Sunday, March 26, 2006
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.