Dir. Steven Soderbergh
With Haywire, Steven Soderbergh continues to push the boundaries of popular narrative form. He has always been interested in experimenting with how to tell a story, but more recently has really tested just how far he can go with making his films as efficient as possible, oftentimes challenging rules of continuity, while still holding the film together. Soderbergh condenses character development and narrative information, walking a fine line between tightly constructed filmmaking and an almost avant-garde evasion of convention. Many of his stylistic ambitions from Contagion (my favourite of his films) can be found here, but in a different context, and ultimately in a more rigorous exercise—it is often difficult to locate Soderbergh’s interest in content (assuming he has any), and Haywire may be one of his more elusive works. His efficiency does find its match though, in the film’s protagonist Mallory (MMA fighter Gina Carano); She’s smart, quick and nearly devoid of sentimentality (but, like the filmmaker, she may have a tiny soft spot). In all of her one-on-one combat scenes, Carano’s strategy is all about technique, her form is as precise as Soderbergh’s. Mallory is seemingly built up to be an unstoppable weapon, but a point is made to reveal her fallibility. The action sequences feel entirely authentic (the other actors do a marvelous job trying to match Carano’s ability), although their real-world feel may not be sensational enough for the common moviegoer, and indeed people may be turned off by Haywire, as some were with Contagion, as both films feel like Trojan horses when viewed at the multiplex (a special pleasure, from my point-of-view). Soderbergh employs natural sound during these considerably long sequences, which among other things gives the impression of exhaustion as each fight is drawn out. The result is a palpable sense of physicality, an element all but absent from action films.
Speaking of the film’s use of sound, Haywire seems to have two modes. The first is in natural sound, which aside from the fight scenes emphasize real-world ambiance in more mundane moments. One hears the creaks of a wooden floor, the light buzzing of an air conditioner, and in the case of dialogue scenes a sense of the environment’s impact on voices (open vs. closed spaces etc.). The second mode is when the film’s soundtrack completely gives in to its very cool poppy/jazzy musical score by David Holmes. The range of settings is noticeably atypical: a desolate airport, flat boring hallways and rooms, an upper class home in darkness (not unlike The Limey), a villa, and a climactic battle on a sunny beach (where the sounds of waves overpower those of the fight). Soderbergh seems driven to defy the filmmaking status quo as much as possible while delivering a seamlessly told story. Cross-cutting between locations all over the world (as he did in Contagion) within a non-linear structure, he plays with spatial and temporal possibilities more than any other Hollywood director. As this pre-(quasi)-retirement phase of the self-described uninspired filmmaker’s career develops, it is quickly becoming his most fascinating period.
The Artist (2011)
Dir. Michel Hazanavicius
At first glance, The Artist may seem like an ideal companion piece to Hugo—Scorsese’s film integrates history of silent cinema into its story, and even appropriates silent film footage in several sequences, and The Artist is a modern day silent (for the most part) film—but ultimately these two thematically linked works are opposed to one another in how they view cinema. Scorsese emphasizes how movies transcend time as well as their technology and materiality, even sharing his “stage” with Georges Méliès as if to say that films that are worlds apart can stand right next to each other as equals. In Scorsese’s universe, cinema is immortal and of a cyclical design, in which past and future work together. The Artist couldn’t get more linear-minded. It is a film about (it’s a stretch to say it’s really about anything, but I’ll humour it) progress, and evolution. Its final statement (which comes in an awkwardly staged abrupt happy ending) is that as cinema transitions into different technological phases (silent to sound, black/white to colour, film to digital), it will find something new that keeps the art form rejuvenated. This view point doesn’t really revere the past, but rather sees the progress of the medium as a means of survival. Indeed, cinema’s ability to adapt and survive (through the great depression and two world wars, for example) as a strong economic institution is fascinating, but this seems to be The Artist‘s sole message. Boiled down to its essence, The Artist is a film about cinema as a business, and Hugo is about cinema as art. As love letters to the movies, the distinctions are obvious. Hugo‘s means of homage are intricate and deeply felt, The Artist rips off narrative pieces, music, and makes confusing references. Confusing in that it poses as a silent film homage, yet its references are all over the place. Why quote Citizen Kane? There is no contextual reasoning or thematic justification. It’s just easy and obvious. Worse is taking Hermann’s score from Vertigo and borrowing (to put it nicely) its power in the cheapest of ways (and for the sake of shallow, fluffy melodrama?).
There are things to like in The Artist, and it is “well-made” (whatever that means). Jean Dujardin is very good as the protagonist, he has the right physicality and gestural range. He resembles Gene Kelly, and evokes Douglas Fairbanks rather effectively. The film is fun at first, with moments of whimsy and charm, but it quickly throws that out in favour of dull (over-serious, even) melodrama. The last two-thirds of the film are needlessly whiny and somber. Singin’ in the Rain‘s spin on the coming of the sound era was a joyous celebration of modern cinematic technology that didn’t pretend to lament the silent era’s demise. The presence of Uggie the dog in the film, the protagonist’s talented, adorable companion, is symbolic of the film’s attitude towards old movies, which can be summed up with the phrase: “isn’t it cute?” Such reactions were certainly had by my fellow audience members, who chuckled mildly (no real laughs are to be had at this surprisingly “straight-up” film) at The Artist‘s demonstration of silent-silliness. The Artist adopts silent aesthetics, but its referential style is a superficial demonstration of cinephilia. A film like Hugo says infinitely more about silent cinema (and cinema in general). Hugo is tribute; The Artist is parody, and it’s not quite clever enough to realize it.
Mulberry St. (2010)
Dir. Abel Ferrara
Everyone is welcome on camera in Abel Ferrara’s Mulberry St., a documentary that explicitly reveals the warmth behind the underrated auteur’s gritty, crude exterior. The film has no guiding narrative. It drifts from encounter to encounter with different personalities, many eccentric, in New York’s Little Italy during the Feast of San Gennaro. Not since Martin Scorsese’s Italianamerican has there been such an intimate portrayal of the Italian New Yorker experience, and together in a double bill the films complete one another. Scorsese’s film is about history and family while Ferrara’s gives you a sense of the streets, the people—both cover the food.
Mulberry St.’s free-flowing feel is its most endearing quality; like Ferrara himself, there‘s something chaotic and disorganized about the film, but that’s just in his/its nature. We often see the initial exchange between Ferrara and his subjects and occasionally witness as he asks for permission to film (something most any other filmmaker would cut, but tidiness is not one of Ferrara’s concerns). The peak of the film’s nonchalance comes when Ferrara actually begins to review footage he shot earlier in the doc—and complains about how it fails to capture the colour of his girlfriend’s (Shanyn Leigh) red hair. The richness of the film comes from the people we get to meet: vendors, restaurant owners, China Girl bit-part cast members, random people on the street, and genuine locals (we also get to meet Abel and Shanyn’s three cats!). There are also some “celebrity” cameos, including chance encounters with Matthew Modine and Danny Aiello (Sal from Do the Right Thing). Modine comically enters the film via segway like Gob in Arrested Development. Shanyn takes a spin, and then Ferrara attempts to give it a shot before being stopped by his girlfriend, while Modine nervously says “I’m afraid the wheel’s coming off”. Aiello talks acting with Ferrara, and shares a nice anecdote about working with Spike Lee, who he says allowed him to rewrite his own lines.
Throughout the film, we get personal moments with Ferrara, as he recounts filming 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (his porno), complains about lawsuits and the failed distribution of Go Go Tales, shares artwork that interests him (“Ever seen this Van Gogh painting? Check it out”), and, as it seems to be getting increasingly difficult to catch him without a guitar, we also see him perform. He is often seen with a beer in his hand (in one moment his manager Frankie Cee reveals that Ferrara is drinking upwards of 30 bottles of beer a day), but, notably, has since gone sober. We see that, like his cinema, Ferrara is rough but artful. The camera intuitively weaves through hallways, stairways and up and down Mulberry St., guided by its search for anything interesting to film, which for Ferrara is just about anyone. Show me another documentary so filled to the brim with life—I doubt there are many out there.