Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Lolita First Draft

Complete first draft for In Review Online's Kicking the Canon section.

Stanley Kubrick seems like an odd filmmaker to claim as having underrated films. I’m not as great a fan as most cinephiles, but given the extraordinarily high levels of continued interest and waves of reappraisal and renewed appreciation for such disparate films throughout his career as Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, not to mention the omnipresent adoration for Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, and 2001, it would be easily understandable if one assumed every film aside from his first two and perhaps Spartacus were considered major by this point in his critical reception. But even so, Lolita (1962), which has always been among my favorites of his, has remained underrated in my eyes, despite its quietly pivotal place in his oeuvre. It was his first of two films with Peter Sellars, whose casting in multiple “roles” led directly to his trio of performances in Dr. Strangelove. Most importantly, it was the first film the American Kubrick made in Britain, where he decamped after conflicts with Hollywood studios. He would make his remaining films, often resorting to simulacra of American environs that would contribute to the productive, nigh-perfectionist claustrophobia of his film set there. The first adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita is perhaps almost more well-known for its immortal tagline — “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” — than any other aspect. Indeed, the film was heavily censored during (albeit not after) production, and much of the explicitness of the original novel’s frank and graphic dealings with child sexual abuse was toned down, if not totally eliminated. I must confess here that I haven’t read the original novel, but while the basic arc of the film matches Nabokov’s — notably, though he is credited for the adapted screenplay, it was mostly rewritten by Kubrick and producer James B. Harris — the streamlined backstories and heavy reliance on innuendo and ellipsis seem to almost transform the narrative. Humbert Humbert (James Mason) is never explicitly depicted as or even mentioned as having sexual relations with his stepdaughter; insinuations are made as their home situation, and Lolita (Sue Lyon) claims that she hasn’t told anyone about the two of them, but it never goes any further than that. The two closest moments are of close physical contact: a series of hand-clutches while watching The Curse of Frankenstein at a drive-in, with Humbert rejecting her mother Charlottte’s (Shelley Winters) while continuing to grasp Lolita’s; and a morning in a hotel room, where Lolita whispers details into Humbert’s ear about a “game” she played with a boy at a summer camp, before leaning in as if to kiss him. While Humbert’s lust for Lolita is immediately apparent, his ways of expressing it immediately towards her are kept off-screen, and thus Lolita finds more room amid its leisurely 152 minutes to examine neuroses that might not be considered central to a story so forthrightly concerned with pedophilia. For most of the first half of the film, Kubrick is far more interested in the relationship between Humbert and Charlotte, whose exaggerated flirtatiousness and misguided attempts to match the professor of French literature’s intellect upon their first meeting escalates into mania. During the first flushes of Humbert’s growing attraction, as much emphasis is put on Charlotte’s oblivious attempts to compete for his attention. It’s perhaps an obvious connection to draw between Lolita and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, where Winters also plays a sexually frustrated widow taken advantage of by a predatory intellectual man, but her patheticness is equally matched and played off by Mason’s casual, debonair cruelty. Numerous other undercurrents run through the first half’s setting of Ramsdale, New Hampshire, specified as a resort town that fits the perfect ideal of a mid-century American suburb. A couple close to Charlotte, John and Jean Farlow, are extraordinarily friendly, and the latter says to Humbert that they are “extremely broad-minded,” which seems to insinuate that they are propositioning him for spouse-swapping or something even more shocking to the British Humbert. The United States is first situated as a land of opportunity for Humbert, who puts himself in the lineage of so many other European expatriates. But as he gets further immersed in the New World, eventually embarking on a road trip across the country with Lolita, first to Beardsley, Ohio and then a failed run for the Mexican border, this vestige of the Old World is left adrift and unable to find his footing among these people with strange practices: the father of the man who accidentally runs over Charlotte seems to be taken aback by Humbert not holding a grudge against him. Nowhere is this strangeness more visible than, of course, the enigmatic figure of Clare Quilty (Sellars), whose role is far larger in the film. Expanded from a cipher lurking in the shadows to a seeming embodiment of everything that stands in Humbert’s way once his pesky wife is dead, he pops up at unexpected intervals, putting on various disguises and silly voices that Humbert never quite puts together. The constant is the even greater role of comedy that flows through these scenes, little off-hand remarks that the dynamic Sellars bounces off the magnificently befuddled Mason: remarking that he’s a bad loser at ping-pong after Humbert produces a gun; saying in his German accent that he was sitting in the dark to conserve electricity; his flurry of adjectives in describing Lolita. Even more than providing a dark mirror image of Humbert’s sexual desire, he comes to almost embody the fatalism that drives Lolita. Quilty’s death at the beginning of the film almost plays a similar role to the inclusion of murder in Mildred Pierce’s film adaptation: it transforms Lolita from psychological character study to film noir, one where the black-and-white shadows pierce the faux-Americana of the film and little gestures resound with a violence. Kubrick’s characters become trapped by not only their desires — for a kiss, for stardom, for a fried egg proffered by a potential lover — but by the invisible machinations of American society; that the grand overseer over it all did so after he parted ways with this society is the cherry on top of Lolita’s delicious irony.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Val Lewton (Producer)

  1. The Seventh Victim (1943)
  2. I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
  3. Cat People (1942)
  4. The Leopard Man (1943)
  1. The Seventh Victim (1943)
  2. I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
  3. Cat People (1942)
  4. The Leopard Man (1943)

Monday, June 6, 2022

David Cronenberg

  1. Videodrome (1983)
  2. Crimes of the Future (2022)
  3. eXistenZ (1999)
  4. Cosmopolis (2012)
  1. Videodrome (1983)
  2. Crimes of the Future (2022)
  3. eXistenZ (1999)
  4. Cosmopolis (2012)

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Will-o'-the-Wisp First Draft

Complete first draft for In Review Online.

Will-o’-the-Wisp, João Pedro Rodrigues’s long-awaited follow-up feature to The Ornithologist (2016), almost seems to take the form of a sketch. Running a slender sixty-seven minutes and seeming to concentrate its action into a matter of days, the film’s structure bears a closer resemblance to “Un chien andalou” than anything else: it begins in the year 2069, before hopping back to 2011, then forward to “some years later,” then “one year later,” where the bulk of the film takes place. This purposefully ambiguous timescale feels right for a film that indulges so freely in alternate realities and surreal settings, an overflowing of incidents packed into a small container. Will-o’-the-Wisp appears to take place in a version of Portugal where the royal family still reigns to at least nominal effect: the main character is Prince Alfredo, seen on his deathbed in 2069 and as a youth in the rest of the film, and the first fourth of the film — delineated by a title card calling this a “musical fantasy” — moves through three consecutive parodies of the royal family in private; in one moment, the film even acknowledges the proscenium stuffiness by having the queen acknowledge that people are watching, with a knowing look towards the camera. Fittingly for such a short film, the first of just two musical sequences takes place before this intertitle. The two — one a cherubic children’s choir, one a highly choreographed group dance to non-diegetic music — couldn’t be more different, a neat summary of Will-o’-the-Wisp’s divergent but simpatico aims. It is both an oddly hopeful evocation of the changing tides of politics in the face of global warming and, in the style of Rodrigues’s previous work, a homoerotic exploration of a particular milieu. Here, that milieu is the volunteer fire brigade, which Prince Alfredo is prompted to join by a spate of forest fires, including one amid the “royal pines” that his father so fervently admires; in response, his mother claims that he is confusing “the royal family and documentary cinema,” an out of nowhere connection typical of the family scenes that operates in direct contrast to the fire brigade’s pleasurable bluntness. A predominately male unit, its members are exclusively hunks, who quiz the supposed art historian Alfredo on his (poor) knowledge by posing nude or in jockstraps in the manner of various paintings. These moments, a contrast from the rest of the film, are in striking chiaroscuro, a loving attention to the rippling muscles of these men’s bodies and the sensual absurdity of watching these men reenact these paintings. Sensual absurdity is a good word for a film whose primary sex scene, between the White Alfredo and his mentor Black firefighter Afonso, features exceptionally fake-looking penises; it’s not as if Rodrigues is afraid of showing nudity, even displaying a slideshow of penises that each correspond to a forest in Portugal. But the limits of showing reality are openly challenged by Will-o’-the-Wisp, a film where firefighters are never actually seen in front of a blaze, where a supposedly disastrous simulation is a lighthearted form of hazing, where futuristic clothing is beautifully tacky, and firefighters seem to have amassed considerable power in the intervening decades. Will-o’-the-Wisp even finds the place to invoke the pandemic, a sudden cleaving force that brings the film briefly back to “reality.” But Rodrigues’s concentration of his plot, his ability to elide the parts that would prevent this from taking full flight as a musical fantasy, preserves the strange and uncanny spell. The final image, of the acceptance of Alfredo into the fold despite his all-too-short time in the brigade, points to a certain optimism, one where the fantasy ends happily ever after.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Don Juan First Draft

Complete first draft for In Review Online.

Serge Bozon’s follow-up to Madame Hyde (2017), Don Juan, seems to continue that film’s revisionist update of a classic tale, while also returning in some fashion to the unorthodox musical genre that La France (2007) so brilliantly embodied. Here, the connection is much more narratively explicit: Laurent (Tahar Rahim), an actor who has been left at the altar by his fellow actor Julie (Virginie Efira), begins to see her face in nearly every woman he meets, before she comes back into his life, acting alongside him in a staging of one of the plays that explores the emponymous character. From this simple set-up, Bozon instigates a dizzying swirl of scenes and techniques, constantly shifting to fit his screenplay co-written with his partner and fellow filmmaker Axelle Ropert. Initially, it appears as if the film will continue entirely in the absence of Julie: while he waits, Laurent begins interacting with a number of women in turn, each played by Efira in a succession of delightfully absurd wigs and costumes, where the line between his recognition of them as Julie or as a stranger is deliberately hazy. Contrary to the expectations engendered by the title (Laurent isn’t revealed to be an actor until after this first day), his attempts are uneven, fumbling, and often violently rebuffed, utilizing Efira’s fieriness and the hollowed-out obsession in Rahim’s eyes to great effect. But once Don Juan begins focusing on the play, it becomes much more circumspect while still retaining its galvanizing capacity for surprise. A tight orbit is drawn between disparate characters: the director, the untested actress initially cast in the role that Julie will come to play, a wise old man (Alain Chamfort) who lives in the same hotel as Laurent. These scenes could act well in isolation, each reflecting another part of Laurent’s headspace and his willingness or unwillingness to pair off with people. A drama teacher, also played by Efira, gives a reading of the play that applies precisely to the film at large: neither Don Juan or the women he seduces are especially interesting in isolation, and so things cannot be viewed separately, or the viewer should not be forced to take one side or the other. This quality runs throughout Don Juan, nowhere more apparent than when Julie reappears and the two fall back in love. The pas de deux between her and Laurent is literalized by a number of dance poses that they float into during this section of the film, and the director’s decision to stage the play with an open background that leads into the outdoors gives the impression of “reality” bleeding into the play, the two becoming inseparably intertwined just as Laurent and Julie have become, or at least have appeared to. Despite the use of sung musical moments at crucial junctures, Don Juan is almost a kind of deconstruction of the viewer’s expectations of a musical. Almost all the songs are solos, and yet Bozon has his actors stand almost totally still while his camera is mostly static, an oddly discomforting feeling heightened by the actors’ singing abilities. The three singing actors (Rahim, Efira, and Chamfort) can all hold a note, with Efira perhaps being the strongest, but Rahim, while not bad, does appear to be hesitant at most times, with his songs forming the majority of the film. His strongest musical moments, apart from a duet with Efira, might be the opening, where he moves in time to a piece of music, which is hilariously interrupted many times by a buzzing phone; and a scene at a wedding where people dance exaggeratedly around him. The musical qualities of Don Juan might come through most forcefully in the strength of Bozon’s direction. Working on digital for the first time and without his usual cinematographer and sister Céline Bozon (the film was shot by Sébastien Buchmann), Bozon frequently shoots his actors just off the center of the frame, creating an angular feeling to many of his shots emphasized by the precise cutting that sharply shifts perspective and location within a scene. The colors are rich and bright here. Where the pastel colors of Madame Hyde served that film’s uncanniness well, the directness of Don Juan demands a bold approach that doesn’t sacrifice intricacy. In the confidence of his direction and the elusive turns of the narrative, Bozon supplies this in spades.

Friday, May 20, 2022

A New Old Play First Draft

Complete first draft for In Review Online.

Without getting too far into Bresson’s dissection of the irreconcilable differences between the artistic media of film and theater, there has been a longstanding interest, and thus conundrum, in how to depict the staging of a theatrical production on film. From Busby Berkeley backstage musicals to The Golden Coach to Rivette’s masterpieces to Vanya on 42nd Street to of course Drive My Car, films about theater are typically just as much about the communal nature of the endeavor, the relationships that are formed in the intimate times of living and working together. And then, there are those films, like The Travelling Players and Platform, who use theater and performance as a means to convey and explore the grand sweep of history, as the relatively static nature of performance and style is met by larger social and government forces over decades. Qiu Jiongjiong’s feature debut, A New Old Play, fits in very much with this lineage of acting-troupe-epics, running just under three hours and spanning the 1920s to the 1980s in the Sichuan Province. Unlike its predecessors, however, it totally focuses on a single actor clown, Qiufu, based on Qiu’s own grandfather. It also explicitly takes a retrospective look: the film begins with two demons arriving to bring him to hell, and the rest of the film threads this long journey alongside a chronological retelling of his ascent to stardom in the New-New Troupe and Opera School (at age seven) and how he, his family, and his collaborators weathered World War II, the Chinese Civil War, and the upheaval that the Chinese Communist Party introduced into an already fraught environment. In a sharp break from the documentaries that have made up Qiu’s work to date, A New Old Play instead opts for an approach that emphasizes artificiality and stylization of these spaces of the past and supernatural. Seemingly every scene takes place on a set, each crafted to maximize what feels like a hand-crafted quality to the film, where the distressed and flat quality permeates the backdrops of man-made structures and landscapes alike. A golden statue is embodied by living flesh, ocean currents by billowing fabric, and brick walls look like plywood painstakingly painted to suggest the mortar without fully defining it. All of these might strike one as budgetary necessities, but the effect here is far from, say, the nightmarish distortions of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or the opposite approach of reflection of present onto past in Platform. Instead, this abstraction suggests an archetypal base to build on, a physical closeness of space and a continuity between the “real world” and the purposeful unreality of theater, literalized in a shot that tracks right as bricks are rolled on-stage from a daytime view of distant mountains, then off-stage into the painted night sky and distant city. And while Qiu is free to mix-up his style, throwing in oblique angles and handheld when necessary, much of the film is shot in single-direction tracking shots and tableaus teeming with people, where the distinctiveness of the faces meld into a tapestry of expressions and reactions, all similar but none totally alike. That quality serves the film well: Qiufu is certainly the main character, set apart by this supernatural intervention and his obdurate commitment to craft even as his fellow cast and crew fall away due to the ravages of time, while also being instantly recognizable thanks to his ever-present large ears and red nose and beanie. But this is as much a portrait of community, leaving plenty of time to consider how people contend with the weight of change and history, each interaction another building block in a conception of history that is resolutely intimate and aggregative. Even the intertitles that help clarify when the next decade has passed for those very unfamiliar with Chinese history — as someone of Chinese descent, the careful but never overstated intertwining of history into the narrative moved me — convey these changes in more poetic terms. All this while, Qiufu is on his way to the afterlife, where he will have to drink a soup of forgetfulness to enter, or otherwise wander as a ghost among the living. This voyage into the unknown carries the same genial tone as A New Old Play, of a resigned acceptance of the inevitable that carries with it a whole world of mystery and discovery. The film closes with Qiu himself appearing in front of the camera, one of the most fitting cameos in ages, as he implicitly puts himself in the lineage of these performers and artists who have contributed to a rich Chinese folk tradition. On the strength of A New Old Play, such a gesture is more than earned.

Friday, April 29, 2022

The City and the City First Draft

Complete first draft for In Review Online.

There’s something to be said for the narrative and structural principles of incoherence, attempting to evoke a fractured place, culture, or time through a jumble of stories. The results can certainly be mixed, suffering from a surfeit of complications, or otherwise failing to link together its strands with anything more than the faintest of ideas. But in the right hands, it can be a revelation, little pieces adding up to a grand portrait that continually surprises as it digs deeper and deeper into the unknown. The City and the City, the first directorial collaboration between Syllas Tzoumerkas (The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea) and Christos Passalis (an actor known for Dogtooth and his appearances in Tzoumerkas’s past films, making his directorial debut here), falls somewhere in the middle of these two impulses in its chronicling of the Greek Jewish community Thessaloniki and its severe persecution by Nazi invaders in 1943. Across six chapters, something of a vague narrative develops as characters, including a Jewish family, drift in and out of the stories told, but many moments initially seem random or disconnected, linked only by the shared air of unease and dislocation in both narrative and presentation. Tzoumerkas and Passalis’s directorial presentation ascribes to a similar level of free mixing. While The City and the City appears to all be set in the 20th century, stretching from World War II to somewhere in the 1980s, at least several scenes make no efforts to hide the present state of the city, with modern cars and bright lights rushing by these people clad in period garb. Even the scenes more visibly set in the 1940s have a slippery relationship: the first chapter cuts between an impoverished clothes seller filmed in black-and-white — surrounded by a cascade of languages including Turkish, Armenian, and Ladino — and a richer Greek family filmed in color; the ordinary implication would be that these take place in separate times, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. The City and the City finds more of a focal point when it deals directly with the horrors of the Nazi occupation. An especially striking sequence depicts forced physical exercises run by the soldiers, where they torment men in extended takes whose camera focus seems to only capture a small circle in a different part of the frame with each shot. Such devices, along with the use of archival footage and explanatory intertitles, creates a more vivid sense of history and direct effects than many of the more deliberately obscure episodes. Perhaps The City and the City’s most incisive element comes in its chapter title cards: each one shows a particular government organization who forms the principal aggressor for the part. Crucially, this extends both before and after the Nazi occupation; while the penultimate scene, appearing to be either a flashback to or a revelation of a secret backroom where fascist torture is still taking place, muddles things too much, the central message becomes clear in these indicting moments: oppression will always threaten those not in power, especially the people of a specific community.