(Saving the OPERATION FILMMAKER doc to pair with MY KID COULD PAINT THAT … essay coming after the fest).
MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, Noah Baumbach, USA — 8
I complained about the “does-he-or-doesn’t-he” ending of IN MEMORY OF ME that it didn’t matter which way the film-makers turned it. In MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, whether Nicole Kidman’s Margot gets on a bus at the end of the film is every bit as arbitrary as whether Christo Jivkov leaves the seminary. But unlike Costanzo, Baumbach has made a film about that very fact, which makes the ending perfect even if it doesn’t make sense (and I agree that as a matter of strict logic, it doesn’t; but this whole movie is not about strict logic). The characters on MARGOT — primarily about Kidman visiting sister Jennifer Jason Leigh on the week of her planned marriage to Jack Black — are typical Baumbach characters. The film thus stands or falls — or rather stands marvelously — on the writing and delivery. These people are a certain type of upper-class New Yorker, schooled in the arts of passive-aggressive one-upmanship. They are deeply self-absorbed, but with a bad conscience about their wealth and social status (they are liberals, after all) which leads to hyper-defensiveness on every manner of subject. And they fit Baumbach’s writing style, as the stretch for the bon-mot that might lead to an inadvertantly humorous/damning juxtaposition, is what matters to them. The speech about the Puerto Rican plumber, with its gaggle of subordinate clauses, qualifying, clarifying, qualifying the clarification and clarifying those qualifications — it’s some kind of masterpiece of hyper-articulate writing. But ultimately, their unselfconscious privilege leaves them as clueless as Cher Horowitz (or … ahem … Emma Wodehouse). And here’s a premature Skandies Plug for Best Scene: Kidman’s Book Q-and-A, with her ex-husband, natch. Compared to Baumbach’s Year-End Top-5’er THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, this follow-up feels a bit less urgent, cuts less deeply and is more of a divertissement (though there have to be some autobiographicalish elements; there’s a crushed-by-family male character who would have been born around 1968). It just goes on until it ends, but the fact that I wouldn’t have cared if it had gone on in the same vein for 30 minutes more says what’s near-great about MARGOT. The fact I would have felt the same way had it ended 30 minutes earlier is what limits it to near-greatness. MARGOT is just an excuse to spend time in the Baumbach universe. But that’s a very nice place to visit.
PARANOID PARK, Gus Van Sant, USA — 3
I utterly detested Van Sant’s ELEPHANT as complicit with mass murder and forcing the audience into the same complicity, to no good end beyond that achievement. This movie — about “the skatebard community” — isn’t quite as evil because it doesn’t tip its hand until the end (thus leaving alone the existential experience of watching most of the movie for the first time) and doesn’t lock in the viewer. Hence a grade other than 0. But the attitude Van Sant objective and impressionistic direction exemplifies — which adds up in this milieu to a sort of ironic “whatever” — links him inseparably to these characters. Look, I won’t pretend to be the biggest fan of the emo personality-type. Nor will I deny my suspicions about Van Sant’s interest in teen culture (though he is far more subtle than the drooling perv Larry Clark). These facts DO feed into my repulsion for ELEPHANT and PARANOID PARK. And don’t get me wrong — PARANOID PARK is shot by Christopher Doyle and thus lovely to look at, particularly in its use of both narrow and deep focal depths; the sound mix is incredible, with Felliniesque music cues, natural sound and expressionistic use of spoken dialog. And its narrative is an exercise in structural denial, as Van Sant constantly fills in gaps in what happend “that night” down by the skateboard park, which resulted in a security guard’s death in being run over by a train.
But this structure leads into what is disgusting about this movie — it’s engaged in the same acts of denial and delay as the film’s protagonist Alex (flatly portrayed by Gabe Nevins, like a Bressonian model). Neither its including a homicide nor the killer “getting away with it” are my point at all; nor is it that Alex that denies what he did, but rather I am saying that Van Sant does this also. He puts off telling us that Alex killed a security guard and then after that it’s all about Alex, i.e., the very narcissism and selfishness that led to the killing in the first place. Besides the story structure, Van Sant’s Alex-identifying direction and the flat affectlessness of his Bela-Tarr-style correlates with Alex’s attitude. PARK even invites the comparison, by having Alex write a letter called “Paranoid Park” telling what happened. The film ends with the “smart chick” telling Alex, without knowing exactly what is “troubling” him, that “it’s good to put it out there even if nobody reads it.” Alex supposedly does (the film jumps around in time a lot, but is never unclear). And then he burns the letter. End of movie (more or less). But wait … there’s a human being who has been cut in half here, and is this exclusively “telling=catharsis” ending morally acceptable? Can this film end by cutting to one more lyrical interlude of skateboarders doing their schtick? For an act of that gravity? When the movie has no other possible “there” there? No.
SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO, Takashi Miike, Japan — 7
There really isn’t any way to react positively to this movie — a tribute to Westerns, particularly Sergio Leone and spaghetti Westerns acted by an (almost-)all-Japanese cast but in badly spoken English — except with slobbering fanboy worship. So let the slobbering begin: the pre-credits sequence involving Quentin Tarantino as Charles Bronson in a hyper-artificial take-off on the start of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is awesome; QT’s other scene apes the Uma-Gordon Liu scenes in KILL BILL, only it’s about cooking, and it’s even awesomer (consider these Skandie plugs); two souls fighting over control of one body has kicked ass ever since ALL OF ME; characters wanting to be Shakespearean heroes rocks; swords stopping bullets roolz; Japanese people mangling English is never not funny; Japanese people innocently spouting Western terms they only half-understand (if there’s a “social criticism” angle to the film, that’s it) never isn’t either. OK. Perspective. (Victor goes to dry out mouth.) Like all recent Miike, DJANGO is too long and often drags. Miike seems to be better at coming up with wtf-premises than at executing them from fade-in to fade-out. After a half-hour I was sore with laughter but thinking “he can’t keep this up.” And he can’t. The last hour runs on the fumes of movie in-jokes (I apparently was the only person in the insane Ryerson Midnight Madness crowd to get a joke about Japanese MLB players.) But the fumes are high-octane-grade enough to kick the comic engine into gear often enough to recommend.