Sunday, July 27, 2008

"Minor" Welles

Whether in front of or behind the camera, Orson Welles was commanding screen presence. He had a voice that carried words softly but authoritatively, and his on-screen portraits have given cinema some of its finest and most memorable images. Anyone who has seen Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) will not ever likely forget his face when he first appears in the film enveloped in shadow. Even his mouth, as the focus of a single short close-up in Citizen Kane (1941), will be long-remembered as that which uttered the impassioned whisper, "Rosebud!" These images and countless others have cemented themselves in the minds of cinephiles and film historians.

As a director, Welles is perhaps even more respected. He famously made several critical darlings in film history and is also remembered as one of the first filmmakers to dare to take on Shakespeare. Aside from his individual film by film achievements, he is rightly considered on of cinema's best craftspersons and artists. Welles brought unparalleled aesthetic quality to "high art" material like Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), but also potboiler pulp such as in the brilliant Touch of Evil (1958). Many of these films I have seen long ago. I often revisit them in my memory as well as occasionally on-screen. However, I should admit that my place in the world of Welles (regrettably) hasn't extended beyond these films. Before the cinephile police come and arrest me, I should note that I have dutifully excavated films like Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil in multiple viewings. And on these occasions, I have discovered and learned more with each subsequent viewing regularly uncover in each of them, relishing Welles' ability to stretch the reach of cinema's aesthetic potential. Welles has a fascination with storytelling, but his occupation in the film canon has more to with how subtly and eruditely he engages narrative and aesthetics with each other.

Having thoroughly dissected just a few of the director's films and altogether not seeing a majority of others, my critical vantage point into Welles and his work is characterized by both expertise and estrangement. I become more aware of this unique position when I step outside the familiar trappings of the "core" Welles films I've seen over and over again. Seeing other films in Welles' filmography is as disorienting as it is familiar, and on the few times I've ventured to do it has resulted in new cinematic discoveries, not just in the films themselves but in gaining new angles on the increasingly problematic yet necessary concept of auteurism and aesthetic reflexivity.

Recently, I watched one of Welles' supposedly "minor" works, The Lady From Shanghai (1948). I was not surprised to find out that it was yet another intriguing exercise in Welles' career-long inquiry into the potential of the moving image. But how the film does this is especially significant, particularly from my Kane / Evil-tilted understanding of Welles. Throughout the film's short running time, I drew a number of comparisons to Touch of Evil in its experimentation with undertones of film noir, even though The Lady From Shanghai is tonally very different. Nevertheless, there are traces of the gritty noir realm he constructed for the former film. As it is, The Lady From Shanghai will likely not be remembered with the same loving embrace as Touch of Evil because it lacks thematic consistency. It is both playful and brooding, and it never locates a balanced stroke of either. A 90-minute tale of ambiguity, murder, and class divides, The Lady From Shanghai converges a variety of narrative and stylistic approaches common to Welles. But these elements are streamlined so smoothly that it's treasures may glide right past you on first viewing.

Welles plays Mike O'Hara, an admittedly naive Irishmen who falls for the Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth, with a rare updo), wife of a rich man, Arthur Bannister. O'Hara is invited on a yachting cruise with the Brittons, where finds himself caught in a web of lies and deceit surrounding a murder plot that goes horribly wrong. Standard murder drama stuff, to be sure. But Welles spins it so deliriously and seemingly effortlessly and still manages to squeeze out so many genuine moments and keen commentaries that one can't single out individual moments to describe the compositional beauty and the perfect fusion of movement and storytelling.

No doubt The Lady From Shanghai initially comes across is a distinctly enjoyable film, but it appears to only achieve greatness in moments, most notably in the hall of mirrors climax, where Welles delights in the deconstruction and reconstruction of images. He multiplies them, overlays them, and runs them through our minds in twisted fashion. The wonder of the scene, however, is that he finds a poetry in the hyper-motion; it's the kind of surrealistic fusion that makes sense only in the motion of the figures on screen.

However, with scenes like the funhouse exuding bold explosions of style, the film's small treasures can be easily overlooked. In the seamless setup and execution of narrative, Welles' visual allusions are aplenty and aided greatly by his uncanny eye for compositional detail and fluidity, i.e. foregrounding and lighting techniques that are both straightforward and densely rich. A fine example of this narrative-stylistic synthesis is the scene in which O'Hara (Welles) and Mr. Grisby (Glenn Anders) walk along the cliffs of the ocean line discussing how they will fake Grisby's murder. While keeping his actors foregrounded in the shots, Welles never allows the ocean to leave the background. He creates such a distance between the actors and the crashing ocean water behind and below them. These shots are spatially uneasiness, as we can never quite make sense of the surroundings as O'Hara and Grisby make their way down to a particular point on one cliff's edge with the conservation becoming more strange is it evolves. The tension is dually heightened, but not for reasons unknown. It's an intangible discomfort, one that doesn't become evident until the last shot of the sequence, when Brisby abruptly "falls out" of the shot, inducing a feeling of vertigo as the scene culminates in a cryptic, sudden abruption. We know Grisby hasn't fallen, but the simple stagings and framings create a strange spatial orientiation.

These are only a few examples of the film's breezy mastery of style. The Lady From Shanghai is fully of these little moments, from a humorous courtroom scene to its yachting travelogue through many luxurious locales. Part of what makes it so special is that it downplays its dramatic aspirations and demonstrates the versatility of visual storytelling. Welles' seems to be indulging in a bit of fun with the film, but in doing so he hones in on the great pleasure of storytelling and simply watching images. For every bit of deliberate formal detail there are so many naturalistic tones breaking through the formalism, giving them a sense of weightless playfulness that only highlights the film's formal strengths, however sporadic or straight-ahead they are. All of these components come together so easily to enliven deceptively simple story about (conveniently enough) the physical and emotional pains of simple deception.

The Lady From Shanghai will likely always be pigeon-holed as nothing more than a pleasurable diversion, and that fact all the more elucidates the intangible simplicity that makes this film such an important one in Welles' oeuvre. It also highlights the strengths and weaknesses of auteurist criticism. Were it made by any other director its many treasures would be reaped by more viewers. I fear that if I had seen the film after watching more of his movies, I would not appreciate its virtues in quite the same way. Where I go with Welles from here I do not know, and that's something I'm happy to admit.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Spirituality through narrative: Hellboy II—The Golden Army

With some seven feature films under his belt, Guillermo del Toro's filmmaking resume is beginning to take shape. Whether you mostly love his films (like I do) or are kept at a distance by his strange preoccupations and sometimes sluggish storytelling, del Toro's growing body of work is among the more noteworthy achievements in contemporary studio filmmaking. Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which opened over the weekend, is his latest. It's a worthy sequel, an exceptional comic book movie, and a wonderfully strange funhouse of weird creatures and formal beauty.

Critical responses to the film have been mostly positive, but now that the critics have accepted, even embraced Guillermo del Toro, I have noticed more varied approaches to his films. Hopefully it's the beginning of a dialogue that will only become more interesting and multi-dimensional. For a lively discussion already underway about Guillermo del Toro and his work, check out the comments section Jonathan Pachecho's House review from Friday.

Below are excerpts from my review of the film, which is now up over at The House Next Door:

"While a number of critics are positioning Hellboy II: The Golden Army in relation to director Guillermo del Toro’s forthcoming venture into Middle Earth, the film sits more comfortably as a companion piece to the director’s last film, Pan’s Labyrinth. The 2006 Oscar-winner was not just formally beautiful, but resonated with deeply realized themes of spirituality and the necessity of storytelling. Structurally and aesthetically, del Toro rendered two worlds—fascist Spain and a magical fairy world—that couldn’t thrive, grow, or exist without the other. He carefully denied the viewer the pleasure of escaping into myth or narrative, while also establishing a disjointed “reality,” with persistent intrusions of the fantastic. This was precisely his purpose: to illustrate that these two worlds are mutually constitutive and inseparable from one another.

By contrast, Hellboy II more outwardly revels in its fantasy. It serves up a delicious menu of goblins, trolls, armies, and angels of death, all brought to life with unparalleled vision. But even though del Toro is steadfastly focused on populating his world (which he established in Hellboy II’s 2004 predecessor) with as many odd creatures as his mind can dream up, evident also in the film’s swirling compositions of color and movement is the same commitment to narrative that ran through Pan’s Labyrinth. You may not be overwhelmed by the thinly drawn Shakespearean character dynamics or the predictably action-heavy denouement, but this movie is about the moments in between—the simple, seamless unfolding of narrative energy."


"In Guillermo del Toro’s worldview, storytelling is not about structure, cohesion, or resolution, but about the experience of being in a world, a place, a mind, and feeling it from the inside out. It’s essentially about sensation and encountering magic in the everyday world, where such things are often thought to have no place. Del Toro believes that storytelling is worth fighting for simply because it is the defining element of humanity. We may draw distinctions between reality and fantasy, but del Toro wants to shatter that divide and revel in the pure experience and immediacy of narrative.

The elements of his narrative in Hellboy II may not be real, or even deep for that matter, but del Toro allows them to fill the screen and the imagination, reminding that the fantasy can become real as much as the real can become fantasy. They bleed into each other and inform one another."

For the full review, click here.

Whether or not you have seen the film and have thoughts on it, the career trajectory of Guillermo Del Toro, or anything else, comment away!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The cinematic condition

One of the great projects of criticism and of inquiries into media aesthetics is the philosophical inclination to try to answer the question of what a medium is. But I resist this tendency simply because in defining something, we lose that which we are defining. It becomes just another filled space in a field of language and identification, serving little purpose and holding little meaning outside of that. Having said that, I accept that these practices are inevitable and I engage in them as much as anyone else. Film theorists, for example, are plagued by the question "What is Cinema?" It's a seemingly simple question commonly used as a spring board for philosophical reflection and debate. Yet the problem of thinking this way about media and communication may not be in the discourse to come from asking the question, but in the question itself.

Over at Elusive Lucidity, Zach Campbell asks another question. Instead of focusing on what cinema is, he asks what is cinema for. In other words, what are social, aesthetic, cultural, economic conditions under which images are produced and consumed? I would add that we maybe shouldn't study the act of consumption or production, but of the position of the producer, consumer, and any other individual within this scheme. He problematizes very efficiently the notion of thinking in terms of essences and definitions. For example, he lists off all that cinema is, can be, and in some cases isn't:

"To what all can we equate the cinema? For starters: lost causes, mirror images, failures, dream-food, a drug, a certain form of reality, lèse majesté, toadying, bullying, pleading, pornography, a captured sequence of sounds/images that may give a reasonably identical experience to the viewer over multiple viewings, a substitute for action, a displacement of life, a patriarchal funhouse, today's Grand Guignol, faith, celluloid, maybe pixels, beginnings and ends, a two-lane blacktop."

I do recommend visiting Zach's site to read his reflections, which are far more compact and (dare I say) lucid than my own.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Disney's anti-consumerist message?

I visit Cinematical almost daily. When it comes to film news and updates, it's one of the more accessible and informative sites. It is not, however, the place I go to be enriched. That's not a knock of the site, but more an observation on the kind of site that it is. Every now and then I've read a few interesting features / articles on a certain film, director, or trend. But when it comes to dialogues and polls, I usually go elsewhere. Having said that, I was surprised to see that a recent "Fan Rant" (written by Eugene Novikov, author of Film Blather, one of the best web sites for intelligent, well-written reviews) dealt with some real ethical and economical heft, regarding Disney's new film, Wall-E, still unseen by me. Eugene looked past the environmental politics of the film and went directly to its depiction of the future of the human race -- as a fat, lazy people who blindly adhere to a singular corporate superstructure. That the movie depicts such things raises a number of issues regarding the potential hypocrisy of Disney, one of the most profitable and influential corporate organizations in the world.

I vividly recall a conversation I had about a year ago over sociocultural affairs (which is not as complex as the term perhaps suggests), in which I was asked why Philip Morris once ran an anti-smoking campaign. In a linear business model, it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to form a campaign against your major source of revenue. The answer, of course, is complicated. I'm no expert on matters of commerce and economy, but I would guess it's for the same reason that Wal-Mart plugs its affordable prices when the company does more to deny millions of people the most basic things. This anomaly is constitutive of contemporary western culture, if there is such a thing. Consumerist organizations can say one thing and do another, keeping consumers focused on the content of their message rather than the processes by which that message is produced.

Rarely is this phenomenon forefronted in critical commentaries on movies; only in the cases of overt trends. For example, environmental politics have entered mainstream filmmaking, with documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth (2006), and fiction films posing eco-apocalyptic scenarios such as The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and The Happening (2008). Conservative pundits have used these films as examples to "prove" that Hollywood is a liberal base that routinely forces left-wing propaganda onto the masses. The conversation almost never extends beyond this message-driven discourse. However, when we consider the larger terrain on which these messages are constructed and consumed, it's not so easy to construct these convenient associations. If we're going to look at this issue from the standpoint of political economy, it is on the ground of capitalism that all global, ecological, and cultural politics are decided, and what's better than the commercial institution of movies to examine these sociocultural and economic trends?

Novikov's piece poses some relevant questions about the economic and the political, as they relate to the artistic. For most commentators, the artistic (narrative) is interchangeable with the economic (commerce), so when a film is selling a certain message, the distributor (Disney) endorses that message. For decades, Hollywood has reigned supreme as a symbol of commerce, vanity, and commodification, perhaps less so when studios were owned by families than in the last 40 years, when corporate powers bought out Hollywood. If we're to use this model, than Hollywood has essentially swindled everyone by selling a message of individualism and anti-corporate affairs, all the while stripping viewers of that individuality. Although corporate control is something that's rarely dealt with so outwardly, especially by Disney, it's misleading to think that it's absent from Hollywood filmmaking. Social relations of power have been the focus of a great many novels and works of literature, so of course it has bled into the classically-inspired narratives of Hollywood. Any story prizing uniqueness, standing up to The Man, or bureaucracy, or what have you, is in some way addressing the struggle of power and social control. Considering these are central tenants of most all of Disney's narratives, one could surmise that Disney is and always has been a institution of hypocrisy. Therefore, it's hard not to wonder how earnest the company is in its messages, not just in films overtly depicting corporate control, but all of its films. While we're leveling Disney, we may as well be consistent and extend this scrutiny to all major studio films. Only then will we realize that these methods of inquiry only reproduce the values and assumptions that get us into these conflicts at all.

The real question here is not whether Disney is being hypocritical. Asking this assumes an interchangeable relationship between the narrative and the commercial interests lead to that narrative being constructed and consumed. Mediated discourse is not simply a matter of sender - message - receiver. The issue here has to do with the processes of consumption and the production of representation. In a political economy model, the question of art is almost irrelevant, since art is just another part of the economy. Capitalism absorbs everything, even the anti-capitalistic. In this sense, everything is commodity.

Denying the importance of political economy would be foolish, but having said that I don't embrace political economy as the be-all-end-all when it comes to the relationship of art and capital. Thinking only in its terms will have us running in circles. Whether Disney is luring us into complacency on messages of individuality and autonomy while drilling consumer conformity into its viewers, or it really is trying to bring about change in consumer culture is probably not the point. Worth looking at here is the ideological associations we make regarding art, capital, economy, and politics; and, moreover, the relationship between them.

For some, there is a distinct divide between art and commerce. For these individuals, film can never really be a form of art. But the distinction may be the problem; for art cannot function as such unless it is situated within a consumer economy. That may not have been the case at a certain time, but is now especially so. The question of whether it's a hypocrisy seems to hinge on one's own involvement in --or perspective of-- the spectrum of political economy, which would then influence how one conceives of artistic worth. These are ideologically loaded problems, but examining them in a reflexive manner would go a long way toward understanding various perceptions of these broad terms such as art, economy, and politics, and their interrelations.

I definitely don't have the answers to these questions. I would only stress that film commentators, critics, and lovers ask these questions of art and commerce, however broad or vague these terms may be. We need to clarify these concepts, give weight to what we mean when we employ them, and articulate them more explicitly as we think about their significance in the artistic, political, and economic realm that is movies. Certainly, movies cannot be reduced to or contained by broad concepts such as "art" or "commerce" or any other term meant to quantify them within a cultural sphere of representation and signification. Movies are both commercial and artistic. They are also social, political, and cultural. As a larger practice of production and consumption, movies are an "industrial art," to quote Gilles Deleuze. For that very reason they are relevant, interesting, and significant as a form of cultural practice in an age of mechanical and digital production and reproduction. We may not be able to conceptualize movies beyond the i.e. social, political, artistic, economic properties and relations that constitute their practice. But maybe we can sharpen our understanding of (and engagement in) movies within those very relations. We need only articulate them.