Saturday, November 17, 2007

48. US director and actor Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade" (1996): A minor 'Citizen Kane'

It would be missing the forest for the trees to merely state that the story of Thornton's film and/or the performances were stunning.

No doubt the screenplay is good, if not captivating, in structure. The prologue before the credits balances the measured calmness that follows the remainder of the prologue of the film. Both segments have an uneasy and unreal muteness that is deafening to the viewers' sensibilities. The chair dragged by J.T. Walsh makes a noise that irritates you, while preparing you for the rest of the movie. The deliberately darkened room for the interview with the school girl seemed out-of-place for an inmate about to be released into the sunny world of freedom. The screenplay does seem to dig at a layer beyond the obvious—a corrections system that is far from perfect. The response of the lead character to J.T. Walsh at the end of the movie offers more for the viewer to re-evaluate what has preceded in the film. Having viewed Lars von Trier's Dogville, within hours of viewing Sling Blade, I could not but the see the parallels that emerge in both films—the vigilante element in the best among us and a critical appraisal of society we live in. Is it the sick person that takes the center stage or is the sick framework in our society taking the spotlight? Neither film is religious but both are asking humanistic and theological questions of the viewer.

Thornton's performance is interesting and in many ways comparable to Malkovich's performance in Of Mice and Men or Duvall's performance in To Kill a Mockingbird. Are the viewers mesmerized by the actor's performance or by the writer Thornton's character? In my view the character Karl in Sling Blade is more interesting than the performance of Thornton. The director Thornton exploits the physical imperfections of the actor Thornton. Unlike Giullieta Masina in La Strada or Sir John Mills in Ryan's Daughter, the rare examples the performances outdid the character, Thornton, Malkovich and Duvall have all presented powerful imperfect characters that interest the viewer more than the performers. Thornton was able to gain the viewer's attention with his gait (with crushed glass in his shoes), his voice, and his facial contortions. In my view, Thornton was more impressive as an actor in Monster's Ball because the character was less "attractive" to the viewer.

Thornton's cast weave a quilt of outstanding brief performances: J.T. Walsh in the hospital, Duvall as the father, and Ritter as the endearing gay character.

More than the performance or the screenplay, the finest part of the film was the music. Now Thornton himself is a drummer and musician. Thornton, the director, was able to get top-notch strains of music from Daniel Lanois that embellished the film. I think the film would have been a lot less impressive without the music which was evocative and yet not intrusive. This includes the singing during the baptism sequence. It is a film that cajoles a sensitive viewer to pay attention to the intelligent management of the soundtrack.

Thornton needs to be commended for his care in managing the sound throughout the movie. Apart from the dragging of the chair at the start of the film, the sound department did a marvelous job (you see this in films of Michael Mann, Terence Mallick and Julie Taymor among contemporary US filmmakers).

All in all, the movie belonged to Billy Bob Thornton—director, screenplay writer, and actor. An amazing effort indeed, almost recalling the more sophisticated effort of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane!

Friday, November 09, 2007

47. Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954): Opening new windows to reflect on the classic thriller

After viewing the film three times over a span of 20-odd years, the film urges a keen viewer to go beyond the appreciation of the cinematic challenges that Hitchcock sets for himself to overcome. For instance, one need not merely appreciate that this film is one of the rare instances in cinema where all the sounds are "diegetic"— recorded on the soundtrack are sounds from within the visual world captured by the camera. Further, one need no longer be intrigued by the amoral perspective of the voyeur, represented by L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), the good, average American bachelor with a robust, modest, creative career and a rich doting girl friend, Lisa, trying to rope him into marriage. After three viewings you are no longer wide-eyed about the blending of the viewer's perspective with those of Jefferies' perspective, historically a major feat of Hitchcock.

Newer perspectives of the film crystallize if you have seen over 20 Hitchcock films as I fortunately have.

First, Rear Window is one of the rare films of Hitchcock where women emerge smarter and stronger than men—the last scene has the hero with two legs in a cast and his lady love switching reading material to what she prefers to read over what the hero would prefer her to read, even though for the first time she has switched to trousers to humor her future husband's vision of his kind of wife. Similar ends were obvious in Family Plot, Spellbound, Rebecca and, by inference of the final choice, in Marnie. The final shot in Rear Window is a sexual reversal of the final shot of Mr and Mrs Smith.

Second, Rear Window is yet another film on marriage—a recurring theme in the Hitchcock films. Jefferies and Lisa do not tie the knot but the end inferred this would eventually happen. But the switching of the reading material gives the viewer a clue who among the duo would rule the marriage. In another perspective on marriage, within the film a husband kills his wife. A wedding ring is stolen of all objects. Other perspectives in the film reflect on the sex in marriage and another looks at a woman dreaming of a virtual husband, a dream to which Jefferies involuntarily raises his own glass!

Third, this is a film on photographers, photography and voyeurs. Only the photographer looks out of the window, when all have windows open, except when a dog or housebreak is involved. Four decades after Hitchcock made the film, the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski in his Dekalog no. 6 /A short film about love explored the same theme with even more astonishing results. Recently, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's Cache presented videos of an anonymous voyeur as the pivotal essay on racial interaction. All the three films infer that the crime is in watching other people commit crime. The watcher and the watched emerge as flip sides of an individual or alter egos. The magic of Hitchcock enamors more and more later geniuses of cinema even today...

For a mature viewer, there is more entertainment in the film than the obvious story-line woven around a wheelchair-bound voyeur suspecting a murder has been committed close to his apartment.

P.S. Cache is reviewed earlier in this blog.