THE NEAREST THING TO HEAVEN: LOVE AFFAIR (1939)

March 22, 2011

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When two deeply affecting films are viewed in quick succession, they start to speak to each other. This weekend I watched Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and Love Affair (1939), both for the second time. They have a radically contrasting approach to narrative, but both use visual patterning to pursue a kind of naturalized transcendence. In both, an idealized vision or emotion is brought down to earth, made approachable and concrete. Love Affair takes the melodramatic conceit of romantic love, based on separation and a purely spiritual longing, and places it in reluctant bodies, who squirm and flirt and have to work for a living.  Boonmee flattens the space between life and death, man and animal, ancient and modern. Ghosts are as natural as the oxen in the woods, and its characters react accordingly, with benign acceptance. In their own way, both films convey what my late, great undergraduate Philosophy professor, M.C. Dillon, wrote in Beyond Romance:

We are our bodies. Including the traces that other bodies have visited upon ours and the traces our bodies deposit in the world as marks of its passage. It is as bodies that we are and are known. In that broad sense, all our knowledge of each other is carnal knowledge.

Boonmee takes the supernatural and makes it tactile, while Love Affair brings romaticism into the intricate choreography of actors’ hands. I previously wrote about Boonmee here, so the following incoherent ramblings will focus on Love Affair.

The plot of Love Affair uses the classic scenario of romantic love, as laid down in the songs of the twelfth-century troubadors in the South of France. They sang of unrequited attractions, impossible to act on because of the custom, as Dillon writes, of using marriage as a means of consolidating family wealth. Dillon goes on to quote the Countess of Champagne, delivering a judgment in a court of love convened in 1174:

We say and affirm…that love may not extend its rights over two married persons. For lovers grant each other all things mutually and freely without constraint of any motive of necessity, whereas the married are in duty bound reciprocally to submit to the will of the other, and to refuse each other nothing.

Love and marriage are mutually exclusive, and this in turn fueled the thwarted erotic imaginations of the eras poets. All of the great romantic stories, Abelard and Heloise, Tristan and Isolde, are premised on separating the lovers. Dillon: “The point is that the intense experience of love they sought could not survive without the barriers that kept their fantasies alive by preventing them from knowing one another.” (Manoel de Oliveria’s masterful duo of Doomed Love and Francisca lays bare the masochistic tendencies of this mode). The ensuing centuries have done little to alter this pattern, aside from changing the tragic ending into one of happy heterosexual couple-dom. The barrier between couples remains, cycled through endless cliches, usually divisions in class or temperament. These tales typically end when the lovers first get to know each other.

Love Affair subtly tweaks this pattern, with director Leo McCarey introducing visual motifs to bring this love for all time into a love for right now. Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne gain a carnal knowledge of each other, in Dillon’s sense, in their first moments together, revealing themselves through their relation to space and their musical gestures. Their first meeting is through a porthole window on board a cruise ship, a tiny opening that halos faces, a partial, idealized view. It is a typically romantic image, Dunne’s face framed like a cameo necklace, and separated from Boyer by a thick wooden wall. In a usual romance, this first meet-cute would presage a long interval of Boyer searching for this mystery woman. Instead, Dunne walks around the corner, in an imposingly squared off fur coat, and continues her sarcastic banter. She goes from a beatific face to a fully embodied woman, and Boyer is immediately taken, grabbing her arm and urging her to listen to his own romantic woes.

It is from this moment that McCarey orchestrates a symphony of hand gestures to indicate their growing bond. In their first meeting, Dunne playfully taps her fingers on her purse, one of her strong moves of studied indifference. Later, the conversation turns to their respective fiancees, and Dunne lifts her pearl necklace to her mouth, a nervous, childish tic, revealing a bubbling insecurity. The flirtatious game they are playing against each other soon turns in to an effortless vaudeville act – their bodies simply work well together. After their initial dinner date, a photographer snaps an embarrassing candid, and with a choreographed bit of sleight of hand, Boyer hands the film to Dunne, who drops it in the ocean while pretending to straighten her hair. In this wave of hand motions, they have gone from antagonists to physical intimates, without a romantic word seeping from their lips, their dialogue being a thick flurry of quips and put-downs.

In the following sequence, Boyer tries to charm a little boy with a game of patty cake, but instead the kid dishes about the gossip surrounding Boyer’s amorous conquests. He feigns hitting the kid before walking away – here his hands fail him, able to work only with Dunne. This visual motif reaches its peak when they visit Boyer’s grandmother in Spain, who is played with quivering intensity by Maria Ouspenskaya. Dunne asks to see her chapel, and kneels in a gauzy, be-fogged light (Rudolph Mate was the D.P.). As she stares intensely at the statue of the Virgin Mary, beseeching silently for answers to her romantic plight, Boyer sits uncomfortably, peering at her. The telling moment occurs when Dunne concludes her prayer, and Boyer does the same, but nervously adjusts his tie as he finishes the sign of the cross. He is shaken out of his self-possession for the first time, just as Dunne was by grasping her pearls. Later, Boyer asks his grandmother to play the piano, and she responds, laughing, “look at my hands”, in apology for her coming performance.

But she continues with a lovely ballad which unites them all. McCarey begins with a close-up of Ouspenskaya’s wrinkled hands stringing out the notes and cuts to a single smiling shot of her, before framing a medium shot of all three, with Boyer and Dunne at opposite sides of the piano. As the music flows from her fingers, Dunne starts humming the tune, and so begins an exchange of glances in shot-countershot. First is Boyer’s adoring gaze on Dunne, followed by Ouspenskaya’s knowing grin towards him. They are all connected by their looks and by the grandmother’s expressive hands, which say more than either Boyer or Dunne have been able to in their circling flirtations. It is an expression of love flowed through Ouspenskaya’s fingers into Boyer’s gaze, and emerging from Dunne’s voice. This impossibly moving sequence is shattered by the brusque bellowing of the crusie ship’s horn, indicating the couple’s departure. The grandmother trails off from the melody, the spell broken, and breaks down in tears. Her grandson is leaving, and the piano’s flowing channel of emotion has been stopped up. From now on Boyer will have to express this bodily emotion on his own, and it’s unclear, after the scene in the chapel, whether he’s capable of it.

The expressive hands disappear once the couple departs the ship, but not before McCarey inserts one final image in this motif, of their clasped hands pulling apart. This begins the classically romantic section of separation, but in this case it is self-imposed. Both Boyer and Dunne realize that their union would mean the end of their comfortable lifestyles – they would lose their rich husband and family, respectively. So they pledge to learn how to make a living, and wed afterward. Dunne becomes a nightclub singer, Boyer a commercial (and later artistic) painter. One ingenious shot finds Boyer painting a Schlitz billboard when his agent yells up to him that he sold his first canvas. Their separation does not “prevent them from knowing one another”, in the usual romantic mode, but provides an opportunity to know themselves better.

In this section McCarey shifts to imagery of reflections in windows and mirrors, representing each character’s self-doubt about the solidity of their dreams. They pledge to meet at the Empire State Building in six months, after building a career. The melodrama’s machinations put more roadblocks in their path, but it ends in a joyful affirmation of embodied love. This final revelation begins in a revival of their first flirtatious meetings, when every word meant its inverse and meaning had to be read on their faces. But then in an extraordinary panning shot, Boyer sees the reflection of one of his own paintings, erasing the doubts represented in the earlier mirror shots, and proving the irreducible nature of their love. In the final image, they dry each other’s eyes with Ouspenskaya’s shawl, a talisman of their unspoken emotions, expressed previously only through gesture. Now they can cry freely.

For a film singing with images, I will end on dialogue, in which Dunne starts with the mystical and ends with a man, shuddering in her embrace:

“I was looking…up. To the 102nd floor. It was the nearest thing to heaven. You see, you were there.”

***

For M.C. Dillon (1938 – 2005), who taught me how to live and how to read Nietzsche, which are one and the same. When I told him I was going to Graduate School for Cinema Studies, he was befuddled – he implied that it was useless, and that I should pursue Philosophy – but then told me a story. He said when he was in the Navy, he had a stop-over in Monaco and attended a diplomatic party. There, he claimed, he danced the evening away with Grace Kelly.

THE 48TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL, PART 2

September 28, 2010

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The Social Network, the opening night selection at the 2010 New York Film Festival (and opening nationwide October 1st), consists of men (and one girl) talking in rooms and around tables. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)  is the reluctant participant in these discussions, hunched over and bristling, much preferring the inscrutable company of his own mind. The essential opacity of these thoughts to his friends and foes, Zuckerberg’s intractable isolation, is the nexus around which director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin spin their tale of mis-communication and betrayal.

Sorkin frames the story of Facebook’s founding through legal depositions of two concurrent lawsuits facing Zuckerberg. One from his supposed best friend and former CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), the other from three schoolmates who proposed a similar social networking site called The Harvard Connection.  Their competing testimony shifts the point of view between all three of these perspectives, offering differing visions of Zuckerberg’s character, Citizen Kane style (Sorkin referenced Rashomon at the press conference, but the focus on the unstable image of one man, as opposed to an event, is far more indebted to Kane – for a further elaboration of the comparison, see Michael J. Anderson’s essay here).

The dialogue is read in staccato bursts of defensive manuevers, everyone protecting their intellectual territory. Eisenberg zooms through the script with brittle intensity, a man of supreme arrogance, intelligence and insecurity insulating himself with words. It’s a bravura performance, in which Zuckerberg’s mask of intellectual impassivity is cracked for a few brief moments, introducing doubts about how much of an asshole he really is. The puzzled, crestfallen expression on his face after his final split with Saverin is tantalizing in its ambiguity. Joined by a truly Mephistophelean turn from Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker (look at his manipulations in the photo above), the wide-eyed innocence of Andrew Garfield, the blue-blood hauteur of Armie Hammer as both Winklevoss Twins (using the facial motion-capture technique Fincher pioneered in the underrated Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and a scene-stealing demolition job by Douglas Urbanski as former Harvard president Larry Summers, The Social Network is brimming with revealing put downs, glances and asides.

That it’s taken me this long to get to Fincher says a lot about his role here, a true collaborator with Sorkin and his cast (along with DP Jeff Cronenweth and the fine pulsating score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). But the film, like all of Fincher’s work, is beautiful in strange ways. There is the infernal darkening red hues in which he shoots the Harvard sequences, a simmering hormonal pool of class resentments and hard-ons. One sequence, in which he inter-cuts a Dionysian “final club” party with Zuckerberg coding his early “FaceMash” site is revealing of the unreliability of Zuckerberg’s POV. As he builds his site, an ode to a male’s wounded ego, which allows campus libidos to vote on female students’ hotness, we get visions of stripped down co-eds cavorting in the aristocratic party that Mark would never be invited to. The party seems like his resentful projection, but it’s presented as a simple cross-cutting sequence, or his version of the truth. All three POVs should be treated as unreliable, or at least as clouded by self-interest. By the end, when Zuckerberg’s every move seems both justifiable and monstrous, I could only think of Marlene Dietrich’s closing summation in Touch of Evil: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”

***

The other triumph in the main slate was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (coming to theaters in the U.S. in  March 2011 from Strand Releasing)Set in a small farming village in the Northeastern part of Thailand, it tracks the last days of Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) during which he is visited by the curious ghosts of his relatives. It is a film of permeable borders, between Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, between life and death, man and animal, and ultimately, between possible worlds. Boonmee’s caretaker, Auntie Jen (Jenjira Pongpas, from Weerasethakul’s previous Syndromes and a Century), complains about the Laotian caretaker of his farm, worried that he doesn’t bathe. Later, Boonmee is afraid that he created bad karma because “I’ve killed too many communists.” This speaks to the crackdown on Communism in the region following the war in Vietnam, in which peasants informed upon and fought against Communist cells or were accused themselves. The monkey ghosts which haunt the film can be read as the spirits of the Communists who fled into the forest, although that is only one, much too reductive interpretation.

And yes, the monkey ghosts arrive as naturally as the disfigured princess, who arrives in a deliriously beautiful set-piece that Joe staged as an homage to the royal costume dramas of his youth, although I doubt they contained the amorous catfish in his version. But they should have. Boonmee’s procession into death is also a procession into Weerasethakul’s personal memory and history, as well as the history of his films. Along with Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee returns from Syndromes, as Boonmee’s nephew, and later as the monk from the previous film, as the personal blends with the artistic and historical. There are endless strands to analyze and untangle, but there are also the manifest pleasures of lolling in his gentle, comic rhythms and sparklingly beautiful compositions (it was shot on Super-16 and blown up to 35, often using day-for-night). By the time it descends into Plato’s cave and encompasses the whole history of moving images, I knew I had seen a masterpiece. And I want to watch it again right now.

***

As space is running short, some quick notes on other defining moments from the festival:

Film Socialisme, directed by Jean-Luc Godard (no distribution, screens Sep. 29th at 6PM and Oct. 8th at 3PM)

A lament for Europe, in layers of video and text. HD images of a decadent cruise through the Mediterranean are interrupted by degraded and pixelated footage of mobbed dance floors and YouTube videos of mewling cats. He gets incredible effects from reducing the video resolution, getting cubist collages of capitalist excess and moments of incredible, uncanny beauty. One image, a hand placed on a window, then pulled back, obscured by the degraded image and made ghostly and strange, spoke more to me about the cultural losses he refers to so incessantly. The cruise ship docks, replaced by a family owned gas station, whose parents (and then children) are running for election, chased down by a relentless news team. A young boy, adept at slapstick, scares them away with a stick and then conducts an invisible symphony with it. So referentially dense, it would ideally be watched with hyperlinks attached to all the quotes and film clips, as well as the concrete poetry of the partially-translated subtitles, which he puckishly described as “Navajo English”.

The RobberDirected by Benjamin Heisenberg (no distribution, screens Sep. 29th at 9:15PM)

In this propulsive genre workout, a prisoner trains in his cell to be a long-distance runner. Upon release he wins a marathon, but, alas, keeps robbing banks. Incredibly, it’s the true story of Johann Kastenberger (changed to Rettenberger in the film, and played with wiry athleticism by Andreas Lust), or “Pump Gun Ronnie”, who wore a Reagan mask during his reign of terror. The superbly controlled action sequences are shot in sinuous steadicam long takes, and one heist in particular stands out. Lust, after holding up one bank, sprints to another one, as the cop cars are busy investigating the first. Setting his camera up across the street, Heisenberg resolutely keeps his distance from any kind of psychologizing, he’s just here to emphasize the physical feats. Then Lust bursts out of the second, and a chase erupts when a cop car foolishly tries to run him down. Racing up a parking garage, and then down and outside through a cellar, it’s a white-knuckle affair shot with daredevil fearlessness. The steadicam operator was sprinting down hallways as fast as Lust, with little cutting and total spatial coherence.