Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Proposition (2005)

“There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things.
Sun, and moon and stars, brother; all sweet things.
There’s likewise a wind on the heath.
Life is very sweet, brother.”
A man who sits dying wheezes these words about halfway through The Proposition. His killer moves in close and finishes the poem: “’Life is very sweet, brother; Who would wish to die?’” There is a smile of recognition between the two men. The killer continues, “George Borrow, I believe. A worthy writer, and a beautiful sentiment, sir.” He shoves him over. “But you’re not my brother.”

The Proposition is the finest film Western made in my lifetime. That is not an easy distinction for me to grant, since Clint Eastwood may be my favorite living actor and Unforgiven was undoubtedly one of the greatest films (of any genre) of the entire 1990s. But while Unforgiven was superb and the best-ever filmed rumination on the Western genre itself, The Proposition is a singular work of art that is so thematically rich that it would take a long time to fully explore its depths. I'll just give a brief summary in this review.

While the thematic elements of the film are nuanced and wonderfully layered, the plot is rhythmic and simple. The basic premise is outlined within the first five minutes. It is set in the wilderness of 19th Century Australia. Charles and Mikey Burns, two Irish brothers of the murderous Burns Gang, are captured by police in a brothel following a bloody standoff. Police Captain Stanley (who is after the third brother, the sadistic gang leader Arthur) offers Charlie the following deal: venture into the outback and kill Arthur, and he will pardon both Charlie and Mikey. "You want me to kill me brother," says Charlie, expressionless. "I want you to kill your brother," agrees Stanley.

Mikey is taken prisoner and Charlie is given a gun and a horse and is released. And here you have the film. Charlie, played in a superlatively understated performance by Guy Pearce, must choose between his brothers. It is strongly implied that Mikey is mentally handicapped, and Charlie had escaped the gang with him only recently. It is obvious to Charlie, and to the audience, that it would be better for everybody if he simply went through with the plan and killed Arthur. However, they are brothers and such a thing is not so easily done. It is this conflict between the reasoned and the idealistic, between the utilitarian and the Kantian, that forms the basic underlying conflict running through the entire film.

Meanwhile, the small frontier town that Captain Stanley polices is similarly on edge. Word gets around that Stanley had Charlie released, and a public bloodthirsty for revenge against the Burns Gang (responsible for a series of horrific murders, rapes, and home invasions), begins to grumble darkly for Mikey's execution and against Captain Stanley himself. Stanley does his best to hold back this vicious tide of public opinion, but he is thwarted in his efforts by Fletcher, his boss, and Martha, his wife, who was friends with a local woman the Burns gang brutally raped and killed. David Wenham plays Fletcher, the boss, as a bowler-hatted, starch-shirted dandy who pressures Stanley for blood while fussing over his own suit. Emily Watson brings to the character of the wife an overriding sense of decency and humanity, qualities that seem increasingly like a liability as the film marches grimly on.

In fact, every single actor in this film is magnificent, and none more so than the American Danny Huston playing the keystone role as the sociopathically charming Arthur Burns. Director John Hillcoat lets the movie run nearly 40 minutes before Arthur is even glimpsed onscreen, a similar technique to that used in King Kong. And like the savage ape, for the first third of the movie Arthur lurks in the back of the viewer's mind, a menace only hinted at with fear. Even the rebel aboriginals are afraid of the fearsome "dog man" who lives in the rocks. When Arthur and Charlie finally do reunite, the viewer is surprised. Arthur is an affable, wisecracking Irishman who is fond of literature and seems to exhibit genuine care for his brothers. However, Hillcoat and Cave never let the viewer completely forget that Arthur is a vicious rapist and murderer. There are a few significant shots were Arthur is sitting alone, glaring off into space with a startlingly vacant expression. He is a perfect sociopath: a homicidal maniac wearing a jocular mask of sanity.

Consider one of the film's best dialogue exchanges: Arthur and his gang (the psychotic, childlike Samuel Stoat and the tough aborigine Two-Bob) are getting set to ride off to commit a horrific act of violence. They stop to admire a sunset:
Samuel: It sure is pretty.

Arthur: You can never get your fill of nature, Samuel; to be surrounded by it is to be stilled. It salves the heart: the mountains, the trees, the endless plains. The moon, the myriad of stars. Every man can be made quiet and complete. Even the lowliest misanthrope or the most wretched of sinners.

Samuel: What's a misanthrope, Arthur?

Two-Bob: Some bugger who fucking hates every other bugger.

Samuel: Hey! I didn't ask you, you black bastard.

Arthur: He's right, Samuel. A misanthrope is one who hates humanity.

Samuel: Is that what we are? Misanthropes?

Arthur: (smiling) Good Lord, no. We're a family!

Huston plays this role with considerable depth and great mastery. He explores the idea of a man with an ostensible sense of "family", and culture, but utterly bereft of human decency and empathy.

Guy Pearce is pitch-perfect as the introverted Charlie Burns. With his stringy, lanky muscles and greasy, matted hair, Pearce looks less like a man raised in the desert as he does a man made of the desert, with any trace of fat, and weakness, and civilization boiled away by the sun. Pearce plays him with heavy resignation: he knows what he has to do but is reluctant. It's more than just that, though. Charlie Burns is resigned to his life; he is a hopeless character. Doing the right thing by taking Mikey and escaping the gang leads directly to the ghastly catch-22 that he finds himself in.

On the subject of characters, a special mention must be given to the great John Hurt as Jellon Lamb, a self-styled intellectual and bounty hunter that quotes Darwin and holds nonwhites in elevated contempt. Hurt plays the role with a transfixing theatrical bombast, and after viewing the film it's easy to forget that he's onscreen for less than ten minutes. In a film packed to the gills with performances of surpassing excellence, Hurt distinguishes himself by reciting every line like it's a precious treasure: he portrays a man so self-interested that he speaks like a Shakespearean actor, like he's delivering lines from a stage. It takes a very good actor to play a bad actor, and Hurt steals the show for the duration of his appearance.

The blasted, alien landscapes of the Australian outback command a considerable amount of attention from the camera, and Hillcoat is wise to allow himself many long and reflective shots of the terrain. The cracked ground and gnarled, twisted trees look like they belong on Venus. Thick black flies cling to living people as if they were corpses. The implication, of course, being that there are places on Earth that human beings were simply not meant to inhabit. Does the fact that humans persist in these environs speak more of human ingenuity or of human stupidity? This foolhardy will to conquer is, I suppose, one of the greater mysteries of our species.

With that in mind, central to the thematic scope of the film is the notion of savagery as opposed with civilization, and the ambiguity with which both are manifested. “I will civilise this land,” intones Captain Stanley several times in the film, although it smacks more of self-assurance than of conviction. Special attention is paid to Stanley's wife and her carefully cultivated English frontyard garden, which is juxtaposed almost comically against the hellish Australian desert just beyond the fence. At several points in the film, the garden is used as a representation of English civilization encroaching upon the land, which is itself resistant to that force. It is a barrier, also, against the wild, and against the specter of Arthur Burns and the violence, the violation of order, that he represents.

Before the film's brutal climax, Stanley dismisses his aboriginal butler. The man removes his oxford shoes before walking beyond the fence of the garden, and a shot lingers on the empty shoes. This separation represents a physical transition from forced decency back to natural chaos, both in terms of the characters in the scene and in terms of the narrative of the film itself, very much like the shattering of Piggy's spectacles in The Lord of the Flies.

Mrs Stanley herself represents decency, and femininity, society, and polite Christianity; all the delicate social constructs that the harsh environment annihilates without much effort. The only God present in this film is a complete and palpable absence. "I was, in days gone-by, a believer," says one character, "But alas, I came to this beleaguered land, and the God in me just...evaporated."

Pearce and Winstone’s dual protagonistic roles, which represent reasoned nuance, contrast sharply with the extreme and uncompromising characters of Arthur Burns and Eden Fletcher, who inhabit the opposite ends of the film‘s savage/civilized spectrum. Charlie Burns and Captain Stanley are trapped in a position where they must choose between a sort of self-contained virtue for which they will receive nothing but contempt, and capitulation to the pressures of their respective societies. Stanley eventually capitulates, whereas Charlie does not. The Arthur Burns and Fletcher characters, representing the black-and-white extremes of anarchic chaos and social control, eventually reveal their complete indifference to the plight of the characters they seek to influence.

The Proposition shows, therefore, that while it is morally ambiguous, it is not indifferent. In this, it is similar to Leone’s Man With No Name series, wherein the Clint Eastwood character is drawn to a kind of virtue that at first appears to be self-serving, but in actuality is more complex. He is not virtuous because society demands it of him, he is virtuous simply because his own nature makes him inclined to be so. And so it is with Charlie Burns.

It is interesting that most of the greatest Westerns have been made by non-American filmmakers. In some regards I suppose Westerns are similar to science fiction; they manipulate a setting in order to explore certain depths of the human heart that can't be explored within the ordered bounds of contemporary society. This drive is universal. The parallels between Australia's wild frontier period and America's are also fascinating. Consideration is certainly given in this film to the similarities with which the native peoples on both frontiers were treated, a nod to the troubled history America (and American Western film) has had concerning Native Americans.

The screenplay was written by Australian musician Nick Cave, and his love of language is apparent. The tight, spare dialogue embodies the adage "show, don't tell." It is a deeply impressive script, influenced by Conrad and Golding, fully embracing the figurative heart of darkness that lurked above and below the surface of the works of both writers. Cave also composed the film score, and I can say unreservedly that it's one of the best film scores I've ever heard, filled with droning fiddles and eerie hums. Sometimes a barely perceptible buzz will underscore an entire scene, filling every gap with tension. It is brilliant stuff.

I have seen The Proposition about ten times now, but I still find myself startled, intrigued, and amazed by the depth of its themes and performances. Its eerie tone, literary scope, and gorgeous photographic style make it a thoroughly commanding work. See this film.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Throne of Blood (蜘蛛巣城) (1957)

Akira Kurosawa's Japanese contemporaries often airily dismissed his work as "too Western". They pointed to his acceptance by an increasingly global film audience, as well as his alleged sentimentality, as evidence. It seems obvious to me that these criticisms were simply the sour grapes of jealous peers who were envious of Kurosawa's ability to hit upon human truths, and appeal to all audiences; not just the Japanese. Indeed, Kurosawa's perfect intersection of artistry and popular appeal is unmatched throughout cinema of any nationality or time period.

With that in mind, it is interesting to look at Kurosawa's 1957 Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood. Kurosawa had a fascination with Shakespeare (culminating with Ran), that most emblematic of all Western writers. Maybe this stemmed from the fact that neither man was particularly concerned with the constraints of cultural boundaries (Shakespeare less so, as it happens); they were primarily preoccupied with expressing more universal human qualities and flaws. Both artists' work lends itself so easily to adaptation by foreigners: Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood's breakthrough Fistful of Dollars, which was a remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, transposed from Edo-era Japan to the American West, is a prime example. Similarly, Kurosawa adapted Shakespeare with ease, with Throne of Blood proving he could do so with grace and style.

The story of a regicide takes on vast new significance transposed against the honor-bound backdrop of feudal Japan. It should be said that the film is not a strict interpretation, and there are a couple minor changes, but Macbeth is the sole source material, and any analysis of Throne of Blood must start and end with Macbeth.

Shakespeare's play, it is generally agreed upon, features Macbeth's driving ambition as the primary thematic force. Throne of Blood, on the other hand, is less about ambition and more about the motivating power of male insecurity. This is largely due to the performance of the great Toshiro Mifune in the lead role. He is agitated and nervous, easily wounded by any questioning of his manhood. He is an overcompensator, evidenced by his elaborate suits of armor late in the film. He doesn't seem motivated by any real desire for power, he is simply terrified of seeming weak. Prestige is just a byproduct of his terrible actions.

Central to both play and film, of course, is the character of Lady Macbeth (here named Asaji), played in the film by Isuzu Yamada, who audiences may recognize, along with most of the other actors in the film, from several other Kurosawa movies. It's a fantastic performance. The ease with which she overpowers Washizu's mind with suggestion and doubt is a sight to behold. Washizu often looks startled and horrified, as if Asaji's paranoid claims dredge up suppressed suspicions within himself. This is likely the case.

The collaboration between Kurosawa and Mifune is the greatest in all cinema. Kurosawa is the greatest director who ever lived and Mifune is the finest screen actor of all time. Their 16 films together are a towering achievement. Both brought out the absolute best in each other, and Throne of Blood is a perfect example of Kurosawa's deliberate technique colliding flawlessly with Mifune's boundless dynamism.

As the Macbeth equivalent Lord Washizu, Mifune is light-years away from his trademark role as the laconic, jocular ronin in Yojimbo and Sanjuro; as well as the swaggering, charmingly self-aware wannabe samurai Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai. In Throne of Blood, Mifune demonstrates his astounding range. He is gaunt and staring, manic-depressive and menacing. His face twists and distorts in rage and disgust and terror. Characteristically for Mifune, he throws himself into the role with such unrestrained violence that the viewer worries frequently and irrationally for his safety. Not completely without reason: Mifune famously insisted that the climactic scene where Washizu is shot with a hail of arrows be filmed with actual arrows. He was not actually pierced by arrows, obviously, but the arrows hitting the wall around him as he runs around were completely real, as was the expression of terror on his face.

No director in film history has shot atmospherics nearly as well as Kurosawa, and it isn't likely that any ever will. The way he was able to film rain, also used extensively in Rashomon, has to be seen to be believed. The distinguishing feature of Throne of Blood, however, is the frequent use of fog both as a narrative and stylistic device. Incredibly, the film was actually shot on the slopes of Mount Fuji, which provided Kurosawa with frequent and thick fog. It is used beautifully. The iconic scene where the forest comes to meet the walls of the castle is quite possibly the centerpiece of a film packed with incredible shots of nature.

Kurosawa liked using long telephoto lenses due to his assumption that the greater distance from the cameras would get better performances from his actors. He also liked the flattened backgrounds they provided. In Throne of Blood, he uses the narrow 4:3 aspect ratio characteristic of his early work, and this allows him to create a tight, claustrophobic effect. He uses the edges of the frame to conceal and reveal things that, in life, would be easily visible to the characters. It is a fantastic technique when done well, and Kurosawa did it better than anyone (including Leone, who made extensive use of it in films like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly). Observe the banquet scene. Having seen a ghost sitting across the room, Washizu draws his sword and stalks laterally across the frame, the camera gently panning to follow him. As his subordinates drop back in fright, the seat where the ghost was sitting comes into the frame. There is nobody there.

I have not seen every filmed version of Macbeth, so I can't call this the best of them. It is, however, miles ahead of the Polanski version. I can't imagine another actor playing Macbeth with the same ferocity, pathos, and self-loathing as Mifune. Kurosawa's critics may well have pointed to a film like Throne of Blood as a symptom of his fascination with Western source material, but nothing could be further beside the point: Throne of Blood is a great film to be enjoyed by everybody, and Akira Kurosawa was a film director without peer.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Paradise Now ( الجنّة الآن‎) (2005)

What drives a man to commit an act as universally reviled as a suicide bombing? The global news media has preoccupied itself with this question for quite a long time now. Well, maybe that's inaccurate. The media has been preoccupied less with the question than in assuring itself (and us) that it has the answers. An Islamic terrorist bomber, we are to understand, acts from either fanatical religious zeal or from a rabid cultural resentment of Western values; i.e. they "hate our freedom".

These overly facile presumptions go virtually unchallenged in our society, in fact I would say they are taken pretty damn well for granted by people of all political stripes. The suicide bomber is portrayed as a psychotic maniac, and for anyone involved in politics or news to suggest otherwise would be career suicide (excuse the pun). It is a significant risk, therefore, for a filmmaker to humanize suicide bombers; to actually search for the reasons behind their actions. I think the idea of portraying a terrorist as relatable in some respects is extremely scary and threatening to some people. These people (and many of them were firmly opposed to the production of this film) are avoiding the elephant in the room: that one terrible act does not necessarily represent the sum total of a human being's thoughts, feelings, and personal history. There are discrete personal reasons people do things that carry greater significance, and to caricature a terrorist's motivations helps to perpetuate their actions.

Said and Khaled, the subjects of Paradise Now, are not fundamentalist zealots. Neither can I imagine them holding a grudge against us Westerners over our MTV and Coca-Cola. They are somewhat mild-tempered twenty-somethings, auto mechanics in the Palestinian city Nablus. They have that air of two men who have been friends since boyhood. You get the sense that, if they were more talkative sorts, they'd be finishing each others' sentences. They while away their time after work smoking cigarettes and listening to cassettes on a hillside. Said is quieter, an introvert. Khaled has a macho streak, but he's friendly and kind. There is very little about either of them that suggests violence or menace. Both are intelligent and well-spoken. Neither, however, seems particularly happy.

The story revolves completely around the two men and their struggle with what they are about to do. Both performances (by Kais Nashef and Ali Suliman) are a study in brooding understatement, and at times the men are (intentionally) difficult to read. However, the audience is given the character of Suha, a beautiful young woman who was educated abroad and returns to Nablus with European-accented Arabic and a sense of values at odds with many of her countrymen. She offers a modern, Western perspective on the events going on around her. She also acts as the conscience and moral center of the film. When she argues with Said and Khaled, she is saying things that they know are true, but have taught themselves to ignore.

After work one day, Said is approached by Jamal, a handler for a Palestinian terrorist cell. He tells Said that tomorrow is the day that Said will cross over to Israeli territory with Khaled. Once there, they'll blow themselves up on a crowded bus. Sometime before the events of the film, the two men had requested that they be given a mission like this, on the condition that they do it together. Said's response to Jamal is understated: "Are you happy?" asks Jamal. "Yes, very. Thank God," replies Said in a monotone. His face gives nothing away, but there is a significant moment shortly thereafter where Said sits alone in his room, staring off into space while the camera regards him quietly. Later he is restless, unable to sleep. The camera cuts to Jamal, who is sleeping comfortably.

They all meet together the following day at the group's hideout. Said and Khaled are given shaves, haircuts, and crisp new suits. They eat a last meal together and then bombs are strapped to their torsos. They cannot be removed except by a key that Said and Khaled will not be given. They are permitted a hurried meeting with the leader of the terrorist organization, who gives the impression that he's had the same conversation with many men before.

Said and Khaled are driven to the Israeli border and told to rendezvous with their contact on the Israeli side. Once they climb through the fence, however, they're spotted from a distance. There are gunshots and the men flee. They get separated and Khaled runs back to the handlers. Said hides before going on alone, contemplating carrying out the mission on his own. Back at the hideout, the men start to grumble over the possibility that Said has betrayed them. Khaled won't hear any of it and drives off in a frenzy to find his friend.

I won't give away the entire story, but I will say that the movie peels away the layers of each man's social conditioning and bravado, and reveals the feelings and fears that are deep below the surface. In my opinion, I don't believe the film asks the viewer to sympathize with Said and Khalem's actions, it simply asks that they be regarded like any other person: with consideration given to the context of their lives.

An Islamic suicide bomber, by definition, commits an act that is intended to provoke a political response. It is all too easy, therefore, to pigeonhole the motivations of the man himself as overtly ideological. The main underlying theme of this film is thus: it is unwise and inaccurate to end with these easy assumptions. Ideology can be a powerful motivating force, but for a man to be capable of killing himself and innocent people around him, there must be a greater and more personal drive. It's my opinion that the entire Arab-Israeli conflict centers not on a difference of religion, but on the kind of tit-for-tat tribal violence that is endemic throughout human history. People hate each other for believing in different gods. But the reason people kill each other is more likely because they know someone who's been killed by the other side. A mother, a sister, a friend. The need for revenge is personal, it's more real than a simple difference of political opinion. If you kill a man's family, he'll come looking for revenge. Ideology has little to do with it.

Religious fanaticism and political extremism provide a convenient mask that one can hide their own personal vendettas behind, however. Observe, for instance, how Said and Khaled frequently conceal their real motivations behind a wall of ideology. When Khaled records his "martyr video" (a popular genre at the local video store, we later find), he goes on a political/religious rant -- read none-too-convincingly from a sheet of paper. Said is never reluctant to make his feelings towards the Israelis known, but he keeps the real reasons for that resentment hidden. We're given a glimpse of the sort of casualness with which violent oaths are thrown around in Israeli/Palestinian culture: overheard conversations in a cafe and in a taxi contain hyperbolic threats directed generally towards Israel and Jewish settlers, almost as asides to normal small talk. Is this sort of thing meant to be taken seriously? I doubt there's an easy answer for that, but my feeling is that in this culture it's expected and not a very big deal.

I don't mean to imply that the film lets the two men off the hook completely. They are pawns in a big game, it is true, but they are allowing themselves to be manipulated. Both know that what they are doing is wrong, but they have been conditioned by a culture of violence and by a desperate need to be somebody, to have an effect on what is going on around them.

A recurring theme in the film is the feeling of a loss of control, that one's fate is already shaped by large forces with too much momentum to stop. We see that this resignation is used as a kind of avoidance of the present. Said is in love with Suha, for instance, but what does that matter when he is going to die tomorrow? There is a scene where Said and Suha drink coffee together, and Said describes a personally formative (and violent) memory from his youth, in his characteristically unassuming way:
Suha: Do you go to the movies?

Said: No. There's no cinema in Nablus anyway.

Suha: I know, but have you ever been to a cinema before?

Said: Yes, once. Ten years ago when we burned down the Revoly Cinema.

Suha: (pause)...You did that?

Said: Not alone. There were lots of us.

Suha: Why? What did the cinema do to you?

Said: Not the cinema. Israel. When Israel decided not to employ any workers from the West Bank, we demonstrated. Then we ended up in the cinema and burned it down.

Suha: But why the cinema?

Said: Why us?
This is an incredibly human film. There is genuine warmth, and humor, and sadness that all emanate from the uniformly superb performances. You find yourself hoping Said and Khaled turn back, and not just because they are about to do something so unthinkable, but simply because they are easy to like, easy to identify with. Abu-Assad has crafted his characters delicately, with great care. The actors dance through the dialogue with grace.

Don't let my pretentious analysis of the film stop you from enjoying it. It is a well-crafted and enjoyable work. Every aspect of it is well done, and some of the shots are eye-poppingly gorgeous. The plot is taut and exciting. The fact that the film is a significant artistic achievement doesn't hamper its ability to appeal to and affect the viewer's emotions on a very basic level.

Do I understand the terrorist mind better for having seen this movie? Maybe. I think that the point--and the tragedy--of the film, however, is that Said and Khalem aren't impenetrable psychopaths that defy comprehension. Given a different set of circumstances they would almost certainly be much like any of us: appalled at the depths that the forces of violence can drag a man down into.

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn't point out that I think Lubna Azabal, who plays Suha, may be the most beautiful human being I've ever seen in my entire life. I welcome your strong opinions on this subject.