Sunday, September 27, 2009

"The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz" (1955)

Perfect films are something of a quirk; they can be perfect while arousing no grand sympathies or emotions. I know of a few perfect films I would never consider 'great' films, and I know quite a lot of great films that are resoundingly imperfect or imbalanced.

Ensayo de un crimen, as it is known in spanish, or in english, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, is a perfect film. It has no pretension of being a great film: but that is who Bunuel is. He is a master because he never prefigures the duration of a film's significance; he is a workhorse because his sole concern with making films is the chance to make them. A few florid jolts of laughter suffice to put an absurd scenario into play. The excitement in making a film for him is the same excitement a drinker feels for a fresh shot of fine bourbon or scotch: because it's the next one. But Bunuel sits apart from other directors equally prolific because his wit far exceeds their conceits: the glory of Bunuel is the impeccability of his taste. It is impossible for him to make a worthless film; his films promise at any moment a scene of insight so disarming or humor so corrosive that often their plots are set up to introduce a single poignant comment on society, the human condition, and their incongruities. The characters are sacrificed, sans ceremony, to the mirth of the audience.

But Ensayo de un crimen is perfect because its script is perfect: the film exists, like Hitchcock's films, for reason of its story. I do not know of a more perfect opening for a film than this one. The protagonist, Archibaldo de la Cruz, opens the offscreen narration for us, as we gaze at hands flipping the pages of a photo book of the Mexican Revolution. Archibaldo tells us of his early childhood in the midst of the Revolution, that he grew up privileged in a stately home, the only child of a wealthy family. The scene shows us the home, and inside the home, an electric train set inside young Archibaldo's room, as it speeds along. Archibaldo, here a boy of about 10, is tended to by a comely young governess, who disapproves of his spoiled nature. Archibaldo's mother comes in and promises to give the boy a porcelain music box to play with if he behaves well (there are subtle hints that the boy -- and the man who grows up later -- is effeminate). The governess is obliged by the boy's mother to entertain the boy with the tale of the music box. The governess explains that the box has magical powers and has the power to kill anyone the person who winds it up thinks of at the moment. Outside the window noises of gunshots are heard, and we learn that revolutionary rebels are invading the peaceful town and seeking to pillage it. The governess, startled by the noise, stops her tale and goes to look out the window. The boy, thrilled by the story and the prospect of its being true, goes over to the music box and winds it, and immediately casts his eye on the governess, intending that she should die. Suddenly a stray bullet hits her through the window, and she falls dead. The excited boy walks over and, much to his morbid delight, sees her neck bloodied, and her smooth black-stockinged legs exposed. The image, both perverse and erotic, stays fixed in the boy's mind, and he becomes convinced that the music box holds power that he alone possesses.

The scene then switches to the image of another lovely woman's face, this time a nun, and we quickly ascertain that Archibaldo -- now grown -- was not speaking to us (as narrator) but to the nun (in character), and we see him stretched on a hospital bed, describing the dark urge he's held since childhood to murder. The nun, astounded by the story, decides to cut her time with him short, and goes off to bring his medicine. While she's gone, Archibaldo takes out a case of pocket knives from the bedside drawer, selects one, then sneaks over to the door in surprise for the nun. When the nun comes in, he brandishes the knife and coolly professes that he will kill her, whereupon she rushes out, only to find an accidental death by falling down an open elevator shaft. The scene then switches over a third time to a police headquarters, where the chief of police and a resident doctor discuss the strange matter of the nun's death at the sanatorium. The doctor leaves after answering questions on the character and sanity of the patient (he reveals that Archibaldo was a patient at the sanatorium because he felt depressed by the recent death of his wife), and the chief of police requests that Archibaldo, waiting for an interrogation, walk in. Archibaldo, cool as ever, brazenly declares that not only is he the nun's murderer, but he's killed many more before her. The incredulous chief, who can't take the dandyish man seriously, asks Archibaldo to explain what he means. Thereupon the film goes back in time again, this time entering the main plotline, consisting of the the events that lead up to Archibaldo's marriage and his wife's death.

The scenarios that follow are just as ingenious as the thrice-enfolded setup. That Archibaldo is a failed would-be murderer from whom fate robs the fantasy of its perverse eros is the soul of the joke at play, the humor of which is never lost on the great prankster himself, Bunuel.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"You, the Living" (2007)

In that symbolic year of 2000, at the turn of the present century, Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor was released. Andersson, virtually unknown to the rest of the world outside of Europe, had earlier enjoyed high praise for his first feature-length, A Swedish Love Story (1970); but his second film, Giliap (1975), flopped badly and lost a considerable amount of money for its producers. Andersson was forced to retreat to making television commercials to sustain himself, a stint that lasted nearly 25 years. During that period, Andersson directed hundreds and hundreds of commercials, an endeavor that resulted in his being named the greatest commercial director of his time; the commercial period served as a kind of apprenticeship for the director, since he learned to craft ingenious 30 second narratives by limiting visual data to the utterly necessary, a technique that he adapted for use in Songs from the Second Floor. The success of that film owes much to the years of practice Andersson undertook in budgeting and producing commercials for those companies that insisted upon visual (and cost-effective) efficiency.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Los Olvidados" (1950)

Los Olvidados: the landmark film that capitalized on Bunuel's absorption of the italian neorealist wave, particularly de Sica's films, and most notably Shoeshine. Direct comparisons can be made to Shoeshine, in plot and pace; but not so much in pathos: it is Bunuel's work that advances the central idea to its brink -- that poverty is not as horrid to children as that they are unloved and forgotten in its squalid alleyways and gloomy shanties -- and in doing so, breaks the story of any sentimental echo, creating a fundamental disorder in the accepted notions of damaged childhoods. This, then, is no Slumdog Millionaire; here there be wolves. Removed from ideas of the purely good and from the facile definitions of evil, the typical dichotomy of hope/hopelessness is shattered, and a stone bursts the head of a bloodied forgotten boy. A sanity of observation takes place, in which we participate not as voyeurs, nor as document-readers, but as witnesses to the spiritual life of homeless orphans. We are impelled toward action of some kind, yet the film resonates so strongly, so soberly in the perception of manic atrocities, that we are enjoined only to listen, watch, and desire incompatible realities. (Bunuel's old trick: to allow us to hallucinate, even within documentarian scapes, worlds that only reckless dreams conjure.) A dichotomy, like that of Gerard de Nerval's "dream/life" -- a division like that of the madness that bests the angels who witness the unchecked injustice that daily hounds the meek and the unfortunate and the violent and the corrupt alike: we see that the young boy did not steal the knife he is accused of stealing, an object which he helped give shape to with pride, and that no one believes him because he is low-born and his face is dirty, and that even his own mother disowns him; we see that his friend, El Jaibo -- a mere boy, but a thief, a killer of sheep and men -- lies with the boy's mother, and that his mother bore him as a bastard and coldly dismisses him from her sight. Here the command is to pay attention to the injustice at hand, to see the regularly unseeable, to remember the impossibly memorable. We are entrusted not to judge, but to internalize...
Los Olviados don't exist; they are dead souls, but we see them and their ruthlessness, their leprous laughter, their dead-tired talk, their raw meat nightmares, in the camera's invisible domain: they walk the streets unnoticed by the street vendors, the stray dogs, the business-minded busy-body suits who pretend they are on Madison Avenue and not in a swap meet where blind lechers sing of the storied days of Porfirio Diaz. Who among the thirsty and the starving are unblemished, innocent, entirely blameless? Who among the champions of law and righteousness are not merciless dictators -- psychic terrorists -- over those who have no choice but to break those laws that bind them to either starvation or shame?
(The film is brutal: because those we are led to believe we hate: subject us to pity; and those we believe we trust: turn out vicious: depraved: and craven.)
A film as lean and structurally perfect as anything I've laid eyes on; a film that demonstrates once and for all that Bunuel is not just a master of surrealism, but also a master of synchronicity; a master of extreme, torrid, unromanticized realism. Thus: Los Olvidados may be Bunuel's finest work because it is the most improbable, the most surprising in his case; we know from Las Hurdes that he was capable of unflinching realism, but never had we thought that in so felicitous a fictional structure as this -- in which parts and whole disappear in the liquid exposure of his universalized, particularized, thesis -- could he achieve such allegorical brutality;  a film made when he was still youthful with ideas -- that is, when he was still prone, at least, to serious reflection as to why the ills of the world should exist -- and therefore in a state of idealism comparable to those who would write pamphlets on the feeding of the five thousand; when he was as yet fresh off the heels of his european triumph and pedigree, established mainly by the two films that settled his reputation as a scholar of the subconscious territories -- Un chien andalou and L'age d'or -- when he had conquered the Old World; and when he had set out to the New World -- to New York, and then to Los Angeles, and finally to Mexico City -- when he set out to set more crooked -- rather, to congest the not crooked enough -- the latin american -- specifically the mexican -- mindscape, he circumscribed the heart of the metropolis where poverty and gold were found encrusted on the same leaden walls -- and in the glass reflections of department store windows -- that children licked for sustenance and moisture or out of soul-destructive boredom; and he demonstrated that a true surrealist -- a surrealist who took his bomb raids on reality for acts of charity -- must also be a poignant realist, a human mind in deep communion with the cruelties of accident and fate at work with each other, cross-grained and inescapable. If the world order is one devoid of humor, let it be injected with the blade's fulsome smile. If the mother is a whore, then let the son be a murderer. If the friend sleeps with the mother, let him assassinate his friend too. Is there not enough perverse mystery in these harsh collations? Bunuel's genius is that he allows the Real to speak on its own terms, stripped of its ideologues, stripped even of analogues to ethical formalities.
One final note: I suspect that the dream sequence, exceptional even in Bunuel's case, inspired Tarkovsky's rendition of the Dreams of the Mother in Mirror. We see the starving boy (Pedro) dream that his mother, who acts coldly with her bastard son in daily life, acts sweetly and motherly to him, brings him in her hands a raw chunk of steak that the boy eagerly takes in his mitts; but underneath his bed lies the dark freudian shape of the boy's friend -- the implacable Jaibo -- who lunges out upon seeing the meat drip blood on the floor and fights with Pedrito over it, while phantom chickens fly upwards, like spectres startled from the ground (in a slow-motion video reversal), feathering the air with white plumes; and the boys fight with and thrash the white fluff pillows, uncontainable rage, and the pillows burst and feather the air too, like chickens battered by a baseball bat; and the mother -- just as in dreams that switch insidiously, instantly, from pleasure to outright fear -- walks away from the scene of their struggle, oblivious of the monstrous worm that aches in both boys' hearts and entrails, the demon of hunger that nibbles away at their stunted manhood, and eats at the seeds of a moral life that they can only hint at in dreams, but which in life is denied them; for even in dreams do they fight over food, never to eat of it, neither the plate nor the knife, nor the soul that shrivels as it cannibalizes its own flesh...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Portraits of Friends - 4

for Edgar
Betwixt us, the milk of dragons
& our soft speech that ossified in notebooks,
enamel-plumed by bird-torn bookmarks.
I remember in your Shelley
the ugly torpid feather you left on Mutability,
still there, unchanged from youth's white-egg,
page 562. In the makeshift
room you made of the bed in back
of your darkblue pickup cab, you cracked
eggs and dunked 'em down your throat.
Protein & Shelley, for weeks.
We convened at McDonald's &
made the best of a 1st encounter.
Chicken nugs & our woman-born
love of women. 'Twas always beautee
that brought us twain. A stench of meat
can't cheapen inborn inflorescence.

Surreptitious, you glimpsed me a precious few
bone-sculpted verses, the 1st but not
the last time 'round, tuskwhite convolutions.
A poacher with even your own goods.
If you'd been stark-fleshed then, beloved &
crowned by appeals, with magnetic poles
charging up your limbs, the eyes that looked out
like famished sunstones, were still weary, incantatory.
Nat Shermans in pocket, the plaid habit of a pensioner,
& the invisible ebony-carved cane of the filadelfian,
Weston Loomis, in your clenched patriot's hand.

A dragon hither, its bitter milk a draught
from the ruined World, brought us composure
when we drank but sometimes too, demonios.
So go the war & peaceability of mesoamericans,
that in our blood was the peace of war, and the study
of arms & Man: the songs that were yours were mine.
The breath that you spoke, I spoke too, the storied
conradian english of converts. Masculine and knuckled.
(The ephebe would not have queried the congenital
amorous kiln from which his rhythm returned a vase.)
Hailed by thieves the vagabond purloins mass geographies
from Proserpina's thigh; drinks from hebraic pearly chalices.
So often we drank from these mutual cups, unpossessing
of what we owned, or what we grateful offered.

If the dragon sundered us, divided our wares &
dispersed the careful-ranged hoard we shared,
regardless, the river Thames ran softly 'long, &
still flows on; atop the cliffs of Crete the bullroarers
pursue their feats, and snug in Quauhtitlan
hides the unknown quantity of the Quetzal ribbon.
These and other realms open to us at all times,
who would not choose to perish "in hot rain,
loved widely by women"? We'd have our hearts
& divagations cleave like ire & pulque, course
the circuits of the world's lengthened technics
like mud, flesh, & earthly attire. Times past
are not times gone. Who so loved the Brave
New Earth, & its union, "when earth and we
were without the toil of burning in the dark,"
the enlightened hour, its Monticello, and Mister
Adams, and the excellencies that renounced
the future shock of glib contemporaneity,
was no demagogue at heart but worse:
a Poet. A legislator who learned how to mint
Pounds from gold & not the phantom credit
contra naturam, therewith 'no man hath
a house of good stone,' nor the rubrick for feed.

But you trudged through the fundamental dross
of an implosive nation, trusting of its trust, &
retooling the cabinets of speech for substantial
redress. Those fields we farmed you revisit,
digging into the cavities and undergrowth
of graveyards that men are wiser for studying dogs'
tread, unafraid to snoop the remains of better blues,
black goat blood-fed souls who speak; & even further:
the seeds of the mācēhualli, the tecolote's eye,
which gazes on what the wind lists to usher...
'And then went down, you, to the ship...'


So lurked he who had effaced himself,
whose work loomed where his corpus
once lounged, heaved up from seasmoke:
the Nao in its wake leaves no trace,
New-World-bound, Atlantean-tongued.

Friday, September 4, 2009

"Inglourious Basterds" (2009)

Juvenilia as art has usually worked in the favor of cinephiles like Tarantino, who base their efforts on an aesthetics of pastiche, referentiality, and prepackaged iconography. Juvenilia -- I mean intellectualized juvenilia -- manages to make quick clever use of an increasing variety of terms, styles, and imagery to convey, sometimes insipidly, sometimes ingeniously, the relevancy of the pop world to high art. The popular culture derives its components from iconic representations -- 'archetypes' if you will -- of certain ineluctably superficial attitudes to, and spirits informing, the over-informed life, the life vested in polyphony: Marilyn Monroe will represent both classical beauty and pornography, she is the ageless Venus, clothed, unclothed; Chaplin embodies the soldier of humor, he is wit's walking shadow; Hitler, no longer a living breathing imperfect man real to us as he had been flesh-and-blood to the people -- now among us the dead -- who loved and hated him, has ballooned into a caricature of unmitigated evil; he may as well carry three 6s tattooed under his shaved armpit to complete the portrait. It is no use to think of these personages as anything but the single-term icons they evoke: like household gods and demons -- however complex their ontological histories may be -- they are present to us only when we invoke them by their vocation, their specific and singular attributes. We will gladly masturbate to Marilyn, and dream of blowing to bits Adolph's grim visage. The juvenile mind has the nearly religious capacity to invoke all the known gods at a whim -- or the One God in a prayer -- because the aged child's mind is more so credulous than skeptical (skepticism being the first -- though not the last -- sign of maturity, of discernment). The juvenile mind is more prone to excited worship than agnosticism, and it puts up posters of its rock stars, sports heroes, and pop idols on the walls of the room in which it plays, alone and satisfied, with the toys of thoughtful infancy. (I envision young cerebral Quentin making machine-gun sounds with his mouth, as he tumbles the figurine of Skeletor with his hand, a poster of Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly looking imperiously above him.)