Friday, September 30, 2005


For a director who would later develop a style so personal and more astutely political, Ossessione is remarkable for its faux noir trademarks: murder and intrigue on a low budget. It's Visconti's later works that address Italian politics during times of crisis and the manner in which the aristocracy responds to them, most blatantly in The Leopard but elsewhere in less pronounced fashion. Ossessione is a simple, straightforward story about a drifter who comes between a man and his wife, and the consequences one faces when money is an issue. The stakes are love and theft and the means are the perfect crime. The determination with which Visconti picks apart romantic affairs is at times excruciating, but nonetheless emblematic of couples struggling furtively toward happiness or some semblance of it.

This film hinges on varieties of guilt, theft and deception. Drawing on Dostoyevsky's suspicions about human psychology, Visconti makes a tense film about criminals and those who would be criminals. Seen as a morality play, Visconti plays his hand much further in favor of "justice" than he would in his second film which confronts directly the class struggle in Sicily. As such, the conflict between the lumpen beggar and the petit bourgeois is trivial and a bourgeois struggle at that: fights over women are seen as transfer of property and Bregana and Gino treat her as such. Giovanna is perhaps underdeveloped as a failure to understand more completely her anxieties, which seem facile compared to the "risks." But like Lady of Shanghai, one can read into Giovanna a more sophisticated narrative that imparts an insufficiently calculated plot to use the men in her life to gain independence.

In fact, Giovanna never gets chance to explain herself. From her lovelorn confessions to Gino, we're led to believe that she's been a prostitute, noting that men never have to prostitute themselves in the same way (in the context of this film, at least). Nor does Gino have to beg; he can hitchhike and pick up odd jobs on waterfronts, as a sandwichboard bearer, or as a mechanic. Visconti begins to develop his class orientation in public and rather than obfuscate his vision with his own incriminating class status, he proceeds with moral conviction. As a romantic and a humanist, Visconti tells the story of love through the class lens using Giovanna to show how not only women, but also love itself is treated as a commodity to be openly traded and cheapened by jealousy and murder.

While it's unfortunate that the film's third act ends so simply and abruptly given the trajectory and experience of the second act, but maybe those possibilities weren't as apparent to the novice filmmaker. It's clear from the outset that Gino and Giovanna are star-crossed lovers whose sins will be remedied by tragedy and suffering, but until the climax, it's not clear how their love will end. As Visconti grew into a more sophisticated filmmaker, he began to realize that there were things worse than death that take on many forms, some more cruel than others. For brothers-in-arms Gino and Bregana, it was a mortal struggle for to parade Giovanna as they might prize livestock, and sadly, like an animal even in death she can only submit.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Loves of a Blonde: Grizzly Man

In two documentaries about his work, Burden of Dreams and My Best Fiend, Werner Herzog makes it clear that he fears nature and loathes its brutish power over man, while revealing his affinity for a certain talented, but tortured blonde. Grizzly Man may prove Herzog's most personal statement yet. Herzog's compassion and curiosity decidedly influence his approach to Timothy Treadwell, an ex-alcoholic and would-be actor turned amateur naturalist. In dealing with this man, his life and works, Herzog mutes his usual cynicism and takes Treadwell at face value, his skepticism abiding what might seem the behavior of a suicide.

We meet Treadwell in media res, at play in his fantastical world of anthropomorphic creatures, as we get to know him through footage shot by an off-camera partner, likely whichever woman he was dating at the time. Like Bruce Dern in Silent Running, Treadwell hopes to present himself in a way that makes him a Brooks' Farmer, while his Margaret Fuller is kept off-camera to preserve his facade of transcendental austerity and self-determination. Strangely, Herzog reserves judgement on this score, when it would've been easier to call Treadwell a lunatic and a fraud, or resort to armchair psychoanalysis with the help of an "expert" brought in specifically for the occasion. Rather than investigate the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of Treadwell's personal life, or even speculate about them for a cheap and easy laugh, Herzog focuses on Treadwell's legacy as a filmmaker, a naturalist and a human being. Herzog very gracefully delineates the difference between documentary filmmaking and sensationalism in a time where the reality show continuum supplants artistry as entertainment.

In dealing with his work as a naturalist, Herzog discovers that Treadwell's activities were not only unorthodox, but unlawful, and according to several biologists interviewed in the film, likely dangerous to the animals. Motivated by a love for grizzly bears and the secluded Alaskan wilderness, Treadwell went to dangerous lengths to be around those he considered his family; these animals that couldn't touch him emotionally and hurt him with rejection, unless they destroyed his physical body too, something Treadwell chose not to believe. Unfortunately, his career as a naturalist incorporated unpredictable nature into his recovery, and his co-dependence on the animal kingdom ultimately and mortally betrayed him.

Treadwell's performance in this film is nothing short of remarkable. His canny sensibility of composition and his childlike curiosity make him an interesting filmmaker with a message. His psychological profile makes him a daredevilish Mr. Rogers or a preschooler's Ace Ventura. As a film diarist, Treadwell collects all of his emotions and edits them sparsely; these are rare moments of uncensored human drama, a rarity when so much television is manicured so and inoffensive. We witness his triumphant highs and follow him as he descends into deep trenches, all charged with tempestuous intensity. Herzog realizes that his own deep compassion for Kinski is what permits him to understand Treadwell as a creative entity tormented by his own ambitions. Herzog, in interviews and editorials, passes no judgement against him, presenting his friends and co-workers as those best suited to explain his motivations and actions. Perhaps some filmgoers will expect an indictment, but Herzog offers but one admonition in his cold observation that Nature continues to dominate humankind, a fact made all the more evident by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It's an atheist's prayer he recites, recognizing the danger and mute violence in the eyes of the grizzly Treadwell filmed shortly before his death.

Grizzly Man will doubtless polarize audiences. There will be those who reach facile, commonsense conclusions about Treadwell's behaviors and there will be those who take another approach, calling into question his psychological well-being, and offer amateur diagnoses. What's left however, is the memory and history of his life, as enigmatic as it ever was, and a troubling statement that leaves many questions unanswered. While March of the Penguins dominates the documentary box office, Herzog's work may go unnoticed or underappreciated. Nevertheless, it's as difficult and thought-provoking film as I have ever seen, and something that will hopefully affect audiences as it affected its author.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Emperor Wears No Clothes: The Aristocrats

When Kerouac wrote of seduction and its empty promises in On The Road, we see a young man bragging about his lovemaking abilities to a young Spanish girl as they travel westward by bus. After they've had sex, he's vomiting apologies, sickened not only by his inability to perform, but seemingly moreso about having betrayed himself - one assumes that the Delphic Oracle penetrated the Beat Manifesto and that such violations were not only treasonous, but inevitable. Secrets only have value when kept, which is something Penn Jillette should know.

Unfortunately, Jillette's telling of comedy's darkest joke violates the magician's code. Had Gilbert Gottfried told The Aristocrats with no explanation, had it been censored beyond recognizability and confounded Comedy Central audiences for years to come, it might've maintained that in-joke respectability; now it's fodder for Bob Saget and his ilk of new Borscht humor, along with the Drew Careys and Don Rickleses. Sure, Martin Mull deadpans murderously, Sarah Silverman's trauma narrative is devastatingly funny and Taylor Negron's disco days variation is at once sophisticated and slimy and entirely believable, making it for me the closest to George Carlin's theories regarding the joke, and how it should be.

If Carlin, instead of Jillette, shepherded this loose documentary, it might've had a chance. Unlike Jillette, Carlin isn't actually thrown by the subject, and as a comedian's comedian, has been exposed to this joke throughout his career. Jillette comes off as a novice, and he laughs too hard at mediocre tellings. His stance toward the subject and the film is snobbish and naive. Rather than tell the story of why Gottfried told this joke and then work backward towards its origin, we get a scatterplot of the whos, hows and whys in no particular order. The "inside baseball" feel of the movie takes away from its politicized content in a time of Ashcroft and Gonzales, and while it shouldn't be a high-minded film, it ought to have conveyed more fervently the folly of imposed decency and prohibitionism.

Nevertheless, an NC-17 film deserves seeing in the theater; it may be your last transgressive act!

Mike Nichols' Couples - Albee and Everything After

Edward Albee entered my life holding Samuel Beckett's hand. In a school district where censorship and book banning were regularly discussed, that Zoo Story was taught and that Endgame was available in the library remain mysteries to me. By the time I read Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I'd decided that Albee was perhaps the cruelest writer I'd read; his cynicism and lovelessness were passionate, unforgiving, and relentless.

His compassion was perverted. It isn't that he doesn't care about his characters; on the contrary, he clearly cares about them considerably, but wishes triumphant, cleansing pain upon them, dousing them with torrential sadism. Mike Nichols' adaptation was so true to the original in that classic cruelty, so palpable is the tension between Taylor and Burton. But for Nichols, that tension and taboo would prove formulaic, a theme he'd return to twice, separated by thirty-three years. In between times, what Nichols seems to have missed is the fundamental shift in public opinion about marriage and adultery.

What makes Carnal Knowledge so edgy and Closer an exercise in banal titillation stems from our expectations about ascribed gender roles and the degree to which those understandings can be subverted. That the women in Carnal Knowledge would be endowed with aggressive sexual appetites, be intelligent and employed and that the men would be chest-thumping, foulmouthed and impotent speaks volumes about Nichols' incisive take on the burgeoning second wave and provincial attitudes toward women. What Nichols fails to realize is that in the interim, behind the outmoded and backward worldview that passes for morality today, America accepts the seamy underworld and appreciates it in a collective sense in much the same way the neighborhood speakeasy was an open secret; there's doubtless a transgressive zealotry afoot in those seemingly chaste households, each harboring incipient cultural terrorists. The Lewinsky scandal demonstrated that public opinion about monogamy and adultery had changed, even if husbands and wives weren't sharing their thoughts on the subject.

But Nichols maintains an Updikean sensibility about urban and urbane sexuality that seems at odds with his intentions. Closer feels so suburban and middle class; there's no pretense of sophistication or detachment. Every character makes immediate connections and longs to possess that person. The very notion of requited love in a film meant to be about calculating casanovas and damsels in distress struck me as quaint. But perhaps for Nichols, it's time to apply nostalgic lacquer to the stripped furniture of his former glory, and remake all the world as Shillington.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Criminal Elegance: Luchino Visconti

I hope to wend my way through this genteel Marxist's work beginning with Ossessione and continue through his often epic work. Inspired by the recent Criterion release of Le Notti Bianche, I've decided to pursue a director whose work has eluded me aesthetically since I became aware of him and had time to fashion some sense of Neorealism and its tenets and obligations. I might've chosen Rossellini, but there's so little available on DVD and too little to be comprehensive on VHS. That said, barring further distraction I hope to begin sometime on Saturday - full disclosure: Infernal Affairs got my attention; Mysterious Skin was handed to me by a coworker; and 2046 probably won't remain in Philadelphia much past next week. It's my belief that Visconti may be the most often cited, yet least seen director of his generation of Italian filmmakers.

Welles complicates things a bit next Monday, when Citizen Kane screens at International House.
Be it resolved: Le Notti Bianche will be returned today and exchanged for La Terra Trema, which I've rented several times and never watched. I must mention in passing that I've seen several of these films on the in-store monitors, including Trema and Senso.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Truth and Coincidences

The Village Voice clues in all the lucky New Yorkers here, here, here and here.

Whither Philadelphia? It seems like things will be o.k. to good this year, which for Philadelphians means that it'll be very busy this fall. Curiously, Liev Schreiber's adaptation of Everything Is Illuminated looks captivating, but I say that with reservations; the cult of the "small movie" fan has been manipulated so frequently and with such sophistication that discerning an underdog approaches the complexity of hermeneutics.

As an aside, which film journals/magazines are worth reading? The only magazine I read monthly without fail is The Wire, a snooty music rag for cynics, hermits and weirdos. I also am always sure to pick up Ugly Things, which is much the same albeit for a different subset of cynics, hermits and weirdos. Thanks.