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Reviews

Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull's History Lesson
(1976)

Not Minor but Major Altman Effort
At the time the film was dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences, in part because its deflation of American myths could hardly compete with the Bicentennial. But also because the critics couldn't see past the obvious satirical element to the more complicated themes that Altman explored.

Altman is not content merely to satirize the West, because he understands that America's gift for self invention and self-serving myth making is really what sets it apart, what makes America "exceptional." Altman is interested in the power of fiction, and he argues that in the contest between reality and fiction, neither is a clear winner, but genuine art, rather than mere showmanship, is every bit as consequential. When the opera singer entertains President Cleveland, the president yawns, but Cody and his band of liars are moved to tears because as showmen they recognize the power of a really good show.

And this is what ultimately distinguishes Sitting Bull from Bill Cody. As Ned Buntline observes, "I was thinking about Sitting Bull. Just put yourself in that Injun's place. You sit in your tepee and dream. And then you go to wherever the dream may take you... it might come true. And you wait for real life to catch up. Injuns gear their lives to dreams. And what an injun dreams, no matter how far-fetched, will wait until he dies to come true. The white men - they're different. The only time they dream is when things are going their way." The real conflict is not between a mythical and a real West, but between competing dreams, as played out in the contest between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, who bests Cody at his own game. Sitting Bull is not just the real deal — a real chief and a real horseman, who can easily slip away from camp without being tracked down by Cody (thus spoiling his reputation as a famous tracker) — he is also the superior myth maker. And he authors his own myth, whereas Cody is the invention of Ned Buntline, as Ned reminds him toward the end of the film. In the end what matters is whose myth is the more powerful, the more convincing, the more enduring. Cody appears to have the last word by staging a phony act in which he slays Sitting Bull, but Sitting Bull defeats death itself by appearing before Cody after having been murdered at Standing Rock. Sitting Bull had the patience to wait until real life caught up with his dreams.

Many consider the film a minor effort, but take a closer look and you'll find that it exemplifies all of Altman's strengths as one of the most original and individual of America's directors in the 70s.

Night and the City
(1992)

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Try to Fix It
You have to approach a film like this with some ambivalence, given that it is a reinterpretation of a classic film noir. The fact that Scorsese pulled out should give one pause too. Did he have second thoughts about despoiling this favorite among film mavens and ending up with a travesty? Surprisingly, there are several good points to recommend the second version: De Niro's acting, the supporting cast, and the New York ambiance principally.

Some of the reviewers on here argue that De Niro's unlikeable character diminishes the film, but they are missing the point -- the story is famous in part precisely because none of the characters is likable. More than 20 years into his career, De Niro turns in another fine performance and foreshadows some of the great work he does in this decade. Perspicacious fans will not be disappointed. The film goes wrong when it attempts to update the story and change things like the ending, which tries to redeem Harry and adds a sentimental touch totally out of keeping with the noir impetus of the film. The problem with revisions is knowing when to leave well enough alone. Scorsese went on to make a similar mistake with Cape Fear, which for all its virtues, pales besides the original and showcases De Niro in an over the top performance, which is gripping but flawed precisely because the film tries so hard to outdo its predecessor. Nonetheless, this version of Night and the City merits more attention than it has received.

Enter the Void
(2009)

A Heady Trip through the Eye of the Camera
Enter the Void has sharply divided critics. Detractors loathe its "puerile" ideas, its banality, it contrived effects, whereas its advocates praise its technical photographic brilliance, its use of neon color, its representation of Tokyo nightlife.

They are both wrong. The brilliance of this flawed but innovative film is its camera-work, yes, but not merely for the rolling camera, which is just a technical feat that, as Noé himself said, is obsessively applied. There is probably no film in history that has depended so thoroughly on the crane shot. No, the brilliance of this film lies in its reduction of the narrative to a purely photographic perspective. The camera empties out the film until it is the only light shining into the void. Movies are still very much indebted to the formal characteristics of the theater -- script, plot, dialog, character development, and so on. Noé tosses that all out. If you are looking for character growth, plot, verbal spark, you will be disappointed. The characters, though quite forlorn and tragically tinged, are banal and unchanging; the dialog, delivered in a monotone, is uninspired and uninformative; the plot is not really a plot at all, insofar as the action is connected only through the traveling camera rather than through an inexorable chain of cause and effect. The story is a bare bones melodrama, nothing more.

The film titillates us with the idea that Oscar, who has been loaned a copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is playing out the motif of reincarnation and is reborn in the end. The film begins inside his head, the camera establishing a point of view perspective to which it relentlessly, even annoyingly adheres until Oscar is shot and killed in a drug bust. The camera then leaves his body and floats above the city spying on the people in Oscar's life from above. It is implied that he is living out the story of the Tibetan Book: he is temporarily disembodied and seeking the means to be reincarnated. But it dawns on you after a while that this motif is nothing more than a metaphor for the camera and that the only subjectivity of any significance is that of the camera – or the movie goer. The camera is not a stand in for the protagonist; it is the protagonist. The idea occurred to Noé when he saw Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake, a 1947 film shot entirely in a first-person perspective. But here that first person perspective becomes an empty subjectivity devoid of personal characteristics once Oscar is dead. The camera continues to visit the various people he knows and also revisits crucial moments in his past – the death of his parents in a car crash, the separation in childhood from his sister, and the immediate events leading up to his death. But the camera is impersonal. It looks over his shoulder, as if he himself were looking back at his past self, but the irony, as well as the thematic thrust of the film is that Oscar is good and truly dead. There is nothing but a void, which we fill with our sentimental dreams and creative spirit.

In the press kit Noé claimed that "The main subject of the film is rather the sentimentality of mammals and the shimmering vacuity of the human experience." At one point, Oscar visits his friend Alex, a painter rooming with another guy who is building a model of Tokyo's nightclub district. Oscar shines a light through the windows of the model Love Hotel and remarks that it would be fun to be able to hover above the city and peek in the windows, spying on everyone making love. This is eventually just what the camera does. The utter weightlessness of the characters strips the film of any metaphysical pretense. There is just the void. You enter the void and depart. The cycle of rebirth is merely an illusion that derives from the pattern of birth and death. Noé has said that "it's not the story of someone who dies, flies and is reincarnated, it's the story of someone who is stoned when he gets shot and who has an intonation of his own dream." Noé emphatically rejects any religious interpretation and does not himself believe in any religion. It is an utterly unsentimental take on life, birth and regeneration of the species (not the individual). Oscar's sister gives birth at the end of the film, and the birth of her child is merged with the birth of Oscar – but this is not rebirth: just successive generation.

This is what gives weight to what otherwise would be a merely visually interesting journey or a nihilistic bit of iconoclasm; the film acquires power from the tension between our hopes, our dreams, and the brutal reality of sudden, unwilled life and death that mark the boundaries of the void. The theme and the camera-work are one. The camera is the film, it is what gives substance to the void. And each of the viewers is invited in; each of the viewers is a camera too, filming its journey through the void. Once Alex is dead, you take his place.

The camera is both the engine of the film and its means of Kathartic release. The most significant aspect of its Tokyo is not the neon urban jungle of sex clubs and drug dealers, but the tight, tiny womb like cubicles in which everyone exists that are so claustrophobic as to make you queasy. The final image in the film is a birth, and that sudden rush from the suffocating canal is itself a metaphor for the release that is obtained through the camera's ability to travel over and through these constricting spaces. If there is any sentimentality at all, it is the belief in the liberating power of art despite or perhaps because of its struggle to imbue the void with meaning by giving it form.

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