The Gaze

The Gaze

Today I want to talk about the act of looking in film. Looking is perhaps the simplest activity one can do. You just open your eyes, and that’s it – you’re looking. When we see a movie we look at the screen, we look at the characters, we look at the story unfold.
One thing about looking in film is that we often confuse the act of looking with the act of witnessing something. A lot of movies nowadays feel extremely distant, and not because of their plots or the narrative they use, but because they aim to tell a story without needing the participation of the viewer. Witnessing a movie means trying to figure out what’s going on. Usually when people get into an argument on screen we feel detached from their reality. We feel like a bunch of intruders walking into the lives of those strange people. We’re clearly unwanted.
Then there is looking, and looking, if done right, can be the epitome of a true cinematic experience. When we look at a film, at a story, at a moving frame, we’re not viewers anymore. We’re more than that. We’re participants. That is why today I chose Jean-Pierre Melville’s brilliant crime film from 1970, Le Cercle Rouge, to try and make an argument about the importance of the act of looking.

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Looking as a key to everything you could ever wish for.

Le Cercle Rouge could be considered by the average viewer a typical crime film with the policeman chasing the bad guys, but trust me. It is more than what’s on the surface. The film’s cast is pure French acting royalty: Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Gian Maria Volonte and Andre Bourvil. And the remarkable thing about this cast of actors is that their chemistry does not get in the way of the story. It is not underwhelming and at the same time it is far from overwhelming. They are just there. Doing what they’re paid to do.
However, what stands out the most about these actors is their capability of looking at each other and conveying a thought just with the use of the simple act of looking. When Delon looks at the camera we get reassurance and inner peace.  When Montand looks at a mirror we get insecurity and error. When it is Volonte’s turn we get wit and perseverance. And at last, when Bourvil confronts us with his eyes we get compassion and arrogance.
This film (much like the rest of Melville’s filmography) is mostly based on the physicality of the action that takes place in the unfolding of the story. Le Cercle Rouge has in fact a simple plot, very little dialogue and whenever a character says something, the sentences are very robotic, characterized by quick rhythm and low intonation. Most secondary characters that appear in this movie have very little to say but an awful lot to do: they engage in gunfights, beatings, car chases and manhunts. Melville does not care about character development or inspirational speeches made during the last five minutes. No. What he does care about is telling a story through the use of movement captured on camera. His attention to detail is perhaps only matched by the likes of Bresson and Hitchcock.

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Is there any difference between the power of a cold look and a pointed gun?

In order to present the following scene I’ll just set it up nicely for those of you have yet to watch the film. The three robbers are planning to steal huge amounts of jewelry and diamonds and sell them on the black market to a trusted buyer.  The heist is to take place in a security covered building where every inch of the area is being monitored by cameras, wires and motion detectors. The jewels are hidden inside bulletproof glass vaults. The heist sequence is in theory very basic, but the way Melville manages to sell it to us is remarkable. There is no dialogue for the entire 25 minutes.
Clearly inspired by its French noir predecessor, Rififi, and its earlier Hollywood take, The Asphalt Jungle, Melville’s crime thriller observes the heist taking place not from the perspective of a random bystander or witness (something usually found in the Bourne Trilogy or even in a movie like Captain Phillips) but rather with the eyes of the camera hidden in the far corner of the room.
The lack of any major sound or music during this sequence not only helps in making the action seem smoother and more realistic but it also serves to heighten the tension of each step one of the three robbers take in order to get to the jewels. Each movement comes at a price and as you wait for something bad to happen, Melville drags you into his world by making you observe what most of us would usually consider to be boring, uneventful and uninteresting. It is the simplicity of what you see that makes this entire watch incredibly special and unlike anything you’ll encounter in most crime thrillers of Hollywood production.

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The three robbers in their own little worlds.

Another topic I want to cover is the way the characters interact with one another. Most scenes include only one or two of the main characters together, separating each storyline and creating a sense of alienation within the criminal underworld these characters belong to. Alain Delon’s Corey is the one character we get to observe the most. Delon’s on-screen presence is very demanding and the attention he brings to himself even in scenes where he meets other characters, such as fellow gangsters or mob bosses, is the trademark of this movie. It seems as if he’s always capable of transmitting a certain sense of hostility with little to no effort. When he teams up with Volonte and Montand’s characters, he behaves just as he did when he acted on his own. His dead-pan expression turns the observer into the observed. While the remaining characters often face mirrors and reflections of themselves, and usually they reflect upon the sight of it, Delon is the one who faces the camera more frequently than anybody else without even blinking an eye. As much as we get to look at him we really don’t know if he’s good or bad, or if we should even be rooting for him at all. His gaze is a challenge to the viewer, a pit-stop on the 2h20 long journey this movie has to offer.
Each character we meet on this journey is unaffected by the people around him. What I mean is, the environment does not offer any kind of change. The environment, similarly to the characters, is just there, because it has to be there. There is no sense of palpable change, the atmosphere is the same all the way through and that is perhaps due to the fact that Melville insists on making his viewers pay attention to the physical, material details, rather than the abstract, the spiritual.
It is safe to say that this movie is one of the ‘manliest’ movies ever made because of how well structured it is and simultaneously stripped of any useless (in Melville’s opinion) cinematic layers such as plot, character development and a conclusion.

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The challenge.

The act of looking is a deadly weapon. You see the right things and you immediately have the upper hand. Melville says, ‘Trust me.’

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Who’s got the upper hand now?

 

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Hateful Love

Hateful Love

Creating conflict in film is an extremely hard task to carry out. The characters must be believable, their actions must be motivated and triggered by something, the dialogue and the action cannot fall flat and the whole story must end with some kind of development. Conflict cannot be stagnant. Many writers have failed in delivering an honest depiction of conflict, they usually get caught up in their words, they fall in love with them, and end up writing a very robotic screenplay.
Take August: Osage County, the 2013 Oscar nominated movie about a shattered family getting back together after the death of a family member, based on a play by the same title. What it tried to achieve was a violent portrayal of a family falling to pieces, mothers, daughters and sons turning their backs on each other. What it failed to do was to make the conflict feel human. The characters, mainly the ones played by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, are incredibly artificial in the way they function. There is nothing human about them and the way they act. Everything seems make-belive for the screen and in fact, it is. And that’s why it failed so miserably at telling a story that could have been otherwise special and significant in terms of its underlying themes. 
Glengarry Glen Ross, 
on the other hand, also based on Mamet’s play (who also wrote the script for the movie) succeeds in creating conflict because of the setting it uses. The characters act like robots because of the environment they find themselves operating in. Their world has no mercy. A real estate firm that is struggling to stay afloat. It is the reason for their hostility towards each other, it keeps them going; their mission is to make it until the end of the day. Dog eat dog, and it works.
However, today I want to go over a film that perhaps initiated this whole verbal war of two or more parties. A film that was directed by a masterful artist who knew how the human mind worked but wanted to know more, wanted to get to the core of it. This man, Ingmar Bergman, was intrigued by relationships and life in general, and there is no finer example for this than his drama made in 1978, Autumn Sonata.

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Ingrid Bergman’s finest hour right before her death couldn’t have been more appropriate considering the theme this particular movie tackles. Ingrid Bergman (in no way related to the director of this film) was the star of the 1940s and 1950s. She was hailed as the greatest actress of the decade after her performance in the legendary Casablanca. She was the foreign movie star that made it big on the silver screen. Later on in the late 1940s she fell in love with Roberto Rossellini, the Italian neo realist, and they began making movies together (Stromboli, Journey to Italy, Europe ’51) and that sealed her legacy as one of the very best actresses of world cinema. That is why her performance in Autumn Sonata is so fitting. In the movie, Bergman plays Charlotte Andergast, a successful classical pianist, who sacrificed her responsibilities as a mother of two for the sake of her career. Bergman herself admitted that this was the most personal screenplay she had ever worked on as she felt responsible for abandoning her home and her family in order to chase fame, glory and romance. But I’m not here to gossip, I’m here to talk about the on-going conflict presented in this picture.

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Music as the key to destruction.

The two characters, mother and daughter, Charlotte and Eva, haven’t seen each other in almost seven years. Charlotte is invited to stay over for a few days after the death of her companion, Leonard. Mother and daughter come together. The pain that comes with the insecurity of looking at each other is unbearable for both of them. What is remarkable about this conflict is that at first it is not open. It is kept shut, suppressed by excitement and fear. Eva smiles, stares down at her feet or straight at the walls of her house located in the Norwegian countryside. Charlotte, on the other hand, laughs it off, makes herself comfortable and when she finds herself alone in the guest room she starts talking to herself. She talks because it is her only method of making sure there is still a heart beating inside of her. We get two sides for each of these two women. Charlotte seems tough, successful and well respected but it turns out it’s the other way around. She suffers like every other mortal, she is haunted by bad decisions and countless regrets. Eva is the child that suffered the most, along with her younger sister who is victim of a paralyzing illness.

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Ingmar Bergman builds the story bit by bit and that is the key to Autumn Sonata’s effectiveness. He takes his time but lays out the clues early on when Eva’s husband speaks directly to the camera in the opening scene telling us about Eva’s disturbed past and her quest to make amends with her mother. Right from the start we get a glimpse of the tragedy that has loomed over Eva’s family. Charlotte is her biggest enemy and at the same time the person who was supposed to be her closest friend. The drama between these two works like clockwork, with Eva battling her insecurities and slowly opening up and letting out her frustrations in an extremely emotional confrontation, where she ends up stuttering, breaking into a maniacal, uncontrollable cry.
And right here, Ingmar Bergman’s brilliance in handling emotions on screen comes into play. As I sat watching this scene unfold with my jaw dropped I could not help but think to myself how unfair Eva is being toward her own mother. Why? After all, Eva had her reasons, Charlotte was always cold toward her own child, she did nothing but escape difficult situations, she cheated on her husband and took pleasure in spending most of her time far away from home. And yet… somehow I managed to understand her. I did not sympathize but I could understand both perspectives. Charlotte’s life was struck by a wave of success and glory while Eva’s was haunted by the lack of motherly love and appreciation.
There is a certain balance in the suffering of the two women. Both are very different, age-wise but also character-wise. Charlotte acts tough. Eva, on the other hand, is the vulnerable little girl. But both are wearing masks and both are afraid to reveal their true identities. Like in his earlier, most famous work, Persona, Bergman plays with the idea of identity and the weight it carries. In Persona the women suddenly merge into one, they become one unit. In Autumn Sonata the conflict is too thick and sets mother and daughter apart. There is a feeling of frustration when watching the scenes unfold. The viewer seeks truth and yet there are lies in each point of view. Charlotte’s vague memory is not enough to make us believe her, and Eva’s raw, emotional account of her childhood is perhaps too honest to believe.
What stands out in this conflict is the fact that there is no mention of a tragic event that initiated the whole affair. In most movies there is always that one incident of violence that sets the tone for a relationship (think Rain Man and the hot water accident that became the reason for Dustin Hoffman character’s institutionalization) and becomes the main theme of the movie. In Autumn Sonata the conflict is genuine because of its slow creation. It’s a matter of years of emotional struggle rather than one moment of carelessness or evil. Both characters have grown over the years, their paths have gone different ways but what ties them is the past built on countless moments of miscommunication and emotional absence. Bergman stages this film like a play, where characters’ thoughts are expressed aloud almost as if the actors were reading the script to an audience. The action is present, the viewer is in the moment along with the cast of characters. Bergman doesn’t believe in distance, his camera is always intimate, at times too intimate and it can lead to being almost unbearably uncomfortable to watch. Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman play off each other like normal humans would do. There is an honest reflection in their delivery but there is also a hidden hostility toward the characters they play. It is as if they were forced to be there, to play those parts, and they want to get rid of the burden because it is too much to handle. It is, after all, a beautiful tragedy that spares no one. It is a conflict of words rather than action. It is a conflict that still speaks to us. And rightly so.

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Child of America

Child of America

Why are independent movies so important to the film industry nowadays? Look closer and you’ll see that before and after 9/11 independent movies began to emerge onto the big stage. In the last few years there’s been three independent Best Picture winners; MoonlightSpotlight and Birdman. Among other Oscar winning movies in recent years you have RoomWhiplashBoyhoodBeasts of the Southern WildEx MachinaLittle Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation and many, many more. It is evident that something must have happened within the industry and the way people, celebrities and critics react to low budget movies for independent cinema to become so popular and well liked. Perhaps it’s the fact that the Academy has changed its available slots for Best Picture (used to be five, now it is ten) and has allowed more room for the nominees, more flexibility. It can also be the outcome of better distribution and marketing, or maybe the importance of independently-oriented film festivals such as Sundance or Telluride has grown significantly in recent years.
Everything comes down to where it all started. What movie initiated this? I think I have an idea of what it was. When it came out it wasn’t popular at all, it made little to no money, it was shot on reversal 16mm, a very underused lens even in today’s age of experimental arthouse cinema, and it didn’t have any big name actors aside from a couple of fading stars. In other words, it was the epitome of what an independent film should be. The movie I’ve decided to write about is Buffalo ’66, a little gem from 1998, a true game-changer that made people realize how unique an independent movie (aside from low budget documentaries) can really be in order to stand out in a money-ruled industry.

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“Make me look good. Just shut up and make me look good.”

Buffalo ’66 is getting more and more recognition as the years go by. It launched a short but lively career for actress Christina Ricci and introduced the mysterious, unstable figure of Vincent Gallo to the world of media. It established a certain artsy quality, the one you could find in French New Wave cinema, to independent filmmaking and represented a ‘return to the roots’ similar to the first low budget films of Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) and Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi).
Billy, played by Gallo himself, is your average Joe who spent the last few years in prison for a crime he did not commit but for some strange reason took upon himself, ruining his own life, drifting further away from his family and what he knew as the real world. Once he comes out, everything seems to have changed. It’s colder, the streets are covered with snow, the city is deserted, nothing is quite the way it used to be. He decides to avenge his past suffering by killing the man who was responsible for making him lose the bet that changed his whole life for the worse – a football player for the Buffalo Bills that failed to make the game-winning field goal in the Superbowl and is now the owner of a prominent strip club in Woodlawn, New York. But first, he has to do the one thing that really pains him and that is – visit his parents. In order to do this he kidnaps Layla (played by the once beautiful Christina Ricci) and forces her to act as his beloved wife, making him look good in front of his judgmental father (Ben Gazzara) and his absent, football-loving mother (Anjelica Huston).

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This is Billy. Miserable, isn’t he?

What at first glance seems to be your traditional crime drama soon turns your expectations upside down and you can be sure of it, steals your heart. Because Buffalo ’66 is not about guns, fights and tough character. It is precisely about the opposite; about feelings, innocence and the lost masculinity of the average American man. It is pretty ironic how Vincent Gallo mistreated Christina Ricci, verbally abusing her on set, criticized the film’s cinematographer, taking all the credit for his work and all around behaved like a bully. But sometimes artists are the opposite of perfect. Buffalo ’66 accurately depicts the message Gallo wanted to transmit. The character of Billy acts tough, curses and plays the part of the ex-con but at the heart of it, he is one of the most vulnerable and insecure characters ever portrayed on screen. Think of it, even the name ‘Billy’ is not the name you’d expect from someone who uses the word ‘fuck’ in every sentence and kidnaps a girl for odd reasons. As he emerges from the prison building, Billy appears to be a very slim man, his long arms and long legs make him look like a cartoon character more than a cinematic one. His body language is that of a man who hasn’t fully grown yet, haunted by bad memories, a troubled childhood and an unknown future. He wanders outside the state penitentiary with his arms crossed, shaking because of the cold, and in need of a quick visit to the bathroom. In other words, Billy doesn’t come off as glamorous and confident, instead he is the character we usually tend to expect to be playing a supporting role. Well, now here he is, says Gallo, this loser is your protagonist, deal with it.

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You thought telephone conversations couldn’t be painful, huh?

Layla, on the other hand, is not your traditional leading female character. She is just a teenager, with the features, as pointed out by Billy’s father, of a grown woman (lovely face, large, firm breasts) but the spirit of a young, untamed schoolgirl. Layla’s existence is a statement from Gallo against conventional cinema, the expectations it builds up and usually fails to deliver. What starts off as a sloppy kidnapping, slowly but effectively turns into a story about two souls who really do not fit this earth, no matter what they do. Their actions are unreasonable, they are unable to communicate, and it feels like they live in a transparent bubble, locked away from the ‘normal’ American citizens. In some way or another, Billy and Layla represent independent filmmaking. They do not fit the system, they do not have friends, lovers nor reliable relatives. They are on their own, fighting against the odds with minimal expectations for a positive outcome.

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Layla and her looks.

Billy’s actions have no real goal. His visit to his family home in Buffalo turns out to be a total disaster. He stops at on the front porch, kneels down and starts to feel dizzy. Memories rush to his head. Layla is unable to help him. She tries to comfort him but he swats her hand away, telling her he’s absolutely fine. And yet there he is, sitting next to his kidnapped victim, twisting in pain and looking more miserable than ever. Once he decides to step in and ring the door bell everything goes from bad to worse. His father is a nervous wreck, bored with his life, lacking anything to show for it; his mother is a football fanatic that operates like a robot and doesn’t leave the TV set for a split second. Both parents have absolutely wiped out any sort of memory from Billy’s troubled childhood. In fact, they only one photograph of him from when he was a little boy.
The whole scene at the family dinner table is shot like a scene from a movie by Japanese master, Yasujiro Ozu, with the static camera placed on the same level as the characters, making it all look even less cinematic. It is against Hollywood conventions, it throws the awkwardness of the scene, the difficulty of communication between parents and son and the ridiculousness of the characters right at you. At times it can turn out to be hilarious and yet it also feels painful to watch. It’s drama wrapped in comedy and heartache. Like independent filmmaking, the visit to the family place represents a risk. It is a challenge that an average Joe like Billy has to face in order to make things right or as he says to Layla, ‘Make it look good, make me look good.’ For Billy even the slightest incident or remark from Layla’s or his parents’ part is a genuine difficulty and represents a threat to his own story, his own existence. Billy is not William. He is still the innocent child who has trouble keeping up with the adults. It’s the small time director having trouble keeping up with the blockbusters at the box office. It’s art having trouble keeping up with the wake of modern technology such as portable camcorders, mobile phones and computers. 

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The struggle between father and son.

Buffalo ’66 is the struggle of the crook, the criminal, the blue collar worker. And that is why it is so gripping, painful and unique. It deals with palpable subject matters, it is about the real world and real characters. It is about vulnerability, and who the hell in the 90s, a time of Tarantino movies and Schwarzenegger action blockbusters, had any interest mentioning that ‘girly’ stuff? Well, independent cinema thought otherwise. And perhaps that is the reason why today’s independent movies like Little Miss Sunshine with its family of misfits, Moonlight with its insecure, black gay protagonist, and Birdman, with its washed up actor, make it big by telling unconventional stories. They all aspire, without even knowing, to the simplicity of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66.

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