It is a real pleasure to welcome Andrew Skelton, a good friend, to The Family. He is an experienced viewer and has recently decided to try his hand at analysis and criticism. He has slick style. I hope he inspires you to check out the films he recommends in this new series “Forgotten Gems,” meant to turn your eyes back toward many deserving, but overlooked films.
Cutter’s Way [Passer, 1981]
Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way presents an America void of justice and personal responsibility. Passer introduces us to his protagonist, Richard Bone (a young, suave, and oft-shirtless Jeff Bridges), as he trims his mustache and admires his own shirtless visage in a hotel mirror. Rather than engage in meaningful conversation, this self-centered, drifting womanizer leaves his latest sexual conquest to, “visit a sick friend.” Cutter, Bone’s “sick friend,” is first seen attempting to use racial epithets to start a bar fight. After departing this most recent example of Cutter’s self destructive ways, Bone’s car breaks down in a dark alley. While stalled on the side of the road, Bone observes a figure in what will later be identified as a woman’s body in a dumpster.
Bone soon recognizes the figure, which will distinguish Cutter’s Way from other neo-noirs of the 70s and 80s. Cutter’s Way isn’t concerned with who the murderer is, but rather with what Bone will do with his knowledge of that murderer. Bone favors order and status quo, whereas Cutter thrives in chaos. Bone’s primary moral quandary is whether to upend his luxurious lifestyle of sailing (a literal drifting) and sleeping with older women to pursue some form of justice. Cutter, a bitter war veteran, certainly typifies the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate American on a search for justice, as he outlines in one of the film’s many well-written and emotional exchanges between these two protagonists. Has affluence and comfort overshadowed its desire for justice?
Jeffry Alan Fiskin’s smart screenplay, based on Newton Thornburg’s novel, presents three damaged characters; Bone, Cutter, and Cutter’s wife, Moe, who have all known each other long before Passer’s camera starts rolling. Their history together has most recently consisted of dealing with Cutter’s drunken rampages. Neither Bone nor Moe show surprise when Cutter drives home drunk one evening, bashing into a neighbor’s car and fence in the process. Cutter talks his way out of any legal fallout from this event by showing imitation remorse to a police officer. This avoidance of legal fallout is exemplifies Cutter’s ability to maintain his lifestyle, but more than that, an America devoid of ramifications.
Cutter’s Way presents a supremely American quandary between complacency and the pursuit of justice. Bone is promised a reliable full-time job by his employer, but to pursue the murderer would put that employment at risk. Typical of 70s neo noirs is the always prevalent undercurrent of paranoia. Robert Horton has already described this beautifully as part of Jim Emerson’s Opening Shots Project, but one shot of Bone sailing in front of a watchful oil derrick (the murderer Bone spotted was wealthy oil baron J.J. Cord) also captures this sensation. We can see Cutter’s Way marking America at a crossroads, one in which citizens must decide what they’re willing to risk to become heroes.
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Chinatown is often evaluated as a revival of the Noir Sensibility, released at a time when Hollywood was keen to revisit old forms and imbue them with a more overt surface darkness – something that’s always been done and will continue to be done, (look no further than recent superhero releases). But Mr. Towne and Mr. Polanski do something very radical in Chinatown – they make a Noir in broad daylight. Very little of the action in Robert Towne’s Almost Perfect script takes place after sundown. But when the sun does sink, people sneak, people screw, and people die. Of course, that nighttime death was Polanski’s idea – he knew what kind of film he was dealing with. More than anything else, Chinatown is a masterful exercise in perception and trust. It uses our relationship with film and our tendency to believe everything that we see as a cruel weapon. Has a more subjective film ever been made? We latch onto Jake Gittes like a leech, experiencing every stupid decision he makes through his eyes. Indeed, Polanski and Towne have a thing for eyes and what they can do. Even more, they’re ready to expose what they can’t.
In keeping with Noir tradition, rooted in Sir Raymond Chandler, we aren’t allowed to experience anything our hero doesn’t. Of the 477 shots used in Chinatown, only 19 don’t involve Jake as a visible subject or come from his point of view. Still, he’s present for all 19. In addition, 153 of the shots are unarguably positioned to reference Jake’s subjective visual point of view. Except for those 19 shots, the only reason we don’t see Jake is because we are Jake. The runner up for the Character With Most POV Shots Award goes to Evelyn Mulwray, unsurprisingly, with a paltry 33, most coming in basic conversation with Jake.
But Polanski is too crafty to consider standard POV shots enough to render a subjective perspective. In at least 105 shots, he employs a simple visual tactic that gives the spectator access to both Jake’s subjective experience and a judgmental distance – he just follows Jake around. There aren’t many other movies where we spend almost a third of it watching the back of our hero’s head when they’re not in conversation. Polanski invites us to consume this new Los Angeles with Jake, but not always through his eyes. He does this to deliberately challenge us – to make us ask whether or not we want to follow this idiot. Jake Gittes was not born with the wit and charm of a Sam Spade or a Phillip Marlowe. He’s clumsy, vain, stupid, and “unlikable,” but Polanski gets us to stay with him by allowing us to simultaneously judge him and be caught up in his obsession. On many occasions, Polanski makes this explicit – beginning a shot in strict POV and later swinging out to reveal the subject.
This visual strategy asks the question Do You Trust What You See? Are we supposed to be allies with Jake or do we judge him? More than any other, this is the primary dilemma of Chinatown. What you see may not necessarily be true. The script even makes this immediately clear – Ida Sessions impersonates Evelyn Mulwray. We don’t know it was an impersonation until we see Evelyn for the first time. Polanski also challenges the way we see things by filtering them through another source, may it be binoculars, a mirror, or a lens.
Eyes, mistrusted as they are in Chinatown, are loaded with foreboding throughout the whole picture. Evelyn’s flawed iris. Noah’s busted glasses. Every car mirror is angled to reflect the driver’s eyes. And, of course, the final murder. The film begins with Curly looking at photographs that prove his wife is cheating on him. Today, this carries more resonance – is a photograph really proof anymore? – but we begin the film from someone else’s point of view and we end the film from someone else’s point of view.
During that iconic last scene, we are mostly detached from Jake’s point of view. We see the murder of Evelyn through his eyes – standing at an eerily long range, hearing the blare of that car horn – but that’s almost it. The shot where she is killed begins as a POV shot, but soon everyone walks into frame. Polanski wants us to wait behind and judge, to see what Jake and Noah and Evelyn have been reduced to. From that point, we assume the magnificent POV of Lou’s partner, who is handcuffed to Jake. It may seem strange, but there is no better character to inhabit for the last shot and those bitter last words. We finish the film literally chained to Jake in his repeated, seemingly infinite grief before something magical happens.
Chinatown’s camera work never crosses into expressionism. Establishing shots are at eye height. Motion is almost always executed with a handheld/barely-rigged setup. But in this final moment, the camera lifts into the sky, and we watch as police cars blow by Jake and his associates. Finally, Polanski resists forcing any perspective on us and we are free to judge. I will always find this to be one of the most spectacular visual decisions in the history of the medium specifically because, after a grueling exercise in morality, incest, Americana, and politics, Polanski seems to shrug and say, “Forget it, Folks. It’s a fucking movie.” In the end, he gives us God’s perspective.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. – But what if there’s no more beholder?
You can hear Mssr. Carax cackling through all of Holy Motors. It’s a movie made from the darkest, most hateful regions of the body, its vitriol constantly spilling out of the screen. Carax loudly and flamboyantly announces the death of Everything. Holy Motors is angry, feral, spiteful, and ridiculous. It spits in your face, steals your handkerchief and tells you to wipe it off with your sleeve. It’s a film of boiling attitude, snarling and not afraid to bite.
But isn’t hate just an anxious desire for love? As I look back, the vitriol of Holy Motors seems to turn itself inside out. There’s a lot of death happening in Holy Motors, but only the death of the Way Things Have Been. Carax isn’t inventing a new type of cinema, but he is trying to kill off an old one. After it condemns the history of film, it requires you to imagine the new future. Holy Motors begins with the most elaborate and darkly exhilarating joke in recent memory. A packed audience sits in front of a movie that we hear but do not see – they’re dead. But that’s not the joke. Carax wants us to hope that his movie will resurrect this fake audience. Of course it doesn’t. But it does require us to be alive. This opening gesture is the core of Holy Motors. With maniacal enthusiasm and profound spite, Carax cleans out the tradition of commercial moviemaking, clearing space for a cinema that celebrates and rewards those of us who are alive.
The film considers a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he makes his way around Paris in a limousine, fulfilling various engagements referred to as “appointments.” Oscar is constantly changing shape, but not through magic. Each time he emerges from the limo he is a different character, built from the costume and prosthetics warehouse that appears inside the car – an elegant homage to acting as well as a sturdy structural mechanism. Oscar has “appointments” as a father, a beggar woman, a motion-capture actor, an accordionist, etc. etc. It is said that Carax devised the episodic structure to suit the numerous ideas he’s had during his last dozen filmless years. Be sure, Holy Motors benefits from this. Carax’s work has had a tendency to slouch under ponderous, Romantic pressure. The format of Holy Motors allows his zany episodes to assault the audience at full density.
Some “appointments” make the light bouncing off the screen feel like lightning. In the most crowdpleasing segment, Oscar morphs into “Monsieur Merde,” a lurching, feral gnomish creature that climbs out of the sewers, bites off some fingers, and abducts Eva Mendes. All the while, a pretentious photographer blissfully documents the scene on old-fashioned film, shouting “SO WEIRD!!!” The episode succinctly demonstrates the growing cliché of High/Low juxtaposition and addresses our cultural obsession with beauty and ugliness with a cinematic wallop. One of the film’s most electric images is of Merde, naked and sporting a raging hard-on, lying down to sleep on Mendes’ lap as she sings “All the Pretty Little Horses” to him. Ugliness destroys and corrupts beauty, but ugliness is also just an invention of Oscar’s perpetual theater.
It’s fruitless to name every effective episode, since virtually all of them work on some level and most of them are genius miniatures. As I began to understand the structure of the film when watching, it first seemed like a cop-out. Breaking down the movie into short bursts of zaniness is one way to avoid making solid observations about anything. And it’s what makes the film palatable to lazy or ignorant filmgoers. All of this seemed like a concession to commercial dictum.
I was so fucking wrong. The episodic structure does allow the film to be more accessible, but Carax is so frightened of clarity and cliché that he blissfully rejects the need to unite the segments with anything but character and tone. In fact, he’s ballsy enough to give away the entire point of the film about halfway in, revealing that Oscar is a kind of actor working in a series of non-filmed films. Carax renders every bit of plot action meaningless as a tool for manipulating our narrative expectations. But that isn’t a part of the Newness that Holy Motors is celebrating, it’s a part of the Oldness that it’s killing. Carax obliterates any narrative stakes that he might have constructed in the interest of demonstrating their worthlessness. The best films teach us how to experience them. Here, Carax shows us a cinema that can free itself from traditional procedures and remain engaging as an experience.
After the stakes are eliminated, we are given three mercilessly devastating episodes. We know that there is no narrative purpose in them, but they still work emotionally. In fact, Carax demonstrates his hitherto unseen skill with designing bold emotional scenarios and executing them with concision. First, Oscar plays a father who picks his daughter up from a party. From there, we witness a delicate tug-of-war between the lying, insecure daughter and her loving but insensitive father. Later, Oscar changes into an old man who lies down to die and talks with his niece. It’s the best episode in the film, deeply sad and (ultimately) brilliantly comic. Death wafts over the entire movie – here, Carax is allowed to address it directly. At the end of the scene, one of the most mystical, liberating moments in [hyperbole alert] cinema history occurs. Oscar, apparently dead with his grieving niece and dog next to him, rises from the bed and quietly tiptoes out of the room. He asks his “niece” what her name is and tells her that he has another appointment. She says the same thing back to him. Again, by this time we understand the structure of the film and we know that Oscar is acting through life, fulfilling different roles and characters as they’re demanded. He has “died” a couple times already, including one very memorable gangster sequence. But that doesn’t stop a moment like this from succeeding.
If “pure cinema,” whatever it means, has ever existed, it’s in this moment. It addresses the emotional gravity and potential of the movies while elegantly addressing the fact that they’re make-believe. This is the resurrection that we’ve been waiting for. It’s Carax’s thematic answer to the dead audience. According to his argument, the audience could all be like Oscar, acting in a perpetual production. But the deathbed scene proves that there’s no such thing as death in the movies. There’s no such thing as coincidence, either. It’s all written and produced and edited and projected and consumed as art or entertainment or whatever. Cinema is dead but it’s also alive and been dead and resurrected and dying and doing jumping jacks.
The third episode of heartbreak involves Kylie Minogue. Admittedly, she sings a limping song, but it’s executed in such a thrilling, seamless way that I can’t care much. This scene was where I first acknowledged the Ghost of the Nouvelle Vague. Minogue sports a short, blonde wig and wistfully walks around an abandoned building with Oscar. Her character’s name is Jean – like Jean Seberg. The set looks like Last Year at Marienbad if Atilla the Hun designed it. Pieces of mannequin are stacked and piled on the floor, the ancient ruins of ancient style. The revolutions of Resnais and Godard and Varda are dusty, old, and strewn about the floor. Carax destroys and celebrates the Nouvelle Vague – just as they did to their ancestors. Like Oscar rising from his deathbed, Jean sheds her coat and wig before jumping to her death. She becomes a new character and we can expect that she rises and walks away from her suicide moments after we leave. The cinema is an immortal, impermanent universe – stylistically and otherwise.
Holy Motors ends like a prayer and the title of the film is explained. There is holiness in the way things move. A spirit in the machinery. A soul in the mechanical. Thing is, motors are made to repeat the same process over and over and over again. In a truly grand comedy, the final joke is that things will always stay the same. Dying and Living and Working and Eating and Loving and Begging and Watching and Dying Again and Cetera. Carax knows that revolutions (including his own) can only be so big. Holy Motors is a triumphant punch in the nuts. But nothing tells us we’re alive better than this kind of pain.
The last time we visited Paul Thomas Anderson was in 1927 — the bowling alley of a hollow, California castle. Daniel Plainview was curled and slouched on the floor, having just bludgeoned Greedy Faith straight to heaven. “I’m finished.” Plainview catches his breath and Brahms blows in. Anderson may be the only big-game filmmaker cocky enough to invoke the last words of Christ after a pastor is clubbed to death. And, most troubling of all, Plainview doesn’t even know who he’s quoting.
It’s been five years since There Will Be Blood, but not much has changed. We move ahead a dozen years or so and then a dozen more and arrive in the same America where Daniel Plainview pumped gold from the earth and the same America where Eddie Adams will one day change his name to Dirk Diggler and the same America where frogs fall down. The Master cuts a line between the boundless ambition of There Will Be Blood and Anderson’s early work. It ushers us from one to the other. By the time he’s done with us, he might have left behind the most comprehensive cinematic history of America we’d ever imagine. Some may lament the loss of those tidy, personal stories in Sydney or Magnolia, but Anderson is increasing his scope and it’s only getting bigger, more expansive, and more relentless. At the end, we’re left with a floating wish. Freddy might call it a fart. Anderson’s always had trouble ending movies, but how does one end a picture like The Master? How does one end a love story of such terrific, dynamic proportions? It’s a brave cinema, a lets-both-jump-at-the-same-time cinema, a rabid cinema, a confident cinema, an imperfect cinema — and perfectly so.
Much will be written on what The Master is “about.” You can smell the dissertations in the theater. Roger Ebert, with an uncharacteristic lack of vigor, made no effort to wrestle with the beast and ultimately asked “But what does it intend to communicate?” Some weirdo thinks it’s about poison. Many folks in the theater were interpreting the entire movie through the lens of Scientology, which is the worst of all possible ideas. And I’ve read a convincing argument that the film is a pop-Freudian warzone. Indeed, the basic dramatic structure can be filtered through bread and look a lot like ID v. EGO FIFTEEN ROUNDS RUMBLE IN THE HOMOEROTIC TUNDRA. It’s all there. But none of these ideas is as satisfying as need. Anderson has said that he wanted to tell a love story between these two guys, and did he ever. The Master will immediately encourage comparison with There Will Be Blood, but its true companion is Punch-Drunk Love, that strange and enthusiastic monster from 2001. Both take loneliness as the greatest villain of all. Barry only pursues his enemy when his companionship is threatened. Here, Freddy Quell is Barry’s past life — a twitchy time-bomb trying to satisfy the most basic human desires.
World War II is ending when we first meet Freddie. In a prologue that feels very similar to the one in There Will Be Blood, we watch him struggle for satisfaction and satiation in a variety of crude gestures. He fights and climbs trees and eats and drinks and jerks off and fucks — he’s an animal. He first finds work in a department store and later on a farm. In an early, touching moment, Freddie tells a man that he looks like his father before accidentally incapacitating him with his Voodoo Lysol potion. Those familiar with Anderson’s oeuvre will not be surprised at the pathos invested in such a small moment — it deals with a father. On the run, Freddy stows away on a glowing yacht, photographed with mystical curiosity in a doozy of a long shot. The boat sets out into the Pacific and gives us the film’s greatest image — a group of pilgrims floating under the Golden Gate Bridge, an enormous American flag beating back in the dusk.
Aboard the vessel, Freddie meets Master Lancaster Dodd, leader of a pseudo-scientific group called The Cause, and a bond is born. Why is Dodd so friendly towards Freddie? It’s the most puzzling question of the film. In their final encounter, Dodd muses that “in the next life, we will be sworn enemies. And I will show you no mercy.” By giving us an angular, rigid Freddie and a round, rotund Dodd, we are allowed to ruminate on the basic needs that unite them. Opposites attract and all that nonsense but Dodd is undoubtedly drawn to Freddie’s simplicity, his freedom. Freddie becomes a sophisticated pet and soldier, his loyalty rooted in his desire for companionship. As Dodd subjects Freddie to “informal processing” as his guinea pig, Freddie doesn’t want to quit. Most curiously, he says that he “doesn’t like being told what to do.” Of course he does. Dodd, fighting fundamental animalism, sees an opportunity to help Freddie, but, most of all, sees himself in him.
It is hardly necessary to celebrate the pieces that form The Master‘s puzzle. It speaks for itself. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman exhibit formidable control, commitment, and work-ethic. Watching Phoenix in the processing scene is like watching a witch doctor brew every ache and pain you’ve ever known into a cup of tea and drinking it. Hoffman channels Anderson’s ghosts — Orson Welles and John Huston, above all. It’s a pair of performances with precedent, but led by a director who is somehow able to sell exuberant self-indulgence so well that the characters turn into American giants of inimitable stature. Amy Adams lurks in the corner of every scene. She’s often out of focus, tucked away in some tight crevasse, but always present and intense — hovering over the men. Anderson’s ability with actors is on par with any other, perhaps above — doing most of his job with writing, exhibiting a clear joy for dramatic scenario. Malaimare’s 70mm photography is electric spectacle. One small scene at the end, as Freddie walks along an English road below a ceiling of crooked connecting trees, mirrors the bright blue Rorschach of the ocean. Opting out of the snaking widescreen of There Will Be Blood, The Master uses a tighter ratio to fill the screen with the mountaintops and troughs of the human face, internalizing the epic. Jonny Greenwood leaves behind the moaning, apocalyptic strings of There Will Be Blood in favor of humming, twitchy winds with no desire for resolution. It’s haunting and calm and intimate — and at the end, it shows us how to feel. Anderson’s placement of music, especially the period songs late in the film, is his most assured and deliberate stroke of organization to date. His taste for camera motion has progressed from the unruly panache of Boogie Nights‘s opening to the delicate, dancing charm of the department store. And his taste for large-scale symmetry is as strong as ever. The return of the “processing” questions, the sand-woman, the clear blue wake all lead Freddie on his odyssey.
The Master will surprise many audiences with its compassion for religion. The surface of There Will Be Blood has convinced people that Anderson is hostile towards religion, but ever since the frogs, it’s been clear that he has a desire for faith and understands its place in society. Though we aren’t given a wealth of details on The Cause, Anderson takes it seriously. It confronts the fear that we are animals, the fear that this life is our only chance, the fear of pain, the fear of fleeting friendship — fears that everyone understands. Just like Freddie and Dodd need each other, we all need faith to keep the fear out. Of course, many specific elements of The Cause’s philosophy are made to seem ridiculous, but that doesn’t encourage Anderson to treat them as such.
There’s no question who “The Master” is. But it’s neither Freddie nor Dodd. It’s our urge, our evolutionary impulse, our basic struggle to mediate between our mind and our body. Some have said that Peggy is the true master. She might be. Not because she tells Dodd what to do, but because she can use her body to get it. Freddie’s sexual release in the final scene could have so easily been a surge of rabid energy, but Freddie lays on the bottom, straight and solid and submissive. He parrots the processing questions to his lover, not trying to master her, but to give her the same compassion that Dodd once gave him. He remembers how good it felt to be called “the bravest man I’ve ever known.” He remembers how good it felt to let go. He asks her, “Is this your only life?” After a moment, she says, “I hope not.”
To Anderson, the man who gave us bowling pins and pudding and Aimee Mann and frogs, faith is a virtue. If we do have animal brains, they’re big enough to tell us how small we are.
I was honored to be invited to cover for Nathaniel over at The Film Experience today.
Jump over and follow along! I’ll be posting a few entries throughout the day.
An introductory one on some of my favorite female performances –
Some brief thoughts on two different sides of the great cinematographer Gregg Toland –
I only crack the surface of Arrested Development‘s use of memory –
I’m excited to show everyone a project I’ve been working on for a while. After an extensive study of Paul Thomas Anderson’s career, I decided to make a video essay on his use of symmetry — particularly in There Will Be Blood. What’s even more exciting is that it’s running at IndieWire Press Play, a blog that I’ve watched and loved for a long time. Thanks to Matt Zoller Seitz for helping this thing get some legs. Hopefully there will be more to come.
Here’s the video, and make sure to head over to IndieWire to read a small introduction –
*Written for the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience*
Al Pacino’s work in the 1970′s will always be one of the most impressive streaks of virtuoso performance in any art form. His work in both Godfather films, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon rank among the finest acting exhibitions post-Brando. Pacino took a risk by portraying Sonny Wortzik, but created an unforgettable portrait of stress and disappointment.
Dog Day Afternoon has a traditional Hollywood climax at the end, but the emotional peak comes earlier. The audience watches Sonny speak to the two loves in his life — one man, one woman — for almost 14 minutes. While his lovers are held in wide shots and middle shots with the occasional close-up, Sonny is always held in a tight frame the entire time. The difficulty of sustaining a character during a phone conversation for this duration cannot be exaggerated. Remember that, when filming, Pacino isn’t hearing another voice on the phone. At best, the other end is represented by a reader standing off-camera. [Edit: A reader just informed me that Pacino and others were on the phone with each other during shooting. A rare, fantastic call by Lumet.]
The “best shot” above comes at the very end of this masterful segment and we see the burden of kindness begin to crush Sonny to death. Sidney Lumet is not necessarily a great director. With 12 Angry Men, Network, and Dog Day, the films for which he is most remembered, Lumet basically succeeded in realizing a breathtaking script. His imagery is mostly tame and rarely adventurous. Surely, his ability to crank out acceptable (and sometimes extraordinary) renderings of the best Hollywood writing is what made him so indispensable to producers. This frame is not bold or particularly revealing, but it does demonstrate Lumet’s ability to recognize a gold mine when he finds one.
Pierson’s script and Pacino’s performance combine to create one of the best character studies of the decade. It’s a true human tragedy amplified by Pacino’s intense internalization of bigotry.