Claire Denis' Beau Travail; Looking Back at Indie Film; An Iranian Movie Tugs the Heartstrings
Do you ever wonder about the roots of oppression? Claire Denis has and dramatizes it in Beau Travail, her adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd. But it isn't the angelic sailor Billy Budd who gets her attention; Denis concentrates on the Claggert figure Sergeant Galoup?a model of neocolonialist dislocation and terror. Denis Lavant (acrobatic star of Leos Carax's first three films) gives Galoup the embittered appearance of a man whose natural exuberance has imploded.
Melville memorably described Claggert as "a nut not to be cracked by the tap of a lady's fan." Reworking Melville in a contemporary tone, Denis expands the notion of homosexuality without villainizing it but using same-sex simplicity to demonstrate the model of brotherhood and man's potential inhumanity to man. She also explores the homoerotic possibilities in her subject: shirtless legionnaires in the sun, in thigh-hugging fatigues, in casual yet vibrant close-contact drills. Denis' recent collaborator, cinematographer Agnes Godard, lights these bodies to appreciate family-of-man, light-to-dark internationalism. Their ethnic diversities are one with the varied African settings of sunlight, sand, bright blue skies and deep blue waters. It's very much a study in natural harmony, then unnatural (social) tension.
Beau Travail recalls the meditative, formal style of Denis' 1989 debut feature Chocolat. Her more recent films I Can't Sleep and No Fear No Die (shown as part of the American Museum of the Moving Image's recent Denis retrospective) have a naturalistic urban pulse. But Beau Travail's Frantz Fanon-meets-Antonioni rigor is alive with thought. Denis' political impulses remain a part of her artistry. Beau Travail (which translates as "good work" in the sense of the Army recruitment slogans that sucker society's otherwise disenfranchised) concerns both Galoup and Sentain as displaced social figures. (Remember that Camus' The Stranger was originally published in France as The Outsider.) Even Bruno Forestier, the major whose manhood they idealize, comes from the same exploitative system. This trio?showing how envy inspires retaliatory, fascistic action?makes a psychological portrait of how oppression and competition are indoctrinated.
I state Denis' imperative plainly so that it isn't lost in appreciation of the film's visual beauty and elliptical narrative. (Denis' stunning vistas are not for travelogue delectation like Out of Africa or The English Patient.) She practices her artistry with a purpose. As critic David Sterritt pointed out, Michel Subor, who first played Forestier in Godard's long-suppressed 1960 Algerian war film Le Petit Soldat, now portrays Forestier the patriarchal legionnaire as sly reference to the history of politicized art films. Denis politicizes the Melville story to answer France's post-Algerian anxiety the way American movies used to address the divisions of our post-Vietnam anxiety. But Denis' colonialist awareness isn't narrow; also like Godard she critiques the role women play in occupied territories. From its opening image of African prostitutes miming a kissy-poo song for soldiers in a disco, Beau Travail depicts Third World women's exploitation as another aspect of oppression.
Denis does honor to Melville's morally conscious art perhaps more than Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd opera (she even dares recreate the passage that equates Billy Budd's sanctity to a mysterious African sailor). With Leos Carax's remarkable Pola X (based on Pierre, or The Ambiguities) now scheduled for release, this year's mini Melville renaissance promises better art than all the recent Jane Austen movies put together. Less Anglophilia and much less class snobbery. Intentionally so.
One small step for man, one giant leap backwards for film culture. That describes the fate of Mission to Mars. Readers have asked for a fuller accounting of Mission to Mars' pleasures following last week's decrying of its critical mishandling, so let's start with De Palma's opening?an elegant visual joke in which a rocket launch turns out to be a firecracker. It satirizes mankind's ambitions. It recalls a poignant trope in the stage musical Titanic: adults sing about technological wonders, human aspiration, then a child runs downstage holding high a toy sailboat, the symbol of his own dreams that puts everything in perspective.
De Palma isn't gaga over space exploration; like Robert Altman in Countdown, he sticks to the human story of competition and obligation. His opening barbecue scene encapsulates the life habits of astronaut families; the single, flowing steadicam shot implies that every one of them, potentially in a moment of separation or death, is being viewed by an omniscient, pitiless eye. The sequence ends as Gary Sinise, one of the astronauts left behind, ruefully observes his own footprint in the backyard dirt. Neil Armstrong manque. De Palma cuts to the surface of Mars?NASA's giant leap kept in perspective as a small cosmic step. Then the film's fateful view of all human effort begins.
These simple images are rich, but critics (and deluded viewers) aren't reading them. They look right past their beauty and meaning. Viewer idiocy hasn't been this maddening since The Lost World and there, too, the filmmakers' daring to center a dangerous expedition around a black person (a girl child in The Lost World, Don Cheadle here) goes unappreciated by mainstream critics. Along with his visual sophistication, De Palma nonchalantly makes a cultural advance. When people complain, "The dialogue was bad," it only means they weren't really listening (because it's quite good); in fact, they're just remembering dialogue from similar movies rather than actually looking at this film's imagery.
Mission to Mars is easily misunderstood by Hollywood-trained audiences wanting a big-screen cartoon like Star Wars or Independence Day. It has the misfortune of opening in an era so degraded by marketing that audiences can no longer see movies clearly. Films get interpreted through promotional hype and the familiar formula of previous hits. But De Palma seeks viewers' personal responses, fresh responses. He demands independent viewers, not those who want Armageddon or else feel nothing is happening on the screen.
The ideal way to see Mission to Mars is not to have seen any other movie remotely like it?or better yet: to recognize how it is a precise, poetic expression of your private feelings about family, society, existence. Mission to Mars turns otherworldly dazzlement into philosophy. It finds surprising means to our deepest feelings. De Palma has made a truly radical movie, even though its form seems most routine. Mission to Mars boldly meditates on the sci-fi propositions that film geeks prefer trivialized. By eerily familiarizing Mars' landscape De Palma makes space exploration pertinent.
Why should a 60-year-old man make a pow-zowie space movie? We ought to benefit from what this artist knows is important in life and that's what the fantasy of Mission of Mars expresses. De Palma was always above genre glibness. His thrillers are basically confrontations with death. It's simply that his talent (mastering tropes from Hitchcock and Welles and Godard) was inseparable from youthful impudence. Contemplating a NASA team's mission as a humanitarian effort, he claims moral gravity in place of genre parody.
Like that other early postmodernist Stanley Kubrick, De Palma examines basic human feelings in extraordinary circumstances?taking the space movie seriously the way his previous thrillers probed sexual and moral essence. Those not used to thinking of De Palma this way will draw a shallow connection to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. But here's the connection that really matters: In 1968 Kubrick received a telegram from Federico Fellini congratulating him on his unorthodox foray into outer space. The Fellinigram read simply: "You made me dream eyes open."
Dreaminess is De Palma's mode. Zero gravity gives the effect of constant slo-mo so that the plot (Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins in the year 2020 embarking on a mission to rescue fellow astronaut Don Cheadle from a catastrophic Mars exploration) gets a consistently stylized treatment. This turns pulp into art. Indulging his love of steadicam long-takes, De Palma gives lyricism to almost every action in the story, starting with a backyard barbecue (in essence, a home video, a genre painting) on through a life-and-death struggle in the void.
De Palma never had a more mellifluous camera than Stephen H. Burum's here. His stalwart editor Paul Hirsch never cut more gracefully. Sheer poetry of movement results. Most people are indifferent to a film's visual rhythm; they only think in terms of plot?though try telling that to Cezanne or Debussy or James Brown. No one working in film today touches De Palma's visual wizardry. What Kubrick wanted to do in Dr. Strangelove's opening scene of copulating jets, De Palma does in excelsis, luxuriating in the calm, fluid movement of a spaceship's centrifuge, of bodies rising in air. (And he hasn't lost his impudence. When a husband and wife astronaut team are summoned mid-nuzzle, the amorous wife answers, "This is the cockpit.")
In the CGI era, we are so used to seeing the fantastic made graphic we've lost amazement. De Palma counters visual cynicism with mesmerizing slo-mo. Accept his plot and watch action as momentous as in the films of Matthew Barney (the self-proclaimed artiste celebrated in Harper's and in the Times). De Palma has surely seen Barney's Cremaster films?meditations on sensuality, spirituality, inner and outer space?and he does Barney's esoteric erotica proud. The floating blood and Dr Pepper scenes here are spellbindingly sensual (ingeniously underscored by Ennio Morricone's organ music plus guitar pluck and synth buzz). It's a poetic assertion of biological wonder, sci-fi agape?and isn't that, after all, the point of genre seriousness?
Trekkies and Star Warriors don't know what it means to have a major artist play out their sci-fi concerns. Mission to Mars takes mankind's space endeavors?the quest for the essence of life?to heart. Its midpoint NASA-and-death image is more shocking than anything in The Abyss, going all the way to tragedy, whereas James Cameron's bathoscope sequence was simply bathetic. De Palma's smooth, legato tempo ennobles the mournful, superbly orchestrated suspense. Yes, it has Kubrickian grandeur (minus The Blue Danube Waltz), but it also has Tarkovskian elegance, silent-movie profundity. Note the way video transmissions and control panel graphics are compacted, images within images, all in blissful, seductive rhythm. Unfortunately, De Palma's naysayers?comfortable with the triteness of sci-fi actioners like The Matrix or Armageddon?won't see how this magnificent technique conveys a vision of life akin to De Palma's Casualties of War.
De Palma singlehandedly matures the genre. Mission to Mars' message?"They're us, we're them"?refutes the silly us-vs.-them warfare of Independence Day and Star Wars. His anthropological embrace includes the discovery of a Martian edifice with African lines much like Cheadle's physiognomy; and Sinise's intense almond-eyes are uncannily alienish. We see the primordial-looking black man (Cheadle at one point recalls Richard Pryor's Mudbone) as different, but he's us; just as Sinise seems to intuit his own relation to an evolved species. We all are, visibly, related. One of the astronauts testifies, "The universe isn't chaos, it's connection...life reaching out to us." She expresses faith. (That's also where Walter Hill's Supernova was headed.) And De Palma confirms her beliefs by Mission's circular demonstration of life's regenerative cycle.
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