Peter Strickland’s “The Duke of Burgundy”

big_2570858_1

About 10 minutes into this thing I was hoping that with a premise already established the director would quit the bad and unconscious musical montage he was doing since the opening credits and start giving us a film, but no, it does not get better. What Jesus Franco would resolve in one shot, Peter Strickland breaks into ten, and manages to take any meaning away. There are no scenes, there are exhibitions of decór, numerous gratuitous details, in tracking shots (because why not?), and actors being framed as inanimately as any object (see the brilliant analogy?), and look, there’s Monica Swinn playing Lorna.

This is so fetishistic in its homage to an unprestigious type of cinema that makes Django Unchained-level Tarantino look better than a clueless fanboy, and it is worse that nothing distinguishes The Duke of Burgundy from the kind of student film I have to endure frequently, from the same apparent intention of filling every senseless image with artistry and professionalism, which means just using every tool you have at your disposal, regardless of purpose. So, if rack focus was a Franco trademark, a resource to overcome his lack of control in editing, putting all the necessary stuff into a minimum amount of shots and moving between these elements only through pans and zooms (because there was no dolly around to shoot insignificant bullshit), Strickland saw it and must have thought “well, that is a cool technique, but it’s a little rough, artless, let’s do it with some cool lighting, heavy color grading, in more decorated spaces and slow everything down, it must achieve a better effect”, and there you have it, what was once a perverted representation becomes cinematically cute.

Franco could not be clearer: “El cine, o es de género, o es una mierda.” And The Duke of Burgundy won’t be put alongside 70s pornography in video stores, that’s for sure.

Christofer Pallú

Advertisements

Tobe Hooper’s “Invaders from Mars”

Invaders from Mars[02-19-01]

One of my favorite scenes in Don Siegel’s sci-fi masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers happens when the characters are running away from the pods and hide in the protagonist’s office, for the second time in the movie they will take a look through the window and observe the center of the town, to know if they are safe, and it is the same shot we saw the first time, but it lasts a few seconds longer, and now, after their perception of the order has already been disturbed, they can finally see the workings of the aliens within the city.

I needed to mention this because what makes Hooper’s movie special among the Jack Finney adaptations and the original by William Cameron Menzies is its basis in a offbeat interpretation of the similar scenario given by the sight of a child. And I could not say this is derivative of the 1953 film, Menzies’ work was that of a set decorator, not a film director, all the estrangement was built from weird designs and the narration moved quickly from plot-point to plot-point with little regard to comprehend the kid’s reactions to what was happening around him. That pragmatism hurt the movie because I could never tell the difference of the proceedings (which should be enormous) in relation to Siegel’s superior treatment. The kid’s actions were not very distinct from the adults and the shocks were closer to the sequence I mentioned above.

Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars, however, takes a peculiar route. Storywise, it feels a little predictable and stilted at times, resulting from its strict adherence to the boy’s nightmares, we know that every event will be shaped as part of his paranoia, as confirmation of the worst childhood fears, and the whole thing is beyond silly (“They’re huge, ugly, slimy, giant Mr. Potato Heads!”), but not sillier than being afraid of a clown toy and the odd shadows cast by lightning on a tree. This looks like an extension of the first part of Poltergeist (or what I liked the most about it), following the mundane interactions of the family before turning into a more conventional horror film.

It suffers from having less time spent with the adult characters, who act mostly as robots or other children, and the specific plot-oriented situations come since the very beginning, but that reduction of dialogues and small distractions from the horror grant the director more time to spend with each individual set-piece, and a big amount of it is given to the protagonist exploring his surroundings, observing the changes in behavior since they start and responding calmly to them, unlike the adults who only notice changes in routine and react almost hysterically. And the great thing about it is: Hooper’s camera loves the actors, it bends to the boy’s expressions like the story is bent to his obsessions, there is not a second of dishonesty capturing whatever absurdity occurs, and that results in the most gorgeous close-ups and two-shots, usually with an adult being contradicted by the boy, and inspired use of steadicam in more open spaces, where we are guided by him.

I should say that comparing film to other arts is dangerous because it can deny particular and fundamental elements of each of them, but it is hard to explain in another way Hooper’s nearly operatic sense of composition, with notions of rhythm and scenic development that seem to come directly from Richard Wagner (this may sound like random name-dropping, but I mean it), based so much on precise and very dramatic use of intervals, with unusual consideration for instant (and integrally represented) action that does not have immediate narrative objective, but is charged with extraneous elements, sensations and ideas that materialize the past and give indications of influences outside the frame, and everything carried as an harmonious device for storytelling, never as whimsical and unnecessary exhibitions of the helmer’s talent. Maybe that explains the lingering and repetitive structures and obsession with sound in most of Hooper’s filmography. The experiment here is not nearly as radical as we saw in some of his other films, but the nature of the project (a family-friendly sci-fi blockbuster) makes it more perceptible, because there is nothing bombastic, no easy attractions in it, only a curious, patient imagining of what could happen in the gaps left between Menzies’ faithfully recreated tableaux.

It is a perfect example of something I wish all the perpetrators of “slow cinema” would learn, those who mistake movies for pedantic literalism and capricious pictorialism without any knowledge of how space and time have worked or at least theorized in films for more than a century, rendering everything descriptive and ultimately empty, un-dramatic. They are having a good time with critics, Hooper never had, that is why I learned to ignore good taste and started paying attention only to the movies themselves. Invaders from Mars is as beautiful and richly textured as any of the director’s best works and one of my favorite movies about childhood.

Christofer Pallú

Corey Yuen’s “My Father is a Hero”

Those 2 or 3 seconds Corey Yuen gives to the kid falling down while Jet Li stands frozen, staring in the direction of the villain he just shot, perfectly expose the concise artistry of his filmmaking, the whole final standoff could be put side by side with Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns and not be harmed in the comparison, even with all the balletic, melodramatic and bizarrely humorous fighting Yuen is known for (in the most well balanced form I’ve seen), there are no distractions from the narrative and character-oriented nature of his shots, and there is no need to interrupt tension and direct action with something else to adress the underlying emotions at play (he does cut to flashbacks a couple of times, but they are tastefully done, not just crutches), it flows with beauty in every movement, but always leaves space to manifest a darker edge.

Christofer Pallú

John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood”

Its worst part is the very beginning: text and sound dictate the overall atmosphere and present the big social issue, and the first image is a direct response, “STOP”, damn, this could be a ridiculously simplistic thesis film, but that expectation fortunately does not materialize. The following sequence sets up the neighborhood almost as a separate universe, a jump back in time to a rundown city from an old western where progress became impossible and only outlaws could inhabit, full of signs with promises for the future covered with gunshots.

Far from Spike Lee’s showmanship in service of the cause, Boyz n the Hood is credible because nothing seems too manipulated and coming from a desire to shock, it’s such a detailed and grounded portrait of various aspects of the troubled community and the kids’ relationships that is hard to doubt it comes from real experience, and Singleton’s professed love for westerns is transparent in every shot, his sight is very calm for a place dominated by hostility and fear, which is exactly what makes it scary, the ordinariness of violence and lack of sensationalism in presenting all situations that lead to tragedy, that consistency of tension in every corner and every second of the movie he certainly inherited from the masters of the genre, there are only small outbursts of emotion and aggressive action, and they are always comprehensible.

Also, the occasional drifts into message dialogues never seem forced, but contextually coherent with the characters that deliver them, it’s difficult to think of heroes and villains, everyone is just trying to survive, there is no moralizing from an extraneous element that comes up only to tell us what we are seeing is or isn’t right (I am looking at 12 Years a Slave and its kind). At the end, the cruel theater spawned from memory fades away with a friend, but the image of the neighborhood stays unchanged, it finds unusual balance between the personal and the political and becomes one of the saddest coming-of-age pictures.

Christofer Pallú