Friday, October 17, 2008

Interview with Joshua Safdie, director of THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED

The Pleasure of Being Robbed screens twice this weekend, on Friday, 6pm, and Saturday, 9:30 pm. Director Joshua Safdie talked to Cine-file from his Manhattan studio.

It would be inaccurate to say The Pleasure of Being Robbed is solely about its lead character, Eléonore (Eléonore Hendricks). Sure, she gets the most screen-time, and at one point the film even visualizes what could be one of her dreams; but this is a film where each character is looked at with a great deal of affection and carries an equal weight. There is a story in each of their lives that are films in themselves, and the unfussy way in which Joshua Safdie captures these figures gives the sensation that the filmmakers just happened upon each scene.

There's a character named Batman, who casually strolls down the street calling each and every passerby "beautiful", "handsome", etc.; a stocky guy who walks into a bar, convulsively announces he's going to buy a drink for everyone, and then retreats in a fit of embarrassment; and an older man who pauses as we hear someone offscreen say, "You're getting younger and younger every day." These are the moments that give The Pleasure of Being Robbed a palpable texture of city life.

Safdie is fascinated by urban bustle. "I do all my thinking in transit," he says, "A quarter of the books I've read I've read walking from one place to the next." Safdie explains that it's in this shifting of one place to another that his characters find themselves. Referring specifically to Eléonore, he adds, "That's when she can be who she wants to be."

Safdie's camera frequently takes a fly on the wall approach, sometimes following her movements, sometimes letting her wander away from the frame. Describing Eléonore as "butterfly-like", Safdie gives us a logical progression of her con-artistry from purse-picking to grand theft auto. Eléonore's peculiar hobby is not easy to explain. We're not sure what kind of satisfaction she is deriving from it.

"She can't arrive on time to meet one of her oldest friends," Safdie recounts, "This friend sees her and recognizes her as Eléonore, but she doesn't recognize her, because she's never straight with her." He goes on to add," She knows she won't get past the small talk." There is something unnerving to Eléonore's seeming lack of intimacy with everyone around her.

In Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959), the character of the title also appears distant and lacking an overall awareness of his actions. That is, until Bresson gives him his big flash of redemption. Safdie gives us several glimpses at redemption, without being as definitive as Bresson. "I imagine her getting caught when she trades the CD for the DVD," he says about the ending, "Though it wouldn't have worked to put that in the film." Safdie views the scene as a way of the character "living on". "That's a kind of redemption," he says.

The subject of Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason (1967) was more of a reference for Safdie. "How many of his tears are sincere and how many are performative?" he asks about the figure of Jason Holliday, going on to observe, "Loot at Eléonore: she says she doesn't know how to drive and then suddenly she's doing fancy tricks and parallel parking."

"When she can't perform in the park it's the saddest thing in the world," Safdie says in describing the scene where Eléonore is caught sifting through a woman's purse. "It's like that moment when Robert Mitchum faces Lilian Gish in Night of the Hunter (1955) and he can no longer pretend to be a reverend."

Mouchette (1965) is also infused in The Pleasure of Being Robbed. Speaking of Mouchette, Safdie professes, "I really like the fact that nothing is going to stand in that girl's way."

Similarly, Eléonore has a sort of toughness that's difficult to reconcile. Early in the film she comes home with a bag full of kittens. "In that scene the audience always goes 'awww'", Safdie says," And then when Eléonore throws one of the kittens across the room, they are kind of shocked." Safdie concedes that she is "fucked-up", and even though his fondness for her is transparent throughout the film, he nevertheless gives her a more complex tinge in such instants.

Safdie related another scene, when a penguin gets thrown off a ledge into a pond, as another detail that upsets audiences. The entire premise may be upsetting, as Eléonore makes her way into Central Park Zoo and the film takes an imaginary flight to a pond where she wrestles around with a polar bear. (The penguin, for no apparent reason, is launched into the water while this is happening.) "That whole scene is a slight insight into her mind," Safdie explains, "There's no self in Eléonore, there are just other people, and she's looking at the polar bear as if it were just another thing or person." Safdie talks about the dream sequences in films like Los Olvidados (1950) and Milestones (1975) as inspiration. "They force you to find meaning in them," he says.

Perhaps the most poignant incident in the film is the one that introduces Eléonore. As she's attempting to call the attention of a nondescript Asian woman on the street so she can win her confidence and steal her purse, we realize this stranger named Dawn may be experiencing the most exhilaration she'll have all day. Safdie gives a few thoughts: "Dawn will probably remember Eléonore for the rest of her life, mostly because she stole her bag, but also because of the excitement she felt. People are fragile and seek excitement, excitement is what everybody wants."

Johnnie To's SPARROW

Sparrow screens on Saturday, 10/18 at 600 North Michigan at 6pm.

Although it’s only one of two films I’ve seen so far in this year’s festival, it’s hard to imagine I’ll see anything more instantly satisfying than Sparrow. A playful, largely dialogue-free fantasy about a team of master pickpockets, it often feels like a great cartoon brought brilliantly to life, with elaborate set-pieces that use contemporary Hong Kong as creatively as Ratatouille used contemporary Paris. The movie reportedly took three years to shoot, and the filmmakers’ perfectionism is evident in almost every shot. Yet for all the technical mastery, Sparrow is a rather playful film, often evocative of a 50s MGM musical. (The maximally arranged widescreen frames certainly encourage this comparison.) While some critics—most notably the Reader’s Fred Camper—have written great defenses of Johnnie To in the past, I only found him intermittently brilliant before this film. But with Sparrow, he combines the giddiness of his action-comedies like Running on Karma with the focused aesthetic of his“Election” Trilogy and even manages to ditch the flip cynicism that made those films occasionally seem tasteless. Here is a movie that should entertain people of all ages for some time to come. (2008, 87 min, 35mm)

Also screening on Sunday, 10/26, 1pm