The Essential Series – There Will Be Blood (2007)

Summer is reaching its twilight. The festival circuit is developing buzz as lineups are announced. And the awards season is taking shape. It has been an odd transition period for me, as I’m settling into a position at work and embracing a new apartment. As much as I want to fight out of it, cinema just has not been a top priority for my summer. But things are taking shape and the energy surrounding potential awards contenders are again sweeping me away. This is obviously all compounded by watching a lot of films again. 

My 70mm screening of The Master is what really started things off for me again. Surrounded by fellow cinephiles and local press (Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of mubi.com were in attendance), coupled with the general hype of seeing the follow-up of one my favorite films was nothing short of amazing. As I’m still digesting the picture, I thought it appropriate to look back at the film that spurred my interest in not just Paul Thomas Anderson’s picture, but to cinema in general.

There Will Be Blood (2007) Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Most cinephiles tend to embrace a particular film that changed how they view cinema. These pictures tend to broaden the scope, whereupon the formal qualities and emotional gravity that a film possesses break the glass ceiling of interpretation. They are typically films that widen one’s worldview and possess an intrinsic understanding of its viewer’s emotions. There Will Be Blood was that film for me. The circumstances of my viewing were hardly complimentary. While I appreciated the early screening of the picture, its midnight screening in the midst of a Chicago winter did not bode well for this commuter. But my interest in the picture overtook me.

From its beginning, Johnny Greenwood’s score attacks the senses. With the wide open landscape in full view, There Will Be Blood embodies a tonal sense of loneliness. Contempt and greed may be considered the opportune word to describe Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), but the character’s follies stem from a perpetual state of social abandonment. While I certainly acknowledge the rich capitalist undercurrent found throughout the picture, my most recent viewing of There Will Be Blood afforded me the opportunity to delve into some of the more enigmatic elements of the film. 

While I granted There Will Be Blood a rare 10/10 upon first viewing, I did find a narrative hiccup in the manner pf which Paul Thomas Anderson removed HW (Dillon Freasier) from the narrative. He was then immediately replaced by Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor). The decision remains an awkward point in the picture, wherein Plainview and his estranged brother become business partners. Upon my most recent viewing, the substitution bares a particularly interesting window into understanding the complexities of the Plainview character and provides an additional reading of the title itself.

While some viewers may have been disappointed by the lack of violence and well, blood, as promised by the picture’s title, one could possibly acknowledge the word “blood” in relationship to kinship. Given that Anderson and Greenwood have already thoroughly established the isolation of Plainview’s spatial and cerebral perspective, one can assume the importance of what familial bonds he might have in the continuation of his prospects. While Plainview is deeply rooted in his capital ventures, there’s undoubtedly an added pressure of continuing this upon his death. Provided the fleeting scenes of sincerity bestowed upon HW, I would argue that his greatest priority rests in his kinship to HW. While their relationship is bound by false pretenses, Plainview attempts to mold HW in the ways of the oil business.

Upon their arrival to Little Boston, California, Plainview and HW discuss what to do with the ocean of oil under their feet. They converse as if business partners, both capable of addressing the various moving parts to their industry. The two share an obvious camaraderie, whereupon the aspects of business and kinship are intertwined. Plainview has found his ideal partner, one who he can maximize his capital while insuring a trust and bond between. Basically, HW is a part of the molding process until he loses his hearing following a derrick explosion. Now, HW’s behavior grows erratic and Plainview can no longer shape his child as an image of himself. As the audience viewed Plainview without dialogue in the initial fifteen minutes of There Will Be Blood, HW is left to interpret his father’s actions. Interpretation is not sufficient to molding HW; therefore he is shipped away to a boarding school for the deaf. Henry enters.

Henry’s arrival, as jarring and unexpected as it was, brings the concept of Plainview’s quest for a successor to fruition. With Henry, there initially appears to be a legitimate blood bond that unites them. An absent quality in HW, Plainview accepts Henry with little debate. While there are scenes were Plainview looks upon Henry with skepticism, he becomes distracted by his capitalist ventures. But on the eve of his success, Plainview discovers that Henry is an imposter. Plainview’s violent reaction serves to underscore the singular missing familial component in his life – there’s no one that Plainview can mold because, no matter how close he gets, there will be crucial inconsistencies.

This falls in line with the casting of Paul Dano as both Paul and Eli Sunday. Originally cast for the small role of Paul, Dano was hastily cast for the role of Eli. While a casting made out of convenience, the implications it has on the picture is quite interesting. For one, the two characters share opposite characteristics – one is motivated by capitalism while the other is driven by religion. That’s the dichotomy that is explicitly played between Eli and Plainview, but given their brotherhood, it’s a startling dividing line. Moreso, their appearance plays on the concept of expert molding – a physical manifestation is possible, but to shape a worldview in the same manner that Plainview attempts to mold HW and Henry proves impossible. People think for themselves and it’s there that Plainview’s demeanor and social position cannot impose influence. And much in the same way that Plainview fails to shape the worldview of HW and Henry, Abel Sunday (David Willis) fails Eli in a similar fashion. His son admonishes him for failing to adequately predict Plainview’s intentions – this causes a scuffle between father and son, where son rejects the principles laid out by his father. Worldviews cannot be constructed and displaced from one generation to another. Blood may or may not unite two people, but even if it did, it certainly does not guarantee loyalty.

This scatter-shot dissection into expanding beyond the presumed thematic intention of There Will Be Blood as anything more than capitalism versus religion required multiple viewings to cogently put into words.  But the beauty of films like There Will Be Blood is that there is room for interpretation. There’s no singular analysis of the film – nor will there ever be. The depth of the picture is immense – an ocean of interpretation left for the viewer to dive in and comprehend. 

The Essential Series: Paris, Texas (1984)

The idea of starting from scratch, particularly following a traumatic event, has been the basis for a lot of the films I’ve selected for my Essential Series column. This month’s film, Wim Wenders' quasi-existential American road movie, Paris, Texas, embodies this sense of starting back from square one. This idea of having to navigate through the world from the start is a scary thought. It’s the sort of experience that I argue that I share, albeit in a different way. The sense of disorientation that Tatsuya Nakadai in Harakiri or Juliette Binoche in Three Colors: Blue felt can be empathized not through the distinct loss of family, but rather in the sense of routine that comes from being accustomed to ritual. Whether it be leaving a job without the security of what’s next or graduating from college without a concrete plan, it’s hard not to feel confused as to where to head to next. With Paris, Texas, that trance-like confusion is perfectly illustrated within the picture’s first 30 minutes. It’s what happens afterward, both in film and in life, where we look at what we have and work with the hand we’re dealt.

Paris, Texas (1984) 

Directed by Wim Wenders

The barren landscapes of the Southwest occupy the opening frames of Paris, Texas. Under cinematographer Robby Müller’s precise eye, the images register mythically.  But as we move from image to image, the desert topography carries a sense of desperation. Their vast openness seems unreal and soon comes across as less a geological marvel and more an image of uninhibited loneliness. It all makes sense the moment Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) enters the frame. His dark sun-baked face is worn out. Without words you can tell that he is tired of life. His gestures at trying to find water are fleeting. He embodies a particular mentality, whereupon life has dealt him a bad hand. To say he appears hopeless would be an understatement – he has abandoned ambition. His steps are heavy and his emotions muted with only numbness filling the void of whatever that was left behind.

The period in which Travis wanders through the barren landscape underscores Wim Wenders’ observations on America. The German director’s understanding of the land resonates as being especially insightful in the way he frequently positions his lead character in settings that register as both familiar and foreign. The title itself elicits this notion, whereupon Americans recognize Paris, France as being a beautiful escape – a city of love. Texas conjures images of the West, desert landscapes, and cowboys. Separately, the two exist on separate plains – the foreign and the familiar. When put together, their meanings conflict. Whether it is the German doctor who works in the desert or the cityscape that Travis eventually wanders, there’s a sense of contradiction to a lot of the goings-on in Paris, Texas. There’s awkwardness to these contradictions and it seems to be an unrecognized staple of German films from directors like Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but with Wim Wenders, you sense these contradictions are coming from a place of personal observation. There’s too much detail in the way Wenders moves through the American landscape for him not to be aware of the social conditions that have positioned Travis and his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) where they are now.

And what divergent lives the two brothers lead. As Travis wanders the Earth, Walt amasses wealth, lives comfortably with a beautiful wife, and looks after Travis’ abandoned child, Hunter (Hunter Carson). Though the white picket fence is absent, Walt still manages to lead an idealistic, American life. Obviously, the same can’t be said for Travis, as his battered face bares a sense of lost dreams and unfulfilled ambitions. Wenders is quite candid about the divergent paths that have brought these two men where they are – it’s essentially because of the women in their lives. Given that Paris, Texas is a very masculine-driven picture, one could assume that the allocated blame on women could come across as misogynistic. This isn’t the case though. Instead, there’s a deep-rooted reverence that comes from all the women in the film. In another example of the film’s odd blend of the familiar with the foreign, we see that within the confines of Walt’s estate is his French wife, Anne (Aurore Clement). Her presence after the first act may be a bit awkward, but she soon finds her groove and introduces a feminine component to the picture.

Travis’ trance-like state is eventually snapped when he watches some of Walt’s home movies. Gathered in the living room with Walt, Anne, and Hunter, they watch a film strip documenting a day at the beach. Travis, who had been largely silent through the first hour of the picture, views the strip with nostalgic awe. The images themselves are presented in a fairly fragmentary sort of way, bordering on a stream of consciousness projection. When the film is over, Travis seems to have awoken. There’s diligence in his movements – he wants to be a respectable father to Hunter.

Things are obviously complicated by Anne’s commitment to Hunter and Travis’ own limitations. But the situation doesn’t unfold in the sort of typical dramatic fashion that one expects. Usually, in films of this type, there’s a long custody battle that sparks drama. Here, Travis is unaware of his lacking expertise as a father figure. He knows that he could never provide in the same sort of way that Walt and Anne can provide for him. Instead, Travis chooses to provide Hunter with an entryway to his roots.

And from here, we get to know everything about Travis. Wenders and Müller stage one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema when Travis encounters his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) at a peep show. The direction of this scene is particularly evocative, with every element from camera placement to costume design playing a crucial element in the feel of the whole scene. Travis, who had followed Jane to her workplace, sits in a booth where a one-way mirror divides the room. He can see the woman on the opposite end – Jane cannot. At first, he enters a booth and requests a blonde woman in her twenties. Out comes a buxom woman in a nurse outfit. This is not Jane. She fits the descriptors, but it’s not her. So Travis exits the booth and enters a different one. The scene on the other end of the room has changed. We assume he makes a request again – this time though, Wenders opts to not let us know what Travis said to clarify his choice. Out on the other end comes Jane.

The two converse, though awkwardly. Jane’s job is to titillate, and that’s her natural inclination from the start – Travis doesn’t want that. As Travis stumbles with his words, he realizes that he’s unprepared. He doesn’t know what he’s doing there. It’s just like before – there’s his wife, a beautiful woman who he had fallen in love with, and he’s incapable of speaking to her in this wildly new terrain. The whole picture revolves around this concept of exploring the familiar and the foreign. It’s an experience that seeps into every aspect of Travis’ life. Though in the end, you sense he has the wherewithal to deal with it. Or, at least, he knows what his limitations are as a person.

Wim Wenders would follow ParisTexas with Wings of Desire. It’s a far more spiritual film to Paris, Texas, but the humanistic touches remain. Wenders’ presence in the film world faded following that picture, though he would end up getting nominated for an Oscar in 1999 for his documentary, The Buena Vista Social Club. Another silent period followed until the release of his 3-D documentary in 2011, Pina. He’s a director with such command over his material; it’s difficult to imagine such talent getting marginalized in the film community for his contributions.

The Essential Series: Blue (1993)

As the awards season enters its hibernation period, there’s simply not a whole lot to talk about in contemporary cinema. And given that I haven’t even seen a 2012 film, material for this blog has been a little scarce. But while I may be ignoring what’s in theaters at the moment, I’ve kept busy by engrossing myself in films of old, particularly addressing some of my cinematic blinds spots (the films of the 1930s, for one). It’s a trying experience in some cases, as there are clear technical and narrative limitations that obviously held filmmakers back. But by that same token, some filmmakers of the 30s had to display an acute sense of wit in the way they presented their material. Unfortunately, for every home-run discovery (W.S. Dyke’s The Thin Man, Mitchell Liesen’s Midnight), I’m bombarded with disappointing efforts (James Wales’ Frankenstein, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant, and perhaps most surprisingly, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow).

What does this have to do with Three Colors: Blue? Well, after a succession of disappointing features, I needed to watch something that I knew I would enjoy. And after nabbing a blu-ray copy of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy in an Oscar bet from my lovely girlfriend, I figured it would be the perfect remedy to my funk.

Three Colors: Blue (1993) 

Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

I’m avoiding writing about the Three Colors trilogy as a whole because it’s a large canvas that I (and most critics) would not be able to succinctly summarize and analyze in a written form. The trilogy’s density does not lend itself to easy analysis. While I would love to look at each individual picture and write an extended analysis for all three, I do have a day job that prohibits that sort of thing. While popular opinion places Three Colors: Blue at the bottom of the totem pole in the trilogy, it actually stands as my favorite.

Krzysztof Kieslowski begins Blue with a nauseating shot, where the viewer is placed behind the tire of a moving car on a highway. We’re moving forward with an obstructed view, which essentially establishes the narrative course that the picture will take for its 98 minute runtime. Kieslowski’s cinematographer, Slawomir Idziak, hues the opening of the film under a tinge of blue. It’s a technique that superficially distinguishes it from the other films in the trilogy, but also underscores the emotional tragedy on display. In the film’s critical opening moment, we see a car crash into a tree and we see a landscape shot where the sky is tinted a dull blue.

The Three Colors trilogy derives its meaning from the French Republic’s motto of Liberty (Blue), Equality (White) and Fraternity (Red). Thematically, Blue is the densest of Kieslowski’s trilogy, as he takes the concept of liberty and associates it with memory and love. As the picture develops, a woman named Julie (Juliette Binoche) was the lone survivor of the car crash that took her husband and children. From here, she attempts to disassociate herself from the pain and anxiety of her loss.

The concept of liberty becomes a pivotal aspect to Julie’s ability to cope with her loss. Is the weight of her loss preventing her from attaining true freedom? Are we bound by our relationships to people to the point that it limits our freedom? In her attempt to attain “true” freedom, Julie sells off her possessions and destroys her husband’s final composition – a work that she herself had a hand in composing. Yet the memory remains. In an attempt to find a flat, she gives her married name first, only to retract and give out her maiden name. And she still keeps a memento from her past – a blue crystal mobile that belonged to her children. The mobile’s presence in the center of her living room serves as a constant reminder of her loss, therein preventing her from ever truly disassociating from her past.

Kieslowski’s ability to take superficial objects and infuse them with a sense of time and gravity plays a significant role in Blue; perhaps moreso than the other two pictures in the trilogy or even the object-heavy The Double Life of Veronique. In addition to the mobile, particular items like the rolled-up copy of her husband’s unfinished composition and the cross necklace all serve to address the film’s theoretical framework. They are items that essentially serve to come back to Julie, serving to reinforce that one cannot break free from their past.

What makes Blue particularly effective is that Kieslowski addresses Julie’s concept of true independence – disassociating herself from any and all people – as the sort of thing that people should not be striving for. In an important scene, Julie assists a street flute player lying on the ground. She places his flute box under his head as a means of support. The flute player responds to Julie as he clings to his flute box, stating that “You have to hold onto something”. The line carries obvious weight, particularly given that Julie’s husband and the vagrant share musical sensibilities. It’s also hinted that the flute player plays her husband’s music, another coincidence that carries spiritual weight in Kieslowski’s world.

Julie’s relationship with her mother perpetuates Kieslowski’s theme of addressing the costs of “true” freedom. As Julie attempts to meet her mother, who stays at a nursing home, we see Julie observe her mother through a glass window. Julie's mother suffers from dementia, so any news on the recent loss of her daughter's husband and children are lost upon her. They still exist in her mother’s memory. This obviously complicates Julie’s desire to disassociate herself from her loss. Is Julie’s desire to disassociate herself from the tragedy strained by her mother? Kieslowski realizes the boundaries between the two characters through glass, a visual cue that Asghar Farhadi utilized to a great degree in his A Separation. In Blue, the glass unites the physical and mental constraints that prevent Julie from break through.

The picture curiously bookends with images involving glass. In the first scene, Julie breaks a glass pane when she is hospitalized, utilizing the broken window as a diversion for the nurse attendant. It’s here where Julie almost commits suicide upon discovering the loss of her family. It’s the most emotionally expressive we see Julie, at least up until the end, where Julie has sex with a man who has been courting her. Kieslowski frames Julie’s face as she is pressed up against the glass. She never breaks through though. Instead, Kieslowski follows it up with a scene where Julie pensively stares outside, tears visible, while the sound of her husband’s music permeates the score. The score swells as Julie seems to have accepted that one cannot be truly free if they are living to escape their past.

Blue is filled with these sorts of alliterations and motifs. It’s the sort of picture that can be mined extensively for its symbolic language and spiritual density. I’ve barely scratched the surface of its meaning, both as a singular work and as the beginning of a trilogy. But this most recent viewing provoked a response in me that simply had to address some of the more compelling, if not superficial, aspects of the picture. Krzysztof Kieslowski was a director with a deep-rooted personal connection to all his films, whereupon he strove to create pictures that reflected a spiritual perspective. With pictures like Blue, White, Red and 1991’s The Double Life of Veronique, he expands and contracts his perspective to illuminate something deep in the audience.

The Essential Series: Harakiri (1962)

The Essential Series

I discontinued myEssential Series column last year due to my rather absurd movie write-up backlog (February 2011 saw me publish 27(!) posts). But as I’ve begun to focus primarily on contemporary pictures, the early year lull of new pictures has got me thinking that I should revitalize this old chestnut of an idea. The concept of The Essential Series is to reflect on the films that I hold closest to my heart. So in what I hope to turn into a regular column, I’ll be exploring my favorite films, relishing in the experience of revisiting classics that have shaped my understanding of the cinema.

Harakiri (1962)

Directed by Masaki Kobayashi

Frequent Akira Kurosawa collaborator and screenwriter of Harakiri, Shinobu Hashimoto made no grand effort to make Harakiri a timely feature. As he notes in a Criterion interview, the picture was created as a way to describe “a day in the life of a samurai”. But in developing the screenplay, Hashimoto touched upon a larger social condition in which the very idea of being a “samurai” takes upon different meaning. One views a samurai with a particular sense of reverence – they’re warriors of great intellect, superior conditioning, and unfaltering honor.  Even those samurai who are at the bottom of the social strata are viewed with a sense of nobility, as seen in their unwavering dedication to justice in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. With Harakiri, Hashimoto seems to be subverting this sense of reverence by addressing the concept of shame as it pertains to samurai culture. Critiquing the politics and corruption of being a samurai is a compelling enough narrative, but Hashimoto acutely constructs his narrative around a humanistic lens.

Harakiri opens with a ronin (a samurai without a master to serve) named Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) who comes to the samurai house of Lord Iyi. This masterless samurai inquires about using the temple’s courtyard to commit harakiri. Given the widespread poverty in the land, the request is hardly atypical. And in committing suicide, Tsugumo will be forgiven of any past sins. But before Tsugumo is to proceed, he is told a story about another man who came to the Iyi House gate.

The narrative flashbacks to a man named Motome Chijiiwa who proposed a similar query. But unlike Tsugumo, his intentions don’t seem genuine. Several samurai of the Iyi House mention that peasant ronin have asked to commit harakiri throughout the land, only to be turned away in exchange for cash. So instead of offering Chijiiwa any money, they go along with his proposal. This is obviously not what Chijiiwa had in mind, and with only a bamboo blade, he does not have the adequate tools to complete the ritual. Still, he is forced by the various members of the Iyi House to commit the act. It’s only by laying the weapon on the ground and tossing his body onto the bamboo blade is Chijiiwa able to complete the act. It’s an incredibly harrowing scene that underscores the sense of misguided reverence one can have for samurai culture.

The flashback ends and we find Tsugumo still willing to go through with his harakiri. He seems unfazed by the story. So, like with Chijiiwa, preparations are made for Tsugumo to go on with his harakiri. Sitting on a blanketed wooden crate and surrounded by Lord Iyi’s samurai, the audience is set for the ritual. But before he goes on with the act, Tsugumo specifically requests a “second” for his act. A second’s duty is to slice off the head of the individual committing harakiri, therein completing the act and insuring safe travels to the heavens. Tsugumo requests any of three names to be his second. Most curiously, none of the three are at the house – all of them are absent due to claims of sickness. This is obviously a perplexing situation to Lord Iyi, who begins to question the reasoning behind Tsugumo’s visit. And that’s precisely where the narrative unfolds in stunning fashion, as Tsugumo arrests the Iyi House with his compelling life story, wherein the reason for his arrival extends beyond committing harakiri.

There are two particular aspects to Harakiri that standout as especially subversive and compelling. First is the aforementioned screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto. Hashimoto’s use of flashbacks is particularly inventive as he utilizes the technique to not so much halt the narrative, but to construct its significance. There’s a specific methodology to the way he logically constructs Tsugumo’s arrival to Iyi House and the importance of Chijiiwa’s death – Hashimoto diligently unites the two narrative threads together in spectacular fashion. And while tinkering with chronology is hardly a new method of storytelling, there’s something admirable about the precision of it all. Most pictures tend to benefit from a messy way of unfolding the twists and turns of a narrative. Here, Hashimoto is less concerned with surprising the audience – he bluntly allows Tsugumo to acknowledge that he knew Chijiiwa early in the picture. Instead Hashimoto tells a compellingly simple story of lost love and poverty. Hashimoto is aware that leaping back and forth in a timeline can remove the audience from the visceral nature of a film, therein he utilizes the technique for its analytical benefits. This absence of narrative gimmickry makes the whole picture come together in a very realistic way.

Another crucial aspect of the picture’s success is Masaki Kobayashi’s tight direction. He takes Hashimoto’s verbose and dense material and turns it into a picture of rich cinematic worth. It’s hard to believe that a script riddled with such pronounced and antiquated dialogue could have so many moments of complete silence – with every scene of exposition comes an equally evocative scene of characters coming face to face with their demons in silent reverence. The placement of Kobayashi’s camera serves to underscore the tension of the picture as well, as he peers in on the action from an angle and from above. When Tsugumo sits in front of Lord Iyi with all the samurai observing the proceedings, Kobayashi positions his shot from above, as if an outside spectator attempting to avoid detection.

Kobayashi subscribes to a very methodical pacing that displays a keen understanding of Hashimoto’s script and a crisp sense of developing tension. There’s a precision to everything involved throughout the film, wherein Kobayashi lingers on scenes and constructs frames with a deeper understanding of their meaning. This is particularly evident in the way he handles a sword fight between Tsugumo and a member of Lord Iyi’s House. Taking place in a dusty and windy environment, Kobayashi choreographs the sequence with such detail, allowing the scene to move slowly and with the utmost realism. The whole sequence functions as a group collaborative, with Kobayashi leading his actors and technicians to create a scene of such palpable tension.

My first time viewing Harakiri was in December of 2008. So moved by the picture, I took the film to my brother, rewatching the picture and exposing him to a piece of subversive cinema that was foreign to both of us. I finally returned to the film earlier this week and was just as riveted by it now as I was then. It’s one of those rare films that have a timeless quality to it. The brutality and honesty that Harakiri evokes is something that can’t easily be forgotten.

The Essential Series: Notorious (1946) & North by Northwest (1959)

The Essential Series

Notorious (1946) & North by Northwest (1959)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The extent in which I can compare Notorious and North by Northwest is that (1) they’re both directed by Alfred Hitchcock, (2) they both star Cary Grant, and (3), they’re both excellent. Having been on a Hitchcock kick as of late, I considered dumping the whole project after being disappointed by Shadow of a Doubt and Saboteur. Thankfully, two gems have revitalized my interest in the director.

Initially, I was a bit worried by Notorious’ patriotic plot elements- there was a sense of overt patriotism that had me concerned that I had another Saboteur on my hands. This was hardly the case, as the notion of patriotism was merely used as a device to bring American agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) and Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) together. Their relationship is beautifully realized, with a superb dramatic element that makes the whole film a joy to watch. Having been employed for a job by the U.S. government due to her notoriety as a loose woman, Alicia attempts to infiltrate the home of a Nazi named Sebastian (Claude Rains). This arouses jealousy from Agent Devlin, who discovers the nature of her job only after he has fallen for her.

The technique that Hitchcock employs is truly impressive. He immerses the audience in a world of such peril and complexity. Alicia recovers a key that she intends on giving to Devlin. In order to keep her new husband’s attention elsewhere, Alicia suggests to Sebastian that the two ought to have a party. Hitchcock positions the camera at a distant staircase, moving it seamlessly to get an overhead view of the party and guests. He continues to move, without a cut, until he reaches the hand of Alicia, which is currently the location of the key. It’s a masterful scene that establishes the how danger, suspense, and anxiety can be allocated to one person in a room.

Of course, what the key opens could hardly be relevant to the point of Notorious. It’s first and foremost a romantic film about lovers who are forced into a scenario that tests their conviction to one another. The trials and tribulations of love is a common thread in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, and can be clearly seen in North by Northwest as well. Whereas Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant are completely aware of each other’s social positions from the onset, only to be surprised later, North by Northwest’s relationship is initially based on deceit.

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) meets with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on a train as he attempts to avoid a barrage of policemen. Currently wanted for murder, Roger keeps his reputation quiet as he lays on the charm. Eve sees through the façade and seduces Roger. Little does Roger know that Eve isn’t all she claims to be. Roger discovers that Eve works for the men who framed him in the first place – betrayed, Roger’s sense of commitment to Eve is tested, much like how Agent Devlin was tested when he discovered that Alicia was marrying Sebastian in Notorious.

The flexibility in perceptions of self is something seemingly exclusive to Hitchcock women. In Notorious, Alicia adjusts her life around the needs of those around her. Similarly, Eve in North by Northwest is actually used by the government. The two women essentially contend with more obstacles than their male counterparts, wherein they are driving the narrative.

Both Notorious and North by Northwest aren’t merely exercises in style and narrative complexities – they’re also extremely entertaining pieces of action filmmaking that serve to immerse the audience in a world unknown to themselves. The grand appeal of Hitchcock films is their sense of relatability – no one needs to be a government agent to understand the palpable scenes of love in Notorious. The fear of a normal man caught up in something much bigger than he is can be felt by anyone. Hitchcock analyzes the most basic human emotions – fear, happiness, love – and simply uses that to catapult us through his narrative.

The Essential Series: Zodiac (2007)

The Essential Series

The Essential Series is merely a way for me to account and write about films that hold a special place in my heart. They are films that I believe display an acute sense of filmmaking that provoke an emotional connection. They are also films that I have seen more than once, thereby giving me a chance to reflect on elements that I may have missed in my initial viewing.

Zodiac (2007)

Directed by David Fincher Screenplay by James Vanderbilt Based on Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked

 

Revisiting Zodiac is rarely an occurrence I plan ahead of time. It’s not a particularly uplifting film, but it’s one that grips me every time I watch it – few movies have such an effect on repeated viewings. There’s always something new to take out of it, making for one of the more rewarding experiences in my collection, and thereby prompting me to give it another viewing.

The notion of a serial killer and the terror he inflicts upon a select few is probably the least interesting way to view the film. This is largely because Fincher and company encapsulate a variety of different perspectives that make for an extremely layered and dense experience. Part police procedural, part thriller, part media study, part character study, Zodiac allows the audience to embrace the controlled chaos. It’s extremely smart in its narrative presentation, as the film’s large cast in introduced and fleshed out in compelling and thought-provoking ways. Take the introduction of Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), an important character to the whole of the narrative; he is not introduced until 30 minutes into the film. With him, he brings the police procedural aspect of the story to the forefront, despite the newspaper media characters (Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery) steering the film’s direction for the past half-hour. The two sides, media and law, meet in such an organic way, serving to highlight the precision of the screenwriting.

Vanderbilt, along with Fincher, illustrates an excellent method of lapsing time, wherein technique and writing flourish to create rich characters. In a restaurant, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is late for his date with Melanie (Chloe Sevigny). A bit absent minded, while still maintaining that straight-man gullibility, Graysmith notes that his friend Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) received an ominous tip that will lead him on the outskirts of San Francisco. As Robert discusses the situation with Melanie, they begin to realize the danger that Paul may be in. Melanie is cautiously fascinated by Robert’s conviction, and decides to take their meal to go as they wait for Paul’s call at Robert’s place. The scene wraps with Paul calling Robert and Melanie, early in the morning, with Melanie admitting that their date was one of the most interesting she has had.

Fast-forward, years into the timeline. Robert is now obsessed with uncovering the mystery of the Zodiac. Like Avery, one can trace a similar downtrodden trajectory for Robert. And again, like Avery, Robert’s sense of time and space is disjointed. He has a meeting set with handwriting expert Sherwood Morrill (Philip Baker Hall), and is unaware of the distance between the two. Melanie, now his wife, makes him aware of that fact. As their relationship deteriorates under Robert’s growing obsession, Melanie recalls that first date – it was the date that never ended.

All this, of course, serves to highlight how the film is not focused on the murders themselves. Fincher instead uses Gyllenhaal in his most effective role. He’s obsessive, yes, but also grounded by emotions that are relatable to anyone. The sense of being close to something, to uncovering the truth about something mythical, is the sort of emotional pull that Fincher and Gyllenhaal effectively convey.

Harry Savides’ gorgeous cinematography is not merely icing on the cake, but an absolutely necessary component to creating the film’s incredibly foreboding atmosphere. Savides has displayed a keen knack for shooting California in interesting and eclectic ways – from the hazy Los Angeles in the recent Greenberg to the dimly-lit San Francisco in Zodiac. Interestingly enough, my favorite example of Savides’ technical prowess in Zodiac is in a scene that takes place indoors. Graysmith, believing to be on the cusp of retrieving proof regarding the Zodiac’s identity, meets with Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer) – a confidant of the suspected. Here, the writing, visuals, and direction blend into the wickedly suspenseful. Graysmith follows Vaughn into his basement to retrieve posters that may have the Zodiac’s writing on it. Earlier in the film, we discover that the Zodiac has a basement – basements being a rarity in the California region during the time period. The suspense simmers. The basement is dimly lit, with a storm going on outside that makes every sound reverberate. Vaughn is positioned under one of the few lights in the basement. Graysmith distances himself, realizing that the situation could be more than he bargained for. The storm creates the illusion of foot-steps, Vaughn’s face is barely viewable in the dim lighting, and the fear escalates. So much going on in one scene, all brought together by writing and technique.

The attention to detail, the precision in filmmaking, and the fascinating approach to its already compelling subject matter is enough to make Zodiac a film worthy of praise. The film did not get the attention it ought to have received (it was a minor box office success, making barely enough to cover its budget), nor did it receive acclaim for larger awards bodies. But as I look back on it, rewatching the film every once in a while, I get wrapped up in what it provides – a compelling story with fleshed out characters and the technical prowess to complete the package.