29 November 2008

David Fincher's 'ZODIAC' (2008, US)

The term ‘Tarantinoesque’ is a euphemism that has firmly become part of film culture today, and though Tarantino seems to have lost the postmodern edge that had made him so popular with critics in the 90s, the term continues to point to any film with a certain level of irony, playfulness and ‘Godardian’ cool; Godard being an inspiration for both Scorsese and Tarantino in their philosophising of world cinema authorial creativity. Unlike Tarantino who certainly seems to be an exception to the rule when in comes to breaking in to the Hollywood film industry, the vast majority of directors busy at work today in the mainstream have taken the formal route of film school education, and David Fincher, started out working in the special effects department on Lucas films like ‘Return of the Jedi’; the Star Wars saga epitomising the epoch of commercialism.

It is of little surprise why Fincher seems to have such an impressive, if not slightly nerdy, control of the technical aspects of his films, especially since his formal film training was largely expressed in the most brutalised and derided of media forms, the MTV music video. However, such an experience in a stylised and simplified medium would provoke criticisms to do with an unhealthy obsession with visual aesthetics, but unlike his MTV counterparts like Michael Bay and Antoine Fuqua who shifted into big budget filmmaking without feeling compelled to tone down their brash, overly stylised approach, Fincher’s reluctance to become just another director for hire on the production of Fox studio’s Alien franchise ended in commercial disappointment.

‘Alien 3’ was certainly a studio film but his public distancing from the final shape of the film underlined the problematic nature of the authorial presence of Fincher. Debuting with ‘Alien 3’, Fincher’s conflict with the commercial pressures that came with a notably successful franchise succeeded in determining the anxious trajectory he would take as a film maker, strengthening his resolve to never dilute his vision for a film or be forced to unnecessarily compromise his directorial preoccupations. The choice between commercial and personal auteur cinema in the constraints of a Hollywood industry that feels it needs to pitch most of the types of films it makes today to a juvenile teen audience means that a director like David Fincher performs the difficult balancing act of maintaining some kind of commercial and critical consistency by alternating between studio and auteur films.

Such a creative tension that exists between the two types of cinema is applicable to numerous film makers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg who seem to endorse the idea of a split career. Not only does this make commercial sense for many studios, it also means that film makers like Fincher who challenge the status quo by choosing to experiment with new digital technology and explore contemporary cultural anxieties, can do so with a certain degree of impunity. Though it could be argued that Fincher has very little choice when it comes to casting decisions, his on-going collaboration with the Hollywood mainstream actor Brad Pitt has been a fruitful one for both of them, and the addition of a bankable name like Brad Pitt has helped to minimise studio interference whilst assure investors that Fincher also has one eye on the international film markets.

After the 'Alien 3' debacle, Fincher paused and buried his head in the sand, choosing Kevin Andrew Walker’s neo noir serial killer screenplay ‘Seven’ as his next project. Starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, ‘Seven’ exceeded industry expectations by becoming one of the biggest commercial success stories of the 90s. Featuring Kevin Spacey in an un-credited role as John Doe, a genuinely frightening twist ending and revealing a more serious side to the acting chops of Brad Pitt, ‘Seven’ was the most unlikely of hits especially considering how dark the film was in its de-saturated, morbid visual style. However, the impressive visual aesthetics and control over what was quite a conventional narrative finally seemed to confirm Fincher’s previously over stated potential as an emerging new talent. The commercial and critical success of ‘Seven’ led many to believe that Fincher had secretly had his revenge, making a film outside the traditional studio system, by opting to endorse New Line Cinema as an independent production organisation that was not afraid of financing edgier, more risky films like ‘American History X’ and ‘Boogie Nights’ aimed at an unashamedly specialised adult audience who were desperate to embrace up and coming contemporary indie auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson.

Released in 1997 and starring Michael Douglas as Nicholas Van Orton; a self obsessed, apathetic corporate suit, ‘The Game’ was Fincher’s follow up to ‘Seven’. Perfectly cast in the role of a middle aged man who is manipulated by forces unknown to him, Michael Douglas, was superbly effective as the snobbish Van Orton, delivering one of his stronger performances in a career that seems to have nose dived into self indulgent films like ‘The In Laws’ and ‘King of California’. Beautifully realised and shot, Fincher collaborated for the first time with Gus Van Sant cinematographer, Harris Savides, capturing the architecture of the night scenes in San Francisco with a striking degree of clarity.

If ‘Seven’ signalled a real turning point in Fincher’s career then his next film, ‘Fight Club’, based on the cult novel by Chuck Palahniuk, earned him the status of a fully fledged film auteur and with ‘Fight Club’, Fincher produced his most mature film to date. 1999 is looked back by many critics as a key year in a decade that offered very little in terms of quality Hollywood output, yet this was a year that broke new ground, producing exceptional films like ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, ‘Three Kings’, ‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘The Insider’, ‘Rushmore’ and ‘Magnolia’, with many of them having attained a certain cult following especially Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’. Referred to as a zeitgeist film for a generation of disillusioned young men, ‘Fight Club’ aimed its collective anger squarely at the raging apathy of a decade in which male identity had been at the forefront of a gender crisis. Financed by Murdoch’s Fox studio who thought they were getting a hip new Brad Pitt film, ‘Fight club’ was smuggled in under the radar and into cinemas. Fincher’s subversive satire defied conventional mainstream narrative cinema by advocating a Marxist critique of consumer culture.

Presenting a deeply politicised and bleak vision of a bankrupt American society, ‘Fight Club’ prefigured the terrorist attacks of 9-11 in the final images of a tumbling corporate skyscrapers devised by the insanity of Project Mayhem, a scheme designed to ferment revolutionary ideals and attack the corrupt, superficial ideologies of today’s media obsessed capitalist system. ‘Fight club’ seemed to sum up a decade of social frustrations in an entirely convoluted and schizophrenic narrative, proving that at heart Fincher was really a rebel and a maverick who had no options but to make the films he wanted to in a system which worships commercial ideas.

The terrorist attacks on 9-11 seemed to affect all facets of American life and Hollywood was no different when it came to trying to respond to the events through cinema. David Fincher had originally planned to collaborate with Jodie Foster on ‘The Game’ but scheduling problems meant that Sean Penn stepped in at short notice. Released in 2002, ‘Panic Room’, starred Jodie Foster as a wealthy, New York urbanite who rents a brownstone apartment with her daughter and who is trying to come to terms with a recent Hollywood style separation. Shot entirely within one space, ‘Panic Room’, seemed to be perfect in its timing especially in how the story revolved around a mother and daughter battling against a group of determined burglars who break into the apartment.

‘Panic Room’ is considered to be one of the most pre visualised films ever shot, with Fincher utilising state of the art computer technology to achieve complex and endless tracking shots so that he could move around the different levels of the apartment with great fluidity, achieving a relentless claustrophobic intensity that permeates what is in essence a straightforward, conventional thriller. Though ‘Panic Room’ panders to the woman in peril star image of Jodie Foster, it was nevertheless a commercial success and one of the first films to cash in on the post anxieties and fears of September 11.

After a five year hiatus, Fincher returned with what many consider to be his defining film to date; Zodiac. A real labour of love, Fincher’s ambitious and multi layered study of the zodiac killer who stalked the benign streets of a 1970s San Francisco, was met with widespread critical acclaim. Perhaps this was the only time that critics voiced a consensus about Fincher’s maturity as a film maker, but just like ‘Fight Club’ had been too subversive for audiences, Fincher’s obsessive study of police procedure alienated viewers as the film underperformed commercially. Costing a hefty $65 million, Fincher recreated the 1970s era with a precision for detail that is beautifully captured in a film entirely shot on digital. Fincher like Michael Mann have been real exponents of new technology especially shooting digitally, and it is of little surprise, that they have achieved staggering and at times groundbreaking results which certainly suggests that digital film making offers new and exciting aesthetic possibilities.

‘Zodiac’ is hugely ambitious in its scope and the narrative breadth is supported by a series of deeply affecting performances from Robert Downey Jr, Anthony Edwards and Mark Ruffalo. Though the narrative is about determining the true identity of the zodiac killer, Fincher seems more concerned and fascinated by the complexity of the crimes, spending most of the time representing the struggles faced by the investigating detectives in a case that consumes and haunts them. The only compromise Fincher makes is in the casting of Jake Gyllenhall as Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist, whose obsession with the case leads to some kind of ambiguous closure.

Though Jake Gyllenhall may be a competent actor, he simply does not convince as Graysmith, purely because he is not mature enough to be able to take on a role of such complexity. His performance maybe subordinate to the demands of the peripheral characters and visual style, but his casting feels like Fincher had to try and please the studio so that he could secure the kind of financing he was seeking to complete a project of such depth. In this case, his commercial sensibilities seem to have got the better of him, but Gyllenhall’s dopey and emotionless performance as Graysmith does little to take away the emotional power of Fincher’s finest film to date.

17 November 2008

NAYAK / THE HERO (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1966, India) - The Sweet Smell of Success

Arindam is a Bengali film star (Uttam Kumar) who makes a reluctant train journey to collect an award that he would rather turn his back on but the crisis of confidence he is experiencing in regards to his elevated star status forces him to re-evaluate his rise to fame and the personal compromises he has made through what he perceives is a life of artistic underachievement. Ray seems to have tackled most of the prevalent issues that concerned contemporary Bengali society, and with 'Nayak', he chose to deal with the cult of the celebrity, a topic which is equally relevant for today's media obsessed audience.

Staged entirely on a train, Arindam's recollections of his star fuelled journey is addressed to a female journalist, Aarti (Sharmila Tagore) who writes for a small woman's journal. Interspersed with inventive dream sequences that seem indebted to films like Fellini's '8 and a Half' and Bergman's 'Wild Strawberries', which are also fascinated by the thematic motif of memories, 'Nayak' is a traditional and intense character study of the prototypical flawed anti-hero.

Though this is a minor film in the broad oeuvre of Satyajit Ray, it is directed with a real compassion for the contradictory position a film star is forced to occupy even if many of them try and fail in forming some kind of an ordinary life outside of the world of shadows and light. The final moments on the train platform as Arindam is besieged by a crowd of paparazzi whilst the unattainable figure of Aarti walks on by to her normal life reminded me of Guru Dutt's priceless expression of star emptiness in his classic 1959 film 'Kaagaz Ke Phool'.

16 November 2008

BIGGER THAN LIFE (Dir. Nicholas Ray, 1956, US) - The Sickness of Suburbia

Having been salvaged or should I say rescued from being lumped into the category of unidentifiable and formulaic film making of the 1950s Hollywood studio era by the Nouvelle Vague film critics like Godard and Truffaut, Nicholas Ray's career as a director stands apart as somewhat of a strange anomaly especially when taking in to account the regimented constraints most artists had to face working under the title of director under contract. As each decade passes, the films of Nicholas Ray continue to grow in stature, underlining his uniqueness for dealing with complex psychological themes in films that were ahead of their time especially in their experimentation with widescreen composition and use of colour.

The influence of a film like 'Bigger Than Life', a studio film directed by Ray in the 50's and considered by many to be his masterpiece, can still be seen reflected in a recent film like Sam Mendes Oscar winning 'American Beauty' (1999). It is interesting to make such a connection between the two films as they both seem to share and direct their anger towards a crisis in masculinity that permeates the banality and mundanes of middle class suburbia. Both Ed Avery (James Mason) and Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) maybe patriarchal figures, but the position they occupy within the family unit is viewed as somewhat troubled, and the working out of their personal anxieties through the unspoken tensions that exist between them and the alienated affections of their children is criticism enough of the superficial nature of an embittered American dream.

Produced by James Mason, 'Bigger than Life', is a highly allegorical film about drug addiction, and for Ray to have taken on such an issue in a mainstream studio film meant that he resorted to using the idea of a miracle drug as an indirect metaphor for the consequences of drug addiction upon traditional institutions and ideologies like the family, education and religion. All these cosy, conformist elements that helped to shape the concept of suburbia - a Utopian, white middle class paradise, come under attack repeatedly in the film as Ed Avery transforms into a junkie who is prepared to go to any lengths so that he can get his regular fix.

The fact that Ed Avery is a teacher who is forced to work two jobs so that he can maintain his social status in the pursuit of the American dream makes him deeply cynical, and the affects of his drug addiction unveils further a sinister side to him that ridicules the educational establishment as being inept and regressive. Such scathing social commentary that underlines most of the film confirms the 'smuggling' Ray achieved whilst making such a frightening examination of the American dream turned sour. This is essential and brilliant cinema which once again strengthens the argument about how contradictory the Hollywood era was in terms of producing original and challenging films.

10 November 2008

STRAY DOGS (Dir. Marzieh Meshkini, 2004, Iran/Afghanistan) - Post Taliban Cinema

This post Taliban odyssey through the tortured and wretched war torn landscape of Afghanistan acts like a companion piece to Bahman Ghobadi's tragic neo realist masterpiece 'A Time for Drunken Horses'. Marzieh Meshkini, wife of Iranian film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, directed her second feature, 'Stray Dogs', in 2004 using an entirely non professional cast of destitute Afghan street kids and by exploiting her own repeated visits to the country as a form of inspiration, she weaves together a loose, episodic narrative that unashamedly deals with indignation of having to survive in an unfortunate set of social, political circumstances, shaped by the forces of a regressive culture which is aided by a system of suffocating religious traditions.

Alongside 'Kahandar' and 'Osama', 'Stray Dogs' forms a cycle of post Taliban films that have been shot entirely on location in one of the most troubled regions and political hot spots in the world today. In an interview, the director cites the neo realist influences of the post war Italians especially De Sica's 1948 'Bicycle Thieves', and openly criticises the film's overt reliance on melodrama as a manipulative technique that distorts the principles theorised by Zavattini in his extensive Marxist writings on the new agenda for realism, social affects and didactic cinema.

It seems ironic that Iran of all places would most imaginatively champion the writings of Zavattini, fulfilling the purity of his aim to unmask the micro details of everyday reality by implementing a very simple story, just enough to ensure that the events and situations unfolding are a plausible and convincing extension of the settings. Such an honesty exists in much of the work produced by the Iranian New Wave, a movement that has been interpreted by some as the next step in the development of contemporary film language -Kiarostami, Panahi, Makhmalbaf are not simply world cinema auteurs in the truest sense of the word, they are pioneers in how they gracefully blurred the boundaries between fiction and reality, thereby reconstructing the idea of what constitutes 'self reflexive' cinema in today's postmodern age of irony and pastiche.

'Stray Dogs' features remarkably little attempts at melodrama and ensures the narrative never lapses into terrible Hollywood bouts of sentimentality by permitting the actions of the children to unfold with a degree of unpredictability that is both intentionally organic in its execution, and convincingly contextualised in a landscape trying desperately to imprison the remnants of a failed ultra religious society which has imploded under the strains of a series of absurd internal conflicts between warring factions. Interestingly, the face of the Taliban remains very much in the shadows, and is anchored in the figure of the orphaned children's father who is in jail, having become a prisoner of the newly installed government.

In the final sequence, the two children; Zahed and Gol-Ghotai are told to visit the local run down cinema and in a testament to the influence of De Sica, they watch 'Bicycle Thieves', and are inspired by Antonio's final moment of desperation to steal a bicycle. However, the fact that the hostile crowd Zahed encounters on the streets of Afghanistan are in no way as tolerant or forgiving as the one that appears at the end of De Sica's film. This perhaps is life imitating art, but 'Stray Dogs' seems to suggest that the leniency shown towards Antonio is far fetched and that such empathy is absent from a reality that offers very little, if any, hope for those who will forever exist on the fringes.

6 November 2008

QUANTUM OF SOLACE (Dir. Marc Forster, 2008, UK/US) - Reinvention or imitation?

Ever since Matt Damon, a star who had his reputation well and truly trashed by the creators of South Park in 'Team America', reinvented the espionage genre with the Jason Bourne franchise, the Bond brand has been playing catch up, trying in vain to breathe life into one of the oldest and most successful high concept formulas. When Pierce Brosnan started to mention an executive producers credit and a higher pay cheque after the immensely successful yet turgid 'Die Another Day', the producers of the Bond films realised they had reached the end of another long term relationship, having revived the franchise for a new generation way back in 1995 with Martin Campbell's 'Goldeneye'.

Interestingly, many thought it wise that the producers return to Campbell to restore audiences faith back in a new kind of post 9-11 James Bond with 'Casino Royale', the first Bond film to break the $500 million box office barrier. It was a sweet deal for the producers; Daniel Craig, one of Britain's best film actors and a star with an increasing international profile, was hired at a relatively cheap price compared to the demands of Brosnan, marking a shift away from the cheap quips and over excesses to the gritty realism of a new age Bond who obviously seemed to walk in the shadow of Jason Bourne's sophisticated, resourceful and intellectual anti hero. Though 'Casino Royale' pleased both critics, fans and the general audience, it was also the first Bond film to have been financed and distributed by Sony. By casting Daniel Craig, the only real element that seemed to revitalise the Bond formula, the film was regressive in its politics, and Campbell's heavy handed approach produced a movie that lasted for a bum numbing 2 hours and 20 minutes, with most of that taken up by a utterly pointless and boring card game. The derivative nature of the Bond brand and in particular the uninspired 'Casino Royale' venture was exposed for its pretentiousness and inability to get to grips with a plausible geo political landscape when 'The Bourne Ultimatum' opened in the summer of 2007, a film that offered not only visceral, brilliantly executed action sequences, but more importantly, a story mired in a dark political conspiracy involving Bourne himself.

The new Bond film, 'Quantum of Solace', has been directed by a film maker with an interesting pedigree of tackling hard hitting subject matters. Though Marc Forster was an unusual choice, he was at the end of the day, a director for hire, brought in to a shoot a script controlled by the producers and very few film makers would ever be given complete creative control including final cut on a film with a budget exceeding $100 million. So it's not surprising that Forster is unable to offer us anything new or different, shooting the action at such a frenetic pace that it becomes scrappy and jumbled whilst trying desperately to make the idea of a secret global organization appear as though it was relatively interesting for an audience that views the Bond films through a filter of parody and pastiche as celebrated in the postmodernism of Mike Myers 'Austin Powers' creation.

The producers attempt at making this into a revenge thriller, minus the traditional Bond interludes, seems like a brave decision, but such a tantalising proposition is never brought to fruition in a film that tries embarrassingly to imitate the new age politics of the Bourne films. They even roped in Dan Bradley, student coordinator on the Bourne films, to oversee some of the action sequences, but as Daniel Craig chases his assailant across the rooftops of Milan, one cannot help drawing comparisons with a similar sequence that occurs in 'The Bourne Ultimatum', a superlative mainstream action film on many levels. How predictable it all is when we reach the end of another hollow Bond adventure as James goes rogue, pulverising the slimy Dominic Greene (Mathieu Almaric) whilst an expensive postmodern architectural building turns into a raging inferno of timed explosions. By the time we have reached the glib moment our apathetic Bond has come to terms with the betrayal of Vesper Lynd, it all seems very tedious and banal. Loathe it or adore it, the Bond franchise is one of the last remaining event films and much of the pleasure of a Bond film rests purely with a juvenile feeling of instant gratification; just another guilty pleasure perhaps.