Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) A Film by Tommy Lee Jones

Haunted by the ghosts of Sam Peckinpah and John Huston, Tommy Lee Jones' only theatrical feature to date, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, is a strange, uneven neo-western whose slim storyline is often held together only by an overwhelming vision of the West as a place of collapsing moral fiber and dissolving identity. Jones directs himself as the paunchy, mumbly ranch hand Pete Perkins from the desolate town of Van Horn, Texas, and Perkins' modus operandi throughout the film is to quietly, insistently preserve a tradition of moral responsibility and human empathy in his dull border town, where multicultural tensions flare up regularly. Policeman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) is at the center of his town's bigotry, a volatile figure who spends his days chasing "wetbacks" through the dusty Texas landscape and indifferently disrobing his bored wife Lou Ann (January Jones) in unlikely domestic spaces. Pepper's one-note performance does little to disguise the fact that he's the loud caricature of the narrow-minded American authority, and much of the film's issues lie in its simplistic staging of the American way of life, which is boiled down to "fucking billboards," prostitution, emotional distance, and ugliness. Unsurprisingly, given the authorial one-two punch here - Jones and notoriously heavy-handed writer Guillermo Arriaga - Mexico embodies a sacred land in the film's universe.

As such, the film's plot works to reinforce that image of unshakeable nationalism. Hinging on the sudden, sporadic killing of Perkins' friend and colleague Melquiades Estrada (Julio César Cedillo), Arriaga then weaves a structure around the three separate burials of Melquiades' corpse, the first two of which are considered rash and unholy by Perkins. Simple enough, it seems, but Arriaga insists on fracturing the chronology a bit to insure that viewers witness the banal death of Melquiades from more than one perspective. The third burial is Perkins' attempt to offer the proper closure to Melquiades' spirit, and it involves him kidnapping Norton, forcing him to dig up the body, and escorting both the body and a hand-cuffed Norton across the border to seek an ideal resting place. Perkins enacts the whole affair with a yawning tenacity, not necessarily vengeful in his justice but exhaustedly adhering to his own sense of spiritual and moral duty.

The character gives Jones a comprehensive workout in the kind of gruff but oddly gentle, outdoorsy conservatism that his screen persona has so often imparted within Hollywood in recent years. Perkins feels very much like the rough draft of Ed Tom Bell in the Coens' No Country for Old Men, with the weary stares and interior digressions of that character echoed here in more primitive forms. Part of this incompleteness has to do with the film's shoddy sound mix, which subsumes voices into the static drone of the West, but it also stems from the generally paltry writing and directorial development. The film relies on its audience buying the close bond between Pete and Melquiades in order to succumb to the act of brotherhood that occurs in the second half, but the script only allows the two characters a couple of clipped, aimless scenes together, hoisted on the assumption that sharing afternoon hookers is enough to signal immutable friendship. Moreover, Jones spends more time hovering over Norton and his vile police companion Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) during the first half of the film than he does any of the more interesting and ostensibly primary characters. Nonetheless, even in the absence of the glue that would make Perkins a complete character, Jones still comes across as an element unto himself, a tired patriarch once shown respect and admiration and now merely a ghost roaming in his own territory.

The first half of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada owes something to Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show as a postmodern homage to the small-town rhythms of early Westerns by Ford and Hawks. Jones aims to capture the lazy routines of Van Horn, limiting the scale to a few classic locations and a rotating cast of townies. Sometimes, as when the camera rests on January Jones' frustrated and adrift beauty in the local diner (shot in a grotesque shade of blue and uncomfortably overexposed), or when macho camaraderie is established at the police station, the film casually develops an internal flow, but other times Jones seems to be roped in by Arriaga's gimmicky suspense-building maneuvers, which actually stomp out the director's attempt to get on the town's wavelength. Free of the script's needless devices in the second half, Jones strays from Bogdanovich to settle into a patchwork, nearly stream-of-consciousness trip through Mexico to bury Melquiades. The body decays (the resulting corpse's gloriously low-rent production values allows it to stand in as a symbol of death rather than a specific person), and surrealism starts to creep in. Jones appears at ease with the kind of loose linearity that this chapter offers him, unsurprising for a man whose default gaze is a tired, no-nonsense one that stares incessantly forward. As the sun-baked march coalesces and begins to turn the bad guy good, Levon Helm arrives for a haunting cameo as a blind man living alone on his porch in Mexico, with nothing to do but listen to the radio sullenly now that his son has died over the border. A professed Bible adherent, the man requests that Perkins kill him for fear that God might disapprove of suicide.

Helm only returns to the film in a punctuational close-up shortly thereafter, and it's too bad that his moment does not last longer. His character underscores a devastating moral ambiguity that only hovers over the film tangentially, hinting at a full emergence in the last act but ultimately a minor subtext. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, instead, seems confused about its intentions, doubling as a preachy argument for multicultural tolerance as well as a more nuanced look at the tensions between old-world and new-world codes of justice. Jones needs a screenwriter to match his archaic sensibilities, not a guy known for his loopy manipulations to admittedly simple stories. It's no surprise that the film is at its most strangely compelling when it's sliding amorphously through a hallucinatory Mexican landscape like the drunk in Under the Volcano; like the best of Jones' performances, these moments carry a relaxed but undeniably melancholy air. The rest is more suited, well, to a performance like Pepper's.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Performance by Bruce McClure on April 10, 2012

The projector performances of Bruce McClure have ever so gradually spawned a cultish reputation in avant-garde circles, their intense and in-your-face qualities demanding the attention of adventurous filmgoers. Perhaps the major reason why McClure has not quite become a leading fixture with this niche audience though is the fact that his work is fundamentally ephemeral. Limited to late-evening spectacles shown once and never repeated in quite the same manner, his improvisational audiovisual experiences defy the act of preservation in any form, and, given their intermittent strobing effects, any attempt at digital capture is destined to either fail or inadequately represent the woozy ambiance the performances impart on their audiences. The thrill of McClure's work comes precisely from its existence in a dark room amongst various bemused, hypnotized, and enraged viewers, as well as from the sense of it having no pre-destined plan other than what McClure happens to concoct for you in the center of the room.

McClure was at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts on April 10th, a quaint old arthouse that is probably not the ideal venue for his setup: two studio speakers (meant to belt out pummeling industrial soundscapes), a fairly puny six-by-eight projector screen propped up invasively in front of the much larger house screen behind it, and a table strewn awkwardly atop theater seats in the middle of the room upon which two projectors, a tangle of XLR cables, and an assembly line of guitar delay pedals. It's an arrangement that looks gentle and friendly at first, as if for a home movie gathering; that is, before McClure starts building towards a feverish strobing of light and an aggressive layering of harsh, dense electronic tones. At the peak of the mesmerizing chaos, it's easy to wonder how such a forceful sensory overload can emanate from such a delicate-looking apparatus. Part of McClure's ongoing reputation is to go against the grain of every venue he enters, be it movie theater, studio, or museum; pretty much no space can contain the shuttering racket he creates.

The show began with flashes of amorphous shapes against black leader as a dry, harsh crackle resembling the sound of dribbled basketballs bit-crushed and thrown through distortion poked hesitantly through the silence of the room. At this point, the house lights were still on, but when McClure started to apply reverb and looping effects to his crunchy soundtrack, the theater slowly went dark. It's the first gesture that aligns McClure with the structuralists, a way of staging the theater space itself as the inside of a camera. Suddenly, the room is dark and the screen is the world beyond the shutter hole, flickering with light and imperceptible forms. Together, the visuals and the audio stray from any semblance of shape and definition, until the screen is a mere blob of featureless light strobing in and out and the speakers deliver an enveloping drone. McClure riffed on this blueprint for about an hour once it developed, subtly altering the image and soundtrack throughout with his pedal system. Sometimes, the brightest point of the screen was blinding, other times very faint. Similarly, the sound ranged from blistering and high-pitched to strangely lulling. Between the two, the audio is more active, contrasting with the blankness of the image.

A curious dialogue between sound and image developed during McClure's performance. Menacing patterns in the soundtrack appeared to tease out ghostly images in the void of the screen, while persistent attention to the strobing produced a euphoria that caused potentially non-existent sounds to surface in the mix. The result of this fascinating interplay is that no viewer experiences McClure's work in quite the same way; one may interpret his performances as abrasive and violent while others may feel soothed by the experience. I found myself vacillating between these two poles, discovering organic forms in the chaos of the screen at some points and feeling pummeled by the loudness other times. For all the seeming redundancy of the performance, McClure does manage to conjure up a surprising variety of emotional responses.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Screening Notes #11

For the past two weeks I have been in the midst of production on my new film I Fell Silent, so film viewing has been pretty sparse. Directing requires a very stable internal space; it's best not to let outside aesthetic ideas interrupt the focus. Nonetheless, I did get around to a bunch of experimental shorts, and they've been weighing on my consciousness despite my best efforts at easy viewing. I'm sure that for the next few weeks I'll be overdriving into a hyperactive cinephiliac schedule. Here's what I saw in the last two or three weeks:

Sarabande (2008): Ridiculously gorgeous. I'm blown away by the liquidness, translucence, and milky textures of Nathaniel Dorsky's images. Dorsky calls to question the very nature and presence of the camera itself, which seems too ordinary and mechanical to capture amorphous clusters of light and color that are this otherworldly. Yet the power of the film paradoxically comes from the sense of these primordial images actually arising, somehow, from the physical world we occupy, in the nooks and crannies rarely sought out by the determined, everyday eye. With the help of macro lenses and the brilliant colors of celluloid, Dorsky insists that we see the world differently and makes us feel like underachievers for focusing so readily on only our common visions.

The White Rose (1967): Bruce Conner's eccentric document of the moving of a massive fresco by San Francisco Beat painter Jay DeFeo is touched by a compulsive heightening of the prosaic to the level of the mythic and heroic. The White Rose is a pedantically chronological account, watching as the muscular movers enter DeFeo's apartment, locate the imposing stone carving, huddle around it deciding how best to approach budging something so vast, and shimmy the artwork out of the third story window and into their truck. Conner injects quirky details throughout, like the way his camera peers childishly around the artwork trying to catch a glimpse of the exhausted expressions of the movers, or the shot of DeFeo sitting defiantly on her makeshift balcony, an eroded cliff on the outer edge of her apartment building. It's not only the melodramatic Miles Davis/Gil Evans soundtrack that elevates the removal of the precious labor of love from DeFeo's studio to high tragedy but also Conner's probing camerawork, which jolts in and out like a spastic art historian fearful for the well-being of the art but too meek to make any sort of impact.

New York Portrait: Chapter 1 (1979): Peter Hutton's serene and painterly films always offer refuge for the burdened and frantic mind, particularly for those that reside within a city and struggle to see beyond the rampant filth and ugliness. Comprised of long static takes, Hutton's New York-based films seem to exist solely within that coveted window of time just after dawn breaks when the city is not yet entirely awash with noise and chaos. Or he just managed to pick the most off-the-beaten-path locations to revel in the silvery sheen and gritty textures of his urban milieu. These images possess a peculiar clarity and dynamic range unique to reversal celluloid stock, and Hutton takes full advantage of that image fidelity, finding tableaus where the relationship between blacks and whites, when seen in the proper format, is downright unearthly. There's also a sense of supernatural chance at play in Hutton's visual scavenger's hunt, especially noticeable as a flock of birds swirl in front of his camera for minutes on end, only to swoop out of frame just as a ghostly airplane slowly enters the shot.

Passage à l'acte (1993) and Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998): If anyone told Martin Arnold in the early nineties that he was going to have a surprisingly vast, albeit indirect, influence on the DIY media making of the YouTube generation, he probably wouldn't have believed it. But Arnold's irreverent manipulations of the images of pop culture through looping, skipping, and stuttering bear a striking resemblance to the decidedly sloppy, postmodernist sensibilities of Tim and Eric as well as to all the anonymous humorists in their wake unleashing their bedroom experiments online. What's special about Passage à l'acte and Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy, though, is the way they impose such a clear sense of purpose. Both films hilariously concoct new subtexts out of scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird and Busby Berkeley musicals, respectively, and turn what are otherwise innocuous gestures into loaded statements of incestuous intent, patriarchal authority, and hormonal energy. A kiss between Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney becomes an animalistic slobber-fest, a father's order becomes a robotic chant, and ordinary movements start to resemble radical distortions of time and space.

No Country for Old Men (2008): I caught just the ending on TV, but what an ending it is! The simple shot-reverse shot setup, the midday brightness and dark undertones of the conversation, Tommy Lee Jones' thousand-mile stare, the unassuming cut to black. Every time I see parts of No Country for Old Men, I feel more and more like it's one of the best of the decade.