SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999, dir. Tim Burton)

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In retrospect, Sleepy Hollow was the beginning of the end for director Tim Burton. While its successor, Burton’s ill-fated Planet of the Apes remake, demonstrated that, without a doubt, a once-promising cinematic voice had been swallowed up by the Hollywood machine, Sleepy Hollow marked the moment when Burton’s style began to seem less like an artistic vision than an applied lacquer.

To be fair, it is, at least in the case of Sleepy Hollow, sumptuously beautiful lacquer, thanks in no small part to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Rick Heinrichs, whose contributions are awards-worthy. Burton gives them plenty to work with; Burton gleefully takes advantage of the narrative’s opportunities for visual conceits, following after the legacy of Hammer and AIP pictures (with the most explicit nods being given to Brides of Dracula and Pit and the Pendulum). However, if Sleepy Hollow is a visual feast, its visual antics feel curiously disconnected from the psychology and emotion of the piece.

This may be because Andrew Kevin Walker’s densely-plotted screenplay leaves little room for the type of free-wheeling characterization that suits Burton best. Burton has never been a particularly gifted narrative filmmaker. His best films excel at finding witty and brashly poetic ways to depict fractured psyches and identity conflicts in visual terms, following emotional throughlines rather than narrative logic. The closest the film comes to offering a traditional “Burton character” is twitchy, nervous Ichabod Crane (played by Johnny Depp), who has the air of the typical “Burton outsider,” but he ultimately just seems an assembly of pale face-paint, messy hair, and some odd quirks. The attempts to ground the character in a tragic backstory  seem weirdly detached from the rest of the film, as though it was a story change that was imposed on an already-complete narrative, and it does little to inform the character or the film itself.

Now, Burton’s impish humor delivers some light laughs, and, even if they’re underused, the cast is crowded with remarkable talents (Martin Landau, Michael Gambon, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, and Miranda Richardson among them), but they are insufficient to compensate for a film that has no true center. As such, Sleepy Hollow is far less compelling and memorable than the genre classics to which it pays tribute, films that explored their macabre stylizations with conviction and purpose.

THESE ARE THE DAMNED (1963, dir. Joseph Losey)

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The fear of nuclear apocalypse runs through the veins of this obscure, but seriously impressive, Hammer film, These Are the Damned. Less a Village of the Damned-style horror outing than a chilly and slow bit of science fiction with a Twilight Zone-ish edge, These Are the Damned juxtaposes the the impulses that drive us to pursue transcendence with the instincts that drive us to cruelty.

Director Joseph Losey, probably best known for his contribution to the film noir canon, The Prowler, collaborates with cinematographer Arthur Grant, whose beautiful work graced such genre gems as Hammer’s Paranoiac and AIP’s The Tomb of Ligeia, to create a stark, black-and-white vision of a desperate and lonely England, inhabited by prowling gangs and chilly bureaucrats. The opening titles alone (scored by Hammer veteran James Bernard) make for a powerful artistic statement, depicting a lonely beach haunted by eerily inhuman sculpture, the lone indication of human presence.

The cast is consistently strong, though two performances stand out as being especially vital. First, there is the sensual and steely Viveca Lindfors, whose character, an artist named Freya, functions, for most of the picture, as an observer and the voice of conscience. Then there is Oliver Reed, who delivers a deliciously menacing performance as a gang leader, ala Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange.

THE LEOPARD (1963, dir. Luchino Visconti)

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Kenneth Morefield’s 1More Film Blog is running a series on Criterion film releases to coincide with the current Barnes & Noble sale. I weigh in on one of my favorite Criterion discs, The Leopard.

HULK (2003, dir. Ang Lee)

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The fellas over at Three Brothers Film graciously offered me a guest spot on their “Thursday Rethink” series, where I go to bat for Ang Lee’s under-appreciated Hulk. Check it out here.

FAITH & SPIRITUALITY IN MASTERS OF WORLD CINEMA, VOL. III

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I wrote a chapter on the films of Brian De Palma for Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Vol. III. You can purchase a copy here.

Top 10 Films of 2014

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In alphabetical order. Eligibility is determined by the New York commercial release rule (a list of eligible films, courtesy of Mike D’Angelo, is available here). Given the substantial gaps in my 2014 viewing, I reserve the right to revise this list at some point in the future.

  • American Sniper (dir. Eastwood)
  • Blue Ruin (dir. Saulnier)
  • Gone Girl (dir. Fincher)
  • Inherent Vice (dir. Anderson)
  • Interstellar (dir. Nolan)
  • A Most Wanted Man (dir. Corbijn)
  • Only Lovers Left Alive (dir. Jarmusch)
  • Snowpiercer (dir. Bong)
  • The Trip to Italy (dir. Winterbottom)
  • Venus in Fur (dir. Polanski)

VENUS IN FUR (2014, dir. Roman Polanski)

Venus in Fur belongs to Roman Polanski’s wife, Emanuelle Seigner. Seigner has appeared in her husband’s films before (as a French smuggler in Frantic, a sexual dynamo in Bitter Moon, and the Devil herself in The Ninth Gate), but this outshines any of her previous appearances. This is, in part, because of her maturity. Seigner wears her age astonishingly well and it has only enhanced her inherent sensuality. Her sly eyes have never seemed more entrancing or intimidating. But the material, drawn from the play by David Ives, also gives Seigner plenty of room to show off. As the enigmatic, vital Vanda, she runs nearly the whole gamut of expression, never allowing the audience or flustered playwright and would-be director Thomas Novacheck to get a lock on her identity.

As Polanski elevates his wife, he humiliates himself, situating David Ives’ one-room play as a sly bit of self-critique by casting his dopplegänger, Matthieu Amalric, in the part of Novacheck (Amalric, for his part, delivers an admirably twitchy performance, and commits himself wholly to his character’s pomposity), whose mortification is Venus in Fur‘s ultimate object. Venus in Fur makes of a mockery of sadomasochism, as well as any artists who would disguise their own perversions as worthy art. This is not altogether foreign territory for Polanski, but he’s never so clearly made himself the butt of the joke.

This brings a level of complexity and playfulness to Venus in Fur that eluded Polanski’s previous film, the rather slight, if not unenjoyable, Carnage. Like Venus in FurCarnage sought to derive intensity from intimacy (it, like Venus in Fur, is an adaptation of a one-scene, one-room play), but its shenanigans were too broad, too dependent on the wild gesticulations of its cast, to have the twisted edge and existential terror of Polanski’s best efforts. While Polanski’s direction in Carnage could not rightly be accused of laziness (as always, Polanski’s attention to geography, even in intimate settings, is impressive), Polanski’s direction in Venus in Fur is much more satisfying, always paying close attention to the ever-shifting relational dynamics between the film’s two characters. The humor, too, is sharper, with Ives’ play offering Polanski some outrageous visual gags in addition to all the witty verbal sparring.

It would perhaps be in bad taste to say how it all ends. Polanski has always taken great care with his endings, and, as with 2009’s The Ghost WriterVenus in Fur‘s finale both exceeds and improves upon the preceding material. The film’s final moments are not entirely unanticipated in terms of narrative content, but in execution, they are positively bracing, finding a sublime balance of the ethereal and the grotesque. For Polanski, humiliation is its own kind of art form.

THE IMMIGRANT (2014, dir. James Gray)

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James Gray’s The Immigrant has one truly magical moment: a performance by operatic tenor Enrico Caruso for the poor souls stuck in limbo on Ellis Island. His voice soars and fills the space of the sparse room, and at once the world is stunningly, astonishingly alive with sublime music. The setting and performer are so marvelously incongruous (it’s a recreation of an actual historical event), and the unanticipated event provides an unexpected of burst of the transcendent that cuts through the thick melancholy and gloom of this tale of woe.

According to Gray, The Immigrant is his attempt to capture something of opera’s blistering sincerity and emotional resonance (it was inspired by Puccini’s Suor Angelica). Gray certainly succeeds in capturing opera’s earnestness. The Immigrant delivers old-fashioned melodrama (there’s a touch of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables here in its protagonist’s beatific suffering and in the film’s final, surprisingly merciful moments) with an admirably straight face. If only The Immigrant had some real passion.

While the story centers on the seedy underbelly of New York in 1921, the reality of its period is sublimated beneath restrained, tasteful beauty: Gray’s ornate vision is, essentially, romantic, and he has little interest in getting his hands dirty or giving its more brutal content raw immediacy. His direction is ever at a remove from the events on screen, completely unwilling to break from its stately manner to surprise or startle. The Immigrant‘s parade of prostitutes seems positively demure in the golden-glow of Darius Khondji’s cinematography (which frequently suggests the aged film), and Chris Spelman’s score accentuates the proceedings with quotes from notable opera scores by Puccini and Wagner. But even Spelman’s score tones down the emotional bombast muted. It’s as though Gray is so petrified of tipping into sensationalism that he embalmed the film.

Opera, after all, thrives on its expressiveness: it’s sincere, but bold and immediate, interested in the vast emotional valleys of passion and hate, love and desire. The somewhat aimless script certainly tries to locate these peaks, but never directs its characters well enough to make these moments resonate. It’s evident from the film’s conclusion (which, to its credit, features one of cinema’s most magnificent shots, and one for which Khondji deserves an Oscar nomination) that what Gray is hoping to achieve a sense of of spiritual transcendence in the wake of unrelenting grief, but he never finds the right road to get there.

Perhaps, with a stronger script and some different direction, the film’s central trio of performers (Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner) might have balanced out Gray’s reserved aesthetic approach. The script only seriously begins to adopt its more melodramatic form about halfway through the film, as the film’s victimized, desperate protagonist, Ewa, finds herself caught between two cousins, Bruno and Emil, both manipulators who offer false promises of hope to Ewa. It’s a dynamic that is not only insufficently balanced, but rushed.

Of the three, Phoenix’s performance seems the most like a miscalculation. Phoenix invests Bruno, Ewa’s manipulative pimp, with all the manic energy of his performance in The Master, but the role of Bruno actually demands for something more delicate and nuanced. His earliest scenes, where he strikes an appropriate balance of charm and menace, are the most promising, but the script unfortunately shifts Bruno from manipulator to madman. Released from his constraints, Phoenix energy essentially steamrolls over the character, and so when we get to the finale, which demands so much precision from Phoenix, the character is awash in a sea of mannerisms and grunts that obscures, rather than clarifies, the character’s complexity and emotional entanglement.

As Bruno’s cousin, Emil, Renner is the film’s most charismatic presence, a charming rogue with a a career as a touring magician. For the dominant amount of his screentime, the film positions him as the kinder, more viable love interest to Phoenix’s Bruno (his introduction coincides with Caruso’s performance at Ellis Island, signalling the hope he represents). His courtship of Ewa plays out with a tedious inevitability. Only in his final scene does the film effectively move past the bullet-points of their relationship and reveal a dark undercurrent of sadism running beneath his boyish exterior. It’s too little, too late, though, and rather than play with that tension, the film abruptly sidelines him.

Then there’s Marion Cotillard, who, as Ewa, continually modulates between wide-eyed anguish and cold determination as Ewa suffers in hopes of freeing of her sister, who is effectively imprisoned on Ellis Island immediately after their arrival, Gray seems rarely interested in Ewa as a person beyond these tragic circumstances, with Khondji’s lens continually framing her as an unearthly icon of suffering. The film offers too few glimpses of the Ewa who existed before this tragedy, of an Ewa with different dreams and pleasures. Of all the film’s failings, this is perhaps its most unfortunate. Only in seeing Ewa as a person beyond her immediate struggle can we truly appreciate the depths of her anguish. If The Immigrant is, as Gray claims, “a verismo opera written for an actress,” it’s one that never gives its lead actress an aria.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014, dir. Matt Reeves)

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The shadow of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy encompasses Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes almost completely. Dawn follows Nolan’s trilogy in its faux-realism, with its bleak, muted industrial landscapes (given a post-apocalyptic flavor here), its confusion of drama with the interchange of sober, muted dialogue and shout-filled arguments, and its sense of narrative as relentless onslaught. In this, Dawn departs strongly from the flavor of the original Apes films (as its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes did, but to a different degree), which, outside of a truly excellent initial feature, were not always very good, but were always colorful, mingling humor and tragic spectacle.

Alas, while Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has a kind of narrative wonkiness that leads to genuine surprise, with dissonant elements like Heath Ledger’s Joker and Tom Hardy’s Bane always throwing a spanner in the works, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes plods straight-forward toward an inevitable conclusion. In the right hands, a march toward an unavoidably despairing finale might have been given a more fully tragic dimension—at their best, the original Apes films, which had a narrative stretched out like a nihilistic Möbius strip that always leads to and from oblivion, conjure up a sense of real existential horror—but Dawn‘s script lacks nearly any imagination. Once the chess pieces have all been laid out on the board, it is all too easy to identify which moves will be made (and, making matters worse, they’re not interesting moves, either).

The human characters may be uniformly tedious— every attempt to give them dimension bogs down the film—but the apes, at least, are a vivid presence, brought to life by spectacularly vital effects work and motion capture performances (with Andy Serkis, veteran of motion capture performance, leading the fold as the leader of the apes, Caesar). When the apes command the screen, it’s sometimes easy to forget how mundane the film truly is, if only because of the novelty of their presence, rather than the richness of their characterization.

When the finale arrives, with its thinly-drawn thematic point about the inherent savagery of all of earth’s sentient creatures, it’s big, loud, and senseless (any film that can make the sight of apes using machine guns monotonous is doing it wrong, but this is one of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ many dubious achievements), and all the conflict—ape vs. ape, human vs. human, human vs. ape—never truly resolves, leading to a brief pause that transparently sets the stage for a sequel (which will presumably be titled War of the Planet of the Apes and promises to be bigger and louder and even more tedious than this film). Is it too much to ask for that a series that gave us one of the most poetic and beautiful images in all of science fiction cinema achieve something more than this?

Ah, well. At least the 1968 Planet of the Apes is out on Blu-Ray.

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Is Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH Gnostic?

In his article “Sympathy for the Devil,” Dr. Brian Mattson makes some dramatic claims about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, suggesting that the film actually presents a a subversive take on Noah that identifies the Creator with the Demiurge, the evil creator god of Gnosticism who created the material universe. That Mattson’s reading of director Darren Aronofsky’s intentions does not exactly square with how Aronofsky has presented his intentions in interviews is not, in and of itself, evidence against Mattson, though it does require us to believe, as Mattson explicitly does, that Aronofsky is interested attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of his audience. It’s a paranoid point of view, but it’s also true that, if Mattson is correct, Noah  would not be the first time that an artist attempted to pull one over on his audience.

I don’t think Mattson is right, but let’s start with what Mattson gets right: Kabbalah undoubtedly has some influence on Noah. Not only has Aronofsky previously explored Kabbalah in his film Pi, he has been very straight-forward about consulting the prime Kabbalistic text, the Zohar, while researching rabbinical literature for Noah. So it’s not at all surprising that Mattson is able to identify features of the film that demonstrate some Kabbalistic influence.

Here are the key features of Aronofsky’s Noah that Mattson identifies as being Kabbalistic in origin:

  • The luminous appearance of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden
  • A highly-valued mineral identified as “zohar”
  • The redemption of the fallen angels (identified as the Watchers in the film)
  • The serpent skin which has been passed down through the line of Seth and is stolen by Tubal-Cain

Most of these are admittedly very plausibly Kabbalistic in origin. Mattson cites a text from the Zohar which aligns almost perfectly with the film’s depiction of Adam and Eve as beings clothed in light. The name of the mineral “zohar” in the film appears to be an allusion to the Zohar, though it seems to me to refer to the tsohar, which is a feature of the ark in Genesis (tsohar has often been translated as “window,” and in rabbinic tradition has been sometimes identified as a glowing crystal that illuminated the ark, which closely aligns with the nature and purpose of the material “zohar” in the feature film). That the fallen angels could be redeemed does not seem to me to be an exclusively Kabbalistic idea, but it clearly aligns with Kabbalistic thought. As for the serpent skin, it may or may not have some Kabbalistic undertones, but I am not certain that the precise way in which Mattson understands the symbol suits either Kabbalah or the film itself (more on that later).

Of course, establishing that Aronofsky relies on Kabbalistic symbols and images is one thing, but it is another thing entirely to establish that Aronofsky not only intends these images to carry the same meaning they did in the context of their tradition of origin (in this case, Kabbalah), but that that same tradition is fundamental to understanding the film itself. Aronofsky brought together a great many sacred symbols from Christianity, Buddhism, and Mayan traditions for The Fountain, but did not preserve their original meaning; in The Fountain, these images of transcendence are reshaped into universal metaphors for material existence (Aronofsky, it’s worth noting, is an atheist). Additionally, Aronofsky’s source material and inspiration was scarcely limited to the Zohar. It’s evident that much inspiration came from the Biblical text itself and the traditions surrounding it. Examples include Aronofsky recreation of a Gustave Dore painting of the flood in one key shot in the film, or his utilization of 1 Enoch, which was the inspiration for the film’s “Watchers.”

So while I am convinced that Kabbalistic texts and ideas had some influence on Noah, I am considerably less convinced of the Mattson’s central thesis, which is that a specifically Gnostic ideology undergirds Aronofsky’s Noah. Mattson makes a significant error in conflating Kabbalah—Jewish mysticism—and Gnosticism, which are separate belief structures and have divergent attitudes towards creation. The Demiurge of Gnosticism, the evil deity who creates the world, is not a central tenet of Kabbalistic belief, and so Kabbalah does not view creation as intrinsically evil, even if it understands that it is broken. In Gnostic belief, the goal is to escape from the material into the eternal. In Kabbalistic belief, the eternal is actually capable of sanctifying the material.

Further complicating Mattson’s thesis is that the film fails to support anything resembling a Gnostic attitude toward creation. Mattson alleges that

“The world of Aronofsky’s Noah is a thoroughly Gnostic one: a graded universe of ‘higher’ and ‘lower.’ The ‘spiritual’ is good, and way, way, way ‘up there’ where the ineffable, unspeaking god dwells, and the ‘material’ is bad, and way, way down here where our spirits are encased in material flesh. This is not only true of the fallen sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, but of fallen angels, who are explicitly depicted as being spirits trapped inside a material ‘body’ of cooled molten lava.”

As far as I can tell, Mattson appears to be deriving this “graded universe” largely from the film’s visual conceits. Spiritual beings, like the Watchers and Adam and Eve, glow brightly. The material world does shimmer in the same way, and in the case of the Watchers, the material world actually functions as a prison. But if the Watchers’ imprisonment on earth has the ring of Gnosticism about it, using their state as a metaphor for the spiritual state of humanity in Noah does not seem to match the film’s treatment of humanity’s place in the world. In Aronofsky’s film, Noah and the humans of the film were created to be a part of the earthly order (this is a clear component of the creation narrative that Noah imparts to his children while on board the ark), but the Watchers were never meant to be part of that realm. The Watchers abandoned their rightful place—Heaven—to enter into the earthly creation against the Creator’s wishes and were thereby entrapped in it. Noah and the other humans are not trapped by earthly existence: the earth is their home, and they know no other.

This sense of earth-as-home goes hand-in-hand with the film’s deep-seated concern for creation and stewardship. Noah’s care for the animals extends from his passionate belief that the creation is good and innocent, that they still exist as purely as they did in Eden. Only humanity has fallen, and that fallenness is identified by a failure to interact with the world and others in a moral way: violence and recklessness is now the way of man. Noah’s understanding of the original purpose of humanity is that of good stewardship, to guide and care for earthly creation. This is altogether very far from the anti-materialistic worldview of Gnosticism.

So what do we make of the light-infused forms of Adam and Eve, then? My suspicion is that Aronofsky is drawn to the image of light as a form of spiritual perfection, but that, rather than suggesting for him some kind of “higher plane,” it signifies a level of harmony with creation. At the very least, this is how Aronofsky utilizes similar imagery in The Fountain, where acceptance of individual contingency and connectedness to nature is depicted as a burst of light.

This same light unites Adam and Eve with the snakeskin passed on throughout the line of Seth, which shimmers at the touch. Mattson interprets the serpent as representing the Gnostic concept of Sophia (true wisdom), and specifies that the “true wisdom” it symbolizes is the awareness that the Creator is, in fact, the evil Demiurge and must be outgrown. What makes this reading problematic is that the faith in God that Noah claims throughout the majority of the film is inherited from his forebears. The passing of the snakeskin, a tradition in the line of Seth, corresponds with their faith, rather than standing in opposition to it. When the film gives us glimpses of the Garden of Eden, the snake originally glows like Adam and Eve, only to shed its luminous skin and become a dark black. The visual metaphor seems clear; the serpent abandons the glory of creation to become a creature of evil, and humanity soon follows after it. So the snakeskin reminds Noah and his family of the Eden that was lost, a testament to creation’s original perfection.

Further complicating matters is that Mattson’s conviction that Noah has “outgrown” God in the final scene makes exceedingly little sense. Throughout Noah’s conflict over the course of the film—whether or not humanity, deeply corrupted by sin, should be permitted to continue on after the flood—not once is the Creator’s legitimacy questioned, either in visual cues or in explicit dialogue. The despair which precedes the film’s final moments of benediction is rooted in Noah’s belief that he was too weak to carry out God’s judgment. Only Ila (whose name means “light,” which gives us some indication about the level of significance she carries) manages to change Noah’s mind, and she does this by informing him that he actually fulfilled God’s will by preserving humanity. Between this moment and the final benediction, with its replication of God’s command from Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply,” there occurs no instance where Noah appears to change his attitude toward God. So while Mattson is right that the final scene suggests a kind of enlightenment for Noah, it is the enlightenment of knowing the unity between God’s judgment and his mercy.

This emphasis on the harmony between divine judgment and divine mercy connects Noah far closer to the Old Testament, which is similarly preoccupied, than it does to the elusive and complex mysticism of Kabbalah and Gnosticism. If the God of Noah seems inscrutable, then he need not be the Gnostic Demiurge to be so. Consider the bewildering nature of the God of the Pentateuch, who commands Abraham to sacrifice his long-promised son, or who threatens to destroy his chosen people until Moses intercedes on their behalf. Perhaps the truly remarkable thing about Noah is not that it subverts the Pentateuch, but that it conveys something of its essence.

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