An interview with Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips, this year's recipient of the AAFCA's Roger Ebert Award.
The way I see it, Jerzy Skolimowski's "Four Nights with Anna" is small-scale masterpiece about voyeurism, movies, and the limits of perception -- including what we think we can know about people from observing their behavior. The thing is, this 2008 movie never received a theatrical release in the U.S. (though it played the Cannes, Toronto and New York film festivals), and remains, incredibly, really hard to see (I ordered a Polish all-region DVD because I wanted a copy so badly). But it's playing this weekend as part of the Museum of the Moving Image's Skolimowski series, so if you're in New York, here's your window of opportunity, as it were. I wrote about "Four Nights with Anna" when I first saw it at the Toronto Film Festival, and I delve a little deeper in this piece ("I, Witness") at Alt Screen:
"Four Nights with Anna" -- such a romantic title, conjuring wistful images of a brief but passionate affair that its impetuous young lovers will cherish for a lifetime. Well, yes and no. This is a movie that very much belongs to its director, Jerzy Skolimowski, so at some point things are bound to plummet off the deep end.
As it turns out, the subversive Polish filmmaker's 2008 return to directing (after a 15-year hiatus), is a heartbreaking romantic black-comedy in which the obsessed lover (Artur Steranko) is smitten as can be, but his beloved (Kinga Preis) isn't conscious of their trysts. (What do you expect from the guy who got his start co-writing Knife in the Water with Roman Polanski?) Though they share precious hours together at her place, she spends them in a drugged slumber, which puts her at a disadvantage, fling-wise. OK, it's an unconventional relationship -- intense, intimate, unbalanced, mortifying -- but it's also touching and oddly sweet. You just sense from the title that it probably doesn't have much of a future.
We tend to remember long takes that call attention to themselves as such: the opening shots of "Touch of Evil" or "The Player"; the entrance to the Copacabana in "GoodFellas"; all those shots in Romanian movies, and pictures directed by Bela Tarr and Jia Zhangke... And then there are the ones you barely notice because your eyes have been guided so effortlessly around the frame, or you've been given the freedom to explore it on your own, or you've simply gotten so involved in the rhythms of the scene, the interplay between the characters, that you didn't notice how long the shot had been going on.
For this compilation, "Deep Focus," I've chosen eight shots I treasure (the last two I regard as among the finest in all of cinema). They're not all strictly "deep focus" shots, but they do emphasize three-dimensionality in their compositions. I've presented them with only minimal identifications so you can simply watch them and see what happens without distraction or interruption. Instead, I've decided to write about them below. Feel free to watch the clips and then re-watch (freeze-frame, rewind, replay) the clips to see what you can see. To say they repay re-viewing is an understatement.
Click above to REALLY enlarge...
UPDATED 01/28/10: 2:25 p.m. PST -- COMPLETED!: Thanks for all the detective work -- and special thanks to Christopher Stangl and Srikanth Srinivasan himself for their comprehensive efforts at filling the last few holes! Now I have to go read about who some of these experimental filmmakers are. I did find some Craig Baldwin movies on Netflix, actually...
Srikanth Srinivasan of Bangalore writes one of the most impressive movie blogs on the web: The Seventh Art. I don't remember how I happened upon it last week, but wow am I glad I did. Dig into his exploration of connections between Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Jean-Luc Godard's "History of Cinema." Or check out his piece on James Benning's 1986 "Landscape Suicide." There's a lot to look through, divided into sections for Hollywood and World Cinema.
In the section called "The Cinemaniac... I found the above collage (mosaic?) of mostly-famous faces belonging to film directors, which Srikanth says he assembled from thumbnails at Senses of Cinema. Many of them looked quite familiar to me, and if I'm not mistaken they were among the biographical portraits we used in the multimedia CD-ROM movie encyclopedia Microsoft Cinemania, which I edited from 1994 to 1998, first on disc, then also on the web. (Anybody with a copy of Cinemania able to confirm that? My Mac copy of Cinemania97 won't run on Snow Leopard.)
Before I do my proper "ten best" honors (in a form that is not a critics' poll ballot), I just want to say that the best things I saw on any screen in 2008 were:
1) "Generation Kill" (seven-part HBO mini-series, adapted by Ed Burns and David Simon, the makers of "The Wire," and Evan Walker Wright, a reporter embedded with the 1st Recon Marines in Iraq in 2003, based on Wright's book). I don't like the title. At some point in Episode Three I thought this was the funniest show on TV. About 15 minutes later, I still felt so, but I also felt something radically different. Susanna White is one hell of a director.
2) "Liverpool" (Lisandro Alonso; seen at Toronto Film Festival)
3) "Four Nights with Anna" (Jerzy Skolimowski; seen at Toronto Film Festival)
4) "35 Rhums" (Claire Denis; seen at Toronto Film Festival)
5) "Mad Men" (AMC, Season Two)
6) "In Treatment" (HBO, Season One)
Just because they didn't play for a week or more on US movie screens doesn't mean they should go unacknowledged (any more than "The Dekalog" or "Fanny and Alexander" should), and I hope to have the opportunity to write about them in depth in 2009. ("Generation Kill" was just released on DVD December 16.)
My MSN Movies gallery feature article about Great Movie Underdogs (i.e., dogs whose proper names are not in the titles), is live. And, after the jump, the answers to last week's movie dog quiz -- and a couple of delicious bonus treats.
Regarding great movie doggerel doggies:
My dog Edith does not much like dog movies. At least I don't think she does. Whenever a canine appears on our 55-inch HDTV screen, or any of the surround speakers, she lunges, barking, growling, whining and emitting other noises that sound like a wounded vacuum or a gargling siren.
If Edith were a bit less excitable and territorial, if she were better able to maintain a critical distance, she would appreciate how many fine screen performances have been given by members of her species, if not of her particular mixed-breed-of-color. [...]
How to plan my Toronto schedule when there are a few dozen movies screening every day and I want to keep from knowing much of anything about them before I see them, so that I can (as much as humanly possible) avoid preconceptions, false expectations, artificial festival "buzz," and other distractions that have little or nothing to do with what's on those screens? (See last year's accounting: "What did I know and when did I know it?")
The first thing I look for are the names of directors whose work I'm interested in following (or whose work I think I would like to follow). This year, for example, Danny Boyle, Kevin Smith, Rod Lurie and (as previously mentioned) Guy Ritchie all have films in this year's festival -- which, in my case, leaves more room to accommodate movies by directors I like. Not only for megastar filmmakers like the Dardennes and the Coens, but for Terence Davies ("The Long Day Closes"), Rian Johnson ("Brick"), Ramin Bahrani ("Chop Shop"), Katherine Bigelow ("Blue Steel"), Jerzy Skolimowski ("Deep End"), Kelly Reichardt ("Old Joy"), Michael Winterbottom ("A Cock and Bull Story" -- who makes two or three movies a year, it seems)... Those parenthetical titles, of course, are earlier films by these filmmakers. I don't even remember most of the titles from this year yet, because I haven't seen the movies. I've just been circling times and places on my screening schedule.
Armin Mueller-Stahl at the head of the table, head of the family
You are going to hear a lot about this, so I may as well begin with it: There's a fight scene in David Cronenberg's Russian mob thriller "Eastern Promises" that is sure to go down as a raw, brutal and pulse-pounding landmark in the history of fight scenes. It takes place in one room, with no props except for a couple knives. People in the audience at the Toronto screening I attended were flinching and gasping as if they were being punched in the face. Which, of course, is the idea. If a fight scene doesn't make you feel like you're part of it, so that it quickens your heartbeat and your breathing, then it's a failure. And Cronenberg's makes you realize how many movie fights are flops -- and how really hard it is to kill or immobilize a human being with your arms, legs, feet and hands.
Literally and figuratively, "Eastern Promises" has balls.
And in this sense, it reminds me of both the excruciatingly protracted struggle between Paul Newman and the Russian agent in "Torn Curtain," and the knock-down, drag-out fist-fest between Keith David and Rowdy Roddy Piper in John Carpenter's "They Live!
Lamppost-spined Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts.
Directed in a bold, graphic style similar to that of his previous film, "A History of Violence," "Eastern Promises" is shockingly gorgeous, for all the ugliness it portrays. The film is set in London, and the colors are dark and heavy: gray skies, slick black streets, brandy, absinthe, venous blood. A hospital midwife (Naomi Watts) finds a patient's diary that gets her involved with Russian gangsters -- in particular, a shrewd and ambitious chauffeur played by "History of Violence" star Viggo Mortensen, looking sharper and more angular and cooly abstract than ever. (Watch the way he props himself against a lamppost so that they become extensions of each other. How does he do that?)
It begins like a Cronenbergian horror movie, and becomes... a Cronenberg gangster movie -- an elemental struggle between good and evil, life and death, east and west, blood and money, trust and betrayal, commerce and morality, mind and body. Remember, that's "elemental," not "simplistic." There are... complications.
More when the movie opens.
NOTE: Watts' proud, abrasive, vodka-swilling Russian uncle is played by the great Polish director, Jerzy Skolimowski ("Deep End," "The Shout," "Moonlighting").
View image He's mad as hell...
Tom Wilkinson has probably won an Oscar nomination for supporting actor in "Michael Clayton" before he ever appears on the screen. Or he should, anyway. But then, he should also be competing with (just to mention some of the other supporting male performances I've seen in Toronto thus far) the likes of Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook and especially Brian Dierker in "Into the Wild"; Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men" (or are those leading actor performances?); Armin Mueller Stahl and Jerzy Skolimowski (!) in "Eastern Promises"; and definitely Sydney Pollack in "Michael Clayton"...
Now, I am not one of those people who come to Toronto for Oscar-spotting purposes. But "Michael Clayton," written and directed by "Bourne" series screenwriter Tony Gilroy, is the kind of smart, crisp, "serious" mainstream entertainment that gives Hollywood (or the part of it influenced by George Clooney) a good name. I guess you could describe it as a Manhattan "legal thriller" -- most of the main characters are corporate lawyers -- that strikes a delicate tonal balance between the cynical political paranoia of the "Bourne" movies, the satirical paranoia of "Network," the corporate paranoia of "The Insider," and the legalistic paranoia of "Erin Brockovich." And, as in all these movies, when you're feeling paranoid, it doesn't mean somebody isn't out to get you.
Wilkinson finds that perfect chord, and establishes the tone of the movie, in his off-screen opening monologue, a breathless rant of a voice message left for his fellow attorney, the eponymous Michael Clayton (Clooney), the firm's "fixer" who is called in to take care of delicate "problems" for a rich and powerful clientele. Wilkinson's character, Arthur Edens, is a brilliant lawyer who's been working for more than a decade on a single case, involving a chemical manufacturer that, after the usual cost-benefit analysis, released an agricultural product with toxic effects on humans. (The company's earth-friendly TV spots will look painfully familiar to PBS viewers, where such underwriting entities are expert at peddling their green corporate citizenship.)
Arthur is also manic-depressive, and he's gone off his meds, and he's raving about the moment of clarity he's having about the dirty, soul-killing business he's in. He's like Peter Finch in "Network," only his volcanic monologues aren't quite so messianic. (But then, he's not working from a Paddy Chayevsky script, either. Actually, I think "Network" would have been a better movie if it had been written and directed more in the style of "Michael Clayton." That is, a bit more dryly.)
View image Clooney and Pollack: These guys are good. Really good.
The movie revolves around the title character's face, and its hard to think of another actor who could hold it together the way Clooney does. His eyes reveal a quicksilver intelligence -- always sizing up the situation, figuring out how best to play it, even when he's utterly lost -- that Clooney can do without looking like he's trying. He doesn't give things away, he just registers enough to for you to notice without noticing that you're noticing. And that's a considerable accomplishment (especially when you remember how broadly, goofily dumb he can also play with supreme confidence, as in the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"). Equally adept, and really fun to watch, is Tilda Swinton as an ambitious corporate climber, who rehearses her every statement while nervously trying on the appropriate uniform for each boardroom crisis. (Look for Ken Howard and Miles O'Keefe in surprising roles as professional office politicians.)
And there's ever-reliable Sydney Pollack, who has become one of my favorite character actors ("Husbands and Wives," "Eyes Wide Shut," "The Sopranos"). The man is a consummate actor, so effortlessly natural he can make others look mannered next to him. That makes him the ideal foil for the comparably relaxed style of Clooney, and their scenes together are especially fun to watch. They also provide Wilkinson with something solid that he can bounce his wild, unpredictable serves off of. (I feel about Pollack the opposite of how I feel about Sean Penn: the former is a better actor than a director, and with the latter it's the other way around. Pollack is a producer on the film -- and Clooney, Steven Soderbergh and Anthony Minghella among the executive producers -- and I mean no slight when I say I found myself grateful that they decided to let, or enable, somebody else to direct this one.)
Gilroy does just fine in his directorial debut. His style suits his actors (and, for that matter, his leading characters): handsome, smart, economical. Three of the last four shots in the film (number three is simply a bridge between two and four) are quiet stunners, though I would have cut to black about two or three seconds earlier at the end. The first of these final shots sums up the virtues of the film ideally: While quite naturally following the trajectory of one character in the foreground, the fate of another is captured in the same frame, but out of focus and in the receding background. It's another perfect note, and it's handled so deftly you could almost miss it. You won't, though -- and the great thing is you'll feel like you discovered it yourself. Along with everybody else in the audience.
Here goes. For the time being, I'm just going to offer up the answers to the Opening Shots Pop Quiz, without further elaboration or analysis in most cases -- because these shots are so great they deserve full Opening Shots treatments of their own. (And you, by the way, are welcome to provide them if you are so inclined!)