11 December 2011

Xmas Season Movies, Day Three: Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Country: U.S.A.
Based on a novella by Arthur Schnitzler

The Lowdown
Age: 16 and over (explicit sexual content, extremely tame compared to what your 12 year-old has seen online)
In-laws, relatives: DON'T do it. Like the character Alice, your partner may use this film to start a rather uncomfortable discussion on what constitutes cheating and so on. If your relationship is going through a rocky phase, better watch this when alone.
Required level of sobriety: whether you drink or not, watching this film will feel as though you've been dragging a long, depressing night of drunkenness.
Audience: Mid-Atlantic mentality, mix of New York and London, maybe? It's not a film for the Bible belt-minded. This film is particularly satisfying to students of literature and amateurs of filmic semiotics.
Christmas Spirit: Yes, in the sense that Christmas is a time of year out of time, outside of our daily routine, when flames can unexpectedly shoot up from unseen, icy crevasses in our path.

This film is based on the aptly titled narrative Dream Story. I haven't read the Arthur Schnitzler novella so I don't know whether it was set around Christmas, but Kubrick was right to keep at that time of year or switch the action to the end of December. The film dedicates one day to routine, in between a Christmas party and a descent to darker recesses of humanity just before Christmas, and that routine day is an anomaly. There are times in life when the daily grind is a distant reality whereas the dream world, intoxicated, stoned, nightmarish feels like the most tangible layer of being.

This film was made for students of literature, every scene has its double, a degraded, dehumanised version of the first which in some cases was troubling to begin with. There is one woman in this film, duplicated mother, low-class prostitute, high-class prostitute, teenage prostitute with pimp father, daughter (the one with the dying father, and the main couple's daughter), they all have that reddish hair and statuesque figure. Colour coded, verbal reflexivity, scenic mirrors, Eyes Wide Shut is imbued with postmodernity and the bourgeois concerns of modernity. 

Here, I should pause to link to this very good essay about the film, Introducing Sociology: A Review of Eyes Wide Shut. It's certainly worth the read and, written in 2000, the essay was produced in the midst of that academic obsession with "commodification". But what, I ask you, in our world, is not subject to commodification? I just find the subject too facile. Still, the article provides many insights -- I'd been wondering about Alice's paintings too.

Back to the bourgeois and modernity: one of the many reasons why so many of our narratives centre on the wealthy is because those without daily contingencies possess the luxury of focusing on existential problems rather than counting pennies. 

A quality film can be watched over and over though Eyes Wide Shut loses some of its appeal  upon repeated viewings. Despite this being a supposed "art house" film, tension and anxieties around plot developments make for much of the interest here. A second viewing will allow you to complete the decoding of semiotics to your satisfaction. After seeing the film several times over more than a decade, I still discover tidbits. Nick Nightingale, pianist and a character who propels the plot and its main character forward, is a character who always stayed with me. This time, I looked up the actor who plays him, Todd Field. Sydney Pollack, also in a supporting role, is a natural, pitch perfect, but Field is magnificent. Also, I enjoyed Sky Dumont's performance. His character is some wealthy, European, sleazy seducer who tries it on with a drunken Alice Harford, a character who, like her wonderland namesake, is easily affected by potions and poisons.

I'm not giving anything away here by referring to the orgy. If you've ever heard anything about this film, you've heard about the "orgy" scene. So boring. Kubrick was a genius and I'm sure this is deliberate. I've never been to an orgy but I'm sure they are nothing like that. If the lighting was orchestrated by Kubrick and we could all look so airbrushed and look so good from any angle in any position, then we'd all be having orgies, wouldn't we? Except that luxury and perfectness makes it all appear rather sterile and, if not dehumanising, decidedly non-human. The orgy scene is the opposite of sexy. Eyes Wide Shut isn't a sexy film and that's how Kubrick intended it.

10 December 2011

Xmas Season Movies: Day Two, The Thin Man

The Thin Man (1934)
Directed by: W.S. Van Dyke
Country: U.S.A.
Based on a detective novel by Dashiell Hammett

The Lowdown
Age: all ages.
In-laws, relatives: yes, yes.
Required level of sobriety: the movie is still good sober but I suggest lining up five martinis at a time. It just seems rude not to keep up with the characters.
Audience: not for brutes, a certain level of sophistication required. Leave your socialist tendencies at the door. Yes, we know there was a depression going on. The whole point of these films was to forget about it by fantasizing about abundance.
Christmas Spirit: Plenty. If being passed out on martinis every night and giving open house Christmas parties out of your hotel suite is your idea of Christmas spirit -- and whose isn't?

What can I say? William Powell just sits there, shooting his gun at a Christmas tree for what seems like twenty minutes. If you don't appreciate the perversity in this, you might still like The Thin Man, but you won't feel its a part of you like so many of us do. It's one of my test when I'm getting to know someone. If they don't like The Thin Man, it gives me pause.

Yes, another whodunnit set around Christmastime. I wish there were more. Here, the plot twists aren't important as much as style and characterization and the style of the characters. William Powell and Myrna Loy made many Thin Man movies together. They were icons in their day, and they still are to people like me who go into shock every time some mundane person reminds them that, no, they are definitely not a reincarnation of Irene Bullock.

Christmas in New York in the thirties. To be transported there is all one needs to feel joy and I can ask no more of a movie.

09 December 2011

Xmas films day one: L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential (1997)
Country: USA
Director: Curtis Hanson
Based on a novel by: James Ellroy

Age: 12 and over. References to prostitution, drugs and porn but your kids are online, right?
In-laws, relative suitability: Should be fine with it but at 2.5 hours running time, fidgety and easily distracted people are out.
Audience: low, middle, high brow which is why this is one of the best films Hollywood has made in the last forty years.
Holiday sobriety meter: sober to tipsy. This isn't The Third Man, but you need to be able to pay attention.
Christmas spirit: not so much

I prefer films set around the Xmas season to straight Xmas movies. L.A. Confidential, based on James Ellroy's neo-noir novel is so carefully plotted and brilliantly executed, it is the sort of film I watch mesmerised whilst feeling a burning pit in the depths of my stomach because I didn't come up with the story. In my mind, when I write books and make movies, they're like L.A. Confidential, intelligent (especially for an American movie), stylish, captivating, and entertaining.

I'm a bit tongue-tied when talking about L.A. Confidential: great plot twists, great characterization, great atmosphere... so I turned to Roger Ebert's review and despite him giving the film the maximum four stars, I don't find his review particularly more illuminating than my open-mouthed awed.

I can't tell you what it's not. In L.A. Confidential, the plot resolved through raw intelligence. Only someone who has tried to write a mystery before can tell you how difficult it is to achieve this without making the "mystery" too simple or without having "off camera" information the investigator only reveals at the end. Or, the solution is so ridiculously convoluted and obtuse, only a pure genius would figure it out. Our Confidential hero, officer Edmund J. Exley, is just very smart and Ellroy conceived of a crime entanglement that's just good enough for his hero to almost fail to resolve.

The film attracted some of the best actors at the time, Crowe, Spacey, Cromwell, Strathairn, Rifkin probably because every part is written as though the character has a whole life, not just a half-life for a few scenes supporting a plot. The film gave Crowe and Basinger a lot of attention. I'm weak in the knees for Guy Pearce as Edmund J. Exley. I always was one for the incorruptible man. What makes his character perfect is that Exley is so intense, if you saw him walking towards you on the street, you'd cross for fear he'd start telling you Jesus Christ is your Lord and saviour. You know, the kind of character who is spellbounding onscreen and who you think about afterwards but the kind of person you definitely wouldn't want in your kitchen.

Aside: Prostitution, pornography, racism, political corruption, L.A. Confidential is as American as apple pie.

I hope I've inspired you to watch or re-watch L.A. Confidential, my first movie of the Christmas season 2011.