Sunday, December 25, 2016

It's a Wonderful Life Turns 70

It’s a Wonderful Life is a full-fledged American icon, and an indispensable part of the nation’s cinematic DNA. It defines the term Classic - in fact redefines it - by virtue of becoming more and more popular over the years, finally achieving a status that transcends mere entertainment. The film’s lofty stature is no doubt due to its near perfect balance of rugged individualist destiny and collectivist bleeding heart liberalism. It’s a Wonderful Life sentimentally propagates many popular notions of the American experience, some real some fictional, and holds up a flattering mirror to humanity, which has lovingly admired its own reflection for 70 years.

Fittingly, the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life is tightly entwined with the story of America in the first half of the 20th century. Here an earnest young man of high moral fiber named George Bailey (James Stewart) must put his dreams of college on hold to save his community from a greedy, predatory slum lord (Lionel Barrymore). This pattern will repeat itself at critical moments in George’s life, as his ambitious plans are deferred by the Depression, war and the pressing needs of his friends and family. But, like America, there’s an exceptionalness about George Bailey, and thanks to the divine intervention of a kindly specter named Clarence (the great Henry Travers), the desperate George will grow to appreciate his life through a stunning, nightmarish vision of an alternative reality.

Director Frank Capra made his name with rousing populist dramas that enthralled and inspired the masses. Dubbed “Capra-Corn” by cynical film critics, Capra’s crowd pleasing aesthetic was a natural outgrowth of his extensive background in silent features and short subjects. Known for outlandish situations and ham-fisted acting, these one-reelers were platforms for brisk storytelling and fast paced entertainment, not ambiguous metaphors on the vagaries of the human condition. Capra’s career was only fair-to-middlin’ in those early days, but with the arrival of sound, this egalitarian auteur hit his stride, winning three Oscars in the process. With bouncy, good natured tales of class warfare like It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Capra reassured his audiences that decent, hardworking folk were on the right side of cosmic justice, and corruption would always find its comeuppance.

It’s this unique sensibility that floods every gauzy frame of It’s a Wonderful Life, sustaining it for generations and making it a nearly perfect holiday family film. Yes, portions of it are quite dated and will be offensive to modern attitudes, as is the case with any film of this vintage. But it remains an astonishingly effective story of sacrifice, redemption and, quite literally, the better angels of our nature. And if you’re not joyfully weeping at the closing scene, go see a doctor as soon as possible. You may be dead inside.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Manchester by the Sea (2016) ✭✭✭✭✭

Perhaps as a token counterbalance to the crapulous events of 2016, the cinematic fates have gifted us Manchester by the Sea, a brilliant and intense portrait of quiet desperation. Even though it's been showered with award nominations, Manchester is a sort of anti-Oscar bait. It features no heroic soul overcoming a disability on the way to achieving greatness, nor does it irreverently capture an important moment in history. It exists in an HO-scale universe where life’s pressures lead ordinary folks into bad decisions with consequences too terrible to imagine, and lives too damaged to ever fully heal.

One such walking wounded is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), caretaker of a crumbling apartment building in Quincy, Massachusetts. Chandler’s stoic routine of shoveling sidewalks and plunging toilets is shattered one day by shocking news from his hometown; news that will serve as a backstory catalyst and eventually topple the high emotional walls he has built to ward off society. Affleck can, to put it uncharitably, act rings around his older brother, and his loner turn here ranks among the great disaffecteds of cinema, approaching Travis Bickle territory. But Affleck’s Chandler has no designs on avenging the world’s wrongs. His energy - what little he has left - is consumed with sifting through the waste of a life in ruins.

While Chandler returns to the titular picture postcard town, blanketed by a snowfall that has caused life to go dormant, he finds he must settle affairs he wants no part of. For him, it is a town of shunning ghosts and shameful specters, its tidy clapboard houses and cobblestone streets the architecture of his undoing. Director Kenneth Lonergan and production designer Ruth De Jong flesh out every environ through a tense celebration of the stale and ordinary, their sets stuffed with the dingy bric-a-brac of what it means to be working class in 2016 America. The bread and circuses of beer and hockey no longer enthrall Affleck’s Chandler, but his fiery relationship with a bright teenager named Patrick (Lucas Hedges) may provide a glimmer of salvation. And with Manchester by the Sea, we’ll take any glimmer we can get.

Genre-wise, the film is a little tough categorize. It's a melodrama that never becomes melodramatic; a soap that never gets sudsy. Perhaps its most accurate description is a horror film, but the expected zombies, vampires and demons have been replaced by a coven of human weakness and fallibility. In Manchester by the Sea, even the kind and well intentioned can become monstrous, and no silver bullet or stake-through-the-heart can dispatch an accidental evil to its hellish rest. The perpetrators can only be forgiven. Even if they can't forgive themselves.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Qatsi Trilogy (1983 - 2002)

The Qatsi Trilogy is a collection of films made by Godfrey Reggio between 1983 and 2002. Each film offers an extraordinary and unforgettable cinematic experience, and their messages are, astonishingly, even more pertinent and vital today. The visual and aural wonders of The Qatsi Trilogy fall into no preset genre or easily explainable category of filmmaking. The simplest description would be a grafting of somber political treatise with IMAX style sensory joyride.

To fully understand these unique works, one must understand the filmmaker, and his singular background and sensibilities. Godfrey Reggio is not an assembly line graduate of the USC film school. In fact, he spent the 1960s as a social worker and political activist, founding several community programs for disadvantaged youth in New Mexico. He also spent 14 years in training for the priesthood, but abandoned that quest to pursue a deeper understanding of the philosophy and mysticism of the Hopi Indians.

Reggio is, in short, a spiritual pilgrim with an Arriflex, and his films question the basic tenets of modern life, using the most basic components of cinema. Reggio’s wordless mediations consist exclusively of images and music, and through time-shifting scenes of the natural and manmade worlds, supported by Philip Glass’s expressive and omnipresent score, Reggio creates a beautiful sensory language that articulates his complex ideas directly to the human soul.

Koyaanisqatsi (1983) leads off the set, and viewers will find themselves mesmerized from the opening frames. The title is Hopi for “life out of balance,” and over the next 90 minutes, Reggio builds a compelling portrait of the insanity of modern life brick-by-brick. While Reggio’s films don’t follow a narrative per se, Koyaanisqatsi begins with a tone poem evoking Earth’s creation. Majestic vistas of pristine Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly ultimately give way to aerial shots of the various grids imposed on Earth by man, and the dusty havoc wrought on the planet by his extractive industries.

Reggio’s camera eventually makes its way to the steel canyons of Manhattan. What follows is a time lapse montage that stuns and stupefies. Human beings are reduced to mere machine cogs, as long lens shots of crowded midtown streets and undercranked scenes of Grand Central Station at rush hour combine with Glass’ frenetic score to issue a blistering condemnation of technological society. Koyaanisqatsi is a luscious tableau that raises the cinematic experience to the level of the carnal, and seduces and horrifies in equal measure.

The title of Powaqqatsi (1988) translates as “Parasite” and here Reggio shifts his attention to the trauma inflicted on the Third World by industrialization. As workers covered in mud scurry into a mine in Pakistan and Bedouins drag heavy loads through a desert sandstorm, a chorus of children’s voices echo the ghostly chants of a lost culture. An Indian commuter train, bulging with riders, slowly makes its way through an impoverished city choked with thick smog, while Sikh and Buddhist holy men pray for divine providence.

The scope of Glass’ chart widens here as well, incorporating percussive and indigenous instruments. While not as visually bombastic as its predecessor, Powaqqatsi has its share of money shots. Scenes of village life rendered in rippling waters give the proceedings an arresting impressionistic quality, and a slow motion shot of a young Latin American girl in a frilly dress walking past a bullet riddled wall with “Long Live Guerrilla War” scribbled in graffiti will leave viewers haunted and breathless. On its initial release, Powaqqatsi did not receive the universal acclaim of Koyannisqatsi, but viewed with today’s eyes it is a work of mystical prescience. In the 25 years hence, its fevered denunciation of the global economy rings with a despairing truth.

Naqoyqatsi (2002), in essence “War as a Way of Life”, rounds out the trilogy and serves as a powerful and disturbing coda. Working mainly with stock footage and computer manipulated imagery, Reggio casts daggers into the heart of the digital age and its rampant depersonalization. Virtually no ill of the new century is left unscathed, as Reggio cleverly tackles the medical industry, athletes on steroids, relentless advertising and the venal alliances of our politicians, to name a few. In his most potent metaphor, Reggio uses old footage of crash test dummies to draw a staggering equation to victims of terror, leaving a nightmarish aftertaste. In support is Glass’ lushly orchestrated score, featuring cello lines from Yo-Yo Ma that seem dispatched from another world.

Constructed in three acts, Naqoyqatsi’s final stanza draws Reggio’s two decades of observations to their logical, and devastating, conclusion. As the dogs of war unleash weapons of ever greater destruction, history’s great works of art liquify and literally melt into each other, as a culture races unabated to its self-inflicted annihilation. As skydivers flirt with death in a search for cheap thrills, the universe reclaims its besotted and ruined celestial offspring, leaving only a field of star dust where a great society once stood. And we are back to where Koyannisqatsi began, with weathered petroglyphs as mute witness to man’s perfidious folly.

This reviewer first encountered Koyannisqatsi in the mid-1980s. when a local art house ran it as a double feature with Liquid Sky, Slava Tsukerman’s funky, punky, sci-fi exercise in bad taste from 1982. It didn’t seem an odd pairing at the time as each film dealt with worlds facing self-destruction due to uncontrollable appetites. Truth be told, I loved both films, but while history has relegated Tsukerman’s movie to cultish obscurity, Reggio’s existential epics remain relevant and influential, both aesthetically and politically. As Criterion’s release of The Qatsi Trilogy makes clear, Godfrey Reggio is a visionary who sought to use the unique strengths of cinema to present his powerful prophecy of a dire and dissolute future; an objective usually reserved for political broadsides and think tank white papers. Not only was he artistically successful, unfortunately it appears he was right.