journalistic ethics and corporate greed that are pretty on-the-nose--for its willingness to play for laughs rather than tongue-clucks.


Cherchez la femme

Roman Polanski’s Frantic (1988) is probably his most Hitchcockian film (it even makes a direct nod to the Statue of Liberty finale from Saboteur), and it has a first act that unfolds so elegantly that the Master of Suspense himself probably could not have improved upon it.  Harrison Ford and Betty Buckley are a married American couple who have just landed in Paris, where he has come to attend a medical conference.  They settle into their hotel suite and gently gripe at each other in such a way that we can’t tell whether there is some discontent festering beneath what appears to be a long and happy marriage or whether they’re just jetlagged.  They discover that she accidentally picked up someone else’s suitcase upon leaving the airport.  She answers the door while he is in the shower.  And then, suddenly, she is gone.  The lady vanishes.

Frantic is organized around a quintessentially Hitchcockian premise in which an ordinary person in an unfamiliar locale is plunged into a nightmare scenario, a mystery which he must work to solve with the help of a stranger (in this case Emmanuelle Seignier, in the first of three films she would make with Polanski).  The procedural elements of Frantic are not quite up to the quality of its opening; at times they feel perfunctory.  But that opening is enough to suggest that Polanski was/is probably the second best director of thrillers in cinema.


West End Blues

Pictured: a moment of repose for the women of Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978), as photographed by Sven Nykvist.  Pretty Baby isn’t generally considered to be top-tier Malle, but I found it to be an evocative and lovingly rendered portrait of an unorthodox girlhood (its main character, played by Brooke Shields, comes of age in the New Orleans brothel where her mother, played by Susan Sarandon, works as a prostitute).  Coming-of-age stories were one of Malle’s specialties, from Zazie in the Metro (1960) to Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), and Pretty Baby is typical of his tender but unsentimental approach to the plight of lost and troubled children.  It’s also a superbly realized vision of WWI-era New Orleans, with its lamp-lit parlors and velvet cushions and a piano always in the background, playing Joplin and Jelly Roll.  You can all but smell the perfume hanging in the air.


"The Phantom of the Paradise" and the Divine Comedy of Brian de Palma

Bill Finley and Paul Williams in The Phantom of the Paradise (1974).

Despite having been a devotee of Brian de Palma from an early age I had never been much interested in seeing The Phantom of the Paradise (1974), his attempt to fuse horror, comedy, and the (rock) musical.  I’m glad I finally decided (as of last week) to track it down, though, because it’s delightfully fun, a campy, psychedelic, psychotronic soufflé of a movie.  It belongs to the “early, funny” period of de Palma’s career, before the silky-smooth Hitchcockian thrillers of the late ’70s and early ’80s.  A reckless mash-up of Faust, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, it has the zaniness of a Tex Avery cartoon—but it also functions successfully as a rock opera, with catchy song score by Paul Williams (who also appears onscreen as the Dorian Gray/Mephistopheles figure, a devious record producer and disco impresario).  It’s to him that our hero, the fatally naïve songwriter Winslow Leach (Bill Finley), sells his music as well as his soul. 

The Phantom of the Paradise is almost a non-stop barrage of parody.  De Palma pokes fun at soft rock and surf rock; he throws in shameless travesities of the ticking car-bomb sequence from Touch of Evil and the shower scene from Psycho; and he even stages a set piece (a concert sabotaged by Leach, lurking in the wings of the stage) that anticipates the pivotal scene of his next film, Carrie.  (Considering all of the shit de Palma has taken for “ripping off” other filmmakers, it should be noted that he rips off himself just as frequently.  Just look at how his use of the “it was just a dream” gag from Carrie continues to develop--to increasingly baroque effect--in Dressed to Kill, Femme Fatale, and Passion.)  Anyway, within de Palma’s filmography Phantom can safely be claimed as one of the good ones.  It also features Garrit Graham in a fabulous bit part as a queeny glam rock diva named Beef.  Recommended.

Garrit Graham throwing shade in The Phantom of the Paradise.