Friday, February 21, 2014

A First Exposure to the Films of Timoleon Wilkins...

As subjects, roiling water surfaces and bokeh are fairly played out in lyrical/personal/diaristic 16mm Bolex filmmaking. That Timoleon Wilkins manages something like a fresh take on them says a great deal about the level of his sensitivity. Among other things, Los Caudales (2005) features dozens of seagull’s-eye view close-ups of lapping water on high-contrast black-and-white reversal stock, the resultant image a defamiliarizing dance of bright white dots and squiggles on a jet-black surface. Parts of Quartet (In Camera) (2009) study permutations of light photographed through telephoto lenses, and instead of an anarchic sprawl of light blobs, Wilkins achieves something closer to the balletic choreography of Len Lye’s films, albeit in a far more muted and unpredictable register. It bears mentioning that this is only a fragment of the material Wilkins finds fit to turn his camera toward.

Educated under the tutelage of Stan Brakhage at the University of Colorado and far from quiet about his admiration for and familiarity with filmmakers like Nathaniel Dorsky, Bruce Baillie, and Bruce Conner, Wilkins sits pretty squarely in the romantic tradition of avant-garde cinema, the strand of underground filmmaking that valorizes the cameraman as a soloist with a unique ability to imprint his or her own subjectivity on the camera eye. Up to a point, Wilkins benefits from the acknowledgment of such ancestry. For one, it’s part of what brought him to Boston in the first place, Dorsky being the relatively fashionable commodity that he is, at least in the bone-dry marketplace of contemporary experimental cinema. (Rob Todd’s continuing obscurity, on the other hand, needs to be corrected.)

Still, Wilkins’ work creates distinct impressions. The most conspicuous of these is tied to his status as a lifelong citizen of the West (Colorado, Mexico, and Los Angeles are the touch points I’m aware of), the landscapes of which inflect his films to a significant degree. If Peter Hutton’s New York Portraits, sublime as they can be, are quintessential expressions of the cramped geography of the East Coast, Wilkins’ films achieve something similarly archetypal with regards to the openness of the West. Big skies, sacred-seeming cloud formations, vast plains, elongated highways, wandering cattle, and vast beaches are all subject to scrutiny. Land merges into sky, thunderstorms erupt (or are merely implied to erupt through inspired aperture futzing), and Wilkins’ camera follows telephone lines along the highway as if to celebrate the freedom of movement afforded by the landscape. In my own experiences out West, such ample space means feeling liberated from staying too long in one place; movement becomes a texture of life.

Made between 1998 and 2010, Lake of the Spirits, Los Caudales, The Crossing, Quarter, and, especially, Drifter—all of which were shown at the Harvard Film Archive’s recent tribute to Wilkins—evoke this restlessness. Four of them are silent, yet the dynamism of their montage and the diversity of their images generates a tone more exploratory than contemplative. Intermittent flashes of bright light (or perhaps merely blank leader, it’s hard to tell) act as optical refreshment as well as ways to transition between rushes of abstraction (bokeh, light leaks, water surfaces, objects photographed and/or processed in such a way that they become unidentifiable) and sections of documentary-like observation (flowers, landscapes, sparingly used human faces). In posing these two representational extremes side by side, Wilkins is constantly seeking their points of intersection, the moments where the banal turns into something magical. Edited largely in-camera—that is, conceived as a linear flow of images in conjunction with the filming stage—these films are therefore documents of Wilkins’ thought processes while shooting them—the flickering of his consciousness, if you will. And they are unbelievably beautiful.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jimmy P. (2013) A Film by Arnaud Desplechin

Full disclosure: Jimmy P. is the first Arnaud Desplechin film I've seen, so I wasn't able to weigh it against the French director's other lauded achievements. That said, I think that looking at the film with fresh eyes may have made me more open to its particular strengths than those downgrading it for not being Desplechin'y enough. I first saw the film at the end of a viewing-heavy week at the New York Film Festival, where I fell asleep. From what I did see, I had a sense that the dozing was my own fault and not the film's. Luckily, my suspicions were confirmed.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) A Film by John Huston

(Disclaimer: Reflections in a Golden Eye was originally released with a sepia cast applied, but from what I understand a large portion of surviving circulating prints feature the film's original, more neutral color grading. Strangely, most of the images online for the film are sepia-toned, so although I've used these images, this review reflects the alternate version that I saw.)

“Economize! Turn the lights off!” So goes the instruction on a poster pinned to an office wall at a southern military outpost in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye. By no means is this quirky bit of set decoration a focal point—it’s centered in a master shot between two officers, but it’s so small in the frame that it would be hard to read outside of a movie theater—yet for some reason it caught my eye, and Huston, symbolist that he is, probably didn’t put it there randomly. Reflections, an almost coming-out melodrama that plays out in a regimented, heteronormative milieu, puts a fair amount of emphasis on lights. On his nightly peeping tom rounds, a laconic private waits outside his major’s house for the last remaining bedroom lights to be switched off before infiltrating the home to ogle its snoozing matron. Later, he will be discovered when someone enters the room and flicks on the switch before leaving in horror without flipping it back. Most dramatic of all, the climactic finale occurs during an exaggerated lightning storm—nature’s own way of violently flickering on and off the lights.

In this context, this peculiar wall adornment registers as a detail of some significance. Residing as it does in a major’s office and thus intended, however subtly, as “official” advice, the poster makes a basic enough request: turn off unneeded bulbs to conserve energy and lower costs. When separated, however, from that utilitarian plea and placed into the larger atmosphere of social repression in which the story circulates, the exclamation-pointed advice may subliminally take on the tone of a threat: play by the rules, or else. If cost-cutting is a way of preemptively avoiding the possibility of an economic meltdown, so turning the metaphorical lights out is code for keeping transgressive behavior at bay; in both cases, the preservation of social order is the goal.

Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) knows only order. In his role of authority, he regularly spits received wisdom regarding military duty to a classroom full of recruits and assigns groundskeeping duties that will tidy up the post. In his free time, he pumps iron in front of a mirror, sweating to maintain the expected image of an army chief. All around him are the pillars of a respectable life in the military: a buxom wife named Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) who acts as a sort of empress of the training community, cooking meals for evening functions and socializing all around the post; a large home, suitably overwhelming the unglamorous barracks of the trainees; and a cornucopia of patriotic pins lining the lapels of his expertly tailored beige uniform.

The “problem,” construed as such by his own conscience as much as by the implicit behavioral codes of the military system, is that Weldon harbors an unexplainable urge toward a younger, chiseled private (Robert Forster)—coincidentally, the same man who, unbeknownst to him, has eyes for his wife. Weldon's is an interest that goes beyond platonic respect or macho concern; it’s a magnetic attraction of implied but never explicitly stated homosexual nature. But it’s also an attraction that Weldon would never be able to articulate or admit to himself. Submerging himself in this conflicted interiority, Brando is a bundle of gestural tensions. He mechanically repeats normalized behavior—stoically tugging his beret down over his eyes, raising his chin up, straightening his suit—but within these stiff mannerisms, his eyes dart around nervously, his syllables trail off into mumbles, and a glossy layer of sweat sits perpetually on his skin. When his beret is blown off in one key scene, it’s a much more profound disruption that it seems on the surface.

Weldon’s arc moves from external to internal rejection. Initial jealousy regarding Leonora’s adulterous behavior with lieutenant peer and neighbor Morris (Brian Keith) culminates in a convulsive beating of her angelic white stallion, an eruption that can easily be read as an act of violence against his wife given Huston’s obsessive linking of the woman and her animal. Burnt out on this ineffectual revolt, Weldon begins to timidly pursue his object of desire, meanwhile all but handing his wife over to Morris. Unable to reconcile his new longing with his duty as an impartial major, self-hatred sets in, and Reflections closes on Weldon’s violent, misguided attempt to do away with the impulses that his rational brain rejects. Repression guards. Awareness disgusts.

Morris’ wife, Alison (Julie Harris), is an embodiment of Weldon several stages developed. A common target of gossip for slicing her nipples with garden shears after the death of her newborn, she is at least comfortable in her own abnormality. Her transgressive self-abuse, which effectively cuts her off from her assumed womanly duty, is nothing if not committed. With this assertive display of individuality, Alison is free to indulge unconventional relationships, such as the one she shares with her flamboyant Asian houseboy (Zorro David, a fairly obnoxious role), who’s the most liberated character in the movie and therefore the one who delivers the titular nugget of wisdom. Still, the price she pays is to be a perceived nut, and her offscreen fate comes in a home for the ill.

Reflections in a Golden Eye’s opening sequence shows Weldon’s object of desire passing through the hazy dawn landscape and saluting the horses in their stable, a series of images that immediately bonds him to the natural world. Soon, he will be revealed as something of a pervert; his trips to Leonora’s room find him sniffing her lingerie, and he also frequents the forest for jaunts in the nude. But one thing is clear: he’s a man at one with his environment, his body, his sexuality, and his identity. Weldon, who’s acknowledged around the post as a klutz on horseback, seems to long for that sense of internal stability as much as he longs for the man himself.

Framed in widescreen, obscured by a great deal of shadow or forest haze, and scored to a creeping, tension-filled medley of flutes, clarinets, strings, and glockenspiels by Toshirô Mayuzumi (the composer for several key films by Mizoguchi, Oshima, and Imamura), Reflections drifts along like a dream, with many muggy lulls punctuated by sudden bursts of heightened emotion. Multiple scenes between Brando and Taylor, likely intended by the studio as the film’s real selling point, have an awkward, stumbling pace that suits this atmosphere (though a definite lack of on-set chemistry is felt, it couldn’t be more appropriate given the nature of the couple’s waning marriage). Weldon’s presence—and this is the brilliance of Brando’s performance—has a palpable impression of sleepwalking, a quality that Huston maps onto the film’s rhythms. A highlight scene features nothing more than Weldon navigating a post-boxing match crowd at night in pursuit of the solitary private, trailing him down the street and then picking up his dropped Baby Ruth wrapper as if hoping to find some clandestine love note. The whole thing has the surreal tension of an out-of-body experience.

As Weldon's inner and outer selves start to collide in the final scene, Huston appropriately inflicts the shock on the environment. For the first time, Weldon spots the private tip-toeing around his house. As he impulsively fixes his hair for a possible meeting, the environment shudders and a thunderstorm elevates in intensity. The light of everyday ritual and the darkness of bottled up desires infringe upon one another in the form of lightning. Flicking on the light switch as the man enters his wife's room, Weldon makes a desperate attempt to introduce his latent identity into the realm of the visible, but undergoes a spasm of denial as a result. Huston's final shot—a continuous panning movement between Weldon, his shrieking, just awoken wife, and his fallen object of desire that suggests the cameraman frozen in a robotic loop—could hardly be more perfect: Weldon's is an unresolvable turmoil.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013) A Film by Denis Côté

Despite calculated leaps in genre and tone, Canadian director Denis Côté's return to fiction is a frustratingly sluggish and opaque affair that ultimately uses its elliptical plotting and contemplative images in the service of a pretty generic revenge yarn. There seems to be political commentary buried within, but either I'm not sufficiently tapped in to the contemporary Canadian state of mind or Côté's filmmaking is just a bit too self-consciously impenetrable. Though the former assertion is probably true, that didn't stop me from arguing the latter here.