Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Mirror and Black Dahlia



Couple nights ago I saw Andrei Tarkovsky's The Mirror (1975) maybe for the seventh time. I've been lucky enough to have seen it more often on a screen than on a television, even though it makes quite a punch even on a tube. What's the most surprising thing about Tarkovsky's film (which is to me his best) is that it makes a different impression every time. It's a very beautiful film, but now I thought it was a horror film, the horror coming out from the past that is always out there, haunting us, cursing us. (And there are also some conventional horror elements, such as an apparition, a ghost woman whose real identity is never explained).

The Mirror is also best seen many times. Some films you grasp at one viewing and you can live all your life without even thinking about seeing them again. The Mirror just won't leave you alone. There's always something you haven't noticed before. And the story arc (if I may use the word in this context) is a very difficult one, but now, after seven viewings I think I could say I understand what happens in the movie.

I also understood now why the ending is so powerful, even though there's nothing much happening: an old woman, possibly a grandmother, is escorting two little kids across the field and at times we see a young woman, a mother of the kids, thinking about something with a wishful smile on her face. The scenes with a woman are set in a different time, before the kids are born. (Or then it's after the war, but the woman seems to be too young for that.) There's a crucial scene somewhere in the film after which we see everything absolved. The sins, the past, every crime, every misdeed, have been forgiven and all we have is the future and the love. That's why the ending is so powerful: the granny who takes care of the children is the embodiment of the future and love.

I just have to detect the crucial scene. I think it's the scene near the end in which Tarkovsky's alter ego releases a bird from his hands.

(And a bit in Finnish: en ole ikinä huomannut kenenkään mainitsevan sitä, että yhdessä kohtauksessa nähdään suomalaisia kirjoja kirjahyllyssä. Mustavalkoisessa takautumassa, jossa Tarkovskin alter ego ja tämän ex-vaimo, Margarita Teherova, keskustelevat Ignat-pojan hoidosta, nähdään lyhyen aikaa pieni pätkä, kun Teherova seisoo pää vinossa kirjahyllyn edessä. Hyllyssä ovat vierekkäin Dalton Trumbon Sotilaspoika ja 60-luvun alussa julkaistu Tsehovin kaksiosainen Suuret kertomukset! Näiden lisäksi hyllyssä näyttää olevan kaksi venäjänkielistä kirjaa. Tarkistakaapa heti, kun teille tulee mahdollisuus!)

And then something completely different: I saw Brian De Palman's The Black Dahlia recently. It's been receiving lots of negative reviews, and I was as perplexed as those anonymous and pseudonymous commentators at IMDb. It seems that the film's got only one person to understand it: Tapani Maskula, of the Turun Sanomat magazine, his review is here. (It's understandably in Finnish, but he gave it three stars out of five.) He likens the film to Hawks's The Big Sleep from 1946 and says that the film must've seemed as baffling as De Palma's more recent effort. He promises, therefore, that De Palma's The Black Dahlia could still rise to the status of a classic.

I found the film intriguing. It kept me baffled and I was utterly disappointed at some decisions. The most baffling thing about the film was that there didn't seemed to be enough scenes, i.e. there was always something missing. Lots and lots of stuff got away unexplained, some of them crucial to the plot and psychology of the characters. This makes the film seem more clumsy than it really is. Maybe I should seek this out in, say, 2015 and take a fresh look.

This is the case with many of De Palma's films. There seems to be something missing, especially in his Hitchcockian suspense films, like Body Double (1984). The same goes for some of his later big-budget efforts like Snake Eyes (which is visually great) and Mission To Mars (even though I really liked the first part of the film). Even some of his most mainstream work is baffling at some level. Take, for example, a look at The Untouchables: you never get to know what's really behind all the broughaha and especially what makes Eliot Ness and his men tick. There's great vitality to the film, but that's all there is. There's nothing in De Palma's films to love, you can get interested in them and their themes, and you can admire them for De Palma's techniques, but that's all there is.

It may be of help to notice that De Palma makes more mistakes when he's doing film from other people's screenplays. The Black Dahlia was written by Josh Friedman, Mission To Mars was written by a lot of different folks, Snake Eyes by David Koepp, The Bonfire of the Vanities by Michael Cristofer, The Untouchables by David Mamet, etc. etc. His most satisfying films seem to be those he wrote himself (Carrie, Raising Cain, Blow Out, his early suspense thrillers).

The same goes for, by the way, William Friedkin. There's always the same sense of unfulfillment in his films, as if he really didn't know what his themes are. Take a look at Cruising. You never know what's happening there, and you don't think anyone else knew, for that matter. His most fluent films are those without any special resonance: The Exorcist, Wages of Fear.

PS. Lots of work done lately and the same will continue for a month or two, so necessarily there's not much blogging in the near future.

15 comments:

Bill Crider said...

Snake Eyes, now that's a really bad film.

Juri said...

Well, the plotline is shallow and Nicolas Cage overacts like a motherfucker, but I thought there was something interesting in there, but maybe it's only the visuals and the cinematography.

Bill Crider said...

Here's a link to a comment by someone who disliked The Black Dahlia a lot, then watched it again and re-evaluated it: http://tinyurl.com/23t8gm

Juri said...

That's a thoroughly sane argument. Thanks for sharing it! Now that I think back of De Palma's film, it seems better than during the actual viewing.

Peter said...

Juri: I haven't seen the movie, but I just read your reply to Bill. "Nicholas Cage" and "overacts" is redundant.

I've been wary of DePalma ever since Dressed to Kill, which I thought cheated the viewer with its gimmicky ending. And I am especially wary of any movie described as Hitchcockian. With a few exceptions, generally in his lesser films, Hitchcock was a great comedy director -- "comedy" both in the sense of funny, and the classical sense of a story with a happy ending, usually with a marriage (or at least a coupling) about to happen.

All these critics who apply the word "Hitchcockian" to anything slick, visually interesting, or scary missed that point. Of course, the error is easy to understand, since Hitchcock was a superb technician as well as a master of comedy.
Peter

========================

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Juri said...

You're right about and Hithcock was (most of the time) funny in a way that most of his imitators never are, but there are similarities between Hithcock and De Palma, especially some of the techniques, but also thematics and obsession about double identities.

Peter said...

I had not thought of De Palma's themes, mainly because I have not seen many of hs movies. Your remark about double identities made me think of Dressed to Kill, which is not subtle, to say the least. Double identities figure in Shadow of a Doubt, in a way, too.

I rest my case!

Peter
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Juri said...

Hitch's most famous double identity film is of course Vertigo. Psycho has also some play on the theme, and not very subtle at that! I think De Palma has very openly discussed Hitchcock's influence on his own work, so he fits in. One of Curtis Hanson's early movies in the mid-to-late eighties (The Bedroom Window or some such) was labelled Hitchcockian, but it was that certainly less than anything by De Palma.

Peter said...

Hmm, I'd forgotten about Vertigo, maybe because it was never among my favorite Hitchcock movies. Psycho is the Hitchcock movie of which Dressed to Kill reminded me most strongly, with a visual touch or two from Family Plot.

The funny thing about Psycho and its lack of subtlety is that I once saw a lengthy trailer Hitchcock made for the movie. If I recall correctly, it has Hitchcock wandering around the Bates Motel set talking about the movie. It is full of what I would call deadpan humor, except that Hitchcock can't quite keep his pan dead; he's having too much fun.

Peter
========================

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Juri said...

Your recollection is correct.

Todd Mason said...

THE BLACK DAHLIA is a trivial, overwrought film, utterly clumsy (except in its cinematography), or so it seems to me in retrospect as well as it did at the time of viewing. The casting is bad, the performances awful (with the minor exception of Mia Kirshner, doing what she does best), the direction as bad as I expect from de Palma, who slavishly attempts to ape Hitchcock but usually ends up recapitulating the worst of Hitchcock with the worst of Sirk and Fuller mixed in. And it dragged intermninably, despite no doubt, as you seem to suggest, jettisoning necessary bits of the novel.

Aside from that, it's fine. Some day, if you choose to, please explicate what you find actually worthwhile about the film. Seems like you're somewhat strapped to find anything thoroughly good about it in your original post.

(I found THE UNTOUCHABLES profoundly stupid, with no redeeming nor countervailing factors, which almost suprised me, given Mamet's involvement.)(Sissy Spacek couldn't quite save CARRIE.)

Juri said...

I think we've had this argument before - you hate De Palma's films, I've found lots to admire in the best of his work (and even in the worst). Yes, you're utterly right about The Black Dahlia's clumsiness and the actors are pretty bad (and they are badly cast in the first place, you never believe in them).* Yet, there was something that kept me intrigued throughout the film and all its shortcomings. Someday, I'll watch it again - but it might be possible that at that time I won't be blogging and Todd could well be in a home for the elderly.

It's intriguing that my post about De Palma has received more comments than anything else I've ever written here. What gives? (And yet no one has commented about Tarkovsky.)

* Same could be said of some of Bava's films I've seen. I've not seen many, to be true.

Todd Mason said...

Well, Juri, you'll note No One here has thoroughly positive things to say about De Palma's opera...it's the desire to Share the Pain that makes this such a popular post.

I suspect what drove your interest in THE BLACK DAHLIA was the basic insanity on display, along with the compelling nature of the story so badly botched by the film...I haven't read the novel yet, but suspect that would be, even given the author's decided tendency toward excess, both more true and less of a train wreck than the film (as CRASH, along with so many Oliver Stone films, demonstrates, you can make a perfectly terrible film about a perfectly wonderful subject for film, which tends to make a viewer such as myself even angrier about the ineptitude on display). Meanwhile, Bava's films were always truly more like opera in the other sense than De Palma's...stylized and with no pretense of happening in a reasonable reflection of our world.

Todd Mason said...

I haven't seen THE MIRROR yet, but I've certainly heard enough good about STALKER and generally enjoyed my one, interrupted viewing so far of SOLARIS. Having seen only part of one of his films...cuts into my commentary-logarrhea...

Juri said...

Yes, I wanted to like the film, since I've liked everything I've read by Ellroy. (Some of them more than others.)

You really should seek out THE MIRROR. It's a wonderful film. Isn't it available on DVD?