The man who partially inspired my latest life turn has died. My mother told me Saturday that her youngest brother, my uncle Robert, had succumbed in Glasgow to a virulent cancer that had just recently spread to his brain.
According to my mother, who was 16 when Robert McDermott was born, he was the baby brother whose nappies she would change and she became, as often happens with the eldest children in large families, a de facto parent.
When my sister and I were young, uncle Robert would sometimes look after us (as would my other aunts and uncles despite some of their youngish ages — uncle Robert was only six years older than I). But he was the “fun uncle,” who’d let you do things your parents mightn’t. Who’d let you wade in the burn (creek) you weren’t supposed to go to. Also, and more relevantly today for me, uncle Robert was a champion boxer. As the chubby “wee professor” bookworm I was, and on which track I’ve lived my adult life, I envied that. In addition to my Muhammad Ali fandom, uncle Robert made a boxing fan for life, something that I think comes across even in my film writings.
Uncle Robert fought for the Scottish national team as an amateur, including at the European Games. He won an award named for 1970s world lightweight champion Ken Buchanan, as Scotland’s top boxing prospect. Apropos of that, the Daily Record did a center-page spread showing him in a ring corner, in his gear, surrounded by all eight of his sisters who still lived in Scotland. But at least a couple of his trophies and medals he gave to my mother, who had emigrated by this time. After we left, she would frequently talk about trying to bring him to America, where there’s much more money and potential for glory in professional boxing.
While that never came about, he did turn professional and had a decent career over there. Here is the only tape of him fighting that I know exists in public — it’s 1980s-vintage video and is of a whole card. His fight starts just after the 28:30 mark and lasts 6 rounds to a decision.
Uncle Robert got as far as a British bantamweight-title eliminator — a “winner gets the next shot at the reigning champion” fight. He got his nose broken in that fight en route to a 10th-round KO loss. His conqueror, Dave McAuley, went on to become a British and world champion. Only two other men stopped him — one went on to become a British champion, the other a world champion. But his career was hampered and eventually cut short by drugs and crime. He talks about that part freely here.
I’ve mentioned in vague terms, here and elsewhere, that my extended family and the law haven’t always been on the most cordial of terms (and no, I won’t go into further detail than saying my uncle Robert wasn’t the only one to do hard time). While I can truthfully say along those lines that I’m thereby not sorry I left Glasgow, I still envied my uncle the “hard man.”
Over the last few years, some changes in my life priorities have happened, in part because of uncle Robert the hard man. While by anybody’s definition, I’m still an obsessive cinephile — I depart in a couple of weeks on a 3,000-mile flight for a festival of 85- 90- and 100-year-old movies that don’t even talk, it’s become relatively less important to me. What has become my life’s avocation is becoming a fighter, at whatever level of success I can achieve.
Now … I’m no under no illusion that, at just a few weeks short of 49 years old as I type, I could ever become a full professional, much less one as successful as uncle Robert. But a few years ago, I weighed 250 pounds and a couple of things happened, one of which was watching two UFC fighters on TV, both flyweights, both standing 5-4 — my height. The mixed-martial-arts flyweight limit is 125, so I weighed as much as these two men put together. And comfortably more than twice the fighting weight of the only pro boxer I knew; uncle Robert fought as a bantamweight (118) and flyweight (112).
It’s taken about three years to get where I am now, with fits and starts, in part because at the start I was too out of shape to get in shape. I walked into an MMA gym and left in humiliation after a week because I felt like the fifthest fifth wheel in history. So I took things slowly because I had to. And to be honest, I started with the modest goal of simply not becoming unhealthy over it. I now weigh a little over 140 pounds, with 15 more pounds to go before I’ll be satisfied with my weight loss. First diet-only, then cardio, then weightlifting and now boxing. For the past year and a half, I’ve had a gym membership and about half that period, I’ve trained with a pro fighter — first on the punching bag and pad drills, now sparring more-or-less weekly.
Now I can run 2 miles in 20 minutes, and longer than that at a slower “jog” pace. I have defined shoulder, chest and arm muscles and routinely visible veinage. I can box on the heavy bag for an hour and can spar with my trainer for five or six 3-minute rounds. I can land punches on him, and take punishment without too much cowering or blinking. In the attached photo, my trainer noticed I was bleeding before I did and took this photo at round’s end. I insisted we keep going for the rest of the scheduled rounds. He obviously holds back his power a bit (maybe a lot; hell if I can tell now), while I don’t/can’t really. But a pro fighter is a pro fighter. He obviously still dominates our sparring and he’d stiffen me inside a minute if he fought 100%, but I can actually make him fight hard and sweat. My trainer thinks my goal of fighting a live fight in 2016 and being competitive, even if (especially if) it’s only in the “Old Boys” division, is very doable. I now post a video channel of myself sparring with him (and losing, but still … here’s one round embedded)
To bring this back to uncle Robert — however much one tells oneself not to let your imagination run wild with grandiose ambitions (and even if you largely succeed), you get “some day …” dreams. I had one regarding boxing and him. Had I gotten into the ring and had at least some success at the start, I would have brought him over here for a few days so he could see his “brainbox nephew” fight, as he did. And I don’t mean if I had big success anything approaching what he had … just enough to know I wouldn’t fold like many men do upon entering the ring for real, a possibility which I obviously still cannot exclude regarding myself. I wouldn’t want to make a fool of myself and/or waste his time. When I told my mother of this plan several weeks ago, she told me the then-recent bad news about uncle Robert’s cancer. I said I hoped he could see my videos, but she told me he already was going blind and would soon be put in hospice care away from Internet access. She did tell me that she had told him of what I’d been doing in the previous couple months and told him of the bloody-face photo. His reply (and my mind’s ear can play uncle Robert saying it) was “aye … well he better get used to that if he wants to get good.” I can tell myself he’d seen me and approved.
RIP, uncle Robert.
MR. TURNER (Mike Leigh, Britain, 2014, 8)
Mike Leigh has been known for decades now as a great director of actors (perhaps the best in contemporary cinema) and as a depictor of working-class life — as a visual stylist, not so much. But MR. TURNER is his first film that you can truthfully say is worth looking at regardless of what’s happening, filled with lovely shots that deservedly won cinematographer Dick Pope a jury award at Cannes. The opening shot sets the stage by moving from peasants walking beside a sunset and happening to cross (unknown to them) an artist, the titular J.M.W. Turner, painting the scene. Over and over again, we see shots of rooms with windows in the rear, to let the sun stream in and sometimes we see the same composition but with a fireplace playing the sun’s role. The death of Turner’s father, for example, is conspicuously lit only with a couple of onscreen candles and we see their effects. There’s also beautifully-lit idylls, iconographic ones, of boating down the Thames, of the White Cliffs of Dover. A theory of art history even works its way in as Turner thinks photography may have made him obsolete and so his work becomes less representational. But at the same time, dramatically, there’s an exact and exacting depiction of what ordinary and material life of the 1830s was like and differed from the 2010s — things like artistic debtors, modes of courtship, etc. I’d be curious what the Heidegger who wrote about “A Pair of Shoes” would make of MR TURNER. Leigh and Pope have pushed a self-consciously painterly style into a kind of period realism that, a couple of exceptions aside, cinema resists because, in order to look natural, photography requires an unnatural light that only modernity has. But the sun is arguably the star of MR TURNER, the biopic of a man whose last words were “the sun is God.”
One easy, natural thing to do, indeed I’ve already done it to an extent, is to identify an offscreen auteur with an onscreen artist, Leigh with Turner in this case. But I would hesitate to go too far. While the cinematography can evoke a “painterly” style, the film could not follow the trajectory of Turner’s career as it moves on. Not while remaining a commercially releasable motion picture anyway. Such a strategy would require mimicking Turner’s later shifts into abstraction and proto-impressionism.
Equally easy it is to compare a film like this to the auteur’s previous “artist biography” film, TOPSY TURVY here. I think TOPSY TURVY the better film, though I resisted it for years for reasons not worth rehearsing here (suffice to say I liked TURNER better on first viewing than I did the Gilbert and Sullivan pic). And I think the earlier film’s greatness highlights TURNER’s only real weakness. There is nothing like the staging of THE MIKADO to give the second half of MR TURNER shape and pull-through, once the “world-building” of the first hour is over. Even when they’re as episodic as this one though, Leigh films usually build the episodes into an explosion — look at the climactic quarrels in ALL OR NOTHING, LIFE IS SWEET, SECRETS AND LIES and HAPPY GO LUCKY for example. Here … no. The conventions of the Life Of The Artist biopic, which were circumscribed earlier by THE MIKADO, take over the structure and MR TURNER just continues until Turner dies (um … spoiler for a film about a man born in the 1770s).
Oh … I forget … this is a Mike Leigh film, so the acting will be superb in every respect … but one or two. Spall is of course great … [grunt]. It’s an easy performance to mock or parody I’ve gathered. But one measure of its greatness is that Spall must give 20 different grunts that mean 20 different things in context, all of them perfectly clear. That number is obviously an imprecise guess but it realio trulio is not hyperbole; Spall is that good a grunter. And it’s not played for laughs; it’s just the communications mode for a man of few words. The “but” caveat applies here too of course — mistress Ruth Sheen comes across as a right cow, regardless of her character’s legitimate grievance against Turner. And the critic is too foppish and dilletantish to take seriously. The right temperature to grow “goozberries”? Really, Michael? How can a critical favorite like Leigh dislike critics as he seems to — see TOPSY TURVY also here.
Oh … I forget … this is a Mike Leigh film, so “irrelevant” set pieces (often involving one of his stock company in a one-scene role) will be superb in every respect as well. Miss Summerville’s magnet experiment, the thumbprint method of criticism, the Purcell duet, “The Maid of the Hill” — I’ve provided Skandie-friendly Best Scene titles, no thanks needed. Until late January.
INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014, 2)
This film is a mess. And I’m not a maid.
THE BLUE ROOM (Mathieu Amalric, France, 2014, 5)
For the nation that revered and recognized Hitchcock as a great artist before either of his own countries did, the French seem to have remarkable difficulty actually enacting his own lessons on how to make great thrillers. THE BLUE ROOM also has the pedigree of being adapted from a novel by France’s own great thriller-writer Georges Simenon. And the thundering brass score by echoes Waxman, Herrmann and others who did some of their best work for The Master. The squarish academy-ratio frame and the moody lighting raises confidence in director-star Mathieu Amalric. But, like many of Claude Chabrol’s films IMHO, THE BLUE ROOM just lacks juice and drive, ending up being the kind of film Hitchcock said he detested … the whodunit.
Amalric starts off with the right elements, an instantly recognizable star (himself) in danger with the police and priggish authorities, as he claims an innocence they don’t believe. But there’s really no suspense in the film’s because so many of the Hitchcock elements are missing — the chase / protagonist in danger (Amalric is varyingly in jail, prison and trial court as legal proceedings go on); the villain (oh there is one eventually, but only after we learn the whole story … which means it’s a waste); the Maguffin (instead the film strip-teases plot points that happened before the film starts and which the characters generally know but get deliberately withheld from us).
And that last hints at something else fundamental wrong with THE BLUE ROOM. It’s something even more problematic than a whodunit … a dunwhat in this case too … the film’s unpeeling of the narrative onion even teases us with ambiguous clues about what the crime was and exactly the charge. Hitch also said, in his Truffaut interview, that whenever possible, the audience should know everything, and certainly at least as much as the characters do. BLUE ROOM though is just an exercise in keeping us in the dark trying to figure out what the hades is the story here (I was convinced for a time it was child sex-abuse charges during a bitter divorce).
Hitchcock is an absurdly high standard for direction of course, but Amalric’s realisation doesn’t match the material enough here. It’s functional but merely that — and also a bit hide-bound and frankly rather stagy as much of the film takes place in enclosed rooms. There have been two very good recent French thrillers made from Simenon novels — MONSIEUR HIRE and the Cedric Kahn RED LIGHTS. And in both cases, you had free protagonists, in danger, doing something about it to dig themselves in deeper, temptation to do wrong, and some really stylish directorial chops. In other words … the exact elements missing here.
THE WONDERS (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014, 4)
THE WONDERS is one of those film so muted that it scarcely exists. Reviewing it at all and trying to have any sort of emotional reaction to it feels almost impolite, like someone stomping on the eggshells everyone else is politely tiptoeing around, from fear of waking each other up. This strategy won a second prize from the Cannes Film Festival jury.
THE WONDERS is autobiographical, set on an Italian bee farm depicting a family resembling the auteur’s own and with the matriarch played by the director’s sister. But it’s so terribly absorbed in the details of the world it depicts, it forgets to make them compelling or dramatic to an outsider. No protagonist really stands out … a reform-school guy enters foster care with the family (largely for economic reasons) but he shakes up little. He’s supposedly German but looks as German as Manute Bol which is possible but it makes his saying nothing in German or anything else suspicious. Some things happen — two accidents, one involving a hand, the other a spill but, with one exception, nothing builds. There’s a trick involving one of the girls spilling bees out of her mouth onto her face that makes a great party gag.
The closest THE WONDERS comes to a throughline (and the source of its title) is a family effort pushed by the daughters to get on a cheesy Italian-TV reality show about the most-authentic rustic least-corporate farm. Monica Bellucci as the vulgarly gussied up hostess commits to the cheese but director Rohrwacher won’t, unlike Garrone in REALITY or Fellini in GINGER AND FRED. It’s as if she believes pleasure and drive are themselves suspect. Oh … and did I say there’s a two-humped camel in there somewhere? It’s as forgotten as anything else in this uninflected slice of life that believes in that adjective a little too devoutly. Uninflection is fine in the details; but not as the main course.
THE TALES OF HOFFMANN (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Britain, 1951, 9)
THE TALES OF HOFFMANN is not a perfect film — like most classic operas, its story (or here “stories”) is dramatically thin and contrived, and some little part of me will always rebel against opera in English (and only somewhat from snobbish purism; opera singing isn’t intended for clarity but in a foreign-language opera you’ll at least get subtitles). And I’m not unsympathetic to Pauline Kael’s criticism that the film is an attempt at “muchness” (my word) or an overload of craft credits that just “spread out the buffet” (hers). But what a buffet the Archers put on!? How many buffets have you gone to that are this rich, this appetizing and this varied? Even if you feel a bit gorged at the end, aren’t sure everything on the table worked for you, and are sure you’d rather have a perfectly planned three-course meal like LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, HOFFMANN is still a spread you won’t forget.
Like COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (as I type they’re my two favorite films of the festival), TALES OF HOFFMANN is not only like nothing you’ve ever seen (and the two films have the same amount of naturally-spoken diegetic dialog — zero), but it’s also a film that proceeds as if Griffith had never invented the dominant narrative cinema. As POMEGRANATES attempts to reproduce the aesthetics of medieval painting on film, HOFFMANN tries to achieve Wagner’s insane ambition of the total art work (I’m not pretentious enough to look up the German term) — fusing poetry, song, painting and dance into one unified whole.
HOFFMANN’s three stories are all tragic romances involving the titular character and his loves; most of the sweet tragedy falling on her (“well whaddidja expect at an opera … a HAPPY ending?”). When you consider that and Powell’s later solo film PEEPING TOM, the ending of the Olympia Tale becomes curiouser and curiouser in its total perversity, a bald description of which would make it sound like a disgusting 2014 slasher film. And yet, because (and *unlike* PEEPING TOM) the act is so hyper-aestheticized, it actually becomes kind of funny. It’s not an actual woman like Moira Shearer being dismembered and torn apart on camera but a puppet. And the moment is fairly set up because throughout HOFFMANN, the characters act like puppets and are treated as such, both when they are and when they aren’t. There’s a Looney Tunes quality to the whole exercise, a film in which viewers’ necks will stretch into impossible shapes and the decorations on the side of beer steins will jump off the mugs and do a dance that takes over the film for a couple minutes for no dramatically relevant or important reason at all.
To partially agree with another common criticism, HOFFMANN is a rather chilly film, compared to RED SHOES, but there was some unexpected heart here in a recurring androgynous “boy” figure, played by Pamela Brown, in a bit of a Girl Friday role. She gets the rare privilege of becoming the center of a love duet (in the third Tale, Antonia) without singing a note. The Archers film the scene in long shot with proscenium framing but she stubbornly stays in the background for the whole thing, rather than exuenting backstage, as convention requires. And gets a closeup at the end. She’s the eternal longing audience, looking at the spectacle like an unrequited lover. And have I mentioned the color and decor and singing here? Guilty, your worship, of the capital offense of burying the lead. The sheer dazzling inventiveness of the color is by itself worth the price of admission, a New York Film Festival non-member admission even. Gotta love a film that anticipates Lebron James pregame chalk routine by about 60 years. And also gotta love the rare chance to see an opera film that uses properly trained opera singers (some merely dubbing, some acting onscreen as well), even if that means you can sometimes see rather poor, sometimes nonexistent but inconsistently so, attempts at lip-synching. As I said it’s not a perfect film, but as Kael herself put it … it’s like worrying about whether KING LEAR being well-constructed. It doesn’t matter; it’s an unforgettable experience regardless.
DON’T GRIEVE (Giorgi Danelia, USSR [Georgia], 1969, 4)
I wonder if the Ma and Pa Kettle movies play like this when shown in Tblisi. Or perhaps more precisely, what if modern Greeks themselves had actually made (the film of) ZORBA THE GREEK. It’s very hard for me to judge this as a work of art or an entertainment to be honest — it made almost no impression on me, either positive or really all that negative. Not because DON’T GRIEVE is difficult or opaque in any way — it’s a straightforward peasant comedy about the 19th-century village doctor, who’s a slacker, and his encounters with the various townsfolk, all broad peasant / aristocrat / bourgeois types — the town drunk, the town tramp, the shrewish wife, the pompous lord. If you’re over 30 and culturally awake, you’ve seen this movie, even if you haven’t. I laughed a couple of times — a Chauceresque game of role reversal involving male-male ass-kissing or some other southern-region pucker-up (film leaves it vague; if you’re Georgian, you probably know which it is); there’s a couple attempts at pathos involving villagers sicknesses and the sorts of diagnoses doctors give in various tones of voice; and some mixing of the two, as in the climactic scene when a dying man insists of having his wake while alive. But DON’T GRIEVE too loosely plotted to really work as farce, too tonally uneven for tragedy (Chekhov did not include scenes of ass-kissing for a reason). I didn’t care about anything while I was watching it, and I’d’ve forgotten about it in a month under any circumstances. As it is, that time span will probably be about four hours because of the next film I saw, from more or less the same time and place … and THAT one was a mind-blowing masterpiece.
THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (Sergei Paradjanov, USSR [Armenia/Georgia], 1968, 9)
When I left the theater, I IM’d Steve Greydanus (a Catholic filmgeek bud who’s graciously letting me stay at his home thus making my NYFF week possible) that “I wish I could go back back in time and have made you see this with me, kidnapping you at gunpoint and forcing you in if necessary.” As great as, e.g., the Dardennes are, people have made films like theirs before. And probably will again; realism is ageless. But nobody has made a film, I am very confident in saying over all of David Hume’s objections, like COLOR OF POMEGRANATES. It really does have an aesthetic that assumes the rest of cinema history never happened. And according to an aesthetic I’d’ve wanted Steve to see — medieval visual art on film, in service of a liturgical “narrative.”
I put that word in quotes rather than call POMEGRANATES non-narrative, because it does purport to be about the life of Sayat Nova, a 17th century Armenian monk-poet-songwriter-troubadour. And it kinda does … it starts with him as boy, follows the stages of his life and career (boyhood, marriage, widowhood, the monastery, troubadour calling) unto his death, and elements of his poetry are spoken on the soundtrack. Traditional Armenian dances, liturgies and songs are presented. But as far as the conventionally “biopicky” elements go, this film makes ANDREI RUBLEV (also a 60s Soviet film about a monk / artist that paid little attention to the few known facts of his life) look like RAY or WALK THE LINE. Instead, POMEGRANATES is like leafing through a book of Eastern Christian tableaux and icons that happen to go in enough of an order that you can figure out the saint’s/artist’s life points. But there is literally not a single moment in POMEGRANATES where biographic storytelling is the privileged point (“and then this happened”) or which follow the conventions of realistic representation (that which, as a Bazinian, I believe cinema naturally bends toward). Instead, Paradjanov creates something truly and utterly unique, and truly medieval, even beyond Rohmer’s PERCEVAL or ASTREE AND CELADON.
Everything in POMEGRANATES is presentational and performative, not representational or realistic. All the sound is nondiegetic, even when it appears to the contrary. There are no conversations. Nobody in the film acts or moves at all like a real person, instead usually looking right at the camera, full-frontal, or in stylized oblique poses. Instead, the logic is liturgical. When a confirmation-type rite is performed and St. George is invoked, St. George appears on his horse and rides through the tableau for no “reason” but truly present, as if incantation begets incarnation. Dance is used narratively, as in the courtship of his wife, in which red, black and white veils and costume ensembles shift and change with the moods and modes of desire. Some use of perspective is technologically unavoidable, but Paradjanov does his damnedest to fight it, flattening out the space and filling it wherever possible with depthless elements across the image, as if filling out a tableau or adding icon episodes (the camera needless to say never moves). His color scheme is also anti-perspective without being splashy — usually filling out the “background” or the base elements with a neutral or drab color like beige or gray while primary colors splash onto the space (literally in the opening sequence of multiple shades of red) and they accordingly pop out sharper and iconographically. Between the non-natural and sometimes non-existent sound, the non-natural color, and the non-natural space, literally every element is foregrounded (in both senses) until we’re not following life as a drama but looking at the images of a life (and listening to its sounds).
This is biopic as tone poem, an attempt to reproduce the poetry’s effects without slavishly reproducing the work itself. (I get why some folks thought I might hate this, but the film it most reminded me of is Andersson’s SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, POMEGRANATES being the product of a Christian society in a way SONGS is of a post-Christian one.) POMEGRANATES isn’t trying to produce Sayat Nova’s life but life as Sayat Nova saw it … one of the most effective psychological elements is the gap between the persona in the incantatory poetry (which feels a bit like an Armenian “King of Pain”) and the rich, surreal iconography on the screen. One of the earliest images is of a young boy crucified by books — that makes no sense, I know … but it does, here. I’m not sure I understood everything in POMEGRANATES — indeed I know I didn’t; too many of the details are obviously culturally specific for it to be otherwise to a non-Caucasian. But I always felt like I was getting enough and, more importantly, I also wanted to know more and was just dazzled by what I did understand. Ironically, the best possible companion piece to POMEGRANATES would be a SAYAT NOVA biopic directed by the Armenian John Madden.
HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT (Ben and Joshua Safdie, USA, 2014, 1)
Someone needs to put the Safdie brothers on Prozac or at least switch their regular coffee with Folger’s Decaf Crystals. HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT, an episodic film about a circle of smackheads on the New York streets, is one of the loudest movies I’ve ever seen, and I mean that adjective literally as well as the critical metaphor sense. The film is wall-to-wall people shouting at each other, over each other, at nobody in particular … especially when they’re told not to shout. The soundtrack is crammed with way-too-frequent doses of painfully tuneless noise that sounds like thrash metal without its tuneful harmonies and lyricism (I exaggerate not a bit). The sound mix is so over-the-top that if audience members were talking in the theater, it wouldn’t be a problem — you couldn’t hear them anyway. The shaky camera magnifies everything by (usually) staying close in to the characters and having very little focal depth, so much of the space on the screen is out-of-focus and you can’t avert your eyes. Just sharing the same theater space as this film is like reading a 5,000-word blog post in all caps — an existentially unpleasant experience that you just want to fucking end. There is a reason I don’t go to raves, blast krautrock at 12, or blog like FilmCriticHulk.
Now, I can groove to some extent with the existential-assault mode, being a big fan of IRRREVERSIBLE and all. But that film was artful and the noise was purposeful. Here, the effect is (a contrived notion of) artlessness, of gritty realism, and in the service of (non-)story and characters about whom I could not possibly give fewer fucks. On the former point, the film is a structural disaster it can only stop, a weakness which the Safdies realize by having someone talk over the closing credits. But it’s banal talk anyway … one of 8 billion reasons Mike Leigh is a genius is that as big an asshole as Johnny is in NAKED (which this film resembles in a lot of ways), he’s an articulate asshole. These people are just loud twits in love with the sound of their own loudness. I’m not appealing to the silly sense that characters must be “relatable” or we must like them as if they’d be our (potential) friends. HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT is about heroin junkies who live for and care only about their next fix. I get they won’t be model citizens and they’ll do some bad shit, but you need some reason to care more about them than they do about themselves, especially if they’re causing you discomfort. It’s just too MUCH … all flow and no ebb. When a person screams in public “suck my clit, asshole,” my patience with her is going to be rather thin and I’m not gonna sweat whether she slits her wrists, which of her junkie fuck toys she wants more at this hour, or her latest screaming jag.
THE TRIP TO ITALY (Michael Winterbottom, Britain, 2014, 7)
Writing the same review twice never really works out, especially if they keep … pulling me … BACK IN. (OK … you have to imagine me saying that like Pacino.) If you saw the first Steve Coogan/ Rob Brydon as sorta-themselves film, you don’t really have to change your opinion or much of your review. You get (more or less) exactly the same (good) things … the companionship of two immensely funny men, each trying to prove he’s better than the other, especially to that other. A boxing wit once said the Ali-Frazier fights were first and last about the Heavyweight Championship of each other … here’s the same dynamic. It’s the same sort of unsaid-irony-marinated one-upmanship that exists among some longtime married couples, most film nerds, and all on-air sportscasters — a desire to get in one more witty line while keeping the relationship intact. Only, the latter requirement means the importance of the former can never be acknowledged as such. So when Brydon tells Coogan’s son, “you need to see impersonations done properly,” Brydon cannot say “unlike your inferior voice-actor father.” But Coogan can just give a look meaning “you want to say ‘unlike your inferior voice-actor father’.”
There are a few differences in THE TRIP TO ITALY, and they’re mostly for the better … there’s less “food porn” here and even a line to the effect that these two don’t know anything about food; Coogan dials back the toolage in “Coogan” a bit, while Brydon dials his up a bit; Italy is nicer-looking than the Lake District; there’s a far-greater level of self-awareness in the sequel; and the latter film’s aim for heft comes off better, indeed partly because of the self-consciousness. Precisely because there’s comparisons of the endings of ROMAN HOLIDAY and NOTTING HILL while the last scene’s action plays out (to a Mahler aria), the roleness of “Coogan” and “Brydon” is underlined while its importance still matters as such. Especially in the face of death — “what’ll you be remembered for 200 years from now?” Roles. There’s memento mori everywhere — the constant comparisons to Shelley and Keats, the embalmed while embracing Pompeii corpses, the embalment talk on the beach. But it’s largely laughed off. I initially thought the film was just hinting at places it doesn’t really go, but then that’s the point too. THE TRIP TO ITALY is byronic in every possible way after Byron — lifestyle, environs, obsession with death, attitude toward death. Do we really need Alanis Morrissette’s young-woman form of neurosis explicitly and detailedly compared to Coogan’s middle-aged-man form? Not really … the juxtaposition of Coogan saying how he hates Brydon’s “karaoke act” and then an hour later singing along to “Jagged Little Pill” makes the a-little-too-ironic point. And we especially don’t need it during a trip to Italy.
TIMBUKTU (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania, 2014, 7)
On paper, I shouldn’t like this film as much as I do. Sissako is not a tight storyteller and this network narrative — imagine the also-city-titled DALLAS or NASHVILLE in a different cultural context and stakes — is one long exercise in Vignettus Interruptus. Sissako continually leaves out “the middle” or the end of actions — for example, how do Islamist authorities investigate the two central crimes shown, whose commission we see but re which Sissako just cuts to the arrest/trial; how did the top cop answer the phoned-in question about sacred music; why does Sissako leave so much dialogue and almost all his music unsubtitled. Also, this is exactly the sort of social-protest film that usually gets me sympathetic to the “bad guys” and/or whatever the director and/or characters raii against and expect the audience to nod compliantly along with (what he thinks is) its unexceptionable point. It’d be an achievement to have me sympathetic to sharia-imposing jihadists, but Sissako almost managed it.
Well … how?
First of all, Sissako has more of a sense of humor than my received notion of him suggested (BAMAKO was “anti-recommended” to me). The scene of the French rapper recording his jihad confession is straight out of FOUR LIONS and nearly as funny, albeit not played remotely as farcically (even that lighting director). Also, Sissako is obviously a master image-maker — a lengthy, still long-shot in which the only movement is two men in a river contains both the universe of man and the universe’s indifference to man, and Sissako holds the shot for (in dramatic terms) far too long, which sinks in the point. And the best scene of the film is a soccer game that borrows its premise from the final scene of a famous Antonioni film but which absolutely blows it off the court. This is imagination as subversion and joy, not as silly pot-fueled navel-gazing.
In addition, Sissako’s didacticism, for much of the film’s length, doesn’t come across as speechifying, which is underlined especially by how the jihadists are presented. For starters, they’re not the plot engine for everything — the primary conflict and the family involved therein is a within-traditional-society one about fishing nets, a cattle herd and paternal legacy, and it’s taking place outside the main city. Frankly, this was bothering me for much of the film’s running time … it was like two unrelated films were being intercut … one about jihadists, the other about a poor family and their cow herd.
Like Roger Ebert said of Fellini, Sissako’s film is filled with symbols but they’re obvious ones. And like the Christ statue at the start of LA DOLCE VITA, Sissako begins with an obvious contrast of ancient and modern in which a single detail … the “wounds” suffered by the traditional idols … says everything clearly and economically while you admire the virtuosity of the helicopter pilot / the jihadist marksman. In addition, and a FOUR LIONS comparison is apropos here, the narrative contrast with the jihadists is from traditionalist Islam — the imam whom they consult (who plays the structural role here the brother did in FOUR LIONS) is no parachuted-in, West-approved “moderate.” Instead, my friend Peter (#WatchAfricanCinema) Labuza suggested the jihadists come across as a Hawksian group of buddies, which strikes me as close enough for caliphate work.
THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Joshua Oppenheimer et al, Denmark/Indonesia, 2014, 8)
If you enjoy watching victim-impact statements at criminal trials, or think that THE ACT OF KILLING was pretty good but what it really needed was an onscreen humanistic presence to serve as a proxy identifier for high-minded Western audiences … have I got a film for you.
That’s way too snarky and oversimplifying, even for me, and it’s ultimately unfair, as the 8-grade suggests. But it does get across why I was resistant to THE LOOK OF SILENCE for much of its running time and, accordingly in compensation, why I’m thinking I may still be underestimating it and/or have been taken in by the greatest bait-and-switch masterpiece. But I will still say … with a perfectly straight face on the day I read through my notes and wrestled with (and against) my existential reaction … one’s opinion of this film depends almost entirely on your reaction to the protagonist, an Indonesian whose brother was killed in mass anti-Communist pogroms in the mid-60s.
What is the film’s relationship to him? Is he simply an onscreen protagonist on a quest for truth? For good or ill? (“ILL!!”) Or does the film complicate him and that quest?
As I said at the time, part of why THE ACT OF KILLING is great is that it’s the film Godard said needed to be made about the concentration camps — one not about the inmates, but the guards. For much of its length, and in some senses all of its length, THE LOOK OF SILENCE is not only not that film, but the opposite. Adi is an optometrist who, while giving eye exams to old people around the Aceh countryside (metaphor alert!), asks them about their actions during the pogroms. Much of the film is of two types of scenes. One involves Adi looking at footage that could’ve been used in ACT OF KILLING — militia members describing and re-enacting their actions back then, with a mixture of clinical detachment, pride, laughter, and what-krazy-kids-we-were nostalgia. It gradually becomes explicit that two of those militia members are describing their killing of Adi’s brother. The other type of scene involves Adi himself talking to older Indonesians, including his parents and family members but also current politicians and known pogrom leaders, asking them what they did then and why.
I resisted that formula for a long time, but had changed my mind in the latter part of the film. Part of the reason involved the fact that as Adi becomes more of an interviewer and less of a spectator to Oppenheimer’s videos, we get the return of the jaw-dropping “OMG, did I see what I just saw” factor that made ACT OF KILLING such an unforgettable experience. And that very return underlines (leads to?) the change in Adi and his family.
Without engaging in too much thematic spoilage, note a few things and whether and how SILENCE does or doesn’t answer them — What is Adi trying to accomplish, and how? How does the age of the interviewees affect things? What are the mental states of certain characters? And what could either mean? What goes on within Adi’s family? What is happening the few times Oppenheimer becomes a diegetic presence? Who possesses the power of the cinematic gaze? What can “drinking blood” mean besides “drinking blood” (like … ahem … “cauterizing the soul“)?
Hello … HELLO … this microphone still on?
As I suspect many of you may know, the last couple of years I haven’t gone to Toronto for my annual world-cinema gorging, as had been my decade-long custom. In partial compensation, I’ve gone instead to the New York and Sundance festivals, which has enabled me to stay somewhat abreast of the most-prominent films I’d’ve seen at TIFF under other circumstances. Still, I can’t deny that cinephilia and writing have played a lesser role in my life and interests in the past year or so. I’ve seen many fewer films and other things have become an obsession for me.
But as I type this, I’m feeling the old juices back. I’m on a 4am train heading up for New York for a seven-day campout at the Lincoln Center, with planned visits to several rep theaters playing, among other things, a Tennessee Williams series and a historical retrospective of Georgian cinema (Tblisi-Georgian, not Atlanta-Georgian). Despite the fact that half my planned 24 films are films in regular commercial release or older ones playing NYFF and otherwise (and only two have I seen before), I’m planning to see if I can blog like I did at Toronto. Certainly this schedule is much lighter than I typically had there … no five-film (much less six-film) days planned. So … here is the plan.
Wed, 1 Oct
300 THE TRIP TO ITALY (Michael Winterbottom, Britain, 2014) IFC Center
600 TIMBUKTU (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania, 2014) NYFF
900 THE LOOK OF SILENCE (Joshua Oppenheimer et al, Indonesia, 2014), NYFF
Thu, 2 Oct
400 DON’T GRIEVE (Giorgio Danelia, USSR [Georgia], 1969) MoMA
600 THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (Sergei Paradjanov, USSR [Georgia/Armenia], 1968) NYFF
900 HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT (Josh and Benny Safdie, USA, 2014) NYFF
Fri, 3 Oct
1230 SUMMER AND SMOKE (Peter Glenville, USA, 1961) Film Forum
255 THE BLUE ROOM (Mathieu Amalric, France, 2014) IFC Center
600 THE WONDERS (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy, 2014) NYFF
900 THE TALES OF HOFFMANN (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Britain, 1951) NYFF
Sat, 4 Oct
1100 NINOTCHKA (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1939) IFC Center
200 MR. TURNER (Mike Leigh, Britain, 2014) NYFF
545 INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014) NYFF
Sun, 5 Oct
300 TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 2014) NYFF
600 CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (Richard Brooks, USA, 1958) Film Forum
900 EDEN (Mia Hansen-Love, France, 2014) NYFF
Mon, 6 Oct
1230 SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (Richard Brooks, USA, 1962) Film Forum
400 SABA (Mikhail Chiaureli, USSR [Georgia], 1929) MoMA
600 TALES OF THE GRIM SLEEPER (Nick Broomfield, USA, 2014) NYFF
800 SLEUTH (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Britain, 1972) NYFF
Tue, 7 Oct
1145 THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY (Ned Benson, USA, 2014) Landmark
215/300 GONE GIRL (David Fincher, USA, 2014) NYFF/commercial release
600 HORSE MONEY (Pedro Costa, Portugal, 2014) NYFF
900 QUEEN AND COUNTRY (John Boorman, Britain, 2014) NYFF
976-EVIL (Robert Englund, USA, 1988, 0)
If a movie’s climactic scene takes place over a pit that goes straight down to Hell, is it really necessary to say more about that film than to note (1) a character early in the film orders a deviled egg sandwich, (2) the opening post-credits scene takes place at the Diablo Theater, and (3) a box of chocolate cakes called Devil Twins gets a conspicuous bit of product placement?
Get it? “Deviled” eggs? “Devil’s food”? “Diablo” … that’s Spanish for “Devil”? Hell? Devil? Get it????
I guess it is necessary to say more, otherwise this will be a mighty short essay on a crass, ugly piece of incompetent junk. And I hope whoever made Devil Twins was able to live down the shame and is still in business, unlike Hostess.
976-EVIL is basically BULLY reconfigured as a Satanic horror film. Spike and Hoke are town-mouse and country-mouse like cousins — Spike as a Fonz-like bad-boy antihero who’s really good at heart, Hoke as a nerd who’s picked on by the bullies until, after they ruin a date with his girl, he submits to Satanic possession with the help of a 976 line where Satan Himself is the switchboard responder, and then wreaks havoc on anything and everything, starting with The Girl.
The director is Robert Englund, who played Freddy Krueger in the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films, and a cynical part of me thinks he made 976-EVIL (which features a character growing long-nailed claws and slashing up a couple of faces) in order to make his signature work look better by comparison. I saw Englund on one of Siskel & Ebert’s specials say his all-time favorite film was Marcel Carne’s 1945 French classic CHILDREN OF PARADISE, so he is obviously a man of some taste and discernment. And while one can’t expect NIGHT OF THE HUNTER from every actor on his first directing gig, how could anyone who was ever on a professional movie set not see the basic craft problems here? Literally nothing in 976-EVIL works — the settings, the pacing, the drama, the ideas, the performances … nothing.
From the streets with no pedestrians and only one car, but which car [spoiler elided … no it’s not a spoiler … it tries to run over Spike], to the only theater in history that runs a horror marathon that seems to have no audience, a completely silent audience and/or an audience who can’t hear a mass murder with living mutilations and a fire in the projection booth.
From the clumsily edited stunts such as a man falling off a second-floor facade in three close-up cuts, to such obvious signifiers as an argyle sweater vest being worn by the only teen in the film who doesn’t smoke, who tells a joke about milking a cow and who uses the word “durn” (that’s Hoke, if there was any suspense).
From a character having his hand sliced off (the set up for one of the two or three would-be funny lines) but then continuing to fight Satan’s Minion without going into shock, to “Miss Martinez” walking through an obviously possessed spooky house while opening every door and turning back every bedsheet, proving that Eddie Murphy was insufficiently inclusive — Hispanics in horror movies can be as dumb as white people.
From a hyper-religious boy learning exactly how to do a proper Satanic soul-selling rite with a perfect pentagram in less time than it takes to cook a TV dinner, to the way Englund underlines that timeline by intercutting the two events, so there’s absolutely no doubt about how fast he learns.
From the would-be naturalism of Patrick O’Bryan as Spike, to the darkly charismatic presence of Robert Picardo as the 976 operator and the scenery-chewing performance by Sandy Dennis as … wait for it … the Fonz’s hyper-religious aunt … the performances are all over the map in terms of what tone 976-EVIL is striving for.
From Dennis being the only addict of Pentecostal-flavored holy roller TV shows who has idolatrous statues of Popery’s goddess Mary on her lawn, to how her son becomes Satan’s minion because the cool kids were mean to him in one of those teacher-less schools that are ubiquitous in bad horrormovies and unknown in the rest of the universe.
There were only two things I was asking myself after this movie was over. First, on the logic of this movie, I ought to hunt down whoever handed me this assignment and rip out their still-beating hearts, in revenge for an experience far worse than getting toilet dunked or dropped into the garbage can. And second … Sandy Dennis?
Dennis took this role 22 years after winning an Oscar for WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Who won the acting Oscars 22 years back from today? Kathy Bates, Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg and Joe Pesci. And while none of those (all deserving, BTW) actors are on today’s A-list and three have since done more work for TV, none have humiliated themselves the way Dennis does here, in an overdone costume and projecting to the back row like bad dinner theater. Piper Laurie in CARRIE showed how to play this kind of role; what possessed Dennis … a question with profounder implications for the nature and wiles of demons than anything that happens in 976-EVIL
I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.
And RIP, Roger.
One of them is to be less embarrassed about blogging things I might have taken two or three tweets to say (& in fractured syntax, 140-chrcter cmpromises 2 boot), a benefit being that I will thereby be blogging more regularly. The other is to fill in what I consider the 10 Most Truly Embarrassing Gaps in my lifetime “films seen” list.
So in that dual spirit, I hereby resolve to, by the end of 2013, have seen and written something about the following 10 films, my previous ignorance of which will cause cinephiles’ jaws to drop from Park City to Pusan.
McCABE AND MRS MILLER (Robert Altman, USA, 1971) My bud Noel Murray’s all-time favorite film and Twitter avatar. By reputation, one of Altman’s two or three greatest.
BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET (Richard Linklater, USA, 1995 and 2004) Scott Renshaw said I was dead to him and Mike D’Angelo said he’d pull my 2004 Skandies ballot when they learned of this gap. The bow at Sundance by the threequel BEFORE MIDNIGHT is the immediate inspiration for this post.
GHOSTBUSTERS (Ivan Reitman, USA, 1984) I was 18 years old when this came out and I didn’t see this generational touchstone. But I just wasn’t into movies until the later-80s.
BACK TO THE FUTURE (Robert Zemeckis, USA, 1985) Rinse and repeat previous. And for both films, I was reluctant for years to catch up on TV because of pan-scan, content cutting, special-effects losing oomph.
HEAT (Michael Mann, USA, 1995) One of Sonny Bunch’s all-time favorites, with Pacino and DeNiro. I was in Toronto last time it played at AFI Silver, part of a Mann retro where I saw his great THIEF.
NAKED (Mike Leigh, Britain, 1993) “If you’re already a Mike Leigh fanboy, what will you be after seeing THIS.” — Bilge Ebiri
LOVE AND DEATH (Woody Allen, USA, 1975) All-time favorite Woody film of Matt Prigge — “one of the early, funny ones.” When I first caught up with HUSBANDS AND WIVES circa 2003, I said I was even hungrier for a good “new (to me)” Woody film than I thought. I’m starving.
DAYS OF HEAVEN (Terence Malick, USA, 1978) “One of the early, less annoyingly arty ones.” (Supposedly.) But Malick has made so few films that there’s really no excuse not to be a completist.
THE TREE, THE MAYOR AND THE MEDIATHEQUE (Eric Rohmer, France, 1993) The one foray into politics by one of my all-time favorite directors and one of the few (only?) openly rightist film-makers unquestionably in the cinema pantheon. Yeah, I haven’t seen it.
HOMICIDE (David Mamet, USA, 1991) The only film-director credit I’ve not seen by one of my favorite writers and one of the few (only?) openly rightist playwrights unquestionably in the theatre pantheon. Yeah, I haven’t seen it.
Now for the kicker. Jaws drop far and wide, etc. I have copies of all of these films, in one form or another, in my apartment. #Packrat
So I have no excuses.
POST TENEBRAS LUX (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, W/O)
This ups the number of theatrical films I’ve walked out on in my cinephilic life to four (the others being TULSE LUPER, SEVERANCE and MARKETA LAZAROVA), and gaining the distinction of being the first to provoke a walkout based on pornographic content in what is supposed to be a legitimate movie.
Which is a bit of a shame, because SILENT LIGHT was one of my 10 Best for the entire decade and the opening two scenes in POST TENEBRAS LUX make it quite clear that Reygadas has not lost his eye or his ability to create a sequence one little bit. In the first, a little girl walks around fields, apparently lost and mumbling words, for the whole day while stray dogs are running about and baying and barking and howling along with the wind. The second scene is the devil walking through a darkened bedroom while people sleep, only you’ve never seen Satan quite like this — an animated, near-featureless, solid-red shape giving off a dazzling glow while holding a non-animated briefcase in a dark, non-animated room.
But those images are also part of the tipoff to what was wrong with TENEBRAS even before the walkout — they both were acontextual and rather willfully obscure and they didn’t get obviously explained in the 30-40 minutes I watched of the film. Nor were they the only bits of obscurantism — everybody has been scratching his head since Cannes over an English schoolboy rugby game of which I saw the pre-match rituals. As the film progressed, it clearly wasn’t going to be a masterwork, just a collection of images that you respond to or not. In addition, Reygadas showed early signs of returning to his early fascination with grotesque sex and violence, reports of which kept me away from JAPON and BATTLE IN HEAVEN and contrary reports being the only reason I ever saw SILENT LIGHT in the first place. The devil shape had a rather prominent penis for no reason I could discern besides Reygadas showing how fearless he is (Is there a Mrs. Satan and some Satanic kiddos? Or does Saddam Hussein now flip?). Also another early scene showed a character viciously battering and choking a family dog, implicitly to death, and this is taken as normal by the other character on the family porch where it happens (not to speak of the several who likely would have been in earshot).
The scene that caused me to walk out takes place in a sauna the central couple is visiting, with dozens of naked bodies as the camera prowls around, making sure we see that those are real dicks, boobs, asses, snatches. It is lengthy (so you feel like you’re getting your nose rubbed in it), acontextual (so you’re wondering “what is the point of this?”), pretentious (the Hegel Room and the Duchamp Room? Really? Come off it, Carlos). The early part of the scene seems to include some of the men pulling a train on another man, offscreen with sounds, and asking others matter-of-factly if they want to join. The latter part involves the wife screwing another man in front of her husband, with her body still offscreen but the sounds increasingly realistic and louder (at the moment I left). Reygadas is just showing off.
At that point, the film I was seeing had become simple pornography and I don’t go to a film festival for that. I am not a prude, nor will I claim to be a better man than I am (everybody who reads this blog or follows my Twitter feed knows my sense of humor isn’t G-rated). I do not condemn the use of nudity or sexuality for a discernible purpose and with a (very) minimal amount of discretion and directorial tact, that invisible quality that tells me he knows that nudity and sex are not routine. I count as all-time favorites LAST TANGO IN PARIS, EYES WIDE SHUT and IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (the last of which includes scenes that are, by any reasonable standard, hard-core pornography). But here, I was just getting it shoveled in my face and the invisible Potter-Stewartish line of what I’m willing to tolerate was crossed.
CAUGHT IN THE WEB (Chen Kaige, China, 4)
Go read the TIFF Guidebook about this film, both the take out paragraph and the last paragraph of the Programmer’s Note, the former of which I reproduce here:
A young woman’s act of defiance becomes a flashpoint for controversy when a video of the incident goes viral, in this prescient drama about cyber-bullying from celebrated director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine).
As in everything, I am a hard-eyed, illusionless realist (as I typed this, I was disagreeing with a couple of orthodox Catholics about the limits and expectations of politics) … the purpose of these things is to sell the film in question and make it seem appetizing. But there is still such a thing as truth-in-advertising, and one of the many annoying things about the TIFF Guidebook is its tendency to grab onto anything mildly topical, especially the latest leftist cause du jour. If by cyber-bullying, you mean something like the Tyler Clementi or famous Facebook cases, CAUGHT IN THE WEB is not about cyberbullying. The video in question — in which a young woman refuses to give up her seat to an old man; she’s just received a fatal cancer diagnosis and is hiding behind sunglasses, hence the sobriquet Sunglasses Girl — doesn’t “go viral.” It’s broadcast on national TV because it was taken by an aspiring reporter (and then obviously does become grist for online discussions, just like Romney’s or Obama’s latest gaffes might) and the engine for much of the subsequent fallout is a careerist pursuit of second- and third-day stories by that reporter and others. CAUGHT IN THE WEB is about tabloid gossip, far closer to NETWORK or THE FRONT PAGE than to (2012’s) BULLY or the Clementi case (except maybe to the extent that bullies now become something of a public Emanuel Goldstein and the object of Excuses to Commit Sociology, like Sunglasses Girl does in the film. Which I doubt was what the TIFF Central Committee intended.)
Even as a semi-satire on tabloid journalism (as I typed this, Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” came up on my iTunes … swear to God), I don’t think CAUGHT IN THE WEB is terribly successful. The tone shifts between satire to tragedy requires a master’s touch and Chen doesn’t have it, especially with the broad acting he encourages. It’s also too damn long at 121 minutes and has way too much plot — the press learns of her affair with her Big Shot CEO boss, which leads to a whole new set of reverberations. “Money changes hands, and I forgot about it as it happened,” I have written in my notes. There’s lots of romantic intrigue I also hardly cared about — Sunglasses Girl hires a bodyguard for her last days, and he has mixed motives.
Between this and Zhang Yimou’s A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP I’m also getting a vibe that the Chinese sense of humor is very different from ours in the West (I don’t have an “as I typed this” synchronicity here). I don’t specifically mean my sense of humor either … there are scores of Western films I don’t find funny but I usually quite easily recognize what’s supposed to be funny even if I don’t think it is. My Chinese-comedy sample size is obviously not large and it’s not so alien that I can never enjoy it — I did love KUNG FU HUSTLE, which pushes the freneticism into pure cartoon. But both Chen and Zhang in the early scenes of films that eventually become more serious employ a hyper-caffeinated freneticism for comic effects to a degree rarely seen here and which strikes me as “Too Much,” “Turned Up to 12,” etc. In the Zhang film, it’s more the performers, while CAUGHT IN THE WEB achieves the same effect via short cutting rhythms, smash edits and (within the limits of a relatively realistic contemporary film) frenetic motion and acting. It’s just so exhausting that the effect, for me, was of Chen stepping all over his own punch lines.
BARBARA (Christian Petzold, Germany, 6)
I liked this more than CAUGHT IN THE WEB, but it’s hardly a more enthralling film — indeed it’s quite emotionally and stylistically frigid, even withholding. Fortunately, those adjectives are the very subject matter of BARBARA, which is set in East Germany and centers on a woman, the titular character, who has asked for an exit visa from the Communist dictatorship and also has a West German lover. As a result, among other things, cars start cutting her off as she bicycles around the streets of the small-town backwater where she has been exiled to work as a doctor. Among her patients, for whom she lavishes suspiciously unusual care, is a girl who keeps running away from a socialist work camp. (I’m sorry buds … I don’t see how anyone old enough to remember East Germany’s existence could’ve been in any doubt where and about when this was set.)
Barbara is played by Nina Hoss, a marvelous German actress who seems to specialize, like a young Isabelle Huppert, in a certain understated interiorness. Her face is a marvel of emotional opacity, which she can make sullen or force to life without violating social cues — ideal for someone hiding her true opinions or emotions or plans from the necessity of keeping her head down. While this can make her come across as borderline wooden at times, all three of the roles in which I have seen her used this quality — in A WOMAN IN BERLIN, she was trapped in Berlin at the end of the war and had to negotiate her survival with the Russian conquerers, in JERICHOW, she played an adultress plotting murder against her husband. (I joked about the former film that it was the only thing that ever made me take seriously the radical-feminist claim that all sex under patriarchy is rape.)
The film moves resolutely, but at its own pace and rhythm that it keeps to itself, like its heroine. This tone makes BARBARA very much a slow burn escape-from-East Germany film … TORN CURTAIN this ain’t. Indeed, it isn’t even clear for a while that an escape plan is gonna wind up being the central third-act narrative concern and even when we get there, there isn’t really a set-piece chase … rinse and repeat previous aside. Instead, there is a psychologically resonant relationship with a fellow doctor who may be interested in Barbara but also might be an informant (that being life in “actually existing socialism”). In one fine “come clean” scene Andre describes a story about incubators that felt “wrong” to me and also sounded technologically implausible to an RN friend when I asked her about it. In another, he does a close reading on a Rembrandt painting (or a reproduction, I guess) that also throws the issue of deception and mistakes-that-aren’t-mistakes explicitly into the text. In another scene, the Mercedes-driving lover arranges a tryst in the forest and a Trabant-driving native passes by; the juxtaposition of the cars say everything that needs saying.
CAMP 14: TOTAL CONTROL ZONE (Marc Wiese, Germany/Korea, 7)
I was uncertain about this film for a long time. On the one hand, CAMP 14 undeniably packs an emotional wallop as a portrait of the North Korean gulag, mostly by Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known born-there escapee (yes, people are born into concentration camps and held there for life). On the other hand (I thought), the film really doesn’t do anything not done by reading Shin’s account in print as I did earlier this year, though I forget where and can’t find it quickly. I eventually decided that there is something valuable to this film qua film, but even if in the end there’s isn’t anything else here but a litany of brutality … what a litany it is.
Huge chunks of my notes simply consist of quotes from Shin — “I hadn’t yet learned that you’re supposed to cry when your mother is executed”; “rats have soft bones, so we were able to eat everything”; “walking around North Korea (outside the camp), it looked like heaven — people freely laughing, joking, wearing clothes they liked”; “in the camp I had a pure heart.” Shin repeatedly says things that sound absolutely unbelievable, until you reflect on them. If one has no concept of family and has seen executions for breaking camp rules all his life, why cry? That IS an advantage for a food meat. Every society, no matter how crappy, has to be better than its prisons (that’d be why it’s a punishment to go to prison). He probably did, and that’s the most damning you could ever say about the Rousseauist dream of pure innocence, an undivided soul marked by one telos.
There is other material in CAMP 14 besides interview footage with Shin, much of which is him sitting at the bottom of a flight of stairs. There are two former North Korean prison guards, now in South Korea, both apparently successful and one seemingly downright well-off. Although they say they did what they did because they thought it was right and just, they differ from the Indonesians in ACT OF KILLING by seeming repentant though they do talk matter-of-factly. When asked whether suspects are tortured, one smiled (though more in a “what a silly question, white man” mode than a prideful one) and said “it’s normal.” Though CAMP 14 generally uses minimalist pencil-based animated sequences to depict scenes of Shin’s memories of the camp, it also has rare footage of a North Korean slave camp, taken by one of the two guards at the camp he commanded, a different one from Shin’s. There’s also a scene of a North Korean guard interrogating a prisoner that critics of first-world authorities are invited with deep sarcasm to watch (though I wondered why also there appeared to be blurred subtitles on it).
As for why CAMP 14 is a film … Wiese is no Errol Morris, but he puts silence and the physical presence of his interview subjects to good use. In most documentaries, raw interview footage is cut to the rhythm of the films shot, which requires the subject start talking pretty much at the start of the shot and that the shot end when the the sound byte is over. (And of course, in written accounts, every word follows the next.) Here, there’s at least 4 or 5 times where Wiese includes a lengthy, noticeable hesitance of at least several seconds of screen time in Shin’s reactions to his questions (and does same once with the guards). It’s as if they don’t really want to say what they have to be truthful. When asked about water torture, Shin waits seemingly forever before saying slowly “I don’t want to remember those experiences any more.” So strong are these dead moments that Wiese never actually shows anyone breaking down or crying (assuming he could have; maybe they never did and that’s the point too). The pauses say enough.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Mike Newell, Britain, 6)
In between this film and my next, I called my parents, and my father wanted to know what I had just gotten out of. I said “an adaptation of Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS” / “How was it?” / “Fine. Nothing special but it is what it is and good for what it is … an illustration of a classic novel.” / “Well … what’s wrong with that? If it’s good for what it is, it’s good, right?” Pauline Kael also defended literary adaptations as a genre, saying it’s a perfectly normal pleasure to want to see the films and plays we read in school illustrated and/or adapted with today’s actors. This latest version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS is a pretty faithful adaptation (it’s been years since I read it, but I can’t recall any major plot points or characters it doesn’t hit, though there are accordingly a few it underplays or underdevelops) and if it entertains while it’s on the screen and encourages folks to read Dickens, it has done the Lord’s work.
Still, the film got on the bad side of me early. The key to the whole yarn is the first scene, the meeting with Magwitch in the graveyard. Here is the famous sequence from the 1946 David Lean adaptation.
This film bollixed it up, or at least diminished it, in two ways. First, compared to Finlay Currie, Ralph Fiennes is barely intelligible behind a thicker accent and state-of-the-art (i.e., louder) sound mixing. That same state-of-the-art (i.e., louder) sound and mickey-mousing music also accompanies a smash cut to Fiennes’ face when Magwitch appears, giving the whole scene the feel of a contemporary horror film. I also thought Mrs. Joe was a bit much, but those were the exceptions. Despite being younger than is customary, Helena Bonham Carter was perhaps an obvious choice as Miss Havisham, but she can convince both as a weird old woman (all those Tim Burton films) and a young woman in a flashback to the infamous wedding day. I don’t understand the logic of turning Mr. Jaggers into a single-line Jew if you’ve cast Robbie Coltrane, but I was glad to have him in the role. And by the time Magwitch reappears, the film has recovered its footing, Fiennes has dialed it back a bit and he dominates the rest of the film.
During a scene of paying off debts, it occurred to me that GREAT EXPECTATIONS is the same ruffian-does-social-climbing story as BARRY LYNDON. But while Kubrick (can’t speak about Thackeray) tells the story of a consciously self-made man both profiting from and being defeated by chance, Dickens gives the opposite psychology – a man who arbitrarily and mysteriously gains gentleman status and then finds out it was a reward for a long-forgotten good deed. But then Dickens was some kind of Christian and Kubrick was not. It also occurred to me in the last 15 minutes of this film that there’s just a little much coincidence and “coincidence” and cross-cutting relationships here for my adult taste, though that’s largely what Dickens wrote – he was the Arriaga/Inarritu of the 19th century. Still, this new film gets across Dickens’ humor and class-based fun – the young lads’ punch-up “according the rules,” the Finches of the Grove party, lines like “it’s not generally the custom in London to put your knife in your mouth, for fear of the ants.” And it really delivers on the best scene is the book – the London reunion with Joe (here played with bone-deep class-consciousness by Jason Flemyng), where a snobbish Pip and a not-quite-humiliated Joe try to have a meal.
IN THE HOUSE (Francois Ozon, France, 8)
I obviously wouldn’t push this comparison too far, but IN THE HOUSE reminds me a bit of THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE and THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY. The Bunuel masterpieces were nominally about forever sitting down to dinner but never eating (with plenty of digression in the interim) and a relay race of plot points and characters that become nothing but digressions, never surviving contact with the next plot point or character. Neither film makes logical sense (An emu wandering through your bedroom while a mailman leaves a note? A cafe with nothing but water?), but what they were really about was the Old Master’s comfortable ease as a yarnmeister. His very confidence could hook you into a story or joke or “I dreamed this last night.” The two films are thoroughly entertaining divertissements on the story-telling process and I recommend them highly.
IN THE HOUSE shows Ozon, a much younger man than Bunuel, in a very similar mode. The nominal surface subject is a French teacher (Fabrice Luchini) fascinated by the journal assignments of one of his students, the star pupil who actually writes something worthwhile in a room full of “I hate pizza on Saturday and Sundays suck” essays and “I can’t bring myself to write about this movie. -30-” film criticism. He wants Claude (Ernst Umhauer) to keep writing about his friendship into another neighborhood family and advises him to get involved with the family to provide more material. The Plausibles don’t add up (Claude’s writing may profit by comparison with classmates, but he is no Stephen King, in Mike’s words). Still, Ozon is doing what Bunuel did … seducing us with his silky smooth style, his native wit, and a string that we just want to keep tugging, like the teacher does (we see enacted the stories as he’s reading them).
There’s more here than just an enjoyable romp. We see the stories enacted as the teacher reads them (sometimes Ozon tells us this in advance, sometimes not), and the characters act in a very broad register (what you need accompanying narration) but become subtly different as the stories progress. So when the teacher tells Claude to change his story, he’s not simply offering criticism, he is also, Ozon implies, living out his own fantasies. Kristin Scott Thomas again shows her flair for comedy (reiterated negatively in DePalma’s PASSION) in the outsider role of the teacher’s wife, playing both literature critic and struggling art-gallery curator (there’s big laughs at, among other things, her exhibit of dictator’s heads on blow-up dolls of naked women). Those scenes have nothing to do with the main plot – they’re just Bunuelian diversions – until a late turn that I’m not sure is entirely successful. But the last image – it’s practically cribbed from Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW – ends things on the right note.
REALITY (Matteo Garrone, Italy, 8)
When Mike D’Angelo said nobody at Cannes recognized, even en passant, the religious subtexts and themes in REALITY http://www.avclub.com/articles/cannes-12-day-three-gomorrah-director-matteo-garro,75387/ there are two options – (1) he is lying his lying ass off (even allowing for the editorial “nobody”) or (2) there were a lot of clueless critics at Cannes. And I very severely doubt (1) … I was speaking simply of logical possibilities.
On the surface, REALITY is about an Neapolitan fishmonger named Luciano (Aniello Arena) who tries out for the Italian version of “Big Brother,” but gets prematurely convinced he’s going to be on the show. He then proceeds to believe he (and others) are being watched at all times, gives up his possessions, stops engaging in petty scams, and otherwise acts in ways that could hardly more obviously parallel a Christian’s rebirth if Garrone had emblazoned “he’s found religion” on his T-shirt. The first and last images of the film are both God’s-eye views. The last narrative sequence breaks off from a Good Friday Stations of the Cross parade. And to mention couple details Mike didn’t … at one point, Luciano is explicitly told (and not by a priest) that “if you want to get into the house, you need to have faith and then you will.” Also, after the interview with the “Big Brother” producers, Luciano spoke in the way one does after a first sacrament, especially first confession (I speak as an adult revert) – “I told him everything and it felt so wonderful” I have scribbled down in my notes. Garrone underlines this by not showing the actual interview, following an old convention, somewhat based on the Sanctity of the Confessional, against showing it.
Since Luciano never gets on the show but the last scene shows him “succeeding” in getting onto the set, we clearly have a parable of delusion (or disillusionment, though I think the last scene’s tone makes that impossible). But what is the delusion … and this is where Mike and I part company (he’s a self-described “devout atheist”). The one thing the delusion can’t be is belief in a non-existent God for the simple reason that “Big Brother” really does exist in REALITY and people really did get on the show, albeit not Luciano. In addition, if God is a Dawkinsian “delusion” within the film’s universe but “Big Brother” serves a church-like function, then accounting for the existence of the actual Church in the film (and it DOES have a notable presence as itself: a Rosary scene early on, the Good Friday procession and a Jesus statue in the courtyard) becomes, if not exactly impossible, at least a bit awkward.
One could even, based totally on the film, have a Calvinist read that the delusion is Luciano thinking he is among the saved, rather than the damned (though I think that’s too clever by half). Instead, I think Luciano’s delusion is idolatry, that is to say, he grants religious status to something other than God/religion – a problem whether God exists or not. This take is consistent with every religious analogy in Luciano’s treatment of the reality show,” it accounts for “Big Brother” real existence (the Golden Calf had a real existence, as a golden calf), and it makes better sense of the Church’s presence in the film. With respect to the last, consider the Good Friday scene. Luciano, who had been shown at the earlier Rosary scene not to be a religiously devout man, attends the service, taken there by a friend who thinks it’ll help his craziness, but breaks away from it to break into Cinecitta and get on the “Big Brother” set. The film never goes back to the service. If the point were an equivalence between the show and the Stations, it would’ve been smarter to intercut the two, like Eisenstein did with the union men and the slain oxen. Instead, Garrone has one follow the other, which more suggests the show as a substitute for religion or a functional religion or a retreat from religion.
BEYOND THE HILLS (Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 8)
… though that 8 has the proverbial bullet on it as BEYOND THE HILLS has stewed wonderfully in my head these past couple of days. Before the festival began, I agreed with Mungiu-skeptic Michael Sicinski that on the basis of one film, Mungiu hadn’t yet deserved status as a “Master,” the program in which TIFF put this film (he also made the very good OCCIDENTAL, but the proverbial “nobody” outside Romania has seen that). BEYOND THE HILLS proves that 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS, which I had on my decade-best list, was no fluke and cements Mungiu’s status as a Master. A Master who is very obviously a pupil of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, sure, but DeSica was just as obviously a pupil of Renoir and nobody thereby disputes his status. Like the Belgian brothers, Mungiu combines white-knuckle tension and long takes with the seemingly contradictory virtues of careful composition and fastidious framing that uses the whole frame. HILLS was even one of two films I saw this festival that started with the ROSETTA shot – following a character from behind as she charges through a narrowly-framed environment. The character in this case is Voichita, one half of a female-friend pair (also the center of 4 MONTHS) meeting the other half at a train station. She is meeting up with Alina for a visit to the Romanian Orthodox convent where Voichita is serving. The pair were clearly lesbian lovers during Voichita’s secular life and Alina, who had spent the last few years doing menial jobs for money in Germany, has come with an eye to winning her (unwitting) friend back.
What follows is a tale of possible demonic possession or psychotic episodes, in which Mungiu, like in his portrayal of abortion in 4 MONTHS, leaves completely open a literal take that many Western European art-house directors (and most critics) would take pains to close off. One way among others he does this is by Trinitarian compositions that evoke God’s presence in a story that invites a religious explanation without insisting on it – typical of my beloved Romanian style of accreting details that are “just-so” and “telling-without-rubbing-your-face-in-them.” There are two consecutive conversations where the framing is so clearly the Trinity as authoritative that I began sketching during the film (see attached and forgive my appalling drawing; I’m a writer not an artist, plus this was in a dark theater). Those same rhyming shots also parallel religion and science as sources of answers and response to matters that aren’t strictly in either’s purview but in the overlap/between. And like in a Skandie-nominated scene in 4 MONTHS, another shot frames a crowded dinner where an abundance of happy guests chatting away crushingly frames people whose thoughts are miles away.
In HILLS, Mungiu convincingly creates a world so “lived in” that you accept it utterly. My only real complaint, in fact, is that he does this so successfully that the narrative drags a bit. This place is isolated and cold and in nearly every shot, indoors or outdoors, you see the characters’ icy breaths without anyone ever saying “it’s cold in here.” In a late scene, some nuns have to improvise a stretcher, and we see the characters/actresses actually build one from pieces of wood, from pretty-much scratch in real time (did I say long takes were awesome?). In an early scene, Voichita agrees to rub some medical stuff on her ex-lover’s body, after which agreement to do so Alina strips herself to the waist. She handles the chastity-vs.-charity matter with poise, neither rubbing the bared boobs nor flinching at them, as the Harris-Dawkins-Hitchens axis would think she “should.” There’s even explicit dialogue later, apropos another matter, about this distinction between “forbidden” and “improper.” When the nuns prepare the outsider for a first-in-a-long-time confession, as they go down a conscience-examination list of 464 sins, Alina ticks off each one without fail but with increasing resignation at each new number. So successfully does Mungiu create an out-of-time experience in a monastery where out-of-timeness is the very point that there’s really only one detail that unquestionably situates the film in the present day – the existence of cell phones (even the few vehicles we see aren’t latest-model). But neither are the monastery characters simple-mindedly superstitious (again, a distinction impossible for a certain sort of secular Westerner to imagine). When one of the nuns notes that the hens haven’t laid any eggs and that a black cross appears in a piece of wood, the head priest in charge impatiently dismisses “foolishness about signs” and patronizingly says “burn it” when asked what to do with the wood. All that said, I do have to note that, even as a Roman chauvinist who will happily and teasingly call Orthodox friends “schismatics,” I didn’t like how some of the Orthodox lingo was “westernized” in the subtitles – “Pascha” becoming “Easter” and the use of “Mass” (a Western term that Orthodox Anglophones do not use).
NO (Pablo Larrain, Chile, 8)
“They make movies to sell detergent. So why not a movie to sell peace.”
– HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR
Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras wrote that line, but one way we know they didn’t understand it is that their movie to “sell peace” bore no resemblance to movies made to sell detergent (and hence didn’t “sell” at all). Pablo Larrain understands that line, or at an absolute minimum made a smart political movie about people who did. Gael Garcia Bernal plays ad specialist Rene Saavedra, who stumbles into leadership of the marketing side of the “No” campaign, a liberal-left coalition of Chileans opposed to Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had called a referendum on whether to grant him another eight-year term (“Yes”) or require him to step down and have multi-party elections somewhat later (“No”).
And so begins a rollicking political satire done in the style of 80s TV shows, 80s ads, 80s styles and even 80s political campaigns. I was hooked right from the credits, which present the name in simple block-character pastels but with the slight color shimmer of old or multi-generation VHS around the edges of each character. In the early scenes, the No campaign act like a bunch of college professors – debating the legitimacy of the election, calling each other “comrade,” and what tack to take in terms of “speaking to the pain we feel.” One even explicitly says “I don’t want to sell democracy as a product.” But they eventually decide to go with a “positive” campaign of uplift (exclusively so, for a while), the application of classic “mood” campaigns. The main visual theme is a rainbow, with each color signifying a party in the coalition and the main slogan was a happy jingle “Chile … l’alegria ya viene” (Chile … happiness is coming soon). The film was silent on this, but I have to wonder about the extent the “No” campaign, which Larrain faithfully represents, borrowed from Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” theme. Even harsh facts are given a candy-colored sheen, as when “No” women sing a jingle about “no more disappearances”
I was turned onto this film by Mike D’Angelo review (http://www.avclub.com/articles/cannes-2012-day-10-cronenberg-meets-delillo-matthe,75718/) and a later personal recommendation. But in his Cannes review, Mike said he “looked in vain for a hint of contemporary relevance,” to which … huh? NO is absolutely timeless, a demonstration of some unknown cynic’s aphorism that “democracy is rule by publicity,” which is why contemporary relevance hits you in the face with every 80s-video, TV-shaped, perfectly-cheesy frame. Every two or four years, the US goes through this cycle of punch-counterpunch, and I couldn’t contain my laughter at an aside in NO about reporting on “the truth behind” people in the ads, from thinking of Joe the Plumber or Katherine Harris (Al Gore: “Do we have anything on her”). Romney and Obama campaign consultants right this very day are weighing the base-vs-swing voter strategy and the wisdom of going negative, including the unintended messages sent – only here the “No” folks are fretting over whether painting Pinochet as a brutal tyrant will instill too much fear, spread cynicism and depress turnout. Other favorite touches: difficulties the “Yes” campaign has making good ads because “all the artists are on the other side”; the “No” campaign’s use of a photo of a riot cop beating a street demonstrator (and no, it’s not at all what you’d think; call it a unity message); and “this looks like a picture postcard, nobody eats baguettes in this country … who cares, it looks good.”
One strength of this film, which I didn’t expect from the leftist Larrain, is that the “Yes” campaign, led by Larrain mainstay Alfredo Castro, isn’t shown to be a bunch of patsies. They respond to the “No” campaign by parodying it – truth be told, I laughed hardest at two of those bits (one takes place in a bed and the other rewrites the lyrics to the “No” campaign’s main theme, “Chile … L’alegria ya viene”) Indeed, when introducing the Skandies, Mike described me as a “Pinochet-admiring lunatic” (the adjective of which is not an exaggeration … here’s the obituary I wrote for another site … http://coalitionforfog.blogspot.ca/2006/12/augusto-pinochet-1915-2006.html) So, for someone like me to come out of NO humming “Chile … L’alegria ya viene” is some kind of miracle.
MUSHROOMING (Toomas Hussar, Estonia, 5)
This is the sort of perfectly competent, mildly diverting but finally unmemorable high-concept sitcom that fills slots in film festivals worldwide, in between the transcendent masterpieces you love forever and the idiotic shit that you so hate it’s at least memorable (see, AMERICA, GOD BLESS). Every country can produce these filler films and they’re so ubiquitous that half the time you’re really looking at them as national portraitures, the better to distinguish this Estonian one from that Bulgarian one you saw at TIFF (or was it FilmFestDC?) two years ago. In the better cases, though, there is at least one memorable performer or one OMFG sequence.
On those limited terms, MUSHROOMING is a perfectly fine film that nobody in North America outside film festivals or the local Sons of Estonia Haalle will ever see or need to see. Ethnically, the Estonians are cousins to the Finns, and if you’ve seen a Kaurismaki film, you’ll recognize both the physical ethnic types on display (stolid husky men with broad-but-small features on flat, fair-skinned faces, mixed in with thin punk or musical types, e.g.) as well as the national humor sensibility (glum deadpan losers in over their heads, though MUSHROOMING’s actors are a little bit broader than Kaurismaki’s). MUSHROOMING takes the premise of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, only it plays it for comedy, in part by having one of the hikers, Aadu Kagu, be a member of parliament be fleeing the press over a brewing financial scandal (he and his wife took a trip to Machu Picchu that he billed as a diplomatic fact-finder). You know that when the hikers hit upon an apparently deserted cabin, they are gonna learn someone lives here by spotting that day’s paper, banner-headlined “Aadu Kagu, Parasite.” There is, though, one very good scene, near the end, where Aadu faces the press for the first time. Let’s just say that the accompanying music is Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, making the whole thing play like a satirical take on THE KING’S SPEECH, and not exactly in the way you might obviously think. It’s one of the few non-obvious things on display.
PASSION (Brian DePalma, USA, 6)
Gawd, this movie is so stupid. And so ridiculously entertaining, often precisely when it is at its stupidest. No movie featuring an ass-cam ad for a cell phone(?) camera (?) (who cares?) is going for The Human Condition vibe. Nor is a movie featuring Noomi Rapace in a pull-back hairdo with bangs completely covering her forehead. Nor is a movie that remakes a (very good IM apparently alone O) three-year-old French film about two women by significantly upping the Sapphic Quotient.
Still, I wish DePalma would at least come across as trying harder for something with emotional heft in addition to baroque set pieces, FEMME FATALE being the measuring stick among his recent films. For one thing, Rachel McAdams is fatally miscast, or, the same thing really, the role has been fatally mis-reconceived from the French original. She plays a role first inhabited by Kristin Scott Thomas, a far superior actress who also has enough old-school wit to make lines like “you have lots of talent, and I made the best use of it” draw tossed-off blood; McAdams recites the identical line, with emphasis on “recite” and “line,” with an effect as far from “identical” as possible. McAdams is also more or less the same age as Rapace, while KST is a generation older than Ludivine Sagnier, which gave the original an ALL ABOUT EVE vibe that pays off handsomely thematically. And whereas in the French film, Sagnier was Sagnier, Rapace has all the sex appeal of a plate of lutfisk, and less life. Thus the first half of PASSION, before a murder is committed and which follows the French original fairly closely, is a failure.
You can literally see the moment PASSION goes “click” and becomes a fun roller-coaster ride – an ominous music cue, a smash cut to a closeup of Rapace, and a dramatic change in the lighting scheme. From that point, the movie is about nothing more than canted angles, heavy shadows, ominous music, split screens (it’s DePalma, of course). But what angles, shadows, etc. That it outdoes in logical retardation what was already a very silly plot is like criticizing the plotting in THE BARBER OF SEVILLE or AIDA or NORMA. Even the limited actresses actually help and I’d’ve been fine with replacing them with air dolls or lifesize puppets.
The film’s high point is undoubtedly a split screen sequence, in which one half of the screen is a murder the perpetrator of which we can’t see, and the other is the performance of a ballet, “Afternoon of the Faun” that looks into the camera and will later play a key alibi role. “Half” is a misnomer, because part of what makes the sequence so virtuoso is that DePalma varies how much of the screen each image takes, going from 50-50 to 80-20 to 30-70 back to 50-50 etc. But even beyond that, he varies the compositions and moves the camera in and out to take the best advantage of the space in each part, whether it’s a thin 10 percent sliver of the widescreen shape or a effectively-widescreen 90 percent. That sequence is the work of a master.
THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous; Denmark/Indonesia, 9)
“It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.”
— Alex, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
Is it possible for a man to cauterize his soul? That’s one of the themes of the greatest movie ever made and here is that rare political film that dares to try to match it. ACT OF KILLING looks into the abyss of organized brutality and yet looks up without having blinked. It’s so bold and truthful and unsparing that, yes, I would compare it to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and to THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS and, though it works in a different way, to Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that the film that needed to made about the concentration camps was about the guards, not the prisoners. Here is that film.
It follows several members of an Indonesian militia group who were involved in anti-Communist pogroms that killed hundreds of thousands following a mid-1960s gradual coup that effectively replaced Sukarno as dictator. Though it’s in the documentary genre of “muckraking about past atrocities,” there are two huge differences here from such standard-issue films – first, there are no interviews with the prisoners or even IIRC any found or archival footage of the atrocities; and second, the guards are proud of their actions and have hired Oppenheimer and his crew to make a movie about them. Some of the men do change over the course of the film but only very slowly, and (in the most memorable case) by unintentionally almost quoting Alex. What even makes those moments feel earned – rather than the inevitable course of the film’s inevitable didactic humanistic lesson – is the contrast with the unregenerate militia members and the political environment of present-day Indonesia, which is (to put it kindly) not exactly post-war West Germany or post-apartheid South Africa.
I could have done without the cheap juxtaposition of McDonalds and shopping mall images with stats about the massacres or the Michael Moore touch of having people critique democracy while playing golf. I also don’t entirely trust a film about 60s Indonesia in which the word “Sukarno” is, to the best of my recollection, never mentioned. But the number of “I can’t believe I just saw what I saw” moments is simply through the roof and it doesn’t stop with the premise as I’ve outlined. So as to avoid spoilers, let’s just say there were moments – like a walk through a Chinese merchant market – when I wasn’t sure I was actually watching re-enactments. And then at least one – a visit to a village – when I was sure I wasn’t.
It isn’t all about the abyss; there is also comedy here – a lot of it, in a very black vein. The men sit around on the set, in obvious blood makeup/prosthetics, reminiscing about the IRL scenes they’re about to re-enact and debating the best methods of execution and what they learned themselves from the movies (Also, can we now cool it with the “depictions of violence don’t inspire acts of violence” talking point?) Looking at Oppenheimer’s footage (which sometimes resembles cheesy Bollywood musicals, over-the-top gangster footage), they love one surrealistic scene where a killed Communist thanks them for sending him to heaven. It’s not that this all functions as comic relief a la Shakespeare’s clowns or that it gains from juxtaposition with the more serious material (it doesn’t especially do either, actually), but it specifically grows out of the more serious subject – the militia members’ pride.
There is a scene called “Special Dialog” that I will take to my grave. It looks like the Indonesian equivalent of “Entertainment Tonight” or similarly fluffy show and while it’s memorably appalling that militia members are on it in uniform, what really make the scene is the interviewer, who talks about wiping out the communists in the same chirpy manner as one might discuss coming up with a great new martini recipe. What we’re seeing is not “banality of evil” a la Hannah Arendt, “dehumanization” or similar cant, but something far more chilling and eternally relevant – that anything (and I do mean anything) can be done with a good conscience. All a man needs is to believe something is right. These men were Suharto’s Willing Executioners, but unlike Hitler’s, they had the good fortune not to be conquered by foreigners while the blood was still wet on their hands.
The same “take-it-to-my-grave” quality also applies to an interview with one henchmen (whose name I didn’t catch) who, while driving, pours an ocean of scorn on war-crimes tribunals and the Geneva Convention. He’s gives the standard Realist critique of international law, which is rare enough in this kind of film, before sealing the deal. He says of the 1960s atrocities that “re-opening the matter would be a provocation to fight. And if the world wants perpetual war, we’ll be ready.” He’s not saying anything not made implicitly from the other end by the pardoning-immunity powers of post-apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Sometimes justice must be suspended for the sake of peace. And pointing to the ugliest of political truths: what gets loosely called “victor’s justice” is in fact, in every political instanciation, “justice.”
AT ANY PRICE (Ramin Bahrani, USA, 6)
If you only showed me the first half-hour of this film and stopped, I wouldn’t have been inclined to watch the rest of it … at any price … sorry, Scott #hackstamp. In one scene (I have it written on my notes “you just lost me, Ramin”) an Iowa farmer reads aloud a postcard from his son about climbing South America’s tallest mountain, and he stumbles over the pronunciation of “Mount Aconcagua.” Yuk yuk yuk. Isn’t the people in Hickville so stooooopid and uncultured. Nor had that practiced mistake been the film’s first such moment. (Ironically, later that day I heard a friend’s equally-phonetic name mangled by one of America’s most eminent leftist film critics, who regularly goes on “Red States is Backward” rants.)
But as is my custom, I stuck around and I’m glad I did, as AT ANY PRICE becomes something more as it accretes detail and develops the threads of what seemed for a while like a scattershot script. Though it’s an original script, AT ANY PRICE becomes unashamedly novelistic (if you take that as a criticism, stay away) with twists and turns that make into it a kind of “farm noir.” Test film for this film – did you like IN THE BEDROOM? Or MYSTIC RIVER – one element in particular from that film came from nowhere here, yet felt as utterly right as it did in the Eastwood.
Dennis Quaid plays a jerk of a seed salesman who’s family is falling apart. Quaid dominates the film and I thought for a long time that he was overacting. But he’s playing an overactor (if that makes sense). He’s cheating on his wife, the globetrotting son for whom he had hopes is unseen, and the other son (a surprisingly strong Zac Efron) has a ridiculous dream of being a NASCAR driver and wants no part of the farm. But everything is … great. The moment I turned around on this film was Efron’s big-race debut, which did not go the way I knew it was going to. A bit later, I finally wrote “OK, Ramin, you win” (I’ve only seen one previous Bahrani and though I liked GOODBYE SOLO quite a bit, it’s not at all like this). And that was at a scene where Quaid’s father gives a speech about how “times were so much simpler then.” AT ANY PRICE is a rare film that is about both realizing your dreams and being content with not realizing your dreams, in the same person. About nostalgia and false nostalgia, within the same environment.
EVERYDAY (Michael Winterbottom, Britain, 1)
I told taffybud Dan Owen on Twitter that, given the same cast and crew, either he or I could make a film every bit as good as EVERYDAY. That was not an exaggeration or a joke line. If THE TRIP had nothing to recommend it beyond Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden’s repartee, here is an equally episodic, intermittent film that doesn’t have Coogan and Bryden. I seriously can’t recall ever seeing a film that, once the premise had been set up, had quite literally nothing to offer and that the director gave so little indication of answering the most basic question – what is this film about? (I mean strictly among films by directors with major reputations). Winterbottom has always been hit-or-miss but he has made several very good films – TRISTAM SHANDY, THE TRIP, THE CLAIM, and my retrospective memory of 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE. But I would love to see the shooting script (if, in fact, there was one) for EVERYDAY, which feels like a case study in how you cannot make drama up as you go along.
EVERYDAY covers five years in the life of Ian Ferguson, who is serving a long jail term with a wife and four children (ages 3 to 8, I’d guess) on the outside. The gimmick here is that Winterbottom shot the film intermittently over five years, so we actually see the actors age, most obviously the children (all real-life siblings). It’s something you can’t fake and it would make the film interesting … if there were any drama. Whatsoever. There are scenes of the kids in school, scenes of the wife at work, scenes of prison visits (“you’re the man of the house,” Ian tells a boy of about 6), scenes of him in jail, scenes of the lengthy trips to the prison. And none of it develops or grows. There is no artistry, imagination or shaping. It’s all chopped up into a minute or so not-even vignettes – with an ugly-ass hand-held video style to boot. There is a post-release bedroom confession by the wife that she’d had an affair with a man we see at the dinner table two or three times and come on to her once and get rejected. And the fight itself lasts maybe a minute. Flimsy setup. Little payoff. Rinse and repeat throughout. There is more prison drama in 5 minutes of OZ. More comedy in 5 minutes of PORRIDGE.
I wouldn’t especially care if the film wound up having nothing to say but “going to prison sucks, for both you and your family.” (I was attracted to this film as being about a working-class British family with the man in jail. I have four extended-family blood relatives who’ve gone to prison – and I don’t mean held overnight in the drunk tank or after a brawl or the like, but felons duly sentenced to hard time.) But if that’s all there is, you need better moment-to-moment texture than this. Hitchcock famously said “drama is life with all the dull bits cut out”; Winterbottom seems to think, on the basis of this film, that “life is drama with only the dull bits kept in.” EVERYDAY is nothing but everyday moments with only the time-lapse photo quality of seeing the kids age. Oh … to think what the Dardennes or Mike Leigh could have done with this premise.
FOXFIRE: CONFESSIONS OF A GIRL GANG (Laurent Cantet, Canada/France, 3)
I had a similar reaction to this film as to AT ANY PRICE, only it starts out even worse and obviously doesn’t rebound nearly as well. The first hour or so of FOXFIRE is one of the most unbearable, unrelenting litanies of misandrist shit I’ve ever seen (I actually considered walking out, but the memory of the Bahrani was fresh. Plus, if college feminists couldn’t chase this “potential rapist” from watching a Take Back the Night rally, no mere film is gonna do the same.). As the subtitle suggests, FOXFIRE is about an all-female gang of juvenile delinquents, set in the late 50s, but Cantet is complicit himself in every manner of deck stacking. Not only does the narrator, who is not otherwise shown to be naïve or out-of-touch like in BADLANDS e.g., carefully relativize and legalese-ize the gang’s actions (“we committed what could have been called crimes”) but every single male victim is, in one way or another, made hateful right before he is victimized – the math teacher is mean in class, the uncle tries to take liberties, the make is cheating on his wife, the businessman is an anti-feminist reactionary, etc. Reverse the sexes in all the crimes and try to imagine the reaction this film would get, with all its legitimate robberies and careful planting of details showing the bitch was asking for it. This first hour at least of FOXFIRE is hate speech against men. No doubt about it. #fact
FOXFIRE recovers some as the group changes from a gang to a kind of commune (though it still finances itself through crimes against men, with the decks still carefully, if less one-sidedly, stacked). In that context, it becomes a bit of an anti-utopian disillusionment narrative against the death of a collarless Catholic priest who waxed nostalgic about the great revolution of 1917 — adolescent adolescence devolving into the realities of adulthood and the breakdown of teen solidarity. But like many such disillusionment stories, the film rambles on for way too long. Still, I liked the fact that the girls vote against integrating their group (somewhat offset the deck-stacking to contemporary audiences), not so crazy about the fact the group’s de facto leader Legs is the one who berates the others about the snub (offsets the offset). Within the confines of video, the dingy period environment is well-captured. The actresses make a seamless ensemble, though a little *too* seamless. Apart from physical types, really only two characters develop into individuals – the narrator Maddy (Katie Coseni) and the charismatic Legs (Raven Adamson). But their two fates … let’s just say – with respect to the latter, that it’s more deck-stacking misandry; with respect to the former, that the man who made TIME OUT does the same thing with the last scene here. To. Much. Lesser. Effect.
THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR (Ritwik Ghatak, India, 1960, 8)
This was my first Ritwik Ghatak film, and, at least on the basis of CLOUD-CAPPED STAR, he seems to form a bridge between the overtly populist Bollywood cinema of Raj Kapoor and his fellow Punjabis and the art cinema of fellow Bengali Satyajit Ray (the last being the only one of the three to find, relatively speaking, any audience at all in the West). On the one hand, CLOUD-CAPPED STAR has as much music as any Bollywood film, and is about as broadly acted – for good and ill. But the music numbers are either source music or just put on the soundtrack as expressionist sound, both more and less realistic than the “here’s an onscreen number” conventions dominant in Bollywood (and Hollywood).
But while CLOUD-CAPPED STAR, a secular martyrdom story about a responsible elder sister who sacrifices everything on behalf of her ungrateful family, has the same serious concerns and dark subject matter as Ray, Ghatak has much more taste for melodrama and comedy, and could have fit in at the Warners lot in the 1930s. Indeed, the famous last line had been almost the exact title of a Susan Hayward weepie. Ray wasn’t the subtlest director, but Ghatak makes him look like Dreyer. I laughed out loud at the punchline in the scene of a marital quarrel, in which Ghatak has a window from across the courtyard in the back of the frame. A woman always seems to be standing by that window just as things heat up; and the composition and the foreground characters notice her at the same moment. There are multiple layers of irony, none of them subtle – one clueless sibling says “some people suffer for their principles,” but referring to himself while Nita is in the image foreground.
As an image maker, Ghatak is more of a mannerist than any Warners director could ever be. One of the very first images calls attention to itself as deliberately and emphatically composed along multiple planes (shown here, image taken from Omar … http://omarsfilmblog.blogspot.ca/2009/11/meghe-dhaka-tara-cloud-capped-star-dir.html) – a gigantic closeup of Nita in sharp focus, with a longer shot of her brother Shankar sitting on the left and a dimly-seen train in the far background: the dramatic center, the personal antagonist and the social backdrop, all in order. And for a film filled with deep-focus shots, one of the most effective is one of the few where Ghatak uses a narrow focal depth and leaves much of the image out of focus – the conversation between Nita and her mother about how far apart they are. (Put that way, it sounds too obvious for its own good, but the contrast with makes it feel absolutely right.)
Ghatak’s soundtrack is a work of expressionist wonder, again placing himself between Bollywood and Ray. It’s not just the famous whip cracks, which start as Nita descends a staircase after seeing some bad news about a marriage proposal, but also a recurring sound effect that resembles as sci-fi “aliens are here.” It comes from nowhere and has no rational explanation except a correlative of Nita’s mental breakdown. There is also a recurring sound effect of cooking, which Jonathan Rosenbaum said in his intro was a “natural” sound effect. I suppose it is, but Ghatak uses it at one point with the sound cranked up to a Spinal Tap 12 while the image smash-cuts into the mother’s face as her family plans gang aft aglay. In the last 30 minutes, there’s barely a natural sound played at a natural volume in the film.
While the other performers vary wildly in register between Bollywoodish archetypal clowns and torn intellectuals – my mind over the past couple of days has run particularly hot and cold on Bijon Bhattachara as the all-seeing and wise but impotent and he knows it father – Supriya Choudhury’s performance as central character Nita is brilliant in a very odd and eccentric way. Early on, I was thinking “she’s too beatific, her face as placid and plastic as an Indian Doris Day.” Three words, Victor – Bait. And. Switch. Unfortunately, I think Ghatak piles on too many denouements in the last 20 minutes or so, and, ironically, his gifts as an image- and sound-maker made me think several times “OK, he’s found the last shot … up and out.”
One thing that genuinely puzzled me; and I have Indian readers. I’ve read more than once that CLOUD-CAPPED STAR is about the partition of Bengal, into a province of India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). How? I couldn’t even say for certain when the film takes place, and I’m morally certain there’s no textual reference for where exactly the film is happening. There are references to trips to or events in Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay, but other than the absence of Britons (maybe) excluding the first of these options, there is nothing that requires the film take place in 1940, 1948 or 1955. Nor is religion an explicitly textual subject at any level, though I inferred from the names that the family is Hindu, or at least not-Muslim. But since the family itself doesn’t divide or have members marry outside the religion (like in Deepa Mehta’s EARTH) or anything comparable … help!!
LOIN DU VIETNAM (Alain Resnais, William Klein, Joris Ivens, Agnes Varda, Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker; France; 1967; 4)
I don’t know why people thought this film would play as uniquely horrible to me; I’ve seen far worse than this in the field of pinko propaganda documentaries. But I’ll go out on a limb here and say with a perfectly straight face that LOIN DU VIETNAM is not a significantly better film than, and shares many flaws with, Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: OBAMA’S AMERICA. One may refute that of course by applying an a-priori left-good/right-bad ideological standard, though in that case, there is no need to actually see either movie. And while LOIN may very well be effective preaching-to-the-choir (I’m sure as heck not the guy to judge it on that score), 2016 is demonstrably just as effective.
Like with D’Souza’s film, LOIN has little characterization and no drama. In LOIN, there are tendentious framings of issues like the D’Souza (Has America, more than France e.g., convinced itself that the poor are stupid? Is there polling data on this?). In LOIN, there are eye-rolling conspiratorial histoire(s) like the D’Souza (Are the poor, always and by definition, in the moral right, as the narrator says?). In LOIN, there are huge dumps of undigested talking-head material like the D’Souza (one section is nothing but a shot of Fidel Castro answering a couple of softball question, as if he was Shelby Steele or Paul Vitz). In LOIN, there is reliance on cheap emotional manipulation like in the D’Souza (footage of civilian bombing deaths looks the same in 1965 Hanoi as 1944 Dresden) and reliance on technological cheap shots like in the D’Souza (subjecting Fidel Castro to vertical roll, color separation, horrible resolution would have the same effect as doing it to William Westmoreland). In LOIN, inconvenient facts and context are ignored or downplayed like in the D’Souza (while World War II atrocities by Korean guards in Indo-China are carefully mentioned, the Soviet Union and Red China are more or less never mentioned, and not in any way that threatens to undermine the film’s “rich aggression against the poor” template for the war) I also didn’t appreciate the audience self-congratulatory laughs at Westmoreland’s claim that the US is not a murderous regime – if it were, the radiation levels at Hanoi would be getting down to habitable levels right about now.
LOIN also has some flaws of its own inimitable French-intellectual style – a bizarre soliloquy by one “Claude Ridder” while a hot chick lies silent on a couch/bed to provide confused or longing reaction shots, and a typically self-absorbed bit of talk-to-an-onscreen-camera meta-messing by Jean-Luc Godard himself. There’s also lengthy sequences of street demonstrations that (1) leave no doubt whatever that the anti-war movement was, in significant part, Communist (the French don’t think that’s such a bad thing so they have no incentive to hide it), and (2) confirm my belief that all such events, and the ensuing shouting matches, are mostly tedious and unhelpful. And if all this description makes LOIN sound like an unsorted mess … ding ding DING DING!!!!
Is there anything worthwhile if you don’t enter the theater wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt? Yes. The documentary footage from North Vietnam, including the making of impromptu bomb shelters in Hanoi, is interesting, and a sudden cut-to-black really is shocking. A sequence called “Johnson Cries” is a traditional Vietnamese clown pageant, with the make-up-covered street performers playing LBJ and an adviser and another called “Victor Charlie” plays a Tom Paxton anti-war protest song (it got a round of applause at the screening). Both the North Vietnamese clowns and Paxton have wit and artistry to their works – something the film-makers themselves should have absorbed.
ERNEST AND CELESTINE (Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier, Belgium, 8)
There’s no fooling the audience in a kid’s movie — their reaction tells you with brutal honesty whether a film is working. The moment I knew ERNEST & CELESTINE had the audience hooked came during a scene where some ink blotches get timed and shaped to music. Despite the avant-garde sounding precept, a girl one row in front of me at a TIFF Family screening was waving her arms around in a kid’s idea of a conductor’s gestures. And the little girl was right to be hooked … I now regret missing A TOWN CALLED PANIC by this same Belgian animation team.
The story isn’t much — unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear, who live in parallel cities above and below ground, and each is threatened with community ostracism for this unnatural liaison. The animation is stylish, but in a deliberately low-tech way for a minimalist, hand-drawn retro look that resembles 50s/60s French movie posters. But this kind of film is entirely about the details – attitude, tone and asides that are often at their funniest when they are at their most irrelevant and irreverent. And on that score, ERNEST & CELESTINE is pure fun from beginning to end, with more than enough double entendres (in the broadest sense, not the sexual one) to amuse everyone. Like the original BABE, it’s both wise and wiseacre, and often at the same time; for example one early line from an elderly Rodentian authority figure tells Celestine “only in fairy tales can bears be friends with mice.” Also like BABE, it’s scary and funny, also often at the same time, as when Ernest has a lightbulb moment involving a roast chicken and some breadcrumbs.
But what I appreciated most was the irrelevant details, that reflect a pure whimsy and joy in world-creation worthy of the Warners cartoons. One joke about how mice in weight training do bench presses is both funny for the kids and (for adults who have much knowledge of the real world) macabre. But then it gets twice as funny when we see the bears do the same bench-press method, which is guffawed at because, well, there is no macabre element and They Did It Anyway. Another gag about how Celestine always manages to sneak her way back into Ernest’s cabin literally defies the laws of physics and, like half the Road-Runner / Wile E. Coyote gags, is funny exactly for that reason. ERNEST & CELESTINE doesn’t quite measure up to the best of Pixar but it easily matches everything else in the family-animation field and has equal virtues for … childless adult cynics.
THY WOMB (Brillante Mendoza, Philippines, 6)
Not sure I can really improve on Mike D’Angelo’s Twitter review of Mendoza’s 2008 film SERBIS: “Here’s an environment. Do you like my environment? Immerse yourself in the environment I offer you. That is all.” http://www.panix.com/~dangelo/nyff08.html Though since Mike gave SERBIS a not-recommended 40/100, to my guardedly-recommended 6/10 for THY WOMB, I guess I should at least try to. Still, it should be obvious in my initial joke that I am recommending THY WOMB entirely on that “do you like my environment” terms. The film is 80% ethnography to 20% drama, and anyone looking for a gripping story or unwilling to tolerate longueurs should stay the sex-act-euphemism away. Given my general aesthetic preferences, my willingness to overlook something I almost never would in a film from North America or Western Europe could be called Orientalism or exoticism. If so, so be it. I have never been to the Muslim areas of the southern Philippine islands – emphasis on the noun there … if memory serves, there are no roads in this film (certainly they are few and far between) and all significant transportation is by boat. And since I do not like to travel, one reason among others I like to go to foreign films is to learn stuff.
The plot of THY WOMB barely consists of more than “a woman, who is a midwife, is infertile, she advises her husband to get a second wife, he does so after solving some dowry issues, they have baby.” The ending is … for reasons I don’t want to spoil … enigmatic. To tread vaguely, it can read as horribly ironic. Or, if we take the world as portrayed here seriously, maybe not. These details create a whole world, an environment to immerse … [stop it, Victor, stop it]. The ritual slaughter of a cow and the selling of a boat’s motor both resonate heavier, precisely because the islands’ environment has been so meticulously set up. Selling a boat motor is like selling a bike in 1940s Italy in a way it wouldn’t be in the US, and cows are a precious commodity but even they have to be transported by boat (to awkward effect in one of THY WOMB’s best scenes). Also for example, we see an attack by armed guerrillas on the couple’s fishing boat, the remains of a shot-up Catholic church during another trip, and gunfire breaking out at another couple’s wedding (featuring an eye-opening method of gift-giving). And in all three cases, it was downplayed. For example, after the boat raid, the couple went home to dress the husband’s wounds; no authorities (what authorities?) were ever called and the attack was never referred to afterward. During the wedding, people start to panic at the sound of gunfire, but the wife yells out for people to calm down and continue dancing. It’s as if the environment is everything and even the characters themselves don’t want plot events to stop it.
WHAT RICHARD DID (Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland, 2)
… not much actually.
I quipped to a bud afterward that “it’s CRIMES AND MISEMEANORS shot in the style of a muted after-school special starring Chris O’Donnell.” He said that sounds interesting, and while I guess it might, in this case it is not, because WHAT RICHARD DID is flat, thin and underdeveloped in every way. There’s really only enough material here for a 10-minute short – spoilers ahoy, but really, this film is going nowhere, and the basic premise is the first of about three plot points (rinse and repeat what I said about exoticism regarding THY WOMB; sorry, Irish bourgeoisie). Nevertheless, that plot point occurs about 40 minutes into the film, which I’d normally count as spoiler territory and try to avoid – but believe me, I was looking since the title tells you to expect the central character to do something bad. One of the aggravating things about this film is that it spends so long showing Richard doing everything but shitting rose petals in such obvious counterpoint that you spend almost half the film twiddling your thumbs, waiting for the shoe to drop. Meanwhile, what you’re seeing isn’t interesting enough in a hanging-out vibe to compensate.
The titular character, a rugby-team captain graduating private school and with his adult life ready to start, gets into a drunken fight and what results would earn him a conviction for something like third-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. But only a couple of folks (also complicit themselves to some degree, and also drunk) know what happened to teammate Connor and the investigation isn’t looking in Richard’s direction. Hence my CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS comparison – can I live with the knowledge of myself as a killer. Not only is Abrahamson no Woody Allen (much less a Dostoevsky), but lead actor Jack Reynor can’t even begin to compare to Martin Landau. He’s appropriately attractive and has a winning personality but can’t deliver a torn soul. The spiritual wrestling here is to the real thing what WWE wrestling is to the real thing. The only real relationship is with his father (there’s a rote girlfriend and Richard’s undifferentiated mates), and there are only three real scenes about What The Film Is About after Connor’s death, one of them in a church.
Some of it is director Abrahamson’s fault – in one scene, Richard literally screams aloud, alone, for about a minute but the hand-held digital camera tries to get closeups as he lurches around the room. But it never succeeds, making the scene a (doubly) unfocused mess. In another scene, the rugby club toasts the dead guy Connor and the camera manages to catch every member of the club’s behavior, except the person we want to see (that would be Richard … for me anyway). And the ending … let’s just say that WHAT RICHARD DID gives us a perfect rugby head fake. In other words, it cheats. Like Richard did.
ME AND YOU (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy, 5)
I hope Bernardo gets to make another film because I do NOT want the last image of this man’s career to be something as nakedly and banally derivative as the 400 BLOWS endshot accompanied by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” ME AND YOU promises a lot more than it eventually delivers, but it does a good job of promising early, very much in a DREAMERS vein of two self-indulgent privileged assholes (half-siblings in this case) setting up a temporary utopia apart from the world, but parasitic upon it.
Jacopo Antinori and Tea Falco are attractive players and hold the screen well enough – I was reminded of a more aggressively sullen Jesse Eisenberg and Kate Winslet. There’s funny moments involving near simultaneous ring tones and I loved the score early on, even the Italian cover of “Space Oddity” (it sounds like Bowie himself). And ME AND YOU is gorgeous to look at, with enough orange pools of light, dust mites, and eccentric angles and movements to make me think Vittorio Storaro were still around. I especially loved a swirling shot that mostly looked up through a glass ceiling to the floor above.
But at about the hour mark, I began to get restless, as the script’s wheels begin to spin (or maybe, “bog down” … “spin” implies SOME movement and a working engine). It’s fine to have Antinori walk in a figure-8 pattern around two objects, as an armadillo had done earlier in a pet shop, but … Bernardo, it’s insulting to intercut the boy with “reminder” shots of the animal from earlier. Also, structurally, a problem with these isolated world / “Elvira Madigan” scenarios is that they really need to have the outside world intrude somehow, and that neither happens here nor much threatens to. And once the sister has set herself up in the idyll (the family basement), ME AND YOU doesn’t really create much conflict between the two of them, so the film winds up being about … not much really except some drug-withdrawal moments. The ending is also far too open-ended and irresolved for my tastes. Even that junkie angle makes the film play like JESUS SON without the loopy digressive interludes. Which is also to say … not much.
WHAT MAISIE KNEW (Scott McGehee and David Siegel, USA, 3)
What Victor knew is Henry James. And I can’t describe this film’s rotten soul without describing the resolution, so consider that your warning. But in one sentence – Henry James wrote a novel about the wickedness of divorce and/or parents (the novel’s allows for both non-exclusive interpretation); Scott McGehee and David Siegel made a film about the virtue of step-parents and the wickedness of birth parents.
The key is two major changes – Maisie’s fate and her age. The story of both works kicks in with a divorce in which the two parents (Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore here) share custody of a 6-year-old girl. Moore and Coogan are typically fine – Coogan getting a chance to play his self-absorbed tool persona in a dramatic context. But Moore’s greatness only allows her to stay afloat against a script that paints her as a complete bitch until she has to make a complete turn on a dime at The Big Confrontation scene at the end. In both film and novel, allowing for different particulars of the two eras (at this level of finding different-times equivalents, McGehee and Siegel have done a good job of adaptation) the two parents are head-thumpingly awful human beings, using Maisie as a tool against the other. In both works, both couples remarry, but here is where the changes start to happen, and not for any reason other than making this film the latest Holly/Indiewood salvo against the traditional family.
The first change is that Maisie is played by the same actress, 6- or 7-year-old Onita Aprile throughout, and as a result, the film has to compress the events of about a decade into at most one year. This means that Maisie’s character trajectory from naïve girl to self-aware teenager is completely gone. Aprile has the right face – semi-opaque as if she understands but doesn’t quite get what she sees. She is now essentially now a one-note character, putting all the chips on the parental characters and making the title rather misleading, or at least grossly underdeveloped for the title theme.
Which leads to the second and more damaging change — the absence of a dotty, silly servant named Mrs. Wix and how that affects the ending. In James, all four parents cheat, the step-parents with each other. In the film, the natural parents basically abandon Maisie and the step-parents (here played by Joanna Venderham and Alexander Sarsgard) only get together in the context of caring for Maisie when each gets left in the lurch by their spouses and only become a couple at the very end, accordingly softening James’s critique of parents and divorce and making an excuse for these step-parents. And at the end, James’s Maisie stays with Mrs. Wix, because she’s convinced that the newly together step-parents will fail, because of her experience and their corrupt circumstances. A novel about divorce, a corrupt marriage society and an adult growing into an understanding of love separate from marriage becomes an apologia for the post-modern family and a distasteful game of a child shopping for ideal parents – NORTH for the art-house set.
AMOUR (Michael Haneke, France, 9)
The World’s Best Pure Director is back after being on a two-film losing streak with me. I didn’t like either the unnecessary FUNNY GAMES remake and the risible “Nazism is bad” period piece WHITE RIBBON, and I had officially supplanted Haneke at the summit of my esteem with the Dardenne brothers. But with AMOUR, Haneke returns to the top of his form, with material ideally suited to it – a clinical, nearly one-set look at an elderly couple, Anne and Georges (astonishingly played by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) as she has a stroke and slips into dementia.
Even if I didn’t know, there never would have been any doubt whose work this is – a heart in the mouth moment, a sudden act of unexpected violence, grueling subject matter, lengthy takes with few camera moves but much movement within the frame, rhyming compositions near the start and the end, the literal start with a bang that gets rhymed with a piano concerto that does the same, the fastidious attention to details of sound and decor, the splendidly enigmatic but explicable (to me anyway) final scenes (three head-scratchers here; the impossible scene, the pigeon, the final shot). The only new element, some folks have said, is a surprising auteurial affection for his characters and theirs for each other. Without denying that – the film after all is called AMOUR not MORT (something the very last shot underlines by indirection) – I’d also deny that Haneke’s teutonic moralism is absent. Look at the “impossible” scene and the judgmental fate it implies. At a minimum, this film is a tragedy, not the Haneke remake of a recent Clint Eastwood film I had been expecting and that AMOUR might be consumed as.
But let me just describe one scene for a sense of how much Haneke can pack into one element – a running tap. In an early scene Anne goes blank and nonresponsive while sitting with Georges at the kitchen table, and so he hurries (to the extent his own 80-ish body will allow) over to the tap to wet a towel. Because he is concerned, he leaves it running and that’s the loudest sound as he strives to revive her, the sound of running water an archetype for life slipping away. When that fails, he slowly hurries over to the phone two rooms away to call for help, but even as the camera leaves the kitchen the tap continues dominating the soundtrack, a reminder of the race against time. As he’s calling the number, the sound of the water suddenly turns off, startling both us and Georges. When he gets back to the kitchen, the conversation is based on the tap – Anne scolds Georges for leaving it running, the only thing she knows about the last several minutes. One effect has had four different meanings/uses in a couple of minutes of screen time.
SOMETHING IN THE AIR (Olivier Assayas, France, 5)
I suppose it helps to have as an entree into this film that you were part of The 60s Generation and/or think student radicalism and occupying stuff is awesome, man (this writer was cheering on the Paris cops in the opening scene, so … no). But even if you do, there is no excuse for this film’s dramatic shortcomings. If Assayas had deliberately tried to make a film that shows by negative example the awesomeness of CARLOS – and besides auteurial commonalities, the two films share some period, milieu and structural similarities – he couldn’t have done a heck of a lot better than SOMETHING IN THE AIR.
The first thing that’s missing from SOMETHING that CARLOS had in spades was a great crime/terrorism/“activism” set-piece that got its hooks into you and showed what this character was capable of and why he mattered. The OPEC raid might have been an impossible standard but even Carlos’s early attacks had more of an element of “build” to them, and the sheer number compensated. Here, we just get a demonstration The Pigs break up, followed by a graffiti attack and a Molotov-cocktail/flour-ing. There’s exhilarating flow in the first and some high stakes in the last, but not much else. The second thing missing is a dominating, charismatic central performance, one that structures and unites and pulls through an episodic AndThen-ist narrative. Edgar Ramirez would have won the Skandies best actor any year except Jesse Eisenberg’s SOCIAL NETWORK sweep; Clement Metayer is at best adequate as the Assayas proxy who’s the closest thing to a protagonist this movie has (at worst he’s downright boring).
Without set pieces or a strong lead character, Assayas reverts to a style I associate with films of his I dislike (DEMONLOVER, LATE AUGUST EARLY SEPTEMBER and LES DETINEES SENTIMENTALES), which have a weird, “backing-into” quality, in which Assayas seems to be trying to create a milieu or aura in which the narrative threads just happens to glance off each other and at the side of the screen. (Those were also the first three Assayas films I saw, so there’s a little part of me that doesn’t trust my memory of those films.) In SOMETHING, this bad effect is exaggerated by the fact that Assayas follows a half-dozen characters’ lives for several years in early 70s, which themselves only take up the first 20(?) minutes. As a result the film gets bogged down in repetitive Basil Exposition scenes, ticking off a “catching-up” checklist as you might do with your Christmas card.
So Assayas has failed to create characters and situations that matter, though his direction almost saves the film. Eric Gautier’s camera is so fluid you practically drink it in and is never not in the right place, always managing to catch the action even in a scene that is the archetype of chaos, the street riot. I especially approved of an early upward track with a slight downward pan as a woman was leaving the hero in the woods and tells him not to watch her leave – the new angle means we see her part but not whether he was looking. The repeated fire motifs brighten matters up and tie together some of this sprawling material. And I also heartily approve of “60s was a failure” / “radicalism was/is just a means to the real goal of scoring chicks” / “radicalism gets commodified” as themes. But in a better film.
RUST AND BONE (Jacques Audiard, France, 5)
I probably would’ve given this a 4 had I not then immediately seen the film I did – persuading me there are worse things in the world than an undisciplined, nonsensical script filled with superb actors and a director who at least knows what he’s doing. Audiard even sometimes manages an arresting image, such as the hazy-minded killer-whale attack that deprives a Sea World girl of her legs. And Skandies FYC: killer-whale reunion. Marion Cotillard gets the big Oscar-bait “where’s the rest of me?” scene (and she does well by it). But Matthias Schoenaerts is even better as her sorta-lover Ali, in a role that requires him to be a lovable brute who never asks us to like him and frankly does some despicable things. I haven’t liked either of the two films I’ve seen him in (BULLHEAD being the other), but he could be a great star.
But at the end of the day, RUST AND BONE is still basically a Jean Claude Van Damme movie – LIONHEART to be specific – in which a bulgin’ Belgian responds to a medical issue by making money in illegal bare-knuckle fights. As for the legless Cotillard, RUST compares unfavorably to DIVING BELL AND BUTTERFLY, in terms of putting you inside a handicapped person’s head … here, it feels rushed and pat, like just a minor speed bump or one of the broken noses or cuts Schoenaerts takes in his fights, before she becomes the collector of illegal bets at an illegal activity (handicapped women are SO well suited for that role, let me tellz ya). And no way, no how am I buying that any man has ever first bedded a woman, much less one he once offended by assuming she was a whore, with the line “so, you wanna fuck?” (If this actually works on you … you have my combox for your contact info.) Other unmotivated or unbelievable actions abound – why would Stephanie respond to losing her legs by calling Ali, who is barely more than a stranger?; and why did Ali’s sister and brother-in-law … change their tune … so quickly near the end? Ali’s fight career (from a French Kimbo Slice to a world title fight) and Stephanie’s recovery both progress far too quickly for the amount of change we see in Ali’s growing boy. And the subplots of Ali’s son and Ali’s day job, which involves installing spy cameras, have been too thin to carry the emotional weight Audiard seems to want to give them near the end. It’s well-done French nonsense, in the limited sense that montages set to Katy Perry music and people doing The Wave is “French.” But still nonsense.
THE GREAT KILAPY (Zeze Gamboa, Angola, 1)
One of the most inexplicable choices for a major film festival I have ever seen. I’ve zero-zapped Toronto films like GERRY or MARTYRS before, but I can at least get why they were programmed. THE GREAT KILAPY may be the most uninspired film, at once utterly incompetent while maintaining a certain veneer of competence, that I think I’ve ever seen here. Besides making RUST AND BONE look good, I’m really considering whether I was too harsh on TABU, with which KILAPY shares a structural similarity – a first half set in Portugal, a second in Portuguese colonial Africa (though here the protagonist is a black member of the local upper crust rather than a Portuguese woman). Unless there was some African quota number to be reached, I can’t even imagine what could possess a professional programmer to think KILAPY was worthy.
To start with, the film is neither thrilling nor funny (#fact … certainly nobody in the audience laughed or gasped much). It’s a measure of KILAPY’s incompetence at basic dramaturgy, scene-building, pacing and tonal cues that I’m not certain whether the film was trying to be a comedy, a thriller, both or neither. KILAPY’s basic premise implies some combination of those elements – Joaozinho, the son of a well-connected Angolan, lives a wastrel life in 1960s Lisbon but falls in with independence activists and leftist radicals, while really only caring about money and sex. When sent back to Angola he gets a position in a bank, which he starts bilking to fund an MPLA activist friend and his own taste for Mercedes roadsters. You can see all the ways this basic skeleton might work – as a cynical demythologization, as a caper comedy, as a crime procedural, as a political awakening. But it just … happens. And lies there, with nothing even to indicate the film-makers even realize that they don’t know what they’re doing. There is exactly one scene that threatens to be good – Joaozinho’s father listening to an MPLA radio broadcast while his son enters the house. The rest is a whole lot of “AndThen-ing.”
Nor is KILAPY incompetent in an entertaining or crude way a la Ed Wood. Every scene is perfectly evenly lit, not a shadow or blemish or hint of grain in sight (except for stock footage “establishing” 1969 Luanda so mismatched it’s almost … almost … parodic). It so clean-scrubbed and plastic and false it looks like interminable footage of toothpaste commercials or fourth-rate telenovelas. KILPAY is for some reason narrated by a middle-aged white man who was witness to the very end of events (not that he gets involved in some key way … oh no) to a young black woman in the present day. Why he’s doing this, whether he succeeds, why it matters … dammit, I’ve already spent too much time on a film that nobody (other than the Portuguese, Brazilian, Mozambican and Angolan bureaucrats who funded it) is ever gonna see.
THE PERVERTS GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY (Sophie Fiennes, Britain, 7)
I could largely repeat what I wrote a few years ago about Fiennes and Slavoj Zizek’s THE PERVERTS GUIDE TO CINEMA a few years ago at Toronto (https://vjmorton.wordpress.com/2006/09/09/toronto-day-1-capsules/), only more so. IDEOLOGY repeats the formula, only more so – it’s 60 percent brilliant, 20 percent idiotic and 20 percent wtff? But as film, it’s compulsively and thrillingly watchable. Zizek himself has so much charisma and so non-pedantic, he’s such an astute film critic, and the film is such an editing and effects virtuoso act (e.g. you see Zizek liking on the TAXI DRIVER set, seen from overhead like Travis while wearing the same costume). In addition, IDEOLOGY is film sociocriticism of the highest order and Zizek is so blessedly free of the smelly orthodoxies of this benighted era that even its intellectual failures are (1) of the sort you feel privileged to say “but wait … that’s nucking futs!!!” and (2) inherent in the ideas to which Zizek has committed himself (primarily, post-communist leftism and Lacan psychoanalysis).
IDEOLOGY is also so thoroughly up my alley in terms of the intellectual fields through which Zizek is running (whatever the precise pattern he’s running). Zizek does a wonderful read on BRIEF ENCOUNTER, which happens to be the only film I ever gave to my shrink and insist that he watch, and how the Big Other is constructed. All-encompassing threats like the shark in JAWS are popular precisely because they can be filled with whatever the viewer wants (one thing I constantly keep in mind when reading film criticism). In this brutally truthful film, Zizek sees ideology everywhere, understands the importance of appearance, had me rolling in the aisles at his drinking a Starbucks, thrilled me with his (agreement with my) reads on the “Officer Krupke” number from WEST SIDE STORY, the Noble Lie in THE DARK KNIGHT and military discipline in FULL METAL JACKET, and he gives prime of place to subjectivity over “objective” material conditions (“how do we subjectivize our objective circumstances” in Zizek’s words, is, if it’s a meaningful question at all, the decisive refutation of classic Marx, though Zizek doesn’t act as if he realizes that).
And that last puts the finger on why I found IDEOLOGY almost as maddening as exhilarating (besides his carelessness with details. The journalist in me could pick all day at statements like “TAXI DRIVER is an ‘unacknowledged’ SEARCHERS remake”; “Dostoevsky never said ‘if there is no God all is permitted’,” and “the system of apartheid” in Rhodesia). But more importantly Zizek starts from commitments he cannot question within his own subjectivity and so as a result keeps painting himself into corners and a welter of contradictions. I could write for days on that, so let me just give one example. He argues, using images from THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST that Christianity is atheistic. Because, he claims, Christianity denies the Jewish God by answering the Job question, the unanswerability of which can ground God as the Big Other. But this Big Other “dies on the Cross” and now God guarantees meaning in the universe through His own act of sacrificial love. Given Lacanian psychology as a master discourse, against which religious claims are measured (as Zizek does), that does follow. But the nuttiness of “Christianity is atheistic” or “the only way to become an atheist is to go through Christianity” (that’s a different argument, BTW) doesn’t deter Zizek, and the obvious rejoinder – that love might itself provide a different, superior grounding for God; that Deus Caritas Est, as some recent book has claimed – is an idea that, on the basis of this film, has never occurred to Zizek. Of course, since he later says “we cannot know God’s will because God does not exist,” he’s not even careful with his own contradictions. But well, that’s Zizek. And this film.
FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, USA, 7)
Just christen me “The Grouch of TIFF 12,” since everybody I know seems to like this film even more than I do. And don’t get me wrong, give me a half-way developed ending and that grade goes up at least one and possibly two points. Which is a shame because until then, this may be Baumbach’s best film and all thanks and praise must go to, and glory be unto the name of, Greta Gerwig, who could become the Chris Eigemann of the 10s, dividing time between being Whit Stillman’s muse and Noah Baumbach’s (and rejuvenating their careers one hopes).
FRANCES is a tragicomic tale of brightly-dialogued and hyper-self-aware downward mobility, with one’s life measured out, not with coffee spoons, but with roommates and “prospect” jobs and apartment moves. (As someone who’s held basically the same job for 13 years, lived in the same place for 10 and been by myself for 20 … this is a world profoundly alien to me.) Gerwig plays a Brooklyn ballet apprentice (so I must ask: a dancer and … no sambola. Why, Greta … why???!!?) whose career hopes and ability to pay her share of the rent are based on becoming an official understudy, getting extra performances for Christmas season and general hopes to choreograph her own show. Her downward spiral, as she gets gradually reduced to being a summer RA at her alma mater, constitutes the main trajectory. The dialog and positioning among hypercompetitive people draws passive-aggressive blood as things are said with half an eye on their truth and half on their appearance. (Frances’ trip to Paris is what a Haneke comedy would look like.) This is a society as snobbish and appearance-obsessed as Balzac’s Paris or Wharton’s New York, both comparisons that these characters would blanche at because they’re so much beyond All That and have the degrees to prove it. The only constant in Frances’ life is her friendship with Sophie, which she repeatedly sabotages and re-establishes. And if I’m made FRANCES HA sound grim and self-serious … mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Like Balzac or Wharton, it’s tremendously funny account of status anxiety among the snobs.
But that ending … to everybody fawning over this film who doesn’t have an equally high grade for YOUR SISTER’S SISTER (and you know who you are): How is the montage that substitutes for a third act in the Shelton film any less lazy than the montage that Baumbach deploys here? After 82 minutes of Frances being her own worst enemy, of throwing away opportunities (and wasting thousands(?) of bucks in the Paris trip, e.g.) in the name of pride and appearance and self-conception, all of which I adore per se … how is the last 4 minutes possible? Frances turns from a hipster fuck-up to a reasonably effectual person on the turn of a dime. And it’s not anything that actually happens in that 81st minute – nothing happened there that hadn’t happened before. In addition, it’s not as if unmotivated and unconvincing denouements were a problem I haven’t been having with Baumbach’s last couple of films (which way MARGOT AT THE WEDDING and GREENBERG flip in terms of a character “taking a trip” is pure chance). To cite a journalistic aphorism – one is an anecdote, two is coincidence, three is a trend.
SANS SOLEIL (Chris Marker, France, 1982, 9)
Despite the grade, this heady essay film isn’t perfect — it seems to be some sort of rule that every French leftist intellectual’s stream-of-consciousness has to contain at least three monumentally stupid pseudo-profundities, a quota Marker manages to meet (did you know the American “occupation” introduced puritanical sexphobia into Japan? I sure didn’t.)
But at some point, I quit caring. My jaw was on the floor more often than an overmatched fighter’s, as mind-boggling image piled upon Soviet-worthy montage and as expressionist sound mix competed for attention with technologically-altered footage that isn’t mere wankery. I have the word “wow” written out to the side about a half-dozen times – to scenes of faceless shadows passing bricks to one another without looking, Narita airport protesters turned into abstract shapes by “The Zone,” an endless single take of ticketing at Tokyo subway, people sleeping on train intercut to J-horror shots and then a woman waking up, the whack-a-”mole” game, the giraffe slaughter (not for the squeamish) matched to music that sounded like an electronic version of closing music from UGETSU, and a silly aphorism about Japanese TV watching you that gets illustrated by a progressively faster-rotating montage of faces and eyes almost making this absurd thought seem palatable.
Speaking of Soviet-worthy … Marker is a Commie, but even if you ignore all the filmic gorgeosity, this didn’t really bother me either, because he’s not blind to the failures of left-wing causes. He returns to the demonstrators having the same fight over an airport as they did 10 years ago “only now the airport is there.” He admires the post-60s generation’s spirit but not their utopianism. I also would cite this film’s material on the former Portuguese Guinea as a classic case of a Marxist losing his faith, or at least losing the optimism and confidence that, in its classic form, is intrinsic to Marxism. Not only does Marker underline the “what do we do now” problem all anti-colonial revolutionaries faced, but his (aestheticized) footage of a guerrilla attack removes all the cheap Che romanticism and he frankly acknowledges the bloody history of Guinea Bissau’s independence. In order to “keep the faith” as it were, Marker has to retreat to aphorisms like “history progresses by forgetting” and finally that history has only one permanent ally, “the Horror” (Indeed, I would argue from exactly those premises that there are therefore no such things as “progress” or “history,” but I digress.)
I have it in my head that I recently read about SANS SOLEIL being dismissed as “Chris Marker’s vacation footage,” which … I guess it is, in a sense (some of it is just as clearly found footage), but with editing and voiceover like this, it’s anything but unshaped. It’s also incredibly funny at times – three words: talking Kennedy mannequin. Also Japan developing “a cheaper, more efficient form of Catholicism.” Marker turns it all into a meditation on death, on cultures’ (Japan’s most of all) relationship to it, and on the ways the future relates to the past and vice versa. So naturally, one of the most breath-taking sequences concerns Marker’s love for VERTIGO and his tour of San Francisco. And in a fortuitous coincidence, because Hitch was withholding VERTIGO’s rights, Marker had to use still photographs to illustrate his points about memory and loss. Sound familiar?
TABU (Miguel Gomes, Portugal, 4)
Anchovies are wonderful. Chocolate sauce is wonderful. This wheat beer I’m having right now is wonderful. Anchovies smothered in chocolate sauce and beer is not wonderful. In precisely that sense, TABU is not wonderful. TABU’s ingredients can be wonderful on their own, or on a pizza or over ice cream or with chicken wings. There are good reasons why films mixing certain things is taboo (sorry) and TABU illustrates some of them.
After a folkloric overture, we get one tonal mistake after another. The first part of TABU, “Paradise Lost” is a semi-absurdist comedy largely about three women – an elderly Portuguese woman Aurora, her black maid whom she suspects of putting curses on her, and her younger best friend who wonders about a missing daughter and whom the old woman asks to track down a man’s name, Gian Luca. The problem here is simply that the material is only theoretically funny, though if David Lynch’s deadpan ellipses and indulgences in weird bizarrerie crack you up, feel free to ignore me.
The second half, “Paradise,” is more successful than the first on its own, but it’s both a tonal misfit with the first and unsuccessful on its own terms because of what I’ll call “the gimmick.” Set in Portuguese colonial Africa (likely Mozambique but it’s not made explicit), the story follows a younger Aurora and her romantic involvements. But The Gimmick here is that there is no diegetic dialogue, the film instead featuring only shared voice-over narration and even letters between illicit lovers. The film is also in black-and-white, with the back half being in a grainier format; so it does look nice. And there is a Portuguese cover of “Be My Baby” that I will be trying to hunt down – TABU has its merits, no doubt.
The problem is that the back half is all intended to be hyper-romantic and swoonworthy (I mentioned THE ENGLISH PATIENT afterward to Kenji Fujishima and he said Gomes had cited OUT OF AFRICA in the Q-and-A, which I fled), but it is not, primarily because The Gimmick gets in the way. Depriving people of dialog turns them into abstractions and prevents any real emotional involvement. And while I can get intellectually that the gimmick is more like “memory,” it’s too distancing to move someone other than the actual rememberer. Similarly, the ending is clearly intended to emotionally slay you, and if I’d given a crap about anything that had preceded it, I may very well be counting myself among the slain. (In case it’s not clear, unlike with many bad films, I really can see how some people can [wrongly] think this film great.) As it is, I’m quite firmly alive and unslain.
After persistent heckling for one of the two cinephile Dan Owens I know, here is my annual “What I am seeing at Toronto this year” post. Though I regret to inform Alex Fung that his annually awaited “Canadian bilingualism, c’est le suck” rant, which he says marks the start of TIFF, is still to come. This is being posted using my work laptop Mac in Cincinnati airport (yeah … Washington to Toronto via Cincinnati … cheapness trumps geography and geometry) while I am traveling on a *US* airline (Delta) rather than that prisoner of sensitivities to frogdom [Victor looks up how you say “Air Canada” in French … oh … wow] Air Canada. So not yet, Alex … coming soon.
Anyhoo … as always, this schedule is subject to change depending on buzz. There is also one time, the first Saturday morning, where I know I’ll have to sacrifice at least one of a cluster of three films, and buzz will determine what I do (though given commercial release patterns, I’m likeliest to skip ARGO). I also quickly reconciled myself to not seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER — the screening I wanted to go to was sold out, and it will have a week-long run in 70mm in Washington, so I didn’t try too hard to juggle things around. The absence of the new Leos Carax and Alain Resnais films — THAT I haven’t quite gotten over yet.
Thu 6 Sept.
Noon SANS SOLEIL (Chris Marker, France, 1982) Jackman Hall
615pm TABU (Miguel Gomes, Portugal) Lightbox 1
Fri 7 Sept.
Noon RUST AND BONE (Jacques Audiard, France) Ryerson
315pm THE GREAT KILAPY (Zeze Gamboa, Angola) Cineplex 2
600pm THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY (Sophie Fiennes / Slavoj Zizek, Britain) Isabel Bader
930pm FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, USA) Ryerson
Sat 8 Sept.
930am ME AND YOU (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy) Cineplex 2
1100am ARGO (Ben Affleck, USA) Elgin Theatre
1245pm WHAT MAISIE KNEW (Scott McGahee and David Siegel, USA) Lightbox 1
600pm AMOUR (Michael Haneke, France) Elgin Theatre
900pm SOMETHING IN THE AIR (Olivier Assayas, France) Elgin Theatre
Sun 9 Sept.
1130am LOIN DU VIETNAM (a buncha commies, Frogland, 1967) Lightbox 3
300pm ERNEST AND CELESTINE (Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar, Stéphane Aubier, Belgium) Cineplex 6
615pm THY WOMB (Brillante Mendoza, Philippines) Cineplex 9
945pm WHAT RICHARD DID (Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland) Scotiabank 2
Mon 10 Sept.
900am THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous, Indonesia) Bloor
noon AT ANY PRICE (Ramin Bahrani, USA) Ryerson
300pm EVERYDAY (Michael Winterbottom, Britain) Cineplex 7
545pm FOXFIRE: CONFESSIONS OF A GIRL GANG (Laurent Cantet, Canada/France) Ryerson
900pm THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR (Ritwik Ghatak, India, 1960) Lightbox 4
Tue 11 Sept.
1100am BYZANTIUM (Neil Jordan, Britain) Elgin Theater
300pm NO (Pablo Larrain, Chile) Bloor
600pm MUSHROOMING (Toomas Hussar, Estonia) Cineplex 5
800pm PASSION (Brian DePalma, USA) Winter Garden Theatre
1000pm ARTHUR NEWMAN (Dante Ariola, USA) Scotiabank 1
Wed 12 Sept.
1100am GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Mike Newell, Britain) Elgin Theater
345pm IN THE HOUSE (Francois Ozon, France) Lightbox 1
645pm REALITY (Matteo Garrone, Italy) Lightbox 1
930pm BEYOND THE HILLS (Cristian Mungiu, Romania) Scotiabank 3
Thu 13 Sept.
115pm POST TENEBRAS LUX (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico) Lightbox 3
330pm CAUGHT IN THE WEB (Chen Kaige, China) Lightbox 1
600pm BARBARA (Christian Petzold, Germany) Ryerson
900pm CAMP 14: TOTAL CONTROL ZONE (Marc Wiese, Germany) Lightbox 2
Fri 14 Sept.
915am IN THE FOG (Sergei Loznitza, Russia) Lightbox 2
1130am JAYNE MANSFIELD’S CAR (Billy Bob Thornton, USA) Ryerson
415pm PIETA (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea) Scotiabank 9
630pm IN ANOTHER COUNTRY (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea) Scotiabank 1
845pm IN THE NAME OF LOVE (Luu Huynh, Vietnam) Cineplex 2
Sat 15 Sept.
900am KEY OF LIFE (Kenji Uchida, Japan) Scotiabank 11
1230pm CLANDESTINE CHILDHOOD (Benjamin Avila, Argentina) Cineplex 3
400pm BIG IN VIETNAM (Mati Diop, France) and MEKONG HOTEL (“Joe,” Thailand) Cineplex 9
545pm ROOM 237 (Rodney Ascher, USA) Cineplex 2
915pm NIGHT ACROSS THE STREET (Raul Ruiz, Chile) Lightbox 4
midnight JOHN DIES AT THE END (Don Coscarelli, USA) Ryerson
Sun 16 Sept.
1230pm THE SUICIDE SHOP (Patrice Leconte, France) Scotiabank 2
345pm ZAYTOUN (Eran Riklis, Israel) Lightbox 2
615pm DORMANT BEAUTY (Marco Bellocchio, Italy) Scotiabank 4
945pm TO THE WONDER (Terence Malick, USA) Lightbox 1
On the occasion of the death of French film-maker Chris Marker (nee Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve), I’m reposting (and slightly cleaning-up for “cold reading”) a review I wrote years ago on Super-Secret Nerd Group, on Marker’s ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF ANDREI ARSENEVICH. While Marker’s LA JETEE is his best-known film and also very much worth seeing even to people without an existential stake in the history of the French Left, I honestly prefer ONE DAY. I have the film, which was an episode of the French series “Cinema of Our Times,” among my Top 10 films for 2001, though I only saw it a couple years later, on either the Sundance or IFC channels. What makes ONE DAY poignant on this day (I may watch it again in the next few days) is that it films a dying Andrei Tarkovsky during the production of his valedictory and very-much-about-death film THE SACRIFICE. As I mention, Marker even shows Tarkovsky directing the French crew from what could well have been his death bed. Kicker: the expiring Russian was 10 years younger than Marker. May both men RIP.
ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF ANDREI ARSENEVICH (Chris Marker, France, 2001, 9)
Or if you want film criticism on film, you should watch Chris Marker. As in ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF ANDREI ARSENEVICH, which is the greatest use of film as film criticism I’ve ever seen that doesn’t involve remaking the same movie five times over. And THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS, which I placed #2 for 2004 (the year of this posting), and ONE DAY are just so different in their sense of what “being film criticism” is about, that any direct comparison is pretty silly.
But man was ONE DAY awesome — and don’t by any means speak as the world’s biggest Tarkovsky groupie (I’ve come around on him even more in the eight years since I wrote this). But what makes ONE DAY awesome is that it’s formally accomplished (not dazzling by any means, but done with as much imagination and style as the average fiction feature); it gives you a sense of Tarkovsky the man, and gives a good overview of his career that has serious critical insights that go beyond the highlight reel of the average artist bio.
Even though I’ve come around to the view that ANDREI RUBLEV, STALKER, THE SACRIFICE and SOLARIS are great films, (I think) J. Hoberman was right to point out that Tarkovsky’s films have to be seen twice or not at all. In fact, to be honest, if someone just getting into art films were to come to me and ask “where should I start exploring Tarkovsky,” I would actually say with Marker’s film rather than any of the Russian’s own. As for Tarkovsky’s working personality, it’s what’s you’d expect from his films — a perfectionist who leaves nothing to chance, a man who was directing literally from his deathbed, even directing Marker. But Marker himself also directly links the working method with the final product. In one scene, for the incredible final shot of THE SACRIFICE, we see Tarkovsky meticulously directing and blocking his actors. But Marker also inserts cutaways from THE SACRIFICE inside the documentary frame, showing the actors doing what Tarkovsky is telling them.
Marker links AT’s biography to Tarkovsky’s films constantly — the opening shot of his film being an early shot from MIRROR, focusing on the actress’ hairdo and how it makes her look so like Tarkovsky’s wife. He also outlines some of the major themes and obsessions — weather, paintings, mirrors. And it’s not so much that Marker does or says anything really new, but more that he illustrates it with *well chosen shots* — there’s just no substitute for this, and it’s why film criticism via film could be so promising if anyone could actually take an interest in it.
Marker also talks about the worldview of Orthodox Christianity and how it’s linked to Tarkovsky’s typical camera angles. For example, Marker (or I guess Alexandra Stewart, the English-soundtrack narrator) describes the “Pantokrator” icon, typical of Orthodoxy, but rare in the Western Church — basically it’s a painting of Jesus looking straight down from inside a church’s dome (or a God’s eye POV). And this description accompanies camera movements that glide into that position — in THE SACRIFICE, SOLARIS and ANDREI RUBLEV. And if you’ve seen the movies, you also realize the plot points make Tarkovsky’s shot not accidental or for show. Respectively, it’s the one shot of The Apocalypse, the final revelation about the planet, and a grace-full God blessing the bell-casting that the boy didn’t know.
ONE DAY also (unintentionally) gave me one reason a sense of why I was resistant to Tarkovsky for so long. (His first two, least-Tarkovskyish films — THE STEAMROLLER AND THE VIOLIN and IVAN’S CHILDHOOD — are the only two that I can unqualifiedly say I enjoyed on first viewing.) But as an unrepentant urbanite whose idea of natural beauty is green concrete, the fact that nature, and the four classical elements, has such a dominant presence in Tarkovsky’s films didn’t acclimate me to them (I once joked that the rain was the only thing that kept me awake during some of them). That’s what elevates ONE DAY about the ordinary “fan letter” artist bio (like, say IN THE MIRROR OF MAYA DEREN, as much as much as I unexpectedly liked that AS an intro to Deren for a non-avantgarde fanboy). ONE DAY is a great enough piece of criticism to give, without engaging in negative polemic, a real sense of what somebody (the me of the mid- and late-90s) *doesn’t* like about Tarkovsky. What an achievement THAT is.
Silverdocs is not only Washington’s best film festival IMHO, it’s also one of the world’s best all-documentary festivals. It gets under way tonight at the AFI Silver in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring (here is the site with link to a complete schedule) though, as usual, with a red-carpet event that I, as usual, will avoid. EVERYMAN’S JOURNEY is about a Journey tribute band whose lead singer gets a tryout to replace Steve Perry and doesn’t stop believin and holds onto feeeliiii-iiiing (sorry, Scott … I embrace #hackstamp with ooohhhhpen aaaaaaaarms).
The real action at Silverdocs gets under way tomorrow. At last year’s fest there were a lot of political-related films, ranging in POV diversity all the way from the liberal-left through the radical-left to the psychotic-left. (Seeing a lot of these films at one time, though, does give you a better sense of what the good ones are and what they do right — why INCENDIARY or BETTER THIS WORLD are miles-better films than HOT COFFEE or BLACK POWER MIXTAPE.) As for this year’s fest … well, Sonny told me not to bother when he told me there were no Russian snuff films, but I decided to ignore him.
This year, the theme seems to be art and artists, broadly defined. Without particularly trying and while deliberately avoiding what smell like local-band-fandocs, I’m still gonna be seeing about 6 or 7 such films, ranging from a portrait of one of Pee-Wee Herman’s collaborators to a tale of a painting looted by the Nazis during the war. I’ll start watching stuff consistent with work schedule and then be camped out Friday and Saturday. I’ll also see what wins the big prizes and may accordingly attend one of the post-fest “Winners” screening. Unfortunately for me, the arguably best event — a thorough retrospective of the PARADISE LOST film-makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, from BROTHER’S KEEPER to their latest on Sun Records — will be inaccessible to me because of when the films are playing. Others should definitely check it out though.
Annyhoo … here is my schedule for the week, either as encouragement or deterrent. (And yes, I couldn’t resist a pairing of THE SOURCE and LA SOURCE.)
Tuesday, 19 June
1215pm THE VIRGIN TALES (Mirjam Von Arx, Germany/Switzerland)
900pm BEWARE OF MR. BAKER (Jay Bulger, USA)
Wednesday, 20 June
1115am THE AMBASSADOR (Mads Brugger, Denmark)
Thursday, 21 June
1130am CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT (Yung Chang, Canada/China)
Friday, 22 June
1030am DETROPIA (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, USA)
115pm PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY (Ross McElwee, USA)
515pm DIANA VREELAND: THE EYE HAS TO TRAVEL (Lisa Immordino Vreeland and Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, USA)
715pm ONLY THE YOUNG (Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims, USA)
915pm DRIVERS WANTED (Joshua Weinstein, USA)
1045pm THE SOURCE (Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos, USA)
Saturday, 23 June
945am LA SOURCE (Patrick Shen, USA/Haiti)
1215pm PLANET OF SNAIL (Yi Seung-jun, South Korea)
215pm DOWNEAST (David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, USA)
530pm BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING (Neil Berkeley, USA)
745pm TIME ZERO: THE LAST YEAR OF POLAROID FILM (Grant Hamilton, USA)
1015pm TCHOUPITOULAS (Bill Ross and Turner Ross, USA)
Sunday, 24 June
1015am PORTRAIT OF WALLY (Andrew Shea, USA/Austria)
The previous post, which obviously took a while to wrote and reflect on (hence my lack of Top 10/Skandies updates), was made as my commitment to an AMADEUS blogathon, led by my bud Bilge Ebiri, who also has a post linking to all the other posts in the Blogathon. The links I reproduce here (you can also obviously go to Bilge’s site too) as reciprocation and thanks to everyone else for participating.
Peter Labuza on Milos Forman’s use of music.
Matthew Wilder on AMADEUS as an 80s film.
Glenn Kenny on the literary origins of AMADEUS.
Paul Clark on his personal history with AMADEUS and Mozart.
Zach Ralston on Salieri’s musical talent — as a critic.
Andrew Welch applies Graham Greene’s theory of film to AMADEUS.*
Tim Grierson on audience identification in AMADEUS.
* Look for that theory tomorrow (I promise) when I wrote about #9
“For by grace you are saved … not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God. Not by works, so that no man may glory. For we are His workmanship.”
— St. Paul, Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 2
When describing AMADEUS, Salieri is frequently described as an initially pious man who turns against God because He gave Salieri the gift of the love of music while giving the gift of music itself to Mozart, an impious clown. I myself used almost those exact words a couple of years ago when describing the effect seeing AMADEUS had on me in the late-80s. While it is obviously correct as a description of the general narrative trajectory, I used one word there that is significant. “Initially.” The central event is the tossing of a crucifix on the fire, and the whole back half of the film is about an explicitly-named plot against God.
Or so I thought.
When I looked at AMADEUS again a week ago for this blogathon, I had religious questions and issues in the front of my head because I had told Bilge in vague terms that I would write something about how the character of God is presented. This caused me to look more closely at the ways in which Salieri describes his piety, and to privilege mentions of religiously-fraught details. Viewed in that light, the film turned itself upside-down from how I had previously seen it. Never before had I seen how spiritually inevitable it was and how Salieri’s undoing was the result of his own vices, which he sees as virtues. AMADEUS is not the story of a pious man cruelly treated by a Tyrant-god given to cosmic jokes (though that IS how Salieri presents it). Rather, it is the story of an impiously proud man who tries to exercise Providence as if he himself were God.
The “Skandies” half of my year-end wrap-up continues with my vote in the “Undistributed” poll, which, unlike every other Skandie category, requires that your film NOT have had a commercial release. To qualify for this section, also known as the “Undies,” a film must have an Internet Movie Database year of 2009, i.e., be two years old, but never have had a Skandie-qualifying run, which is defined as playing for one week in a commercial release in New York. Effectively, this means films that played at festivals but never got picked up.
In the past two years, I saw 29 such films with 2009 IMDb dates, a shockingly high number for me — in previous years I’ve typically seen about 12 or 15 and sometimes had to abstain because there weren’t 10 I thought were worth a crap. Not this year — I actually even liked (6 grade or better) the majority of those 29 films, and there were even some 7-grade films that didn’t make the cut for the Top 10. The film at #1 I graded a 9, and the next three I graded an 8, so there are some real “keepers” here. Like other Skandie categories, you get 100 points to divvy up among your 10 films, with the sole distribution rule being mimimum of 5 points, maximum of 30.
Since I already reviewed half of my ten films, I just say a few words on them and link to my earlier review. The overall results were revealed in December and are here. The 10 films I eventually voted for, with the number of points, are after the jump.
PROJECT NIM (James Marsh, USA)
Someone comes up to you and suggests performing and funding a scientific study of raising a chimpanzee as a human being and teaching him human language. If your immediate reaction is “yeah, that sounds interesting, here’s the money,” you might find PROJECT NIM lacking. If your immediate reaction is that of a normal person and of the functional-“all” until quite recently — that is, you look to the side, make a polite excuse and slowly back away — PROJECT NIM is a brilliant, pitch-black comedy about just such a 1970s hippie-science experiment, and how some forms of animal research really are about man’s view of man, to the detriment of both man and beast.
Marsh, whose previous documentary was the Oscar-winner MAN ON WIRE, isn’t terribly interested in the science of the Project Nim experiment itself — which had to do with efforts to rebut Noam Chomsky’s theory that language properly-understood is a uniquely human attribute, hard-wired in us, absent in animals. The chimp, taken from his mother at birth and kept away from all other chimps until he was 5 years ago, was named Nim Chimpsky, a fact that is in the film and which point I “got,” but it is not explained in the film and I don’t think Chomsky is even explicitly mentioned (I was distressed some years ago to learn that there is a subject in the world on which I’m a hard-core Chomskyite). The experiment’s trajectory also seems a little telescoped — lead researcher Herbert Terrace acknowledges the experiment has failed rather suddenly, though one suspects the motivation was other.
But the experiment itself is really just a Maguffin, or the occasion for the particulars of this hilarious sick joke, which (YAY!!) comes out on DVD and Blu next week. What Marsh is interested in, and he succeeds magnificently, is an Errol Morris-like portrait of human folly, human nature and how we anthropomorphize animals, and do much else, to play out our own ideas and agendas. The first words in my notes are “Errol Morris, minus Glass score [instead] more conventional strumming.” Indeed, you could almost say NIM was the second-best Morris comedy of 2011 (hint … hint …). Marsh has dramatic, portentous title cards to divide up the tale, cuts to interview subjects in an eccentrically-lit stage, and also uses some re-creations to fill in narrative gaps where archival footage doesn’t exist (though there is plenty of such footage). The Morris-aping (sorry) does, however, get a little much in the lengthy show-offy pans that introduce characters when they give their sit-down interviews today.
The other film that went through my mind a lot watching this one was GRIZZLY MAN, also about people (or in that case, one person) who don’t respect the difference between man and animals. In one of Herzog’s many unforgettable scenes, an Alaska Native says incredulously that while his people have lived beside the grizzlies forever, Treadwell “tried to become a bear, and we know you can’t do that.” PROJECT NIM is about that same sin in its opposite form, the one preferred by our technological materialist society — man wanting to make an animal into a man (curiously, the animals themselves never initiate these projects). While there’s plenty to laugh at in the Herzog film (and I did some), it was hard to really let loose because we knew right from the start that this folly ended with the grisly (sorry) deaths of two people. In PROJECT NIM, the stakes are a little lower.
With Skandies season now upon us (Mike has begun the 20-1 countdown here), I’m going to be writing a lot about my ballot and the top films of 2011 the next three weeks. The plan (fingers crossed) is for one post a day, alternating between my Skandies ballot category-by-category and my annual Top 10 films list, which I haven’t actually revealed anywhere (though if you follow my Twitter feed or look at my screening log, you have a pretty good sense of what will turn up). I’m almost certain to take a day or two off, at least for a planned New York trip, but I will do my best to see this through by giving myself a concrete “assignment” to write every day.
With just nine Skandies categories, I needed a tenth “category” post to fill out the symmetry, so I decided on the 10 Best Old Films of 2011. With one exception, explained there, all these films were unseen by me as of Jan. 1, 2011, and all of them received my highest grade for a first-time viewing (9). Rather than rank them against each other, I’ve just decided to put them in chronological order. I’ve also made liberal use of any tweets I wrote about the films immediately upon or shortly after exiting the theater.
One thing I hope might be valuable in this list, though I also can see it being intimidating, is making concrete the fact that the cinema canon is a literally endless source of new pleasures. Even someone like myself, who was asked semi-rhetorically a few weeks ago whether there was any film he hadn’t seen, can always find more. Whether it’s discovering a new auteur, seeing every last film of a favorite director in hopes of finding one more pearl, or being surprised and reconsidering old ideas (and there are examples here of all these phenomena), there’s always something new and so cinephilia never gets old.
HUGO (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2011, 5)
If the credits were removed from this movie, you could be forgiven for thinking it was Un Film de Steven Spielberg, what with the state-of-the-art special effects, the daddy abandonment issues and the combination of Jude Law and robots. (Spielberg IS releasing a 3-D movie based on a beloved piece of kid-lit set in a retro French environment this Christmas, isn’t he?) Jokes aside, what makes the first half of HUGO so dire is that feels like a mere entry point, Scorsese going through the motions to get to what he really cares about (and if you know what the second half of the film is about, the wheel spinning becomes actively painful). Scorsese is too much of a sheer cinematic virtuoso to produce something literally without merit, but the first hour of HUGO comes pretty doggone close. Practically the first thing written in my notes is “trying so hard to be ‘magical,’ just coming across as bossy.” The next thing is “oh no … grumpy adult meets cute moppet, why O Lord.” And finally “a key hole (on a broken robot, vjm now) in the shape of a heart, WHY O LORD!!!” And there were plenty more examples of plot points and (especially) dialog that was so on-the-nose, underlined, highlighted and with arrows-pointing that all I could do was snort in disgust. In the worst bit, two kids, the titular Hugo and his adventure-seeking Girl Friday discuss his obsession with clocks and robots: “I’m sad looking at machines that don’t work … it’s like they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing” (by this point, the conversation subtext is perfectly clear) / “maybe people are like that” (vjm starts to groan) / “like Papa Georges” (vjm tosses head against back of his seat in disgust). At the very end of the film, for the really really REALLY dumb, Papa Georges credits the boy “who saw a broken machine and fixed it” (vjm throws popcorn at the screen; or would have if he’d gotten any).
There are other problems with what we might call the “human” stories surrounding Hugo, apart from minor annoyances like French signs while everyone speaks British English, even when reading aloud from a book whose French words we can see on the page. More importantly, there are just too many cinematic allusions here, so that you feel exhausted even before you actually get to the Georges Melies Film History Lecture. The magpie-written script steals from everything from THE 400 BLOWS and UNDER THE ROOFS OF PARIS to GRAND ILLUSION and THE RULES OF THE GAME; and those are just the French talkies. And it’s all in service of a “human” story that is hackneyed and uninteresting … just warmed over tropes from hundreds of better kids films, such as the Spielbergian Absent Daddy.
Sasha Baron Cohen’s bumbling French railroad inspector is potentially a fun character. But the leg calipers and war wounds wear too heavily on a role that’s basically a John Cleese imitation of Inspector Clouseau (at one of Cohen’s metronomic interrogations of Hugo, I wanted to interject “this parrot has ceased to BEEE”). And his comic broadness also works against his scenes courting a flower girl, which I think are meant to be poignant on account of being a homage to Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS or something.
So Scorsese failed to create characters and situations that matter, but what he HAS done that merits the mixed 5 grade, beyond the Melies homage, is make the first film to give me a half-second’s pause about my ideological opposition to 3D (even Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS used 3D to take full advantage of a pre-existing world, not to create a fictional one from scratch). Partly, it’s that Scorsese uses the process not for loud action but for some lovely and magical effects — the ashes from the burnt notebook, the floating of Melies’ sketches throughout his bedroom. But it’s also that he integrates it with conventional cinematic grammar and directorial stratagems, making 3D seem more like a tool than a mere gimmick. A simple focus pull within a shot acquires 10 times the force when the newly-in-focus object pops out the screen at you as well. Scorsese also uses every angle in the book, especially overheads and low-angle shots. The multiple planes and internal spaces that 3D accentuates acquire a prominence beyond “look what I can do,” becoming instead a bid to create the comprehensive space of an entire world. And while Cohen’s leering face was an obvious effect, his Doberman pinscher’s much less comic snout and teeth were thereby not.
Scorsese also picked — segue alert — a subject more ideal than you might have thought for a 3D homage. It’s not just that Melies was an inventor and a mechanical tinkerer, but also that his films, with their tableaux stagings, artificial sets and fantastical storylines profit handsomely from Scorsese’s 3D re-creations of the films and the Melies studio near the end (aquarium lobsters FTW!!). He also uses the most-iconic, if possibly apocryphal, story of early audiences’ reactions to movies and re-creates it for us, translated into 3D that even in 2011 we’re also still only semi-used-to. Though I think it was a little much to use the SAFETY LAST shot in the same movie in which the character in question had watched the Lloyd film, Scorsese does get away with a separate cheat (and then a double cheat) thanks to a line about the nature of the movies from earlier in the film.
I also noticed (and noticed nobody else noticing) how Scorsese got right something about Melies films that must have been a bear to reproduce — their color schemes. Melies hand-tinted many of his films but the resulting look was nothing like hard-edged, realistic color photography, but had the texture of castor sugar. The films thus more resembled chalk drawings in various pastels, as though objects or clothes or backgrounds were bonbons or various flavors of ice cream.
I do think, though, that Scorsese way overreached in one respect of his cinema history segment. I am a huge fan of silent films and Lord knows I’d love to see 1/10 of HUGO’s audience be sufficiently intrigued to check out Melies, some of the other silent films Scorsese referenced, and then branch out into others. So this error does not detract from God’s work. But Scorsese is simply not correct that World War I gave people so much reality that they weren’t interested in Melies’s magic any more. First of all, his studio went bankrupt in 1913, before the war, squeezed out by bigger more factory-like studios in France and abroad. Second of all, it was the war mobilization and the post-war depression that REALLY damaged European film industries (not a shifting audience). And even those non-film damaging factors merely created a vacuum that, because they left the US relatively unscathed, Hollywood was able to fill and become dominant by decade’s end and ever since. Third, the early-1910s were also a time of great strides in the cinematic art — films began telling sophisticated stories, directors like Griffith and Sjostrom began to use editing and closeups to create great performances, Italians like Pastrone began to make lengthy super-spectacles. Melies’ short magic-stage acts simply got left in the dust. And lastly, it is simply inaccurate (and hard to see how soneone familiar with 20s movies could think it IS accurate) to suggest post-WW1 audiences had no taste left for fantasy. To see this claim in a movie that also name-checks, among others, Douglas Fairbanks, is embarrassing special pleading. Don’t misunderstand me … Melies was a pioneer and his films really do stand up today as entertainments without historical affirmative action beyond the unavoidable. But he was a pioneer who got left behind by the state of the art and his poor business skills. It’s happened many times since.
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (Simon Curtis, Britain, 2011, 6)
About halfway into MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, I was getting ready to dismiss it by saying “Elton John did this much in 1/30th of the time and for a helluva lot less money.” But then we got some private scenes between Monroe and Colin Clark, a 3rd assistant director who wormed his way (not terribly convincingly) onto the set of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, the film Monroe is shooting in Britain with Laurence Olivier. In those scenes we get something more than the latest “imitate an icon and win an Oscar” beg and get a glimpse of the private side of this most-public of women.
Michelle Williams isn’t exactly doing an imitation — in closeup, her face isn’t really right and in longshot, her figure isn’t. But she does manage to exude Monroe’s spirit, or at least the spirit she projected to the world — a deeply insecure little-girl-lost who only really comes alive and can act naturally by Being Sexy for the gaze of others. And whose great tragedy (and this comes out during those intimate scenes) is that she knows this about herself and has resigned herself to this fate. “As soon as they realize I’m not her, they run,” she says. Monroe’s persona, while not wholly “calculated” in the sense that a timed bank robbery is, was still somewhat “calculated” in the sense it was who she was (or at least became). A day date with Colin is the only real spontaneity she gets, interacting with a worshipful but manageable public — the staff at Windsor Castle and the boys at Eton — and tossing off one-liners that indicate her mind was just fine. But even in those moments, she was “Marilyn,” not, as Elton John would put it, Norma Jean. Colin offers her (unrealistically, but nevertheless) a normal life with him and leaving Hollywood behind, but she just smiled and turned away. “You can be happy / I am happy / Of course you’re happy, you’re the biggest star in the world.” But when her acting coach tells her “you’ve got your whole life ahead of you” in the “this too shall pass” reassurance mode, Williams plays the moment as terrifying.
What will get lost, I fear, in the adulation Williams is (deservedly) receiving is Kenneth Branagh’s terrific performance as Olivier, against whom he was already being measured back in the 80s. It too is not an imitation (or if it is, I couldn’t tell since the uncostumed Olivier of that period is not terribly well-known to me), but Branagh’s gesture-y fussiness blends well with a peculiarly British mixture of face-to-face polite impatience and behind-closed-doors explosiveness we know is wrong. I couldn’t stop laughing at the line that getting Monroe to act is “like teaching Urdu to a badger” (which, yes, is a writer’s very-written line but it has to be delivered in the right register to work). Branagh also plays Olivier as the wisest man in the room who still isn’t as wise as he thinks. He also nails the way Olivier felt just as inadequate around Monroe as she did around him because she had gifts he didn’t have and — more importantly — couldn’t acquire, just stand in awe of in the screening room.
Even with all that, MY WEEK never exactly transcends the “fan mash-note” genre. There are some narrative clumsiness (Was she pregnant? Did I miss some earlier exposition?) and the subplot of the costume-girl Colin is also wooing gets as much the short shrift as the character herself does. And as Colin, Eddie Redmayne is at best adequate, which is not adequate. There’s also the subject matter, which kinds left me wondering “what’s the big deal.” Olivier and Monroe were obviously a badly mismatched pair on screen (never mind on set, though that too), and the film they were making couldn’t have been more trivial. MY WEEK practically comes out and says Olivier made that film because he wanted to seduce Monroe. It also sideways acknowledges the unsuccess of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL by putting more weight in the closing title cards of Monroe’s and Olivier’s next projects — their iconic roles in SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE ENTERTAINER (both stage and screen), though Olivier basically never directed another film. Indeed, you can read this film in a Camille Paglia-ish way about Marilyn as a femme-fatale destroyer — using her sexual power to dominate the world around her and leave the men who want her frustrated in her wake.
I was reminded in an odd way of two other films currently in theaters — Lars Von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA and Steve McQueen’s SHAME — the first by being about a depressive who can only function in an environment of utter collapse, a collapse she helps bring about; the second in being about a sex addict. Monroe uses sex differently from Brandon in SHAME. It would be more accurate to say she’s addicted to her sex appeal (and to her insecurities, ultimately) and what being a sex object gets for her in terms of power over men than she is to the sex act itself (or to its appeal to Brandon — that notch on the belt at the end of the day). MY WEEK intimated that Monroe never slept with Colin; certainly she’s not shown going farther than a kiss. But Monroe and Brandon are caught in the same yo-yo of acting out and regretting it.
ERUPTION (Liviu Ciulei, Romania, 1957) 5
DANUBE WAVES (Liviu Ciulei, Romania, 1959) 7
FOREST OF THE HANGED (Liviu Ciulei, Romania, 1965) 7
When you go into a series of movies with that country and those dates, you just have to accept certain things, primarily that you’re gonna see Communist propaganda, to a greater or lesser degree, and the style of Socialist Realism, in all its blunt overtness. Within these historical and systemic constraints, as you can infer from the grades, Liviu Ciulei managed to make some enjoyable films in different registers. He made only four films as a director, though he apparently had a greater reputation in Romania as an actor and stage director. But if he truly was the best Romanian director prior to the early/mid-00s flowering, as was the subtext to the series I saw at the weekend when I wasn’t being corrupted by drunks like Simon Abrams and Matt Zoller Seitz, well … you can infer something else from the grades. Both about Romanian Communist-era cinema, and, maybe the structurally equivalent systems.
After being subjected the catastrophe of the anti-oil propaganda film THE MUPPETS, it was refreshing to see the building of an oil rig turned into a glorious project of profitable construction. ERUPTION is dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Romanian Oil Industry in one of those kitschy title cards that accompany totalitarian-regime propaganda, and the first shot actually shows real promise. A full symphony plays a propulsive but menacing-sounding score that, like a more classically-arranged version of some of Jonny Greenwood’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD riffs, simultaneously both plays against and plays up the fetishizing images of the oil rigs. It also counterpoints both the bubbling crude (Romanian Rum) that oozes off the screen during the titles and the Hot Chick Student from Bucharest whose arrival at the oil field for work experience provides the narrative entree. The problem is that Ciulei and/or his script have no sense of cinematic rhythm whatsoever, especially in the first half. The pacing of (and within) sequences is eccentric and the film just lurches from scene to scene without ever really “building.” Here’s a bunch of weakly-drawn people at a barren oil field, they have some semi-conflicts and some things happen. He tries to create a community without the ability of Altman at his best to make it flow.
Still, this very simplicity yields, almost by the very way of its Griffith-like crudeness, some moments of archetypal elemental power — The Dark-Haired Tramp racing up the oil well in shame over the (very clumsy) exposure of her past while The Worker climbs up after her. And the last part of ERUPTION, after they strike oil and the well blows and has to be capped, goes in to full Socialist Realist Propaganda mode with montages of the working class being mobilized racing against time, as the filth-caked rig men heroically battle the gushing oil, an old night caretaker tries to bust down a locked door, and a phone operator tries to get out the word (more Griffith) — and the film becomes almost a kitschy hoot. My favorite bit was when a worker is wounded but taking him away on a stretcher will require men needed to cap the gusher. One man intones solemnly “this is the party speaking. We have no right to let him die, not even for 1,000 wells.” It’s so overt and a historical lie, that you can’t even laugh at it. Fortunately the wounded guy hides (freeing the labor) and recovers (how?) by sequence end. I was sniggering — all those 30s kulaks were … just … hiding. But as a film, ERUPTION’s recovery is as if the Commie Propaganda genre requirements finally straightened things out.
Which provides a nice segue to DANUBE WAVES, which is almost a perfect example of Manny Farber’s “Termite Art” and was the best and most fully realized of the three Ciulei’s films I saw. It’s a straight-up genre piece, telling a single small story about an operation as part of a broader war — in this case, World War II in 1944, after Romania had entered on Nazi Germany’s side but with the tide having turned and the advancing Soviets over the horizon. It’s three strongly-drawn characters on a single journey — a Romanian soldier on his honeymoon (Ciulei himself), his bride (Irina Petrescu, who presented the film in person), and a Communist partisan posing as criminal labor to get on the soldier’s boat as he sails it up the Danube on an ammo-delivery mission. The bride is attracted to the “criminal” and figures out the truth, bringing elements of POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE or DOUBLE INDEMNITY. You could imagine Raoul Walsh or Henry Hathaway or maybe even Howard Hawks doing the Hollywood remake of DANUBE WAVES in 1962 or 1963.
As it is, the Romanian DANUBE easily meets Hawks’ famous “three good scenes, no bad scenes” definition — in spoiler-free terms, the floating mine (which is prepared for in the pre-credits sequence of the risks of minesweeping); the second German soldier, who “has no objections”; the walk to the wedding-night suite. Ciulei’s direction gets taut and brutal here and sometimes even dry and understated. The performances in the three lead roles avoid declamation while filling the genre types — Lazar Vrabie’s partisan is heroic without being Heroic; Ciulei is cynical without being Cynical, and Petrescu is sexy and torn without etc. … There is a late moment that I’ll just call the DOUBLE INDEMNITY shot and I said to myself “film over” … but it isn’t and the last five minutes are Regime-Mandated Filler involving an overt battle followed by the victory of The Romanian People and Their Heroic Soviet Liberators (one person at the screening, not myself amazingly, laughed at the line “Romania will soon be free”). It’s not my repulsion for Communism that is the issue exactly; I don’t care for speechifying about Truth, Justice and The American Way in Hollywood’s “films among the grunts” either. It’s that it detracts from the bleak end of the conflict between the three characters on the boat (and a boy they pick up along the way). And is poorly done to boot. As much as I liked this film, Ciulei cannot stage a battle scene — an earlier scene’s insertion of stock footage of Soviet bombers is iconically clumsy.
In another pattern not unfamiliar to Western capitalist cinema, Ciulei’s next film was a bid for “White Elephant Art,” in the form of a 160-minute prestigious literary adaptation about a big subject (World War I intrigue in the Austro-Hungarian Army, centering on an ethnic Romanian soldier 1). And while it’s a useful term of critical description, as my grade for FOREST OF THE HANGED implies, I don’t at all share Farber’s distaste for White Elephant Art. In the particular case of HANGED, the novelistic source gives the film both sweep and scope, and opportunities (which Ciulei takes) for great set pieces, while setting up traps (which he also takes) of episodicness and rambling. Without (anachronistic in 1916) communist cheerleading, the best parts here hold up better in 2011 than comparable sequences in DANUBE and ERUPTION while the weaknesses become less excusable. Basically everything after the decision to desert is just marking time and the hero becomes way too much of an existentialist Gandhi-type for my taste. There’s a whole subplot involving an authentic romance with a Pure Peasant Girl that feels completely tacked on (though it does … EVENTUALLY … lead to the film’s triumphant end). The last half-hour of the film feels like pages 900-1,000 of one of those lengthy Russian novels, where you appreciate the journey but your eyes are starting to glaze over and you can’t avoid thinking, “yes, Leo, you ARE Tolstoy, but you still only get one chance to wrap things up.”
But, like with Tolstoy, there’s too much here to cavil too much. The first thing we see is a mass of soldiers marching ahead of the camera, until a single soldier gets pulled out by looking back (at us, implictly) as Ciulei’s shock cuts and dissonant orchestra music intersperse that image with the credits — think the opening credits of PERSONA, though Ciulei doesn’t Bergman far down that road. The lengthy opening scene is of a deserter’s execution and even though there’s not the slightest narrative suspense and Ciulei eschews obvious “goosings,” it works kinda like how I said Satyajit Ray’s shooting of THE MUSIC ROOM did — the extra time makes things felt. An image of some characters coming across a passle of maybe 12-15 corpses hanging from trees made me wonder if a certain Greek Communist saw FOREST and was taking notes. There is a protracted Austro-Hungarian attack on a Romanian searchlight that is not only gripping but manages to be a political-consciousness metaphor that is also an actual military attack (at its best, FOREST suggests PATHS OF GLORY). Again revealing its novelistic roots, character touches abound, like the intellectual who stores an aristocratic-style carriage, like the way people jockey for assignments (from cowardice and bravado, or both at the same time), like the stolen glance of the hero’s mother done in a shock montage with stabbing music and blown-out lighting. FOREST also walks off with a lengthy, deafeningly-silent meal that had me wondering whether Horatiu Malaele had whole levels of in-joke and Romanian-cinema satire in SILENT WEDDING that went completely over my head, even though I still think that sequence is one of the funniest ever made. You also get the benefit of learning that the Romanian word for “Fire!!!” (the command form of the verb, not the noun) is “Fooock!!!”
1 At the time, there was a country called “Romania,” but it was only about half the size of the country by that name now. Transylvania, though largely populated by ethnic Romanians, had long been ruled by Hungary, and as a result there were ethnic Romanians on both sides of the war. Here’s a time-changing map of the country’s boundaries.
MORGEN (Marian Crisan, Romania, 2011, 4)
… “In Portul” for the record, though even if Kaurismaki never existed, MORGEN would still feel like a tedious redundancy. Once you know this movie’s premise — everything is laid out for you and you see absolutely nothing that even threatens to deviate from the premise’s two genres, Grumpy Adult Bonds With Cute Moppet and Rich Westerner Experiences Moral Growth by Helping Smuggle a Poor Immigrant. The combination of these two genres probably convinced the Romanian Academy that submitting MORGEN would give their country its best chance at its first ever Foreign Film Oscar nomination (if so … they’d be correct, sad to say).
There IS a (pseudo-)twist in that the Cute Moppet is an adult, though Yilmaz Yacin is considerably smaller than Romanian Andras Hathazi and plays the Turkish immigrant as a frightened little boy. The fact that the Turk speaks no Romanian and the Romanian no Turkish means that there can be no real relationship between humans here. The film doesn’t subtitle the refugee’s words, so unless the repeated use of “Alleman” rings bells for you, you don’t have any idea what he’s pleading about. Admittedly, neither does the Romanian, but after a certain point that theoretically justifiable representation of non-communication simply becomes non-communication itself and blocks anything else from developing, particularly of the “humanistic” variety MORGEN seems to want.
A story between two non-communicative mutes (which is what we de facto have) can work as an outright farce or deadpan black comedy, like Kaurismaki at his best. And there are moments and scenes when Crisan hints in that direction and MORGEN temporarily spasms into life. The Turk gets across the border into Hungary as part of a soccer-supporters bus (police aren’t gonna check every cheering, drunken lout) but, rather than escape, comes back to the game and starts cheering the Romanian club in its “Ultras” section as things degenerate on the field and in the stands. Another ruse involves getting on a work team that will be painting the stripes on a border-spanning road. The first scene, at the Hungary-Romania border, also promises a pitch-black East European Bureaucracy Farce (the dawn scene is brilliantly lit so the border guards are faceless). But that kind of irreverence would get in the way of Author’s Message Homilies about “what’s he done to you,” on how “this is the EU now, there are no borders” and in giving the sadsack hero a bitch of a wife so she can say things only a bitch would say, like “he could be a terrorist, he could be carrying a disease, don’t you watch TV?” And then … what happens at the end … trying to be vague … if it was that easy, what was all the earlier complicated stuff about.
What kind of insane nut goes to New York for two days to see a bunch of Romanian movies he’s never seen, including three from a dead Communist-era director whom he’d never previously heard of? If you don’t know the answer to that, you haven’t been reading this sight much. Before I head out for the train, here is my schedule. Anyone who’ll be at the Walter Reade and wants to meet up, during or after, is welcome to let me know and I’ll be on Twitter.
|Walter Reade Theater||Fri 12/2/2011 1:30 PM||Morgen||Main||
|Walter Reade Theater||Fri 12/2/2011 3:45 PM||Eruption/Eruptia||Main||
|Walter Reade Theater||Fri 12/2/2011 6:00 PM||Forest of the Hanged||Main||
|Walter Reade Theater||Fri 12/2/2011 9:00 PM||The Danube Waves||Main||
|Walter Reade Theater||Sat 12/3/2011 7:30 PM||Principles of Life/Principii de viațã||Main||
|Walter Reade Theater||Sat 12/3/2011 10:00 PM||Loverboy||Main||
SMALL FRY (Angus McClane, USA, 2011, 7)
THE MUPPETS (James Bobin, USA, 2011, 8)
I saw a movie this week in which a character enters a years-unused performance arena caked with dust and cobwebs but decides to use it again for one last show … cut to a montage of people sprucing the place up. I also saw THE MUPPETS.
I saw a movie this week in which a children’s-genre character wants to become one of pre-existing group of similar characters. I also saw THE MUPPETS.
The former is a reference to THE MUSIC ROOM — and I couldn’t help chuckle at the same scene in a musical fantasy like THE MUPPETS immediately after that powerful tragic drama. Or was I laughing at how that powerful tragic drama used a trope long favored in musical fantasies — “hey kids, let’s fix up the old place and put on a show!!”?
The latter is a reference to SMALL FRY, the Pixar “Toy Story”-series short that played before THE MUPPETS. A mini-Buzz fast-food toy escapes from the restaurant, switches himself with the “real” Buzz and joins the rest of the gang. Woody et al aren’t buying that he’s Buzz — the size and voice make the ruse so absurd it’s funny, like a kid pretending to be his dad and expecting mom to buy it. Meanwhile, in the comic heart of the film, Buzz is trapped in a support group for discarded toys (all from previous fast-food promotions of ‘fictional’ movies with probably real-life analogs). These absurd little trinkets sit in a circle and say things like “even though I’ve been thrown away, I am not garbage,” while Buzz is rolling his eyes and saying he hasn’t been thrown away (“you’re in denial”). It doesn’t tread ground Stewart Smalley didn’t, but it’s funny, and the merchandizing parodies are creative, if fish-barrel territory.
But the thematic similarity with THE MUPPETS (and … ahem … Kiarostami’s CERTIFIED COPY) was striking; if I were a pretentious frog-philosopher type, I would call it The Issue of the Simulacrum in Post-Modernity. As it is, I’ll say that both the short and the feature grapple with the “copy” problem, if in the specific context of pop-culture familiarity with the original. In SMALL FRY, the issue is more existential — what space can a barely-valued knock-off have; while in THE MUPPETS, the textual issue is more the original’s obsolescence decades after its success, and there’s also the critical background question, “why make this movie at all, Jason Segel?” Or why is Victor, a 45-year-old man, watching this movie with no children in tow (I got a weird look when I bought a single ticket to WINNIE THE POOH earlier this year).
Both the TV show (I’m told) and the original MUPPET MOVIE, as I argued the other day, were totally self-referential entertainments, which makes it fair and in the originals’ spirit for Segel, as star, writer and executive-producer, to make the film about those very problems. Why get the Muppets back together (in the story) or make a Muppet movie (Segel’s issue), now that they’re obsolete? It also becomes a fair solution to use as the story entree two new “muppets,” Segel’s character Gary and the puppet Walter, supposedly the most identical twins since Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The issue of “man or muppet” even comes up later, now that the two have grown apart in the obvious physical way. But in the very fact of their Muppet-worship, their disappointment to see the disrepair of Muppet Studios and their determination to get the gang together for one last
movie show to foil Evil Nefarious Villain, they become surrogates for an audience that has shelled out $10 or more to watch a Muppets film in 2011 — a new generation for whom Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie are memories, if that, whom we want to see back together.
That would be moot if the film weren’t surface entertaining, but it most definitely is. I was bothered by the fact that, even as a non-Muppet boy-fan, I could tell Miss Piggy and Kermit weren’t the same voices, but I forgot about it soon enough.It has fun with its own anachronisms (I lost it at the sound of a dial-up modem) and its self-aware elements — Chris Cooper isn’t gonna win any Oscars for the role of Evil Oil Magnate Tex Richman (“rich man,” get it?) but he does exactly what’s required with rap songs and lines like “maniacal laugh” and plays them utterly straight.
So it’s wrong to dismiss THE MUPPETS as mere nostalgia, though nostalgia is definitely its subject, it’s more about the process of realizing a dream, specifically that the elements of
Segel’s one’s childhood can be vital and made relevant today. The film also introduces both the difference between good nostalgia and bad nostalgia, in the story of what Fozzie is doing “now” in Reno, and the reason why even the “anachronistic” Muppets might be valuable today, in the TV programmers scenes (#TeamPunchTeacher should join #TeamPunchSimon). Nor is it fair to pick on THE MUPPETS too hard for foregrounding Walter and Gary for the first half-hour, since their relationship is so Muppet-like and that part of the film shares the same sense of humor. It’s absolutely NOT like the “normal” characters in MGM’s Marx Brothers movies, who clearly WERE residing in a different, totally-flat and utterly-uninteresting universe from that of the Brothers. For example, the music number “Everything Is Perfect” is much more sly than its Precisely Too Much on the Nose title, in lines like “Life is like a filet fish” (puzzled look for a rhyme) “yes, it is” and gestures like the whole town collapsing in “glad THAT was over” exhaustion and saying “OK, they’re gone” once Gary and Walter get on a Greyhound bus to leave Smalltown and its FW Woolworth on the square. It’s fun to pretend the world is perfect and everyone can be happy, even while knowing it can’t be; the artificial pretence is the fun. Even if only for the lovers, the dreamers and me.
To make one more wack comparison and confirm that this Nostalgia Is Its Own Glory theme is an official Trend, let me also cite 2006’s ROCKY BALBOA, in which the iconic character gets a bid for a last moment of Old School glory against Classless Newcomer (hey, *more* shades of THE MUSIC ROOM). Rocky doesn’t quite succeed but puts up such a good fight that he leaves the ring to the cheers of the crowd before the decision is even announced, the fight’s loser on the books but the winner in everybody’s eyes. Of course, Stallone’s pulling this film off this late in his career means he gets Rocky’s glory-in-defeat reflected back on himself, only as pure glory. Appropriate changes in the proper nouns, that is more or less what happens in the story-conflict of THE MUPPETS.