Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Providence's Garbage Can

The ninth season The X-Files two-parter "Provenance"/"Providence" is pretty much the series' last great Mythology installment, the remaining eight episodes being half done-in-ones and half housekeeping before closing up shop. So not the last of the Mythology, but the last of the story's forward upward thrusting momentum. The plot backbone of "Providence" has Baby William in extreme peril while captured by UFO nuts (who actually have a UFO!), and Scully being rude and closed off as she has been all year, trying to be supercop, scientist, protector, nurturer and mother to the Christ child ALL AT ONCE. She is cracking up, and her laconic chronic-masturbator BFF is still in hiding! As final battle cries go, this one rather has it all, or anyway has the best of the many pleasures of Season Nine for those helpless to its charms. An infant rescued from a flaming pit, Bible quotes, people not appreciating the Lone Gunmen's free services, Deputy Director Kersch being a tightass, A.D. Brad Follmer being an unctuous snot, and some weirdo baby-stealing motherfuckers getting burnt up by a spaceship!

These are just pictures of heads, and this is still the best-looking TV show.

Since something feels "important" about this one, there are a lot of beautiful giant-head heroic close-ups of the cast which seem to highlight their unforgettable faces with a kind of, I dunno, mythic aura. In these: Agent Reyes looks huge-featured, like a lioness, glowing and wide-hearted and a little manic. Poor Agent Doggett is stuck in a in a coma, of course, because 1) The X-Files puts everyone in a coma, usually several times, and 2) this show especially loves to hospitalize Doggett. Conscious and unconscious, he is chiseled and wound-eyed — a wood-carved self-flagellating saint! The B-story, such as it is, revolves around prayers and temptations offered in the tiny hospital chapel, all interesting but not the point of this missive.

A.D. Skinner is naturally gritting his teeth, glaring and/or pursing his lips through all of this. That is often Skinner's usefulness as a sort of surrogate for the potentially frustrated viewer — okay, I bought this and this, helped with X and Y, and now you're telling me Z? Come on already. So in the scene below, a task force has been assembled to retrieve Baby William, but Scully storms out because she doesn't trust Follmer and Kersh. After a confrontation with Skinner over this matter, Scully strides off to the elevators to pursue the matter through alternate channels and Skinner watches her go. This is not our last glimpse of the stoic Assistant Director by any means, but the shot in question has a stamped home, iconic quality, sums up this aspect of the relationship between Skinner and his X-Files teams: Scully needs to be unencumbered by traditional investigative technique, and Skinner is sympathetic but entrenched in the institutional culture of the FBI. That is why he is both useful to and forever divided from the X-Files. A nice minor but meaningful image, of Skinner alone in the corridor...

... or it would be, if there weren't a crew dude wearing shorts crouching behind the garbage can. A gaffe that flashes by but gives the shot a bit of dissonance — the first time I noticed it something just seemed off, and on rewinding it fully creeped me out. The point of the shot is that Skinner is left by himself, yet it is not at all outside the realm of The X-Files' themes that a faceless someone might be spying on a conversation. Here is A.D. Walter Skinner, a man of fidelity, bravery and integrity, who, despite it all, wants to believe in the FBI even if he is the last of his kind within its walls. And here is someone who should not be there, concealed by garbage, tucked in the corner, watching it all.

This is the typo that enriches the text.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Taxi Schwarzwald

Blonde Venus, 1932, dir. Josef von Sternberg

Suspiria, 1977, dir. Dario Argento

Two images of hired autos in the German wilderness, or, as Herbert Marshall says in just before the top image: "As I live and breathe, a taxicab in the middle of the Black Forest!"

Now, while Sternberg centers a light comedy scene around the parked taxi (that's a 27-year-old Sterling Holloway as a nerd in a goofy hat, pestering the brusque German driver), Argento's cab is on what I believe Wesley Willis might refer to as a "Hellride." These are not by any means the first shots in their respective films, but both are key mini-/sub-scenes in the films' opening sequences. Certainly they are very different scenes about taxis in the Black Forest, from very different films by very different (but secretly not-so-different) filmmakers, but they are also doing some similar duties, those odd parallels that concern us below.

As Tim Lucas points out in this fine little piece, a) Suspiria's cab ride is not the first interesting scene and b) the section in which the car passes through the Black Forest is all about these trees (also the music), one of which bears the lightning-thrown, inexplicable shadow of a knife-wielding hand just before the car slides out off screen. Incidentally, that sickle shadow is there not just because of its association with Cronus or as chibi version of the Grim Reaper's scythe; the curve-bladed boline is of the type used in actual ritual magic. In real life these are rarely, if ever, used for cutting up ballerinas.

The first scenes proper:
Blonde Venus begins with a group of young women bathing in a pool under the titles, then has a half-page scene of Joe (Holloway) bitching about the length of the hike and bumming a smoke from his companions before they stumble upon the taxi. Suspiria, of course, opens at the airport where Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) "arrived in Germany at 10:40 p.m. local time." So Suspiria's car is carrying its heroine, after she has some difficulty hailing a cab in the thunderstorm. In Blonde Venus the scene is about how these boys are not able to hire the taxi because the group of actresses currently splashing in the pond has rented it for the day. One of those ladies is Helen (Marlene Dietrich) who will effectively become the heroine, even if we don't know it yet. Point being only that the taxis are hired by the respective female protagonists of each story.

Now, using both my entirely inept trip-planning skills and highly developed make-believe skills, it seems that the closest international airport to Freiburg is actually in France. Since Suzy clearly lands in Germany, the two closest candidates are Baden Airpark and Stuttgart (as Lucas points out, this was not shot at a real airport). Obviously we don't know exactly where the fictional Tanz Akademie is located in the geography of the city. However, just for laughs, let us pretend the school shares an address with the Haus zum Walfisch (House of the Whale) that provides its exterior and that Suzy arrives at one of the above airports. According to Google Maps, at best, she's an hour from Freiburg. Maybe we're only witness to part of this cab ride, then. But I don't think so...

As is communicated with some difficulty between Suzy and her cabbie, the Tanz Akademie is situated on Escher Straße: perhaps you can get there any way you choose, perhaps you can never quite get there. The taxi takes an infinite path, an impossible path. In later scenes characters are able to quickly move from the Akademie to perfectly urban parts of the city — first victim Pat and blind pianist Daniel both do so. As it happens, Haus zum Walfisch is only blocks from the forest. But the effect in this opening sequence, which transitions straight from the woods to a shot of the school framed to block out surrounding buildings, is that the Akademie is set deep inside the forest. Parallel to Blonde Venus, in which dialogue situates the action some ten miles from the next town: the taxis are conveyances into fairyland.

With color schemes inspired by Disney's Snow White, and more importantly a primal, cruel logic that makes no sense to the brain but too much sense to the guts, Suspiria's fairy tale underpinnings and overtones are fairly apparent to anyone wandering into its path. What with all the taxicabs and prog rock, it might be difficult to ascribe an Aarne-Thompson folktale index number to Suspiria (for those unfamiliar, that's nothing fancier than the industry standard for cataloging folktale themes and types. If you don't have a copy, er, don't worry about it). It is probably closest to an AT 327 variant ("Hansel and Gretel" being AT 327A, for example), with a slew of selections from the Motif Index. I think it is not entirely unrelated to those "neck riddle" stories found under AT 851 "The Princess Who Cannot Solve the Riddle": Suzy, as per Argento tradition, is offered a riddle in the beginning that she does not even recognize as a riddle until it is time to solve it at the end.

Blonde Venus is also a fairy tale. Or at least that might be an instructive way of looking at it. It is not unusual for Sternberg's singular way with ornate mise en scène and Old World grotesquery to lend a certain storybook quality to his films anyway, and Venus takes as a motif the retelling of its own narrative as a bedtime story.

The plot here goes that on that fateful hike, American student Ned Faraday (Marshall) discovers music hall star Helen bathing in that pond. They marry and domestic bliss ensues until Ned discovers he is slowly dying, having been poisoned by his laboratory work with radium. Naturally he needs an Expensive Medical Procedure, and Helen is forced back into nightclub singing. With swift inevitability, she finds the fastest way to procure the cash is to sell herself to well-heeled cad Nick Townsend (Cary Grant), and long story short, ends up a Fallen Woman and takes off cross-country, with Ned in pursuit of his abducted son. During those early scenes of the Faradays' happy home life, a family tradition is depicted in which the parents jointly recount their cutely met romance to put their son to sleep, reframing the events in fairy tale terms (e.g. — Helen is a "princess" and the surly cabbie a "dragon in an automobile"). This storytelling is, eventually, also the means by which the couple reconciles. Within the story, then, Blonde Venus is explicitly tied to fairy tales and variant retellings.

I recount the plot as a frame of reference, because it seems to me a vague variation on the "Swan Maiden" tale (Aarne-Thompson type 400) with a focus on the story from the Swan Maiden's point of view. In skeletal form, that goes: Hunter (a king, often) enters the woods, finds an enchanted lake wherein swims a magical swan. She turns into a woman — this often happens as the hunter swipes her feathered robe while she swims, and he will not return it — they marry and reproduce. Through some means — usually the playing children reveal the secret hiding place, or a Gypsy pulls some maniacal Gypsy stunt (I know, I know) — the swan maiden gets her feather robe back, and flies away. An impossible pursuit is required should the husband wish to reclaim the Swan bride. Sometimes he embarks on the quest, sometimes not, but if so, it often ends with the task of identifying the Maiden among a group.

Taking it from the top, in the Black Forest Ned threatens Helen with the very prank that nets the Swan Maiden. Her Swan-ness here is, on the level of surface transposition, her nightclub singing — so read: her association with that glamorous but debauched world and identity as an artist. One level down, this is tied up with sexual freedom, but on the deepest level, down where the Swan has always been paddling, this is about freedom from male control. Sternberg's complicated relationship with Dietrich is one of cinema's great living kōans, where universes are built and destroyed, gods created and desecrated in the course of single shots. In his hands/in her thrall, he makes her/she is a figure of identification, an effigy of contemplation, an ideal and a demon-goddess. The Sternberg-Dietrich dialectic is beyond love-hate. In Blonde Venus, all sympathies are with Helen as men try to define her, buy her, own her, push her out of society, pursue her, but ultimately cannot live without her. When a detective tracking Helen questions her devotion to her child's welfare, in one of those chilling defining moments she casually scoffs "What does a man know about mother love?" Don't need you, don't need your world! Times like this, it seems Helen ought to head back to that magic pond and leave this mess behind.

She doesn't, quite, not physically, but returns metaphorically to where she began, reuniting her family mainly through that mythologized version of their shared history in which she is a princess and her son springs forth from a kiss; she resurrects — or retreats back into — the folktale. If this is uneasy, a cop-out, a betrayal of character, triumph or a tragedy, well, why pick one? Meanwhile, at the dance school across the way, Suzy Bannion faces down the nightmare, stabs it in the neck, and burns it to the ground. This closes as she staggers in the direction where there once was a forest, in one of those patented Argento closing shots of someone who just went through Hell and just may have snapped in the process. So both Blonde Venus and Suspiria, like any mysteriously powerful folktale, end with all the definitiveness of a Thematic Apperception Test, which is to say none at all.

As Suzy leaves the Akademie, it has begun to rain once more, and though we seem to have driven for miles on Escher St., we are back where we came in.

Once upon a time
two taxis drove into the Black Forest
where they dropped off two women
and then the trouble began.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Pink, Pretty, Bleeding Out on a Mattress: BLACK SWAN's Reality Show Aesthetic

Pardon my single-mindedness, but boy, this swan movie sure could have used a lot more Winona Ryder. Because, y'know, that's someone I like to see anyway, but Ryder is at her best when she locates something in the material that is squirmingly, uncomfortably close to personal biography. For examples of such performances, see under: Beetlejuice, A Scanner Darkly, Reality Bites, Girl, Interrupted, The Informers and her five glorious minutes of Black Swan. The trick to any and all of these examples is not that Ryder is ever playing her"self" (I wouldn't presume to know), but that in these roles and chunks of others, an emulsion-bubbling static electricity builds up as she dredges up whatever-it-is in the part that is most excruciatingly close-to-home and rubs it against the character. In the case before us, the 39-year-old actor is not in precisely the career-and-mental-health-related dire straights as her character, an "aging" ballerina edged out of the biz by even more waifed-out youngsters. But, you know... given the Way Things Work, she knows this Dying Swan routine as headspace or reality. With her eyeballs burning the whole time and mascara congealing in the heat, Ryder tumbles through a flaming rage-anxiety-rage cycle and exits with an expert dismount (that is, screaming and self-mutilating). Would that there had been another five minutes with Beth/Dying Swan!

The rest is RIFE WITH SPOILERS and is ALL SPOILERS even though the story is just Swan Lake. Sort of.

If utter straight-faced commitment to the joke and high-styled post-camp camp is your bag — and it is a scene with which I am often down — then Lee Daniels' Precious and any one of sundry offerings from Lars von Trier are about a thousand times funnier, nastier and more stylish than Black Swan.

Most of the rest of what I feel compelled to say about Black Swan itself has been covered by any number of outlets less prone to rambling. While the below dips into some of Black Swan proper, I am slightly more interested in the way the film is being discussed and the films discussed in its company.

Unless I'm not looking in the right places, there is a good deal more of Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) in Black Swan's DNA than indicated in most press. To, really, the point that what we have here seems to just be Repulsion paint stripped, primed with garden variety backstage bitchiness in the manner of (I was gonna say All About Eve almost!) Showgirls and fitted with aftermarket ballerina hood ornaments. The first problem of Black Swan is that it is difficult to discuss without making it sound exciting and fabulous in ways that it is not.

Right, Repulsion: basically, yes, that is about riding on one character's shoulder while she goes bonkers, replete with subjective crazy-hallucinations and, like, major Sex! Issues! and Food! Issues! Catherine Deneuve's nigh-catatonic character Carol does not manage to eat anything but half a cracker and some sugar cubes during the course of Repulsion; Swan has a funny horror suspense bit centered around whether Nina will have to eat a slice of cake. This is what Black Swan does the best. Developmentally arrested swanchild Nina's psychology, relationships and attendant hang-ups and tics are thoroughly mapped out and Natalie Portman hammers them home with solid, steady blows, work face constantly set in one panic-eyed about-to-barf expression. Her technical performance is impressive in that she brushed up her ballet and lost weight to the point of looking like complete shit, but, you know, Robin Williams grew a beard, learned Russian and saxophone for Moscow on the Hudson, so whatever.

The flowchart build to Nina's various conditions is fairly affecting and accurate, based on, well, honestly, self-harmers, girls with eating disorders, compulsive scratchers, and the OCD-afflicted that I have known. This body phobia/abuse/resentment business is tied in nicely — if not necessarily sympathetically — with Nina's work as a dancer, dynamics with her mother (Mickey Rourke) and blah blah. Also straight from the Repulsion Files comes a fragile-to-busting-apart protag bombarded by the lecherous, shaping, all-consuming male gaze. And though Polanski did this stuff better 45 years ago (!), it is the most interesting material, and I like the tension inherent; a world driven by voracious, objectifying male sexuality built Nina and did this to her, but at the same time: Jesus kid, grow up. In likely the funniest scene a little old man makes pervo gestures at Nina on the subway and she is PARALYZED WITH HORROR! The audience I was with, women included (women especially), was in hysterics, and I assume it was because that is how they would react in real life: they would laugh in that man's face.

Anyway, charting Black Swan's lineage might place its title in the unfortunate proximity of a short list of masterpieces. From a highly non-scientific sampling, the films most often cited as cousins, outside of Aronofsky's own work are: Repulsion (shrinking violet undergoing crack-up, appalling cuticle trauma, etc.), The Red Shoes (1948; character relationships and, of course, an off-stage narrative that increasingly resembles the show being rehearsed), and Suspiria (1977; I guess there's, like, weirdness, blood and ballerinas?). To this list I would add INLAND EMPIRE (2006; actress gradually subsumed by role, emerges triumphant on other side, with possible ironic caveats). But that is a list of some of the best films ever made, and Black Swan is not a patch on any of those. While it swipes/shares/resembles story materials from the above, much of that is just plucked from the ether. When you're telling a story about performers, the show is going to parallel their lives, and backstage drama is going to be frothy and romantic or catty and backstabby. Check out this interview in which Aronofsky discusses the non-influence of The Red Shoes on his film. Some things are simply in the air, which is a nice way of saying "cliché." The real issue is how one shoots and cuts those clichés.

Without singling out anyone, the general line from a lot of Black Swan enthusiasts is that the film is gloriously overheated, spectacularly weird, and maintains an exciting, sustained hysteria. Some but not all also indicate that it is some kind of intense, inventive, lush and swoon-making A/V experience. That is also the first and major association I have when someone invokes The Red Shoes.

But that's not Black Swan's agenda and it is Black Swan's undoing. It is not fevered and/or extravagant in design, feel or form. It is formally sloppy, consisting entirely of handheld footage sticking to Portman's top third as much as possible as she makes her way through sets mostly decorated with cinder blocks and lit with florescent tubes. Primary color gels pop up only when diegetically motivated by dance clubs and stage lighting. In the matter of ars gratia artis, there are no individual arresting images until the very last seconds of the film, even during the depicted ballet production where Aronofsky might have felt more comfortable breaking with his shaky-handed "naturalistic feel" (see: interview linked above) to put bodies in tableaux on interesting sets. Besides wrangling Portman into an arch-backed masturbation pose that one might witness in any number of American Apparel advertisements, the most memorable image in Black Swan is at its close, and just as tawdry: the scrawny, pasty, glass-eyed victim bleeding out on a bare mattress on a barren stage. This is bested only by my personal favorite shot, a rousing fade to a blank screen, which is marred only because the roaring white noise on the soundtrack is also supposed to be thunderous applause.

The effect attempted seems to be the forcing of a kind of lazy identification with Nina by virtue of camera-stalking her, which in turn makes all hallucination fake-outs disorienting simply because it violates our expectations of the quasi-documentary technique. Or maybe it would, had The Blair Witch Project not been made in 1999. This is, of course, best-guess type criticism. The handheld you-are-there vibe is mucked up by a slightly more stylized MDMA rollin' sequence and goofy CG effects throughout. Point being that the film is gritty and dingy and its images almost entirely uncomposed, one might recall what it showed, but not how it is shown.

During the first murder setpiece of Suspiria, there is the sudden shift in location that fracturously, illogically moves the victim and her attacker from an apartment to... some kind of, like... place that's over the stained-glass ceiling in the lobby? This happens between what seem to be temporally continuous cuts, is never explained, cannot be clarified by repeat viewings. It is not a mistake or a cheat, it is an element — if not the element — that makes the whole sequence truly delirious, unsettling, terrifying. It is a formal choice to violate classical construction of space and time, whether it registers among all the gore and glass or not. Black Swan is never for a moment that kind of overwhelming sensory experience. Once in awhile the music gets real loud, but these aren't even bizarre and inventive shock sound cues as in, well, Repulsion and Suspiria. Sitting in front of certain pictures by Powell and Pressburger, Argento, Sirk, Lynch, Von Sternberg, De Palma, Ken Russell, and Guy Maddin it is sometimes a good thing one is sitting down: the ceaseless stream of crazed opulence and/or juiced-up-to-overflowing melodrama could cause one to faint straight away. Despite some reports to the contrary, Black Swan's aesthetic is sadly closer to Argento's later, grimy, desaturated The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) than it is likely to induce Stendhal Syndrome. Grand melodrama has every reason to be as visually baroque as its story, and Black Swan is a fairy tale shot like a reality show.

Anyway, re: the rest — that is story, characters and Themes of Import — the whole thing is way too schematic, from 1:1 Swan Lake correspondence that borders on the nonsensical to suicide by symbolism-I-mean-shattered-mirror. The movie cannot sit still and stop jittering its legs, so cannot hope to build the kind of spaced-out existential dread that Polanski wrings out of a shot of Carol pulling a stubborn glove off her hand, and its big freak-out pieces are the sort of haunted house jump scares that make one groan during a Friday the 13 picture. To be fair, at the sight of a gross-out transformation gag in which Nina's legs mutate, the lady sitting next to me exclaimed "LORD JESUS RETURNED!," so maybe there is something to be said for simple alarm.

If there is a shock, it is that the film's central not-a-metaphor is its only idea, explained repeatedly, promised over and over, displayed in title and poster, and there is little to do but wait for Nina to turn into the goddamn swan. And so she does, but the concept is bulimic-thin. Consider some Oh So Symbolic animal visitors that appear at the end of some truly exquisite and unhinged insanity: the deer in All That Heaven Allows (1955), the robin in Blue Velvet (1986), the lizard in Opera (1987). They "mean" something, but even in those cases where we have characters discussing what they mean it is impossible to pinpoint, fully unpack and completely access what that is, exactly. They have an eerie, unspeakable, omigod-something's-wrong quality, and are surprising final manifestations of the forces rumbling around in the bellies of their films. Black Swan, however, is not so complicated, fraught or inventive, and waddles in a straight line until the swan shows up.

Not that it matters particularly, but it is difficult to say if the shrieking melodrama is at all in the realm of intentional camp. One suspects not. There are silly shocks like a room full of howling crappy paintings, which are funny unto themselves, but no notes of sly, odd, personal humor that would cut through the turgidity (e.g. — the spoon and banjo buskers in Repulsion, the INLAND EMPIRE rabbits). No slight shift in perspective that might deepen our view of Nina's predicament. Repulsion has a few scenes where the focus briefly moves to Carol's suitor at the pub, where he worries about her and gets in a fight when his horndog friends suggest an orgy. These scenes without Carol clarify her paranoia and the relative actual rottenness of the men around her and heighten the horror and tragedy when we return to her apartment.

Come to think of it, Mila Kunis as Lily the Naughty Ballerina does marginally serve these functions; she has the only real "jokes" and behaves like the only normal, vaguely-well-adjusted human being. The other function she serves is that I would rather be watching a movie about Lily. While I want to believe Aronofsky does not think the height of unleashing one's Dark Swan is to take recreational drugs once, maybe do some sex things, have a "lezzie wet dream," and that this is all only horrific from the perspective of the maladjusted Nina, the existence of Lily and Kunis' performance are the only encouraging evidence. I want to believe this, but Aronofsky's track record has not convinced me that he he does not find weird sex and drugs to be the depths of human depravity. This time they turn a crazy girl into an evil bird person.

Finally, without harping on it too much, I've generally got issues with extremely self-serious art which confirms the agonizing pain of creating great art. It is, for one, a highly suspect line of B.S., and for two, as illustrated in tragic lampoon by the not-tortured genius Brothers Coen in Barton Fink, those constantly babbling that no one understands their Art Pain do not tend to, you know, do anything very cool anyway. This jive, plus much jabber about Perfection and Letting Go, and even, if I didn't mishear it, the wisdom that part of Perfection is Letting Go, all of which is a) related and received with comically inflamed intensity, especially considering that it b) ought to sound like complete horseshit to anyone who actually makes art.

The Swan is starving, all right, but mainly of technique and imagination. Lord Jesus Returned.