Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Second Look

Movies, like most pop art, tend to require repeated viewings, often simply to confirm the pleasures derived from the initial viewing, occasionally to douse an overtly passionate reaction caused by a singular performance, a nerve-tingling subject, a hypnotizing theme or maybe just pure directorial panache, and once in a while to somehow enrich or deepen the film going experience by gleaming a deeper meaning or a more penetrating misc-en-scene then an initial viewing may evoke.

Being a huge believer in Clint Eastwood’s directorial acumen, and a sucker for any film about the ever mystical Los Angeles (either past or present, especially past), I recently rewatched his Angeline Jolie hosanna and impeccably burnished period piece Changeling, and essentially saw it in a whole different light.

Back in December of 2008 I opined, among other things, that the movie was sinfully old-fashioned and terminally flawed:
“Jolie plays the one truly virtuous character, and Eastwood trails her like a golden-haloed heroine of some long ago silent film parable. Jolie in period costume is a truly iconic sight, and she delivers a delicate, even comely performance. The problem is the 78-year-old director’s classicist tendencies--the movie unfolds with a stately, methodical tone and proceeds with his assured feel for cinematic storytelling-- but ultimately it never bears down and scratches the surfaces beneath the readily apparent emotional and moral concerns.
It still doesn’t prevent Jolie’s single minded performance from becoming repetitive rather than enriched by the expanded canvas. One hates to damn Eastwood, as fine a working contempo director today, with faint praise, yet Changeling is more admirable than affecting, more contained than disturbing, more passive than passionate. It’s an old-fashioned movie that just about rises above its own mawkishness and inherent stolidity. Rare as it, maybe Eastwood the filmmaker has crafted a well-made offering that is essentially a misfire--a sharply drawn shell that too firmly covers up its raw entrails. Jolie’s much vaunted turnabout doesn’t crack the shell either; it’s far too gilded without an iota of the rawness and grit the framework seems to call for.”

Watching the film unfold again, I was equally impressed with Eastwood’s overall package--the set direction, Tom Stern’s cinematography, the smoothly flowing nuts-and-bolts story telling. Yet, the overall stolidity of the movie didn’t bug me again, and where I originally saw a jumble of an historical cautionary tale, a feminist ballad, a gothic chiller, and an open-ended mystery, I now see a purposefully (even defiantly) old school star vehicle, a movie solely devoted to the primordial gaze, a movie shaped around a long lost centerpiece: The Hollywood Heroine.

The inherent irony that as a macho a figure as Eastwood (his reputation as a filmmaker still skewers that way, part fact, part illusion drawn far too much from his on screen acting persona) would overtly machinate a “woman’s picture”, one worthy of such acknowledged masters of the genre as George Cukor or Josef Von Sternberg, is a major obfuscation. Still, a close examination of Eastwood’s progression as a director reveals him to be an ever maturing classicist, obviously steeped in a Hollywood of the past that he was never part of, as the studio system was dissolving during his early leap into stardom.

Changeling ain’t all about Eve, it’s all about Angelina, and Eastwood’s lens is as devoted to her as the gilded cameras of the once-upon-a- time dream factory that smoothly fetishized the faces of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, or Marlene Dietrich. Eastwood continually spotlights her lanky frame, her bee-stung lips, her inexplicable exoticism without sexualizing her, seemingly half of her lengthy screen time is spent with a natty hat half obscuring her delicate features. One can’t help but think of Garbo, and what Roland Barthes infamously postulated: “Garbo’s face represents this fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archetype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces, when the clarity of flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of Woman.”

Is the movie worthy of such a high-minded exegesis? Maybe not, it’s still not a one-of-a-kinder. Still, it remains a fascinating intermeshing of a highly developed directorial vision and a strong, iconic actress, and it stands as a fully formed and thoroughly intentional cinematic throwback, both a paean and a link to a type of well-made, populist American filmmaking that has long ceased to exist.

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