Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Films of Wes Anderson

With Moonrise Kingdom opening in some places tomorrow, I took a look back at the themes of Wes Anderson's previous films in this feature for RELEVANT.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

For the Love of Film - REAR WINDOW (1954)

This post is part of this year's For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon. The goal of this year's blogathon is to raise enough money to give the public free access to The White Shadow, a 1923 silent film that featured Alfred Hitchcock as assistant director, editor, set designer, and more. If successful, the film would stream online via the National Film Preservation Foundation for four months. To do this, though, $15,000 must be raised. Please help us reach this goal by contributing whatever amount you can afford here. You can read more entries in the blogathon by visiting Ferdy on Films, Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod.

Except for Spielberg, no other director dominated my adolescence like Alfred Hitchcock. I was raised on North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much (the 1956 version), with others--like Lifeboat, The Trouble with Harry, Rope, Rebecca, Torn Curtain, and Vertigo--trickling in over the years on weeknights or lazy weekends. Most of them I saw with my parents, but I watched Psycho--which was the Holy Grail for a budding cinephile like me--with a group of friends on Halloween. For years, it was my favorite of Hitchcock's films, but now I've settled on North by Northwest, which I might even say is my all-time favorite movie.

But my post for this year's For the Love of Film blogathon isn't about any of these. Instead, I've picked Rear Window, Hitchcock's 1954 thriller starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Raymond Burr, and Thelma Ritter. I picked it because a local theater happened to be screening it last month, but also because I'd only seen it once prior to that, as a young teen, and was eager to see it now with adult eyes.

And now that I have?

It's a top-notch film, though I still value North by Northwest's sense of comedy and adventure more, just as I value Psycho's thrills, Vertigo's grasp of obsession, Rope's formal achievements, and the cymbal-crashing climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

But, about Rear Window...

Even if you haven't seen it, you'll be familiar with the premise--that's how ingrained it is in our popular culture. Stewart plays L.B. Jefferies (aka, Jeff), a photographer stuck at home with a broken leg. With nothing to do, he passes the time by watching his neighbors from his apartment window--there's the frustrated musician, a couple with a small dog, a redhead he's dubbed Miss Lonelyhearts and a dancer he calls Miss Torso, and two newlyweds. But most important of all, there's Mr. and Mrs. Thorwald, the couple directly across from him. The husband, Lars (Burr), is a door-to-door salesman. His wife is a demanding invalid--though to be fair, that's a subjective view of her; we don't know anything about her other than what we see from Jeff's perspective. Initially, the Thorwalds aren't so different from anyone else. But then Jeff starts getting a funny feeling about them. Late one night, he sees Lars coming and going with the suitcase he uses for work. Who would he be selling to at that hour, Jeff wonders, and why would he make the same trip more than once in a night? But more importantly, why have the Thorwald's shades been drawn, and where is Mrs. Thorwald anyway?

Because this is Hitchcock, murder is immediately on his mind. It takes some convincing for anyone else to believe him, though. Lisa Fremont (Kelly), the woman hopelessly in love with him, is the first, then his nurse, Stella (Ritter), with Jeff's old pal, Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey), the last to come around, and just in the nick of time, too. By then, Jeff's dangling from his apartment window with Lars at his throat, because the twist of Rear Window isn't much of a twist at all--Lars really is a killer. He's killed his wife, chopped her up, and dumped her all around Manhattan.

But as straightforward as all this is, it's a mistake to believe that Rear Window is only about a man solving a murder from his apartment. What it's equally "about," if we want to start talking that way, is a self-reliant man bumping up against his limitations. Jeff prides himself on being a loner, someone who can live out of a suitcase and go days with out sleeping or bathing. He values solitude and doesn't think much of marriage. And yet, the Jeff we see in Rear Window can't do any of these. With his cast and wheelchair, he's as helpless as that couple's doomed puppy. Except for picking up the phone to call the police and grabbing a package of flashbulbs to defend himself, Jeff can't do anything without someone's help.

All of this is enhanced by what Jeff sees outside his window. Those people aren't individuals--they're more like fragments of Jeff's psyche, all split off from the whole, all exaggerated and distorted. When we see the frustrated musician, we're seeing Jeff's own artistic frustrations. When we see Miss Lonelyhearts setting her table for two, we're seeing the loneliness Jeff feels but won't admit to. When we see Miss Torso, we're seeing Jeff's distorted impression of Lisa. In almost every case, it's as if Jeff is actually staring obsessively into his own mind and not into the windows of his neighbors. These small stories all intersect in just the right ways to enlarge our understanding of him, as well as the film's narrative trajectory.

You could even say this of Lars' story. Lars may be the villain, but what kind of hero is Jeff, really? He's an all-around good guy, and he's not a killer, but he is obsessive, and that obsessiveness initially disturbs Lisa and Stella. Just consider the way he eyes Miss Torso, and the window shade concealing the newlyweds. Worse still is the way he and Lisa watch as Miss Lonelyhearts is almost raped in her own apartment. They're both clearly uncomfortable, but their hesitance to doing something--anything--to help her is disturbing, and almost as dark as anything else Hitchcock ever put on screen.

So, a hero? Just barely. Jeff and Lars are more like two sides of the same coin. Jeff is the "normal" person. The person who is aware of his dark thoughts and urges but holds them in check. Lars is that same person, minus any concern for self-control. He's the id to Jeff's superego. By watching him, Jeff's able to expel something from himself. All of his gripes about marriage come to dark fruition right in front of his eyes, and he doesn't have to be responsible for any of it. Through Lars, Jeff can see what he, or anyone else, could become if pushed in just the right way.

That's what makes Lars potentially more unsettling when you compare him to Hitchcock's other great antagonist--Norman Bates. Psycho is the better movie, I think, but Lars may be the more effective villain. He's like us, and yet he's a complete mystery, while Bates is explained in a way that's distracting and almost laughable. True evil is impossible to grasp and is much more horrifying when it just is. That's what we get with Lars, a man who could be us, but has become twisted and perverted in a way we'll never understand. He's calm and dispassionate, sort of like Hannibal Lecter, and he has a similar physical presence, and an unquestioning confidence in his own strength. He kills with all the casualness of a man making a sandwich.

As Lars, Burr has just the right physical presence to make him menacing and buffoonish at the same time. His expression is one of perpetual exhaustion, but beyond that he's unreadable. He could be thinking anything, or he could be thinking nothing at all. Stewart, as his opposite, strikes just the right notes in the role of Jeff. Because he's our hero, we need to like him, but Jeff himself isn't a very likable guy. He's frustrated, rough around the edges, and often insensitive of Lisa's feelings for him. With another actor, it may have been much harder to identify with him. And then finally, I have to mention Grace Kelly, who is gorgeous and unflappable as Lisa, but not totally unbreakable. There are moments when we, and Jeff, can see real hurt in her eyes, but it's her charm, her spirit of adventure, and her willingness to prove to Jeff that he's wrong about her that linger.

And of course, a great deal of the film's success also comes from its sights and sounds. There are almost too many to mention but a few stand out more than others. There's that enormous set, which is almost like a character itself. There's Grace Kelly's face looming over us like something out of a dream. There's that small, glowing dot of Lars' cigarette as he sits in the dark. And, of course, there's that wall of sound outside Jeff's apartment--the music, the cars honking, the almost indiscernible chatter of the neighbors. When we see into all those apartments, we're seeing lives being lived, not actors pantomiming actions. Their voices carry to us, even if we can't quite hear them. Everything seems to be happening in real-time in a real world, even if that world isn't quite like our own, with Hitchcock's intelligent camera there to capture what unfolds.

One more time, please be sure to donate whatever you can at the National Film Preservation Foundation here.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Damsels in Distress REVIEW

When Damsels in Distress was released last month, quite a few critics compared writer-director Whit Stillman to Woody Allen in their reviews. At the level of dialogue, the comparison is apt, but I’m more inclined to link him--despite the years that separate them--with Wes Anderson instead. Allen’s oeuvre is marked by anxiety and pessimism, while the films of Stillman and Anderson shine with an eccentric optimism I find charming. Not that Allen hasn’t made some very good movies over the course of his career--Love and Death, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Match Point, and Midnight in Paris are all great--but give me the warm humanism of Stillman and Anderson any day.

Damsels in Distress stars Greta Gerwig as Violet, a student at the fictional Seven Oaks University. Violet and her friends (played by Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke) dress elegantly and approach life with a heady sense of purpose. They want to change the world--but they’ll also settle for reforming dumb jocks and preventing peer suicides with donuts and coffee. New to their group is Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a bright, modern young lady who becomes more skeptical of her friends the longer she’s around them. Her conflict with Violet forms the backbone for Damsels, but it doesn’t have the same kind of impact as the central conflicts of Stillman’s other films. Those characters had sharper edges, and despite having more in common with each other than they’d like to admit, were stubbornly devoted to their own perspectives. It’s the same with Violet and Lily, but they feel less defined, as if Stillman didn’t understand them as well as he understood his previous characters. In Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco, we saw characters who had strong emotional cores and who longed for something. Violet and Lily, by comparison, feel diluted by their quirkiness and the quirkiness of everyone around them.

Which brings me back to that Stillman-Anderson link I mentioned earlier. There is a key difference between the two filmmakers. Anderson has a visual style that’s striking and recognizable. His framings often resemble group portraits. They feel staged, purposeful, and significant. But more than that, they create a strong sense that we’re seeing the world filtered through Anderson’s imagination, not the world as it is. We’re aware that we’re watching a movie, and yet we accept its artificiality and even embrace it as part of what makes Anderson who he is. But more than that, it helps us accept his oddball characters as plausible and endearing. If the world around them is strange, why shouldn’t they be as well?

Damsels might have fared better with a similar approach. Instead, we're shown the world largely as it is. Stillman's compositions are simple, straightforward--practical, even. This worked fine for his three previous films, where the characters and dialogue were stronger, but in Damsels in Distress the characters feel too quirky for the world around them. What’s missing are any visual cues that the physical world itself is a bit off. Without that, I can’t completely buy into the extreme naivety of these characters. I need to see that the world they live in has been refracted through the same mind, but instead we're shown the "real world,” which is a world these characters just don’t belong in.

Still, I didn't dislike Damsels. It still has that same refreshing Stillman charm and optimism that sets his work apart from other contemporary filmmakers. It's just missing a few vital ingredients. Otherwise, I think it would have soared.