Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Crazy Horse

CRAZY HORSE                       B                   
USA  France  (134 mi)  2011  d:  Frederick Wiseman

Wiseman seems to have altered his documentary style somewhat, discarding the long, overall view for something smaller and relatively compact, dispensing with the long takes, offering several quick cuts even within 10 seconds, which is something we would never have seen earlier in his career.  After all the dreary and social unpleasantness Wiseman and his camera crew have unearthed for decades, revealing social realism through unedited cinema, perhaps now in his early 80’s, having allegedly shot more than 7 million feet of film in his career, it’s about time he retreats into the claustrophobic confines of the fairer sex.  One could think of worse projects than being stuck for perhaps months at a time behind the scenes of the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris, known for offering the most sophisticated female nude review anywhere in the world.  Anyone who’s sat through BALLET (1995) or LA DANSE-LE BALLET DE L’OPERA DE PARIS (2009), using a style that shuns narration, emphasizing subject over individuality, knows Wiseman creates a rather hypnotic approach at studying the endless rehearsals and constant behind-the scenes-persuasion to present the cultural refinement and artistic beauty of ballet onstage, where his patience pays off in the end, as one can only marvel at the finished product, where dance sequences (including rehearsals) will be shown in their entirety, often ravishingly beautiful.  This is much different, chopped up into pieces like more mainstream documentaries, lacking much of the personal intimacy of his best work.  Nonetheless, even without his signature shot, as not one dance number is seen from start to finish, Wiseman does capture the flavor of the nightclub, founded in 1951 by Alain Bernardin, a sort of French Hugh Hefner of the erotic fantasy review business, as he originated the stylish, high art presentation, but committed suicide in 1994 at the age of 78, using a shotgun in his backstage office (not revealed in the film, as it’s something they apparently don’t like to talk about).  In this business, one doesn’t grow old gracefully.   

It’s fair to say that this erotic review features first and foremost the woman’s derrière, fixating on it as if the many forms it takes is the most resplendent example of the feminine form, the most visually enticing and sexually alluring, where the pronounced curve is nothing less than an art form and God’s gift to mankind.  No busty women here, as this is nothing like a stripper joint, instead each woman is carefully chosen for her athletic ability to move gracefully onstage and for having what one calls the money shot, the perfect posterior.  While the women are occasionally completely naked onstage, more often they wear G-strings or scant costumes where the tits and ass remain fully exposed, where one carefully choreographed dance called “Teasing” is completely dedicated to the wonders of the bare derrière.  But Wiseman’s discreet edits never allow it to become too sexy, as it would most likely be if seen in the club itself, where every table is seen with a champagne bottle placed in a bucket of ice along with two glasses.  While the glitz and glamor of the kaleidoscopic live acts are a colorful onstage spectacle, where we’re able to see short sequences, the more intriguing shots are the girls in rehearsal, still barely clothed, but without any costumes, wigs, and makeup, where they’re more relaxed and each girl has an identifiable charm and personality.  Without any narration, we never learn the identities of any of the dancers, as none are interviewed, and all perform several ensemble pieces where there’s uniformity in costume, where no individual star gets their name up on the marquee.  Even backstage where women are seen doing last minute costume or make up changes, few individuals stand out, so the way it's presented, it's all about product.  Wiseman adds just a touch of Paris, adding a few scenic outdoor shots of boats motoring down the Seine River or a few outdoor street café’s.

Behind the scenes at management meetings, however, it’s a continual jostling match, where despite the obvious talent of all involved, it’s a dysfunctional family relationship, where it’s a wonder anything ever makes it successfully to the stage.  The artistic director Philippe Decouffé, who choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, seen as a Bob Fosse style relentless perfectionist and workaholic, pleads at length for time to break in and prepare new material, but the club operations manager, Andrée Deissenberg, insists there is no other option as the shareholders refuse to allow any break in the current onstage productions.  This forces Decouffé and the dancers to invent, rehearse, and stage all new material during existing working hours, as the show must go on.  The sad truth is management simply doesn’t care, where “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is their working business model.  So long as there are beautiful girls dancing naked onstage, they’re giving the public what they want.  What do they care if the costumes are worn, if a dancer misses a step, or if the lights are off cue?  Ironically, Decouffé and Deissenberg have a history, as both worked together at the Cirque du Soleil before coming to the Crazy Horse.  It’s a battle of egos, as the costume designer can’t keep up with the new numbers, as Decouffé’s imagination simply runs away with him, where he’s continually adding new elements into existing works to keep the show fresh and alive.  The club does give Decouffé something of an alter ego in the form of Ali Mahdavi, a man he obviously loathes, an artistic consultant brought in to modernize the look of the routines, a guy who hogs the spotlight in front of Decouffé and the cameras every chance he gets, namedropping Fellini and Fassbinder to the international press as he exaggeratingly explains that working for the Crazy Horse is the highest pinnacle in art.  There is no mention of the shelf life in the career of a nude dancer, as none appear to be out of their 20’s, and at the tryouts, where interestingly a male transsexual auditions, plenty of even younger girls fit the bill looking to showcase their physiques for the future. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

White Nights (La Niotti Bianche)

WHITE NIGHTS (La Niotti Bianche)     A-                 
Italy  France  (97 mi)  1957  d:  Luchino Visconti

1957 is a significant year in world cinema, as it is uniquely connected to historical events, coming one year after the spirited idealism of the Hungarian student uprising of 1956 was crushed by an invasion of Soviet tanks mowing down dissidents in the streets of Budapest, also one year after the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party where Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a speech denouncing Stalin and the Stalinist purges as well as the gulag labor systems, leading to the Russian release of THE CRANES ARE FLYING (1957), the first film after the death of Stalin to put a human face in Russian films, which went on to win the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1958.  What’s unique about this era is a political thaw, an opening of doors previously closed, where art could once again flourish and express itself freely and openly without having to follow the dictates of a heavy handed, State-controlled social realist agenda.  This also led to a changing style in Italian cinema, where the post-war Neo-Realist movement softened its grip, allowing greater freedoms onscreen than ever before, which led to Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957), featuring the incomparable Giuletta Masina, which arguably stands up to anything Fellini ever created in his lifetime, and also this film by Luchino Visconti, which couldn’t be more unlike his earlier works, moving from naturalistic, on-site locations into a completely artificially constructed world inside the Cinecittà studios, much of it set in a dreamlike layer of fog, beautifully illuminated by street lamps.  The set design of this film is hugely imaginative, transporting Dostoevsky’s short story White Nights from the closely observed detail of St. Petersburg to an Italian city of bridges and canals, loosely based on the city of Livorno.  Bresson remade this film in Paris as Four Nights of a Dreamer (Quatre nuits d'un rêveur... (1971), and what the two versions have in common is a beautifully idealized construction of a utopian vision, something rarely seen in cinema. 

Opening pensively with the enchanting Nino Rota theme heard here Nino Rota - Le Notti Bianche (1957) on YouTube (2:48), Marcello Mastroianni as Mario finds himself alone on the city streets at night after spending a pleasant but uneventful afternoon in the country with his boss and extended family.  A recent transplant to the city, he knows no one, so he takes in the rhythm and atmosphere of the streets around him, where a realist element continues to exist in the way the walls are crumbling and the paint peeling, with piles of garbage swept off to the side of the street where he unsuccessfully attempts to make friends with a stray dog.  What catches his eye is a woman standing alone on a bridge trying to hide her tears, German-Austrian actress Maria Schell, who he immediately befriends.  But despite his polite manner, she quickly runs away, evading his every advance, but eventually relents and agrees to meet him on the bridge the next night.  While it should be noted that there was always an unreconciled tension between the socialist agenda of neorealism and the operatic theatricality of Visconti, who after all, filmed three versions of Verdi’s La Traviata in his lifetime, it is also often said he is one of the greatest directors of women, including Clara Calamai in OBSESSIONE (1943), Anna Magnani in BELLISSIMA (1951), Alida Valli in SENSO (1954), Annie Girardot in ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (1960), but also Ms. Schell as Natalia in this film.  In each case, these females use men for sport and wreak their havoc with a psychic force men can neither resist nor overcome.  Natalia is a perfect example, though some might find her performance overly simple and childish, living at home, never leaving the side of her blind grandmother, she is the picture of innocence and naïveté, yet when the floodgates of emotions are released, she is a force of nature, revealing a hidden dimension of love held in reserve for a lodger (Jean Marais) in her grandmother’s house that she met and fell in love with a year ago, briefly seen through flashbacks, but he had to abruptly leave, agreeing to meet her on the bridge in exactly one year.  Finding this story fairy tale-like and delusional, Mario can’t help but suspend his disbelief if only to comfort her, as she is in considerable pain at the thought he won’t show up.

Over the course of four nights, they meet on the bridge, where by the last night, Mario is tired of being sucked into her continuing melodrama.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, Natalia lives in constant hope, believing with the purity of a child, where to dispel her notion is simply cruel and unethical, leaving Mario no choice but to play along.  What’s especially interesting is to see how Dostoevsky’s story of a hopelessly adrift male dreamer attaches himself to an even more innocent girl, whose own dreamlife simply overwhelms his, where Visconti shows Mario grounded by the poverty of his economcis, as he’s so regrettably poor, awakening in his pitiful room every morning to the gossip and chatter of his intrusive landlady, who has a way of getting into everybody’s business, where there is nothing remotely evident of a private thought.  With Natalia, however, hearing her hold fast to her illusions has an almost calming and tranquil effect, as it takes the dreariness out of his own miserable life.  By the final night, however, Mario is convinced their own love can work, little by little building up his courage in admitting how he feels, which is perfectly expressed in a dance sequence where he starts out confessing his shyness, knowing nothing about dance, remaining coy until another man shows an interest in his girl, where he suddenly lights up the room in an outrageously intoxicating sequence set to the music of “Thirteen Women” by Bill Haley and the Comets seen here:  Le Notti Bianche on YouTube (6:08).  This sets into play a deliciously romantic set of sequences where Mario confesses his love, where his heart literally opens up in such a delightfully natural fashion, where Mastroianni is nothing less than divine in the role.  As the snow begins to fall, so beautifully captured by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, it’s as if their storybook lives have an enchanted touch of grace after all, adding a poetic layer of innocence to their lives, which is suddenly bright and new, reversing courses suddenly, evolving into sheer ecstasy and exaltation on the part of Natalia, who rushes off at the sight of her lost love waiting for her on the bridge, leaving Mario heartsick and utterly devastated, all but crushing his spirit, as if the air suddenly rushes out of his lungs, finding himself once again alone in the world, even more isolated than before.       

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un curé de campagne)

DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (Journal d'un curé de campagne)        A
France  (110 mi)  1951  d:  Robert Bresson

Easily the most personal film in Bresson’s lifetime, a deeply Catholic experience that comes closest to defining his mortal soul.  This is the film that set the tone for Bresson films to follow, all dealing with grace and redemption, spare, minimalist, no excess emotion, without a single shot that is not needed, carefully creating a visual sphere of what it is to be human, recreating mechanical gestures, physical movements, parts of the body, like hands and feet, using a voiceover narration that reads what the audience sees written into a Priest’s diary (in Bresson’s own hand, by the way), adapting a novel written by Catholic author Georges Bernanos, who also wrote Mouchette (1967), perhaps approaching the concept of God’s grace from opposite directions.  Non-professional actor Claude Laydu, a devout Catholic who spent several months fasting and living among priests prior to the film, is excellent as the frail young country Priest who feels irrelevant to the surrounding rural community that all but ignores him.  Eating little more than stale bread mixed with wine due to a painful stomach condition, he struggles to fight against his own physical and human limitations throughout the entire film, where he approaches each person from the position of goodness, love, and God’s grace, person to person, soul to soul, never proselytizing or reading scripture, never defending his own actions, but taking the unpopular view that we can all grow closer to God in the way we lead our lives, something mocked and scoffed at as irrelevant and naïve by most, yet he persists, never gaining the upper hand, but matching the cynicism of the local community that feel church only exists for marriages, funerals and Sunday services.  The Priest, on the other hand, sees every living moment as a conversation between heaven and earth, where humans can only persevere to lead better lives and become more devout believers.  

Of interest, there is a musical score by Jean-Jacques Grunenwald that plays throughout, though never interfering or rising at climactic moments, also several of the central characters had professional film careers, including Nicole Maurey as Miss Louise, the only one to attend mass every day, but also the mistress of the richest and most influential man in town, the Count (Jean Riveyre) and his wife the Countess (Rachel Bérendt), whose spoiled and manipulative daughter Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral) generates much of the action by feigning thoughts of suicide (Ladmiral committed suicide in real life 7 years later) in order to prompt the young Priest’s urgent involvement in her unhappy family life, taking advantage of his inexperience and naïveté, but he soon finds himself wallowing in turbulent waters, especially facing the unruffled pillars of high society in the well educated and placidly confident Countess who has little use for the Priest’s ideas, finding him childish and out of place, but politely tolerates his presence in her home, all leading to one particular moment in the film, a transcendent moment that is excruciatingly intense, where the core of a man's beliefs are challenged, even shattered momentarily, but where the Priest exercises his free will as a man in the hands of God, acting on his own terms in accordance with spiritual values, not those of the local church and social hierarchy, but surprisingly persuasive nonetheless in order to ascend to a place reached by no one else in the film, and certainly no one else we know in our own lives. This character's struggle can’t help but guide our own actions, which is the effect of the film, turning this socially isolated and personally anguished individual into a modern day saint, where leading by example brings us closer to a state of grace.   

As it happens in small towns, the Priest’s presence becomes fodder for gossip and scandal, where the Count and his bratty daughter start vicious rumors about having him removed for needlessly interfering in his family affairs, whose own scandalous behavior, of course, is wiped under the rug in an attempt to divert attention away from his own public scrutiny.  An elderly Priest (Adrien Borel) is brought in to consult with the young priest, finding no fault in his scrupulous methods, understanding that Priests are not expected to be liked, but feared and respected through the implementation of rigid discipline and authority, reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov where the church would no longer recognize the humble origins of a human Christ even if He should return, having converted Him into eternal perfection incapable of human flaws.  But this young Priest has no use for implementing a fictitious or condescending order in the universe that he doesn’t believe in himself, instead finding each day such a painful struggle that he has his own personal difficulties praying, feeling himself unworthy.  This struggle takes an interesting turn by the end, where the Priest gets a taste of his own mortality, growing weak and delirious from his illness, having visions blend into real life that can only exist in a Bresson film, where he remains the picture of innocence throughout, guided perhaps by the purity of youth, the uncorrupted souls, where he continually walks among them to become an illuminating light.  There’s a wonderful image of the Priest riding on the back of a young man’s motorcycle that nearly brings a smile to his face, another image of liberation and transcendence.  While the Priest is completely unassuming, there are prevalent images of iron gates, as if a human life is imprisoned in pride and arrogance while on earth unless adopting a spiritual transformation of forgiveness and love, learning to love even one’s enemies, lessening the weight on each human soul that has its own baggage to carry.  There are Christ-like references throughout, a profoundly contemplative work where pain and suffering may be the conduit that drives us closer to the Divine.  One of the great religious works, rivaling Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928), one that turns questions of the everlasting into an everyday, ordinary experience.     

Lancelot du Lac

LANCELOT DU LAC            B+                  
aka:  Lancelot of the Lake
France  Italy  (85 mi)  1974  d:  Robert Bresson

One of the unique works of Robert Bresson, bringing to life the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, where the film opens with the staggering failure of the Knights to find the Holy Grail, returning empty handed after a two year search, demoralized by their leaders killed or missing and their troops decimated.  This defeatist Shakespearean gloom has a Macbethian fatalistic tone, where much of the film is shot in barely seen darkness, where the predominate sounds lingering in the air are Knights clanking around in their armor along with the everpresent sound of horse’s hooves, while the sound of an offsceen whinny is probably used about a hundred times, like a train whistle in A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à Mort s'est échappé) (1956).  Lancelot (Luc Simon), the Queen’s Knight, blames himself, thinking his illicit romance with the young Queen (Laura Duke Condominas, looking about age 15) may have aroused the wrath of God and damnation to his beloved Knights, vowing to end their unholy alliance upon his return, a vow he has difficulty keeping.  Making matters worse, the King is anguished about what to do, keeping the men languishing in a state of limbo where resentments fester, specifically Lancelot at Mordred (Patrick Bernhard) for refusing to join the quest for the Grail, thinking him cowardly, while Mordred spreads rumors of Lancelot’s dalliance with the Queen, rallying many of the others against Lancelot, putting the King in an awkward position.  In the spirit of brotherhood, Lancelot offers his hand of friendship to Mordred, but he refuses, which sets the stage for the rest of the picture, as the atmosphere is poisoned. 

After the powerful opening of death lurking everywhere in the forest, Bresson returns to his minimalist style, using massive doses of understatement, detachment from non-professional actors using non-expressive dialog, a rhythm of repetitive images, like the constant presence of Knights in their armor, Lancelot secretly meeting with the Queen, horses being led back and forth behind the scenes while Knights continually arrive by horseback, often with news to report, where Bresson often chooses to shoot only the feet, showing only the bare minimum while still expressing the essence of the story.  This is perfectly expressed at a tournament, a display of the Knight’s bravery, including a jousting tournament where Knights on horseback use a long spear to knock a fellow Knight off his horse.  Backed by Gauvain (Humbert Balsan), Lancelot is urged to retaliate against Mordred, as his honor has been challenged, but Lancelot thinks otherwise, thinking courage is displayed at the appropriate moments, not needlessly, and actually backs out of the tournament.  But when an unknown, helmeted Knight with his visor down continually displays valor in the jousting tournament, knocking off one man after another, word is spread that this could only be Lancelot.  The tournament itself is almost completely shown offscreen, where only the thud of a Knight landing on the ground is heard followed by the roar of the crowd.  In this manner, Bresson’s comment on heroicism is not the act itself, but the reverberations spreading throughout the community of the noble hero, where the resulting mythology is larger than life.  Bresson also amusingly chooses to focus on the hooves of the horses, where often the rider can’t even be seen, instead the suspense is elevated from the relentless montage of repetition, the dropping of the spear after each round, the replacement of a new spear, the turning of the horse in ready position, the acceleration of the horse, the rumbling of the hooves, and the violent sound of the impact of the spear on the shield, resulting in a man falling off his horse as a flag is raised and the sound of bagpipes announces the next round. 

While there are continual hints of Mordred secretly waylaying Lancelot by hiding behind doors or curtains, the themes of honor and bravery are continually disgraced with the threat of resurrection in the air.  When Lancelot disappears following the tournament, Mordred spreads the rumor that he is dead, and that the Queen needs to choose a new protective Knight, which only leads to more bickering and backstabbing.  Bresson turns the era of chivalry on its ear, where the peace abiding brotherhood offered by Lancelot is seen as a weakness to be used against him, where there’s a continual jostling behind the scenes for more favoritism by the King and Queen along with a ruthless hunt for power.  This contrasts beautifully with the young age of the Queen, whose purity and innocence is under question, tainted and soiled by the vicious rumors spreading throughout the castle, where to dishonor her is to render her protector and savior powerless in the eyes of others, as it dispels the notion of mythological heroicism.  By failing to take decisive action, Lancelot allows the poison to fester, weakening his status in the eyes of others, even after the heroic display of valor in the jousting tournament.  Love of the King and the Queen and for his fellow Knights, rather than the transcendent source of power, is ultimately his weakness and his undoing.  He may be the mightiest and the strongest, but he is not immortal, like the mythological gods.  This humanness is what interests Bresson, as the flaws and imperfection of men have a way of overshadowing their strength and valor, undermining the essence of what constitutes courage and bravery.  In Bresson’s eyes, this lofty idea of chivalry is dead, suggesting it dies with the death of every man.  Not only does the man die, but so do all the noble ideas and values he stands for, dying out generation by generation, where only the myth of gallantry remains.  Bresson interestingly chooses to use the percussive roll of the drumbeat, as he did in The Trial of Joan of Arc (Procès de Jeanne d'Arc) (1962), which punctuates the military ritual along with the devastating impact of finality, not to mention rampant killing in the name of God.