Monday, April 12, 2004

Film Round-Up

Easter holidays - everything pretty much quiet. No new music in my bag this week - although I've been tempted by the prospect of the new album from Tortoise, may pick that up later. Instead, I've spent most of the week glued to a TV set - and one that, it must be said, is starting to show its age. Most of the films I've watched this week have been bathed in a rich blue light, because the contrast on out TV is so terrible. Anyway, I've always found that holidays are a great time to catch up on classic movies on VHS, so here are just a few that I've seen....

Laurent Cantet's wonderful Time Out definitely stands up to repeated viewings. I saw it in the cinema on its initial release a couple of years ago and found it to be a very striking picture that poses very serious moral questions about the expectations which society places on individuals and the expectations which individuals place upon themselves. The film concerns a man who has lost his job who, rather than face up to the prospect of lengthy unemployment, pretends to continue to go to work, concocting non-existent meetings and business trips in phone conversations with his family. He invents a new, elite position for himself with the UN. He does his research meticulously, and is able to speak convincingly about his role, albeit with a slightly sinister reluctance that does not go unnoticed by his considerate wife. Eventually, his story spirals out of control, as he cons some of his closest friends out of considerable sums of money to fund lavish spending sprees on his family.

The film relies on Aurelien Recoing's extraordinary central performance for its captivating quality. Somehow, he is able to radiate warmth, vulnerability, despair and ruthlessness in equal measure. His character and actions are complex and it is therefore impossible for the audience to jump to swift moral conclusions about his methods or his madness. He is able to communicate a great deal with very minimal actions, and in his conflict between devotion to his family and his inability to confront his fears, he elicits sympathy and revulsion in equal measure.

The quality of the performance is more than matched by the exemplary confidence of Cantet's direction. He is not concerned with sentimental emoting or even the overuse of technique. Instead, he creates dynamic scenes with coiled tensions, and allows them to run for as long as they need to. The pace of the film is remarkably unhurried, and Cantet allows himself to create a sustained and powerful mood. Visually, for me, the best moment in the film came when Recoing's character becomes involved with smuggling contraband goods (watches, designer clothing) across European borders with a kind petty criminal who takes pity on his situation. Their quietly revealing conversation takes place against a night-time journey through heavy snow, set to a deeply affecting string score from Jocelyn Pook.

In writing about the film in The Observer, Philip French claimed that it was ostensibly more about deception than not working. To my mind, this misses the point entirely. At the core of this film is a deceptively simple, remarkably perceptive and entirely valid point. For most people lucky enough to have secure employment in the modern world, work characterises their very existence. It provides routine, order, and constant activity. When it is suddenly and harshly removed, someone's very purpose and character may go with it. The market-driven world in which we live sees human resources as expendable and transferrable - and we regularly expect ordinary working people to endure indignity and move on. Not only this, but we expect them to continue their contribution to society - working their debt nine to five with another grinding routine. The film's closing scene arguably spoils the ambiguity of the preceding climax - but it is there for a purpose. It demonstrates clearly that work is something none of us can avoid for long - this is a world of life experience, transferrable skills and CV points. The final words - 'I'm not scared' are quietly devastating.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is the last film the great German director Fritz Lang made in Hollywood. The blurb on the video case proclaims it to be 'a masterly exposition of American justice', whatever that might actually mean. The film itself also seemed slightly uncertain, vascillating between being a bold critique of complacent state prosecution, where manipulative movers and shakers seek convictions and executions above finding the truth, and being a confused thriller, full of twists and turns. Even the central premise of the film - whereby a writer struggling to overcome writer's block frames himself for a murder (with the assistance of a pernicious newspaper editor), is slightly implausible, but forgiveable as a plot construct to make the essential point that it is possible for entirely innocent men to be sentenced to death row. The courtroom scenes are charged with a poweful inevitability and the performances are appropriately steadfast. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Hollywood film from the 1950s, the female parts are slightly underwritten, with Joan Fontaine's suffering but dutiful wife only finding her own space towards the end of the film. The directing is assured, with some careful staging and subtle editing, but any moral point made by the film is surely undermined by the final twist. (If you intend to see the film - I'd avise you to stop reading now as I will only spoil it for you).

It eventually turns out that, despite planting evidence at the scene necessary to condemn him, that the writer did have a former connection with the murdered club girl and had killed her after all. Of course, he did it to protect his loving wife -but this final scene is hurried and entirely unconvincing. There will of course be no final pardon - and he is marched back off to death row. The concluding implication therefore seems to be that the death penalty system is fine if it condemns genuine murderers, but problematic only when it convicts the innocent. It would be churlish to expect enlightened liberalism in Hollywood during this era, but the preceding hour of the film had seemingly attempted to show how difficult it is to establish truth beyond a reasonable doubt. Maybe this final undignified flourish adds effectively to our confusion - but I can't help feeling that it poses more questions than it answers, and at less than 80 minutes, the film is slightly too brief to deal adequately with such weighty issues. A much more successful crime film from Lang is 1939's 'M', which is a genuinely chilling and supremely measured presentation of a child killer and the violent reactions to his killings in a German city.

I felt it was about time I saw a John Cassavetes film, having read a fascinating article in Sight and Sound magazine about the two considerably different versions of 'Shadows', considered by many to be his masterpiece. I picked out a copy of The Killing of A Chinese Bookie, admittedly enticed by its unusually convoluted title. This is certainly extremely different from any kind of American film I'd seen before. It is utterly distinctive in its aversion to style and technique. There is atmosphere for sure - a number of the scenes are dark and moody, but more often or not the look of the film is refreshingly amateurish - with jerky camera motions tracking characters through corridors and darkened rooms. Ben Gazzara gives a naturalistic and affecting performance as Cosmo Vitelli, a strip club manager who is forced to murder to repay his debts to the mob. His face eludes perennial sadness and regret, and his big personal compromise is convincingly played. It's certainly arguable that the darkened appearance and mood of the film appropriately reflects his own dark personal dilemma.

The problem for me is that the film is simply too existential. There is really only cursory examination of Vitelli's relationship with those who work for him and thos he is close to. His final speech is moving - but has he really earnt our sympathy. After all, he has committed murder. Some have praised Cassavetes for his character development in this film - but I couldn't really see too much of it outside Vitelli's own personal nightmare. It has an elusive visual narrative - but, despite its feature length, the full force of the plot seems strangely compacted. Many of the extended scenes seem more concerned with atmosphere and tension than with actually exploring the moral issues at the heart of the film. It's worth watching for its distinctive approach, but it has as many flaws as virtues.

Part 2 of the Great Easter Film Round-Up will come tomorrow....

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