Sunday, March 26, 2006

Ferrara Blog-a-Thon

Preface: Please excuse the fact that I don't currently have screen capture capability to more directly illustrate this and make this whole thing much, much easier...

1. Pre-Credit Sequence of Dangerous Game / Snake Eyes

Four fast tableaux. The first is a dinner scene which introduces our protagonist (Harvey Keitel) and his wife and child, though these relationships are not immediately confirmed in these shots, only suggested. There's small, tense talk about food. (It is the only tableau broken into two shots, as well.) Second scene is of Keitel and Nancy Ferrara as they finish having sex. Third scene boasts a dark and icy palette as Keitel stands in the boy's room while he sleeps. Fourth scene continues the bleak palette as Keitel walks out of the townhouse and down the street, coming towards the camera, until a cut to the credits.

Instantly we may wonder if Keitel's character, Eddie, is leaving to catch the plane alluded to in the first shot ("I hate plane food"). If so, why so late at night? Does he not live with this woman (Madlyn) and their son? These four quick scenes demonstrate the figural disintegration of the family unit, from the dinner table through the conjugal bed, the child's bed, to flight. From togetherness into solitary departure. Three people in a shot, then two, then again two (only one of whom is conscious and "present"), then one.

What motivates this cold prologue? It may establish the difficulty of togetherness and the pain of isolation (or perhaps the comfort of aloneness). It suggests in quick, subtle strokes (without trafficking in binarism) the tension between work and home, performance and sincerity. We have in under three minutes food, sex and sleep; we have figures sitting, laying, standing, walking; what we have is a microcosm, an ultra-concise Table of Contents for imagistic representation of human activity. The camera moves a little, slowly, discreetly, in each shot, arrogating a certain mobility for itself while never drawing attention.

2. A Case for Some Tendencies in Ferrara

In Abel Ferrara's work there's always a sense of our intellectual, sensuous, ethical grasp of things being splayed, fanned out, worked like an accordion and a piece of origami. One can say that Ferrara, in his treatment of concepts, fractures and opens them up--but not as part of a completist taxonomical project, instead a treatment comparable to Cubist approaches to visuality. What I mean by this is that when there is a problem, a conflict, an expression, a development in Ferrara's films, it tends to be presented to us so that we see from two or more incongruous "angles" at the same time, or in quick succession. For instance the first shots of Dangerous Game, wherein we see kindness & cruelty play out in simultaneous, co-existing lineages:

a) Would anyone else back me up in asserting that there's a strong hint of impatience in Keitel's cheese grating in the first second of the first shot? He holds it up ready to use for Nancy Ferrara even before she finishes dishing up her pasta. He goes through the motion of being kind, but it appears that there's the faintest slow passive-aggressive burn. But is it even a function of Keitel's character? Perhaps Abel Ferrara had simply already ordered a few too many retakes at that point, or had otherwise pissed off Keitel that evening. Is the impatience coming solely from Keitel's own acting as an expression of Eddie's character, or is it behavior bubbling up from Keitel's subconscious that he and Ferrara have used to help form Eddie?

b) Madlyn asks Eddie if he'll eat on his flight. "I hate plane food." So he's willing to be openly critical of food and assertive of his tastes, an echo of which informs his ostensibly jocular disgust at Madlyn's pasta. Though Eddie insists to Madlyn, 'Have a little faith in yourself,' he's saying it more for his own benefit, like Peter Falk ordering Gena Rowlands to 'Be yourself!' in A Woman Under the Influence. If Madlyn lacks a certain faith in her cooking (and in "herself") here, it's because she is familiar with the tension between Eddie's performance and his sincerity. Before Eddie feigns disgust at his wife's cooking, he tells her and their son, "This'll taste so good ... that I'm not gonna believe it" (a transparent patronization).

c) "It's delicious," he insists to her, before she offers her own (seemingly disingenuous, unconvinced) "thank you."

The most mysterious line in the film, or at least in this sequence, is one that I'm still not 100% sure I can make out correctly. It's in the third tableau, when Keitel leans in to his sleeping son and whispers, "Forget me kid--I'm your daddy." It would make more sense for him to say 'Don't forget me...' but no matter how many times I listen to this line, I can't really be sure that I hear even a faint, mumbled 'don't.' It'd be slightly enigmatic even in that circumstance (why would the child forget him?), but even more, why would Eddie Israel instruct his child to forget him while reminding him of his paternity? I've remained confused for as long as I've known this film ...

3. Unforced Formal Cohesion

Up until now I've talked mostly about character psychology and the implication of the viewer in this sophisticated web; but this isn't all that characterizes Ferrara. The first shot demonstrates an S-curve composition. Three figures at a table (and though I don't know that there is any especial Catholic significance for these early scenes, the number three is at least worth noting when it comes up in Ferrara). Eddie sits in the middle of the frame, flanked on our left by his son and our right by his wife. The dinner table is a dark, warm color (a mahogany finish), matched on screen-right by Nancy Ferrara's magenta sweater; the top of the frame (background of two symmetrical thin-curtained windows that flank a panelled wall) is conversely cool, gray-and-blue-and-white, and this is matched by both the shirts that Keitel and the boy are wearing. Within the composition of the first shot there is a yin-yang opposition of color-tones--but even this brief sense of 'balance' is disrupted once the film cuts to a medium-close-up of Madlyn (segment 1), and then begins a slow incremental left-then-right glide down to encompass both her and Eddie (seg 2), then for a moment only Eddie (seg 3), then Eddie and the son (seg 4), then back to Eddie alone (seg 5, echo of seg 3), then Eddie and Madlyn (seg 6, echo of seg 2), and again Madlyn (seg 7, echoe of seg 1). This is the overall structure of the shots to which I've attributed labels for the specific sub-images, but in actuality the camera movement isn't quite so mathematically clean--in-between segments 5 and 6 the camera follows Keitel's quick bodily shift and momentarily reverts to what we might call 'seg 5a,' an echo of 'seg 4,' so that we might also translate 'segs 4 -5a' as a symmetrical framing regiment of their own: 'subsegment 1,' 'subsegment 2,' and again 'subsegment 1.'

I don't want to get too positivist-formalist on my readers (it's not my style) but I wanted to use these labels simply to demonstrate first the underlying cohesion to Ferrara's image-organization (hence assigning these numbered segments with their own rhyme & reason), as well the provisional and aleatory excursions (my so-called 'segment 5a') that just as profoundly mark Ferrara's cinema. Just as the camera movement in this initial scene has been horizontal, so are the bold lines of composition in the next image (the bodies of Harvey Keitel and Nancy Ferrara simulating sex in missionary position). So the first tableau (second shot) had a graphic horizontality marked by the camera movement, the second by the pictorial composition, and the third, now, in the son's bedroom, by Keitel's bodily movement as he walks from screen-right to screen-left (the camera following him).

The fourth and final tableau ostensibly stands apart from the previous three shots and echoes the very first shot, again, in that (a) it doesn't emphasize a strong horizontal line in some form, and (b) it settles into a basically symmetrical image. This last is roughly true, not strictly true: this final shot of the passage begins with Keitel leaving the building and walking down the stairs to the sidewalk, going from screen-left to center to achieve the symmetry a few seconds after the shot actually begins. Ferrara then holds the camera on Keitel walking straight through on the sidewalk towards the camera. At the last moment, however, before he would presumably walk straight into the camera, he passes it on screen-right, thus inscribing upon this symmetrically-composed image a very gradual and indirect movement from screen-left to screen-right--a horizontal line through deep three-dimensional space (and so the characteristics of a static pictorial symmetry and a strong, graphic horizontality are joined like two axes). And a split-second "deviation" from a standardized image.

What I ultimately want to get at is that Ferrara's work demonstrates an attention to symmetry and clarity through time & space, but this is conjoined with--even sometimes disrupted by, though not so much in this early passage of Dangerous Game--a sense of "offness," unevenness, risk, development & progression, chance.

4. A Personal Imperative for Ferrara's Work

What interests me then about Ferrara has to do with the productive tensions--already quite present if not apparent in his cinema--between what we might drastically simplify as 'chaos' and 'order.' An extensive formal consideration & critique of a lot of postclassical cinema that I really admire (not only Ferrara, but Cassavetes, Pialat, Linklater, Miike, others) would seem to invite madness according to conventional wisdom for the simple fact that these films aren't 'clean' or 'efficient' or 'formalist' works in a basically classical idiom and simply defy what formal-analytical tools we have at this point--after all, nobody loves Ferrara's cinema for the shot compositions, right? Do they? And yet, and yet, we love these films for some reason, and to me there's something deeper, richer, and in some ways, even, more systematic than we may initially realize within our love. To call a section of cinema (subgenre, authorial oeuvre, whatever) 'messy' or 'unpredictable' is usually to overlook something fundamental in what caused you or others to group these given films together in the first place. And for Ferrara, who has made a living making films few people seem to like or pay money to see, there's an interesting sense of artistic valor & martyrdom. If Ferrara's ever "breaking rules," "crossing boundaries," "taking risks," then all the rules and boundaries, all the safe options, are there and present in his films, as part and parcel of their fabric, as much as the transgressions and chances, the messy unrehearsed incongruencies and the serendipitous congruencies. Ferrara isn't about making a mess but about carving a path, and even if we may have no faith for gods we may want to reserve some for artists like him, whose destinations might require long and winding routes.

Post-Script: Anyone who actually read all of this long and tortuous casual essay is a saint. Thanks so much if you made it through the end.


David Lowery said...

I read the whole thing, and eagerly. But I've suddenly realized how tired I am - I'll start posting responses to this and other blog-a-thon entries in the morning. For now, regarding screen captures, are you using a Mac or PC? If the former, I can offer some direction; in the case of the latter, I'm sure someone else will be able to help.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Zach-- I read it too, and I wanted to thank you for compelling one such as I, who is not solidly in the Ferrara camp, to do some further investigating. Not having yet seen Dangerous Game, it's a testament to your ability to conjure the imagery in your writing that I was compelled to continue on and draw connections with the Ferrara that I have seen. You're a hell of a writer and a hell of a thinker, and it's a pleasure to read your stuff. Thanks to Green Cine Daily, I was led to your comments on Mandingo too, a movie I've always considered a guilty pleasure, but one which is clearly a much more seriously intended work of considerable political and historical nuance than its reputation has ever allowed. I don't think I've ever read anything written seriously about the movie, and I really appreciated it.

By the way, David, if you have tips on screen capture capability, would you be willing to share them with a novice like myself as well? Thanks.

David Lowery said...

I'm glad you focused on Dangerous Game as well - it's not quite my favorite of the Ferrara films I've seen, but it's close. I was genuinely surprised, in looking for criticism of it a few weeks ago, to discover that it's generally regarded as "Ferrara at his worst."

It was that opening sequence which hooked me. In fact, I watched it twice before letting the rest of the film progress. My reading of Keitel's attitude was slightly different than yours, though; I didn't detect any insincerity in his tone towards his wife. Rather, he seemed to be making a legitimate effort to focus on the situation at hand, to fill the role required of him at the familial dinner table. If his words were patronizing, it was only an effort towards balancing Madlyn's neurotic self-defacement (which itself is a passive reaction to him, not in this instant but in general). When he says "thank you," he sounded, to me, as if he really meant it.

In the subsequent tableau, I could have sworn I heard him say "don't forget me." Was my mind filling in the hole? I don't have the DVD to double check, but I can't imagine that the dialogue was actually limited to "forget me." That wouldn't fit with the literal reality of the scene, and I doubt Ferrara would plan for such a platitude. What I can imagine him doing is, upon hearing it in the editing suite and realizing that the first word is too quiet to hear, deciding not to re-record the dialogue for clarity's sake.

So anyway, here's how I make screen grabs on my Mac. If you press Command-Shift-4, the mouse icon will turn into a cross-hair emblem, which you can hold down and drag over any portion of the screen - such as DVD that happens to be paused at a particular frame on the desktop; upon release, a snapshot of the selected section will be taken.

I'm sure PCs have an equivlanet function, but I have no idea what it is.

For copyright reasons, the Apple DVD player automatically prevents this function from working when a DVD is playing, but you can solve this problem by downloading the free VLC Media Player (for Macs or PC), which has no such restrictions.

Michael said...

Zach, that's a really fine post, and I say that as a novice with Ferrara films, and as one who hasn't seen Dangerous Game. But your post is very coherent, and makes some very intriguing points about the connection between content and form, symmetry, and the metaphor of something unfolding. When I get around to seeing Dangerous Game, I'll definitely watch it with these ideas in mind. I suspect that'll allow me to take it more seriously, to appreciate more, than I might otherwise.

Zach Campbell said...

Sts. David, Dennis, and Michael--thanks for making it through!

About screen captures, my problem is currently two-fold, as I simply have DVD-playing problems on my computer and have to fix that first. After that, I'll see if the 'print screen' button works (I'm guessing it won't) and then I can just download a little program somewhere to get some captures ...

(I wasn't really sure what I wanted to post until I sat down to write it at 10:21 last night, so I couldn't plan and ask any friends to help me out with captures, either.)

Dennis, thanks for your very kind comments. If you want to read a really extensive take on Mandingo, be sure to read Robert Keser's article on the film in the Fleischer symposium in the same issue of The Film Journal (if you haven't already).

David, "don't forget me" makes much more sense, as I mentioned--your explanation that maybe Ferrara just declined to clean up the sound seems pretty valid.

Michael, I hope you get around to an after-the-fact Ferrara-thon entry yourself. I'd be interested to read it, as I'm sure many others would be. (That goes for you too, Dennis!)

Tom Sutpen said...

Jot me down as present in your Saint roll-call (which would undoubtedly be a first).

And as someone who reluctantly had to withdraw his entry from the 'Film Journal's Fleischer soiree (long story, that), let me also rise in wholehearted testament to the excellence of Brother Keser's entry. His is a finely honed instrument . . . and not just by the sort of comparisons one could make.

Btw, if you actually need screen-caps, drop me a word and I'll see what I can conjure.

Okay . . . 'tis a poor offer, but mine own.

Adrian said...

Terrific analysis, Zach (I, too, am a saint). I looked at this scene a zillion times in the process of translating ABEL FERRARA by Nicole Brenez for Illinois Uni Press - out later this year, fingers crossed. I definitely hear "Don't forget me", not "forget me". In terms of interpretation, I think there are two major 'frames' for understanding this scene within the context of the whole movie. Nicole takes it as a prime example of what she calls 'anamorphosis': the first scene presents a seemingly 'innocent' picture (but with the hints of malaise you mention) whose underlying truth is then 'unfolded' and exposed throughout the rest of the film, culminating in a hellish final scene 'inversion' of the opening scene (this is the structure of many Ferrara films, as she amply proves). In my own stuff on Ferrara, I take one of his central themes to be the American cultural meaning of 'home': and what it means to exit one's home at the start of the story (for the sake of some 'adventure'), re-entering it later (sometimes, again, at the very end) - a tradition that runs from THE SEARCHERS to A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. BAD LT also begins with a 'family in the morning' scene - one that 'anamorphically' contains the entire film!


aaron w graham said...

Superb work, Zach. I've read it twice, once late last night and just now, so I wonder what that makes me!

Darren said...

Great stuff, Zach. Another example of how solid, patient formal analysis often does the hard work of theory. I've often thought that a great writing exercise would be forcing myself, once a month maybe, to do a 1,000-word formal breakdown of a scene I had watched that week.

Zach, have you written at all about Linklater? I was pleasantly surprised to see you mention him beside Ferrara and Cassavetes, and would be curious to hear more.

Re: screen captures -- I finally broke down and bought a licensed copy of PowerVDV. I'd recommend it to all PC users.

Darren said...

Damnit, that's supposed to be PowerDVD. Obviously.

Filmbrain said...

Zach --

Dangerous Game is the one Ferrara film that I've always been ambivalent about. To say that this essay is enlightening would be an understatement. Now I can't wait to see the film again.

girish said...

Amazing post, Zach.

Here's one thing I really enjoy about your writing: I can practically hear you think (the clicks of the cogs in your brain engaging!) as I read. The experience is like walking down a path with the writer, who makes one pleasantly surprising discovery after another, turns around and shares it with the reader, as they both walk steadily along.

I just played the pre-credit sequence of Dangerous Game on DVD and can confirm that Keitel's "don't" rings out pretty clearly, even on my little laptop. And the subtitles seem to confirm it too.

Matt said...

I'm a saint as well, and a jealous one at that. You write with a scalpel.

Mubarak Ali said...

Superb analysis, Zach. I especially love your (strangely-moving) final paragraph, wherein I recognise (as I'm sure others do too) the specifics you mention of your love for Ferrara's work.

If you ever write a book, I promise to be one of your most enthusiastic readers!

Zach Campbell said...

Thanks to all the other saints (and Double-Saints, as Aaron's case is)!

Tom, I'll keep in mind if I find myself needing future screencaps.

Adrian, your translation of a Brenez book on Ferrara is virtually a synonym for Best Film Book of the Year. 'Anamorphosis' is a great way of putting it with Ferrara and the concentric echoes in each microcosmic scene. I'm striving to be so concise ... As for the notion of 'home,' I think you're right in pointing that out as a distinctive strand in Ferrara's work. (Meanwhile, I just finally caught up with A History of Violence over the weekend, and liked it quite a bit...)

Darren, I've not written much on Linklater--and what I have written is consigned to Internet email lists and the like. One of my dream projects (for sometime in the next couple of years) is to do a big essay on Before Sunrise/Sunset, to me an unparalleled diptych and one of the great achievements of contemporary narrative film. One stumbling block is that these films are also still extremely moving to me, I can sometimes get choked up only recalling them, and the moments of strength required for steady analysis are still few and far between. (I'm reminded of a talk Robin Wood gave at an Ozu conference here in NYC in 2003--in describing one of the films, he actually broke down and cried a little. It's not easy to deal with films that twirl themselves into your mind in that way!)

Filmbrain, I'm really glad I helped whet your appetite for another round of Dangerous Game.

Girish, I didn't even think of checking DVD subtitles for the "forget me" line. Anyway, it seems clear by now that he says "Don't forget me" and that, for some reason, I'm just deaf when I listen to this line of dialogue. I suspect that if my blog entries give one a glimpse of my thought processes, it's because I usually compose them on the fly and don't really know where I'm going to end up. For this entry, I used as a springboard some notes I took on this sequence a while back (which I turned into part 1), and then just played the sequence on DVD again a few times. But I wasn't sure how many parts my answer would have or what point I'd ultimately arrive at, if any.

Matt, if I write with a scalpel, it's only to distract people from all the junior mints I'm dropping ... (thanks for the compliment though).

And Mubarak, if my career goes as planned, I'll someday have a couple of books under my belt ...

A said...

Great comments on Ferrara.
I was just considering some negative comments on Ferrara's Mary, that were geared at his uneven formal approach, and was recalling my own differing reactions to The Addiction (I have to admit, it's so far still the only Ferrara film I've seen).
The first time around I thought it was a rather unsuccessful mess, while the revisit revealed to me one of the imo best films of `95.
Your analysis of some of Ferrara's methods puts the finger on why I had initially dismissed it (and why probably most "conservative" viewers are distressed by his films).
The book by Brenez would be a blessing, as my french is very poor...
But first i should be off to watch some more of his films. Lol

A said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
22 said...

I love it ! Very creative ! That's actually really cool Thanks.