It takes a big movie to thrive with so many obvious flaws as Life of Pi, and it takes an even bigger director to get it to that point of success. For Life of Pi, that director is Ang Lee, the spiritually lush aesthetic artist who is as frequently benefited as he is hurt by his incomparably luminous romantic streak, and he does what is simultaneously his best and his worst job yet directing a film. His best, in that his spiritual streak is at its most alternately transcendent and restful in the large swaths of Life of Pi where it is putting all of its energy in being a purely presentation-focused work of feeling, breathing beauty and magisterially cinematic color-and-shape as mood-and-space. His worst, in that his spiritual streak leads him into some painfully cumbersome thematizing and immature and pandering feel-zones where characters drone on and on in alternately dulcet and exclamatory tones about petulant soul-searching and adolescent identity quests. Life of Pi, despite its restfulness, is a deeply temperamental film, moving between hokum-levels of incompetence and blinding, side-winding transcendence that washes over you and puts you in one of the finest pure mental spaces in 2010s cinema this side of The Tree of Life. Continue reading
A word on Terrence Malick, and not a terribly original word at that: the crux of the Malick state of mind, for at least its pre-Tree of Life existence, is fundamental cinematic post-structuralism. He began with a high-minded treatise on the idea of an American New Wave film, releasing his debut, 1973’s Badlands, in a thick-on-the-ground decade of American grit and what many directors would call “realism”. The late ’60s and early ’70s had their Bonnies and their Clydes, their Bunches that were Wild, and even their Streets of indefatigable Meannness, and the consensus around those films was that they gallantly and brutally brought some fighting words for the Old Hollywood ways of geniality and safety. The general consensus is, in other words, that America got nasty in the ’70s, and specifically, that their films brought the “hard-won realism” in a way America never had before.
Nicolas Roeg was not an Australian director, nor did he have much to do with Australia for the rest of his career. But, when he wished to explore the elusive mystery of human distance and find the frightful regions of human history and modernity in what would seem to be majestic from a distance, it is no surprise that he looked to Australia as his canvas. The always damaged mystery of the location is unspooled across the unforgiven lateral extension of a landscape leftover from history, stretching on forever into the regions of madness. Not knowing the history of the region, the fading crimson of the sun staring at the fleshy human form instills its own sweat and sickly grime on the viewer. The unforgiving chill of the forlorn landscape dotted with an abject tree or two every now and again gives off a wafting aroma of decay and empty space, selling the history of this location as an abstract space of eternal rupture, the kind ever-primed to refract social fissures and psychological shattering. Continue reading
There’s an earthen quality to way Sergio Leone understands location that is almost otherworldly. The mood, the atmosphere, the sense of a place; they all seep up from the cracks, and he strangles you with it. Everything about the characters and the conflict is just laid out plainly and honestly on the screen in a sort of pure cinema we really didn’t see in genre works in the mid ’60s (horror excepted, and also, notably, the other great genre of the Italians in the ’60s). The sand doesn’t just exist; it hoarsely croaks, it robustly swallows, it does a stalwart, omnipresent, Herculean take-over of the entire event of the narrative and coats everything in a throaty sort of impact that cinema rarely attempts. We aren’t just watching sand. We’re rasping our voices. We’re searching for water. We’re drying out as we sit, welcoming each bead of sweat like an old friend to be ravenously devoured.
Edited in April 2016
Jacques Tati’s Playtime is the sort of ambidextrous work that grants a reviewer the blessing and curse of confronting opening lines from all angles. One might look to the evolution of Tati’s carnivalesque visionary depiction of modern society over the course of twenty years of filmmaking. Or the fact that this 1967 feature, his magnum opus in more ways than one, almost bankrupt him and went six times over budget as the famously meticulous Tati spent months upon months refilming sequences with psychotic perfectionism. Then we find the brilliantly twitchy physical comedy in the film. And the warped classicisim of the imagery and sound design that distorts and reinvents not only modernity but our place as fleshy individuals in the world. Then there’s the commendable commitment to throwing narrative cinema by the wayside in favor of Tati’s vision of space and place as human savior and human assassin, depending, of course, upon how we interact with the world around us. Continue reading
Michael Powell, especially when paired with his long time partner in crime Emeric Pressburger, was a director cripplingly ahead of his time (although they shared credits, Pressburger favored writing and Powell handled most of the behind-the-camera work). Literally crippling, in fact, for his provocative, lurid, deeply confrontational 1960 horror Peeping Tom, at that point perhaps the most daring and subversive commentary on filmmaking and film-watching ever released, essentially killed his career. Dark-hearted in a way even Hitch’s fellow 1960 release, Psycho, never approached, Peeping Tom grabbed a world not ready for it and shoved itself right up into humanity’s soul with voyeuristic, directly implicating POV filmmaking and sickly green hues to induce malaise and shock. It was an atomic final gasp on one of the all-time directorial careers. Continue reading
It is not a new claim to compare Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida to the works of Ingmar Bergman. The inner psychosis, washed out black-and-white cinematography, quiet, haunted feel of the air around the film, and the contemplative characters are all Bergman down pat. Even better, the film’s clinical, dry exterior, carefully modulated framing, and highly static camera meant to box off characters at a distance for observation are all patented art-house techniques used piercingly well in Ida.
The shot selection is textured, operating form a well thought-out place of “show, not tell” and “show only what is necessary”. The cinematography is frequently gorgeous in a non-insistent, chilly sort of way that just sneaks up on you and envelops the story, as opposed to insisting on the visuals for their own sake as many art films do. It’s a calm film that hides deep internal dissonance and fractured soul, and that is what just about any Bergman film was in its refutation of narrative cinema for elliptical beauty. The sense that we never quite know what perspective the camera takes is very much present here. When it comes to pure craftsmanship, it’s a hard film to knock down. Continue reading