By Ray Pride
On Tuesday, the L.A. Times started the tom-toms going, gauging if “The Dark Knight” is on the mark to become the highest-grossing movie in the U.S. of all time, rising beneath “Titanic”’s substantial and seemingly unstoppable total that surpasses $600 million. Then again, Christopher Nolan’s dark, conflicted tale has gone above $314 million in a mere ten days, and most of the devoted moviegoers I know who have been dying to see it have faced nothing but sell-outs. (They’re still adamant, and most of them about the IMAX version.)
There are critiques as riotously conflicted as the movie’s politics—which presents, but does not necessarily endorse, the “dark knight”’s apparent turn to the “dark side” in the choices he makes throughout the movie. This is a good thing, I think: ambivalence and ambiguity just shy of notional incoherence make for the kind of movies that make it possible just to watch the zeitgeist burn. (See under: Robert Zemeckis in mid-career movies like “Back to the Future” and “Forrest Gump.”) If the world’s all hopped-up over the relative virtues or failings of “The Dark Knight,” they cannot help but engage with its suggestive political text, can they?
I’m most surprised by the fistful of reviews I’ve read where the portrayal of the city—the City—Gotham—Chicago—never enters into the appreciation. Even without knowing the corners being turned, the buildings just-glimpsed then cut away from, “The Dark Knight” is a city symphony of the hardly planned architectural heap that encircles Daniel Burnham’s 1909 plan for this patch of prairie, this City Beautiful.
The best movie you can readily see this week traffics in the same approach to drama, in a calmer, steadier fashion, and the likenesses were even more apparent last week when I watched Christian Petzold’s glassy dream-thriller “Yella” for the third time. Petzold’s earlier pictures, like “The State I’m In” (2000) and “Something to Remind Me” (2001), have had little play here, confined to a couple of screenings at Siskel. Yet this 47-year-old German director shares the amplitude of ideas about image and sound being as important as text with the Englishman who turned 38 on Wednesday. (Happy Birthday! Here’s $10 million!)
“Yella,” like most movies, unfolds like truth, like a moment, but it is also a dream, or perhaps less a dream than a portrait of a dreamer who cannot wake. Like his earlier movies, the ninth feature from Petzold haunts for what is shown but also for what is merely implied. Petzold works in apparent realism, concrete in his depiction of space and color, yet things remain disquietingly abstract—haunted. (“Ghosts,” the name of his 2005 feature, could title any of his work.)
“Yella” keeps the viewer off-kilter with strange happenings, beginning as Yella (Nina Hoss), a woman in East Germany, is stalked by a man who turns out to be her ex-husband. An accident happens. No one could survive. They both do. (Petzold admits reworking Herk Harvey’s “Carnival of Souls” for this story.) She improbably boards a train, drying her blood-colored blouse—Little Red Yuppie Hood?—and heads to the urban west, proves to be proficient in business, the equal of the venture capitalist who employs her. While her ex continues to stalk her, the dance of attraction between Yella and her boss resembles her earlier romance, as if her boss were a hale, hearty version of the earlier man, as if memory could only become moored by repetition. Hoss has the intense features of an older Mena Suvari, with a dash of Greta Scacchi’s coolness, along with an unnervingly steady gaze. Yella is central to nearly every scene, in almost every shot. She wears a blooded-red blouse that suggests vigor within, a burst of liveliness in the VC realm. Petzold’s images are hushed, interiors and compositions in painterly geometry that holds beauty that gratifies the eyes but becomes disturbingly clinical in accumulation. The real becomes spectral before these backdrops and in these spaces.
Working with his usual cinematographer, Hans Fromm, Petzold places his characters in patterns of urban isolation; the effect is studied, but never becomes forbiddingly icy. It’s tempting to explore comparisons to other filmmakers, such as Antonioni, or to the use of space in theatrical work, in which Petzold spent much of the 1980s. Like the late Italian master or Godard in their moment, European directors continue the struggle to capture the modern world as it enfolds us. His cool complexity suggests a familiar world with ease as simple as breath. Like Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”) or Joachim Trier (“Reprise”), Petzold is an anatomist of the unsettling, the unbearable, the heartbeat that remains beneath the money-counting tick-tock of contemporary commerce.
But I’d still belabor the comparison of Nolan and Petzold: among other things, they’re landscape artists, photographers of precision. (The surfaces submerged by the plotting that only seem to be the primary cinematic element.) Big doings are conveyed in simple gestures and images (with elusive yet evocative potential means that surpass mere framings and focal lengths). In “Yella,” sound matters, too: alarms drill, clocks tick, birds call, bells ring. A sonic boom? Seismic. A crow’s caw, the wind in the trees, the thrumming of a small river: a woman always living, mentally, at water’s edge.