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Mulholland Dr.

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It’s well known that David Lynch‘s “Mulholland Dr.” was assembled from the remains of a cancelled TV series, with the addition of some additional footage filmed later. That may be taken by some viewers as a way to explain the film’s fractured structure and lack of continuity. I think it’s a delusion to imagine a “complete” film lurking somewhere in Lynch’s mind — a ghostly Director’s Cut that exists only in his original intentions. The film is openly dreamlike, and like most dreams it moves uncertainly down a path with many turnings.

It seems to be the dream of Betty (Naomi Watts), seen in the first shots sprawled on a bed. It continues with the story of how Betty came to Hollywood and how she ended up staying in the apartment of her aunt, but if we are within a dream there is no reason to believe that on a literal level. It’s as likely she only dreams of getting off a flight from Ontario to Los Angeles, being wished good luck by the cackling old couple who met her on the plane, and arriving by taxi at the apartment. Dreams cobble their contents from the materials at hand, and although the old folks turn up again at the end of the film their actual existence may be problematic.

The movie seems seductively realistic in several opening scenes however, as an ominous film noir sequence shows a beautiful woman in the back seat of a limousine on Mulholland Drive — that serpentine road that coils along the spine of the hills separating the city from the San Fernando Valley. The limo pulls over, the driver pulls a gun and orders his passenger out of the car, and just then two drag-racing hot rods hurtle into view and one of them strikes the limo, killing the driver and his partner. The stunned woman (Laura Elena Herring) staggers into some shrubbery and starts to climb down the hill — first crossing Franklin Dr., finally arriving at Sunset. Still hiding in shrubbery, she sees a woman leaving an apartment to get into a taxi, and she sneaks into the apartment and hides under a table.

Who is she? Let’s not get ahead of her. The very first moments of the film seemed like a bizarre montage from a jitterbug contest on a1950s TV show, and the hotrods and their passengers visually link with that. But people don’t dress like jitterbuggers and drag race on Mulholland at the time of the film (the 1990s), not in now-priceless antique hot rods, and the crash seems to have elements imported from an audition, perhaps, that will later be made much of.

I won’t further try your patience with more of this mix-and-match. Dreams need not make sense, I am not Freud, and at this point in the film it’s working perfectly well as a film noir. They need not make sense, either. Conventional movie cops turn up, investigate, and disappear for the rest of the film. Betty discovers the woman from Mulholland taking a shower in her aunt’s apartment and demands to know who she is. The woman sees a poster of Rita Hayworth in “Gilda” on the wall and replies, “Rita.” She claims to have amnesia. Betty now responds with almost startling generosity, deciding to help “Rita” discover her identity, and in a smooth segue the two women bond. Indeed, before long they’re helping each other sneak into apartment #17. Lynch has shifted gears from a film noir to a much more innocent kind of crime story, a Nancy Drew mystery. When they find the decomposing corpse in #17, however, that’s a little more detailed than Nancy Drew’s typical discoveries.

What I’ve been doing is demonstrating the way “Mulholland Dr.” affects a lot of viewers. They start rehearsing the plot to themselves, hoping that if they retrace their steps they can determine where they are and how they got there. This movie doesn’t work that way. Each step has a way of being like an open elevator door with no elevator inside.

Unsatisfied by my understanding of the film, I took it to an audience that hadn’t failed me for 30 years. At the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I did my annual routine: Showing a title on Monday afternoon, and then sifting through it a scene at a time, sometimes a shot at a time, for the next four afternoons. It drew a full house, and predictably a lot of readings and interpretations. Yet even my old friend who was forever finding everything to be a version of Homer’s Odyssey was uncertain this time.

I gave my usual speech about how you can’t take an interpretation to a movie. You have to find it there already. No consensus emerged about what we had found. It was a tribute to Lynch that the movie remained compulsively watchable while refusing to yield to interpretation. The most promising direction we tried was to delineate the boundaries of the dreams(s) and the identities of the dreamer(s).

That was an absorbing exercise, but then consider the series of shots in which the film loses focus and then the women’s faces begin to merge. I was reminded of Bergman’s “Persona,” also a film about two women. At a point when one deliberately causes an injury to the other, the film seems to catch on fire in the projector. The screen goes black, and then the film starts again with images from the earliest days of silent film. What is Bergman telling us? Best to start over again? What is Lynch telling us? Best to abandon the illusion that all of this happens to two women, or within two heads?

What about the much-cited lesbian scenes? Dreams? We all have erotic dreams, but they are more likely inspired by desires than experiences, and the people in them may be making unpaid guest appearances. What about the film’s material involving auditions? Those could be stock footage in any dream by an actor. The command about which actress to cast? That leads us around to the strange little man in the wheelchair, issuing commands. Would anyone in the film’s mainstream have a way of knowing such a figure existed?

And what about the whatever-he-is who lurks behind the diner? He fulfills the underlying purpose of Lynch’s most consistent visual strategy in the film. He loves to use slow, sinister sideways tracking shots to gradually peek around corners. There are a lot of those shots in the aunt’s apartment. That’s also the way we sneak up to peek around the back corner of the diner. When that figure pops into view, the timing is such that you’d swear he knew someone — or the camera — was coming. It’s a classic BOO! moment and need not have the slightest relationship to anything else in the film.

David Lynch loves movies, genres, archetypes and obligatory shots. “Mulholland Drive” employs the conventions of film noir in a pure form. One useful definition of noirs is that they’re about characters who have committed a crime or a sin, are immersed with guilt, and fear they’re getting what they eserve. Another is that they’ve done nothing wrong, but it nevertheless certainly appears as if they have.

The second describes Hitchcock’s favorite plot, the Innocent Man Wrongly Accused. The first describes the central dilemma of “Mulholland Dr.” Yet it floats in an uneasy psychic space, never defining who sinned. The film evokes the feeling of noir guilt while never attaching to anything specific. A neat trick. Pure cinema.

This film is streaming on Netflix Instant. Also in my Great Movies Collection: “Persona.”

You can comment under my related blog post on the film, here.

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The Life of Oharu

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Here is the saddest film I have ever seen about the life of a
woman. It begins on a chill dawn when the heroine wanders, her face behind a
fan, until encountering some of her fellow prostitutes. “It’s hard for a
50-year-old women to pass as 20,” she observes. She says it has been a
slow night: She was only picked up by an old man, who took her into a candlelit
room filled with young men. “Look at this painted face!” he told
them. “Do you still want to buy a woman?” To be held up as a moral
spectacle is a cruel fate for a woman who has been treated immorally almost
every day of her life, and who has always behaved as morally as it was within
her power to do.

The
women find a friend who has built a fire, and huddle around it. “I heard
you served at the palace,” another prostitute says. “What has led to
your ruin?” Saying “do not ask about my past,” she walks away
from them and wanders into a Buddhist temple. One of the images of the Buddha
dissolves into the face of a young man, and then a flashback begins that will
tell Oharu’s life from near the beginning.

Her
life is the fate in microcosm of many Japanese women for centuries, in a
society ruled by a male hierarchy. Kenji Mizoguchi, its director, was as
sympathetic with women as any of his contemporaries, even Ozu, who whom he is
often ranked. He made prostitutes a frequent subject, as in his “Street of
Shame” (1956). He was known to frequent brothels, not simply to purchase
favors, but to socialize with their workers; it made a great impression on him
that his own sister, Suzo, who raised him, was sold by their father as a
geisha. The same thing happens to Oharu in this film.

The
character is played by Kinuyo Tanaka, who appeared in 14 of his films, and this
one, made in 1952, helped redirect her career from early years as in ingénue
toward more challenging roles. One of her strengths as Oharu is her success at
playing the same character over a period of 30 years.

As
Oharu’s flashback begins, we learn she was born in respectable circles, and was
a lady in waiting at the court when she and a young page (Toshiro Mifune) fell
in love. This was forbidden, the page was condemned to death, and Oharu and his
family were exiled. Her father never forgives her for this, and indeed after
the scandal she becomes unmarriagable in respectable circles. There is a brief
respite when he is able to sell her as a concubine into the household of Lord
Matsudaira. Her duty there is to bear him an heir, which she does, but then is
coldly sent back into poverty and prostitution. Her father, who now considers
her entirely in terms of her wage-earning ability, sells her as a courtesan, at
which she balks, and finally sells her into service as a maid to a lady who
uses elaborate wigs to conceal from her husband that she is half-bald. She
loses this job because one of her employer’s customers recognizes her from the
shimabara (red-light district) and makes crude jokes which reveal her
background.

Now
comes a deceptive respite from her misery. She meets a nice man, a maker of
fans, and settles in peacefully, but he is killed. She receives no legacy. In a
convent, she tells the superior she wanted none: “All I want is to be a
nun and be near to Buddha.” In the convent, there is an ambiguous scene. A
man who knew her comes to demand repayment for a gift of cloth she was given,
and in a fury she strips off her clothing and hurls it at him. Her nudity is
reflected only in the man’s eye, but the discovery of this event leads to her
banishment from the convent.

All
of this time she dreams of seeing the son she gave birth to, but when this
finally happens she is allowed only to get a glimpse of him sweeping past as a
grand man, oblivious to her existence. That brings us back to her current life,
as a cold, hungry, unsuccessful prostitute.

Although
a good deal of the film is shot in a straightforward way, some of it from Ozu’s
favorite the point of view of a person seated on a tatami mat, Oharu is often
seen from a high-angle view well above eye level. In camera grammar this tends
to diminish and objectify the subject, and Oharu increasingly comes to seem
less like an autonomous character and more like a subject for study–and pity.

“As
the story goes,” the superior told her on arrival at the convent,
“the morning’s pretty face is a corpse by evening.”

The
story as I have outlined it sounds like a lurid melodrama, but “Life of
Oharu” studiously avoids taking advantage of the sensational aspects of
her life. It is all told as a sad memory of fate, and paced by Mizoguchi to
avoid any sensational story climaxes. His attentive use of period locations,
costumes and rituals makes his heroine’s experiences more like enactments of a
ritual. A great deal of the story’s pathos comes from the fact that no one
except Oharu knows the whole of her life history; she is judged from the
outside as an immoral and despicable women, and we realize this is no more than
the role society has cast her in, and forces her to play.

We
watch the film in disbelief. Surely no women could have such misery thrust upon
her through no fault of her own? Mizoguchi makes no attempt to portray any male
character–even the father–as a self-aware villain. The men behave within the
boundaries set for them and expected of them by the traditions of their
society. Even the fan maker does so, but because of the independence given him
by his occupation, society allows him more choice–or perhaps simply doesn’t
care.

Kenji
Mizoguchi (1898-1956) is today named as one of the three greatest Japanese
directors, along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Kurosawa, considered the
most “western” by the Japanese, was the first to gain world wide
fame, with such readily accessible films as “Rashomon,” “The
Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo.” Ozu was considered “too Japanese,”
until the critic Donald Richie famously took a group of his films to the Venice
Film Festival, and found, as he expected, that they had a universal appeal. (My
feeling is that the more specific a film is, the more widely it may be
understood).

Mizoguchi
won Western praise earlier than Ozu. His “Ugetsu Monogatari” (1953)
won the Venice Film Festival, and twice appeared on Sight & Sound
magazine’s ten-yearly poll of the greatest films of all time, which pointed me
to him in the early 1970s. But it was “Life of Oharu” that he considered
his best film, perhaps because it drew from roots in his own life.

The
most influential Western writing on Mizoguchi is an essay by Robert Cohen
titled “Why Does Oharu Faint?” The British critic who signs as
“Kubla Khan” writes of it: “Oharu faints thrice in ‘The Life of
Oharu,’ and on all occasions, wakes up feeling kinder and more forgiving… Cohen
says that Oharu’s spiritual transcendence is gained after ‘she abandons her
gender identity and sexuality,’ and in a sense, her victory is only
pyrrhic.” He adds that is “is far more interesting and appealing than
any spiritual excuse that could account for how Oharu has become a saintly
character and her fainting spell at the beginning and in the end is more a
physical and psychological surrender to the awful life that she has lead till
then.”

Years
before the rise of feminism in the West, the great directors of Japan were
obsessed with the lives of women in their society. No woman in a Japanese film
that I have seen is more tragic and unforgettable than Oharu.

The film’s Criterion edition is streaming on Hulu Plus. It can
be viewed in in nine parts via non-Criterion but quite good edition on YouTube.
Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu” and “Sansho the Bailiff” are also
written about in my Great Movies Collection, which includes many titles by Ozu
and Kurosawa.

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Cléo from 5 to 7

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In France, the afternoon hours from five to seven are known as the hours when lovers meet. On this afternoon, nothing could be further from Cleo’s mind than sex. She is counting out the minutes until she learns the results from tests she believes will tell her she is dying from cancer. Agnes Varda‘s “Cleo from 5 to 7″ is 90 minutes long, but its clock seems to tick along with Cleo’s.

Varda is sometimes referred to as the godmother of the French New Wave. I have been guilty of that myself. Nothing could be more unfair. Varda is its very soul, and only the fact that she is a woman, I fear, prevented her from being routinely included with Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer and for that matter her husband Jacques Demy. The passage of time has been kinder to her films than some of theirs, and “Cléo from 5 to 7″ plays today as startlingly modern. Released in 1962, it seems as innovative and influential as any New Wave film.

Cléo (Corinne Marchand) is a fresh-faced, perky young pop singer who has yet to experience great fame, although she has a few songs on the radio and on juke boxes. Wandering into a cafe, she plays one of her songs and we overhead a woman complaining to her table companion about the “noise.” I don’t know if Cléo hears that, even if we do. One of the devices in the film is to note the casual conversations of other Parisians that take place near Cléo as she passes her time. In another cafe, two lovers are breaking up, for example.

There is something psychologically accurate about this. When you fear your death is near, you become aware of other people in a new way. Yes, you think of the others, you think your life is going on its merry way, but think of me–I have to die. Cléo’s awareness of that deepens a film that is otherwise about mostly trivial events.

She begins at 5 p.m, for example, by visiting a reader of the Tarot deck. The cards are seen in color in an otherwise b&w film. We aren’t Tarot readers, but they look alarming to us. The Hanged Man and Death make their ominous appearances, and the Tarot reader reassures Cléo, as such readers always do, that the cards “can mean many things.” Later, when Cléo asks for her palm to be read, the reader looks at it and says, “I don’t read palms.” Not a good sign. Cléo seems a shallow enough woman that these portents depress her.

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Wandering through Paris accompanied by her maid, she stops in a hat shop and tries on many hats, which are reflected back at her in countless mirrors. Which look will she adopt for the moment? It is a summer day, and yet she chooses a black fur hat, which crowns her head as a storm warning.

Cléo and the maid return to her apartment, which contains a piano, a bed, two tussling kittens and a lot of empty space. She occupies the bed as a sort of throne, and receives her lover (José Luis de Vilallonga) in a scene that for both of them is clearly more ceremony than passion. One meets one’s lover between 5 and 7? Very well then, they will behave as expected. Also in attendance is Bob, her rehearsal pianist, played by Michel Legrand, the film’s composer.

It is clear in her behavior with lover and pianist that Cléo is enacting a superficial pop heroine, an inconsequential and trivial young women, all style and pose. The two kittens, which Varda somehow succeeds in including within the frame, are like props in a silly musical. And yet all this time Cléo’s awareness of her mortality vibrates like a soft bass drum beneath the surface. As she plays singer, lover and shopper of hats, she is playing always a woman who expects to be told she has stomach cancer.

The role is more difficult than it might appear, and Corinne Marchand better in it than she may have been credited for. What she does here is as extraordinary in its own way as Anna Karina’s unforgettable character in Godard’s “My Life to Live.” It is tricky enough to play a sprite who skips lightly through life, but how in doing that do you communicate your awareness of mortality? (Both Godard and Karina appear in cameos in a brief silent film sequence, shown in a clip below.)

Unlike most of the New Wave directors, Varda was trained not as a filmmaker or as a critic, but as a serious photographer. Try freezing any frame of the scenes in her apartment and you will find perfect composition–perfect, but not calling attention to itself. In moving pictures, she has an ability to capture the essence of her characters not only through plot and dialogue, but even more in their placement in space and light.

While many early New Wave films had a jaunty boldness of style, Varda in this film shows a sensibility to subtly developing emotions. Consider the sequence near the end. she wanders into a deserted area of a park and encounters the young soldier Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller). They speak. They walk, they travel by bus, they walk again. Observe with what enormous tact and restraint he speaks to her. He doesn’t know of her day’s health worries, but he has worries of his own, and Varda’s dialogue allows an emotional bridge to exist between them. Then Cleo is told her test results with almost cruel informality by her doctor. Then she and the soldier talk a little more. If you want to consider the differences between men and women, consider that what Antoine says here was written by a woman, and many men would have found it out of reach.

Agnes Varda, born 1928, is one of the nicest people I have ever met. There’s no other way to put it. “Saint Agnes of Montparnasse,” I called her, in blog entry I wrote in 2009.

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In her magnificent autobiographical film “The Beaches of Agnes” (2009), she comes walking toward us on the sand in the first shot, describing herself as “a little old lady, pleasantly plump.” Well, she isn’t tall. But somehow she isn’t old. She made this film in her 80th year, and looked remarkably similar to 1967, when she brought a film to the Chicago Film Festival. Or the night I had dinner with her, Jacques and Pauline Kael at Cannes 1976. Or when she was at Montreal 1988. Or the sun-blessed afternoon when we three had lunch in their Parisian courtyard in 1990. Or when she was on the jury at Cannes 2005.

Her face is framed by a cap of shining hair. Her eyes are merry and curious. She is brimming with energy, and in “The Beaches of Agnes” you will see her setting up shots involving mirrors on the beach, or operating her own camera, or sailing a boat single-handedly down the Seine under the Pont Neuf, her favorite bridge.

And she has given us the most poetic shot about the cinema I have ever seen, where two old fishermen, who were young when she first filmed them, watch themselves on a screen. Yes, and the screen and the 16mm projector itself are both mounted on an old market cart that they push through the nighttime streets of their village.

That shot made near the end of her career contains the mystery of cinema. She filmed these men when they were young, and now half a century has passed for all of them, and the shot endures. You sense the same life and sympathy in “Cléo from 5 to 7,” where she sees the surface so clearly, and what is under it still more clearly.  The film is on DVD in the Criterion Collection, and is streaming on Hulu and Hulu Plus.  

My blog entry Saint Agnes of Montparnasse.

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Spirited Away

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Viewing Hiyao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” for the third time, I was struck by a quality between generosity and love. On earlier viewings I was caught up by the boundless imagination of the story. This time I began to focus on the elements in the picture that didn’t need to be there. Animation is a painstaking process, and there is a tendency to simplify its visual elements. Miyazaki, in contrast, offers complexity. His backgrounds are rich in detail, his canvas embraces space liberally, and it is all drawn with meticulous attention. We may not pay much conscious attention to the corners of the frame, but we know they are there, and they reinforce the remarkable precision of his fantasy worlds.

“Spirited Away” is surely one of the finest of all animated films, and it has its foundation in the traditional bedrock of animation, which is frame-by-frame drawing. Miyazaki began his career in that style, but he is a realist and has permitted the use of computers for some of the busywork. But he personally draws thousands of frames by hand. “We take handmade cell animation and digitize it in order to enrich the visual look,” he told me in 2002, “but everything starts with the human hand drawing.”

Consider a scene in “Spirited Away” where his young heroine stands on a bridge leading away from the magical bathhouse in which much of the movie is set. The central action and necessary characters supply all that is actually needed, but watching from the windows and balconies of the bathhouse are many of its occupants. It would be easier to suggest them as vaguely moving presences, but Miyazaki takes care to include many figures we recognize. All of them are in motion. And it isn’t the repetitive motion of much animation, in which the only idea is simply to show a figure moving. It is realistic, changing, detailed motion.

Most people watching the movie will simply read those areas of the screen as “movement.” But if we happen to look, things are really happening there. That’s what I mean by generosity and love. Mikayazi and his colleagues care enough to lavish as much energy on the less significant parts of the frame. Notice how much of the bathhouse you can see. It would have been quicker and easier to show just a bridge and a doorway. But Miyazaki gives his bathhouse his complexity of a real place, which possesses attributes whether or not the immediate story requires them.

The story of “Spirited Away” has been populated with limitless creativity. Has any film ever contained more different kinds of beings that we have never seen anywhere before? Miyazaki’s imagination never rests. There is a scene where the heroine and her companion get off a train in the middle of a swamp. In the distant forest they see a light approaching. This turns out to be an old-fashioned light pole that is hopping along on one foot. It bows to them, turns, and lights the way on the path they must take. When they arrive at a cottage, it dutifully hangs itself above the gate. The living light pole is not necessary. It is a gift from Miyazaki.

His story involves a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro, who isn’t one of those cheerful little automatons that populate many animated films. She is described by many critics as “sullen.” Yes, and impatient and impetuous, as she’s stuck in the back seat during a long drive to a house her parents want to examine. Her father loses the way in a dark forest, and the road seems to end at the entrance to a tunnel. Investigating it, they find it leads to an abandoned amusement park. But at dusk, some of the shops seem to reopen, especially a food shop whose fragrances steam into the cool air. Her parents fall eagerly upon the counter jammed with food, and stuff their mouths. Chihiro is stubborn and says she isn’t hungry. Her parents eat so much they double or triple in size. They eat like pigs, and they become pigs. These aren’t the parents of American animation, but parents who can do things that frighten a child.

The amusement park leads to a gigantic floating bathhouse, whose turrets and windows and ledges and ornamentation pile endlessly upon themselves. A friendly boy warns her to return, but she is too late, and the bathhouse casts off from the shore. Chihiro ventures inside, and finds a world of infinite variety. She cannot find her way out again. The boy says everyone must have a job, and sends her to Kamaji, an old bearded man with eight elongated limbs, who runs the boiler room. He and a young girl advise her to apply to Yubaba, who owns the bathhouse. This is a fearsome old witch who exhales plumes of smoke and a cackling laugh.

This is the beginning of an extraordinary adventure. Chihiro will meet no more humans in the bathhouse. She will be placed under a spell by Yubaba, who steals her name and gives her a new one, Sen. Unless she can get her old name back again, she can never leave. One confusing space opens onto another in the bathhouse, whose population is a limitless variety of bizarre life-forms. There are little fuzzy black balls with two eyeballs, who steal Sen’s shoes. Looming semi-transparent No Faces, who wear masks over their ghostly shrouds. Three extraordinary heads without bodies, who hop about looking angry, and resemble caricatures of Karl Marx. There is a malodorous heap of black slime, a river creature whose body has sopped up piles of pollution. Shape-shifting, so common in Japanese fantasy, takes place here, and the boy who first befriended her is revealed as a lithe sea dragon with fierce fangs.

Sen makes her way through this world, befriended by some, shunned by others, threatened by Yubaba, learning as she goes. She never becomes a “nice girl,” but her pluck and determination win our affection. She becomes determined to regain her name and return to the mainland on a daily train (which only runs one way). She wants to find her parents again.

Miyazaki says he made the film specifically for 10-year-old girls. That is why it plays so powerfully for adult viewers. Movies made for “everybody” are actually made for nobody in particular. Movies about specific characters in a detailed world are spellbinding because they make no attempt to cater to us; they are defiantly, triumphantly, themselves. As I watched the film again, I was spellbound as much as by any film I consider great. That helps explain why “Spirited Away” grossed more than “Titanic” in Japan, and was the first foreign film in history to open in the U. S. having already made more than $200 million.

I was so fortunate to meet Miyazaki at the 2002 Toronto film festival. I told him I love the “gratuitous motion” in his films; instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or sigh, or gaze at a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.

“We have a word for that in Japanese,” he said. “It’s called ‘ma.’ Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.” He clapped his hands three or four times. “The time in between my clapping is ‘ma.’ If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness.”

I think that helps explain why Miyazaki’s films are more absorbing than the frantic action in a lot of American animation. “The people who make the movies are scared of silence” he said, “so they want to paper and plaster it over,” he said. “They’re worried that the audience will get bored. But just because it’s 80 percent intense all the time doesn’t mean the kids are going to bless you with their concentration. What really matters is the underlying emotions–that you never let go of those.

“What my friends and I have been trying to do since the 1970′s is to try and quiet things down a little bit; don’t just bombard them with noise and distraction. And to follow the path of children’s emotions and feelings as we make a film. If you stay true to joy and astonishment and empathy you don’t have to have violence and you don’t have to have action. They’ll follow you. This is our principle.”

He said he has been amused to see a lot of animation in live-action superhero movies. “In a way, live action is becoming part of that whole soup called animation. Animation has become a word that encompasses so much, and my animation is just a little tiny dot over in the corner. It’s plenty for me.”

It’s plenty for me, too.

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The Pledge

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Sean Penn‘s “The Pledge” begins when it seems his protagonist’s career is ending. Jack Nicholson plays Jerry Black, a Nevada police detective whose retirement party is interrupted by news of the brutal murder of a young girl. Across the noisy room he senses a shift in tone, and joins a conversation between his chief and the man who will be taking over his job. Then he goes along to the murder scene, perhaps out of habit or because he hasn’t officially retired. The little girl in a red coat is a pitiful sight with her blood staining the snow.

Jerry is angered at the poor preservation of the crime scene, and at the general reluctance of the cops to notify the girl’s parents. Hell with it. He’ll do it himself. We see him slowly approach them across a floor covered with agitated turkey chicks. Penn holds his camera at a distance as Jerry breaks the news to the parents, whose anguish is apparent. Later, inside their house, he reassures them the killer will be found. The mother (Patricia Clarkson) holds up a crucifix made by her daughter, and asks for his solemn pledge. He gives it. He will not rest until then.

The scene plays exactly like that. But later, thinking back to it, perhaps we sense a deeper level. Jerry Black is twice-divorced, childless, a career cop who now allegedly looks forward to spending the rest of his life fishing. But he was drawn to the news of the murder, drawn to the crime scene, drawn to be the one who informs the parents, and now he vows to solve the crime. What happened to his fishing trip? This is a man who is holding onto his identity with a desperate grip.

That determination is at the core of “The Pledge,” which seems to follow the form of a police procedural and then plunges deeper into the mysteries of innocence, evil, and a man’s need to validate himself. At some point we realize that retirement, for Jerry, is a form of defeat and death. When the girl’s mother says, “There can’t be such devils out there,” look at his eyes as he tells her, “There are such devils.” He has been working against them for his entire life, and now he must find this one to save himself.

He looks through the one-way glass at the interrogation of the prime suspect, a retarded American Indian named Toby (lank-haired Benecio Del Toro). The questions come from Krolak (Aaron Eckhart), who will take over Jerry’s job. He coaxes and coos in Toby’s ear, seducing a confession, and when he gets one he throws up his hands in victory like a football coach. Jerry is appalled: The Indian clearly has no idea what he is saying. And then, a few seconds later, Toby kills himself and the case seems closed.

“The Pledge” may be Nicholson’s finest performance. Here are none of the familiar signals of his more popular performances, none of the relish of characterization, none of the sardonic remove. We see a lonely man, aging, whose attempts to go through the motions of retirement fail. He stays on the case. After leaving the force he uses a map to triangulate three crime scenes where, over a period of years, young girls, all of them wearing red, have been killed. At a crossroads he finds a small country store and gas station with an apartment upstairs. He walks in and makes the owner (Harry Dean Stanton), an offer too good to refuse.

If the three crimes were committed by the same man, that man must pass here. From a friend of the murdered girl, he obtained a drawing of a man she has met, a “giant,” who gave her “porcupines” and drove a big black car. He grows intense every time a black car pulls in. At a local tavern, he becomes friendly with Lori, the barmaid (Robin Wright Penn), and when she turns up battered one day, he takes her in. She and her young daughter can live with him. No strings attached.

We are afraid to draw an obvious conclusion. Is Jerry going to use the little girl as bait? Is one child to be put at risk in his determination to avenge another one? Sean Penn never underlines this. Indeed, his film is so intimately involved with the daily details of life that there’s a good stretch when we aren’t really focusing in those terms. We fall into the rhythms of life in rural Nevada, outside Reno. We fall into the routine of the new household that has been formed. Jerry, who never had a child, reveals himself as a good father, reading bedtime stories, keeping a cautious eye on the girl. He never informs Lori of the murder case, but uses his background as a cop to explain his deep concern for the girl’s safety.

Sean Penn shows himself in this film as a sure-handed director with great empathy for performance. He peoples his cast with great actors (Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Tom Noonan, Michael O'Keefe, Mickey Rourke, Lois Smith, Sam Shepard, Del Toro, Stanton, Clarkson, Eckhart). That he and Nicholson were able to attract such names for small roles speaks for itself. But Penn uses them for what he knows about them, not for their face value, and the presence of actors with real weight brings importance to roles that are “supporting” but not minor. Robin Wright, then Penn’s wife, is pitch-perfect as a weary working woman who seeks safety and affection for herself and her child.

Penn and his cinematographer, Chris Menges, fill the frame with so many local details that the film doesn’t seem to be insisting on an agenda. It emerges from the situation. A scene set at a local crafts fair, for example, involves people we know, others we don’t know, and then a shot that reminds us of Hitchcock: A single pink balloon, floating free above the crowd. A later scene, of a police stake-out in the woods, is staged and acted with cold precision, although we can hardly believe what we’re seeing.

Penn relentlessly draws the focus closer to the Jerry Black character. The edges of the frame tighten on him. The film hasn’t been about murder but about need. Everything he has seen and everything he has done has been driven by his need, to prove himself still a good detective. Still a man.

“The Pledge” was Penn’s third film as a director. “The Indian Runner” (1991) starred David Morse and Viggo Mortensen as brothers — one a deputy sheriff, the other a troubled hothead. “The Crossing Guard” (1995), starred Nicholson as a man whose daughter has been killed by a drunken driver. He confronts his ex-wife (Anjelica Huston) and her new husband vows that now the driver (David Morse) is out of prison, he will find him and kill him. He shouts at Mary’s new husband: “Man to man — when she picks up the paper and reads that he is dead — look at her face and see if you don’t see pride and relief. Pride. And relief.” Freddy’s motivation is not revenge, but the need to impress his former wife.

These three films are not really about the events in the plot. They are about the need of a central character to persevere in the face of failure and even madness to complete a task he has set himself.

Now consider Penn’s fourth film, “Into the Wild” (2007), the American Film Institute’s film of the year. Emile Hirsch gave a powerful performance that evoked our growing dread. He played a 20-year-old who rebelled against his parents and his life, and started driving west and north until he disappeared into the Alaskan wilderness. He was not seeking death. He wanted to prove he could live off the land, and survive.

This film, too, showed Penn embedding his protagonist in a cast of stars in small roles: Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Kristen Stewart. These are never “cameos,” but require the actors to do their very best work in a short time.

All of these films show a man determined to prove something, at whatever cost. He is not proving it to others. He is proving it to himself. Penn wrote the screenplays for all but “The Pledge”; for “Into the Wild,” he began with a true-life book by Jon Krakauer. What does the theme mean for Penn? I would not venture to say. He is not only as good as any living actor, he has also steadily been growing as a great director of actors. One of the reasons “The Pledge” is so important is that he asked his friend Jack Nicholson to follow him into the wild, and they proved something.

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French Cancan

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It is universally agreed that Jean Renoir was one of the greatest of all directors, and he was also one of the warmest and most entertaining. “Grand Illusion” and “Rules of the Game” are routinely included on lists of the greatest films, and deserve to be. But although “Rules” contains scenes of delightful humor, neither suggest the Renoir who made “Boulu Saved from Drowning” (1932), or “French Cancan” (1954), “French Cancan” a delicious musical comedy that deserves comparison with the golden age Hollywood musicals of the same period.

In them one can sense the cherub that his father, Auguste Renoir, painted more than once. That same twinkle is captured in the photographs taken later in his life. Some people are essentially happy, and it shows in their faces. Renoir lived to be 84, his last years at home in Beverly Hills, where he was interviewed by a parade of worshipful young critics. He won an honorary Academy Award in 1975. He had moved to America after the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. Although most of his great films were made in the 1930s, in the 1950s he returned to France to make a remarkable trilogy which were all in Technicolor and all musical comedies: “The Golden Coach” (1955), named by Andrew Sarris as the greatest film ever made; “French Cancan,” and “Elena and Her Men” (1956).

“French Cancan” uses one of the most familiar of musical formulas, loosely summarized as, “Hey, gang! Let’s rent the old barn and put on a show!” In this case he was inspired by the origins of the Moulin Rouge, the Montmartre cabaret theater which to this day still has success with the kinds of shows it opened with. It is a backstage story centering in the life of the (fictional) impresario Henri Danglard, a womanizer whose career was a series of narrow escapes from bankruptcy.

For his Danglard, Renoir cast Jean Gabin, the greatest of all French leading men, whose genius, like that of so many stars, involved never seeming to try very hard, and simply reflecting his own inner nature. It was their fourth film together, and after the weighty characters Gavin played in “The Lower Depths” (1936), “Grand Illusion” (1937) and “Le Bête Humaine” (1938), a complete change of tone. Danglard is the always insolvent owner of the Chinese Screen, which headlines the infamous courtesan La Belle Abbesse (Maria Felix) as a sultry belly dancer, known to all as Lola, his mistress.

One night he goes out slumming with Lola and some friends, and in a Montmartre dive sees the patrons doing a jolly can-can. This scene, early in the film, has a freshness that delights; it feels almost plausible, not staged, although it surely is. And it establishes two key characters, the pretty bakery girl Nini (Françoise Arnoul) and her possessive lover Paolo (Franco Pastorino). When Lola haughtily declines to dance, Danglard asks Nini to be his partner, inflaming the jealousy of both Lola and Paolo and giving him an inspiration. The Chinese Screen is failing, and falling into the hands of his creditors. He will open a new theater, and revive the can-can, an old-fashioned dance from the 1870s, renaming the “French Cancan” as a strategy to make it sound more exotic–not to the French, but, as we see on opening night, to American tourists and Russian sailors.

Danglard is a man who faces emergencies with serenity. His face never betrays concern. He occupies a series of unpaid hotel suites, always alert to find a financial backer, and not above offering Lola herself as the prize to one rich prospect. He makes no pretense no faithfulness, to her or anyone else, and makes it clear that his only loyalty is to the stage. The three 1950s musical comedies are often described as Renoir’s “art trilogy,” and this one is most single-mindedly dedicated to the bond between performer and audience.

“French Cancan” was entirely shot on sound stages, including one big set of a Montmartre street scene, with stone steps leading up to a little square above where we find the bakery that employs Nina. (This square providentially opens onto a charming little grassy area for a romantic scene, although such a space is unimaginable in such a crowded part of the city.) A cafe on the street provides the setting for a chummy older couple who observe and comment on all the activity, and are covered with dust when Danglard’s workmen detonate explosives to bring down the White Queen, a failing club which is destined to provide the land for the Moulin Rouge.

The stairs up to Nini’s bakery are well-traveled by three hopeful lovers: Not only Danglard and of course Paolo, but Prince Alexandre (Giani Esposito), the unimaginably rich heir to a kingdom obscurely located somewhere in the Middle East. Fidelity is much valued by Paolo and Alexandre, but in the cases Danglard and Nini, if they can’t have the one they love, they love the one they’re with. These revolving romantic subplots provide Renoir with love scenes verging on farce, especially as Danglard, always with an eye out for the main chance, realizes that Nini might be useful in coaxing funds out of the Prince.

In the meantime, construction advances on the Moulin Rouge, despite troubles; a government official arrives for the dedication of the new foundations, and Lola, enraged to find Nini there, attacks her. What results is one of those movie scenes, much beloved in the taverns of Westerns, in which everybody in the room inexplicably joins in and starts pummeling each other. Danglard ends up being pushed into a pit.

His complete attention is now devoted to holding auditions and putting together a show. Great charm enters in the person of a elderly dance coach (Lydia Jeanson), who danced the can-can as a girl and now teaches the hopefuls that Danglard has recruited. Although I once attended the Moulin Rouge, as a sin-seeking college student, I thought of the can-can more as spectacle than effort, and those rehearsal sessions establish what very hard work it is.

Two of the film’s best sequences take place backstage on opening night. One involves Nini realizing that the heartless Danglard, having exploited her prince, still has a roving eye. The other involves the drama when she locks herself in her dressing room and threatens the evening’s big can-can number. No entreaties will budge her–not even those of her mother. Then Danglard winds up and delivers an extraordinary speech, unlike anything he has said before, in which he explains to Nini that trifles like love and money mean nothing to a true performer. For such a person, nothing matters but winning the will of the audience by putting on a show. I can imagine Ethel Merman delivering such a speech, but from the lips of Jean Gabin, who probably played more murderers than anything else, they are astonishing. You have the feeling that Gabin, and through him Renoir, are speaking from the heart.

That compulsion to go on with the show is the driving engine in “French Cancan,” and helps explain why it’s more fictive than a more routine musical (such as, oh, say “There’s No Business Like Show Business”). This is a musical and a comedy, but it’s something more, a portrait of an impresario for whom opening theater and producing a show are the highest goals in life.

Gabin has a late scene when he’s along backstage, sprawled exhausted in a big prop chair, hearing the orchestra and the applause from behind the curtain. He lifts his hands as if to conduct, and we realize this is as happy as he’ll ever be in his life, or ever hope to be. It reminded me curiously of a scene he has in Jacques Backer’s “Touchez pas au Grisbi,” a film he also made in 1954. In that one, as a failing gang leader, he’s alone in a room an has a monologue about an ungrateful pal who has let him down: “There’s not a tooth in his head that hasn’t cost me a bundle.” One sign of a great actor is when he can be alone by himself on the screen, doing almost nothing, and producing one of a film’s defining moments.

“French Cancan” is streaming on Hulu, and is on Criterion DVDs. Also in my Great Movies Collection: “Grand Illusion,” “Rules of the Game” and “Touchez pas au Grisbi.”

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