Saturday, February 28, 2009

a man escaped, by robert bresson

For the last few weeks, Film Club has been interested in movies that present strategies—some successful, some not—for weathering the forces of cultural oppression.

At a certain point, when a film has amassed a sufficiently complicated set of interrelated strategies, I think we can officially say that it is actually depicting a scheme. We have good reason to perk up here: the development of a scheme is a great narrative device, and, in the hands of a competent filmmaker, a deeply satisfying one. Think of films like Rififi, Man on Wire, and Oceans 11: very different films, but each one is built around a scheme, and as their schemes unfold they each yield similiar pleasures.

To this list we could add this week's pick, Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1959). The plot is simplicity itself. A police liutenant in occupied France is imprisoned by Germans. He intends to escape. That's pretty much it. He is planning this escape literally every second we see him on screen, starting when he's being driven to the prison. Before we even see his face we see him trying to figure out if he can get out of the car and make a run for it:

It's not the most successful attempt:

So, OK. He chalks this up to "if at first you don't succeed" and carries on. The next attempt, made from within the belly of the prison, is going to have to be more complicated than a simple jump-and-run. But that's OK: the more complicated the scheme is, the more enjoyable it is to see enacted.

This hinges, of course, on a filmmaker who is willing to visually represent the details as they unfold. To his enormous credit, Bresson lavishes loving attention on these details. There are passages in this film that are practically like an Instructables video on How To Break Out of Jail:

Part of the reason that Bresson can spend so much narrative time on examining these details is that he rigorously strips out any element of the narrative that doesn't have to do directly with the protagonist and the plan. It's not hard to imagine a less assured filmmaker building in a villainous German character, as a way of establishing their threat level: Bresson just takes it as a given and moves on. A less assured filmmaker would likely show us the other prisoners being executed: Bresson just relies on word-of-mouth, and the occasional sound of machine-gun fire.

This may sound like its short on visceral thrill, and, it's true that we're not dealing with Oz here. But Bresson has a different goal in mind: he wants to put us in the head of our protagonist, to impress upon us the "thrill" of the smallest details. Bresson is right that, to a prisoner, something subtle like approaching footfalls or the quickest glimpse of a weapon can hold enormous menace:

...and he is right that, to a prisoner, the smallest utilitarian object can convey enormous advantages:

...can be, in fact, a source of hope and courage:

This goes all the way down, in Bresson's conception, to finding a splinter of wood that is the correct size for one's purposes:

When we begin to discuss the ways in which the quotidian can be charged with enormous meaning, we begin to move out of the realm of filmmaking, and into the realm of spiritual or mystical belief. (Bresson himself has been quoted as saying "The supernatural is only the real rendered more precise; real things seen close up.") His religious belief has been amply discussed elsewhere, and it's really beyond the scope of this blog post, but I will say that by the point in the film where one character refers to incarceration as a way of moving into a state of "grace," I'm prepared to believe it. (Especially impressive: the film has invested this observation with the weight of truth through craft, rather than through the easy application of sloppy sentimentality.) This film makes a great introduction to Bresson; I hope to watch more of his films in the future.

Next week: Film Club member Tiffanny E. writes "I wanted to explore more the idea of being imprisioned but avoid actual jails ... so I am picking The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Stay tuned~

Friday, February 20, 2009

the loneliness of the long-distance runner, by tony richardson

Last week, Film Club looked at They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, which presents a world so exploitative that the only meaningful gesture of resistance is to refuse existence itself by engaging in violent self-destruction. Choosing death by a bullet certainly holds no shortage of dramatic force, but we here at Film Club wondered whether the movies didn't have some other, better strategy to offer in response to a hostile world.

With that question in mind, we turn to The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962), which tells the story of Colin, played memorably by Tom Courtenay:

Colin is a working-class adolescent, and has some sense that the world is not really prepared to offer him what we'll call a rewarding life. This understanding, as we see it in Colin, is inchoate—it manifests itself more as ennui than as critique. He's bright enough to have an intuitive sense that the future looks like a dead end, but not bright enough to avoid making bad decisions. As such, he resembles the kids from La Haine (Film Club 4), or (especially) Antoine Doinel from The 400 Blows (1959). Like Antoine, he's likable without really being good.

And also like Antoine, he eventually runs afoul of the law, and ends up in a reformatory. Not the happiest-looking place:

Colin does have one thing that Antoine doesn't have, however: athletic skill. Before long, this has attracted the attention of the school's ambitious headmaster, who sees in Colin an opportunity to gain recognition for the school (a competition against an upper-class prep school looms in the distance). As a result, Colin gets some degree of preferential treatment: while the other students / prisoners are doing routine exercises, Colin is permitted to leave school grounds to practice his long distance running. This image nicely captures the dynamic:

There might well be a component of loneliness to this, but the film doesn't dwell on it. Instead, the film presents these afternoons, when Colin is out in the woods practicing, almost frolicking, as opportunities for exhiliration and joy:

...although, as my Film Club compatriot Tiffanny E. pointed out, this kind of officially-sanctioned liberty constitutes a kind of "freedom without freedom." Does that matter, when the happiness it generates seems genuine?

That question is one that persists up until the end of the film, coming fully into its own during the final intramural race, in which Colin faces a single important choice. I won't discuss the outcome, but I will say that it raises a number of additional questions, most of them interesting. Some of them: what constitutes "winning?" If one participant in a competition proves themselves the superior athlete, does it matter whether that athlete is also designated the winner? To whom? When an athlete is a member of a team, who benefits the most from that athlete's victory? When sports represents a form of escape, is it wise for someone to take advantage of that as an opportunity, even when it benefits to those who have entrapped you?

These questions could be loosely categorized as questions that pertain to the philosophy of sport, and to a degree I was interested in pursuing sports films as a possible avenue of future inquiry (we've flirted with this idea once before, when we watched Dazed and Confused (Film Club 21), which also represents organized sports as a morally-complicated form of salvation). But in choosing a pick for next week, I kept coming back to the tension that this film presents between the poles of repression and escape, which led me instead to choose Robert Bresson's prisoner-of-war film A Man Escaped (1956).

And a final note: no aspect of this film has given me much insight into why the former Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, would have compared himself to Colin in the middle of his political meltdown (link contains a spoiler, btw). Colin may be likeable, but he's also stubborn, impulsive, and (arguably) nihilistic—he is also unambiguously guilty of the crime he is jailed for committing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

they shoot horses, don't they? by sydney pollack

Last week, when writing about Bonnie and Clyde, I spoke on how the film makes a life of crime look exciting and glamorous. Even though we know that the film probably won't end well for the central couple, and even though this knowledge generates a few moments of real pathos, the overall tenor of the film is largely playful: the film invites us to join the Barrow Gang, and succeeds in making that invitation enticing by making the experience of being among the gang one that is, in a word, fun.

This week, we turn to They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. This film also is made in the late 1960s, and also examines the lives of people struggling through the Great Depression, but it could not be more different from Bonnie and Clyde in terms of its tone or its narrative devices.

The premise is simple: a canny promoter (Gig Young, in an Oscar-winning role) orchestrates a dance marathon, in which various couples compete for a cash prize. Essentially, it's an endurance test: the couples get a ten-minute rest period every hour, but beyond that they must remain on the dance floor, in constant motion. (You're welcome to sleep on the dance floor, as long as your partner can keep holding you upright.)

It should go without saying that this isn't going to be as much fun as robbing banks, and, indeed, as the contest wears on, from days into weeks, the contestants slowly transform from dancers into zomboid shells. I've seen Saw, and I've seen Hostel, and I've seen my share of Asian shock cinema, and They Shoot Horses, Don't They? still took me aback: its depiction of physical and mental suffering is as sustained and extensive as any that I've ever come across.

Focused as it is on the anguish of the participants, the film mostly keeps its attention on the dance floor and the complex of rooms that immediately surround it. This zone, inhabited by a shifting field of couples, functions interestingly as a kind of networked narrative space, but there is, indeed, a central couple, who function essentially as the film's protagonists. Here they are:

If the Protagonist Factor—discussed here last week—is operational in this film, it should dictate that we identify with this suffering couple, even though the circumstances are more grim, and the process of identification more discomfiting. But director Sidney Pollack, in a series of exquisitely cruel gestures, attempts to deny us whatever cathartic pleasure we might glean from this identification. He does this by emphasizing the presence of the audience that consumes the spectacle of human ruination unfolding before them.

Our protagonist couple has an observer, a little old lady who roots enthusiastically for them:

...and by including her, and the other audience members, Pollack reminds us, repeatedly, that to imagine ourselves as the body that suffers is falsely self-validating. We aren't the dancers there on the floor, exhaustedly jerking; we are the the ones who watch them, the ones who, for some unexamined reason, enjoy witnessing the horror of other humans undergoing something terrible.

Now, one could argue that making a movie that criticizes people for coming to see your movie is kind of a cheap thing for a filmmaker to do (see also: Showgirls (Film Club 42), or the flap that emerged last year around Michael Haneke's Funny Games remake). I'd argue, instead, that it's a variant on the benign masochism that undergirds the bargain that horror films and tragedies make with their audience (see also: The Vanishing (Film Club 40). In either case, I'm impressed with the lengths to which Pollack's critique extends: this film is not only anti-capitalism and anti-spectacle but also explicitly anti-narrative (as anti-narrative as a narrative film can be, anyway).

This emerges from the way Pollack presents the character of Rocky, the promoter, who also serves as the Master of Ceremonies.

In order to engage the audience more, Rocky literally narrates the entire event, verbally adorning the occurrences on the dance floor with little story hooks. And yet, we repeatedly get a sense that these story hooks are simplistic, distorting—in a word, false. And Pollack refuses, really, to provide any counternarrative: we're given only the most fragmentary and incomplete backstory for any of these characters. The protagonists are our protagonists not because they're better or more likeable; not because they're more noble than any other couple, but simply because they're the ones put in front of us. (The old lady, our nearest analogue, favors them for chance reasons: the number assigned to them is her favorite number.) What Pollack seems to be saying, ultimately, is that there's no story here, only spectacle, specifically, the spectacle of desperate humans being transformed, by capitalism, into twitching meat-puppets. Extend this logic to the entire world, and it becomes clear that the only real way to retain any kind of dignity is simply to opt out, to take death by a bullet over the agony of continued existence. (Hence the title.)

Next week, though, we'll attempt to see if there aren't other strategies for surviving and navigating a hostile world: we'll be watching "angry young man" Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

bonnie and clyde, by arthur penn

When we wrapped up last week's pick, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), I said that it picqued my interest in two different things: 1) how a filmmaker might control the level of sympathy an audience might feel towards a criminal couple, and 2) how a filmmaker might approach the long-term success or failure of a romantic relationship born in the heat of an impulsive moment. Bonnie and Clyde (1967), this week's pick, addresses both of those questions in ways that are worth examining.

First the question of sympathy. There's something powerful about the psychology of movies—perhaps inherent to the psychology of storytelling itself—which enables us to give over our sympathy to nearly any character placed at the front and center of a narrative, even characters who might otherwise strike us as repellent. (I've written on this before, when discussing Psycho (Film Club 39) and Peeping Tom (Film Club 38).)

The addition of "star charisma" pretty much doubles whatever bonus we get from this "protagonist factor": we're prone to root for Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in Postman not only because the narrative centers around them but also because, well, they're incredibly good-looking people.

Does Bonnie and Clyde play this card? Absolutely. If anything, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty are even more charismatic than Lange and Nicholson:

But, star charisma or no star charisma, the protagonist factor will only get you so far if the characters' motivations aren't clear, and if they aren't ones that we feel at least loosely sympathetic towards. This is where Postman drops the ball: as I wrote last week, we end up not being sure why Nicholson and Lange decide to flee to Chicago, not being sure why they give up on that plan, not being sure why they have to resort to murder, not being sure why they can't settle down after the murder has been enacted. Each time we encounter one of these moments of confusion, our ability to identify with them drains away a little bit more.

Bonnie and Clyde doesn't make the same mistake. Clyde argues explicity for why Bonnie should join him in a life of crime, presenting it as a clear alternative to (and improvement upon) the service-industry life that Bonnie's headed towards. The two of them later use an identical argument to enlist gas station attendant C. W. Moss as a sidekick:

Neither Bonnie nor C. W. need all that much convincing, and neither does the audience: we've all imagined, at some point or another, that being a bank robber would be more exciting, glamorous, and sexy than whatever it is we do for a day job. The argument also involves an explicit contempt towards the concept of living a "normal" life, a contempt which I think holds ground in the mind of the contemporary film-goer—certainly it must have resonated with audiences in 1967. (Whether it would have been a motivating factor for a young girl in the early 1930s is anybody's guess.)

Once the crime spree is underway, it doesn't take long for the authorities to begin pursuit. This kind of relentless external pressure makes for very strong motivation: they spend the entire remainder of the film trying not to get imprisoned or shot, and we're right along with them, every step of the way.

Interestingly, as this pursuit ramps up, and as the escapes grow more and more harrowing, the normal, domestic life (which we rejected so soundly in the first third of the film) begins to seem more and more appealing, at least to Bonnie, and, to a degree, to the audience. This is where we begin to part ways with Clyde: during one memorable moment where we see (and where Bonnie sees) that he is unable to imagine a life other than the one he has chosen. (There's a definite purity to his world-view, but such lack of doubt can't, it seems, be sustained by non-mythic mortals like ourselves.)

This leads up to the inevitable conclusion—I won't discuss it here in great detail, beyond saying that, like Postman's director Bob Rafelson, this film's director, Arthur Penn, seems to be saying that the criminal impulse and its associated libidinal energies are nonviable foundations for a stable, long-lasting relationship. From a narrative perspective, this works: the forces that eventually doom the relationship are pretty much the natural end result of the choices they've made. This contrasts especially well against Postman's resolution, which muddies the point by descending into mere capriciousness.

This makes Bonnie and Clyde the more satisfying tragedy, but there's a way in which I wonder if there isn't a faint conservative attitude behind this conclusion: isn't the ultimate moral here, then, that Bonnie would have been better off locked into Depression-era service work? Debatable, sure. But it did get us thinking about exactly which life strategies are the appropriate ones for surviving economic hard times, a line of inquiry that brought us directly to our next pick: 1969's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. This one marks the first choice of our new third member, Tiffanny E. Welcome aboard, T., looking forward to seeing where this goes.