On ranking Soderbergh

Benicio del Toro as Javier Rodriguez, the border cop who experiences a crisis of conscience in Traffic (2000).

The premiere of Logan Lucky a couple of weeks ago—Steven Soderbergh’s “comeback” movie—has inspired a slew of articles reassessing Soderbergh and ranking his films.  To look at the various rankings is to be reminded of the eclecticism and idiosyncrasy of Soderbergh’s output.  While many critics seem to agree that he’s an important filmmaker, there’s no real consensus as to what his best film is.  Is it Out of SightOcean’s ElevenChe?  My own preference is for Traffic, a film that holds up beautifully in spite of the fact that it hails from another era: its historical moment pre-dates 9/11, social networking, and mobile technology.  It’s possible to argue that what Traffic tries to do—that is, map a whole sprawling network of interconnected players, locations, and systems—has since been accomplished to better effect by long-form television series like The Wire.  But as movies go it’s hard to imagine someone pulling it off better than Soderbergh does here.

I’m tempted to make the case that Traffic is Soderbergh’s best movie because it best encapsulates the spirit of his filmmaking—i.e., that it’s somehow “representative” of Soderbergh’s artistry.  His genius for casting Hollywood actors, for instance, is in full force here, as is his cheeky sense of humor in playing them against type or using them in otherwise unconventional ways.  (Real-life husband and wife Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones co-star but are never onscreen together; big name actors like Albert Finney and Salma Hayek flicker by in walk-on roles; Don Cheadle and Luiz Guzman of Out of Sight re-team here but as different characters; public figures like Orrin Hatch and Barbara Boxer have cameos as themselves; vintage favorites like Amy Irving and Miguel Ferrer are given key supporting parts.)  And Traffic is as good an example as any in Soderbergh’s career of his default tone: clear-eyed, eminently sane, humane yet ironic.  Like all of Soderbergh’s films, it’s also expertly paced; considering it runs 146 minutes, the thing moves.  But the problem in reducing Soderbergh’s oeuvre to a single title is that he has never stood still long enough to develop a signature style.  A talented and canny journeyman, his career has been studded with anomalies, one-offs, and experiments: slick Hollywood blockbusters (the Oceans franchise), weird passion projects (Schizopolis, Kafka), profile pieces (the Spalding Gray concert films).  One of his current projects is reportedly a horror movie shot on an iPhone, another a choose-your-own-adventure-style hypertext.    

Playing with stars: Michael Douglas as Robert Wakefield surrounded by politicians (playing themselves) in the Georgetown cocktail party sequence.

Traffic came out in December of 2000, fast on the heels of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, that year’s other “drug movie.”  Both went on to rack up numerous critics’ awards, and Traffic ended up winning four Oscars, including Best Director for Soderbergh (who competed against himself for Erin Brockovich).  The two films could be said to represent the opposite polarities of cinematic style.  Where the Aronofsky is visceral, kinetic, and assaultive, the Soderbergh is measured, clinical, and intellectual.  Requiem for a Dream has enjoyed a somewhat better reputation than Traffic, which may have something to do with a slight bias among cineastes toward Aronofsky’s “hot” style over Soderbergh’s trademark sang froid.  It may also be that what Soderbergh does in his films is often so unassuming, and so invisible, that it risks going unnoticed.  But, with all due respect to Aronofsky, Hollywood could use more of Soderbergh’s cool touch.  So all of the recent Soderbergh love is something to celebrate—even if ranking the films of this most mutable of filmmakers is something of a fool’s errand.


A girl's own story

What struck me most upon re-watching Ousmane Sembene’s classic Black Girl (1965)—recently restored and released on Blu-ray by Criterion—is its total avoidance of sentiment in telling the story of Diouana (M’Bissine Therese Diop) as she travels from Dakar to the French Riviera, ostensibly to work as a nanny for a white couple, where she suffers such profound alienation that she is eventually moved to commit suicide.  Upon arriving in France, Diouana succumbs to the drudgery of cooking and cleaning for her (nameless) employers; the wife nags and berates her endlessly, while the passive, alcoholic husband tries to placate her with cash—Sembene’s point being that bourgeois Westerners believe that with enough money any indecency can be compensated.  (After Diouana’s death the husband travels to Dakar and offers Diouana's wages to her mother, who refuses to accept them.) 

Sembene suggests that Diouana and her employers are jointly imprisoned within a colonialist ideology in which each culture sees the other as Other.  The husband and wife exoticize Diouana, their understanding of her limited to externalities such as her food and her clothes, while Diouana labors under the delusion, fueled by fashion magazines and anecdotes, that France is a dream-place of leisure and pleasure.  Even if the film ends on a note of reparation, with a traditional African mask owned by Diouana being returned to her family, Sembene does not present an image of the cultural divide between Europe and Africa being breached.      

The plot of this fifty-nine-minute film has the contours of melodrama.  But Diouana’s plight is treated by Sembene and his actors with chilly irony instead of with tears and sighs.  (A master ironist, Sembene’s other masterpieces, like Xala [1974], are similarly trenchant; Mooladé, his 2004 parable about female circumcision in Burkina Faso, is the closest he came to making a feel-good movie.)  In a film that is shot through with the politics of anti-colonialism, this may be its most subtly political move: Sembene refuses to give Western audiences the satisfaction of using pathos as a way of engaging with Diouana’s story.  It’s unsettling to be presented with a representation of a victim who is not made into an object of pity—and yet this distinction is crucial to engaging with the politics of Black Girl.  By keeping his characters at an emotional distance that Brecht would have admired, Sembene prevents us from responding to them according to familiar, maudlin conventions.  Sembene’s stance is never “poor Diouana!”; it is always “this happened.


The trouble with Harry: Placing "The Third Man"

Back in 1999 The Third Man (1949) was voted the best British film of the 20th century, its Britishness hanging on the origins of its director (Carol Reed) and screenwriter (Graham Greene).  But Britain’s claim on The Third Man has always seemed somewhat arbitrary.  It is a film defined at every turn by internationalism, the story of an American in Vienna written and directed by Britons and produced by a Hungarian-cum-Englishman (Alexander Korda; in the U.S., the film was distributed by David O. Selznick).  Perhaps it’s this internationalism that has always made The Third Man such a hard film to place, exactly, and that has also made it so unlike any other film of its time.  Some of the turns of its plot resemble those of Casablanca, but it could hardly be said to deliver the same sort of uncomplicated “entertainment value” that that film does; its pleasures are far more curious, subtle, adult.  At the end of the film Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles have a scene together and we’re reminded of Citizen Kane (perhaps a better point of reference than Casablanca)—but then The Third Man doesn’t resemble Kane very much, either, except perhaps in its visual boldness. 

The Third Man simply is not like any other film: it is only itself.  It certainly doesn’t look like other movies from 1949, American or British.  Its cockeyed angles, lingering close-ups, and long takes (that final shot!) feel downright audacious when held up next to, say, Kind Hearts and Coronets or White Heat, to choose two contemporary films at random.  The Third Man belongs to no particular country or cinematic tradition or genre (is it a noir or not?).  It’s a patchwork movie set in a patchwork city, the fragmented Vienna of the post-war years, divided into Russian, French, British, and American zones, as seen through the baroque chiaroscuro of Robert Krasker’s cinematography and set to the wry, jangling rhythms of Anton Karas’ score.              

There’s also an attention to seemingly insignificant characters and objects that one rarely sees in commercial sound cinema of this period, Hitchcock’s films being one exception.  I’m thinking of the moon-faced little boy who appears at the doorway when Cotten is arguing with the porter; the cat chewing on Orson Welles’ shoelaces; the parrot that nips at Cotten’s finger; the cup of dice that Alida Valli plays with distractedly while she’s in Harry’s bedroom; the balloon seller, who looks like he has wandered over from Fritz Lang's M.  The Third Man is a treasure trove of grace notes, weird props, minor players.  Why is it so affecting, for example, when Paine (Bernard Lee), the Cockney sergeant and right-hand man of Trevor Howard’s Major Calloway, is shot and killed during the climactic melee in the sewers?  Perhaps because it’s so unexpected (what reason has he to die?), but also perhaps because even though his part amounts to little more than a bit he’s one of the most affable and least shady person in the film—so affable, in fact, that he apologizes to Cotten’s Holly Martins right after he has socked him in the jaw.  The Third Man may not be the expression of a single, identifiable auteur (a point that’s been made by Peter Bogdanovich), but there are fingerprints all over it.     



"L'Avventura": Wanderers in the space of desire

Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti.

The films of Michelangelo Antonioni are so stylish and atmospheric that it’s tempting to see them as expressions of pure surface.  His astonishing run of early 1960s films—L’Avventura in 1960, La Notte in 1961, L’Eclisse in 1962, Red Desert in 1964—are high on mood and low on narrative momentum, even when they seem to be about such dramatic situations as disappearances and break-ups.  L’Avventura, which baffled audiences when it premiered at Cannes, deceives us by setting up a mystery that is not only never solved but is also gradually forgotten about by the characters themselves.  As the search for the missing Anna (Lea Massari) comes to feel less and less urgent, L’Avventura morphs into an oblique, chilly tone poem about her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), who embarks on an affair with Anna’s not-particularly-distraught lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti).  Claudia and Sandro spend the second half of the film drifting from town to town, ostensibly in search of Anna but acting more out of aimlessness than anything else.  

L’Avventura is an environment unto itself, serene and cool and always quivering with a vague ominousness that never quite comes to a boil, as exemplified in the brilliant scene where Claudia finds herself in a village square surrounded by leering men who circle her like wild dogs.  But then the last forty minutes or so happen, and you realize that L’Avventura isn’t “just” an exercise in style at atmosphere at all—it has become an eerily perceptive account of the psychological stress that attends a new relationship, the direction of which is uncertain.  (“Avventura” means both “adventure” and “affair.”)  We watch as Claudia tries to navigate the space of her desire for Sandro: at first apprehensive and guilty, she eventually succumbs to it, allowing herself to be overwhelmed with passion.  Until recently I had always hated the scene late in the film when, besotted and giddy, Claudia dances around her hotel room to a dumb pop song.  It always seemed like such a hokey, tone-deaf scene in what is otherwise an impeccably hip film.  Then I realized how naked and moving Claudia’s love for Sandro is in that moment—naked to the point of being embarrassing.  She is naïve and touching in her confidence that this is real, and that it will last.  But in the final scenes of the film we see her riven with doubt, fear, and panic (and guilt—she imagines the vanished Anna returning to stake her claim on Sandro). 

Claudia, love-sick.

L’Avventura captures the sense in which two lovers may occupy entirely different emotional states even as they traverse the same ground of their relationship together.  Time, too, becomes elastic in this state: the film captures the feeling of infatuation, of being drunk on sex, of the inability to concentrate on anything other than the object of one’s affection, and of moments apart that seem to stretch on endlessly.  (Antonioni and Vitti somehow make Claudia’s boredom fascinating, as we watch her stay up all night waiting for Sandro, doodling on newspapers, making faces in the mirror, reciting random numbers to herself.)  The film is a record of an adventure and a journey, but Antonioni misdirects us so that we don’t realize we’ve been pulled into the story of an entirely different adventure, and an entirely different journey, than the one we thought we were watching.  

Vitti as Claudia: bored but never boring.


The Films of 2017: A Ghost Story

David Lowery’s A Ghost Story opens with an epigraph from Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House,” a tip-off that this will not be a supernatural thriller in the vein of, say, Poltergeist.  Moody, pensive, and spare, it’s not out to sting you with jump scares.  Rather, it meditates on such subjects as the nature of death, the passage of time, and the ephemeral traces left behind by the departed.  The ghost in question is a recently deceased musician, C (Casey Affleck), who during his life shared a shabby little ranch house in rural Texas with his partner M (Rooney Mara).  After he’s killed in a car accident C’s spirit returns to the house draped in a white sheet, silently looking on as M mourns for him.  Eventually she sells the house and moves away, leaving him behind, at which point the film takes a series of completely unexpected turns, its plot ranging across vast distances of time and space along with its restless central figure. 


Zbigniew and James

Cybulski as Maciek in the ruined chapel.

Zbigniew Cybulski (1927-1967) has often been called “the Polish James Dean,” partly because he was the very public face of the hot new Polish art cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s, partly because (like Dean) he died young, at the age of thirty-nine, in an accident.  I was thinking more about the comparison upon rewatching Andrzej Wajda’s masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds (1958) earlier this week, in which Cybulski plays Maciek, a hip, scrappy, embittered soldier of the Polish Underground, tasked by his comrade to assassinate a newly appointed Communist Party secretary on V-E Day (the entire film unfolds over the course of some twenty-four hours, much like Rebel Without a Cause).  While he waits for an opportune moment to carry out the assassination, biding his time in the bar of the hotel where his target is attending a victory banquet, Maciek busies himself by making eyes at a pretty barmaid.  Together they enjoy one night of happiness, making love and wandering through the ruins of the small Polish town before the appointed time comes, he completes his mission, the sun rises, and he is gunned down in the street. 

Maciek with Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska).
So, much like the characters in the James Dean canon, all those troubled boys with their masc, punchy, one-syllable names (Jim from Rebel, Cal from East of Eden, Jett from Giant) Maciek is a bad boy and a romantic, beautiful and doomed, a figure for tragic youth.  He struts through the film wearing a pair of shades (I like to imagine they’re yellow-tinted) until finally he dies on a garbage heap, writing in pain and kicking his heals in the air, letting out a last gasp as the film fades to black: one of the great unforgettable endings in European art cinema.  The connection to Dean also has something to do with a shared acting style specific to the mid/late 1950s.  Cybulski’s performance is poised somewhere between the grand gestures of the classical style (there’s a moment where, in the ruined church with Krystyna, he lashes out with his whole body in an expression of torment that feels deliberately composed rather than natural) and the spontaneity of Method acting.  Cybulski may not walk that line as carefully as Dean did in his best roles, but his Maciek is still unforgettable and heartbreaking.  And there is dark humor there, too, as when Maciek tries to distract Krystyna by getting her to talk about her family (“and what about your brothers and sisters?”) while he fumbles to pick up a stray bullet from the floor of his hotel room.

A touch of farce: looking for the lost bullet.


In memoriam: Jeanne Moreau, 1928-2017

Pictured: the late Jeanne Moreau with Jean-Marc Bory in The Lovers (dir. Louis Malle, 1958); with Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1958); with Marcello Mastroianni in La Notte (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961); in Jules et Jim (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1962); with Claude Mann in Bay of Angels (dir. Jacques Demy, 1962); with Maurice Ronet in The Fire Within (dir. Louis Malle, 1963); with Jean Ozenne in Diary of a Chambermaid (dir. Luis Bunuel, 1964); in The Bride Wore Black (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1968); with Lucia Bose in Nathalie Granger (dir. Marguerite Duras, 1972); in Querelle (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982); and with Melvil Poupaud in Time To Leave (dir. Francois Ozon, 2006). 

Moreau could play steely and cold in movies like Bay of Angels, which Pauline Kael likened to a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle.  She could do a caricature of Dietrich for Fassbinder in Querelle.  She could be a free spirit, a bored housewife, a femme fatale: as Catherine in Jules et Jim, she plays nearly all of these roles at various points.  Her entrance in that film is one of the great entrances in cinema.  Perhaps no other actress could have been so enchanting as to convince us that the two title characters would spend the next thirty years of their lives in reckless pursuit of her.  Jules and Jim see her as the embodiment of an ancient statue whose face—sphinxlike, enigmatic, beguiling—has obsessed them since their youth. 

Moreau’s appeal didn’t rest on prettiness; it had to do with something regal, vibrant, and slightly haunted about her.  Even in her liveliest roles, like Catherine, there comes a point when the fun and games stop and she reveals some intensely private and wounded part of herself.  Her liveliness and joy suddenly congeal into a heaviness around her cheeks and her mouth.  (Jules and Jim is about nothing so much as the decades-long struggle of its male characters to reconcile themselves to these two sides of her personality.)  In The Lovers that moment happens when, almost immediately after walking out on her family with her new paramour, still radiating afterglow, she suddenly catches sight of herself in a café mirror and seems to freeze.  She searches her face as if for some answer to who she is and what she’s doing.  Those of us who have spent nearly a lifetime watching her on screen will continue to search her face—sphinxlike, enigmatic, beguiling—for answers to those same questions.