April 13, 2010

Brokaw's Film Fest, Part Trois!


If you did a content analysis of all 45 years of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual festivals, you'd surely count up an increasing percentage of crime films. The Festival rarely earned its spurs promoting neo-noirs, portraits of thieves or dramas of psychopathic killers--regardless of country of origin. But little by little the criminal mind and outlaw mentality, which has increasingly mounted the highest grosses at the multiplex and among under-25 ticket buyers, has insinuated itself into the selection committees for New York Film Festivals (not to mention other festival venus worldwide) both in the past and now.


Over the years I've sat on my hands through some highly debatable choices, going all the way back to "Mad Max" and "Blood Brothers." To be sure, a cinema of violence can be artistically valid. Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" (1969) is the most authentic study of a group of profane hardcases out-of-sync with a vanishing frontier in cinematic history. And so here are three brief appaisals of a trio of freshly minted films that reflect the human condition in dark, unsettling and vastly different ways.


"Paranoid Park." Gus Van Sant has grown from a cultish, arty indie director into a worldclass artistic talent, and three of his most recent films--"Elephant," "Last Days" and now "Paranoid Park"--are standing squarely on the shoulders of teenage ennui. Don't confuse ennui with teenage angst, which lots of films manipulate without mercy. Ennui is a drifting in limbo, totally self-absorbed and soaked in vulnerability. It's a condition that's defined a major number of rock groups and much alternative music over the last decade. Ennui can create real communities of followers, especially on YouTube, but ennui in feature films rarely scores at the boxoffice. "Paranoid Park" is Exhibit A in the 2007 ennui entries.

Van Sant has set his film in his Portland, Oregon home base, and cast the picture entirely with local non-professionals. The premise is a teenage skateboarder who causes a fatal accident to an adult in a trainyard, and the subsequent police investigation and its effect on the boy. Van Sant describes it as a "young adult" movie, adapted closely from a novel by Blake Nelson. Most of its 85 minutes are tight-in on the extraordinary young student (Gabe Nevins) making his screen debut. He's your typical scruffy mess but he has a face the camera loves, not unlike the actor who played Kurt Cobain in Van Sant's "Last Days" and a few of the high school assassins in "Elephant."


Though he's a skateboarder like his classmates, Nevins' character isn't inventive or even very proficient on his board. He's a tag-along. He's also a blank sheet waiting to be formed, and the only emotion he truly registers is fear at having precipitated a ghastly death. Neither the world at large, his parents' separation, his classes, his sexually awakening girlfriend, his diary which he writes in but eventually burns--nothing really engages this kid. He's a cipher, and Van Sant closes in on him and holds and holds and holds, waiting, watching, meditating. There's a long scene after the grisly death when Gabe's taking a shower to wash off the sweat and blood from the trainyard, and the camera goes in very tight on his lowered head in silhouette profile, dripping rivulets of water from his stringy hair. Van Sant varies the lighting, and the music, and the camera speed, as we ponder this barely functioning child/man. He's not a Cobain in the making. He's not anything in the making.


What you take away from this depends largely on the filmic sensibility you bring to the theater. At a first public showing in Manhattan's Time-Warner Rose theater, an older female viewer taking notes in the Q&A asked Van Sant if his picture was a "hippie horror movie." You could see the director wince, and he quietly gave his young-adult-film response. At its core, "Paranoid Park" is a solemn portrait of Portland kids who don't seem to have much of a future on their plates, other than the boards at their feet. It is Gus Van Sant's most accomplished work in a career that's demonstrating how youth films can be challenging works of art. Even when they leave us with a disquieting signoff? (Does Gabe stay free? Is he caught? Will he turn himself in?) Van Sant sends us a clear signal that it's okay to leave without the answers.


"No Country For Old Men." Of Cormac McCarthy's nine novels, this is the straight-ahead crime procedural. The book's acutely observed cat-and-mouse pursuit involves three men--a 'Nam veteran who's stumbled onto a desert-full of bodies and two million in cash near the Rio Grande; a pathological killer named Chigurh heading a dope cartel who's after the money and making life-and-death decisions on the flip of a coin, and a local sheriff who's always a little behind both of them and acts as the film's moral conscience.


McCarthy's book may remnd you in its simmering doings of several earlier crime novels by the respected author James Crumley, specially Crumley's "Mexican Tree Duck., published in 1993. Crumley's 'Nam vet investigator (C.W. Sughrue) is pursued by Mexican killers with hard drugs and hard weapons from Montana to the Tex/Mex border. Consider those two names side by side--"Chigurh" and "C .Sughrue." ( It's a good thing they're on opposite sides of the law.) One wonders if the creative team--McCarthy, producer Scott Rudin, writer/producer/director Joel and Ethan Coen--ever discussed these curious similarities. The Coen brothers render McCarthy's novel as tightly as any crime novel-into-film you've ever seen. The picture is stark, suspenseful and scary. The wily lunatic is played by Javiar Bardem, and his weapon of choice is an oxygen tank with a hose running down the inside of his sleeve to a slaughterhouse stungun. This gun blows neat, round holes in door locks and foreheads. The cowboy with the suitcase of C-notes is Josh Brolin, an exceptionally believable opportunist. Both men drag themselves along, leaking blood and bones sticking through skin, piling up the body count awfully fast. Tommy Lee Jones is again a weary, craggy lawman, and the lines in Jones' face are starting to resemble scars in fine leather. All the production credits including Roger Deakins' customarily ravishing cinematography are Academy-all-the-way.


McCarthy's novel lets the sheriff brood and fret about these killing fields and the dope that fuels them. "I don't have no answer for that. In particular I don't have no answer to take heart from," laments the author and his surrogate sheriff. The Coens' "No Country For Old Men," like Van Sant's "Paranoid Park," ends in a kind of stalemate. We're not sure who winds up with the money, or indeed whether the law captures the bad guys responsible for all the dead men littering those awesome landscapes. Like Van Zant, the Coens feel we can leave the theater without the answers. "Leave Her To Heaven." We're in more familar territory with the Festival's restored 1945 20th Century Fox film noir. Consider this passage from Ben Ames Williams' '44 novel: "You've got to know this," he told her. "When I let myself think of what you've done, I'm sick, nauseated. I feel like trampling on you." She said nothing. He was standing, watching her where she lay, her eyes burning into him deeply. His pulses pounded. "But the hell of it is," he went on, "I can still want you!"


Gene Tierney was 24 when she created the first femme fatale in Technicolor. She snares novelist Cornell Wilde into marriage, jilting a suitor (Vincent Price) who will turn up later as a trial prosecutor. Tierney pulls out all the noir stops in this role, throwing herself down a flight to stairs to precipitate a miscarriage, calmly sitting in a rowboat in a deserted lake watching a crippled teen flounder and drown--ooh, she is deadly, deadly.


"Leave Her To Heaven" exemplifies the kind of film shown by the Film Society of Lincoln Center several tears ago in its "Technicolor Dreaming" retrospective celebrating the three-strip color process used in Hollywood films until 1974. Pictures like "This Island Earth" and "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman" were notable for rich, ruddy hues beloved by director Martin Scorsese, who has championed the Festival's restoration work on "Leave Her To Heaven" and "Drums Along The Mohawk" through American Express and the Film Foundation.


As original negatives were no longer available, DTS Digital Images and 20th Century Fox worked from color reversal protection copies, black-and-white separations, and, for "Leave Her to Heaven," the four original dye transfer prints that still exist. Every frame was evaluated and adjusted to optimize grain and image detail. The result on a theater screen and on high-definition television is as lush and lustrous as the 1945 print photographed by Leon Shamroy, an ace DP who would go on to shoot "The Robe," Fox's first CinemaScope production, in 1953, in Deluxe Color which is similarly being restored. This kind of preservation effort presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center should be applauded throughout the land.

Oh, yes--"Leave Her To Heaven" has a concise and satisfying ending.


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