Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Notorious (1946)

Spoilers galore...

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Ben Hecht
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and Claude Rains

Images from a 2002 Korean bootleg (Region-free) of the Criterion Collection release.

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Having not seen Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious in almost a year, I had forgotten just how much I loved the picture. Along with Rear Window, Francois Truffaut claimed it as his favorite Hitchcock movie. The film is not my absolute favorite of his, but it's definitely up there, and after refreshing and revising my thoughts, I think it's one of his most fascinating movies. Here, we have Hitch approaching one of his many summits of perfection, and in Notorious, we have the director at his most subtle, manipulative, and controlling. As with Ace in the Hole or Sunset Blvd., Notorious is also a film noir that breaks free from the conventions we normally apply to the genre/style. The acting too, is perhaps among the strongest in any Hitchcock movie.

Notorious tells the story of Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a Nazi spy who is enlisted by Agent Devlin to go undercover and investigate a group of Nazis in Brazil, headed by Alex Sebastian, a former friend who is easily seduced, falls in love with, and then marries Alicia.

From the very first shot of Notorious, we can see that the film is, to some extent, self-aware.

2 Notorious

The credit cards and this first shot, which pans around to look at photographers/reporters just outside a courtroom, are framed within another frame. Just like Rear Window, we become aware of Hitchcock's omnipresent control. The reporters can also be seen as an intrusive force, and they, along with the film itself, direct Alicia and Devlin's actions. Notorious, at its most basic level, is a film about a love triangle, and the people pulling the strings (Hitchcock's camera, Madame Sebastian, Devlin, Alicia, and Prescott).

Control: In Love, War, and Patriotism... Exercise subtlety.

Plot-wise, Notorious is like any other romance. The story is simple: An FBI agent falls in love with a Nazi member's daughter. Against his own feelings and for the sake of his country, he pushes her away and into the arms of another man who's in love with her. What distinguishes it from say, Casablanca, is that it is a Hitchcock picture. In Notorious, there is a feeling of entrapment, something that Hitchcock put into his very best movies (Rear Window, Rope, Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, etc., etc.).

Hitchcock's movies, by in large, have a police-phobia, perhaps stemming from the well-known, well-told story of his father sending him to a police station to teach him a lesson about law abiding. When we see Alicia driving (drunk) with Devlin, there is of course, a policeman:

3 Notorious

More than just Hitchcock's (sub-)conscious phobias expressing themselves, we can also see this as the coming rift between Devlin and Alicia caused by their patriotic duty and sense in upholding of US law. Alicia is also wearing a zebra patterned blouse, suggesting at least two things. On one level, she is a kind of prey to Devlin, as well as his profession. It also symbolizes her promiscuity and primeval nature, and to me, it suggests her as a sort of femme fatale, if we adopt a film noir approach to the film (I'll discuss this later).

Maybe it's just me, but I've never felt like "rooting" for Devlin to get the girl. It's not at all the feeling you get from seeing Casablanca, where you really want Rick and Ilsa to be together. Yes, Devlin does have the guarded stoicism of Rick, but Rick's comes from his wounded past, whereas Devlin's comes from his sense of duty. In Notorious, Devlin acts as a puppeteer, and it is through his actions that he guides Alicia into the hands of Alex Sebastian.

5 Notorious

It is in this scene (along with many others) that Devlin orchestrates the action by spurring Alicia's horse and causing Alex to run after her and "Meet Cute." From this shot, you can sense the animosity between the two, expressed by Alicia's hat, which shields her from Devlin.

One thing I noticed about the shooting style is that it's very consistent and precise, and the camera movements suggest feeling and provide atmosphere (duh!). The famous kissing scene is done in one long take. The film does not provide any breaks from the moment and shoots them in a close-up that envelopes the lovers. While also adding a sense of intimacy to the scene, the shot also serves as a snare and an allegory for love and duty. The long take binds them and does not allow for any escape.

In later scenes, we see the animosity between the two grow, and as it does, the shooting style changes. Take, for instance, the scene where Devlin first tells Alicia of her assignment. At first, they are all love-y dove-y, and both are shown kissing in the same cozy close-up. As the details of her assignment are made clear, the two begin drifting apart. Eventually, we don't see them intimately in the same frame and the film begins cutting between individual close-ups. There is a moment in which we see Alicia alone behind the veiled window curtain, deciding her fate to go undercover. The scene ends provocatively with this noir-ish shot:

4 Notorious

Devlin's love throughout the film is masked by contempt. He loves her, yet he is irked by her promiscuity and how his boss, Prescott, encourages exploiting it. We will see that he will constantly use her unstable past as a source of fodder in their verbal jousting.

"I guess this is the part where you tell me you have a wife and two kids and this affair cannot continue."
"Well, you'd be used to it by now."
"Right below the belt, every time."

The image places them apart, yet it wisely places them in the same frame. Their romance has been undermined by the assignment while at the same time, they must keep in contact because of it.

The shooting/editing style of first showing them together and then indicating a rift by separating them in shot-reverse-shot is subtle, which I think is in keeping with the whole espionage theme of the film. Emotion is rarely stated overtly or melodramatically. Suspicions are insinuated by simplistic dialogue. I'm amazed at how little music there is too, unlike Hitchcock's many collaborations with Bernard Hermann. In Vertigo or Psycho, the music is such an integral part of the movie that it's impossible to think about them without taking Hermann's contributions into consideration. Notorious, on the other hand, does not use musical cues to emphasize emotion, instead relying on visuals for expression:

7 Notorious

This scene is one of my favorites, because in some ways, it is the entire film summed up in a nutshell. We first see Devlin and Alicia together, with her feeding him information right under the nose of Alex Sebastian. There is then a smooth transition to Alex and Alicia. The visuals tell us the situation, and here, Alicia's clothing suggests she is caught like a fish between the two men, as well as her love and her duty.

If Alicia is being manipulated by Prescott and Devlin, the counterpoint to this relationship is Alex's manipulation by his mother. As with other Hitchcock films (Psycho, North by Northwest), my fascination with his characters often stems from their unorthodox relationship with their mothers. Alex Sebastian isn't quite as odd as Norman Bates, but in some ways, the relationship is more interesting, and on one level, creepier (Yikes! Did I just say that?).

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Along with her possessiveness of Alex, there is also a hint of incestuousness, like when Alex says:

"You've always been jealous of any woman I've shown any interest in!"

His mother acts as a director much in the same way that Devlin does. She does, after all, hold the keys to the mansion. The mansion itself is kind of like Manderley in Rebecca, an arena in which Hitchcock can move his pieces to his liking. The interiors are simultaneously vast while still filled with claustrophobic close-ups. The centerpiece shot of the film is all Hitchcock, complete with chessboard and pawns:

8 Notorious
9 Notorious
10 Notorious

Hitchcock loved hitting on little details with shots and edits to signify their importance, using Pure Cinema as he called it. Maybe that's why I like Hitchcock. His movies tend to have a strong visual component, and he told stories more with images than words. In Notorious, the key and the poisoned coffee (both controlled by Mme. Sebastian) become his central motifs. The hoodwinking of the key, perhaps parallels Alicia's undercover affair with Devlin. And for me, the poison provides an allegory for the dangers of marriage, as well as suggesting the possibility of Alicia as a femme fatale. As Alex says:

"[...] entirely due to your presence, my dear. You always affected me like a tonic [...]"

Notorious as Noir

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The funny thing about Notorious is that I actually feel the most sympathy towards Alex. In looking at it through the lens of noir, I see Alex, not Devlin, as our conflicted noir hero and Alicia becomes the dangerous woman (maybe even... notorious), and could be called a femme fatale. After all, it is Alicia who puts on the mask and surprisingly, Alex falls for it by proposing marriage. In some ways, Notorious is a noir like Touch of Evil, where the "good guy" (Devlin) is less interesting, and even less sympathetic than the "bad guy" (Alex).

Alfred Hitchcock and film noir were both highly influenced by German Expressionism, and while they do cross paths, Hitchcock isn't really considered a noir director. I think part of that may be his tendency to experiment and go with bombastic globe trekking movies like Saboteur or his techni-color films later on. Still, Notorious has definite noir qualities, particularly the masking of emotion and expressionism.

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The Cast

What sticks out about Notorious among Hitchcock movies is that the casting is perhaps at its very limits of perfection.

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Of the Ingrid Bergman movies I've seen, I think Notorious has her best performance (yes, better than the Oscar winning Anastasia or Gaslight performances). This movie in particular, shows her range. One thing about the acting in Notorious that strikes me is the eye movements. There are frequently shifting glances by Grant and Bergman that fit very well with the subtlety of the film. Especially Bergman, who is so good with close-ups and often has eyes that search the face of whomever she's looking at.

Cary Grant's calm stoicism is also well suited, and it's an interesting choice to have him as less sympathetic than Claude Rains, who perhaps gives the most fascinating performance. With Notorious, the characters are not pigeonholed into a standard damsel-in-distress routine but given dimensions. While I tend to say Devlin is unsympathetic, I say that because of how he deals with his love more than his inner feelings. Of course he loves her, but he closes himself off, both for his job and out of contempt for her past behavior.

If I say Claude Rains is the most sympathetic, part of that comes from his position. To everyone, he is basically a tool to be used. Rarely do you see him in any control: the poison is decided by mother, the keys are held by mother, he does not instigate his relationship with Alicia, his fate comes from his own gullibility, etc.. There is a sense of fatalism to his character in particular that seems very noir-ish.

18 Notorious

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Wall to wall spoilers. See the film. Do it. Now.

Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Bob Arthur, Porter Hall, Frank Cade, Richard Benedict, Ray Real, and Frank Jaquet

Images from the 2007 Criterion Collection release.

21 Ace in the Hole

For me, Billy Wilder's insanely caustic Ace in the Hole is one of the greatest films ever made. At the time it was released, it was a box office flop and most critics were none too happy with its scathing attacks on journalism. I suspect people were turned off by how closely Wilder took aim at the audience itself, completely exposing the idiocy of the American populace and equating them to sadistic vultures. While the film may not look it on the surface, it is one of the great film noirs out there. The setting is actually not unfamiliar ground for noir, since movies like Out of the Past and On Dangerous Ground do bring themselves to the open spaces of the countryside. Ace in the Hole certainly has its share of noir-ish moments as well, but what I like about it the most is how it manages to completely ridicule the media circus and the society out of which it was born. That it was made during the height of the Hays Code is even more astounding. Kirk Douglas really does give one of the great performances out there, and Chuck Tatum does belong on a list of deeply flawed, yet fascinating characters that includes Fred C. Dobbs, Hank Quinlan, Dixon Steele, Jim Wilson, and more. 

The film tells the story of Chuck Tatum, an out of work newspaperman looking for a big story amidst the vast emptiness of New Mexico, hoping that it will shoot him straight to the top. He stumbles upon Leo Minosa, who's trapped under an Indian burial ground and exploits the situation into a full blown, 7-day rescue operation. The film is one of the finest indictments of the media circus and the blood-thirsty unwashed masses. 

Jim Emerson of the Chicago Sun-Times has an "Opening Shots Project" at his blog. His belief is that all great movies can be understood by examining their opening shots in detail. It is like the first paragraph of a book that sets the stage for what's to come, thematically and literally. I think I'll give it a shot with Ace in the Hole:

2 Ace in the Hole

Here, we are introduced to Chuck Tatum riding in a car that's being towed while reading a newspaper. From this, we can see that Tatum is an opportunist. He does not create something novel so much as ride on the coattails of others and feed off of them. The shot implies he is a parasite/rodent/pest, and the film will later show that this is something present in the great American masses as a whole.

Chuck Tatum: Newspaperman, Treasure Seeker, Opportunist

I do think Chuck Tatum is a parasite, but it would be a mistake to lump him in the same pile as the rest. He's in another class of parasites, the king of them all, if you will. Whereas the readers of his articles are essentially moronic, Chuck is intelligent, calculating, manipulative, and above all, he knows he's a parasite. We see him ask Mr. Boot for a job, prostituting his services for a price.

3 Ace in the Hole

He uses others, and gets used himself. Tatum is also self-destructive, an alcoholic who doesn't even need a drink to send him over the edge. He is self-catalytic, auto-igniting his own inevitable destruction as he clamors to the top. The image of him lighting a match on the typewriter exemplifies this, and also shows that he is an impetus for the media circus, with the typewriter as his spark. 

Mr. Boot is perhaps the most prominent of the admirable characters, and even his role is minor at best. In terms of principles, he and Tatum are two sides of the same coin. His slogan: "Tell the Truth" is scoffed at by Tatum, who fantasizes about a story involving rattlesnakes loose in Albuquerque, with him pulling the strings. He's the kind of newspaperman who engineers a story to his fitting, completely flying in the face of Boot's ideals.

4 Ace in the Hole

He does, however, share many similarities to Boot. For instance, we see him talk about Boot's belt and suspenders as indicating how cautious he is. A year later working for Boot, we see Tatum wearing a belt and suspenders in exactly the same way. He is calculating and careful like Boot, but where they differ is that Chuck carelessly lets his guard down during his ascent (i.e., him taking off his suspenders when his old boss reluctantly rehires, thanks to Chuck's careful orchestration in the first place). 

Another is when he tells the soon to be starstruck Herbie Cook:

"Bad news sells best! Good news is no news."

Right there he has just told one of the great truths of the film, so in that sense, he does tell the truth, just not on paper. One thing about Chuck Tatum is that he really does tell it how it is. Whether it be his monologues to Herbie about how the newspaper business really works, his extortion of Sheriff Kretzer, or his scenes with Lorraine Minosa, he's actually brutally honest. The only place he really outright lies is in the newspaper itself, to the public. 

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Chuck's characteristics extend beyond Boot alone, and I would say he's as much a treasure hunter as Leo. The only difference, of course, is that Leo is Chuck's treasure trove. One thing that's apparent from the first scene between Chuck and Leo is that nothing is sacred and there's nothing that Tatum won't do to get his story. There's no respect for the law as well as the ancient Indian burial ground. In that sense, I don't see Leo as much more sympathetic than Chuck. In fact, the Criterion dvd cover ingeniously puts Tatum's face in the newspaper article. Tatum is the "Treasure Seeker Trapped in a Burial Vault," and that vault is his own selfishness. He even tells Lorraine:

"There's three of us buried here. Leo, me, and you. We all want to get out and we're going to. But I'm going out in style. You can too, if you like."

Lorraine Minosa: "Loving" Wife, Femme Fatale, and Eve

I'm convinced the blackest heart in the film must belong to Lorraine. As bad as Chuck is, he at least tries for some redemption in the end. She, on the other hand, is consistently cold and careless towards her husband throughout the film. For starters, she uses Leo's captivity as an opportunity to run away after cleaning out the cash register, yet again. She even tells Chuck:

"Honey, you like those rocks just as much as I do."

Just as she is about to leave, Chuck seduces her into staying with thoughts of selling hamburgers like hot cakes. The exploitation of Leo's situation by Lorraine is morbidly humorous. Each time we see the entrance to the burial grounds, the price jumps. First 25 cents, then 50, then it's a dollar. And "everyone pays. Mrs. Minosa says so." The icing on this crazy cake has to be letting the amusement park set up camp, giving a much more literal meaning to the term "media circus:"

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She is a femme fatale as well, and tries seducing Chuck on more than one occasion (or is it he who has seduced her?). The interesting thing is how little interest Tatum shows. Even Sam Spade, who still resisted such temptations at least showed some weakness. Tatum, on the other hand, seems to treat her more like an instrument. Completely the opposite to Jeff Bailey, he doesn't even flinch when she warms up to him, but rather brutally slaps her across the face:

8 Ace in the Hole

I definitely see a lot of religious context in Ace in the Hole. The ending in particular has a kind of desperate scramble for redemption on Tatum's part. Leo Minosa's mother too, seems to be constantly praying for her son. Then we get to Lorraine. Early on, we see her here, in easily one of the most famous biblical references out there:

6 Ace in the Hole

If Lorraine can be thought of as Eve, corrupted before she even has a chance, I wouldn't necessarily call Chuck "Adam." What is apparent is how Chuck, at least in my mind, ends up being slightly more admirable than Lorraine (with slightly being the key word). When he does finally realize the damage he's caused, you can really feel the disgust he has, for himself and the media monster he created. Lorraine doesn't show an inkling of remorse. I think the last time we see her, she is waiting for a bus amidst the masses evacuating themselves from ground zero. Chuck actually does seem to have some guilt (coupled with his own disintegration) over Leo's death. 

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I think it's important that we not reduce Chuck to merely a rotten apple (ha!). I don't really see him as a sadistic character and the real "villains" are the American populace, who gobble up whatever bad news comes their way. Chuck is really just using the hungers of the readers as a means of success. I wouldn't say he's benevolent by any stretch, because part of his desire to set things right is out of survival, but unlike the readers, I don't think he necessarily enjoys others' misery (except other newspapermen's).

Media and the American Public: Rapin' and Cannibalizin'

"We're comin', we're comin' Leo
So Leo don't despair
You are in the cave a hopin'
We are up above you gropin'
We will soon make an openin'

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I think the single ballsiest thing Ace in the Hole does is equate the exploitation of Leo's situation by the media (and subsequently the American people) as public rape. The lyrics of that decidedly cheerful jingle, which I only noticed after hearing Neil Sinyard's commentary, reveal themselves as really quite sinister. Obviously, they are "innocent" lyrics and the public doesn't have the intentions that are implied. But the audacity of slipping lyrics like that into the film, coupled with the obviously phallic drill pounding away, creates a really interesting allegory for the media circus. 

Thinking about the public as a mass of rapists aside, the more explicit and intentional allegory is probably equating the public to vultures, essentially cannibalizing their fellow man for amusement:

16 Ace in the Hole

That train's sign... what exactly is that intended to mean? It's like: What'll you be having today? Let's see, I think I'll try the Leo Minosa Special with a side order of fries and a vanilla milkshake. And I can't really think of any other way of reading that. At least with the song, the lyrics are innocent while implying some rather scathing innuendo. Here, it seems Wilder is saying to hell with it and pushing that boundary from implicit to explicit, since this is where the ridicule really reaches its apex.

One of the more hilarious things in the film is Mr. Federber and his family. He's an insurance salesman (of course!), and when he first arrives on the scene, he tells his wife: "Wake up the kids, they should see this, this is very instructive!"

9 Ace in the Hole

His family is clearly meant to be the typical American family, and it's quite ridiculous (but nevertheless accurate) to hear him declare that his family was the first one there. Even his profession is apt. An insurance salesman is like a parasite, feeding off of the accidents of others. In the midst of talking on the radio, he even tries advertising his own insurance company! I think it's interesting and borderline deplorable that upon hearing of Leo's death, Mrs. Federber starts crying. It seems false, like she is putting up a show to make up for their enjoyment of the situation. 

Ultimately, the media circus is a short-lived beast that leaves as quickly as it came. 

22 Ace in the Hole

The brevity of the circus is the same as the value of the newspaper. It is daily, and rarely are newspapers actually treasured. They are read once, then tossed in the bin. As Tatum bluntly puts it:

"Tomorrow, this will be yesterday's paper and they'll wrap a fish in it."

Stories are short lived, and they must be burned quickly or else they'll evaporate. It's another way of thinking of a newspaperman as a parasite, jumping from one story to the next and having a feast when it's bad news. I'm reminded of Out of the Past, since Kathie Moffat is told: 

"You're like a leaf, blowing from one gutter to the next."

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I have a tough time deciding just how reprehensible Chuck Tatum is. On the one hand, he's the one who orchestrated the whole thing. Then again, there seems to be a desire to repair the damage (namely getting the priest and his own disgust at the media circus). The other newspapermen are, in some ways, even more blame-worthy. In the end, they laugh at the dying Tatum (albeit, not wholly undeserved) and are planning on exploiting the situation anyway with Sheriff Kretzer. I'm still not sure, but maybe Chuck had just burned up all the oxygen by that time and couldn't stand the caustic environment he created.

A Damn Dark Film

Ace in the Hole is a dark film. Spike Lee, in the video afterword says: "It's dark for 2007!" More so than even Sunset Blvd., I think, in part because it does strike closer to the bone, accusing the entire audience rather than "just" Hollywood. I can see why it wasn't popular in its time, especially when this was the image used for the promotional poster:

20 Ace in the Hole

Nevertheless, there are still some good, admirable people here. Actually only about three, maybe four. Of course, there is Boot:

12 Ace in the Hole

Boot, to be cliché, is the voice of reason. This scene reminds me of a confessional in particular, with the wire dividing Chuck and Boot. Herbie also figures into this scene quite well, since Tatum and Boot are his role models. Boot is certainly the most admirable character, for me, since he has a desire to save Herbie from corruption and wishes to expose Sheriff Kretzer's corruption within the boundaries of his own ideals.

Nevertheless, the more heartbreaking performances belong to Leo's mother and father:

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Well, there they are, the three uncorrupted characters I can think of. That shot of Minosa's father walking alone along ground zero is one of those devastating revelations. A case could be made for Smollett, but I personally wouldn't include him, because at the end of the day, he did fold to blackmail and extortion. 

Ace in the Hole is easily among my favorite movies of all time, and its corrosive attacks on the media and the public burn the flesh clean off of the apparent innocence of the bystander (in the final shot, who is Tatum looking at?). The performance by Kirk Douglas is my favorite of his as well (from what little I've seen of him), and certainly one of the great performances out there. Not to be outdone, Jan Sterling too, has a heart to match (and maybe exceed). The film is also a magnificent example of not-so-conventional film noir, and it's as black as night.

23 Ace in the Hole

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Atonement (2007)

Indubitably, there are spoilers, good chap.

Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Ian McEwan)
Starring: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave. 

Images from the 2008 Focus Features release (Canadian).

6 Atonement

Atonement is a magnificent movie. By no means perfect, but magnificent nevertheless. For me, it's fascination grows on a second (or third) viewing because my thoughts of what's on screen are influenced by having seen the entire film. Adapted from the novel by the same name, Atonement has the feeling of a book, with one thought bleeding into the next. There are moments where it achieves a kind of stream of consciousness, and if the narrative seems rocky, that's fitting, I think. The film serves as a line of thought, filled with regret and a longing for the innocence of childhood, as well as a question of what value fiction has as a means of atoning for past sins.

Atonement tells the story of Briony Tallis, who's misinterpretation and possible jealousy of the budding romance between her sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner (the Tallis family's gardener) results in Robbie being accused of rape. The two are torn apart, and kept that way by World War II. It's difficult to talk about the rest of the film without throwing spoilers out left and right, so you're better off just watching the movie.

Fleeting Innocence

The film begins in the countryside, and the lighting during this time is bright and clean:

2 Atonement

The scenes at the Tallis' countryside home are a haven of sorts, and the clean light brings to mind a feeling of innocence and purity. There is peace here, and one thing the film makes very clear is just how fleeting this is. These scenes have the look of Eden, yet there is dread that lurks just beneath the surface. This is not a place of sheer benevolence and childhood innocence, but a world grounded by reality and firmly planted between the two World Wars.

The opening scene is of Briony writing her first play. Through these opening shots, we are told a lot about her and I see the entire film as her brainchild (except the final scenes). It is through fiction that she finds a catharsis, as well as a means of atonement, which the title clearly suggests. The film's score, even, uses the sound of a typewriter to emphasize moments of confession. 

Briony is a child that needs attention, yet I don't view her as simplistic as others do. The synopsis on the dvd, for instance, says:

"[...] her jealousy drives her to tell a lie that will irrevocably change the course of all their lives forever [...]"

Yet the entire film (and again, the title) conveys her as a woman completely wracked with guilt and she seems bent on flagellating herself through her own fiction as a form of penance. The film is coloured through her eyes, and the tranquility of the opening scenes makes it seem like a distant memory. Therefore, I don't think we can label her as villainous because the film is her own biased (and self-loathing) account. Whether she wasn't at least a little jealous of Cecilia and had a crush on Robbie, there is little doubt. But I don't agree we can simplify her actions to jealousy alone.

It is important that we first see Briony at the age of 13, since this is an age bordering childhood and adolescence. It is also, I think, the time at which the height of our imaginations meets the height of our paranoia, and it is this that plants the seed that will rend the peacefulness of these early scenes. There is an element of voyeurism, as if Briony is only beginning to encounter maturity.

1 Atonement

The ambiguity at play here is in part what makes the film fascinating. To what extent is it Briony's "fault" and to what extent are her actions a product of her age? It is at this age that she is still young enough to "do the right thing," yet old enough to suspect Robbie as a pervert. The film conveys her as the "villain" because it is her narrative and because she is so guilt stricken. There is an element of truth to her suspicion, as well, because Robbie did indeed write a lurid note to Cecilia.

4 Atonement

Yet the film's point in all of this, I think, is that the difference between "right" and "wrong" is never so clear cut. There is an understanding that not every action we do is on purpose or intended to be seen and as such, this blurs the line of morality that seems to be so clear during childhood. Briony is still young enough to believe that there are "right" things to do in one box, and "wrong" things in another and that there's no mixing the two. She is at the age where ambiguity is a word learned later in life.

There are moments of perversion hidden behind seeming innocence. Perhaps the best scene of this is when Paul Marshall and Lola (the Tallis sisters' cousin) are conversing in the playroom with the twins. Paul, who is actually the one who rapes (then marries) Lola, is the perfect example of the sinister lurking beneath a veneer of innocence. This is quite apparent, since he owns a chocolate factory, and attempts to seduce Lola with chocolates. 

War, too, is an arena for lost innocence, as in one of the best shots in the film:

10 Atonement

During this scene, there is a moment in which the close up lighting on Robbie's face changes for an instant. At first drained and austere, the light suddenly warms for a moment (reminiscent of those earlier scenes) and then fades. It's brief, but it's a magnificent use of light. It is after this shot that we segue into Robbie's own memories. We see him with Briony, who jumps in a river so that she will save him and we see a kind of frustrated chivalry in him.

The scenes at the beaches of Dunkirk, in terms of pacing, almost seem sloppy and I wonder if that's fitting. It is during these scenes that Briony, in writing a fictional account, attempts to recreate Robbie's experiences through historical record. At this point, she can only guess at his actions and thoughts, so perhaps that is why the narrative seems choppy. 

Through these scenes, we see a yearning for the safety of childhood, as when Robbie imagines his mother with him:

14 Atonement

As in introduction to Dunkirk, there is an impressive long take showing the beaches and the community of soldiers that has sprung up there waiting to be evacuated. This shot serves as a time capsule that fixes the historical evacuation of Dunkirk onto film. Here, we see many things, from men shooting their horses, to soldiers singing, to riding merry-go-rounds, and in the distance, a great ferris wheel amidst the smoke and rubble.

12 Atonement

The whole scene is a juxtaposition of innocence and brutality. The amusement park rides in particular, bring to mind the desire to regain the innocence of our childhood. The screenshot itself looks straight out of a historical textbook, which would make sense, since this is partly the material that Briony is working from to recreate Robbie's experiences.

Postcard Perfect

In addition to the history books and firsthand accounts, Briony's other source for Atonement (the novel in the film, not the film) was probably Robbie and Cecilia's letters.

9 Atonement

These moments gain a kind of stream of consciousness, again because it is Briony through which these scenes are created. In many ways, it is her idealization of how things looked and how they went. She has essentially romanticized the letters into her own vision of what they looked like rather than adhere to reality. There are shots that are achingly beautiful, like when Robbie tells Cecilia he will come back for her.

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These shots look less like photographs and more like paintings. In some ways, this is akin to Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, which also created shots that looked more like 18th century oil paintings than actual cinematographs. What the Kubrick film says, for me, is similar in many ways to Atonement. That is, these are events that have passed and they are frozen in time by the records that have been kept of them. Where these films differ is in the handling of these records. Atonement's emphasis is on fictionalizing them, and the value that it has. 

What the postcards do for Robbie and Cecilia is provide a reprieve from immediate reality, best symbolized by their aspirations to live in a cabin by the sea. 

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The shot of Robbie lighting a match to see the postcard is indeed magnificent, easily one of the best shots in the film and emblematic of the fleeting happiness these postcards bring. The match, like the happiness derived from living in a postcard, fades. 

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Atonement and Confession through Fiction.

Yet the value of those moments of happiness match the kind of fictional happiness Briony is attempting to bring Cecilia and Robbie. I've said before that I tend to be adverse to happy endings, but that does not mean that happy endings are taboo. Of course they're welcome when done properly and not given to the audience like how one spoon feeds a baby. Likewise, I generally don't like determinedly bleak endings with no affirmation. Somewhere in the middle, with an ending that gives us hope while grounding us to reality, is ideal for me. It's not naive, but it's not a downer. Atonement manages to do this effectively, and moreover, it is aware of it. 

Just as she romanticized images from the letters, Briony also imagined a whole life for Robbie and Cecilia. It is, for her, a gift to them and a means of repentance. The idea of it, for me, is of course well intentioned, but I wonder just how one handles such subject matter. As Briony says, she started out by telling the whole truth as a way of doing justice for Robbie and Cecilia. Yet, and this is the kicker, she found the reality of it too cold, and in an act of pity (since she is essentially the deity in her fictional (and past) world), gave Robbie and Cecilia the happy ending they deserved. Whether this is "right" or not, I have no way of saying, and I don't even think Briony knows for sure. Her decision, I would say, is understandable given her position.

Briony hovers just out of frame in practically every scene and you can feel her presence. After all, it is her story. The opening scenes have the clarity of a memory, and like any nostalgia, they are bathed in an effervescent glow. The war scenes are darker and more stark, in part because she is writing as a secondary observer from firsthand accounts, letters, books, and her own imagination. The most interesting scenes, for me, are those where she attempts to imagine what Robbie and Cecilia were feeling. As mentioned before, there is the scene where Robbie imagines his mother tending to his wounds. 

One that sticks out in my mind is where we see Robbie's arrest and all events prior to that in reverse. 

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In this shot, we see that this is a different point of view of what Briony saw from her window. Here, there is an surrealism to it, since there is a fog that wasn't there before. This moment, that occurs in Robbie's head, clearly has some of Briony's own memory in it. She has transplanted herself into Robbie's mind to see just what she has done. The rewinded shot, of course, comes from her own regrets and desire to undo the damage. 

Fiction serves as a catharsis and a penance. In Atonement, Briony seems to be cast in a negative light because she is self-flagellatory and critical of her actions. In her novel (seen as the film itself), she drags herself through the mud out of guilt. There is a scene where she is washing her hands and she is obviously Lady Macbeth. It is her last book because it is her dying confession and she needed to release it. The scene where she meets Cecilia and Robbie in their flat is fictionalized, and it is this scene where she begs for forgiveness, and allows Cecilia and Robbie to have their vengeance on her.

There are shots at each stage of her life that clearly show her in a confessional:

First, a false confession.

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Then a moment of contemplation.

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And finally, a truthful confession.

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It's interesting that in this series of shots, we see the camera get closer and closer to her face, each time getting closer to the truth, and more importantly, her atonement.

Some attention must be given to the score, which one the Oscar for 2007. What the music in the film does for me is evoke a sense of urgency, as if Briony is hurrying to tell the truth, racing against her own clock. The typewriter sounds, in particular, emphasize this, and they seem to come up during moments where Briony would be most frustrated with herself in hindsight. It's as if she is typing the novel of Atonement out of self-hatred. 

Atonement has its share of flaws, and maybe a few scenes that I can't decide on their importance, beyond what is apparent. Still, it addresses many things that I find fascinating in films: The division between reality and fiction and walking that line. Imagination and its constructive and destructive powers. The desire for penance. And maybe above all, a yearning for childhood innocence and the loss thereof. 

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Monday, May 18, 2009

A Short Film About Killing (1988)

Spoilers if that's possible.

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieslowski & Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Starring: Miroslaw Baka, Krzysztof Globisz, and Jan Tesarz

Images from the 2004 Kino Video release (from The Krzysztof Kieslowski Collection box set).

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Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing is an extended version of Decalogue V, perhaps the darkest and most atmospheric in the Polish television series. The Decalogue is a monumental undertaking, with 10 episodes loosely using one of the Ten Commandments as their theme. What makes the series as a whole great is that it is neither preachy nor abhorrent of the commandments but simply observes them in the context of a housing project in Warsaw. Each film, thankfully, stands on its own while still contributing to a piece that is greater than the sum of its parts. The two that stick out in my mind the most are Decalogue V ("Thou Shalt Not Kill") and Decalogue VII ("Thou Shalt Not Steal") because the films present commandments that are apparently simplistic and undermine the seeming benevolence of upholding them.

The film tells the story of three individuals. Jacek is a young man convicted of killing a cab driver. To defend him is Piotr Balicki, a young, idealistic lawyer opposed to the death penalty. The film, like much of Kieslowski's work, is not so much about the story (and "what will happen next?"), but about the characters in them. His strong sense of visual style, as well as the refusal to simplify characters creates a fascinating and haunting film pondering death, morality, and the justice system.

From the opening shots of A Short Film About Killing, we see a dead rat and then a hanged cat. Along with these images is the sound of children playing, a juxtaposition that implies a loss of innocence. The cinematography in the film is striking, creating a heavy and smokey atmosphere that has clear boundaries of light and dark. When we see Jacek, the young man who will commit murder, we often see one side of the image cast in darkness:

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Here, Jacek perhaps walks on a line bordering innocence and corruption. For most of the film, Jacek is speechless, and we learn more about his character through action than words. He seems to walk on a different plane, and has a fascination with causing destruction. We may, on first viewing, see him as simply a sadistic person, borne out of a product of his age. Yet the film does not present Jacek as merely a caricature, but breathes real life into him. Moreover, the film does not explicitly dissect him, but rather leaves it up to the viewer to infer meaning through action. For instance, we see him through the glass of a photo shop:

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From here, I see this as simultaneously his disconnect with the outside world, as well as a personal loss. He eventually enters the shop and asks that a creased picture of a young girl be blown up. We eventually learn this to be his sister, who died 5 years ago. Yet, even before this verbal admission, we can already infer a sense of loss. There is the scene in the café, where he is sitting and two young girls outside tease him. He flings his coffee at them with a spoon and smiles. It is the kind of smile a brother might give and it is among the more poignant moments in the film.

We can, of course, contrast this with the cab driver, who I get the feeling is a sexual predator/pedophile. It is never stated, but again, this can be inferred through action. 

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From the moment he says he doesn't like cats, this immediately brings to mind the dead cat in the title sequence. Perhaps he killed that cat. Then, we see him eyeing a young women no older than 20 who is Jacek's friend. Like in many Kieslowski films, fate and coincidence figure into situations while never hitting it over the head so bluntly. The cab driver also half-heartedly does his job, driving away from potential passengers when he feels like it. Finally, through mise en scéne, we see a little devil's head hanging from his car's windshield.  

The final character, the one whom the film's morality hinges on, is Piotr. We first see him defending his thesis, and his belief that the death penalty is amoral. His thesis is summed up by the following quotation:

"Since Cain, no punishment has been capable of improving the world."

This is perhaps, a rare moment in The Decalogue as a whole, since it's a direct biblical reference. Here, we see Piotr talking with his advisors over a cup of tea:

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We see the clear glass of water mixed with the tea, eventually becoming a uniform brown. I believe this is an image that Kieslowski has used in The Double Life of Veronique. It also mirrors scenes in Three Colors: Blue, perhaps signifying change in mentality and stature. In this particular scene, I think it suggests Piotr's changing perspectives as well as suggesting the eventual downfall of his optimism. It is in this scene that he is asked why he wants to be a lawyer, and he says that he thought he knew, but now is not so sure:

"As we grow older, the answer becomes ever more elusive."

When we are young, everything seems so clear. There are divisions between right and wrong and ambivalence is a word learned later in life. It is in A Short Film About Killing that Piotr must come to terms with his own idealism. His belief is that capital punishment is useless, and feels that he can correct it if his belief is strong. Yet, even in his moments of happiness, we see the film itself undermining this:

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Here, he weaves in and out of the shadowed side of the screen. He is elated because he has become a lawyer, and believes this will allow him to make a difference. Yet we know that it will not be as simple as his beliefs tell him, because there are people with differing opinions. This often happens, I find. We get so caught up in our own opinions and get so close to them that it becomes difficult to believe we could ever be wrong.

Kieslowski's films often have an element of spirituality to them. Call it fate or coincidence if you like, what's important is that his films manage to effectively use these themes. I have said before that fate in movies tends to turn me off. I think there are two kinds, one that is fascinating, and another that is boring. First would be a kind of Fatalism, the idea that life offers certain inevitabilities and that part of what living is about is confronting, and coming to terms with them (i.e., death). The other kind would be Destiny. I can't really stand destiny. It takes all the mystery out of stories when it is declared absolute. 

With A Short Film About Killing, Piotr's girlfriend reads his palms. Here, though, it makes sense. It is in this stage of his life that he is naive and idealistic. Hence, the idea of fate deals more with predicting the future than coping with inevitabilities:

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It is how Kieslowski handles fate that makes it so fascinating to me. Normally, I find it annoying in films, in part because it's simple minded or lazy, but Kieslowski hits upon this, and moreover, he doesn't make claims that it is indeed a higher power. It can be interpreted a certain way, or it can be viewed as a coincidence (i.e., the ending of Three Colors: Red). By the end of this scene, in fact, we see Jacek approaching the cab driver's car, and we cut to Piotr, who has a sense of worry in his face. He says: "It may not be that easy." 

Death is the common denominator. Like it or not, that is perhaps the one certainty to life, the one thing we can predict. How we will die is another matter, and the how of something in cinema is invariably what makes it interesting. I feel many people watch movies to "see what happens," and while I do to some extent, I'm really interested in how something happens. If we were only interested in seeing what happens, we'd only watch movies once (or better yet, read the synopses). Truly great films, I think, cannot be "spoiled" by spoilers because great films can be rewatched over and over. 

The murder in A Short Film About Killing is a haunting scene, one filled with grimy details and the agonizing resilience of the cab driver.

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In Kieslowski's films, there are inevitably minute details that give the film something special, things that make it grow in fascination. One of them during this scene is where the cab driver's dentures fall to the ground. Jacek, disgusted by this presses them into the earth, hoping to stamp them out. As his foot is lifted, we see the dentures slowly rise up, taunting him. 

The shot that makes the scene so disquieting, for me, is where we cut to a bicyclist slowly riding past the murder scene while it's happening:

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We also see a shot of a horse, who casually turns it's head to glance at the noise. This murder seems to stamp out the spirituality found in much of Kieslowski's work. There is no connection that is felt (completely opposite to The Double Life of Véronique, where Véronique clearly feels the spiritual link to Weronika break). This reminds me, again, of Pan's Labyrinth, where del Toro follows a man's death with nothing more than the sound of crickets. I'm reminded of Kubrick too, who said:

"The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light."

In this sense, I don't think A Short Film About Killing is either pessimistic or optimistic, per se, but rather observant of both idealism and realism. 

The color palette in the film evokes sepia tones, as if it is a distant memory, perhaps Piotr's of his first case and the moment at which his idealism was met with reality.

Again, Kieslowski manages to use another theme that I normally don't like in movies and makes it fascinating, while not making it overbearing or feel like propaganda: politics. Here, he explores capital punishment, and comes to the conclusion that in accepting the rule of eye-for-an-eye, the government is no better than the act it abhors. It is a hypocrisy. Kieslowski mirrors the first murder in the second, with every minute detail of preparation, then execution, shown intricately. The hang man's checking of the rope echoes Jacek's own rope:

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Every grisly detail, down to the pan beneath the trapdoor to collect urine, is shown. It may just be my sense of humor, but there is something funny about the final execution. It is scary and atmospheric, yet the frantic desperation of the executioners actually cracked me up. Maybe it's because it so clearly shows them causing death even though they are upholding a law that punishes it. The question of whether Jacek is guilty of murder is not what the film is getting at. The question is whether the government has a right to kill as a means of punishment for murder. That is at the heart of A Short Film About Killing, which serves as a devastating look at capital punishment.

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