Sunday, April 20, 2014

Under the Skin

I’m at a loss when it comes to processing UNDER THE SKIN, so writing about it is even more daunting. I suppose I could admit that it had me firmly onboard from start to finish, but that’s probably not worth much to anyone but myself. But amidst all of the visual splendor, the sustained atmosphere of complexity, and the occasional dashes of humor there were two scenes that had me considering it possibly the best horror film since Zulawski’s POSSESSION. The first scene occurs after we’ve been acquainted with the basic formula, a TROUBLE EVERY DAY-esque bait-and-switch with a beautiful alien luring unsuspecting Scotsmen to a black void where she walks safely across as they hypnotically sink and are harvested for their meat. The first scene that shook me out of my hypnosis occurs at a beach where Johansson’s alien preps a surfer for the grinder, as the ocean seems to be warning everyone and everything of her presence. While she is talking with him he/we notice a drowning dog being dragged out to sea with a woman (the dog’s owner) swimming hopelessly to rescue him. Her act of love sparks a series of snowballing tragedies, all seemingly the result of putting your heart above your mind.

Keep in mind that all human activity in UNDER THE SKIN is being watched by this extraterrestrial. All of our odd eating, socializing, recreational, and sexual habits are on display and we the audience are invited to observe our own peculiarity safely beside her. The scene at the beach is one in which we can’t quite look upon our own kind with her resolute disdain, especially as we see and hear a baby screaming helplessly and trying to escape the oncoming tide. I actually sweat during this entire sequence, I couldn’t help but think about Dean. It felt like a nightmare in its casualness. I wonder why Jonathan Glazer put it in the film. It’s obvious that he staged the entire episode, though it honestly looked and felt as though the cast and crew witnessed a horrible event and filmed it with the same detached fortitude as our alien guide. But it’s the mixture of the baby’s frightful howling with the execution of the horrible events that eventually had me in awe of this film’s focus and complexity. Once the sweat settled I was sure I was witnessing something special.

In that scene we witnessed our inherent weakness, our inability to think through situations logically, and our dwarfing in regards to greater powers such as rip currents, tides, and the unyielding rocks that they smash us against. Within that scene we saw the best and worst of what we had to offer ourselves, each other, and the impassive world that hosts us. The alien’s lack of compassion would have made for a nice dreadful night at the movies if it hadn’t been shaken up by the second scene in which her compassion is suddenly triggered.

As Johansson cruises around looking for meat she encounters a young man with his face deliberately covered. She approaches him like all of the others, but this time the bait isn’t as easily convinced of his own vanity. As he enters the car his face is revealed. He has neurofibromatosis, a disorder that causes tumors to develop on nerve tissue, in this young man’s case it’s on his face, hence why he’s out shopping at such a late hour. Adam Pearson’s performance in this scene is as genuine and human as any I’ve seen in a long time. She begins with the typical drill, trying to coax him by playing into his vanity but realizes that he won’t be so easily ensnared. She asks him if he has a girlfriend, he sits for a second and avoids any eye contact only to slowly shake his head. She then asks him if he has any friends, this time it takes longer for him to respond but he eventually shakes his head two or three times. It’s one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen in a film and it needs to be. This is the moment when this lonely being finally empathizes with something or someone on our strange planet. Like him, she would be met with similar exile if everyone knew what she really looked like. Up until this point she has only understood that men typically respond to her superficial beauty and her acknowledgment of theirs. He doesn’t believe in her advances until she talks about his hands. Glazer cuts to a shot of this young man pinching himself, so sure he must be dreaming. I felt the same way.

From this encounter the film takes on a deeper meaning once we’ve clawed past the exterior. It’s fitting that a film about the treachery of surfaces would begin with such a monotonous visual and narrative décor ripe for rupturing. I’m still trying to swallow the finale, in which our navigator encounters the worst of human narcissism and specifically what happens thereafter. It’s a harsh note to end on, and an even harder note to wake us from this wonderful dream.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL opens with a girl with patches on her coat, holding a book in a cemetery and staring at a statue of a man known only as “the author.” She sits on a bench and opens a book that’s ostensibly written by said author and we are shot back to 1985, where Tom Wilkinson/author sits neatly within frame, much like every other shot carefully composed in every other Anderson film with the exception that he is seated there on his own accord, preparing to read from the book seen in the punk girl’s hands. This orderly shot is interrupted by a young boy shooting a toy gun followed by a quick outburst of anger and a nice little exchange to set things right before continuing on. Though it seemed merely a zinger tucked within a fun but needless casing this rapid violent disruption and its consequent affection becomes a repeated motif throughout the actual story. From Wilkinson we meet his younger self played by Jude Law circa 1968 staying at Grand Budapest in the midst of the Cold War. From here he/we meet Mr. Moustafa played by F. Murray Abraham, described as one of the richest men in Europe. Law’s “the author” has dinner with this wealthy enigma in order to hear how he came to his current privilege, sending us once again back deeper into 1932 Zubrowka, only two years before the proxy Axis would clench their leather gloves around the good people of Zubrowka’s neck resulting in 80,000 fictitious civilian deaths (you catch the drift). It’s here that we meet the crass but noble M. Gustave, and the story begins.

Whether or not you buy the necessity of the framing devise it certainly invokes the illusion of immersion within a story told mostly within what many are now calling Anderson’s “dollhouse” structure. Once within the story, things move fairly undeviating with the exception of a montage or two as well as some visual cues serving as “a ha’s” within a character’s mind. Anderson is able to weave us in and out without much if any confusion or break in momentum. It’s a gift he’s mastered at this point in his career. Those who complain that his style is grating, or even those who politely confess reiteration fatigue have to admit that though he’s instantly recognizable as an artist he’s also cultivated his style and storytelling abilities impressively over the past three features. This meticulous world, with its succinct movements and shipshape décor is growing denser in detail and moving smoother within itself. For those who complain that it’s this exactitude that drives them mad, I wonder how we would feel if he tried the shaky cam or if his films started to lack his trademark sense of humor. By the way, I am guilty of the same “why doesn’t he try something different” delusion and Grand Budapest seems to have put me firmly in my place.

Once within the story of M. Gustave, played flawlessly by Ralph Fiennes, we meet the younger Moustafa who went by Zero at the time. Zero is played by Tony Revolori whom I haven’t encountered yet in a film but I expect to see more of, at least in future Anderson projects. This young man comes from tragedy, though you wouldn’t know it if he didn’t tell you. He under the care and instruction of the tough, loving, oblivious but considerate, and always didactic M. Gustave. Gustave is a man who puts great emphasis on appearance and scent, though he bubbles beneath his urbane guise with a volcano of curse words and immature sentiments. It’s fun to watch his air blow away as the film progresses, his filter all but gone by the time he makes his glorious exit (you pockmarked fascist assholes!). He oversees the Grand Budapest and takes good care of its guests, especially the septuagenarian blond women whom he calls his friends. When one of his friends passes away she leaves him a valuable painting called “Boy with Apple” much to the vexation of her son Dmitri who immediately spurts out a nasty slur and makes threats that might not be as empty as his conscience. This sets off the action which is not limited to a decapitation, an exploded cat head, a miniatures ski chase, a prison break, four severed fingers, and fucking cable cars. I found all of it consistently funny and entertaining, which is frankly enough for me hold it in high esteem, but it was the ending that really set this apart for me.

I had a brief back and forth with someone about the “lack of meaning” that brought the film down for them. I disagreed, but I’m not as interested in trying to convince someone to feel something that they aren’t predisposed to feel. For instance, that same person found the film not as much funny as delightful or worthy of a perpetual smile rather than uncontrollable laughter. I found myself making a scene within the theater. I was loud. I was annoying. But this is just a subjective divide that we probably won’t ever bridge. As for the “lack of meaning,” I found the film plenty “significant” for a number of reasons. First, I found the various references fitting within the setting, structure, and theme. I believe that there is more than just back-patting delights in spotting cinematic odes to Hitchcock, Reed, Junge, Borzage, Ophuls, Kathleen Byron, Farrar, Renoir, The Shining, Bresson, and blah blah blah. Second, it’s nice to see a similar story to Haneke’s The White Ribbon of encroaching fascist doom and the good people in its wake without the life and humanity dutifully sapped out. There is an interesting bookend to this that takes place on a train, one where M. Gustave’s bravery and loyalty to his young apprentice are honored and another in which all honor and respect hide beneath a uniform and earn this good man a rifle butt to the nasal bone and bullet to the head.

And of course there are many more examples of “substance” but I’d rather end with a little framing device of my own. I was introduced to the director in 1997 when my best friend Steve’s older brother Reid brought home a VHS copy of Bottle Rocket. I loved it, but I wasn’t really tuned in to the existence and importance of the director as much as the cast. By the time I saw Rushmore in 1998 in my friend Matt’s basement, I knew who he was and very much looked forward to following his career. In many ways The Royal Tenenbaums was my first experience in an independent theater, The Charles Theater in Baltimore. At the time I was reading Lou Lumerick faithfully because a teacher at the school I was working at would bring in the Post and I wanted to find out what was being released in cities with an actual independent film market. Binghamton had an Art theater but it didn’t typically get movies that I wanted to see. So when in Baltimore I asked my bandmates if we could make an effort to see this new Wes Anderson film and I remember all of us quoting it for weeks after. Since then I’ve been a slightly less impressed, or perhaps just less interested in revisits which has oddly become a litmus test for a film’s stature. I guess it makes sense, wanting to dig deeper or simply reenter a movie’s world is a sign of its depth and with that in mind I guess I find myself now wanting to check back into this picture to laugh, bask in its visual pleasures, and hunt for more references in order to make myself feel like a good cinephile. In fact, come to think of it, one of the first thoughts that I had while watching it was, “damn, I forgot how much loved this guy’s films.”

Ps, Reid’s last name was Anderson and he named his first son Wesley.