Friday, December 6, 2013
Monday, December 2, 2013
From its early stages of production, Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence was perceived as an anomaly in the director’s grit laden career of wise guys and mean streets. But its tacit chessboard of strict tribal values and its morally conflicted protagonist Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) are perfect for Scorsese, and his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel initiated a more somber, if also more prestigious, stage of the filmmaker’s later years, during which he would repeatedly reflect on lost ideals of paradises that never were, the “Way of the Future,” to use The Aviator’s closing refrain, lapping up dreams with its mechanical indifference. The Age of Innocence’s sensuousness of reflective light and fingers caressing, but never fully assimilating, with a tangible object of desire shines like the melancholic recognition of a mode of aesthetic framing fading away.
The time of The Age of Innocence’s autumn 1993 release marked a rapidly changing period for filmmaking, as Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park altered blockbusting a few months before, the CGI creations, much like the dinosaurs in Michael Crichton’s story, eating up their flesh and blood analog makers. The Age of Innocence was comparably Old World, a tactile period film fetishizing legions of artifacts, the camera savoring the cracked textures of painted canvases or the heavy smoke hovering in a dark study. Coming after Goodfellas’ accolades and the commercial success of the evangelical-tinged thriller Cape Fear, Scorsese was at the height of his powers in 1993. A film about bygone worlds, I’m hopelessly moved watching The Age of Innocence now, not only by a story of unconsummated passion between Archer and Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), but how the film is a haunted cathedral of clockwork ghosts in solemn ritual, where physical ornaments of fabric, flowers, food dishes, and jewelry are emotional and ideological vehicles struggling to endure through restless transition.
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Carlito’s Way begins at the end. A pistol fires in a black and white close up, followed by the reacting shot of star Al Pacino’s face. He falls against a boarding train, taking a second bullet to his chest, and crumbles to the ground. The faceless assassin swiftly exits. The strings of Patrick Doyle’s intensely emotional score rise and a blonde woman, grieving, aids the dying man. As the credits begin during the slow motion prologue/epilogue, the man’s perspective is fixed on the vertical lines of overhead lights and investigating physicians. His soul seems to be floating away as the camera’s point of view goes upside down and then looks down at him. “Somebody’s pulling me close to the ground,” he narrates. “I can sense but I can’t see.” He knows that this is the end, while at the same time trying to reassure us. “My heart, it don’t ever quit.”
And it’s quite a heart. Director Brian De Palma is effectively doing a lot with the beginning of Carlito’s Way, a film about holding fast to dreams in an urban rat maze where the conclusion is predestined. The first local newspaper review I ever read of Carlito’s Way, 20 years ago on the morning of this writing, complained that De Palma’s decision to begin with the death of a crucial character was a fundamental flaw undercutting the suspense. But that perspective misses the aim of the director, himself somewhat like Carlito Brigante, a one-time enfant terrible struggling to make good in the “legitimate world” of big budget Hollywood moviemaking after a catastrophic failure that could have ended his career. The opening spoiler is part of the magic, as the director burrows into this dying man’s memories, suturing us so well into his dreams and the moment-by-moment tension that we forget about Fate’s hand. Carlito’s Way is one of De Palma’s most dramatically engaging films, a character-driven period epic where the final half-hour is a non-stop chase through offices, a hospital, a night club, the subway, and Grand Central Station, concluding at this incendiary Ground Zero destination of death, affirming how great suspense moviemaking pulls the audience in with sympathy and fear in spite of the ineluctable outcome of which we’re already certain.
“I wanted to strangle her,” I overheard a woman say following a screening of Blue is the Warmest Color (or La vie d’Adele). She was referring to entitled artist Emma (Lea Seydoux), the object of first love for young Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos). “It was so unbalanced. I just wish someone would smack her in the face.” Indeed, Emma has, to use the Seinfeld terminology, “Hand.” She comes from a privileged background and has the means to pursue an artistic career while living in spacious flats, her charm and good looks naturally drawing people to her, and she’s at ease in their company. Adele has become her muse, but it’s the lover painted on the canvas who is filled with longing and uncertainty, caring too much about this romance, and clumsily awkward with other people. For three hours, we’re completely absorbed in Adele’s psychology, which is–however unconsciously–emulating the Marivaux heroine (of La vie de Marianne) she voraciously studies as a 17-year-old middle class high school student when first we see her. Like Marivaux’s Marianne, her story, similarly told in two parts, goes unfinished, and the rest of the world, namely Emma, moves steadily forward while she struggles to catch up. It’s not to spoil anything to say this love story ends unhappily. When one of Emma’s friends asks Adele if this is her “first love,” she seems to recognize the omen in the phrase. “First love” means this one will be over. But does the lover with the upper hand deserve a smack in the face? Especially considering how it’s Adele’s transgression that leads to the inevitable break-up?
While Adele fixates at Marivaux and the romantic possibilities of “love at first sight,” Emma glows about Sartre and Existentialism as a Humanism, the philosophy of “Existence precedes Essence,” which is to say we are free to define who we are by our actions, and then live according to principles. Responsibility is cleanly cut and linear. Blue is the Warmest Color lays out its somewhat episodic and desultory structure in a way that necessitates sympathy for Adele, because the way she reacts psychologically to things–from school subjects to food to sex and love–feels predestined. The chicken-and-egg problem of Existence and Essence is cloudy, though the responsibility falls squarely on top of her. We don’t really know anyone else in this film. Not even Emma, who is laid out before us with bare intimacy in the film’s three carnal sex scenes, one of which lasts for ten minutes. Adele’s relationship with a new boyfriend, around which the film’s first 30 minutes revolve, is tearfully ended, and never heard about again. Adele’s parents are an afterthought, with little influence or attention. Her school friends fade quickly from view after they brutally tease her for her newly unveiled sexuality, and when Adele and Emma become a couple, they disappear completely. She’s hot and cold with no lukewarm. Her grades are either stellar or dreadful, all depending on how inspired she is to learn about something. When she first sees Emma’s blue hair wordlessly pass her by, Adele is ruined. She immediately has sexual dreams about this girl, and the world around her likewise adopts shades of the color. During sex with the boyfriend, her mind is elsewhere. Even a birthday party for her is a distraction from what’s her bliss. She clings and can’t let go. Is it fate or intuition that take her to a lesbian bar, and she spots that hair again. The two of them are introduced and it’s over.
Throughout 12 Years a Slave, the fact-based account of how New York-bred freeman Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was kidnapped and sold into slavery on various Louisiana plantations, we’re led beyond the basic slave narrative of capture, torture, humiliation, sadness, and eventual release, and immersed into passing nature, art, and machinery in such a way that we’re forced to confront the ordinary everyday through a whole new prism: Solomon concentrating on the tuning of his violin before a performance, the instrument passing in jarring close-up, a form working out an uncertain sense of purpose and then speaking in music; a plate of food with a burst blackberry leaking juice, igniting an idea as the goo stains the surface; a steamboat sternwheel turning, the rhythmic motion of form upon fluid working to divorce it from a context; feet struggling to retain momentum on slippery mud, the body hanging from a noose above, time laboriously and indifferently passing as people go about daily tasks in the background; the clatter of chains amplified and playing like a dissonant music score over dark images of a man waking up to a nightmare; the cinders of burning paper swallowed by black night; the willows, the alien grass, the hum of onlooking but indifferent trees, and worms slowly crawling on dead cotton plants; and a close-up of Solomon’s face, years into his unjust sentence as a slave named “Platt,” held mutedly fixed for nearly a minute as the out-of-focus natural world behind him glistens like an inchoate landscape struggling for definition.
This isn’t merely a series of embellishments denoting distinctive authorial idiosyncrasies. Director Steve McQueen, a renowned visual artist before turning to feature films with 2008′s Hunger and 2011′s Shame, tells Solomon Northup’s story as the real world falling through an obscured multiplicity of abstractions, unveiling a plethora of new landscapes within a single object, be it steamboat, violin, tree, or plate of food. 12 Years a Slave feels less like a period film relating to important historical issues than a startling confrontation with the extraterrestrial landscape of the Past, a trait it shares with Stanley Kubrick’s similarly painterly Barry Lyndon. Like Barry Lyndon, the Past may feel more foreign than that to which we are accustomed, but it also carries exponentially more weight. It’s strange, but much more immediate–history made uncanny. The heaviness of the past when we think about the passing phenomena of sounds, images, and people in Solomon’s unfortunate adventure, is crushing as it is fleeting. The images sink in deep and hurt.