Sunday, September 27, 2009

Edvard Munch (1974)

Peter Watkins' Edvard Munch is a bitter, difficult, brutally honest portrait of an artist who had a life and enjoyed liberty, but in the pursuit of happiness reaped nothing except mental and personal instability and misery. Entrapped in the middle of a Norwegian society that was traditional and unforgiving, he hung out in clubs with intellectual anarchists, experimented with contemporary art mediums, and sought sanctuary in whorehouses as a last resort for his sexual frustrations. By the age of 30, he was still without a wife, still moving like a parasite from one gallery to the next, having each time to endure the stinging criticism of those who did not appreciate his risky, pessimistic subject matter. Through it all, he was haunted by the memory of a married housewife: the provocative Mrs. Heiberg, who temporarily fulfilled his amorous longings--before disposing of him after his eerie demeanor became impossible to tolerate. Ultimately, Edvard Munch was a brilliant artist who left behind dozens of wonderful works of art. His life, however, does not inspire envy.

Watkins has been making movies since 1956, but his work is new to me. He specializes in the "docudrama", the type of film that treats a fictional story as if it is real and features characters who are interviewed by an anonymous inquirer sitting on the other side of the camera. The War Game (1965), Punishment Park (1971) and Resan (1987) have all gone unseen by me, but I fully intend to begin analyzing more of his work. Watkins, it seems, has not made a film since La Commune in 2000, and has now instead taken to online critiques of the media, which has led to numerous scathing essays posted by him on his website- one of which is literally one hundred pages long. As far as English cinema goes, one might suggest that Mike Leigh has picked up where Watkins left off.

In his writings, Watkins claims that "those who were once able to work critically within the media have been marginalized", so it can be assumed that his relationship with the media is like that of Vanessa Redgrave's relationship with Zionism: heated. But it would be a joy to see him return to filmmaking. Knowing that it was Godard who once said that the best way to criticize one movie is to make another movie, it might do Watkins a bit of good to make a movie exorcising his qualms with the media. That he succeeded in making an Edvard Munch biopic to help exorcise his qualms with the political backlash that assailed him following the release of Punishment Park is no exception.

A lesser filmmaker would have thought to tell Munch's complete story in one big compaction, but Watkins wisely focuses on the earlier, more important years, when Munch was in the twilight of producing works that were obscure, potent and controversial. Supplements on the Special Edition DVD hint that Munch's later years were happier and that his work grew more optimistic, but Watkins pays no attention to them--he doesn't even mention Munch's date of death (1944), which occurred at a time when the Nazis had almost completely overtaken Norway. To be honest, I am not sure if Watkins' refusal to display these facts for modern audiences works for or against the movie's effect.

Munch is played by Geir Westby, in a performance that is stoic for the most of the picture; as a visual artist, Munch's purpose in life was to observe, not to orate, and so Westby's lines of dialogue are reduced to a minimum. In light of how Westby is filmed, Watkins takes a uniquely European approach, alternating between immense close-ups of Westby (a la Dreyer) and more ordinary shots in which he is filmed from the waist up (a la Bresson). It allows Munch as a character to become less static and more flexible; one minute his facial expressions are worthy of camera attention, the next minute he's a wandering clone of his society like everyone else.

Munch had a bad childhood, ruled by a stern father (Johan Halsbog), who subjected his children to a strict religious upbringing and flew into angry resentment when Munch began rejecting his family's values. Munch's younger brother, Peter Andreas (Gunnar Skjetne), is the exact opposite: he studies law and keeps his faith, and, upon being interviewed by the camera's inquirer about whether or not life is fair, he responds that he does not believe it fair to judge God so harshly. But eventually, the religious faith of Munch's family members will prove to be powerless after all: his sisters will all die unmarried, Peter will die unhappily married to a twelve-year old girl, and Munch's father will perish into oblivion- with the troubled relationship between him and his son left unsettled.

That, and Munch's Expressionist art is trashed by the Norwegian critics. Throughout the film, Watkins keeps returning to the searing image of a young Munch inflicted with tuberculosis, and Watkins dares not spare the audience any pain in having to watch as blood overflows from the young Munch's mouth. He nearly died from it, and the disease was to claim the lives of both his mother and one of his sisters- inspiring his first major work, The Sick Child. It was laughed at by spectators who knew not what to make of the blurry faces and obscure quality, and a friend reportedly told Munch, "it is a piece of shit". Tuberculosis inspired another painting, Death in the Sickroom, in which characters with hyperbolic faces look on while a blank-faced figure, a stand-in for Munch, turns away from the perspective. These were drawn at a time when Munch was smoking and drinking heavily, his health detracting, while his paintings were rejected not just in Norway, but even in Germany, where the conservatives lambasted his work as "anarchistic smears". The liberals did not so much defend Munch's art as they did defend his right to book showings in the galleries.

Important figures pass in and out of Munch's adventures. In the film's beginning scenes, we see him defiantly hanging out at an underground intellectual's club headed by the charismatic anarchist Hans Jaeger (Asle Raaen), who spreads the words of Marx and Darwin and promotes suicide as the most effective form of rebellion. When Munch complains about the dinner table quarrels he has with his father every week, Jaeger suggests that Munch ought to go home and shoot his father dead. Jaeger himself will have to flee Norway after he publishes an anti-government book and even goes so far as to send it out to neighboring countries, leaving Munch without a mentor and without a friend. Then there is the free-spirited Dagny Juell (Iselin von Hanno Bast), a barfly who poses nude for what is arguably (in my opinion) Munch's most erotic work, The Madonna, depicting a haloed female as seen from the eyes of her partner during intercourse; we are told that Juell herself will later be murdered by a Russian lover.

Munch's other works seems to come naturally. His most famous painting, The Shriek (aka The Scream), is born out of "panic dread in what was apparently social progress", with Munch secretly inscribing the words "could only have been painted by a madman" in the blood-red sky. The Vampire, we learn, was originally not supposed to be about a vampire at all, but was a simple depiction of a woman kissing a weak man's neck; Munch did not protest, however, when the radicals insisted that it represented something of a darker nature.

Torturing Munch's fantasies and deepest regrets is the memory of the woman who may have been the soul mate who got away. Mrs. Heiberg (Gro Fraas) meets Munch through Hans Jaeger, and, for some strange reason, takes an instant liking to him- the first ninety minutes of Edvard Munch are devoted mostly to this affair. When Munch first spends time alone with her, he is noticeably nervous; he kisses the back of her neck, and then asks if that was the right thing to do. He is careful not to make any sudden advances on her. They have sex, but Watkins doesn't make their relationship feel sexy in the least, and we sense that Munch is desperately trying to release a carnal side of himself that might not even exist.

Before long, Munch realizes that he is only one of many male lovers that Mrs. Heiberg has wrapped around her finger, and pretty soon he is stalking her--whining about how she passes him by on the streets every day with another man at her arm. In her own docudrama interview, Mrs. Heiberg complains to the camera about how it is commonplace for extramarital affairs to be held by men, but not by women. Munch finds the break-up tough to cope with; there is a drawn-out scene in which he checks in at a whorehouse for the night but awkwardly waits for the hooker to make the first move. He and Mrs. Heiberg would never meet again.

"I felt as if there were invisible threads between us," he once wrote. "I felt as if invisible threads from her hair still twisted themselves around me. And when she completely disappeared there, over the ocean, then I felt still how it hurt, where my heart bled... because the threads could not be broken."

It is, yes, a remarkable film. It pulses and echoes with the poetic love of the people who made it. There is brief hope at the end when we learn that although Munch's career in painting may be coming to an end, his new career in engraving is just beginning. That may be true, but how can it ever erase those painful preceding years, when he sweated and almost died over a profession that would have driven others to suicide? The performance by Westby asks us to care about a cold, unstable genius, and it is no easy task. But we do. And sometimes, the most gifted geniuses in this world live sad lives. Edvard Munch lived a sad life, and Peter Watkins knows it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Redacted (2007)

This piece is being cross-published at Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder as part of The Brian De Palma Blogathon. The blogathon runs from September 7-16.

I am never going to forget this film. Not for as long as I live. Not for as long as I hold onto the love of cinema that I have always struggled so hard to keep kindled—keep burning—through anything; through thick and thin; through the lack of interest in filmmaking circulating in the grade schools, middle schools and high schools that I passed through and graduated from; through the overwhelming political apathy that has stung the state of Missouri in which I reside. It has been a long time since a contemporary film has held up a mirror to my face and shown me the kind of thinker, viewer, and audience member that I am. I found such a film in Redacted. It was the Brian De Palma film that I had been waiting for. It is still the fiery, passionate film that will haunt me, provoke me, and perhaps even influence me when my future career comes knocking.

Do you remember the last time a film made you want to stand up, shake your fist and scream? What was the film that made you want to pay more attention to the world that was dying, evolving around you? Spielberg's Munich (2005) was the first film this decade to which I had such a powerful response. De Palma's Redacted was another. These two films are quite possibly the boldest, most professional political statements of the last ten years, which is thrilling not least because Spielberg and De Palma are two of the greatest living filmmakers, both of whom descended from the most exciting cinematic decade of all time: the 1970's. During this time, Spielberg wowed audiences with bubblegum blockbusters while De Palma cheerfully scared the wits out of audiences with a set of Hitchcockian thrillers that- inadvertently- led critics to begin accusing him of "rip-offs," "misogyny," and an "obsession with gore." Even while De Palma had scored a dramatically intelligent film early in the decade with Hi, Mom! (1970), few had seen it during initial release; the same economic results befell Home Movies (1979), seemingly denying De Palma any further chances to make the smaller, more personal films that he had once made a career out of.

Then came Casualties of War (1989). As he did with Greetings (1968), De Palma had analyzed the hopelessness of young American boys snagged by the draft, but unlike that film, Casualties of War dared to go where no other motion picture on Vietnam had gone before—by focusing wholly on the cruelty submitted by U.S. soldiers onto the country's innocent villagers. Suddenly, De Palma could add "traitor" to the list of name-callings flung onto his resume. Who knew that he would revisit the subject matter eighteen years later? Why tell another story about an innocent foreign girl getting molested and murdered by our troops? "It's because," as De Palma explained to Robert Wilonsky in a Higher Definition interview now on the film's DVD, "this, to me, is the great story of these two particular wars: where you send young boys into a war with no clear purpose, in a hostile environment where they can't tell the enemy from the civilians; they band together, as the only way that makes any sense... and then, you're buddy's blown up... and then, they just go berserk."

But again: when our troops need our support at all times in order to help them win in a dangerous conflict, what good is there to tell a story that is not flattering—even if it is based on an incident that really happened? Because of this, prior to the release of Redacted in late 2007, right-leaning commentators and celebrities—ranging from Bill O'Reilly to even De Palma alumnus Gary Sinise—decided not to see the film, and instead already made up their minds: that the film was probably anti-troops; that it would inspire the enemy; and that De Palma had tarnished his reputation forever. Then of course there was the scathing review of the film by Michael Medved, who proclaimed that it was "the worst film I've ever seen" (even when it ultimately didn't make the top of his Worst of 2007 list by year's end), and things didn't get much better when Armond White (often known as the supreme De Palma apologist in the critics circles) dismissed the film as "the low point of a great filmmaker’s career." Within weeks, Redacted, which had only booked fifteen theaters, was dropped. So much ugly fuss had been made over a film that few had seen. Was it the anti-troops propaganda that Medved made it out to be? "It's a very sad story", De Palma admitted, but then he broke the ice by declaring of the film, "(that) you feel sorry for, obviously, the victims, but also the soldiers! Even the crazy ones! What got them that way?"

What did get them that way? De Palma pities them. That does not mean he excuses their crimes, or the crime of the war in general. Redacted is the best film made by any filmmaker on the subject of the War in Iraq. There is a reason for this: it tells the truth about the war. Or, rather, it makes a point that telling honesty from dishonesty is difficult when you look at a war such as this one. The film is outraged and in-your-face. Is it manipulative? Sure. But judging from the fact that the Bush administration manipulated the American public into buying the theory that the U.S. had to get involved in Iraq to recover weapons of mass destruction that were never even found, it is my opinion that only counter-manipulation will ever lead the public into the other direction. There are still millions of Americans who believe that our troops are fighting in Iraq in order to prevent another 9/11—as if the Iraqis ever had a hand in 9/11.

How else, other than manipulation, will audiences figure this out and be enraged the way De Palma was? Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs (2007), released in the same season as Redacted, is a film that means well, but, unfortunately, it does not fuel viewers with any new insights about the war and, in the end, looks like your stereotypical whiny liberal Hollywood statement. Critics and audiences call Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2009) "the first great film about the Iraq War," and to be sure, the film is excellent as a suspense thriller; but because the film is neutral and takes no stand on the war, it is hardly going to make apathetic viewers realize just what the hell is going on over there. Is De Palma the only one who is willing to hop into the fray? Why are filmmakers not making more angry political films these days? People don't care or debate as much as they used to. It's rather depressing.

Working from a screenplay written by himself—his first original screenplay since Femme Fatale (2002)—De Palma tells the story of a U.S. Army unit whose main daily objective is to stand guard at the hot, sweltering traffic checkpoints in the city. This is quite possibly the worst job anyone could have in the Army; the object is to stand at your post, look around for insurgents, and wave cars safely and efficiently through the checkpoints, waiting and sometimes yearning for something interesting to happen. The problem is that most of the Iraqi population is illiterate, and therefore, drivers sometimes do not understand either the signs made by soldiers or by visual aids posted at the side of the road. Throughout the film, the story of the soldiers will be told via a fascinating set of mediums, including: handheld camera footage; a French documentary entitled Barrage; a Middle Eastern news program hosted by a persistent female reporter (Sahar Alloul); Internet videos by soldier's wives and Al-Qaeda terrorists; Skype messages; and hidden cameras. De Palma wields all of these mediums with splendid multitasking. Whatever your overall opinion on Redacted by the time it's over, there's no denying that you've never seen anything like it.

Of the soldiers, there are about five substantial characters. Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney) is nice, respectful, and sums up the film's message when he asks his fellow comrades what "the first casualty of this war" is going to be. "Do you know what it's gonna be?" he asks them with an odd wisdom. "It's gonna be the truth!" Similar to McCoy in friendliness is Gabe Blix (Kel O'Neill), the intellectual of the unit, who would rather relax on his bed and read passages from the John O'Hara novel Appointment in Samarra than have to face the grueling atmosphere at the checkpoints outside. Then there is B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), the foul, obese grouch who is growing dangerously bored with the lack of sex in Iraq (Medved had a theory in his review that the character was modeled after Rush Limbaugh); and Rush's attitudes are shared by the mean, nasty Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll), named after the gambling city, who at one point reminisces about his equally violent brother Vegas, a "wild card". Finally, there is Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), who records most of the handheld camerawork we see in the film. Salazar is the one who first takes us into the film's world, which he dubs "the oven", and he is also in some ways a stand-in for De Palma—he is shooting a documentary entitled "Tell Me No Lies", and he hopes to use all of the footage, after he returns from the war, to get into film school. The inside joke here is that "Angel Salazar" is in fact the name of a real comedian who has appeared in two De Palma flicks: Scarface (1983) and Carlito's Way (1993). Most people don't catch this.

Along with that, De Palma finds more time to put his tongue in his cheek by parodying the works of his Hollywood contemporaries- including Scorsese (Flake mutters that "it only takes one f***ing rat to bring the whole house down", in reference to The Departed), Spielberg (in the same scene, Flake proclaims a fallen comrade to be "our very own Private Ryan"), even Kevin Smith (Rush compares his boredom to that of the Clerks characters). De Palma references himself only twice- when Rush hisses about how certain things need to "stay in Vegas" and when Flake complains that when "you prosecute guys like us, you're just aiding the terrorists"- both lines of which were previously used by Don Harvey in Casualties of War. During the checkpoint scenes, De Palma plays Handel's "Sarabande" on the soundtrack, which Kubrick famously used to bookend Barry Lyndon (1975) to fit with the film's lush, classical style. But De Palma uses "Sarabande" for a different reason entirely. The main tunes of the piece are repetitive, and De Palma plays it twice on the soundtrack. It gets irritating having to listen to the same notes over and over again—as it should be: we grow as impatient as the checkpoint soldiers, who are waiting to explode. As noted by Ray Bennett in his review, the use of Handel's piece is "a reminder that nothing depicted in this film is new and that it's a shame it needs to be told again."

At first, the soldiers appear to be one happy family, but the fabric breaks in no time. When the inexperienced Flake commits his first combat kill, the casualty turns out to be a teenage girl in labor who had the misfortune to be passenger in a speeding car; McCoy believes that Flake needs to "show remorse", but Flake refuses and the two men get in a shouting match. From this point on, the morale of the unit members begins to blur, only worsening their impatience at the checkpoints; and when Master Sergeant Sweet (Ty Jones) is blown up in a freak explosion, Rush and Flake, unable to control their taste for blood, finally begin to devise a plan of sweet vengeance: raid on the house of the innocent fifteen-year old Iraqi girl Farrah (Zahra Zubaidi, in a brave performance that reminds us of Thuy Thu Le in Casualties of War), rape her, and then kill her.

But Rush and Flake make the mistake of announcing their plan to the other three soldiers at a nighttime poker game. Watch this scene carefully. De Palma has Salazar's camera encircle the soldiers at the table as they salivate over the naked women on the cards which they freely hold up to the lens. Then, when Flake begins announcing plans for the rape, he angrily directs Salazar to shut his camera off. Salazar merely puts it off the side, secretly leaving it on. Notice how Salazar, now sitting at the table with the other guys, keeps nervously looking over his shoulder at the camera. Am I seriously recording this conversation? he must be thinking. Should I save this for evidence? Is this what I'm going to use to get into film school?

Then comes the rape scene itself. It is the most terrifying De Palma sequence since the "Be Black, Baby" segment in Hi, Mom, and shot in an uncannily reminiscent manner; as with the "Be Black, Baby" sequence, De Palma uses a handheld camera with blinding night vision, capturing every moment of the yelling, the screaming, and the absolute brutality that certainly must have occurred in the true incident. Rush and Flake turn into monsters, becoming every bit as savage as De Niro's "cop" hired by the whiteface African Americans to beat up the blackfaced white civilians; and Sean Penn and Don Harvey's rapist soldiers in Casualties of War. McCoy, like Michael J. Fox in that film, is outspoken in his attempts to stop the rape and subsequent massacre, and soon he is taking orders from Flake, an inferior officer—a private—who threatens him with a gun in his face to repel him out the door. Salazar, meanwhile, catches it all on tape—tape that may or may not come in handy. The deaths of Farah and her family members all take place off-camera because, as De Palma himself said about the central murder of The Black Dahlia (2006), it would be too much to show the audience. But that doesn't lessen its impact.

So much unravels after this sequence, but unlike Casualties of War, Redacted has a strong last half hour. The rest of the film is not simply devoted to attempts to bring the crime to justice, as the earlier film was. De Palma finds even more to say about history and cultural perceptions of the war. When a character is kidnapped and then decapitated by Al-Qaeda terrorists in a video leaked on the Internet, one senses that De Palma is remembering the Nick Berg tragedy of 2003. When the rape crime is finally revealed to a shocked public, a high school goth-girl (Abigail Savage) posts a video on YouTube in which she records herself in an obscene rant against the soldiers who committed the crime, fantasizing about them getting tortured to death by the dead girl's remaining family members. One might incorrectly assume that this is De Palma's idea of justice, but it is not: De Palma is making fun of the ignorant online trolls who spew out death threats and fantasies while using profane language at the same time—as if that's somehow going to boost their image or make their "message" more agreeable. People like these, De Palma is saying, just don't listen to reason.

That reminds me of the acting in the film itself. Medved called the acting "atrocious" in his review, while A. O. Scott, a liberal, wrote, "... most of the actors, many of them appearing for the first time in a feature film, lack either the skill or the directorial guidance to endow their characters with a full range of credible motives and responses." Both of these criticisms completely miss the point of De Palma's method, which is to prove that people who talk in front of home video cameras don't always act the way they might in real life; Roger Ebert correctly noted in his review (one of the better reviews of the film), that, because the acting of the film is less than flawless, it seems more real. In another positive review, Scott Foundas (who even went so far as to hail Redacted as one of the ten best films of the year) wrote, " is the entire point of Redacted that we are observing crude, found video objects, and that their subjects, aware of the camera that's recording them, assume the awkwardly self-conscious stances of people in vacation pictures and birthday-party videos." As for the film's entertainment value, Armond White complained, "...De Palma fails to let movie lore become surreal and take viewers into a clarifying moral dream state like Femme Fatale..." but then listen to Foundas, who states that De Palma "...wants to rankle audiences, especially those who may enter the theater anticipating some genteel, hand-wringing, good-little-liberal lament about the physical and emotional scars of wartime. Redacted is unapologetically angry and direct, and De Palma does very little to ease you into the movie..." It would have been impossible for De Palma to make Redacted into an experience as "surreal" as Femme Fatale when the film had to be shot on HD. Surrealism is not the key here; debate and immediacy are.

There are, however, moments when the acting in Redacted shines, and these moments almost always stem from the performance of Rob Devaney as McCoy. Those who claim that Redacted is anti-troops obviously don't pay much attention to the McCoy character, who cannot hold back the guilt of witnessing and doing nothing to stop the rape, and finally decides that justice must be done. We are there with him every step of the way. As with Michael J. Fox in Casualties of War, we are rooting for him, and we sympathize with his guilt. But Casualties of War ended with an awkward scene on a train in which Fox talks to a girl who reminds him of the dead Vietnamese girl, somehow resolving his guilt; though the conversation with the girl on the train leaves him at peace, it doesn't satisfy the audience. De Palma corrects this error with one of the last scenes in Redacted, in which McCoy has finally returned home to his family for celebration in a bar. "Tell us a war story!" exclaims a friend behind the camera (obviously it's De Palma himself). McCoy consents, and talks about how proud he was to serve in Afghanistan, so as to hamper the threats that came from 9/11. But Redacted is not a film about Afghanistan, and so McCoy then segues into a monologue on what he experienced in the other country: "I get over to Iraq, and it's just a totally different story. You grow up really, really fast over there because everything you see—everywhere you look—is just death, and it's suffering. And the killing that I did do? It made me sick to my stomach. And what was I doing there? What was I doing in a country that has done nothing to me? Just following orders? Bullshit." Devaney's performance in this scene is phenomenal. Everything he says, we believe.

I have only one complaint about the film, and it is over the closing montage of real photographs taken from the War in Iraq. My beef is not with De Palma, but with the film's executive producer, Mark Cuban, who, disturbed by the photos and worried that the identities of the victims in them would be found out and thus result in lawsuits, decided to have final artistic control on the film and have the photos "redacted"- with the eyes and mouths of the victims blacked out. De Palma was furious over this, since the photos had already been available on the Internet (un-redacted) for quite some time; and claimed that Cuban wouldn't return his phone calls offering to buy up all the rights to the film so as to have artistic say. Cuban and the executives and Magnolia insist that redacting the photo montage works for two reasons: a) it prevents lawsuits, and b) it proves the film's point about how the war itself has been constantly redacted, denying the public the truth that is supposed to come out. But I have to side with De Palma: the only way the public is going to find out the truth about the war is if the pictures come out. By censoring the photographs, Cuban and the executives made themselves out to be just as treacherous as the Bush administration, artistic irony or not. If De Palma should be faulted for anything, it is including fake photographs of some of the film's actors amidst the montage. The last photograph we see before the film ends is that of Zahra Zubaidi lying on the ground in a pool of blood, and although it relates to the film's message of the blur between lies and the truth, it doesn't help succeed in carrying out De Palma’s original purpose for including the montage: to show us horrors that have come out of the War in Iraq. One doesn’t quite know what to make of the finished slideshow.

"Redacted deals with very moving material in a very new form," expressed De Palma in an interview with Simon Hattenstone, "and it may take a while for people to adjust to it. In time, they will come to accept it because all the information the Bush administration has been suppressing will come out, and we'll learn the terrible stories that they've been hiding from us for so long. Whether it finds it this year or in years to come, I just think the movie will find its audience." Will it really? I think so. Because our troops are still stationed in Iraq, it may be hard for some to appreciate the film when our reasons for occupying the country are still vastly unknown. But I also think Redacted will be admired, in time, because it is almost as if De Palma's career was preparing itself every step of the way for this film. When all the other directors chickened out, he responded by making a film that took U.S. occupation in Iraq head-on, no matter how many it troubled or offended. He was also willing to live with the painful consequences of what the characters—those of whom are still alive at the end—have survived. "I went on a raid in Samarra", confesses McCoy, now breaking down, "and two men from my unit raped and killed a fifteen-year old girl; and burned her body... and I didn't do anything to stop it." McCoy may have been unsuccessful, but De Palma found something else. He made Redacted, and with that, made one of the most perfectly constructed masterpieces of his career. For over forty years, Brian De Palma has been recognized as the modern Hitchcock and as a survivor of the Movie Brat era. In two years, he will be recognized as the filmmaker who ended the war.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Murder a la Mod (1968)

A box perched on a dolly is rolling down a hill in the cemetery. A woman watches as it comes to a complete stop and then tumbles to the ground, lying only a dozen feet away from her. The box is shaking. There is something alive inside. Because of what we as an audience have seen elsewhere in the film, we have an idea of what is trapped inside the box- and we yearn for the woman to hustle up, run over and open it. Instead, she hesitates before slowly advancing forward, preparing to open the box with caution. The suspense of waiting is unbearable.

Is the woman's course of action a rejection of common sense? Not at all. She is not as fortunate as the audience; she has not seen what we have seen. If she had, then she would have no need to approach the box with such caution and would have opened it immediately. But she has not, and she does not, and so she takes her time. Sure enough, ignorance proves bliss. In some ways, by not having an idea of what lies inside the box, the woman suddenly seems to be in a safer position than we are.

Murder a la Mod was Brian De Palma's first thriller and his first full-length feature film. History has always told us that De Palma's first films were his comedic collaborations with Robert De Niro (Greetings; The Wedding Party; Hi, Mom!), and that he didn't truly begin paying homage to Hitchcock until Sisters in 1973. If I haven't convinced readers otherwise, then I will consider this review a failure. I want nothing more than to make sure that De Palma's very first full-length feature stands alongside the rest of his gleeful, gorgeous, underappreciated gems. You want deranged serial killers chasing after vulnerable, half-naked babes? You got it. You want a voyeuristic camera that never seems to give anybody a moment's peace? Here it is. You want to see an incident from every point of view? It's all in Murder a la Mod. To put it simply, this is the film that started it all.

Like a select number of De Palma films afterward, Murder a la Mod is purely an exercise in style. De Palma doesn't worry about whether or not you follow the plot, whether or not you take the writing and acting seriously, or whether or not you even care at all what happens to the characters. We spend the 80-minute running time getting to know people like Christopher the porno filmmaker (Jared Martin); his dumb blonde actress Karen (Margo Norton), who is falling in love with him; her lady friend Tracy (Andra Akers), who will also play an important role in the events to follow; the nosy producer Max Wiley (Murder a la Mod producer Ken Burrows), who keeps hounding Christopher to have his movie finished on time; and you know what? All of them are cardboard. We couldn't care less about who gets killed, who survives, who gains anything, who loses, etc. The only amusing character in the entire film is a skinny young man named Otto, who, when he's not busy playing a fashion photographer in Christopher's latest movie, delights in playing "tricks" on various crew members. Armed with two types of icepicks- a "trick" pick and a "real" pick- his tactic is to use the first (harmless) type of pick on his victims and then smear them with ketchup blood. Whether or not he ever even uses the real pick is a mystery.

Alas, Otto is off the screen for most of the picture, so we are usually in the company of the naive Karen and the hot-tempered Christopher. Christopher doesn't enjoy spending every day ordering girls to take their clothes off in front of the camera. This is what he does for a living, and it is detracting from his peace of mind. He always tells his actresses (one of them is an instantly recognizable Jennifer Salt) that he's only making these type of movies because he "needs the money to divorce my wife"; he then has the actresses repeat this line before undressing. In some of the film's first scenes, we watch as the actresses struggle to expose their bodies to the camera, as Christopher impatiently eggs them on to hurry it up already. De Palma would later recycle these scenes for Greetings and Hi, Mom!, both in which Robert De Niro played the radical pornographer Jon subtlety trying to get unsuspecting women to undress for his camera. But at least Jon was a potentially nice dude; in Murder a la Mod, Christopher is sexually frustrated, hard to cooperate with, and abusive to his actresses and even towards Karen- who reveals to Tracy at one point that she and Christopher haven't even slept together yet, since he would prefer that work come first. Says Tracy: "He sounds like a combination between Gregory Peck and Albert Schweitzer".

But that's quite enough of the plot. I wouldn't dream of spoiling the film's surprises; and how Tracy ends up in conversation with a queer little old bank clerk (John Quinn) who has her handcuffed to a briefcase, I will leave for you to find out. Let's just say that between 3:32 PM and 3:42 PM, something atrocious happens to one of the characters, and De Palma then proceeds to show us the event not from one perspective, but four perspectives. This plot device is familiar to anyone who remembers Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), but De Palma famously makes it his own in this film; he later recycled this device most famously in Snake Eyes (1998) and Femme Fatale (2002). One by one, we see different variations on the incident involving the rolling box, and later there is a battle of fists in the cemetery that, for some reason, reminded me of the axe duel in the dummy warehouse in Kubrick's Killer's Kiss (1955). Midway through the film, there is also a frenzied moment when De Palma's cameraman, Jack Harrell, races to keep up with a character who is rushing up the stairs, onto the roof, and then back down the stairs again- all in one take. We can't help, either, but take pleasure in watching Jared Martin, Margo Norton, Andra Akers and Ken Burrows as they helplessly try to turn Chris, Karen, Tracy and Max Wiley into believable characters without giving overly hammy performances.

And at the heart of it all we have the daffy, diabolical trickster Otto, played by none other than the Olivier of De Palma cinema: the great William Finley. It was thought for a long time that Finley owned the sole copy of Murder a la Mod right up until the year 2006, when the film was bought and redistributed onto DVD by- who else?- the cult classics home entertainment company Something Weird Video. The new DVD transfer is not entirely satisfying, as it lacks subtitles (it is difficult to hear what characters are saying in a few spots) and a Widescreen ratio, so therefore we end up getting only a fullscreen transfer and- I suspect- not the whole picture. Not that it's the end of the world; Murder a la Mod should be seen regardless of its current state. "It's everywhere! Why can't you see?" sings Finley in the film's title song. He's singing about the nature of the murder, of course, but I would like to think that he's also singing about the influence on De Palma's subsequent career by what resulted from Murder a la Mod. Everything that De Palma was, and is, came from this film. What's more, none of the characters exit the film without first being subjected to one of De Palma's cruel cosmic jokes. Even Otto makes a horrifying discovery of his own.