Friday, February 10, 2006

THE MYSTERY OF BIRTH



Jonathan Glazer’s Birth opens with one of the most potent tracking shots in the history of the Steadicam shot. From beyond a darkened screen, we hear a self-described man of science who holds the supernatural in disregard proclaim (to, it will soon become clear, an audience), “If I lost my wife and the next day a little bird appeared on the windowsill, looked me right in the eye and in plain English said, “Sean, it’s me, Anna. I’m back”—What can I say? I guess I’d believe her. Or I’d want to. That’ll have to be the last question. I need to go running before I head home.” Before we can even ask ourselves why it’s important to know about this man’s athletic inclination, the frame fades up out of black, the camera elevated about seven feet above ground and tracking behind a figure in a dark running suit, who we assume to be this same man, contrasted sharply against his surroundings as he jogs across down a snowy path through Central Park. Held aloft by the deceptively light, shimmering flutes expressing the first few passages of Alexandre Desplat’s score, which moves during the film from delight to subliminal disquiet with the ease of a casual brushstroke, the camera, following the runner (and directed by Gus Van Sant’s brilliant cinematographer, Harris Savides), glides along with a forward thrust that will soon come to illustrate, in foreboding comic-sexual visual terms worthy of the finale of North by Northwest, the groundwork on which the rest of the film is built.

The runner, himself cutting a rather phallic figure against the recessive, snow-covered park, moves along a somewhat equally suggestive rock and tree-lined course. His path is soon crossed by a pack of roving dogs that disrupt the continuity and solitude of his run, but his trajectory is never disrupted, and with each moment that the Steadicam take extends in real time the path along which the runner moves from suggestiveness to a more emphatically vaginal quality which complements the consistent (and, as visually imagined, sexually insistent) strength of the jogger. Only a few more seconds pass before the jackpot in this visual strategy is revealed—the upcoming underpass of a small foot bridge, cloaked in shadow and looming in front of the jogger like a waiting lover. The runner (and the camera) pass into the dark recesses of the underpass, and before he emerges out from the other side comes the first cut in the sequence, to a static long shot suddenly from much further down the path. The film’s title card, in that familiarly florid cursive font, appears over the shot, and as it disappears we reestablish the connection with the runner, who now proceeds down the path toward a now-slowly receding Steadicam, the runner’s phallic insistence threatening to assert itself now upon the camera, and the audience, itself. But this time the camera moves only a few feet before it becomes apparent that we are inside another underpass, now awaiting the arrival of the runner. If the first underpass held some visual suggestion of a vaginal destination for the jogger, this new area of darkness along the path, as seen from within, the arch of the bridge fully visible, is far more suggestive of a destination even beyond the immediate pleasures of the vagina—that is, the womblike darkness of the uterine canal. The camera continues to recede into the darkness, the port of light on the other side growing smaller even as the runner re-enters the frame and moves into that darkness, continually silhouetted against the small patch of light at the center of the frame. Suddenly, the runner’s trajectory hitches slightly. He staggers equally slightly, then slows, turns to his right and bends over, obviously stricken and gasping. But it quickly becomes clear that this runner’s condition is far more serious than mere sudden exhaustion. He falls to his knees, becoming lost in the darkness that is so dominant in the frame, and the camera, which has stopped to observe this strange new series of his movements, resumes receding back through the dark. As it begins to finally find its way out the other side, there is a quick lap dissolve back to the inside of this womb—or is it now a tomb—to a close-up of the runner, laying face-down on the ground, dead or dying. Cut to a shot from outside the underpass. The camera has now stopped tracking and instead pulls back in a conventional zoom diagonally across the jogging path, drinking in, even as it pulls away from it, the ominous sight of the bridge and the entrance to the underpass. As yet unbeknownst to anyone, this representation of the womb, a place where life begins, has become the last resting place of the character of Sean, whom we will never see again in this form, but who will propel the rest of the film not through his physical presence, so dominant a factor in the film’s first four minutes, but through his (reincarnated?) spirit. We’re left to recall and ruminate upon the only words we’ve heard Sean speak in the film, and to wonder about what they mean in regard to the shot that finally ends the opening sequence—a cut to the diaphanously rendered image of a newborn baby, as seen through water (are we under water, or is the baby?), perhaps as it is just emerging from its mother into the world. It stretches, gasps for air, and then we realize it is being birthed underwater, and being slowly borne to the surface by the hands of a person (a doctor? a nurse? a father?) whom we will never see. Fade to black, and then to the title card: “Ten Years Later.”

The wonder, the brilliance of Birth is that it completely and satisfyingly, through many virtuoso stylistic sequences to match the one described above, explores a genuinely provocative narrative question. In an inverse of the scenario described by Sean in the otherworldly black of the opening few seconds of the film, is the little boy who presents himself at the doorstep of the soon-to-be-remarried Anna (Nicole Kidman) 10 years after the death of Sean, her first husband, actually who he claims to be— Sean, reincarnated? Or is he merely an incarnation of the real love Anna had for Sean amidst the looming shadow of an upcoming marriage that she seems to think may threaten her memories of what she had with her first husband? Whatever the answer, Birth is hardly, as some of the reviews that turned me off of seeing the film in theaters a year and a half ago suggested, an empty exercise in style— as if style were simply ornamentation to drape over the skeleton of a story, as if style could not, in the right hands, in the hands of an artist, be itself a doorway unto meaning and understanding of the deeper realms in which the story operates. Neither is it a “supernatural thriller,” though it walks the line between representational, logical understanding of its premise and the possibility of supernatural underpinnings far more successfully than did one of its obvious inspirations, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.


What Birth is, beside being one of the most unjustly overlooked movies of the new decade, is an exceptional flowering of theme and artistic purpose, from the perspective of its director, Jonathan Glazer (whose only previous film was Sexy Beast, but who has had a major career in music video), and a high point in the acting careers of almost everyone involved, from Danny Huston, to Arliss Howard, to Anne Heche (whose appearance here makes you remember why she was once considered to have such potential), and of course, to Nicole Kidman, who I believe has never been better than she is here, subtly modulating the narrow, self-restricted emotional range of a fragile woman who struggles to maintain disbelief at the same time that she so desperately wants to give over to absolute acceptance of the boy’s outlandish, yet eerily believable claims. (There is a sequence here, an unbroken take focusing on her face as she watches an opera with her fiancĂ©, in which all the building conflict and emotion in her character flits across her face, choreographed to the crescendos and lulls in the dramatic music she’s there to hear, that is as much evidence of Kidman’s talent, so infrequently put to full advantage, as anyone need ever see.) The movie gains strength with each sequence, lending power and emotion to scenes that are staged with absolute clarity of purpose and none of the grandstanding sentimentality that might turn it into, as one writer thoughtlessly claimed, Ghost with pretensions to art and intellect. It’s much easier to write off a movie like Birth with glib, snarky pronouncements like that than it is to engage with the movie on its level and explore some of the questions it asks: What constitutes identity? Is it something innate in us, or is it something projected onto us by others to which we acclimate ourselves, becoming versions of a vision others have of us? The movie is startlingly intelligent; it leaves available enough pieces of the puzzle to satisfy the most literal-minded viewer, yet retains a potent ambiguity that calls into question the rational explanation as well as the fanciful. And even though it’s not backloaded with a Shamaylanian revelation that causes you to back-track and reevaluate all that you’ve seen before, you may find yourself reacting as I did—I was so seduced by the spell the movie cast that I simply did not want the sensation of that spell to go away, so I took a walk around the room, returned to my DVD player, pressed “play” and indulged in the entire movie all over again.

I’ve tried to give a sense here of what kind of visual intelligence is at work in Birth, as well as a hint of the philosophical and cinematic sensibility that makes engaging with its narrative such a rewarding experience, without turning this piece into an exegesis of the questions and strategies of the film that will mean little to anyone who hasn’t seen it. My suggestion, if you haven’t already seen Birth, is this: rent it immediately, and if you find yourself similarly moved, follow my example and head over to 24 Lies A Second, where you can read Robert Cumbow’s extensive analysis of the film. That’s where I’m headed now—I wanted to get some of my own fleeting thoughts down before I allowed Cumbow’s much more detailed consideration to wash over me, giving me food for thought, new ideas, perhaps confirming some of my own, and perhaps even giving me cause for argument, just like all good writing should. (I’m assuming it’s good based on the evidence of Cumbow’s book about Sergio Leone, entitled Once Upon a Time, as well as his excellent piece on Altman and Coppola, also available at 24 Lies. If “Why is This Film Called Birth?” is even half as good as those other two works, those who love Jonathan Glazer’s movie are in for a very good bit of reading indeed.)

18 comments:

Paul Parducci said...

OK, I'm renting this weekend!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Paul, let me know what you think. More than one person I know thinks I'm crazy for finding so much to appreciate about this movie. And I know the friend who doggedly recommended it to me was a little nervous about what my response would be. I felt a bit of that myself as I wrote, and then posted, this piece, so I won't be shocked or offended if it's revealed to me, through the reactions of others in this very comments section, just how misguided or otherwise insane I am. To paraphrase my friend, if you don't go crazy over the movie, at least you'll be in good company-- the movie got some decidedly downturned thumbs from a lot of very good, very smart film critics. But I hope you enjoy it!

Michael said...

Dennis, I came to your site via Girish's (I'll be taking part in the Code Unknown blog-a-thon as well). I thought I'd say that I too admire and love Glazer's Birth; it is, hands down, perhaps the best American film I've seen in at least the last two years and a brilliantly orchestrated and provocative piece of filmmaking if there ever was one. Like you, I was mystified by some of the critical responses to the film, though I think in some cases these responses resulted from the viewers expecting the film to be something other than it is.

There's so much to admire about Birth: the visuals, as you note, which are wonderfully coherent and completely in-tune with the film's content; the score; Heche's great performance, which I happened to admire more than Kidman's (though that's no slight against Kidman, who is also spectactular here); the references to Kubrick; and more. For me, I particularly loved the way the film almost mystically explores the boundaries of grief, and also how it suggests that what you cannot know is a form of sorrow.

Some reviewers had serious problems with the explanation of who Sean is and also with the ending. To which I've said, the explanation is no explanation at all, and the ending (which some called underwhelming) is appropriate, beautifully heart-wrenching, and absolutely overwhelming.

Enjoyed your post.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"The film almost mystically explores the boundaries of grief, and also how it suggests that what you cannot know is a form of sorrow."

I really like this observation-- for me, that's exactly right. The serious contemplation of what might have been expresses itself most deeply, in my experience, as one of the most profound aspects of sorrow. Birth finds a way to tap into that without ever seeming maudlin or obvious-- just another layer of this movie that deserves serious consideration.

Michael, thanks for checking in. Nice to hear from another admirer of the film. (Have you seen Glazer's Sexy Beast? I've only seen it once, but now I'm very much looking forward to seeing it again.)

And I'm looking forward to what you and others will have in store on Haneke Blog-a-thon day. Not really having much more than a sliver of an idea of what to expect from Code Unknown myself, I'm excited to write about it, read all the pieces and see where we all shake out on this film.

Thanks for stopping by, Michael. I hope you'll become a regular visitor!

Peet said...

Aah, justice at last! I'm so relieved you could see the wonder of this film too, Dennis. It's interesting to see that you, like Bob, chose to describe the film in such glorious detail in this post. It only proves how much of BIRTH's value lies in the experience of watching it. More on that later...

A short note: Forgive me if some of the comments below look familar to any of you, but I've been doing some serious missionary work for this film already. I guess it won't hurt if I do some copy-and-pasting here and there, since comment sections have a very short life span.

I'm positive that Glazer's film will eventually get recognized as the masterpiece of filmmaking it really is. In many ways, I see Glazer as an empathic Kubrick. The influence of the bearded genius is quite apparent in Glazer's collection of music promos and commercials available via the Director's Label, which I can recommend with all my heart.

Like Michael said before me (great to see you here!), I think a lot of people had a hard time placing this film. They expected an occult thriller or some kind of romantic melodrama. BIRTH is neither. More than anything, it's a character study. And if it sometimes feels like an unsuccessful one, that's only because Anna spends the better part of the film trying to hide that character behind her graceful upperclass facade.

Just like the freaky mutant kids and monstrous mom in David Cronenberg's THE BROOD function as a metaphor for the damaging influence of unprocessed psychological trauma, I believe the young boy embodies Anna's suppressed emotion and unfinished grief. I love the idea that Glazer mirrors Anna's emotional restraint in his direction. (Not counting that stunning, emotionally pornographic three minute close-up on Nicole Kidman, of course, which reveals everything about her we need to know. If that isn't one of the most gorgeous shots in the history of cinema, shoot me!)

Am I the only one to notice that perhaps the most important theme of BIRTH is quite similar to the theme of Glazer's (marvelous, although very different) SEXY BEAST? In order to leave your past behind, you've got to deal with your past...

Contrary to what a lot of people have argued, the twist is not a Hollywood cop-out. It's not even a twist, because everything's still open to interpretation. I think this film even addresses the fact that we, as an audience, are conditioned to expect a twist, and finds a smart way to sidestep the whole issue. Michael's right: the given "explanation" takes nothing away of the story's mystery and only throws up more questions. To name but one: [SPOILER] How could the boy know where Anna's husband had died? That couldn't have been in the letters...[END OF SPOILER]

I find Glazer's intention for his film to "ask the right questions" especially profound. (The quote can be found in the liner notes of the booklet that's part of his Director's Label DVD.) It implies that the literal story of BIRTH is secundary, and what truly matters is our reaction to the ideas it provokes. This is consistent with the long take on Anna's face at the opera, which is sustained for such a long time that we as an audience are forced to project our thoughts onto her. In other words: the film becomes a manifestation of our thoughts and feelings just as much as the boy is the projection of Anna's memory.

Michael said...

Dennis, I'm glad I found your blog. I indeed have seen Sexy Beast, which I liked a great deal and thought was very well made. It didn't quite resonate with me the way Birth did (perhaps to be expected, as Birth is an emotionally deeper film), but it's a good story, and I loved Kingley's performance.

I too am looking forward to what everyone has to say about Code Unknown. As my first introduction to Haneke, I have to say that my expectations were greatly exceeded (and I expected much based on what others have said about him). It's an inherently brutal film, but also quite provocative and thoughtful as well.

Peet, regarding your comments on Birth, I think you nailed it when you said that people expected either an occult thriller (along the lines of The Sixth Sense) or a melodrama, and then felt let down when the "truth" about Sean was revealed. In The New Yorker, David Denby wrote what I think is a mis-reading of the film by taking the revelation about Sean at face value. I thought to myself later that, even if a literal reading of the "truth" is accurate, it still connects the two Seans in many ways, and particularly underscores how Anna is dealing with her grief. After all, Birth is really about Anna and the process (or the lack of process) of grieving, and much less about Sean's identity.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Yes, and the fact that it really is about her grief and her projection of Sean's (the husband's) identity onto this boy is what leads those who expect, or demand, for it to be more about whether or not Sean (the boy) is who he says he is to be disappointed by the film's conclusion. For once, however, I don't think this misperception, or this false expectation that the movie would be something other than what it is, can be laid on its marketing-- from what I've seen, the trailers fairly accurately convey the movie's tone and the muted tentativeness that can be said to describe Kidman's character. I've found, in rereading some of the negative reviews the film received, that some of the writers might have gotten wind of the basic premise and decided early on that it was too presposterous to be taken as seriously as the film takes it, or that it should have been approached in a certain way, with a certain pop attitude that the film eschews. (Hence that Ghost-with-pretensions-to-art line of "thinking.") General audiences, unfortunately, don't need much prompting when it comes to rejecting films that seem familiar but turn out to be anything but, so that Birth flatlined at the box office doesn't seem so surprising. It's just irksome that the writers one might reasonably expect to get behind it-- Matt Zoller Seitz notably excepted-- felt it wasn't worth investigating seriously.

Peet said...

Glazer said: "Without faith, she doesn’t have a journey.”

Neither has the audience, for that matter.

That's why so many were pissed-off about the film, I guess: it flatlines if you're not willing to go along with it, inhabit it, make it your own possession. Audiences can be terribly lazy, and they usually blame the filmmaker for not being clear enough. My next 24Lies article will go into that, albeit not in a predictable way.

Edward Copeland said...

Birth didn't do much for me, especially Danny Huston. I don't know this guy continues to get work -- I think he's been at best a nonentity and at worst just plain awful in everything I've seen him in. In Birth, I thought Huston was especially laughable in the scene where he goes after the kid.

Bob Cumbow said...

Nice job, Dennis, kindred spirit ... and thanks for the plug!

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Dennis, thanks for your note and posting to my blog and I really enjoyed your thoughtful take on BIRTH. Even though I wasn't quite as impressed with Kidman's performance (I guess it comes down to how MUCH ambiguity you have a taste for), the movie's visual scenes keep rattling around in my head and I want to watch it again. I may change my mind!
On one thing, we can all agree: How any critic could find this movie anything less than fascinating is a sad commentary on the state of today's movie criticism. It was Dave Kehr or somebody who recently blogged that all movie critics have abdicated any discussion of subtext or cinematography in today's reviews. And, of course, there is no way to discuss BIRTH without discussing subtext, camera work, the soundtrack, etc. Last thought: Doesn't a movie like BIRTH almost depress you in the sense that there are so few mainstream movies that even come close to it? When are we going to get another?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

TLRHB: Yes, I saw Kehr's post-- he was railing against critics not recognizing the fundamentally stylistically incoherent romantic comedy Something New, was he not? (Peet Gelderblom writes on the substance of style wittily and with quite a bit of substance himself over here at 24 Lies a Second.)

I continue to steam about the critics whom I usually appreciate and read with regularity who steered me wrong about Birth. At the very least I would have hoped for something along the lines of, "Well, this doesn't work, but it's interesting and worth a look." Instead, I was dissuaded from seeing it in the theater by their indifference. And I'm sure most viewers who don't wanna invest in the theatrical experience unless they can be relatively assured (by a rave review, or more likely by a sequel or otherwise high concept prospect) that they won't be disappointed probably never gave it a serious look.

As for your other comment, Birth is so much more interesting and compelling than any of the movies up for the Best Picture Oscar (it's a bit too unsettling and odd to ever be afforded such an honor anyway) that I'm just tickled and grateful it's out there at all. This is, after all, a movie with a very individual identity (!) and sensibility made within a system that usually bends over backward to iron out any unique kinks or patterns in the films it churns out. So the fact that it exists at all is encouraging to me, and it reminds me (and seeing some of the junk that's out there now, it's good to be reminded) that there are other filmmakers out there, some we know of already, some who have yet to be revealed, who will keep that flickering flame of creativity and art in American films from whiffing out altogether.

Hmm.. Why do I all of the sudden have this all-consuming desire to see The New World right now? :)

S.I.L. in Chicago said...

I thought I was the only person in the world who actually loved this film. I think most people have never even heard of it.

Dennis, I enjoyed your description of the visuals in this movie, especially your detailed recounting of the opening scene (I could picture it again in my head). Although the visuals, acting, music, and metaphysical concept were all outstanding and/or interesting (and mentioned by you and your respondents), the one thing I found especially notable is how much it reminds me of a really good short short or novel. Not that it is staid or "literary," but as in a good piece of writing, it embodies so much more than what is physically in it. It evokes an entire world that includes people and places off-screen as well as the viewer's past experience and prior knowledge of his or her world. The flow of storyline feels organic as does the behavior of each character in a way that the plot and characters in a Joyce or Checkov or Raymond Carver story do. I think it's ironic that so many movies that are based on pieces of literature fail to capture the satisfaction that good writing offers (case in point, every movie I've seen based on a Graham Greene novel and "Brokeback Mountain" -- although I think I'm in the minority on that one). I don't know if "Birth" was based on another source. Perhaps the reason it feels like a good read is because it never was a good read in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I just finished watching this movie. Although I slowly joined the ride of the movie, it ended with many questions. Questions that an audience shouldn't entertain while discovering the art. While traversing through the layers of thoughts, the supernatural and writer's intent, I found myself asking what the title meant versus the material. The movie lacked this connection, in my opinion.

If one is to patch together a story, there are things that one would love to discover. I wondered: What did Anna do as a profession? Did I miss something when Clara spoke in the end? What did Anna's husband look like? How did the title match the movie? What memories did Anna have that would make her stuck with her husband's memory 10 years later? Was Anna's husband amazing? Was the boy psyhco? Was everyone psycho? Why did everyone except this situation without a professional, especially when they seem to travel with NYC's elite? Too many questions, not enough illustration. Movie did not move fluidly. It was emotional at times, but not a classic. This is not a work of genius because everyone just doesn't 'get it.' A genius would achieve this effect...I just didn't learn anything from this film. I will review it to see the genius, but I just don't see it.

Not enough life is shared, everyone is on their own island and no one is joined. The relationship that Kidman ponders just seems foolish. With more work, this could have been well done. Right now, the film does nothing for Kidman.

This film is less than average, without the cast, it would have been down right stupid. I ask the crew to try another film with better results.

Not worth the time.......

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There's so much to admire about Birth: the visuals, as you note, which are wonderfully coherent and completely in-tune with the film's content; the score; Heche's great performance, which I happened to admire more than Kidman's (though that's no slight against Kidman, who is also spectactular here); the references to Kubrick; and more. For me, I particularly loved the way the film almost mystically explores the boundaries of grief, and also how it suggests that what you cannot know is a form of sorrow.

Joey said...

Anonymous just doesn't get it, which is fine, because the movie wasn't intended for that type of person. You have to have experienced true grief, obsession, and of course love, to to really "get" this movie.

One of kidmans greatest performances ever, and I'm in 2014, so I've seen a few. Just amazing, along with the entire movie. Style, substance, thought provoking, everything you could want from a movie.

Just imagine what Anna is going through at the end of the movie. Not being able to grasp what has just happened to her because she doesn't have any clue to what actually happened. The boy fell in love with her and loves her too much to tell her that her husband was cheating on her, and Anna's ex sister-in-law isn't going to tell Anna that her husband was really in with her for what ever reason, self preservation presumably. So she has no way to rationally process what she has gone through besides assuming that some randome boy just decided to pretend to be her husband. Beyond deep. Gorgeous movie.