Saturday, June 23, 2012

Beauty in Jane Campion's Bright Star

A thing of beauty is a joy forever

This is one of John Keat's most famous lines, at the beginning of his first epic poem.  And it expresses Keats' obsession with beauty, with an ideal of romance that is pristine, perfect, untouchable and eternal.  It is steadfast, allowing no diminishment, no fault, and no limit.  And it is this perfect ideal that most troubled me about Keats.

I read Keats in school, along with many other great poets.  And I cannot find a single blemish in Keats' wordsmithing, yet compared to others of his ilk--  such as Donne, Pope, and Shakespeare-- Keats seemed conceptually shallow.  Keats is the finest champion of beauty and the romantic ideal, and yet those in and of themselves, I have always found lacking.

Keats, bemused at my complaint
A thing of beauty is NOT a joy forever.  In the real world, beauty is sullied, trampled, eroticised, cheapened.  Beauty is limited to a beholder's eyes and when those eyes die, so does the beauty.  Human beauty changes and fades and while a beauty may be replaced with a new beauty, should it not be ruined by disuse, yet the old beauty, the original beauty is gone forever.  A romantic love cannot last, but must change.  Those who require romance to abide eternally are eternally doomed, for romance is fated to fade.

Is "beauty, truth and truth, beauty"?  Perhaps so, for no one can even agree on what these two terms refer to.  But beauty is even more intangible, more ethereal than truth.  Truth can be a rock to build upon, even if one's truth is not the same as another's.  But what can be build upon beauty?  Beauty, on its own, without the rock of truth, is a phantom, giving the semblance of reality but never the substance.

These have been my problems with Keats from the time I was a teen, and yet Keats seemed to remain perpetually hopeful, perpetually unsullied, forever the youth.  And that is the promise of dying young.  Keats can always be the champion of beauty and romance, because for him, it never became complicated with jealousy or a baby screaming in the night.  Keats is always the perfect lover, the perfect poet.  Death does that.

So I avoided Bright Star, the film by Jane Campion about Keats' deep and unconsummated romance with Fanny Brawn, because I figured it would have the limitations of Keats. (But a friend forced me to watch it.)  And so it does.  It celebrates him as the knight of romance, completely chaste, eternally faithful, speaking praise of beauty and demonstrating it perfectly in his relationship of his one true love, Fanny Brawn.  And yet, in this context, in cinema, Keats is fleshed out and the very beauty with which he sees the world is perfectly realized.

Every frame is ideal.  It is as if Jane Campion determined to make each scene its own romantic poem.  The true essence of love is celebrated.  Although the events are all historical and well-researched, yet between the poet, the writer and the director we are not just given a bio pic, but a distillation of perfect love.

And one cannot say that it is unsullied by life, for real life has its sway in this film, especially by that which warps the most: sickness and death.  Yet here, in this film, sickness does not limit love, but initiate it.  Sickness does not extinguish love, but provide the obstacle that demonstrates loves power.  And here, love is truly stronger than death, and love is found perfect because life can hold it no longer.  Bright Star is not just a film, it is the frame within which Keats is completed.  In this world, all Keats said is true and we can see, if only for a singular moment how beauty and truth may be perfectly entwined.

Beauty is not a joy forever.  Unless that beauty is burned and hammered and forged into a poem.  Or into a film.  Because while complete human lives are sticky and juvenile and weak and petty, within a great poem or within a film under a master director, a singular beauty can endure without end.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What Does a Great Director Look Like?

Stanley Kubrick on a good day
What exactly does a director do?  A film can be a massively complex jigsaw puzzle.  There are actors, writers, producers, studio execs, cinematographers, special effects: both physical and digital, sound, music, props, make up, clothing, editing, lighting, catering, cameras, location, assistants, and more and more and more.  The director takes all of these details and works them all toward a (hopefully) coherent whole.   This is an amazing job, one that makes me wonder if it is humanly possible.  Obviously it is, with a lot of help.   What really amazes me are the directors who can produce one (or more!) films a year.  Woody Allen is a workhorse.  Johnny To is a madman.

So being a director is a difficult job, no matter whether you produce an art film, a blockbuster or something in between.   I think to call any director a “hack” isn’t fair.  Every director has a difficult job.  Some are just studio directors, producing whatever the studio told them to make—but even a studio director could be Victor Fleming who directed both The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind the same year.  I don’t think any director is really lazy.  Kevin Smith might come close, but he’s such a good writer that we forgive him.  And besides, Red State wasn’t lazy directing at all.

But what makes a great film director?  What makes a director stand out from the pack?  We know a great director when we see their body of work, but what exactly does a great director do that others do not?  Below are a list of characteristics that I think great directors have:

1. Unique vision
It's a Wonderful Life
First of all a great director has a vision with the film he is creating.  Sometimes the same vision extends to different films, and sometimes a director has a different vision for each film.  Most importantly, each film has something that makes it special, that causes it to stand apart from all other films, and to be a glorious example of filmcraft.  Constantly working directors sometimes have a vision that is clearer in one film than another (everyone has a bad year), but still, a great director’s work stands out.   Frank Capra had a unique vision: that of the everyman changing the world despite opposition, and it made his films stand out in the midst of hordes of everyday films being produced in his time.

2. Theme
Three Colors: Blue
A great director isn’t just telling a fairy tale with a simple plot and a straightforward telling, but she or he has a theme or themes that run throughout the film, adding depth and power to the plot or characters.  Krystof Kieslowski often had simple plots with deep themes that ran through the visuals, the music, the characters and the sometimes odd events that occurred in his films.

3. Communication
Rear Window
A good director often has themes and a unique vision, but he or she might have difficulty communicating this to his audience.  Part of this is knowing who your audience is, but a larger part is using all the complex pieces to make a coherent, never-before-seen whole that makes sense to the audience.  Hitchcock was brilliant at communicating his themes in often unique ways, using details to sometimes obviously and sometimes obliquely communicate his vision and themes.

4. Connection
The Godfather
The final aspect I want to emphasize is that a great director knows how to take all of these film pieces and to connect to his audience.  Not just that he touched them emotionally—a cat video could do that.  Rather, she or he gives his audience a memorable experience.  This director’s film isn’t just communication, it is magic.  He or she can take their work and make it a part of their audience’s life.  Their work becomes a reference point for other experiences, and the film is now a part of real life.  Even though a Mafia family is leagues away from most of our experience, the Corleone family is a part of our cultural heritage, and their unique morals and habits are a part of everyday conversation, to make us understand the rest of our world better.  “Corleone” is even in my Google spell check, for which I am very grateful.

Let's look at some directors who, I believe, are at the top of their game right now:

Howl's Moving Castle
Hayao Miyazaki—Some may say that an animator has less details to worry about.  However, those who understand animation knows that the director’s job is just as difficult to do well.  Miyazaki is a master of writing and direction. Even in his mediocre works (Lupin III; Kiki’s Delivery Service), his approach is fresh and fun.  In his masterpieces (Mononoke, Spirited Away) he is unlike any other director, yet a compelling storyteller.  At times, Miyazaki doesn’t communicate well because his stories are so foreign to us non-Asians.  Nevertheless, he wins most of us over in time because his very unique vision and compelling themes, as well as his characters that we enjoy spending time with.

Barton Fink
The Coen Brothers—I don’t appreciate some of their classic works as much as some (The Big L, Miller’s Crossing), but it doesn’t matter.  The Coens have a unique approach to storytelling, as well as unusual morals.  I have my favorites (A Serious Man, O Brother Where Art Thou, Barton Fink)… but so does everyone, and everyone’s favorites are different.  That’s a great director. Because they are both unique, but they communicate something to (almost) everyone.

Days of Heaven
Terrence Malick—Malick is a great director not just because of his message,  which is interesting, or the manner of his communication, which is unique (although sometimes hard work), but his method of creating film.  He, more than any other, takes the editing stage of filmmaking as a creative process, and by the end of his editing he may have a completely different film than the plan before the editing.  All the filming and the music are less communicating a narrative, but a concept and the film and even the plot are just resources for  him to use as toward the finished product, which isn’t realized until long after filming.  Again, that is a powerful director.

Wendy and Lucy
Kelly Reichardt—I think that Reichardt has the most unique vision of the current group of independent makers of low budget films (Miranda July might come close to that).  The stories are small and quiet, but the emotional resonance is deep and powerful.  She wants you to walk with her characters, to live their lives for a few days, even the silences and the confusion.  In this way, she hopes to teach us compassion and perspective.  I think this is powerful communication that is more than just telling a narrative.  It is throwing us in the deep end and hoping we will learn to swim.

Vera Drake
Mike Leigh—I have spent time with more real people through Mike Leigh than any other filmmaker.  Like Kelly R, Leigh throws us in the deep end of a community’s life and asks us to swim.  But the swimming isn’t deep, and often very pleasant, with only the occasional shark to gnaw on our legs.  He is a powerful filmmaker, the Michael Powell of our generation, always giving us what we don’t expect.  I can’t wait to see another film by him, which is as high a praise a director could get, I suppose.

Michael Haneke—Finally, the man who makes dramas that feel like horror films. He has a singular vision, and he seems to be determined to dismantle society bit by bit.  Everyone seems so normal, so typical, so pleasant until they are not and the underbelly of proper society is revealed.  But he also throws a generous helping of Hitchcock, presenting us with a puzzle or two that we might not ever solve.  Nor do we necessarily have to.  And if we did, we think we might exhaust ourselves.  So Heneke, for his singular vision and disturbing experiences goes on the list.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Limitations of Silents and The Last Command

My friend 1SO at the Filmspotting Forum commanded me to watch The Last Command.  It was his right.  We have a dictation club and he was my Dictator this last month and the subject was silents.  I had never heard of this film before.  Perhaps I had seen it on lists of good silent films. But I had never read a review, or even caught a description of it.  The title makes it sound like a war film.  So it's a silent war film.  

I am not thrilled.

To be honest, I have had this movie sitting on my shelf for weeks.  I needed to watch it, was ordered to watch it, but I kept watching other movies instead.  Even the seventh season of House.  Why?  Because I hesitate watching silents.  

One thing I certainly love and that is good dialogue.  A film rarely makes my top list unless the dialogue sparkles in some way.  My favorite books are those with a lot of dialogue.  And I put down The Road because it had very little of it.  So silent films have one knock down right from the beginning.

From Seventh Heaven, another great melodrama
Also, silent films tend to be either melodrama (like Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans, a favorite of mine) or slapstick comedy (like The General or City Lights, both favorites).  Not always, but almost always.  And what if I am not in the mood for either of those kinds of film?  What if I'm looking for something more subtle, or more complex, which is usually the case?  Then I'm not ready for a silent.  It isn't that there aren't many silents I absolutely love.  But I don't want to watch that type of movie most of the time.

So, here I am with The Last Command sitting on my shelf.  And, frankly, I almost forgot it was there.  Today, I delved in.

Damn.  What was I thinking?  How was I to know that this was  a character study?  This film was much more like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (another favorite) than any silent I had ever seen.   

It begins with a director in Hollywood, making Russian films.  He picks a Russian actor, an extra, to play the general in a pivotal scene.  He is humiliated by the other actors, partly because of an uncontrollable head shake, due to a stress event in his past.  Then we see him in his past, ten years before, where he was a real general, under the Czar, in the final year of the Russian Revolution.  And we see his nobility, his honor, and his love of his nation. 

It deals with the honor of forgotten, old men, like The Last Laugh, another silent or Hugo, from this last year.  But it deals with it better than either of those films.  Like Colonel Blimp, we see why the man deserves honor, and not just the respect due to us all, and so the conclusion is just that much more thrilling, although somewhat reserved.

What a fantastic, rare film-- whether silent or otherwise.  The acting was marvelous, generally understated, and subtle.  The character Natalie was very complex and hard to read throughout most of the film, due to the excellent performance by Evelyn Brent.  I am also impressed by the script and how it draws in a number of characters, giving them each their time and end. 

I only found two weaknesses to the film: I think there was a single misstep in the plot, which make it too tidy (when the train fell into the river) and the music. I know the music wasn't original to the film, but whoever put it in there, to have all the horns blasting nobly throughout the entire film was just too much.  I shut it off after half the film.

Still, a generally marvelous film and one I will recommend to many others.  In fact, if you have not seen this film, I think, as a film buff, you should.   Thank you, thank you, 1SO.  4.5/5

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Top Hat: A Tale of Two Bigamies

Jerry is a young man who seems to do nothing but hang around his wealthy friends and he is not able to do anything but dance well and sing passably.  So he stars in musical numbers and just hangs around.  Dale seems to make her living off of wearing her designer's clothes so they will look wonderful and women will buy them.  I guess she's a living manikin.  Jerry is determined to be "fancy free", but when he sees Dale, he falls head over heels.  She is offended by his forwardness, but he wins her over when they dance together.  But then she finds out that his married to her good friend, and that is where the comedy of errors begins.

If I wasn't already a fan of musicals, I could see this film making me a fan.  And actually, this kind of musical I haven't been a big fan of.  The musical where the plot is ridiculous, with really no touchstones to reality.  Growing up, been exposed to musicals like Fiddler on the Roof and Funny Girl, which have a lot of silly aspects, but there is always a deep and often depressing connection to reality.  Even the musical numbers almost make sense in their context.  The only Fred Astaire film I saw in my younger days was Easter Parade, which bored me to tears.

This, however, is my first Astaire/Rogers film.  I know, shocking.  But we all need to start somewhere.  I'll put it plainly: the setting is ridiculous, the plot points silly, the jokes were mostly groaners and the acting was awful, and I really, really enjoyed my time with this film.  The fact that everything was over-the-top silly helped.  Either you embrace the silliness or you reject the whole thing.  And when everyone in the film is in on the big joke that is this film, how could you not appreciate it?

About the dancing: I admit, it was a revelation.  Yes, I had heard about Astaire and Rogers and I had seen Astaire with others, but this was something different again.  They have three main dance numbers.  The first dance was a "getting to know you" dance, friendly, ending with a handshake.  The second dance was clearly seductive: she is infuriated with him, but wants to love him and is clearly over her head.  He leads her smoothly, expertly, with all the cockiness and ignorance of a young man in love, and by the end of the dance he clearly wins her over.  The final dance is simply surrendering to joy.  I have never seen so much emotion and variety in a dance routine before, especially that middle dance.  Never have I seen a straight dance number communicate more than the rest of the movie combined.  I am won over, in a big way.

I can't wait to see my next Astaire/Rogers film. 4.5/5