11 July 2011


18 April 2011

Tennis Ball Humanist Cinema

If we lived in a just world, Billy Woodberry, as much a single-film martyr as Barbara Loden, would be one of the patron saints of the American independent cinema and Bless Their Little Hearts would be recognized far and wide as the greatest American film of its decade, and the greatest document of life in the lower depths of our country since The Salvation Hunters. We don’t, of course (his film, written and shot by Charles Burnett, screened recently as part of the Burnett retrospective at MoMA but didn’t even warrant a mention in the write-ups from the Village Voice or Alt Screen). What’s disgusting isn’t that Woodberry hasn’t received his personal due – the history of the cinema remains the history of undervalued directors – it’s that its attention to the social-economic-racial truths of urban life should have been the model for the last thirty years of independent filmmaking in this country. The suppression of Bless Their Little Hearts sets the American cinema back more and more with every day it’s not viewed by future filmmakers.
If Killer of Sheep alternately saunters and stalks and My Brother’s Wedding sprints, Bless Their Little Hearts sits around, breathing hard, tired not from labor itself, but from the act of trying to find it in the first place. This stasis accounts for fifty or so of its eighty minutes, the exceptions being the opening, set in an employment office, where the lead, Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman), wanders around looking for anything to do (it echoes Welfare in its ability to render a civic office a space of nearly complete opacity), Hardman’s work clearing an abandoned field and a fight between Banks and his wife (Kaycee Moore) where they yell, cry and sweat at each other in their kitchen in an unbroken take that runs the length of a 16mm reel.
This latter instance introduces a genuinely new approach to filming a scene. Shot handheld, in stark contrast to the tripod-languid zooms and pans that make up the rest of the movie, it uses its added mobility not to dart around looking for the best angle into the expression of a scene (Cassavetes) or to maintain a precisely calibrated emotional proximity (Allan King), but rather to absorb and reflect the truth of the interaction between Hardman and Moore. That is, Woodberry and Burnett treat the camera like a tennis ball, as it spins and dips and swerves in response to a shout or a cry or a turned down head or an embarrassed whisper or the moment when Nate Hardman actually appears to be drowning in his own perspiration, and because of these spins and swerves and dips it regards Hardman and Moore from all sorts of odd, counterintuitive angles that effectively destroy the space where directors normally get in their own way with bad ideas or too much art: its approach to framing is as much an advancement for humanist aesthetics as the pan in The Crime of M. Lange.

28 December 2010


The most moving piece of criticism done in the past year, as well as the finest film I saw in 2010, (Film - even though the work is done on video with that distinct compression, it's cinema) was this short by the exceedingly perceptive Thai cineaste Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa, he of the astounding FILMSICK blog. The audio is from Alain Tanner's classic JONAH WHO WILL BE 25 IN THE YEAR 2000 but the visual effect of the opening and closing of the aperture to mimic the rising and falling of the day brings to mind Joseph MacDonald's portrait of Walter Brennan at daybreak during the finale of John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE

That reveal of the top of the tree! How can you not just fall apart at that moment? Cinema will never die as long as critics like these are prepared to show us the outline of their spirit with such finesse.

29 October 2010

On Imperfection

If Nick Ray is indeed the cinema, as Godard maintains, then we must believe that every muscle in his body belongs to a different element of his films, a different formal concern. And so one is tempted to hypothesize that Nick Ray controlled his opening sequences through the furrowing of his forehead, much as Gloria Grahame could treat a man’s libido like a boomerang through bending her dexterous brows as in A Woman’s Secret.
Being a Ray film, A Woman’s Secret starts with a signature credit sequence, although its value may be lost on those new to the picture. A negative image of a musical score is laid out on a surface as the cast and crew’s names roll by. All we can make out on the sheet are the various notes that comprise a song entitled “Mexican Symphony” by an artist, who, although the name is obscured, we will come to find out is called “Estrellita,” a manufactured name for a manufactured singer. Already a theme of careful control is implied, and reinforced by the following scene’s images. A conductor stands at his podium, behind him hangs a neon “On the Air” sign: this is the interior of a radio studio.

Most critics have pointed out time and again that this scene fails to live up to Nick Ray’s experience in the field of radio – in favoring the auteur over his work they fail to notice the careful arrangement of the scene, the significance of the conductor wagging a baton in front of Susan Caldwell’s face, and the constant machinations of the men in the booth controlling everything from within. From this careful environment of restraint and control comes a dissolve into the home of Marian Washburn, the dominating guardian of Susan/Estrellita – thereby melding an image of the workplace and the home. Marian finishes recording an acetate of the day’s program and turns the machine off after Susan coos, “…And guide him back to me” (In this case, the “him” being the “her” of Marian). From the listlessly bored expression on Marian’s face as she sits down, it seems that she is without meaning sans Estrellita, that she defines herself through Susan’s singing persona, and that the lyric we have just heard sung might as well have been expressed by Marian waiting for Susan.

(One of the eeriest moments in Ray's oeuvre -- Maureen O'Hara looks directly into the camera, acknowledging D.P., director, and audience in one unwitting gesture)

A dissolve takes us to Susan’s entrance but as soon as Marian brings up the day’s broadcast Susan heads for the stairs. The obvious dissatisfaction of the two women with their lives rubs off of one another in a way that readily predicts the legendary staircase scene between Vienna and Emma in Johnny Guitar. Only here the great twist in the dynamic between the two films’ female pairings is that, in the narrative of A Woman’s Secret, the would-be Vienna type has created the supposed Emma type, a female riff on Frankenstein and the golem mythos.

“There’s something I want to talk over with you. Only I don’t mean talk over – I mean tell you…I don’t want any help and I don’t intend to talk it over. It’s just something that I’ve decided to tell you. And I’m going to tell you: I’m tired. I’m tired of everything and everybody and I’m through. I’m through for good.” 

So goes Susan’s rant to Marian, a stinging suicide letter that is, like the heart of Ray’s cinema, honest and to the point; a musing on what constitutes decisive action. And since this is Ray the amateur tragedian at play, the emotions of the scene will shift radically throughout, at opposite ends of the spectrum: Susan’s boiling temper peaking until the bottoms drops out and she dashes away despondent, while Marian’s placid concern snaps to an unexpected fury all of a sudden. But the definitive performance of the scene may be Virginia Farmer as the maid Mollie – her comic timing while reacting to the gunshot shows Ray’s mastery in blocking actors against the complex geometry of his scene.

And so, with this gunshot, the film finds its center, a coat rack upon which to hang its jacket. The film’s Rosebud: Why does Marian take the rap for shooting Susan? The convoluted answer involves explaining why Marian would damn herself to save Susan but it’s impossible to figure out and who really cares anyway? A Woman’s Secret is unrivaled as a movie when you don’t focus on the dead weight at its core. I believe that Marian wrongfully confesses so as to create the movie around her, for without her complicity in the shooting there would be no film. The film’s narrative is avant-garde in its approach, from the false flashback to the hospital sequence in which the film’s characters repeatedly explain the plot points to the audience – not that they make any more sense even when explicitly stated. Marian claims she shot Susan so that we might have a reason for this film’s existence; a reason to capture the amazing little sequence where Luke Jordan heads to Algiers to find Susan; a reason to put passing silhouettes in the window frame of the diner where Inspector Fowler and Jordan compare notes; a reason for Mankiewicz’s lightly surreal touches: “That’s a funny thing about cabs – you wait and wait and wait and finally an empty one shows up and somebody’s in it.” Most of all Marian assumes responsibility so that we can have such a beautiful film to save from those who remain indifferent to a cinema of imperfections, a cinema that streams through Nicholas Ray’s arteries.