Monday, January 18, 2016

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

I have only recently -- admittedly, belatedly -- come to really appreciate what a remarkable set of circumstances was made possible by BBS Productions in the late '60s and early '70s, and certainly what a remarkable group of films was produced by the company during that time. While I had always appreciated and admired the significance of Easy Rider, the company's breakout success, it was really the comparatively low-key, painfully honest and still-relevant Five Easy Pieces, which impressed me most deeply and made me pay close attention to the films produced by the company.

The King of Marvin Gardens re-unites director Bob Rafelson with star Jack Nicholson, though it is not merely a follow-up to Five Easy Pieces. Set against the backdrop of a decaying Atlantic City, Nicholson plays David Staebler, an intellectual late-night talk radio host, who comes to the boardwalk to help out his brother Jason (Bruce Dern), recently released from jail and trying to get his latest property development venture off the ground while dealing with difficult relationships with the women in his life (Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson) and the local crime racket with whom he is involved. Nicholson's David is a quiet but sharp observer, fiercely loyal to his brother despite his misguided efforts. He seems to view himself as somewhat aloof, perhaps using his role as radio host to distance himself from the situations and people around him, but he nevertheless proves himself willing to step up and take action when circumstances call for it.

Nicholson's performance is a revelation -- restrained and burning with a quiet intensity, working in perfect synergy with the similarly restrained but intense style that Rafelson brings to the film. Rafelson brilliantly uses the decaying boardwalk, once a symbol for opportunity and wealth, and now run-down with corruption, as a metaphor for America.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Shooting on Film Again

Perhaps in keeping with the idea that "What's old is new again", it certainly seems that there is a good deal of excitement among film enthusiasts toward shooting on film again. Following the intense hype surrounding Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, shot - and released, albeit in limited engagements - in the 70mm format, Kodak came out with an intriguing announcement, regarding the company's revival of the Super 8 format.

The announcement comes at an interesting time for "analog" formats, given the resurgence in popularity of vinyl records in recent years. As someone who recently began shooting on film again myself (I purchased a 16mm Bolex this past summer), I will be especially interested to see how other filmmakers react to this development, and whether or not the Super 8 format does indeed see a revival as a result.

Ultimately, I think it will come down to a question of what individual filmmakers hope to accomplish by shooting in the format. As a learning tool, it could prove to be highly valuable to a generation of filmmakers trained on digital formats. At the same time, the greater cost and cumbersome nature of the technology may well stymie many of these same filmmakers in their tracks. Shooting on film rewards patience and meticulous attention to detail, qualities that digital tends to work against with its ability to obtain good results with less work (and I say that not to denigrate those artists and craftsmen who approach working on digital with the same care and quality as they would film; but the format does make it easier for the lazy and sloppy to achieve passable results).

Whether or not Kodak's planned revival of Super 8 leads to wider embrace of the format, or whether it remains largely marketing hype, it has certainly sparked some strong interest and contributed to the ongoing discussion about the relative merits of film and digital. The following statement from Steven Spielberg, quoted in Kodak's announcement, sums up my feelings on the subject:
"Paintings done on a computer and paintings done on canvas require an artist to make us feel something. To be the curser or the brush, that is the question and certainly both can produce remarkable results. But doesn't the same hold true for the cinematic arts? Digital or celluloid? Vive la difference! Shouldn't both be made available for an artist to choose?"

Friday, January 01, 2016

The Birds (1963)

Sometimes regarded as Alfred Hitchcock's last true masterpiece, The Birds is a frustrating and at times maddening film, constantly flirting with and skirting around answers and solutions to the unexplained bird attacks that descend upon the Northern California coastal town of Bodega Bay. It is also a brilliant and deceptively complex film for the same reason, with Hitchcock playing on the human need to make sense of horrible things in order to understand how they happened and to assuage our fears in the process. In The Birds, he robs of us that relief, presenting a horror for which there is no explanation -- it just is, and that is the most frightening thing of all. By making that horror a natural one -- in this case, the birds with which we associate peace and harmony -- Hitchcock also reminds us of man's utter helplessness in the face of nature, should nature ever decide to turn on him.

In no other Hitchcock film is there such a constant feeling of dread lurking throughout. Take the opening scene, in which society girl Tippi Hedren and lawyer Rod Taylor "meet cute" in a bird shop. There is a moment when one of the small birds escapes from its cage and flits around the ceiling a bit before being captured and returned. Normally, this little bit of business would be humorous and played for laughs (which it seemingly is here, at first), but there is something about the bird's escape, and the brief pandemonium that it causes while flying about the shop, that creates a feeling of tension and unease in its unpredictability and the way that the bird upsets the order of things. The scene ends, leaving you feeling a bit uneasy, but you can't quite be sure just why.

The best example of what Hitchcock is up to here is the scene in which Tippi Hedren, for no apparent reason, wanders up to a top-floor room of the house, which has just been devastated by a bird attack. She slowly creeps up the dark stairs, flashlight in hand, as Hitchcock pulls out all the tricks in the books to make the audience anticipate something awful about to happen. When she enters the room, she spots a gaping hole in the ceiling, through which a hundred birds immediately come rushing in, mercilessly pecking and attacking her in a way that suggests a rape. Why, we wonder, did she ever go up to the room in the first place? Why do the birds attack? Is it meant to suggest a metaphor for sexual assault? And if so, why? Hitchcock is careful -- methodically so -- to avoid anything that could be construed as an explanation for any of it.

Perhaps the best way to think of The Birds is as a colossal joke on the academics and critics who were beginning to take Hitchcock's work very seriously around this time. It's as if the Master, with characteristically sly humor, offered them a film that seemed to be packed with layers of symbolism to be dissected for its meaning, but which ultimately mean nothing, like a puzzle that cannot be solved.

If so, Hitchcock had the last laugh.