Archive for November, 2009

Film: Werner Herzog: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on November 28, 2009 by baker

As a filmmaker, Herzog often doesn’t appear to give one good goddamn about his stories. He slaps them up on the screen so he can plunder them, of unique performances and unearthly beats, in ways no other filmmaker ever born could dream up (or at least dare to tackle). Fitzcarraldo contains an extended sequence of scurrying masses of indigenous Amazonians hauling an enormous riverboat over the narrow berm of land separating two strands of the same river – and it’s no mystery now, as if the film doesn’t illustrate it clearly enough, that Herzog actually accomplished this. No CGI in 1982 could do what Herzog did with hundreds of extras and a lot of leverage, and this bizarrely awesome chunk of filmmaking stands straight up from the somewhat mediocre drama around it, a colossus of imagination and cinematic integrity. Everything else is an excuse to give us such moments of thundering visceral effect.

No shock, and in typical Herzog style, that Bad Lieutenant contains two scenes of such startling conceptual brilliance that the rest of the film feels sort of shapeless, but in a way that seems to give rise to the best parts. The first involves Nicolas Cage’s drugged detective and a pair of iguanas perched on a desktop, and the tiny handheld camera used to film the sequence. It’s an odd effect for Herzog, absolutely attuned to the psychology of his main character but perversely tiny in scale, and the comic genius of the scene only grows with its ridiculous duration and the flawless timing of performance and editing that concludes it. The second involves thugs, guns, and Nicolas Cage’s drugged detective giving perhaps the best excuse in film history for shooting a dead man again: “because his soul is still dancing”. What follows is a staggering few seconds’ cartoon of psychological malaise so vibrantly timed and rendered that, for the few brief seconds, Bad Lieutenant soars. We’re in another film.

Ultimately Herzog doesn’t quite know how to build to and from these scenes; they just emerge, free-floating, from the film’s ambient fog. Which is pleasurable enough, more Touch of Evil (1958) than Abel Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), filled with blasts of colorful light and careening wide-angle photography and Cage’s untethered performance. But all this doesn’t feel intrinsic to anything contained in the film, or inducive of anything beyond. Bad Lieutenant feels like a rough cut of a much better film, its strongest elements in place but the connective tissue half-formed – a little premie, crying with life but unprepared to fend for itself (the ungainly, weirdly pirated title does little to compensate). It’s not a new problem for Herzog. Cobra Verde (1987), Woyzeck (1979), Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) – these are all missing parts, trundling along on vim and enthusiasm instead of cohesive cinematic fluency.

The same could be said of Cage’s performance. Just prior to Bad Lieutenant‘s release in New York, the Times ran an article by Manohla Dargis exploring Cage’s wayward choices as an actor (“Madness or Method? Tough to Tell“). She’s right to emphasize his broader strokes, like Con Air (1997) and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), yet she skims over Leaving Las Vegas (1995) without moving on at all to what, to my mind, is Cage’s best work to date: Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Cage can ham it up with bravado in The Rock (1996), but he is also capable of extraordinary pathos under the guidance of an intelligent and discerning director. His Frank Pierce is a moody wisp of a man wallowing in his own guilt and inconsequence – I can’t imagine another actor in the part. Scorsese convulses his way through Bringing Out the Dead to the tempo of Van Morrison’s “TB Sheets”, heaving and lurching through three nights with a paramedic battling the specter of death on a few hours of sleep. The film is a violent plane ride, the kind that has you worried about the airframe, and Cage is the kind of actor who will risk thespian virtuosity for the sake of turbulence. He’s got the face for it, soft but full of shadows, and when he opens his toothy mouth, the whole thing changes shape. Perhaps no one else short of Daniel Day-Lewis could consciously lift his gangling arms above a throng of giggling schoolgirls to avoid tarnishing them with his grimy soul.

Knowing that Cage is capable of so much tact, it’s concerning to see him repeat himself in Bad Lieutenant. The performance is a best-of amalgamation. I don’t deny that Herzog needed Cage’s abandon; Cage is a star, and Klaus Kinski is dead. But I wonder if Cage has played himself out, whether he’s got any new facets to show. The other possibility is that he needs the formal rigor of a Scorsese, rather than the free-form vigor of a Herzog, to find the right balance between honest expression and grandeur. Under Herzog, he leans too far to the latter, for effect instead of connection. Then again, so does Herzog – it’s hardly a surprise to learn that he completed two films in 2009. The other, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, is due for release in December.

Maybe bounding from odd peak to obscure hill is Herzog’s unique place, in world cinema, to keep. For all of his complete fiction films – Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu (1979) – and documentaries – The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner (1974), Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) – there are his La Soufrieres (1977): dramatic larks of ferocious ambition that somehow fail to come together.  But contained in La Soufriere is a portrait, however formless, of a specific place at a profoundly specific time: an abandoned volcanic island on the frothing brink of eruption. Who else could make that film? Who else would dare, at so likely a cost to perfection? Herzog’s films are experiences, first and last. They are to be seen and heard and felt, above all, from moment to moment, not as a formed whole. And he’s among incredibly few filmmakers – with Cassavetes, maybe, and Altman – who are content to begin a film with the conceit of abandoning control over it, in order to recapture a bolder declaration of vitality on the far side of production.

Film: John Hillcoat: The Road (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on November 27, 2009 by baker

Cormac McCarthy writes as if from a distance, watching his characters with a detached clarity that hides none of their contradictions, or the chilly indifference of the world they inhabit.  Decades ago, in, say, “Blood Meridian” and “Outer Dark”, he spelled these things out in great, coarse detail, but exhibited no more inclination toward pop characterization than in his spare recent works, “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road”.  These read like screenplays, their enormous dramatic weight built accumulatively from the piecemeal narrative fragments that compel the reader to sift further in search of what other writers might give in self-conscious abundance: hooks. The trouble with hooks, or course, is that they don’t exist in life – they’re a distilled and sharpened version of life as we live it.  McCarthy at his shuddering best crafts stories at an oblique angle to drama, leaving the broad strokes to define themselves at length, over duration – the way we might feel them in our own reflective conscience.  What gets our attention is the way he writes: with poetic gravity, sometimes bordering on stolid, that seems to have pared the whole of earthly existence down to the one short string of English words imaginable.  He hooks with the line alone.

The things McCarthy manages to evoke in “The Road” are hard to express.  I felt a complete sense of perspective, unlimited by his characters but never stretching beyond them either, a god looking down at his archetypes, creator and creation both asking the essential questions inspired by their ruined surroundings.  How to move on, and to what?  For all its curt, specific dialogue and the raw fear sketched in the mind of the Man trying to keep his Boy alive, I never imagined faces on these people.  They are Humans wandering on the rim of human experience, their pasts worthless and their futures unfathomably unpredictable.  Skeletal prose has never seemed better suited to its content.

Which makes an adaptation to film virtually impossible.  McCarthy conjures with spare suggestion, not really imagery.  His words matter, not his characters’.  And when I heard that the director of The Proposition (2005) – dark, but not exactly a repository of visual restraint or patient mood-building – was going to tackle The Road as a film, the deep cynic in me grew anxious about another The Sheltering Sky via Bertolucci.  John Hillcoat exhibits a grungy flash in The Proposition that feels appropriate to Nick Cave’s dire, apocalyptic script, but he shows little humane sensitivity, or cinematic fluency in his choppy compositions and editing.  “The Road” is an Angelopoulos film, or a Tarkovsky film, or a Bela Tarr film of Satantango dimensions, rooted in the smell of the earth and the inexorable deliberateness of people discovering cold truths now, and now, and now.  It is no more a vehicle for showy, jolting style than for Triumphs of the Human Spirit.

The good news is that Hillcoat (and his Proposition screenwriter, Joe Penhall) very much wants to be faithful to McCarthy’s tone.  He is respectful of its fits and starts, even mimicking McCarthy’s ellipses with fades to black, and coating the whole film in the right dust and gloom of McCarthy’s burnt-out, falling-tree world.  Javier Aguirresarobe’s superlative photography is the best part of the adaptation, and perhaps the most difficult to render, cued as it is by evocative language alone.  There’s an unhurried pace to the film, and a gradual rise of inevitability that leads to the novel’s conclusion, which Penhall follows, in the Coens’ No Country style, with extraordinary fidelity.  Even the performances hold up – Hillcoat shows a far subtler awareness of verbal delivery than The Proposition suggested, and both Viggo Mortensen and his young costar, Kodi Smit-McPhee, seem to have walked right onto McCarthy’s pages and swallowed the archetypes whole.  These actors don’t quite create characters so much as embody their tone – a substantially harder task, I would argue, than fabricating arcs to “play” characters through, in traditional Hollywood fashion.

What’s missing is a feeling that any of this bears deeper resonance.  Whole sequences, carrying all the right beats and performed with the right degree of subtle directness, pass without current beneath their surface, as though we’re standing over an icy river instead of waist-deep in the cold water below.  I felt scenes simply failing to broaden, as they played out, into anything more than the literal visualization of the action McCarthy spelled out, minus his mighty gravitas.  A great deal of the problem, to my mind, is that so much of the film is told in closeups of the characters.  No doubt a result of the cost of the CGI necessary to create The Road‘s physical desolation, as well as a thoroughly Hollywood perception that the human face carries all requisite emotional context in a film, these closeups begin to reign in the novel’s sepulchral weight.  Putting constant faces to such broad allegorical precision – bear with me on that one – narrows the role of empathy in that context.  A closeup asks us to consider this person here, not an allegory; and since McCarthy has given us such nonspecific entities, such basic, essential sketches of Humans, the drama encoded in the exact faces of Penhall’s characters takes precedence over the leviathan drama McCarthy intimates at length, and around the edges of his scenes.  It takes the sensitivity to see beyond the function of a shot by itself to pull this off.  Hillcoat uses the right visual style, but it doesn’t seem familiar or unique to him.  He’s borrowed it without feeling his way through it.  A lot of his shots, tight and formally nebulous, are just inappropriate.

The natural soundtrack of the film is impressive, laden with the groan of falling trees and the rumbling of earthquakes, but the score, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, is no help, serving only to coax and sugarcoat.  I’m suspicious of film scoring in general, since too much clear emotion is so easily infused into a film with music; a director needs to fill his scenes with greater, more complex emotion than his music implies.  And the tragedy of the score, really, is that it spells out how Hillcoat wants you to feel about his film – the very last thing McCarthy ever approached in his prose.  You felt how to respond to the writing because it was focused and greedless.  You’re unsure how to feel about The Road because Hillcoat is less of a sculptor of cinema than McCarthy is of language.  Even Tarkovsky was careful to adapt works that worked less on the strength of literature than on their authors’ strengths as storytellers, allowing him to make a better film than the novel it started out as.

There’s always something to be said for taking a film like The Road entirely on its own terms, independent of the source text.  Its own merits, taken as a sequence of scenes from credits to credits, aren’t wholly dismissible.  It evokes its mood with effortless consistency, and it’s attentive to the silence of a newly uninhabited world.  Had I not read the novel two years ago, though, I suspect I’d still find the film oddly unmoving.  For all its work to create the personal experiences of the Man and Boy, as a film The Road is conflicted about how to look at itself, never entirely certain how to place these experiences in a broader context.  There are flashbacks to the Wife and Mother (Charlize Theron) that strive to emphasize the loss of Life, but these scenes do nothing to articulate just how lonely, fragmented, and uncertain things are in the new world – the deeper, fuller theme McCarthy built, a piece at a time, over the course of his novel.  Having read “The Road”, it’s hard to see how the film that wants to illustrate it works on its own terms – maybe a Sisyphean task, at the end of the day.  Film is specific in ways literature is free not to be.  Literature doesn’t have to give us faces.

Columbus Park

Posted in Photography on November 8, 2009 by baker

Sunday, November 8, 2009.

smoking manwatch and cigarette