Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) seems seamless. It’s special gift is its amazing wholeness — how performances and writing and directing all work together without any one overshadowing the others. Seeing it again was to notice slow, small moments tidily encapsulated in a film about rage. The short moment where Jake La Motta (played by Robert DeNiro) watches Vickie (played by Cathy Moriarty) splashing her legs at the public pool. The long moment when Jake finally approaches the ring for his championship fight and the crowd noise gets louder and louder and louder….
Watch Jake’s brother Joey, played by Joe Pesci, in the slow-building scene above: his brow creases and he shifts in his chair as he gives in to Jake’s bullying…. In many ways it’s a quiet scene, with just the two faces and no fancy camera shots, but it is portentous as Jake will continually ask for punishment from those around him and then lash out at them for giving it. The black and white cinematography helps us focus on the interpersonal here — there is nothing on the wall behind Jake until they stand up, nothing else to look at but these brothers fighting as they have and will. The radio plays on.
“What does it prove?” Joey asks a good question, and we can’t answer it yet at that point in the film. The scene is all suggestion — that fighting begins at home (notice the woman, Jake’s wife, with whom he has already fought, peeking through the door?) and that Jake’s inability to divide public and private, fighting and family will escalate the suffering around him. The film is best known for its operatic violence, its spraying blood and pulpy faces, but these quieter bits are just as impressive.
In the clip above from Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010) Werner Herzog narrates the lives of Russian trappers in the remote wilderness on the edge of Siberia. His inimitable grave voice battles the sentimental soundtrack as Herzog tells us that these men, who spend months each year alone with their dogs, are self sufficient and thus “truly free.” The documentary, directed by Herzog with Dmitry Vasyukov, is wonderful — beautifully photographed and obsessed as only Herzog can be with the details of the trappers’ lives: sculpting canoes, hauling gear through treacherous waters, protecting food from bears, making their own skis…. The men are impressive craftsmen, and they can make whatever they need from the materials at hand. Living in a land only accessible by boat or helicopter for a few months a year, they have snowmobiles and television sets, but rely on food they grow or catch.
It’s no surprise that Herzog would romanticize this life as he has always been interested in the relationship of man and nature, especially in extremis. This film has the usual omissions: the men spend more time talking about training their dogs than raising their children, for example. Women are scarcely mentioned, nor are the ethics of the fur trade, tensions with indigenous peoples, or environmental concerns. But Herzog’s narration is more understated than in Grizzly Man, for example, where he makes more claims about Human Nature as well as Nature and Civilization. Here he only once or twice refers to his claim that the trappers are “happy people” because they live simple, self-sufficient lives….To his credit, Herzog doesn’t spend a lot of time defending that position. Instead he dramatizes the daily lives of the trappers across the seasons, showing us their enthusiasm for their work as the best proof possible. One trapper hardly stops smiling, even when a fallen tree caves in the roof of his hut. They may be happy, but these men are always one small step from disaster, it seems — which makes the film much more complicated and rewarding than the title might imply.
There was so much to like about American Hustle (2013)! The performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence were all strong in subtle ways. The story by Eric Singer and David O. Russell–about an improvised sting operation run by a rogue FBI agent with two ex-cons– was terrific. And David O. Russell’s direction was assured and well paced. The clip below shows his mastery of visual storytelling as it gradually reveals the couple’s relationship and the film’s theme of pretending. The screenplay continually questions what or who is “real” and in this strange but moving dress-up scene we paradoxically see this couple as themselves– falling in love in a dry cleaner’s store as the plastic-wrapped clothes encircle them in a world of their own.
Yet as a whole the movie didn’t cohere for me. I wasn’t sure where this messy engaging story was going, which was part of the point of the twists and turns of the plot. But what was the main focus or idea of the film? Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) learning how to be real with themselves and each other? The conflicts that occur when one person’s reality clashes with another’s? The failures that spring from good intentions? There are lots of ideas played out here, but no clear focus to the whole–which is a shame because the parts are so good.
It took many tries to view Amour, Michael Haneke’s Oscar-winning foreign film from last year. After I found a friend willing to watch a film about death and aging we then spent several weeks trying to coordinate schedules so we could watch it on demand one evening. I promised to provide sugar to cheer us up, and tissues. He and I had both been on the front lines for the death of a parent and we were going out of our way to revisit that time–
The clip above shows some of the film’s stately pleasures: Haneke’s slow pace and his patience in letting a small but telling scene unfold itself (I read somewhere that the pigeon scene took 12 takes), his attention to lovely visual details like the patterned floors in both rooms and the shadows and light at windows and doors. Most of the scene is quite static. The camera doesn’t move and there are few cuts. We see the old man (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) struggle with the pigeon from a distance and the comic element gradually becomes heroic. As viewers and writers we’re supposed to ask questions like “what does he want?” but even the question seems grotesque in this context. He wants the love and intimacy he lost: nothing that a pigeon could provide! My friend and I sobbed through much of the film, but the old man doesn’t cry. He reminds me most of Virginia Woolf watching that moth: there’s life itself right in front of her! (…then death, of course) The old man wants to reach out and grasp life too, but he is already failing. Death is such an abstraction so much of the time that I found it oddly reassuring to watch it unfurl on the screen and remember it unfurling in my father. It is a tremendously brave film.
It must be difficult to film a new and surprising martial arts sequence. In the long history of the genre and its films, hasn’t everything been tried already? The first scene in Wong Kar Wai’s new film Grandmaster (2013) manages to feel fresh though: although using atmospheric elements and a restricted palette have been done, Kar Wai spends as much time on the water as the battling men. The rain becomes an active participant in the fight– striking with force, spinning through the air, bouncing off targets. Although the melee is hard to make sense of because of the choppy editing and the darkness, it is a visual treat that sets up a film full of visual treats.
I went to see Grandmaster with someone who didn’t like it. There is no consistent story with suspense or drama. The characters are one-sided. The ending sentimental. All true. But where else can you see a close up of an exquisitely-lit coat button? Recurring patterns of feet sliding and pivoting on the floor? The attention to sensual detail (and moody cinematography) are typical of Kar Wai’s films and he arranges his moving canvas carefully. There are long swathes of gold in a brothel , then a shift to an all-white winterscape. There are brief cuts to archival footage from Chinese history in the 1930s and 1940s. Text appears on screen to move the chronology along. The film is based on the historical figure of Ip Man (played by Tony Leung), a martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee, but Kar Wai doesn’t always seem sure if he is making a biopic, a romance, a kung fu flick, or even a documentary about the varieties of martial arts in China. Nonetheless, I found the film beautiful enough to forgive many flaws.