About a Guy Named Robby on the Fourth of July

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I don’t have much to say about the death of Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller, but I do have things I want to say starting from the observation of how very appropriate it feels that – even as a person who was by all means an international transient (I don’t know if, for all his work in this country, he ever turned citizen) – possibly did more to shape my view of the United States of America than any other cinematographer who ever lived. This is possibly something that rubbed off on him from his first and most well-known collaborator, the German genius of the road movie Wim Wenders, but it’s something that was maintained even well after their last work together in 1991.

It’s probably most relatable to me that neither Müller or Wenders were truly America, but they were fascinated by the myth of America and how they could dissect it to landscapes of lonely stretches of silence like Alice in the Cities opens on adopting the malaise of its journalist lead attempting to collect all the high-contrast images we see in black and white he took through out the continental nation into some comprehensive glimpse of the country and only getting a tired incomplete perspective out of it before returning to the same void he felt in Europe or Paris, Texas – arguably the best work of either and definitely the more direct investigation on America – interrupting the sparse baked textures of identity-less deserts with towering dwarfing edifices of downtown Houston’s skyscrapers, both supplying a uniform sense of wayward melancholy informed by the hot colors once the characters reach metropolis. With Wenders, Müller was able to take the biggest patch of nothing in Southern America and create a mirror for the weary traveller in the United States.

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And when Müller began branching out to further English language productions headed by different filmmakers, he’d find new angles on which to look at the country. I’m sure by now it is known what my feelings towards the like-wise foreign-born Alex Cox’s Repo Man are, but it should not be denied how effectively Cox and Müller turned the urban concrete jungle of Los Angeles into an expression of its punk population’s anger and the cutthroat attitudes of its working class. Or likewise, behind William Friedkin’s crime drama To Live and Die in L.A., where Müller collapses the same city into varying pieces based on how they function as a crooked extension of the empty and corrupt souls of its characters. One city, two different lens by one cinematographer.

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If I am to consider Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark one of the better films in a filmography I’ve grown cold to over the years, it’s strictly on the power of Müller being able to take a Lynchian alien quality to the industrialization of the country and apply it headfirst to both amplify the deliberate drabness of this melancholy musical and to apply an American personality to a film by a filmmaker who frankly never stepped foot in the country (and his later films Dogville and Manderlay both visually betray von Trier’s lack of knowledge on America, neither of them shot by Müller). And hell, Müller never needed to go outside as Barfly‘s muddy whisky browns of a drinking establishment cover as much of Mickey Rourke’s sloppy look as possible before the bitter whites and grays of the outside world (even in his character’s very own apartment) give a stark contrast of reality.

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Of course, I’m always going to be more enamored with outsider perspectives of the United States than anybody else, but I think Müller’s most definitive work as the man who captured all areas of America’s spirit for me is with his later collaborations with Jim Jarmusch and I imagine Jarmusch brought out as much of the best of Müller’s work as Wenders did: in three different usages of Müller’s penchant for stark black-and-white, Jarmusch is able to apply them to bring stark reality to the injustices of the “justice” system in Down by Law, a funereal sobriety to the deconstruction of the Western myth (both genre and culture) in Dead Man, and just a relaxed casualness to the minimalistic vignettes in Coffee and Cigarettes. Meanwhile, Müller was also there to bring color to Jarmusch’s vision of Memphis with Mystery Train, taking care to establish the cool blues Jarmusch was aiming for while interrupting them with blasts of red whenever Screamin’ Jay Hawkins walks into the room or the Japanese tourists pull in their bags. Or translating that cool into urban textures that meditate with Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, perhaps one of the coolest movies ever made from a filmmaker whose whole aesthetic was “cool”.

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Anyway, I guess I’m just saying that it’s inevitable but unfortunate that Müller had to go because while I can’t imagine Wenders and Jarmusch would have been two of my favorite filmmakers without his grace and moreso on the 4th of July because I don’t think America will ever look as dynamic and interesting on the silver screen without him.

R.I.P. 4 April 1940 – 4 July 2018
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Living for the City

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So, where I left off talking about Wings, I was discussing a very unfortunate discrepancy involved in the very 1st Academy Awards on May 1929. You see, there were in fact TWO equally highest honors in the ceremony and while one of them – The Academy Award for Outstanding Picture – was adopted over the years into what would eventually become The Academy Award for Best Picture, the second honor was disposed of before the following year’s ceremony. That honor was The Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture and the main source for ire and controversy comes from the fact that the former would be awarded to Wings while the latter would be awarded to F.W. Murnau’s lovely melodrama Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and practically everybody who has had the fortune of seeing both films recognizes that Sunrise is far and away the much better picture, making the abandonment and denial of its place in Academy history feel something like a heavy slight. Then again it’s kind of very easy to find such actions a slight and recognize Wings as the inferior choice when Sunrise is among several consensus picks for the very best film ever made and if you’re expecting me to break with consensus, nahhhhhhhh son. I’m basic like that too.

1927 is a year like no other in cinema. It’s right in the middle of that fantastic period in the late 1920s where the early experimentation inherent in the creation of a new artform – particularly led by European filmmakers and film industries, where each nation had its own vocabulary to visual storytelling – led to it taking the sort of narrative shapes we recognize as common in the movies we watch today, yet at the time of those films’ release, they were probably fresh enough to be mind-expanding to audiences. It’s especially great, in my eyes, when such filmmaking techniques can be seen as innovative in modern circumstances, just from the roughness of their genesis having a kind of realness to what we’re watching. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans does not just feel innovative – like we’re watching the beginnings of cinema anew – it feels heavily expressive and moving to an almost schmaltzy way.

1927 also happened to be the era in which European filmmakers were now being brought over to Hollywood on the merit of their talents, particularly Germans with their heightened shadow-based Expressionism style heralding Hollywood Studios’ interests in using that for genre tales, such as horror. F.W. Murnau was one such filmmaker – with possibly his most famous work, the vampire story Nosferatu, and the fable adaptation of Faust under his belt – but horror was not the genre for which he was recruited for. In fact, William Fox wanted Murnau to make whatever film he wanted with Fox’s production.

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Whatever film Murnau wanted to make turned out to be a picture about a tale written by Carl Mayer so simple and straightforward, it doesn’t even afford proper names to its subjects. Our primary couple is the Man (George O’Brian) and The Wife (Janet Gaynor) and they both live in the Countryside separate from the City where the vampish Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) comes from to start an affair with the Man. The Man is so corrupted by this relationship outside of his marriage that he becomes malleable to the Girl from the City’s suggestions of leaving with her to live with in the City, but this would only be possible if The Man kills his wife (they are ambiguous as to what should happen with their infant child). The particular plan goes that The Man would take The Wife across the water that separates The Countryside from the City and arrange her drowning to look like an accident, but the Man finds himself unable to go through with it. The Wife, understandably frightened by her husband, rushes away when they get to shoreline while the Man chases her and her forgiveness into the City and it takes a while but they find their love for each other renewed in the day they spend enjoying the sites and sounds of the metropolis they found themselves in.

Certainly a story with major incidents but not much depth beyond the insistence on love triumphing over doubt and fear and a balanced ability to find room for the serenity in the simplicity of life in the Countryside – captured by cinematographers Karl Struss & Charles Rosher in a dreamy light haze that makes the day scenes glow and the night scenes become smoky and inky – yet merriment in the busy attitude of the City – brought to glorious toppling life from the ground up by uncredited art director Rochus Gliese in solid angular modeling and exciting lights, aided by an ambient soundtrack from Fox’s Movietone technology that gave us crowd noises, train sounds, and car sounds to immerse us into the city of The Man and the Wife’s pursuits.

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In any case, Sunrise is not a movie that tries to hide what emotions it thinks you’re supposed to feel. Expressionism earns its name for a reason and Murnau was possibly the most well-regarded filmmaker to invoke Expressionism in the majority of his work (I at one point called him the greatest filmmaker of all time and would probably still hold him in my top ten. I certainly still swear by most of his stuff.), he was interested in using as many toys he could pull out of the box from rear projection to chiaroschuro (especially used in moments that imply the Man’s capability for violence) and even my favorite, title cards that transformed with the mood and morphed (the only other film I can recall doing this so effectively, maybe even better than Sunrise, is Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary of the same year from another German Expressionist filmmaker come to Hollywood). All of these toys are used to project those feelings as directly as possible to the audience and it feels fine for a story that intends to be nothing more than fable, devoted to traditional story tropes from the very beginning. The archness of O’Brien’s foreboding presence where it feels like every step he takes is dragged by a weight alone and Gaynor’s muted but spirited feminity (as opposed to the loudness of Livingston’s flapper stereotype) is just another tool for Murnau to use to present that.

Everything about Sunrise comes together well. It feels ambitious even in moments where it’s only character based moments like when the couple are in a church musing upon their ordeal. It has a sharp handle on tone, such as when the affair between the Man and the Woman from the City turns a bit more towards Murnau’s familiar horror in a psychological sense, or one of my favorite instances, a perfect tossaround between happiness at the couple freshening up at a barber shop, followed by uncomfortable black comedy at the Wife being hit on by an insistent patron there, followed by turning again into brief horror as the Man threatens said patron with a pocketknife, before back to comedy as he frightens him with a swipe. The abstractness of the story made it all just so easy for Murnau and editor Harold D. Schuster to form single scenes into great big emotions while indulging playfully in moments like the Couple dancing at a fair and chasing a pig.

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This is silent cinema. It needs to be bold. It has no room for subtlety. Murnau was one of the greatest because he recognized that and yet he afforded his storytelling a level of sophistication because he took pride in his craft and looking for new ways to change up the shapes of emotions on the screen. And I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t have been proud of the films he gave us nor should I be surprised that the director of The Last Laugh – my very first Murnau picture – is good at using award-winning visuals and performance (Sunrise also has the distinction of winning the very first Oscars for Best Actress and Cinematography) to manipulate our emotions and sympathies with our characters. Only that he was THAT fucking good, for Sunrise is a movie I’ve hardly ever seen improved upon in the 89 years since its release.

In the end, the arbitrary committee and decision-making that led to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans being unceremoniously snubbed feels unfair to this day, especially appalling to me given that it’s in my top ten favorite movies, and so if I had to utilize this upcoming series to rewrite history in any manner as befits my tastes, it would be to recognize Sunrise as one of the first recipients of what was one of the highest honors American cinema would receive, a good pin on what the movie would promise for the medium it took to such dizzying heights, even when Oscar had to be retroactive in its own recognition for its merits.

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No, it’s a Bird.

Ok, so I’m going to be upfront.

This weekend the most notable wide release is Dumb and Dumber To, which I can’t think of anyone wanting to see beyond sheer nostalgia. The rest of the possible remaining movies on the marquee are the simplistic Gone Girl (which you probably saw already), the not-for-everyone John Wick, the boisterous Interstellar and some others I won’t list because I’m lazy and want to get to my review.

But last night, from what I understand, Birdman opened in 800 theaters finally. And if I am correct, it will only be in that many theaters for ONE week.

Go see Birdman.

And now I back it up. I honestly did not expect to like Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – a title that is such an afterthought and too long that I’m only typing it once. In fact, I didn’t even expect myself to go watch it. It’s been a long while since I ended up actually liking the stuff director Alejandro González Iñárritu, I still want my time wasted for Babel back.

I also don’t very much care for one-shot scenes most of the time. They usually call too much attention to themselves, a catch-22 when the original idea is to reel you into the scenario a lot more. I think that idea is largely lost though by the fact that most filmmakers don’t use it as an involvement technique of cinematography, but just to show off “Oh look how much we can get done in one shot.”

Emmanuel Lubezki is in fact one of the few cinematographers I think can actually not call attention to himself. His career is made up of tastefully composed and spread-out one-shot sequences that leave you realizing what they are only after the fact (and he’s usually helped by a fantastic editor who knows when and where to use them – In this particular case, Douglas Crise & Stephen Mirrone, though they are less there as a source of pacing for Lubezki’s beautiful eye and more to very astoundingly work at making the cuts near unrecognizable unless you really look for them; the pace for these moments seems to be granted by the throbbing drumroll of a score by world-class drum legend Antonio Sánchez).

But Birdman’s special form of presenting itself as a one-shot film (not including some semi-avant garde montages, the grand total of “shots” in Birdman is three) for most of its duration is special in not being cinematic. It’s extremely literary. It’s a visual translation to the stream-of-consciousness writing style. It’s why some things in the film don’t make sense, timewise or locationwise, in its presentation. We’re thinking with Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) as he just gathers himself in different places at different times. The movie makes this clear from the very first second it begins… the man is floating in midair, attempting to act serene as he sits on his invisible hand staring at a window, wondering “how did we get here?”

Who is Riggan Thomson, though? An actor once thrust into the limelight for his appearances in the blockbuster Birdman series, before inadvertently making a mess of his career by refusing to do a fourth movie. Now, a significant amount of decades after the fact, he is trying to clean his career back up in a revival at the St. James Theater. The play in question is an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and Riggan is involved creatively at all points, directing, writing, and having his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifinakis) produce the production while Riggan himself finances it. He’s put everything on the line for this play, even things unrelated to the play whatsoever like his relationship to his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is fresh out of rehab and has a very strained attitude to her dad, threatening to tear them apart.

Also threatening to ruin Riggan’s career and life with it are his actors, such as the last-minute addition actor of Mike Shiner (Edward Norton with a hairstyle that while probably serving as one of many subtle bird images in the film, just reminds me of James Dean. A lot.) who quickly proves himself to be just as much an asshat and a control freak to severe levels as he is an amazing actor, Shiner’s girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) who is looking forward to making it as a actress, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who Riggan is apparently sleeping with. The upcoming previews and opening performances are the final time-setter in this bomb Riggan finds himself inside of and he’s hoping to make it out alive.

See, now it’s especially funny that the movie is based on making itself as literary as possible simply through visuals and especially at focusing on a Raymond Carver tale because the movie itself feels like a Raymond Carver tale. Of course, one set in New York rather than the Southwest US and one that has a focus more on the upper class than the middle class, but its thematic appeals, its structure, its emotional focuses, they’re Carver in nature and maybe it’s because we happen to be in the mind of Riggan for most of the film and Riggan quickly proclaims himself a fan of Carver, but there it is – The script by Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris, & Nicolás Giacobo certainly pits a bunch of minds together to try to make the film seem like a singular thought following all the fears and anxieties of a man at the edge, and despite it being an actor on the stage who has the world staring at him, it is surprisingly easy to relate to for any layman, whether at midlife crisis or in the middle of a life crisis. If there is one problem with the writing, it sometimes tangles over itself – for one, constantly we see Riggan as he perceives himself – capable of psychic powers and superhuman displays of strength and flight. It very much cements the fact that we are watching from the mind of Riggan, but the movie constantly parades an ambiguity into these moments that suggests possibly Riggan’s powers are real and it grasps onto this presentation especially to its final shot. I’m sure it’s fun for audiences to ask themselves those kinds of questions, but the problem is that this attempt at ambiguity is weighted towards one side; if the powers are real, the movie loses most of its theme.

In addition, for a movie that is supposed to have a centralized point of view, there are more than a few scenes that Riggan just doesn’t even appear in at all, with only one of them seeming to be essential to the storytelling while the rest are really great, entertaining scenes that still are pretty disposable in regards to the rest of the film. This is Riggan’s world, these are his own shadows he is trying to escape, let’s try to keep it Riggan’s world and let’s keep focusing on those shadows instead. But that’s just me.

Of course, this is the sort of script that is tailored for a certain lead actor to shine in. The kind of movie made for acting. And that actor blessed with this opportunity is Michael Keaton. Ignoring the obvious parallels in career (ironically, Keaton claims Riggan is the furthest character he has ever played from his own personality), Keaton still is at his best form, not only since his obscurity post-Batman, but in his whole career yet. He channels his frenzied stage persona to a tune that the audience can keep up with without feeling alienated (unlike his performance in RoboCop which… ugh), he has an underlaying melancholy that gives so much to the movie’s atmosphere, and especially a constant danger with every twitch of the finger and whisper to himself. Keaton as Riggan is just the cherry on-top of one of the better casts I have witnessed in 2014, even including some surprisingly revelatory performances from actors I was starting to get tired of, Emma Stone, Zach Galifinakis, and Edward Norton all are actors with as much to prove as Riggan and they damn well prove it against me earlier bias. Just Innaritu proves he can still be a fantastic source of comedy and that all his precise work can be used to actually say something than be a pointless display of technique. I have a lot of re-thinking to do about him.

Listen, Birdman is a really funny movie. A surprisingly psychological movie. An unrelentingly dramatic movie. If you’re going to watch any movie this week, watch Birdman. You can catch Nightcrawler, Interstellar or Whiplash next week, you’re not missing much with the others, and if you took forever to see The Boxtrolls, you deserve to miss it.

Treat yourself with Birdman.