Saturday, January 17, 2015

Anarchy and Imagination in ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO

Tony Zhou suggested that his Twitter followers watch Louis Malle’s 1960 comedy Zazie dans le métro in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, as a tribute to Paris. I’m so glad he did. Zazie is an endlessly fascinating film, subversive ultimately not for what it does show, but what it does not. By withholding information, Malle draws the viewer into his world, enlisting our imaginations as his co-directors and partners in crime.

One weekend, ten-year-old Zazie visits her uncle Gabriel in Paris. Gabriel, we quickly learn, spends his days immaculately turned out in men’s clothing, but dances every night away in women’s for a living. When Zazie goes to sleep, Gabriel’s “wife” Albertine takes his new dress out of the closet to put the finishing touches on it before his next performance. This dress stands in his apartment during scene after scene, reminding us of the performance we feel sure is soon to come.

Later, Gabriel and his fellow dancers rehearse while a man in a white wolf costume juggles torches.

After a funny sequence in which Gabriel almost bumps into him, this wolf-man remains in the background, always in frame even when our focus is not on him.

You just know something’s going to catch fire eventually.

Gabriel’s dress is like that torch-juggling wolf: its constant presence leads us to believe that we’ll eventually see him wearing it, just like the set must—and does—go up in flames.

Tantalizing hints and even wordplay increase this expectation. As Zazie’s uncle leaves the apartment, Albertine calls “Gabriel! You forgot your lipstick!” Gabriel—or Gabrielle? Wordplay abounds in Zazie, much of it unfortunately lost on me, the English subtitles flashing by so fast that I only just had time to notice that, for example, “obscenities” was spelled “obscelenities”—must less register that as a joke. The humor may not have translated, but I didn’t need subtitles to notice the ambiguity of Gabriel’s name—I could never be sure whether I was hearing the male or the female version. “Gabriel” was no doubt chosen for its gender neutrality, or rather its ability to move easily between genders or gender presentations, just like Gabriel himself.

We don’t see Gabriel perform that night. Malle teases us into thinking we’re about to: after Albertine calls “You forgot your lipstick!,” an orangey-red spotlight snaps on and and jaunty jazz music starts to play. Malle subverts our expectations, however, cutting not to the club but Zazie in the bathroom the next morning. That day, events conspire to make Gabril late to rehearsal. Tension mounts as he makes his way through the clogged Parisian street (the métro workers are on strike)—and as we, the audience, wait for the moment when he will finally take the stage. Surely the whole film is building toward that moment—isn’t it?

When Gabriel invites his friends to come see the show, we think, This is it! The big one! The one we’ve all been waiting for! Albertine brings Gabriel his dress—he takes it out of the box—a voice shouts “Gabriel, you’re on!”—and then Malle cuts to Gabriel’s empty dressing room, in which he confines us, Trouscaillon, Albertina, and Zazie for the duration of Gabriel’s performance. The camera moves adroitly around the room, but never leaves it. Somewhere out there, Gabriel is dancing, and we’re not allowed to watch. Spanish-sounding music, cheers, and applause filter through the walls; every time Albertine opens the dressing room door, it gets louder for a moment, taunting us with what we by now realize we’re never going to see.

Zazie is about not only the unseen, but the unheard. Several times, Malle turns down or speeds up the sound, muting crucial dialogue or turning it into gibberish. This first time this happens, Trouscaillon is chasing Zazie through the streets. When she calls for help, strangers crowd in a circle around her, asking eagerly, What did he do? What did he say? Zazie whispers something into one of their ears; that person whispers it to the person next to them, and that person to the person next to them, in a dirty game of telephone. Eyes widen all around Zazie: 360 degrees of shock. Later, Zazie and Trouscaillon eat french fries and mussels in a restaurant as Zazie tells him how her mother killed her father with a hatchet. It all went down when she returned from soccer to find her father alone in the house, drunk. “He starts kissing me. Why not? He’s my Pop.” And then bam, Zazie throws an empty mussel shell onto her plate, splattering the pedophile with juice—and the sound speeds up so we can no longer tell what she’s saying. As Zazie chatters on, she throws down mussel after mussel, the crash as they hit the plate combining with a series of abrupt, startling cuts to suggest the blows of the hatchet falling on her father’s head. (Every time a shell hits the plate, juice splashes Trouscaillon’s immaculate outfit and he cowers away, eventually ending up under the table. Zazie, like her mother, is a formidable adversary.) Malle heavily implies that Zazie’s mother walked in on her father molesting her—but because of the way Malle distorts sound in this scene, we must imagine this for ourselves.

Imagination, I think, is the key to this whole film: imagination, responsibility, and even culpability. We never see Gabriel in his dress—but we see the dress and we see Gabriel. By strategically giving and withholding information, Malle not only allows but encourages his audience to put two and two together, picturing Gabriel’s performance for ourselves. We even see Albertine modeling this in Gabriel’s dressing room twice during his performance:

Time #1
Time #2

Because Gabriel's dance takes place not on the screen, but in our minds, we actively participate in its creation: we are at once dancer and dance floor, the act and the space in which the act unfolds.

Zazie climaxes with an afterparty in a restaurant that quickly spins out of control. In the beginning, the room looks like this:

but soon enough hell breaks loose: glasses are smashed, food is thrown, fistfights break out left and right, and flimsy walls come crashing down. White-clothed waiters, enforcers of order and normalcy, pop into frame and try to get things under control, but they’re no match for Zazie, Gabriel, and the anarchy they represent. The room ends up looking like:

...that. And so, at least in some small way, does the viewer’s mind. By encouraging us to fill in his audio-visual blanks, Malle makes our minds an extension of his screen—they become, if you will, the restaurant from the end of the film: windows shattered, walls knocked down, and law enforcement unconscious on the floor. Zazie, at one point, declares, “To hell with the not-wilds”; we walk out of this film a little more wild inside than when we walked in. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Babadook and the Basement

I am trying really hard to finish stuff lately. Someone once asked FilmCritHULK on Twitter whether they should make one good short film or three bad ones and HULK said three bad ones because the one “good” one isn’t going to be good anyway. My problem usually is that I post things too soon—and that when I do edit, it never feels substantial. I’m not deleting whole paragraphs or restructuring entire posts. But hey, at least I’m finishing them! I’d like to find balance between giving myself permission to write badly and trying to write the best stuff I can.

Here is a post about The Babadook that I originally posted to Tumblr on December 31st, 2014 (my 24th birthday!).

Let The Babadook stand as a perfect example of how, when I write about movies, I almost always end up enjoying them more. I didn’t like this one all that much while I was watching it, but I did appreciate how well the monster worked as a metaphor—and when I started writing about that metaphor (in my journal, longhand, as a warmup before working on something else), I began to understand it better, and my appreciation not only for it but for the film as a whole increased.

Seven years ago, Amelia’s husband Robbie died in a car crash driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to their son. (The film opens with a nightmarish flashback to this death, establishing its importance.) Now that son, Samuel, is in first grade he won’t stop talking about—and obsessively planning to kill—a monster called the Babadook. When a popup book about this very Babadook appears on his bookshelf, however, and Amelia reads it aloud to him, the monster makes itself known to her as well, demanding that she let it in. Amelia does so, quite literally: in a POV shot from the Babadook’s perspective, it swoops down into her open, screaming mouth.

The Babadook is a metaphor for the aftereffects of Robbie’s death. Trauma and grief is what truly stalks this family, threatening not only their sanity but their very lives. Kent makes this clear in several ways—in one scene, for example, the Babadook appears to Amelia in the guise of her dead husband. But the most interesting tool Kent uses to explore the Babadook-as-metaphor is a physical space: the basement of Amelia’s home, where she keeps her husband’s things and which represents the deepest, darkest part of her mind, the part that has not come to terms with his death. Several crucial scenes are set there, beginning with:

Scene 1: The Magic Show. This scene takes place before the Babadook manifests itself to Amelia, showing us what her and Samuel’s respective relationships to Robbie are like. Samuel interacts with the space in several different ways. He happily practices magic tricks in it, with a row of stuffed animals and a framed photo of his father for an audience, but earlier in the film he’s also shown building weapons and traps for the Babadook down there (a rope tied across the stairs to trip it; a miniature crossbow that shoots darts). Samuel is both trying to connect with the father he never knew—by performing for his photograph and playing with his things—and preparing to do battle with the effects of that same father’s death. Either way, the room is open to him; he moves freely in and out of it after stealing the key from his mother.

Amelia, for her part, keeps the room locked because she can’t bear to descend into the part of her mind it represents: the part that hasn’t fully processed her husband’s death. She may well not have gone down there once in the past seven years. As if afraid of what memories Samuel might awaken down there, she chastises him for making a mess when she finds him practicing magic tricks down there—then clutches the photo of her husband to her chest moments later, overjoyed at the reminder of a time when she was happy. Good and bad, Amelia has locked her memories of her husband in this basement of her mind—and it is from this basement that the Babadook is born…

Scene 2: The Fight. …and in this basement that she will do battle with it.

Once Amelia lets the Babadook in, the popup book’s grim prophecies begin to come true. First Amelia snaps the neck of their little white dog; then she goes after Samuel. Using the traps originally set for the Babadook, he knocks her unconscious, then ties her up on the floor. When Amelia wakes up, she breaks free from the ropes and begins to strangle her son—only to then break free from the Babadook, and start to finally fight it. Earlier in the film, Amelia invited the Babadook—the darkest dark of her—in, inhabiting it as fully as it inhabited her. Now she expels that darkness, vomiting Mister Babadook up as treacly black liquid. Amelia and Samuel make their way upstairs to her bedroom, where one final showdown awaits them. “You are nothing!” Amelia screams, defying the monster for once and for all. In a POV shot from the Babadook’s perspective, we see it flee from the room and scuttle downstairs to the basement from whence it came.

Scene 3: The Bowl. How was Jennifer Kent going to end her movie? Using the greatest monster movie of all time as my reference, I figured she had one of two options. Amelia could either kick the alien out of the airlock, or the alien could rip Amelia’s head off, sit down at the controls, and start speaking in her voice—as it did to Ripley in an alternate ending that I learned about from the DVD extras of Alien. In other words, absolute victory or absolute defeat. Kent, though, deftly avoids this binary in favor of a smarter, more complex, and ultimately more hopeful ending.

In a sunny final scene, we see just how much has changed since the Babadook was banished to the basement. In the popup book, he warned that “The more you deny, the stronger I get”; by the end of the film, Amelia and Samuel are no longer in denial about their husband and father’s death. They’re celebrating Samuel’s birthday on the actual day, for one thing. Both also talk openly about why they haven’t done so for the past seven years. Earlier in the film, when Samuel announces to a stranger in the supermarket that his father died driving his mother to the hospital to give birth to him, Amelia silences him him, angry and humiliated. In this last scene, though, when he tells the same story to two social workers, Amelia not only corroborates it but rewards him for telling it by comparing him to his father: “They both speak their mind.” Samuel’s frankness is an asset, not a flaw—and proof that he’s come to terms with his past.

And so has his mother. An unusual shot that begins underground and travels up through the dirt to Amelia, kneeling in the sunlit garden, represents her trajectory from darkness to light. The end result of that journey? She’s digging for worms to feed the Babadook, which has taken up permanent residence in the basement. How is he? Samuel asks. “Quiet today,” Amelia replies, acknowledging the fluctuating nature of her and her son’s mental states. On other days, perhaps, Mister Babadook will be louder, and there’s no magic trick that can disappear him completely, but there is another magic trick of sorts they can perform—a quotidian one, maybe, but no less miraculous for that. Robbie’s death will always be a fact of Amelia and Samuel’s life, and not one that can be kicked out of the airlock—but one that they can accept. And now that they’ve done that, never will it terrorize them again. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Wild and "Cinematic" Adaptations

I have like four different blogs. It's a problem. There's the Tumblr where I log the books I read, the Tumblr where I write about movies I've seen (and the Letterboxd account where I log them), the Tumblr where I write about TV and video games and other stuff that doesn't fit in a strictly book or strictly movie Tumblr (but also sometimes books and movies too), and then there's this. I dearly wish that there was some way of consolidating it all in one place in chronological order, but since (a) there isn't one that I know of, at least not one that would make it look exactly like I want it to and (b) moving it all to one blog would be a ton of work, I'll just make more of an effort to post here exclusively from now on. I'm also going to move some of my more recent posts from other blogs over here, starting with one about Wild (the movie) that I wrote on December 28th.

Wild the book was always going to be a challenge to adapt into Wild the film. The book is a first-person memoir, perhaps the ideal format for a story like this, which is about an internal journey as much as an external one. Its protagonist, Cheryl Strayed, spends a significant amount of time completely alone. How do you tell such an inherently uncinematic story in a cinematic way?

Well, if you’re Jean-Marc Vallée, you kind of don’t.

Here’s what you do do:

  1. You use flashbacks. A lot of them. These are usually triggered by something happening in the present. When Cheryl puts a red rape whistle in her mouth, for example, she flashes back to sucking on a man’s finger during sex. While hitchhiking to the beginning of the trail, a song on someone’s radio reminds her of the time her mother danced to that same song in their kitchen. A line of Adrienne Rich’s poetry, read outside her tent after a meal of “cold mush” at the end of her first day on the trail, transports her back to a college classroom. Vallée uses these sensory triggers to smooth out what could otherwise be jarring transitions. What’s odd, though, is how Vallée and his editor, Martin Pensa (Vallée himself is actually credited as an editor, under the name “John Mac McMurphy”—thanks, IMDb!) cut these flashbacks: very very fast, like, well, lightning flashes of memory, and often mixed together out of sequence. It kind of counteracts the fluid effect of the past-to-present transitions I mentioned above (David Denby, in the New Yorker, notes that "we end up watching film editing, not consciousness"), but it also tells us how unpredictable these memories are, lying in wait to ambush Cheryl at any time.
  2. You have Cheryl speak her thoughts aloud, or you use voiceover. Lots of it. Both for comic relief (Cheryl’s expletive-laden internal monologues, for example, which begin about a minute in to her first day of hiking) and for important emotional climaxes. In the final scene, Cheryl crosses the Bridge of the Gods into Washington State—the last leg of her journey—accompanied by a long voiceover soliloquy, which I assume was lifted verbatim from her book. In the car after the movie, my brother Loren said he didn’t understand the conclusion she came to in this scene. As I began to explain it, I realized I couldn’t; the voiceover was so long that my mind had wandered and I'd stopped paying attention to it. The ending made emotional sense to me even without it, though, which perhaps speaks to how unnecessary it was. From the part I did hear, it sounds like Strayed is a competent writer, and I understand wanting to keep a passage like that in the movie, but its effect on both Loren and I suggests that it wasn't particularly, well, effective.
  3. You use insert shots and on-screen text. There are notebooks placed at intervals along the Pacific Crest Trail in which hikers record their name and the date; Cheryl also jots down quotes by her favorite writers (Emily Dickinson, for example) in them. In Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting episode about how texts and the Internet are represented in film, he posits that (Western, live action) filmmakers haven’t quite figured out how to depict the Internet visually yet, but that Sherlock has solved the texting problem by using elegantly placed on-screen text instead of insert shots. Interestingly, Vallée shows us the first of Cheryl’s quote using an insert shot of the notebook plus voiceover of Cheryl reading it, which is clunky; from then on, the quotes appear as on-screen text, in her handwriting, a much more efficient and visually pleasing solution.
  4. And finally, when all else fails, you use dreamlike (and sometimes nightmarish) visual metaphors to represent what Cheryl is thinking and feeling. Cheryl’s mother appears on the trail in front of her several times like an apparition; she’s also represented by an inquisitive fox that Cheryl encounters at different points along the trail. At one point, during a flashback/nightmare about her mother’s horse—which her brother put down with a rifle after their mother’s death—blood soaks through the roof of Cheryl’s tent, dripping down onto her face.

All of the above are solutions—some effective, some less so—to the problem of adapting this book. But those solutions aren’t the most interesting—and certainly not the most compelling—part of the movie. Wild is a great example of how talking about form alone is never enough—content is equally important. Wild is the kind of story that’s all too rare at the multiplex these days: a story that not only is not, but could not be about a man. A story specifically about the perils and joys of navigating the world as a woman—a petite, blonde, attractive woman alone in the woods. Pretty much every time Cheryl encountered a man on the trail, my heart leapt to my throat. In an early scene, Vallée plays on audience expectations, making us think Cheryl is in danger when she isn’t. Later, though, we see just how right we were to be afraid for her when she runs into a hunter who spies on her while she’s changing clothes. I like your panties, he tells her. They look good on you. “Please don’t say that,” Cheryl says, voice gone soft with fear. Only the appearance of another hunter saves her. Had any number of circumstances been just slightly different—had that second hunter, for example, been in the mood for rape too—we would be watching a very different story, and Vallée makes sure we know it. (As David Denby points out, though, Strayed is a sexual woman, and her encounters with men are "fraught . . . with possibility" as well as danger.)

American cinema needs more stories about women, more stories written by women, and more stories directed by women—and Wild ticks two out of those three boxes. It may not have been directed by a woman, but it was brought into being by one—Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard, optioned Strayed’s book for Witherspoon to star in. Whether Wild a good or bad movie, or even a "cinematic" one, isn’t really the point—the point is that it’s rare. Ideally, Wild would be one woman’s story out of a great many at the multiplex. We’re not there yet, but if anything’s going to help us get there, it is movies like this.