Saturday, July 03, 2010

Hearts and Bones

They vary wildly, but William Hjortsberg's novel, Falling Angel, and the movie version by Alan Parker, retitled Angel Heart (1987) for the big screen, share one thing in common: they take the familiar generic tropes of both the hard boiled detective story and the horror story and push them to a stylistic limit. This is a step beyond expressionism--the film movement that influenced the styles of both the horror movie and film noir--it's over the line into the baroque. The rococo, even. The movie is so drenched in style that it almost doesn't need a story and for a long period it seems like the one it has is a dead end anyway. Parker is one of those directors who doesn't do "subtle."

The plot here follows low-rent private detective Harry Angel into the underworld, searching for a vanished musician named Johnny Favorite who is in the debt of Louis Cyphre, Harry's sinister client. Angel tracks Favorite to a mental hospital where his doctor has been covering up his absence for a decade, then to New Orleans, where Harry comes face to face with a voodoo cult and with some fairly unpleasant facts about himself. The whole thing plays out like one of those hard boiled mysteries where things go from bad to worse in short order, but unlike, say, a Chandler mystery or a Ross McDonald mystery, Harry is no white knight. This literalizes the downward spiral of Jim Thompson or David Goodis and superimposes it over the romantic hard boiled story. And then it jumps out of hard boiled all together in favor of the horror story.

At the time this was filmed, Mickey Rourke was at the peak of his career. He was still gorgeous, if in a disreputable and disheveled sort of way. He always looks like he just fell out of bed after a bender the night before in this movie. He's also populated his portrayal of Harry Angel with a lot of method actor-y tics, though this all serves a function in the movie. Angel doesn't have the steely resolve of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. He's essentially weak. This comes across in the performance. This is in stark contrast to Robert De Niro's Louis Cypher, who is calm, soft spoken, and implacable. Part of the impression De Niro makes in this film stems from the visual design of the character: his beard, his long hair slicked back, his long and polished fingernails, his choice of expensive black suits, his jewelry, all of this provide hints about him. One side effect is that it all makes him look a little bit like Martin Scorsese and I wonder if that's deliberate. A lot of ink was spilled at the time about Lisa Bonet's role in this movie, coming as it did during her stint on The Cosby Show. I don't know that this film helped or hurt her career. I don't know that she went much of anywhere after this, which is a pity, but she's good here in a difficult role. Like Angel and Cypher, her Epiphany Proudfoot is another character name that's loaded with significance, a fact sometimes obscured by the display of her naked flesh. The supporting cast is loaded with interesting faces, including musician Brownie McGhee and the evergreen Charlotte Rampling. It's a good ensemble.

Parker fractures the narrative in the best tradition of film noir. He omits key pieces of information until the exegesis at the end, but he films it in such a way as to elide them. He's not cheating, really, so much as he's engaging in cinematic legerdemain. It's all right there if the viewer cares to infer it (and if the viewer is apt to decode the hints that litter the movie). Parker also intercuts the film with ominous symbols. The fan is the most prevalent, and there are shots of ceiling fans and table fans and box fans through out the movie, representing, I presume, wheels within wheels, or perhaps are favored for the light and dark patterns of shadows they cast. Wheels also figure into the film's other symbolic leitmotif, a descending elevator that torments Harry's dreams. It's all overcooked; that much is a given. But does it work? I think the key to that is whether or not the audience is hip to what's going on and whether or not this is a house of cards built on a single plot point. Does this hold together for a viewer who already knows what's happening? Or is this a one trick pony once you know the punch line. That, I cannot say. I've seen Angel Heart more than once, and sometimes I'll groove on the style or I'll get annoyed with Rourke's performance, and sometimes I'll fast-forward to the scenes with De Niro. This is a movie where the mood of the viewer is sometimes just as important as the mood generated by the film.

The archetype of the hard boiled detective as knight errant shows up in yet another iteration in Debra Granik's dark Winter's Bone (2010). In this case, the unlikely detective is one Ree Dolly, a seventeen year-old girl in the Ozarks of Missouri whose father has skipped out on a bond that threatens to put her and her family out on the streets (or, as she says, "sleeping in a field like dogs"). Ree sets out to find him among an increasingly threatening social web of meth-cooking white trash kin that finds our heroine on a descent into the underworld, and that finds the movie itself sliding into the territory of the horror movie.

This is the hard boiled crime story as sociological document. The desolate picture of rural Missouri here is the decaying result of late capitalism and the filmmakers make a point of examining the wreckage in minute detail. This is a new dark ages, the film suggests, and I don't know if they're wrong. Some viewers might view this as a kind of "poverty porn" designed to appeal to liberal guilt, but I live in Missouri and I've been to West Plains in the winter, where this was filmed. The filmmakers aren't inventing anything. It's just as bleak a landscape as you'll find here, no exaggeration required. Granik is canny enough to include some of the region's rich musical heritage as a hint that we're not talking about someplace devoid of civilization, just devoid of gentrification.* There is a terrible beauty in some of the shots in this film, just as there is a terrible beauty in those 1930s-era shots by Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White. Misery is sometimes photogenic, even in digital.

Perhaps less obvious than the film's depiction of poverty and crime is the subtle feminist leaning of the film. This is a movie about women left to their own devices to clean up the world of shit their menfolk have left for them. At one point, one character asks Ree "Ain't you got no men to do this?" "No, ma'am, I don't," she says, before stubbornly getting on with her task. Part of her task is keeping her family together. Her mother is an invalid and her sister and brother are too young to take care of themselves, so Ree fills the void. It's very, very subtle, but Ree is a kind of everywoman in spite of her youth. It's interesting, too, that the movie doesn't give her any kind of love interest. She's on her own, to make do the best that she can. It's good that she has a strong streak of stubbornness, because a shrinking violet would not be up to the task. Also interesting is the fact that Ree's primary antagonist, Merab, is also a woman and kind of a monster to boot, but one that displays the same characteristics of doing the dirty jobs that men leave undone. The ultimate confrontation between them finds them united in a task so horrible that it transcends their animosity. Men, for their part, are mostly useless, though the movie is surprising in so far as the two men who the viewer initially thinks are the biggest problems turn out to be Ree's best allies: her no-account uncle, Teardrop, and Satterfield, the bond agent, while the one who seems the most sympathetic at the outset, Sheriff Baskin, turns out to be as weak as all the rest. It's a surprising arrangement of roles.

The filmmakers are smart to marry all of this to a genre story where time is ticking away, because it makes what might otherwise seem like a strident polemic into a thrilling movie. Once the audience is hooked to the gills, it makes all the difference in the world.

Visually, this is about as close to a black and white film as you can get in color. It's desaturated to the point of high style, and it further links the whole enterprise to film noir. Director Debra Granik populates the film with faces that are familiar, but largely unrecognizable. There are no big stars in this film, at least, not until Jennifer Lawrence rides the acclaim of this film to bigger and better things once the awards start rolling in next year. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you your 2010 Academy Award winner for Best Actress. At least, in a perfect world that would be true. You can never tell with Oscar. The most familiar faces here are John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, and Sheryl Lee, all of whom have done their more famous work in the background as character actors. The rest of the cast contains a menagerie of memorable grotesques, and while the bones of Winter's Bone are undoubtedly descended from Chandler, Thompson, and even Flannery O'Connor, there's also a hint of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the decor and in the behavior of some of the film's less seemly characters. Hell, chain saws make an appearance as an integral part of the plot. In any case, it makes an impression.

But make no mistake, this is Jennifer Lawrence's movie, and Granik puts her through the ringer. In doing so, she puts a neat spin on the private eye archetype. It's one thing to see a tough guy getting the shit kicked out of him by the thugs employed against him, as happens as a de rigueur element in many noir detective stories, it's quite another to see a seventeen year old girl go through the same treatment and emerge on the other side. There's a world of difference in the power dynamics involved. Ree is just about as low on our society's pecking order as you can get, but she's possessed of that indomitable rightness of purpose you find in any proper knight errant. The movie subtly offers temptation to her and she consistently follows her own moral compass away from it. It's probably what saves her life, actually, but it's also what puts her in the bright circle of crime film heroes. It's been a good year for strong women as heroes, actually. You can put Ree Dolly next to Lisabeth Salander in the pantheon.

*I saw this at Columbia, Missouri's Ragtag Cinemacafe. They brought some of that music to their first showing of the movie. They had Marideth Sisco and her band play a set prior to the movie. I don't have any footage of that, but here's the band:

And here's the movie's trailer, for good measure:

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