2013 First-Time Viewings: November Week 2

All Is LostAll Is Lost

*Spoiler warning for those who haven’t seen the film*

The one-man show has always been a deceptively tricky concept to pull off successfully on film. Despite its seemingly simple nature, if you don’t have someone in front of the camera who is able to command a viewer’s attention over an extended length of time, your one-man show isn’t going anywhere. From Philip Baker Hall in Secret Honor to Tom Hanks in the majority of Cast Away, the best examples of this type of film have always had that strong anchor at its center to keep it from drifting away in the minds of audiences. Fortunately for J.C. Chandor, fresh off the wordy ensemble drama Margin Call, he was able to round up one of the best anchors you could possibly hope for.  Even at age 77, Robert Redford still has a certain star charisma that few actors have ever been able to rival, a necessary trait for this tale of a solitary man who finds himself in a fight for his life at sea. Credited as simply Our Man, Redford gives a performance that is almost entirely physical. With maybe two minutes of total dialogue in the entire film, Redford instead earns interest simply through his stoic determination to fight through his predicament. Chandor gets an amazing amount of mileage out of Redford’s systematic actions; his initial recognition of his situation and subsequent reactions to new dilemmas are never anything less than completely engrossing. And for as long as Redford has a degree of control over his problems, All Is Lost is as compelling as anything seen onscreen in 2013.

But there comes a point in the film when Redford exhausts everything he can do, and his life or death boils down to pure and simple fate. This eventual lack of resourceful action turns the final quarter of the film into essentially one prolonged tease, a series of missed chances that Redford has very little, if any, control over. The final stretch of the film becomes more exasperating than anything else, and that exasperation continues all the way through the film’s ending. Without getting too specific, Chandor wants to have his conclusion both ways, and I’m not entirely sure he pulls it off. This may seem like a shallow criticism, but for me the fate of the main character has always been a key factor in films like this. It’s always been tough for me to accept spending such grueling time in the company of a character who ends up only prolonging the inevitable (I’m looking at you, Buried), and only in very rare circumstances does it come across as anything other than irritating miserablism. By choosing ambiguity over a definitive statement, I feel like Chandor robs the viewer of a satisfying release, and I couldn’t help but be annoyed by that final decision. There is so much to admire and embrace in All Is Lost that I only wish the endgame hadn’t left me as cold as it did. 7/10.

Violence At NoonViolence At Noon

The second film in Criterion’s Eclipse collection Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties. After the subtly subversive pulp narrative of 1965’s Pleasures Of The Flesh, director Nagisa Oshima returned one year later with a film that is thematically similar but stylistically quite different. Kei Sato plays the dastardly Eisuke, who as the film opens is entering an unfamiliar house, sexually assaulting the housemaid, and eventually murdering the owners. After this incident, the police begin to suspect Eisuke to be the High Noon Attacker, a serial rapist and murder terrorizing the country. It also becomes apparent that the housemaid has a history with Eisuke, and can confirm his identity. For reasons not initially clear, however, she is reluctant to make a statement, choosing instead to communicate with Eisuke’s wife, a mild-mannered schoolteacher. While this present storyline is unfolding, Oshima weaves in a series of flashbacks, which gradually reveal the sordid history between Eisuke and the two women.

No summary of the film can ignore Oshima’s confrontational stylistic choices, specifically the frantic editing style, with over 1,500 cuts over the span of 100 minutes. This, coupled with the filmmaker’s unconventional compositional tendencies, creates an overall experience that, while certainly unique, is not exactly the easiest to sit through. After awhile, I will admit to getting a headache from all the visual restlessness, and that’s not something I can ever recall happening to me. Whatever message Oshima is trying to convey in Violence At Noon seems unnecessarily obfuscated; Pleasures Of The Flesh had a pronounced style as well, but it was also a calmer film, and its style never distracted from its purpose. If you can get past the style, the details of the film reveal themselves as classic Oshima. You have the gender clashes and the focus on matters of sex and violence. You have the dark, seedy characters and angry political subtext. You have the appearance of the twisted/romantic Japanese action of double suicide, an element that also found its way into Pleasures Of The Flesh, but whose complete significance is admittedly lost on this Western viewer. Violence At Noon distinguishes itself thematically from its predecessor by shifting the perspective to two women; the central male figure, while a crucial component of the film, exists mostly as a dark presence lurking in the corner rather than as the main focus. This is all certainly material worthy of a deeper examination, and I’d be interested in reading interpretations more receptive than my own. But here comes the cop-out: while I can see Violence At Noon rewarding the patient over multiple viewings, I can’t see myself braving its stylistic excesses again to uncover extra meaning anytime soon.  5/10.

The SuitorThe Suitor

There’s something charmingly anachronistic about Pierre Etaix and his style of comedy. Still well-regarded for his skills as a circus performer, Etaix decided to try his hand at filmmaking in the 1960s, beginning with two critically-acclaimed short films before moving on to this feature-length debut from 1962.  Etaix was a friend and associate of Jacques Tati (he served as an assistant director on Mon Oncle), and there is certainly a fair amount of Tati in the comedy stylings of the film, about a timid man, still living with his parents, who embarks on a quest to find a suitable partner for marriage. But more than Tati, The Suitor will evoke memories of the comedy masters of a few decades prior. Moments of broad slapstick distinctly recall Charlie Chaplin, and there is a City Lights quality to the interactions between the main character and a Swedish housemaid. And Etaix himself, with his sunken cheeks and near-silent screen persona, projects a similar kind of deadpan stoicism as Buster Keaton, although Etaix has no qualms with presenting his character in a much more negative light. That final point is important; while it’s tough to say if The Suitor rises to the heights of its influences, the representation of the main protagonist highlights an important subtext that awards the film some extra staying power.

Most, if not all, of the film’s humor revolves around Etaix’s bumbling attempts to find a meaningful romantic connection. It’s revealed early on however that he has a debilitating problem communicating with women, and because of this, he finds himself retreating constantly to manufactured media representations of women instead. When he finally draws the affections of someone real, he retreats from her and creates a new obsession around a Brigitte Bardot-type on television. But when that obsession leads him to the woman, he immediately recoils from the reality of her life. This becomes a common theme throughout the film, the contrast between the fantasy and reality of women. Etaix plays someone who hasn’t quite figured out how to separate the two in his mind, and even the end, when he finally recognizes the match that’s been right in front of him the whole time, is more bittersweet than joyous. He may have found someone, but it won’t be a relationship built around meaningful communication. It’s one thing to deliver a feature debut that is consistently funny, and quite another to do that while also offering a nice helping of social commentary to go along with the laughs. Neat trick. 8/10.

La Guerre Est FinieLa Guerre Est Finie

The Spanish Civil War may be over, but the underground fight against the Franco regime still continues for many. A self-proclaimed “professional revolutionary” who is known by several names travels back from a mission in Spain to the safer ground of France. The trip has clearly taken a toll on the revolutionary, and he begins to express disillusionment with the grind of his underground profession. He is tired of the lack of success that has come from their tireless efforts, and he is ready to take a break, to spend more time with his loving girlfriend. But his superiors have other plans for him. So goes this 1966 film from Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year At Marienbad director Alain Resnais, a film that at the outset has the feel of a low-key political thriller before becoming more of a personal look into the dissatisfied mindset of a long-term political activist. And in part because the perpetually weary-looking and ever-cool Yves Montand plays that long-term political activist, Resnais has no trouble emphasizing that central dissatisfaction to the fullest. It’s like if the leftist leader from Z had lived long enough to eventually bemoan the complete lack of progress from the constant struggles.

As far as Resnais films go, this is one of the more accessible of his that I’ve seen. His films often concern themselves with memory, the past and the present and the relationship between them, and La Guerre Est Finie continues that focus. Although this story has a much more prominent narrative through-line than his other work, Resnais adds his own striking touches that emphasize that familiar theme of memory. Present action is often interrupted with brief, almost subliminal flashbacks to earlier times, as Montand contemplates to himself how many times he’s seen the same scenarios over the years and how little good it’s done. A narrator chimes in frequently to provide his own musings, although he breaks from tradition by speaking directly to Montand instead of at the viewer. The gap between past and present is made clear through the contrasting ideologies between Montand’s old-school tactics and the violent plans of a younger generation of revolutionaries. These touches give extra color to a film that takes a different and welcome approach to its political subject matter. Nothing in the film could be misconstrued for anything resembling heroic glory; instead, the focus is entirely on one solemn man being quietly worn down by his dangerous daily grind. 8/10.

Trailers:

Editing example in La Guerre Est Finie:

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About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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