Beau travail

Beau travail (1999) dir. Claire Denis

Beau travailBeau travail is (loosely) adapted from Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, and takes its score from the 1951 opera also based on the novel. Denis takes us away from the world of 19th Century seafaring, and stages the action in a late 20th Century North African outpost of the French Legion.

The sand dunes replace the sea waves, but the sense of isolation and the pack-like male hierarchy is the same. Most readers of Melville’s Budd focus on the conflict between the character Budd’s goodness and the abuses under martial law. Denis takes a cue from other critics, including Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who pick up on the homosexual/homophobic currents of the work.

from the 1962 adaptation

from the 1962 adaptation

Sedgwick examines the novel, written in 1891, at its place in the development of the idea of homosexuality. It was present in Master-at-arms John Claggart, but not in a way he could consciously make part of his identity. He has what Melville calls a “natural depravity,” and an envy against Billy Budd that plays into the type (undeveloped in 1891) of the closeted homophobe. “To him [Claggart], the spirit lodged within Billy, and looking out from his welkin eyes as from windows, that ineffability it was which made the dimple in his dyed cheek, suppled his joints, and dancing in his yellow curls made him pre-eminently the Handsome Sailor.”

Denis develops this theme, casting Master Sergeant Galoup in the Claggart role. Galoup is jealous of the attention the attractive young Sentain gets from Galoup’s superior, but Galoup cannot articulate why. He contrives Sentain’s death.

Beau travailDenis twists Melville’s plot, in order to throw the focus entirely on Galoup. Galoup is the one who must face a court martial. His narration of the film was his self-examination leading up to his suicide. The ending suggests that Galoup, at the end, may have finally come to terms with part of who he is.

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Crash (1996)

Crash (1996) dir. David Cronenberg

Crash - Rosanna ArquetteCrash, in many ways, is the culmination of Cronenberg’s previous body horror work. In VideodromeThe Fly, and Dead Ringers, the eroticism for the grotesque destruction of the body and for medical apparatuses are always present, but not (usually) explicit. Crash, however, explores a world in which these fetishes are not only consciously acknowledged, but are acted upon.

How does this world differ from our own?

Cronenberg encourages us to look for the answer to this question. We watch the film from the perspective of a detached observer. The camera stays several feet away from the actors during sex scenes, instead of focusing on close-ups the way most romances do. The camera stays outside of the car for the most part.

CrashIn the car crash-fetishizing community, the men perform dangerous stunts to boost their adrenaline and to show off to women. The man most willing to take things the furthest without admitting fear is the man who consolidates the most power in the group. The women’s bodies are objectified, with their individual pieces lusted after for their own sake. Women are beaten and abused. The victims of all this violence are either unseen and ignored, or used and discarded.

It’s not too much different than the rest of the world at all.

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The Keaton Decade

Buster Keaton - Steamboat Bill Jr - HurricaneThe star of a film comedian rises and falls more rapidly than that of any other. Actors who seem like comic genius can – in the space of only 5-10 years – deplete their reserves of gags and jokes. Novelty matters in comedy, and when we grow too used to a style, it becomes not only unfunny, but downright annoying. (See Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, et. al.) Comedy is also the hardest genre to universalize. It doesn’t sell overseas. I have trouble understanding the humor in most imports.

Comedies make up 17% of the movies on the critical aggregate They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They top 1,000 list. But when we isolate the list to only silent films, the number rises to 25%. More than half of those silent comedies were made by Buster Keaton. There’s something about his visual style transcends the limits of culture and context, enabling him to remain hilarious nearly a century later

Keaton was born into a vaudeville family, and performed as an infant. He left a stage audition to try out for a role in a film. He made several shorts with Fatty Arbuckle, and then struck out on his own. He was given control of his own production company, and immediately used it to establish his character. Film historian Walter Kerr wrote:

“As a star in his own right, Buster Keaton comes all at once and all of a piece. From the moment he began making short comedies independently in 1920, the whole repertoire – rich, bizarre, unindebted to others, and inimitable in itself – is there.”

Buster Keaton - One WeekOne Week, Keaton’s first-released film, also brings us his first iconic moment – shown in the GIF on the side. The plot also sets up the Keaton theme of a man vainly trying to accomplish a goal, failing so miserably that his entire world literally collapses around him. He cannot build an instant house in 1920’s One Week, and he cannot launch a boat in 1921’s The Boat. He fails as a stagehand in the surreal 1921 film The Playhouse, in which reality and identity itself seem to fall apart.

Buster Keaton - CopsIn 1922’s Cops, Keaton’s attempt to find success in business gets him arrested as a terrorist. Cops is also one of the best examples of the chase sequence later appropriated by Bugs Bunny.

Buster Keaton - Our HospitalityKeaton’s first feature film as director was really three short films. Three Ages, released in 1923, was made as a parody of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance. It follows three boy-chases-girl stories, set in prehistoric, Roman and modern times. It’s funny enough, but lacks the true Keaton genius that goes on display in Our Hospitality, released that fall, or in The Navigator, and Sherlock Jr. in 1924.

In these films, Keaton first displays the formula he’d employ in most of his feature-length projects. He spends the first half of the film creating a believable (if slightly silly) world. Then, he runs rampant around the screen. His concrete world gives as absurd context to his actions that would otherwise seem simply anarchic, like the Marx Brothers.

Buster Keaton - Seven Chances - BridesThis is featured prominently in one of my personal favorites, Seven Chances. Keaton receives notice that he can inherit a large fortune if he marries before 7 p.m. on his 27th birthday — the same day he receives the notice. The first half-hour of the film explores various gags that have since become romantic comedy tropes. It’s very funny, and Keaton’s perfect comic timing is on full display.

Buster Keaton - Seven Chances - BouldersBut the film shifts gear into something more primitive; more dreamlike, in the Jungian sense. A chain of comic circumstances lands Keaton in a church, where he wakes to find hundreds of prospective brides sitting behind him in their wedding gowns. When they realize he does not wish to marry of them, they chase him out of the church, through the streets, and down a mountain with tumbling boulders. Keaton doesn’t flail or biff. He is in complete control of his movements, and elevates stunt work into a dance that no one had done before and no one will do again. We forget the plot, the characters and all else. We’re transported into a world of pure movement, and pure symbol.

Buster Keaton - The General - TrainKeaton’s next film is widely regarded as his greatest masterpiece. One of the secrets behind his humor was to increase the scale. If Keaton’s stone face and matter-of-fact behavior was funny when confronted with small problems (a furniture mishap, or no where to hang a hat), it became hilarious when contrasted against epic problems (a bomb on his lap, or a Civil War battle).

The General - TrainIn The General, Keaton increases the scale as much as he could. Keaton had spent most of his films running. Now, he was running on a train. And riding on the front of it. While being shot at. He went faster and larger and more dangerous than ever. Thanks to computers, we are certain to never see the likes of The General again. Even pre-cgi special effects couldn’t match Keaton. Yes, David Lean blew a train off a bridge, and did a good job doing so. But I’ll take Keaton’s shot better. It’s clearer, run at a normal speed, and doesn’t unnecessarily cut for reaction. Although The General‘s Confederate-sympathizing plot is dated (as is Lean’s imperialism, of course),  its reliance on pure, universal attractions will keep it playing.

Buster Keaton - Steamboat Bill JrAfter this, Keaton kept trying to up the ante. He’d taken on war; now he was ready to fight nature. 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.‘s second act puts Keaton right in the middle of a hurricane. He maintains his trademark stoicism as the wind destroys a city around him. Steamboat Bill, Jr. features Keaton’s most famous stunt — a larger-scale version of the one seen in One Week. A house collapses on top of him, Keaton narrowly escapes, but doesn’t react.

Later that year, Keaton put himself in the middle of another battle; this one between two Chinatown gangs. In The Cameraman, shots ring out and villains crawl over each other to murder him, but Keaton keeps his classic cool.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. was Keaton’s last film with United Artists. Its poor box office performance sent him to MGM for The Cameraman. Keaton made one more film on his terms – Spite Marriage – but the studio never even gave him a real chance in the sound area. It took away creative control, and Keaton never made a great film again.

Buster KeatonBut what a run it was. From 1920 to 1928, Keaton produced about one all-time classic a year. He continually found new variations on a consistent theme that put his unimitable form of physical comedy on display. No director or actor has created more masterpieces in such a short period of time.

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Color Schemes in Paris, Texas

Paris, Texas (1984) dir. Wim Wenders

The color scheme introduced in the beginning of the film is magnificent. It uses the harsh browns and blues as Lawrence of Arabia, but adds a bold red to give it a surreal, almost pop look. The palette is bold enough to call our conscious attention to it. We are introduced to Travis as a drifter who is entirely inside himself, and has trouble even interacting with another human being.

The reds continue to dominate through the early stages of the film. Although Travis is in the city, he is still emotionally and morally alone in the desert. Travis selfishly takes his son away from his family in order to find the boy’s mother – Travis’s estranged wife.

The colors shift to cool blues and greens whenever Travis shows genuine concern or love for his son and his family. Here, he has the boy call home so they won’t worry.

But, Paris, Texas, soon turns back to the reds and browns of the desert. Travis uses the boy to stalk his wife and finds her working at a peep show. The colors reflect the isolation of both characters. Their fantasy worlds must be bold in order to cover up their real brokenness.

Travis’s moral epiphany turns the screen permanently to green and blue. He sets aside his jealousy and possessiveness, and does what’s best for those he loves. We end the film the way we began – with Travis alone – but in a very different world.

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Blissfully Yours

S̄ud s̄eǹh̄āBlissfully Yours (2002) dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

blissfully yours still frame“Movies carry some sort of psychic charge that no other art form–perhaps no other spectacle–can quite match.”

blissfully yours

“The moving image itself seems an object of extraordinary potency. In the movie-watching experience we enter an “altered state of consciousness,” enthralling and irresistible.”

blissfully yours image“Somehow movies and the mind are suited to one another, mutually adapted… What is it about the screen image and the mind that views it that makes the marriage between them so successful–so passionate and tempestuous, one might almost say? What is this love affair with the screen?”

blissfully yours frame

“Watching someone light a cigarette in real life can be pretty dull, but in the context of a story projected onto the movie screen our eyes and mind will be drawn in. The movie adds something to reality, and this is part of its power.”

McGinn, Colin. “The Power of Film.” In The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact, 3-15. New York: Pantheon Books, 2005.



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Forgiveness in Le fils

Le fils (2002) dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

fils2The movies are full of revenge fantasies. There’s a drive for revenge that is embedded in the human psyche, but few of us ever have the opportunity to enact it. Social and legal mores block us from doing the things we really want to those we feel have wronged us. The justice system, with its long, winding paths, doesn’t give villains the same direct punishment and visceral, emotional satisfaction we imagine The Bride or Mattie Ross got in Kill Bill and True Grit.

As a consequence, it’s even more rare that we get the chance to exercise forgiveness. Forgiveness to someone once was not able to punish anyway, or to someone who will remain safely behind bars regardless of your attitude towards them, is little more than a psychological exercise. It may be a very real, very meaningful act, but its consequences lie entirely in the spiritual world. When we run into a situation in which we have the opportunity to punish or not punish, we nearly invariably find a reason to eschew mercy. “Justice demands it,” we think. “We must set an example, must be consistent,” are the lies we tell ourselves to avoid acknowledging that we prefer revenge to mercy.

le filsOur revenge fantasies are fun. Our forgiveness fantasies are sacred. They all hearken back to sacred scripture. The Dardenne Brothers cast their forgiveness story in the context of a carpenter’s son.

Like Robert Bresson and Vittorio de Sica before them, the Dardennes use realist techniques to bring their religious fantasies down to earth. “We asked each other: How can we do this without seeming angelic?” they explain in the DVD commentary. They don’t want you to be able to dismiss forgiveness as something only for saints. They want it to seem real – they want you to believe it.

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Dead Ringers


Dead Ringers (1988) – dir. David Cronenberg

Twin gynecologists date the same woman. One does the initial wooing, and then – as he puts it – gives the women to his “baby brother,” without them knowing. They switch places in their professional lives as well, and it’s not clear who is exactly responsible for what at their world-class fertility clinic. They outdo Hayley Mills’s twins, climbing to the top of the professional ladder, fooling everyone.

The only thing that could break up such a partnership does. A woman.

My brief description sounds like something from a soap opera or a Lifetime movie, but because this is Hollywood, Dead Ringers gives virtually no thought to the woman’s point of view. The movie is about the melding of identities that the twins experience. Drugs and sex enter the picture, and send them on a spiral into each other.

deadringers7I enjoyed the movie, and Jeremy Irons gave a terrific performance. He starts by differentiating the two brothers in subtle ways that let me tell them apart in each scene without it feeling gimmicky Then, as film continues, he adjusts his performance to make them truly identical. I appreciated Cronenberg’s disturbing sense of humor too — on display when one of the twins orders gynecology instruments. But I’ve never felt like any of Cronenberg’s work was a must-see. Interesting, yes. Well made? Yes. But it always feels disposable and none of it has stuck with me.

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