Monday, July 26, 2010

Woyzeck and The Limey


Here is the main reason I rented Woyzeck: I'd been sick in bed for about a week, and by the time I got back up on my feet, I had a pretty grizzly beard with huge shocks of white all through it. I'd also lost about 15 pounds, and I joked that I looked like a soldier on the Russian front (pick a war). I read the play Woyzeck in college for a class called "Civilization and Its Discontents." I was 18 when I took the class, and it precisely catered to all my late-teen-age angst. Arnold Weinstein was the professor, and he used as the premise an essay by Sigmund Freud with the aforementioned title. The reading list included (in no particular order) The Wasteland, Woyzeck, The Flanders Road, Naked Lunch, Phedre, Spring Awakening, Beloved, and a bunch of other texts about really messed up people.

All that aside, with the beard and gaunt face I was reminding myself of a particularly grizzly looking cover photo of Woyzeck that I remembered from the class. Also, I'd recently finished The Rest Is Noise and Ross talks a lot about Alban Berg and his opera of Woyzeck, Wozzeck, so I'd been wanting to revisit the text. The last thing was that I'd managed to make it almost 40 years without seeing any of the (in)famous Herzog/Kinski films, and I thought it was about time.

Turns out, Woyzeck doesn't have a beard at all. In fact, one of the first scenes is of him shaving someone with a straight razor. He's one of the most clean shaven characters in memory. I must have been thinking about someone else. If memory serves, the film is true to the play. What struck me most is the subtlety of Kinski's performance. I was expecting a real lion, but he gives one of the most understated portraits of mental duress I've ever seen. Likewise, Herzog uses a light touch and resists the urge to overdramatize Woyzeck's anguish. It's a very strange film, mean-spirited and relentless but also matter-of-fact. Eva Mattes turns in a fantastic performance (apparently she was awarded Best Actress at Cannes), but Kinski's impotence turned to psychosis is obviously the point. It's a slow film and mostly a quiet one. Ultimately it left me a little nonplussed, but if you're interested in seeing a decidedly non-Hollywood portrayal of mental calamity, I'd highly recommend it.

The Limey

I decided to rent The Limey when I came across this feature at the AV Club. Apparently, the commentary track on this film is legendary in film circles for the undisguised malhomie between screenwriter Lem Dobbs and director Steven Soderbergh. I've never much delved into commentary tracks, I think partially because I've always rented from shops and have run out of time. Now that I'm going to be studying screenwriting though, I've become a lot more interested in the particulars of how certain films were made. That's one thing I'm looking forward to with Netflix is having the time to really delve into the extras on the film if it warrants it. A notable exception to this was about a week I spent with Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas, when I was working on my short film "Sonny's Gambit." I would recommend that commentary for anyone who's interested in process, if not for the insane logistics behind that production, at least for the sonorousness of Wenders' voice.

It had been a while since I'd seen The Limey, so I watched it without the commentary first to refresh my memory. I got a lot more out of it this time around, and it was especially interesting to place it in the trajectory from Out of Sight to Oceans Eleven to Traffic. You could really see Soderbergh experimenting with a lot of the stuff that he would perfect in Traffic: the color palettes, the fragmented editing, the breaking up of the timeline. There was one scene where one continuous conversation takes place in three different settings, with the film cutting back and forth among them. I hadn't even noticed that the first time I saw it because the dialogue is continuous.

The commentary track definitely delivers. There are times that are hilarious and some that are truly uncomfortable, but if you've ever worked on a collaborative project, you know exactly where they're coming from. What's actually more interesting than the conflict is seeing how much common ground the two share. And it's thrilling just to hear the scope of knowledge that these two have about cinema. Ultimately, for reasons I can't quite pin down, The Limey is a flawed film. All the scenes with Nicky Katt seem like they're from a different movie. He's funny, but his scenes distract from the hard-boiled nature of the Terence Stamp story. Tonally, the film lies exactly between the sort of charming, jokey Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight and the more ambitious but also more consistent Traffic. But The Limey goes much farther than either in its use of oblique, abstract devices to convey story and character. It's frankly a miracle that Soderbergh got to turn in a film this hostile to convention. But for all the experimenting, there's a sense that ultimately he didn't take it far enough. Ultimately, the film feels pretty safe. Once you boil it down, it's a story about gangsters and screw-ups, a little comic, a little violent, with just enough emotional depth to give it life.

Again, for anyone thinking about studying or making film, I'd definitely recommend the commentary here. It really lays it out there.

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