Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lucas McNelly's BLANC DE BLANC

There's a scene fairly early in Lucas McNelly's Blanc de Blanc, in which one character makes dinner for another. The chef goes by the name of David and is a stranger to the diner, Jude. He ended up crashing on her couch the night before, was still there when she went for work, and is still there when she returns home. Still there, in her house, and cooking her dinner. It's an invasion of her space and her person that's at once creepy but well-meaning (he felt bad about crashing), a dichotomy of which David is simultaneously ignorant but also acutely, painfully (self)-aware. It's within the fuzzy spaces between these seeming opposites-- creepy and well-intentioned, ignorant and aware, dangerous and romantic-- that the film's central mystery lies: can this man be trusted? Who is he, really?

The film gives us theories and possibilities: David is an innocent amnesiac, or David is on the run from his past and wants a fresh start, or David is actually perpetrating a cruel and manipulative game on Jude, though we don't know why or to what end. None of these really takes precedence over the other, none of these are ever officially denied or validated in the film, though a careful second viewing will reveal what I think is a pivotal clue in the film's first few minutes, one that's led me to formulate my own theory. The mystery is never definitely answered to the audience's satisfaction, which is part of what makes the film so very satisfying.

It is, in short, a true mystery film, the same way that Turn of the Screw is a truer mystery story than, say, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The only reason to come back to Ackroyd after the first reading has exhausted its novelty is to see the clues pointing to its famous twist; the same is true of a lot of so-called mystery films. I shudder to think of anyone watching Orphan once, let alone a second or third time. But by denying catharsis and explanation, by hinting at a twist that's never revealed, Blanc de Blanc constructs a mystery with real staying power.

It's also a lot of fun, playing jazz with various genre elements. There's a locked box, a golden macguffin without a key. Or consider the bald smoking man who follows Jude around and insists that David is in fact a man named Archie. He's almost a caricature of menace, ever-so-slightly-fey, always accompanied by musical cues that would feel at home in a more conventional thriller but here creates a sense of comic danger, of riffing. The music intrudes on the film, and underlines his intrusion into their lives.

It's helped in that regard by the film's smart, bifurcated structure. Roughly the first half-hour could be described as a sort of deconstruction of romcoms, which have always gotten their traction from the notion that obsessive, stalker-like behaviour is romantic. The creepiness is underlined but often in a comedic way: Jude horrified as one of her friends insists that this total stranger crash on her sofa, Jude surprised to find David cooking her dinner.

When Jude texts her brother, asking him to check up on her, it's not done with furtive shaky close-ups of a cell phone screen but, in a snazzy little bit of style that also appeared in Joe Swanberg's LOL, with subtitles, distancing us from the danger.

The scene with the brother that follows is also comic in tone, with said brother serving as a sort of mouth-piece to the audience's own desire to throttle the passive Jude for letting herself get into this situation. The tone of these performances and dashes of style don't push the potential creepiness from our minds, but it does neuter it for awhile, making Jude and David's eventual hook-up believable and a more than a little sweet.

Their love scene is filmed in a long take and done in silhouettes, and the music McNelly uses is lover's-languid and rhythmic, purposefully slowing time down to a crawl and giving us time to reflect. It's a stylish, smart, and perfect use of music.

I can't say that, however, for all the music in the film, as I personally think there's a little too much of it. Almost every scene has music underneath it or uses music as a transition. Many filmmakers think that music will liven up a dead scene or speed up the "feel" of the film; neither are true. In fact, music slows a film down, especially in dialogue scenes, because its rhythm is at odds with the rhythm of the film-- the cutting, the dialogue, the emotion.

McNelly's film doesn't have any bad scenes or dead weight, doesn't need to be "sped up" and thus slowed down; I think if he had less music, it would make those stylish uses of music-- the opening, the love scene, the scenes with the smoking man-- much more effective. He's a good enough filmmaker that the film doesn't need the crutch of a wall-to-wall score.

Good enough, in fact, that the film is still very, very good, perhaps even great; good enough that the film still works and the transition from romance to thriller is at once acutely noticed and seamless. It's stylish, fun, mysterious-- and, above all, highly recommended.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Rohmer: Suzanne's Career

Let me come right out and say it: the two men at the center of Suzanne's Career, Guillaume and Bertrand, are extremely unpleasant people. Guillaume seduces Suzanne, not through any subtle charms but by way of ugly bullying, manipulation, and insults. His philosophy is that women like to be forced. Later, he and Bertrand spend a few weeks living off of Suzanne's money; she treats them to movies and dinners and other entertainments until she's flat broke. And this isn't unintentional. It's Guillaume's stated purpose to bankrupt her.

Why on earth does Suzanne let this happen? Why, after he's insulted her so crudely and she's decided to leave, does she settle back down on the couch beside him? Partially, she is a product of her times-- as the otherwise execrable Mad Men evinces so well, many women were raised to think themselves inferior to men. And partially, it's a matter of her personality, a personality that is better understood through Bertrand, who shares it.

The Guillaume-Suzanne and Guillaume-Bertrand relationships mirror each other pretty acutely; both Suzanne and Bertrand are the recipient of Guillaume's abuse and insults. He bullies both of them, and both of them, in turn, react passively. Through out the film's fifty-odd minutes, Guillaume will ask Bertrand to come out and do something, often to play some kind of role in one of his debauched schemes; Bertrand will say no; Guillaume will ask again, more forcefully; Bertrand will immediately say yes. Just as Suzanne immediately recants her desire to leave, Bertrand puts up no fight. He likes to be forced.

Not to get all homoerotic-subtext-y here, but I think Bertrand is as much in love with Guillaume as Suzanne is. He says he is particular about the women he pursues, but the putative object of his desires, Sophie, never really commands his focus as much as Guillaume does. And in the scene where Guillaume cruelly asks each of his women, both Suzanne and Bertrand, what they would do if the one made a pass at the other or vice-versa, he's abusing both of them in the same way, treating both of them like objects, conquests, ancillary to his ego. If he pulls back the curtain slightly for Bertrand, explaining his stratagems, it is not because his feelings towards Bertrand are any different than his feelings towards Suzanne, but because Bertrand is biologically male.

It is Suzanne, though, who breaks the cycle. Suzanne is engaged to be married, and by taking that massive step towards adulthood, she exacts, as the narration so memorably puts it, her "revenge". She's matured to some degree, whereas Bertrand remains the same.

We didn't enjoy Suzanne's Career as much as the first Moral Tale-- for one thing, Bakery Girl was extremely funny even as its male lead was unpleasant, and for another, the pace was kinda draggy and had us sleepy-eyed by the end-- but neither did we hate it. As much as we might despise Guillaume and alternatively feel both pity towards and frustration with his two willing victims, we found it a complex and somewhat rewarding piece of cinema. Not necessarily something that we really dig, or that we want to see again, but we can already start to see what some of our friends see in the late director.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

DIY Pet Peeves

There are some things in a lot of independent films that irk us, take us out of the experience, occasionally enrage us, and just plain turn us off. Here's a few of 'em.

Films about filmmakers and/or artists, making films and/or art, especially from a debut filmmaker. Also, any endeavor, creative or otherwise, that once undertaken by the character serves as a complex metaphor for the filmmaking process.

Films that have no concept of money. I was going to say, "films about people in abject poverty who nonetheless have spacious apartments with breathtaking views", but found "no concept of money" not only more succinct but also farther-reaching, as it also encompasses those films in which money and the damning pressure it exerts over everyday lives seemingly does not exist. This is not, by the way, any attempt to condemn films about rich people-- only those films about rich people that don't know they're about rich people.

(Which reminds me of a story about a relative of mine, who has done quite well for himself financially, who wondered if we were still doing this whole filmmaking thing, and, in an attempt to persuade us away from it, mentioned that he had a friend who was an actor; said friend, he said, had been doing it for years, had even been in some fairly high-profile films, but he had yet to make a living at it. In a good year, he said, his friend still only made $250,000, and in a bad year, he made as little as $30,000. We tried to hide our disbelief; Tom makes just under $10,000 a year and we wish we could have a year as bad as his friend's.)

Films where romance is the most important thing in the world. Rom-coms are, by their very nature, excused. But there are more important things than dating, romance, and sexual attraction, for example: failure, ambition, self-destruction, self-invention, discovery, pain, joy, anger. And love. Love is the most important thing of all, and something quite different than romance.

Nose hairs. For reasons documented over here.

Wall-to-wall music. Music is not cinema. Music is rhythm and film is rhythm, and music can be used in cinematic ways, both to set an atmosphere and to manipulate the viewer one note at a time. But music-rhythm disrupts cinema-rhythm. When it's used to "speed up" every dialogue scene, it only succeeds in slowing it down.

Verbal placeholders. I know we're, like, improvising and stuff, and so, like, yeah, you know, we're, um, doing that, but it makes me want to reach into the screen and strangle them.

Mockumentaries. To be brief, they are both aesthetically and morally just plain wrong.

All that being said------ there are plenty of films, both low-budget and studio-funded, that are guilty of one (or two [or five]) of these pet peeves that we still really dig. Good filmmaking trumps everything. For example, some films about artists/filmmakers and the artistic process that we dig include Stardust Memories, The Lionshare, Mutual Appreciation, Boogie Nights, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Hollywood Ending, LOL, and the television show Home Movies. There are some nose-hair-a-riffic films that we still find entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking. Verbal placeholders are used elegantly by Andrew Bujalski, who scripts every syllable; there's a bravura monologue in Aaron Katz's Quiet City that uses "like" to build a rhythm instead of halting it. District 9, which we found to be a great science fiction film, takes the form of a mockumentary but does so not in some lame attempt to make it more "real" but to world-build.

It is, in the end, more about how you use something than what you use.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Gone Baby Gone

DVDs for Son of a Seahorse and The Man Who Loved are now out-of-print. Shiny new fancy-pants editions are coming soonish-- probably late spring for the first, and summer for the second. This new editions have a number of new supplemental materials, including commentary tracks, as well as remixed/optimized audio. All of this, like everything that came before, is being done completely by our own hand.

More information about the new DVDs, as well as online viewing, will be made available as soon as we have more to reveal.

Critics and bloggers who would like screeners to review can send us an e-mail at milos_parker at yahoo dot com.

If you'd like to support our work financially in the interim, you can always buy a copy of Tom's novel Jolt City through for $20 (we'll get $3.34 of the transaction).