Saturday, May 29, 2010

RIP Dennis Hopper

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954) -- A

If subversion of genre expectations has been the undercurrent of Ray's previous films, Johnny Guitar makes it explicit, hybridizing the western, noir, technicolor melodrama, street film, and the woman's film into a rollicking whole, functioning simultaneously as an unbridled, cerebral entertainment and allegorical social drama about mob mentality. Transporting Fritz Lang's Fury (1936) into a western setting, but layering the set-up with backstory, past relationships and unspoken motives galore, Ray meshes what could be an ungainly mess into a significant whole.

Though Ray's film uses various generic elements, one would be remiss to call his work a pastiche. It isn't what's become known as a "mash-up," since that term refers to post-modernist headaches concerned only with genre and form, using its characters almost as an afterthought. In the presence of these differing genres are magnificently drawn characters, nearly a dozen, all fitted with actual ideological viewpoints and complex psychologies.

Upon the promise of railroad expansion, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) is summoned to a small saloon on the outskirts of town, run by Vienna (Joan Crawford), a former singer-turned-owner. Johnny carries no guns, just a guitar slung over his shoulder. Ray shoots these opening scenes with Fordian precision, revealing just enough information through the mise-en-scene to keep the narrative afloat. Guitar's distant witnessing of a stagecoach robbery signals the later arrival of the townsfolk, to investigate a murder during the robbery. Headed by the Marshall, a rancher (Ward Bond), and the dead man's high-strung sister Emma Small (Mercedes McCambride). They want Vienna out of town, because they believe she's in cahoots with the suspected murderers, headed by the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady).

In terms of aforementioned genres, everything is present through dialogue, humor or mise-en-scene. Confronted by the mob in her own saloon, Vienna warns, standing at the top of a staircase a la Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), "all you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head." Johnny's maxim, that all a man needs is a cigarette and a cup of coffee echoes noir's glistening streets (Hayden would star in Kubrick's The Killing just two years later), as does his line "I'm a stranger here myself," which Ray adopted from Ogden Nash's poem as an autobiographical summarization of his place in the film industry. In later scenes of a mob hellbent on any kind of vigilante justice, the social drama of previous decades is explicitly referenced. Moreover, intimate scenes between Vienna and Johnny, revealing a previous love affair from five years earlier, engage in the kind of love melodrama deftly present in They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground. Here's purely Nic Ray dialogue:

JOHNNY
How many men have you forgotten?

VIENNA
As many women as you've remembered.

The incongruity reflects Jean-Luc Godard's claim that "the cinema is Nicholas Ray." Godard meant that Ray's films encompass so many different elements: theater, poetry, painting, dance, music. No wonder Godard cherished a director who so feverishly broke the rules, not afraid to go well beyond the bounds of expectation. A haunting guitar hook recurs throughout, capped by a song to end the film. This can be seen as the direct reference in Godard's Band of Outsiders (1964), where the trio of main characters get up from sipping their coffee and dance. Ray's influence stretches far and it's mainly because his best films have a seemingly unending strand of ideas and visual fascination. Johnny Guitar is certainly one of them.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Criterion # 14: Spine # 506: DILLINGER IS DEAD (Marco Ferreri, 1969)

Listen carefully during the wordy opening scene of Marco Ferreri's Dillinger is Dead. Not only does it make up 75% of the dialogue for the entire film, but it serves as a rudimentary analysis of the events that follow, though the words' accuracy are left open to interpretation. What's not debatable, though, is the remarkable vigor Ferreri infuses into what is essentially a one act play, bookended by brief, exterior scenes. The film could easily stiffen or quickly become tedious. On the contrary, Ferreri uses malaise, alienation, and boredom to captivate. Comparable to some of Antonioni's best films in theme, though differing in execution, it's visual poetry with socio-political implications.

Glauco (Michel Piccoli) makes gas masks. One of his associates remarks on the metaphor of the mask, citing how man's current state resembles that of the gas chamber, having to wear a mask to survive. Remaining silent, Glauco leaves for his cluttered apartment, where magazines, food, and several women are scattered throughout. The women remain in bed, leaving Glauco to his mischievous activities. This includes cooking and listening to music, but mostly tampering with a gun, found wrapped in newspaper clippings of John Dillinger's exploits. The film's focus turns to the gun and its significance or, to be more exact, Clauco's fascination with it.

Ferreri demonstrates total control over both the material and mise-en-scene; Clauco's anomie is facilitated by never-ending sources of noise and information; the TV and stereo rarely stop playing, providing much of the film's ambiance, since Clauco appears relatively ambivalent about anything he does. He's a sort-of chipper nihilist, always with a faint smile on his face, though seemingly detached from any sense of moral or cultural purpose. His profession is an act of paradoxical self-effacement, since he seeks to preserve life, though he's certainly misanthropic. He requires constant stimulation, watching a bizarrely exhilarating home video of bullfighting while cleaning his gun. He mimics the events like a child, reacting purely through consciousness and instinct.

Clauco's detachment necessarily leads to violence. His actions throughout and the turn to dispassionate murder recall the opening words about alienation, though one gets the sense after having seen the words acted out, it may be even more complicated and deeply rooted than words can illustrate. As a tour-de-force of cinematic control and a frightening suggestion of humanity's inherent inclination towards destruction, both of others and the self, Ferreri's film is chocked full of searing imagery, complex ideas, and culturally imperative themes.