Saturday, November 06, 2004

Two From the Grave; One Deliberate

A couple of weeks ago, I pointed to two trailers for films whose stories seemed so similar to me as to be laughable. Didn't the two companies involved (Fine Line and Newmarket) know that there was a carbon-copy of their film being developed out there? And even once both films were posted, how could they allow them to share such close release dates? What were their executives thinking?

The films were P.S. and Birth, two pictures about women encountering seemingly-reincarnated former lovers, and now that I've seen both, I am very glad that neither of them got the axe due simply to their cosmetic similarities. As it turns out, both are excellent, and one is in my estimation truly brilliant. Here are the trailers for both: P.S. and Birth.

P.S. takes the basic idea above (woman meets seemingly-reincarnated ex-lover), and plays it as a pleasant absurdity - a reaffirmation of the joyous nature of love. I won't reveal whether the "reincarnated lover" (Topher Grace) of the woman in question (Laura Linney) is actually the real McCoy, because in this film it is fun finding out for yourself, and in the end it hardly even seems to matter. But I will note that director Dylan Kidd (who also adapted the screenplay) has done a remarkable job of capturing the enduring quality of passionate love. One scene in particular, in which Linney, a Columbia University admissions officer, first makes love to Grace, a prospective student, is so ecstatic and genuine that it comes as an overwhelming, breathtaking surprise. I won't speculate regarding Linney's acting method, but suffice it to say I've never seen a more satisfyingly-executed on-screen orgasm. And pedestrian as such a thing might be, it is a moment that absolutely crystallizes the spirit of the film. There is an aching that two people in love can share when they are apart, and this film is a better expression of it than any other that comes to mind.

Where P.S. rings as a joyous song, writer-director Jonathan Glazer's Birth plays a somewhat similar story line as an ominous overture to dark revelation. Again in question here is the veracity of an identity: is the young boy Sean (Godsend's creepy Cameron Bright) actually the reincarnated lover of Anna (Nicole Kidman)?

What is striking to me is not the fact that Glazer takes a clearly preposterous supernatural idea and makes it urgently plausible, but the deliberate nature with which he does it. The film is richly photographed to be sure, but it is the consistent editorial choices it displays, in particular its unbroken gaze, favoring unusually long takes, which create the portentous, introspective mood necessary for us (and for Kidman) to take the subject matter seriously. Film editing has often, and rightly, been likened to the act of musical composition. The languorous, often-silent long takes of Birth remind me of nothing so much as the unsettling nature of a drawn-out sostenuto.

Indeed, despite the fact that much of the film takes place in relative silence, a number of very significant and careful uses of music appear as variations upon the themes elaborated in the editing. Composer Alexandre Desplat's simple, brooding strings share screen time with a couple of carefully-chosen classical pieces, and each serves to reinforce the same unsettling quality of the languid cutting. One shot in particular, characterized by some reviewers as indulgent (nothing could be further from the truth), follows Kidman into an orchestra hall and remains on her in close-up for what seems an eternity, while the swelling music in the hall becomes for all intents and purposes an iteration of the unspoken thoughts unfolding just behind her eyes. It is an elegant piece of filmmaking, exhibiting an absolute confidence on Glazer's part in both his subject matter and his skill.

This use of music is without question a deliberate choice on the part of the director, as the film resembles nothing if not a gothic chamber piece in both the musical and the literary senses of the phrase. Set in small rooms and intimate places, the film creeps forward with a quiet insistence toward conclusions which we'd rather not make. And while most studio films would bow to the necessity of wrapping up the "is-he-or-isn't-he" story line with a convenient answer, Glazer uses it instead to create a forbidding atmosphere, a backdrop against which the real emotions of love, loss, pain and regret can be played out for our consideration. Providing a neatly-tied bow at the end would be the kind of knee-jerk choice that might make a film like this evaporate over its closing credits. Glazer instead chooses the more troubling road demanded by the story's gothic roots, and in so doing leaves us with something to think about.

I have been mulling over for several years now a lengthier essay regarding what I've taken to calling "deliberate cinema." It sprang from thinking about the films of Stanley Kubrick, films which to my thinking embody a set of qualities that can be collectively referred to as "deliberate." In Kubrick's films, the various elements that form a motion picture - sound, picture, editing, music, dialogue, narrative structure, themes, lighting, production design, set dressing - all seem carefully considered and intentionally - deliberately - chosen. Examples of this rigorous method of filmmaking exist outside Kubrick, but few approach the totality of deliberate will apparent in his films. This has often been the impediment I've faced not only as a moviegoer tired of watching sloppy filmmaking, but as a writer eager to make observations about this fledgling cinematic litmus test growing inside me.

Having seen Birth today, I think I may have found a common departure point from which to begin that writing.