To cite a friend from The Religion of Peace, I guess I’d better “Eck-fucking-splain.” I at first refused to see this movie, a fake documentary purporting to be from late 2008 about “last year’s” assassination of President Bush. When it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. I expected, and not for no reason, for it to be an exhortatory “let’s assassinate the bastard” film, a wish-fulfillment fantasy of Bushitleretardespot aka Dubya McChimpburton finally getting what murdering, torturing liars deserve. Something for the Kossacks, DU, etc., to masturbate to while congratulating themselves about what humanitarian peacemakers they are.
While I caveated that I didn’t object in principle to using a real-life personage in a fiction film, I noted that seeing it at Toronto would likely pose further issues, given the nature of the audiences there. And frankly, the film’s British provenance and some of the words of the film-maker didn’t help.
But before and during Toronto, I took some mild criticism from my friends. Josh Rothkopf of Time Out New York said something like “Who cares what others make of it. You and I should see it together. And discuss it after.” Scott Tobias of the Onion (who liked the film quite a bit and took some of the nation’s top film chains to task for refusing to book the movie) saw the film and then told me words to the effect of “I don’t think you’d have a problem with it if you saw it alone.”
How right he was. I knew while I was at the Virginia Film Festival that it’d be playing at a non-chain screen (the Vinegar Hill) a block from the downtown Charlottesville theater where I’d be. At 1050pm, I decided on a whim to duck out of the 2nd episode of the Jay Bakker reality-TV show I was watching to take a chance on the 11pm show of DEATH OF A PRESIDENT, a 3-minute walk away (if it had been so much as a drive to the UVa campus, I wouldn’t have bothered). When I walked into the theater, I realized I was absolutely alone. I was happy because now audience reaction wouldn’t be an issue, but I was still stunned. I realize that 11pm isn’t prime-time, but it was also opening night. (DOAP apparently is tanking in general.) So without having to listen to anybody laughing at certain moments or yelling “yeah!!” at others, I was free to look at what was in front of me.
What I saw was a formally brilliant film, one that uses the conventions of the History Channel special (by coincidence, I’ve been watching them a lot recently) to create a gripping thriller to the point of the crime and then an interesting police procedural thereafter — a structure rather like Akira Kurosawa’s great film HIGH AND LOW. It is of no great import and doesn’t do anything beyond be supremely entertaining while it’s unspooling (like Stanley Kauffmann once “complained” about HIGH AND LOW). I don’t know how well DOAP would hold up to a second viewing, given that its pleasures are just about entirely narrative (I was torn between 7 and 8 grades), but it’s never anything less than impressive. I felt like a Martian watching a special on the sensational trial of some earthling named Ojay Simpson. DOAP is somewhat of a stunt movie, still it does often leave you wondering “how did they do it” (well, not really, you know it’s CGI, stock footage, and careful use of angles and editing).
Then there’s the performances — some of the most strangely effective “performances” I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know quite how to describe them leaving the theater. Mostly, it’s talking heads, as befits this sort of film and the personages are very generic (there’s not the obvious parallellisms like PRIMARY COLORS had — Billy Bob Thornton as James Carville, Kathy Bates as Betsey Wright, etc.) Range was smart to cast smaller names. I only “spotted” one actor, James Urbaniak, from Hal Hartley’s films, but he was well-cast to personality-type as a forensics expert. DOAP’s talking heads, for fake ones, are incredibly believable, and yet see-throughable *as performing,* in the same way that anyone who goes on a talk show is “performing” in a way, but without winking at the audience.
DOAP is an ensemble masterpiece of these sorts of deliberate “performances” (the best being the stoic wife of the eventual assassin). DOAP is meant to be “reality,” but because it fits a pre-existing genre, the actors have to produce what in classical terms might be called clumsy acting — one of Bush’s “advisers” chokes-up on cue when describing some advice she gave, say. We see the acting, but the actors never let on that they’re playing characters and their stumbles are as precisely timed as they would be in “reality.” Fortunately, it never descends into camp or aims for “so-bad-it’s good.” It’s a kind of acting that we’re meant to see through, but in ways that we’re used to seeing through. Professional wrestling keeps popping into my head as an analogy (another kind of “stunt” in its own right) and I once had a former pro-wrestling manger tell me that you have to be able to wrestle for real in order to be convincing at “wrestling.” The closest comparison I can think of in movies is the scene in BOOGIE NIGHTS where Amber Waves and Dirk Diggler are shooting a porn film and we see Julianne Moore and Mark Wahlberg trying to “act” in the drama before the sex begins. Moore and Wahlberg are brilliant because Waves and Diggler are terrible, buit convincingly terrible.
But let’s face it, much of the criticism of this film from conservatives, like with BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is based on a kind of knee-jerk moralism, based on nothing more than the surface subject matter, but sight-unseen. This sort of thread at AllahPundit was typical, though I hasten to add — as happened with GAY COWBOY MOVIE — conservatives were reacting to how the film was in fact being consumed in not a few liberal quarters. (Why does Michael Medved cite box-office stats so much? I mean, why should a critic care about such a thing, in general. Also, Mikey, is the movie “truly awful” or just “relentlessly mediocre”?)
As for the morality of the film’s content, well … it is possible to construct a moral case that any depiction of a current named real-life public figure in a fictional context is offensive per se. But in those terms, it wouldn’t persuade many people and it’d be kind of stupid.
Nor is portraying the death of a real-life person itself immoral — were GANDHI or JFK or MALCOLM X somehow “exploitative” of the assassinations of their real-life protagonists? DOAP, in fact, bears more than a slight resemblance to JFK as a film, though Gabriel Range isn’t the stylistic virtuoso that Oliver Stone is. Sure, all those movies were made after the fact, but the immoral exploitation of a past event is still possible (just use your imagination).
I could also imagine that one could argue — though nobody is doing so to my knowledge — that it’s somehow immoral to mix real footage and staged footage. Argument being, that it hampers our ability to tell truth from fiction, or to care about the distinction since “it all looks the same.” And if DOAP were actually purporting to be a work of journalism, I would agree that this would be a problem, like when ABC using re-enactments as footage on the nightly news. But who’s gonna watch DOAP that way? Everybody knows this is a work of fiction, albeit using some journalistic conventions. And that Rubicon, making fiction that looks “real” was crossed long ago in the movies — from Italian neorealism a half-century ago to today’s reality-TV (which now is even being parodied on a cartoon — Comedy Central’s “Drawn Together”). And the fake documentary from THIS IS SPINAL TAP on is now practically its own genre, though admittedly DOAP is the first to come readily to mind that isn’t largely or entirely a comedy.
So it seems to me that DOAP could only be condemned as immoral if it objectively made an assassination attempt on Bush more likely. It could do this in one of two ways — either (1) technically or (2) exhortatively. Or (1) “here’s how to do it” or (2) “yeah … do it” or “he deserves it.” (If there are other ways a hypothetical movie could theoretically make an assassination bid more likely, I’d be happy to entertain them.)
After all, it’s hardly as though the assassination of a political leader is itself a taboo or an unknown concept or an experience so out of the realm of ordinary life that, like sex before a 10-year-old, it’s a subject that should not be mentioned in any way. We do also have the experience of a movie inspiring an assassination attempt on a US president — TAXI DRIVER. Except that not only did Travis Bickle never take a shot at Sen. Pallantine, the senator was more a symbol than a character and politically nondescript to boot (certainly Travis’s possible motive would not have been ideology or any dislike for the senator, but sexual jealousy and anger at personal matters involving his campaign team). So for that reason, I’m not especially persuaded that DOAP’s using a named real-life politician in its very premise is all that important. The gap between Harvey Keitel and Ronald Reagan seems vast enough to make nonsense of the notion that DOAP’s admittedly unprecedented premise will matter that much. Would-be or wanna-be assassins don’t need that much specificity (again absent (1) or (2) above).
As for (1), it’s not even arguable. This is not the cinematic equivalent of THE ANARCHIST COOKBOOK. It’s not as though Range shows how to slip arsenic into the White House coffee or some other novel means. The killing is done in exactly the manner of the Kennedy assassination — shooting from a tall building nearby. But the film leaves hanging the mystery of how the assassin … I will be vague … was able to get the information he needed, though it makes clear that he did get it (and the fact of the information’s generic existence is not news to anybody). The “procedural” material is entirely on the detection end, unlike say, DAY OF THE JACKAL, which very much is (half-)about the methodical depiction of a professional assassin going about his work.
As for (2), it’s hardly more arguable. I frankly don’t see how anybody with two neurons to rub together who actually sees DOAP can think that the film advocates assassinating Bush or secretly hopes for it. Michelle Malkin, no liberal Bush-hater, has adequately documented that Bush assassination chic in fact exists among those afflicted with Bush Derangement Syndrome. But the eager, exhortatory tone of what she shows is so utterly different from the tone of DOAP that it’s hard to know what else to say but to state the contrast. I’m tempted to say that this contrast is a matter of objective aesthetic fact (and given how elusive a quality “tone” is, that I’m willing to say anything about tone can be objective fact should say it all).
The second half, of the investigation and political aftermath of the assassination is more-pointed in its liberalism — the investigators focus on an Arab, there is a bit of a national backlash. But it hardly more damnable in tone, stridency or content to the Democratic National Committee Web site or the press releases that come out the offices of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid every day. I don’t mean that as a particular slam on those estimable personages as extremists (I would cite Kos etc., if that were my intent). But they’re the leaders of the opposition party, and that’s what opposition parties do: criticize the party in power. The maker of this movie is a liberal, but he is not, at least on the basis of this film, deranged. Maybe DOAP simply profits by comparison to the rest of the BDS crap that’s out there, but that point still should be made.
The nation’s film critics, who constitute a bohemian bunch where the political spectrum ranges from liberalism on the right, through leftism in the centre, to insanity on the left, have not responded to DOAP so well since its tumultuous Toronto premiere. It only got a 32 percent fresh rating from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek, dissed DOAP for this relative moderation and lack of fireworks in the second half, calling it undramatic timidity:
The movie doesn’t make you think; it just confirms what you already think you know … it [doesn’t] take any sort of brain trust to figure out that these cowboys are bad news, and our country is in dire straits.
Others have picked up that cudgel, complaining that it’s not provocative enough. AO Scott in the New York Times said “its provocations are not particularly insightful or original.” Richard Roeper of Ebert & the Other Guy (now “The Other Guy and the Other Other Guy”) “you better gives us something more than this,” and The Other Other Guy (Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune) said the film’s methods “aren’t gonna yield much in the way of political provocation.” Kyle Smith in the New York Post called it “a dose of Nyquil” rather than the presumably preferable “cinematic Molotov cocktail” and even complained that the film DIDN’T fetishize the assassination itself sufficiently.
The moment you’ve been waiting for since the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival consists of one second’s worth of jumbled images of a crowd of people hitting the deck as shots crackle in the air. This isn’t the tollbooth scene from “The Godfather.” You don’t even get treated to a slo-mo replay. (italic emphasis by VJM)
Now it’s perfectly fair not to like DOAP, but when a film is being attacked from the left for being insufficiently angry or provocative or overcautious, that also is worth noting.
If anything, from a liberal’s perspective, all the stuff that happens after the assassination is bad. Two words: President. Cheney.¹ Three more words: Expanded. Patriot. Act. The first part of the movie, before the assassination, has no political content or criticism of Bush whatsoever. It’s mostly interviews with his personal team or security or the investigators. No John Kerry calling him stupid. No Pelosi calling him the head of the culture of corruption. No John Murtha calling him a chickenhawk. No Howard Dean saying he had blood on his hands — nothing. The hypothetical Martian would be hard-pressed even to peg this character “President Bush” on the political spectrum. To be sure, there is the terminal-BDS-afflicted protesters saying the kinds of things that the BDS-afflicted say. But Range simply portrays them as they are, which is to say, as terminally deranged; I actually cheered when the Chicago police began pepper-spraying them. Admittedly, I’m me, but the protesters are hardly the movie’s moral center particularly since we see in DOAP some of their hate-speech, only one step short of what Malkin documents.
In fact, I could go further. The film opens with an Arab woman (we only later exactly who she is and what relationship she has to the film’s events) saying she wanted to grab the person who squeezed the trigger and say “did you not think what would happen?” It really helps in this matter that Range doesn’t overplay his hand in the second half of the film. I mean, does anybody really doubt that after a presidential assassination linked to Arab terrorism, that there would be more anti-terror laws or pressure to move militarily against one or more Arab states? But the specific things that happen are actually believable, both in where they go and where they don’t go. President Cheney doesn’t deport all Arabs, nuke Tehran, institute martial law or make Cheney-worship the state religion or somesuch. It may run counter to Range’s personal politics, but I think DOAP can be seen as a warning against the excesses of BDS and the protest culture. That in certain situations, public hatred and the kinds of things the protesters do will produce a backlash against dissent broadly and civil-liberties more generally. A Marxist would call it “heightening the contradictions in the system,” but real people have to live under these “heightened contradictions.” Admittedly, a post-assassination aftermath is an extreme one, but there is historic precedent. Two words: Richard. Nixon. Three more words (one concept): “Acid, amnesty, abortion.”
¹ Which makes nonsense of liberals’ notion that the 1998 impeachment of President Clinton was in any way an effort to overturn the 1990s’ elections. Two words — President. Gore. (One more thought, if Clinton had been removed from office, Republicans would have had to have run in 2000 against an incumbent President Gore, arguing for the third president in three years. Not the best thing to do if you can avoid it.)
… if I don’t get started, I’ll never get finished.
Anyhoo, I had an absolutely terrific time last weekend in Charlottesville at Revelations: Finding God at the Movies.
TRAPPED BY THE MORMONS (Ian Allen, USA, 2005, 4) — Hard to see why this movie needs to exist. There’s an inescapable aura of self-congratulation in creating something intentionally campy (or rather in re-creating something that exists as unintentional camp). This bothered me more than I expected to, and I couldn’t join in the laughter. It actually worked a little better as a straight-up horror film about Evil Kidnappers of Any Religious Persuasion.
ORDET (Carl-Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1955, 10) — Yes, it’s still a masterpiece. Before the (film-breakage riddled) screening, Danish film scholar Anne Jespersen said Johannes sounds even odder to Danish-speakers than he does to us foreigners. Armed with that knowledge, I noticed that I actually understood Johannes better than the other characters. It was the slowness and formality of his speech, and the way his dated vocabulary and syntax had more in common (I confirmed this with her) with the other Germanic languages than contemporary idiomatic Danish.
TENDER MERCIES (Bruce Beresford, USA, 1983, 9) — Robert Duvall was in person to introduce the film (and his THE APOSTLE, which I didn’t see). After entering the theater and walking down the aisle, he took the seat *right in front of yours truly.* While he was being introduced, I pulled out my program and a pen, and got Duvall to sign it on the page for TENDER MERCIES. The film itself is one of the most subtly moving films I’ve ever seen, and I was choked up helplessly when we get to a conversation, speaking vaguely, near the end in a garden where Duvall’s faded country singer and his wife (Tess Harper) make clear what distinguishes the two of them, without having an argument per se. MERCIES (which takes its title from the Psalmist) is almost entirely the dramatic equivalent of reaction shots — all the most-dramatic events (marriages, deaths, recordings, etc.) occur offscreen, as if human drama is not about what we do but how we react to what the offscreen Narrator does. You could, in fact, make a stage play of this with minimal changes — just two or three sets you could reliably “cut” between. And for an actor who can’t sing, Duvall is a pretty good singer, which is a good choice for a character who’s drank away his career and for a story that is primarily about his comeback as a man, not as an entertainer. On a directorial note: I recently saw BREAKER MORANT again. Beresford is awesome when his material consists of precisely observed “small stories” of particular times and places (you could toss in BLACK ROBE and DRIVING MISS DAISY). Not so much otherwise.
I CONFESS (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1953, 7) — Hitchcock once said that if he were to make CINDERELLA, the audience would start looking for a body in the carriage. That reputation hurts this film, and I felt obliged to come to its defense from some fairly nasty attacks in the post-film discussion (though I did genuinely like it more than I expected to on this, my first viewing). Yes, I CONFESS isn’t “suspenseful” in the sense that NORTH BY NORTHWEST or REAR WINDOW are. It so obviously isn’t even trying for this that I think we have to assume Hitch was trying to make a Gothic romance like JANE EYRE (or REBECCA) — the threatening shots, with scores to match, of churches oppressively towering over the viewer like The Old Dark Castle; the harsh black-white contrasts (far sharper than I think anything else in his ouevre); the love triangle with an absent (sorta) 3rd side; the exotic setting. I wish Hitch had made more films with Ann Baxter. Glad he didn’t make more with Montgomery Clift.
AMAZING GRACE (Michael Apted, Britain, 2007, 4) — A big fat hunk of liberal historic issue wish-fulfillment (abolitionism). Combined with typical biopic shapelessness (Wilberforce). And the highlight-reel approach to history (letters that “catch up” the viewer with fates of the historical personages). I wish this film had noticed that Britain had the world’s most-efficient and productive free labor, making its declaring war on the slave trade consonant with its economic interests. I wish this film noted that slavery hadn’t been practiced in the British Isles since the Dark Ages. I wish this film noted that abolition within the Empire happened just a few years before everyone knew the Americans would abolish the slave trade. And the moment … I will be vague … involving Michael Gambon and a ticket to Epsom was so pat and practiced as to become ridiculous.
ONE PUNK UNDER GOD (Jeremy Simmons, USA, 2006, 3) — Contrary to my expectations, this program was just the first two episodes of a reality-TV show, rather than a freestanding doc. I’d seen enough after one episode. Like most reality-TV, it’s more interesting when it’s being unintentionally revealing about its very self-conscious subjects and/or makers. In this case, Jay Bakker is a textbook case of where you will go if you separate “agape” or “caritas” from any and every tie to tradition, to sin, or to judgment, more of a mirror or reverse-parallel of his father (or rather, The Liberal Image Of His Father) than you’d ever guess, but I don’t think that’s what the makers or Bakker himself intend. So I left, as I thought I might, after the first episode (what the grade refers to) so as to be in time to catch another film I thought I’d check out in commercial release, just a block away …
DEATH OF A PRESIDENT (Gabriel Range, Britain, 2006, 8) — I’ll need to discuss this in more depth than I have time for right now (I wanna finish this post in one sitting). In the meantime, just put in the combox (or post to the group) “V-Mort please explain.” And let me get away (for now) with “Mea Culpa. Anybody who thinks this movie is exhortatory has shit for brains.”
DEVI (Satyajit Ray, India, 1960, 9) — I wish it could mean more for me to say that this is my favorite Ray film (I’d only previously seen PATHER PANCHALI). But DEVI had me sold from its brilliant opening credits — the threatening-sounding sitar music; the progression of an idol from all-white (form) to painted (representation) to mask (present). And my inability to read Devanagari actually helped, as it turned the letters into an art element rather than words. Like the rest of this Freudian-Chekhovian chamber drama, the credits are artful and clear, both clever and not in-your-face. Theme: Being thought of as a god is a burden that would crush a mere man … (VJM continues, beyond Ray’s intent) … so it is one only a god could actually handle.
THE RAPTURE (Michael Tolkin, USA, 1991, 8) — I have friends who take the “to hell with you, you sick sadist”-approach to God. And while I obviously don’t think you can make it intellectually satisfying, THE RAPTURE makes it make more emotional sense than any movie I’ve ever seen, makes it something other than an adolescent pose, though I could imagine other stories and situations where refusing to love God makes emotional sense. Times change. When I saw THE RAPTURE on theatrical release with a Calvinist Evangelical friend, we split vigorously — I liked it a lot and Curt hated it, though our discussion mostly went in another direction (Perseverance of the saints, or the P in TULIP).
THE GOD OF A SECOND CHANCE (Paul Wagner, USA, 2006, 6) — This is purely a subject-matter grade (the local angle for me doesn’t hurt), as this film is not more than the greatest episode of Frontline ever. But CHANCE is that. It gets off to a shaky start (literally, too much amateur hand-held footage before we know who’s who), but it quickly finds its subject matter and focus (ditto) around a couple of black churches and ministries, and several of their members in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood. Its achievement is simple — show a part of the world and introduce us to people we might not otherwise see. To document.
TEN CANOES (Rolf DeHeer, Australia, 2006, 5) — This aboriginal folk tale is funny at times and has the same anthropological value as GOD OF A SECOND CHANCE. But all the layering of stories-within-stories served no discernible point to me, except giving more words to the annoying voiceover narrator (his style is perfectly reproduced here and it gets REAL aggravating when uses childlike terms such as “people who cover their willies”). Particularly since the narrator specifically says he’s telling the story to us for pedagogy’s sake, just like the 2nd-level protagonist is telling the 3rd-level story to someone else to teach him a lesson. But the only one we’re given has something to do with jealousy between men in a polygamous society, something whose specific point to a viewer today outside some remote corners of Utah is obscure at best.
THE MILKY WAY (Luis Bunuel, France, 1969, 9, formerly 7) — I was truly not theologically literate enough to see how brilliant this film is when I saw it for the first and only time on home video about 15 years ago. With his density and dry allusiveness, Bunuel’s sense of humor is so much like my own (I could say the same of Hitchcock) that this theological pilgrimage following two tramps on the Trail of St. James is right in my wheelhouse. Bunuel has a (not unjustified) reputation as the Village Atheist and Scabrous Surrealist. But this film, along with SIMON OF THE DESERT and NAZARIN (plus hearing CS Lewis scholar and presenter Terry Lindvall read after the film from the end of Bunuel’s autobiography “My Last Sigh”) makes it clear that Bunuel was much more interesting and subtle than that. It does no injustice to this pilgrimage film to say that Jesus is the most attractive character in it and Bunuel does and says nothing against Him or distorts anything in the Gospels. And the director pays Him the ultimate Bunuelian praise — we see Him with a razor and get a closing shot of His feet.
THE SACRIFICE (Andrei Tarkovsky, Sweden, 1986, 9, formerly 8) — I have come to love Tarkovsky over the years, but I can’t honestly recommend THE SACRIFICE (or any but his earliest films) to the casual fan or anyone not prepared to commit to multiple viewings, much thought and a great deal of patience. Like all of his films, THE SACRIFICE feels obscure and self-indulgent at first but becomes shorter with each successive viewing. This weekend was my fourth, albeit my first on the big screen and in a theater, you get much more of a sense of, e.g., how thoroughly drained of color and light the middle section of the movie is, and I’m not talking about the distracting use of black-and-white in a scene or two. When Alexander wakes up (?) from the dream (?) with the witch (?) and we’re back at something like a conventional natural “look,” the contrast is truly eye-popping and startling and makes what follows far more believable than the range of the cathode ray tube could. Still … what is this thing Tarkovsky has with couples floating in mid-embrace? I remember thinking as I was watching this: what would my newly-Orthodox and sick of movies bud Rod Dreher think of this very Orthodox movie. Erland Josephson (another brilliant display of angstwringing by a Bergman actor) gives an early speech/manifesto about modern man losing his way that is cut right from the tradition of such Rod favorites as Kirk, Chesterton and Solzhenitsyn.
IN YOUR HANDS (Annette Olesen, Denmark, 2004, 5) — TC
TRAVELLERS AND MAGICIANS (Khyentse Norbu, Bhutan, 2005, 7) — TC
THE ILLUSIONIST (Neil Burger, USA, 2006, 5)
I actually went to this movie by mistake, thinking it was the latest movie by Christopher Nolan (of MEMENTO fame), a fall 2006 release about a turn-of-the-century magician whose tricks get too real for comfort. Once seated, I saw the trailer for the movie I was expecting to see. wtf? Oh, well. This movie’s actually pretty good — and it starts off really strong, with a kind of fairy-tale childhood flashback (I enjoyed the slight-but-unobtrusive gauze around the edge of the frame). Paul Giamatti and Ed Norton are good as expected, both convincing as two different men — Norton as the magician Weisenheimer both creates a man in love and a man obsessed, and Giamatti as the police inspector handles with aplomb his mix of emperor’s loyal servant and man fascinated by the “how” matters of a magic act. (The film thankfully never explains them.) But one or two points shaven off for an ending conceptually identical to the end of this movie (follow link only if you’ve seen ILLUSIONIST or want it spoiled). It goes by way too fast, particularly for something that recodes the whole movie, and, from what I could tell of it, it made no sense and defanged the emotions the film was tweaking anyway. Wow, movies are an illusion, a trick. Who knew?
THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 1996, 6)
LIVE FLESH (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 1998, 5)
Obviously, watching the Lumiere Brothers at the factory as a little boy and then going through film history chronologcially is impossible. But my reaction to these two movies are case studies on just how much watching films out of sequence colors our opinions of them. I saw FLOWER and FLESH back-to-back Sunday night at the AFI Retro, thus catching up with two of the three post-PEPI, LUCI, BOM … Pedro films I had missed. But I found these, seen out of order, as mildly-interesting rough drafts, with raw material and hints at a new direction that would reach full flower in the “mature style” of ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and TALK TO HER (which I saw contemporanously in 1999 and 2002 and liked a lot). However, when Mike saw MOTHER back in ’99, he complained that it retread ideas from FLOWER. And his review of FLOWER in ’96 called it a welcome turn to a somewhat more serious style (for the record, he didn’t like FLESH much).
As it is, FLOWER seems like Pedro is moving toward using his bright candy-colored palette to make women’s melodrama and away from the sort of chaotic-erotic Preston Sturges braided-plot farces he had been making. But he’s stuck between the two. The mother-daughter “fussing” between Almodovar vets Rossy DePalma and Chus Lampreave, admittedly quite funny, would have felt at home in those pictures; here, it just seems out of place. Though, to not-coin a phrase, Marisa Paredes is — no other word for it — fabulous (she looks like a cross between recent Lauren Bacall and Colleen Dewhurst) in the central role of a closeted romance-novel writer.
With FLESH, the problem is a bit more fundamental than being an enjoyable film that doesn’t quite “jell.” It just feels like a sour raspberry. It’s a much darker film than anything Pedro had (or has) ever made. But the presence of an obsessive romantic, paired couples, an accidental crippling and the resulting nonconsummation (though Javier Bardem creates a real person, not a stunt role). It all made FLESH feel like a rough draft for TALK TO HER. But in this movie, “Benigno” the obsessive romantic loser (here named “Victor”) not only gets the girl, but gets rid of a rival whom we have no good reason to despise. Ick. Victor also lacks Benigno’s essential sweetness. Also, the intro and coda were utterly superfluous, other than giving the appearance of narrative rhyme and an excuse for Penelope Cruz to play a childbirth scene (the significance of Victor being born on the night he was completely escaped me, unless it really is as schematic and obvious as Pedro made it seem)
Catholic blogger Eve Tushnet watched the Benjamin Britten opera of DEATH IN VENICE a few nights ago and semi-live-blogged some of her impressions here. I read Thomas Mann’s novella about 12 years ago, in grad school, though not for a class per se. I saw Luchino Visconti’s film twice, but both times as an undergrad before reading the novella (though I just spent about 40 minutes skimming through the film with one finger each on the Fast-Forward and Play buttons to refresh my memories, which I obviously wouldn’t call a proper viewing).
I have never seen Britten’s opera,¹ though I find it interesting and more-than-suggestive that both Visconti (1906-1976, made his film in 1971) and Britten (1913-1976, completed his opera in 1973) were both homosexually-inclined, fascinated with boys, and living near the end of their lives — and thus quite similar to each other and Aschenbach. But not like Mann (1875-1955, wrote his novella in 1912), who was middle-aged and had homosexual inclinations, but struggled against them. And both Visconti’s film and the Britten-opera-as-Eve-describes-it² struggle against the novella’s resistance to being adapted into visual mediums.
Visconti made several major changes to Mann’s novella, ditching the whole set up in Bavaria, turning Aschenbach the writer into a composer, and by heavy use of Gustav Mahler’s 3th and 5th Symphonies on the soundtrack. The first two of these choices are dubious, but I think the third succeeds magnificently, turning the film into primarily a sensual experience, rather than a narrative per se. The Mahler music is Romantic and big (we can hardly notice its absence) but also ominous, portentous and decadent. It’s feverish, but not in a hyperactive, “fast” way. It’s intrusive on the film as it should be — the opening credits and opening scene, before a word is spoken, are absolutely magisterial, the dying 19th century drifting off to sleep to be broken by the honking horn of the 20th. It also perfectly matches Visconti’s painstaking re-creation of fin-de-siecle Venice, elegiacally caressed by slow and careful pans that don’t want to let go and by much-faster zooms (plus sudden flashbacks in and out of Aschenbach’s earlier life) that intrude on the action like thunder. Together, the two things (Visconti’s camera and Mahler’s music) conspire to create the means through which the film works — as a kind of opera-film (Visconti also was a famous opera director in Italy) and as tone poem to the beautiful impotence of death and decadence.
But both the film and the opera suffer from having to show Tadzio — to represent him literally, as a person apart from Aschenbach’s consciousness. He embodies Camille Paglia’s analysis of the Beautiful Boy-as-Destroyer archetype. In the film, the performance given by Bjorn Andresen is, in conventional terms, very bad, though it does “work” in a highly intellectualized way. He doesn’t say a word, which keeps him at arm’s-length, at some level an “object,” albeit a seen one rather than a described one. But it still seems crude and ham-fisted for Visconti to keep showing him looking to the camera, turning, and posing like he was on a New York catwalk. It tends, particularly by its incessant quality, to reduce the material to a simple seduction tale. Or rather to reduce it to an impotent wish. Visconti attempts to restore the Mann’s philosophical ambiguity via flashbacks, but Aschenbach’s friend-critic overacts stupidly (a not-uncommon defect in Visconti’s work) and it tends to break the mood. Just as Eve thought the words of the opera, both in themselves and in having to listen to Aschenbach’s exhausted voice singing them, were aggravating and/or redundant. Happily, there isn’t much dialogue in the Visconti — which solves the problem of Eve not liking Aschenbach’s voice (dunno what she’d think of Dirk Bogarde). And yes, the end in the Visconti also is wordless, and frankly I don’t know how an opera would convey the finality of Aschenbach’s death and his wishful hopes as effectively as Visconti’s cuts between makeup-dribbling, sweaty closeups of Bogarde and sunset-tan-drenched long shots of Tadzio, far away in the shadow of the setting sun.
¹ My one exposure to Britten has been the use in Claire Denis’ film BEAU TRAVAIL of his Billy Budd — another novel with homosexual undertones that Britten and a contemporary film-maker made literal and explicit.
² I don’t see the need to continue using such a neologism beyond the necessary first reference. I have stated upfront I have not seen Britten’s opera and every time henceforth I make a statement about the opera beyond the obvious factual, assume that I mean “the-opera-as-Eve-describes-it.”
For bringing disgrace upon British Jews, the Board of Guardians of British Jews (The Voice of All Jews Since 1967) has voted to make excommunicated Sasha Ben Cohan. Harry Greenberg, president of the Board of Guardians of British Jews (The Voice of All Jews Since 1967), said the comic actor had been received fair warnings but … how you say … shoved them up his arse:
We gave Mr Baron Cohen an informal warning over six months ago about the Borat character and how it is causing problems with the Kazakhstan government and that this is bringing major embarrassment to the Jewish community. Mr Baron Cohen ignored our letters and phonecalls and therefore after consultation with our rabbis, we have taken steps to exclude Mr Baron Cohen and let people know he is not connected with The Board and has been banned from setting foot into any synagogue for six months.
The Board of Guardians of British Jews (The Voice of All Jews Since 1967) was forced to make these actives because the Anti-Defamation League in US and A has grabbed comment about the harm Mr. Bin Cohen is causing to US Jews.
This six-month expulsion from all synagogues is most serious penalty possible because British Jews are the most kosher in the world. After all, if they not keep kosher, they would have to eat British food, and who the hell would want to eat that muck. Borat could not be reached around for commenting, but in other flaps regarding this Mr. Ben Cohan, he has said:
In response to Mr. Ashykbayev’s comments, I’d like to state I have no connection with Mr. Cohen and fully support my Government’s decision to sue this Jew.
Now let’s have a rousing country-folk song.
Kazakhstan’s top media personality Borat Sagdiyev was unable last week to get American Premier George Walter Bush to attend premiere of upcoming moviefilm BORAT: A BUNCH OF MANGLED ENGLISH INCLUDING THE WORD ‘KAZAKHSTAN’ along with American dignitaries OJ Simpson and Mel Gibsons.
Then Uzbek propaganda spew itself out in response pretending to be government of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan as a pubic-relationship offense. As the Musical Televisual News report last week:
The leaders of Kazakhstan wish Borat would just go away and that everyone would instead focus on the beauty of cities like Almaty, which they cite as having “sidewalk benches that seem perpetually occupied by trendy-looking teenagers.” The publicity effort for the country of 15 million went into full gear this week, beginning with a splashy, four-page, full-color advertising supplement in the A section of The New York Times on Wednesday.
But Borat know much more better than this. In statement of truth here:
If there is one more item of Uzbek Propoganda claiming that we do NOT drink fermented horse urine, give death penalty for baking baigels, or export over 300 tonnes of human pubis per year, then we will be left with no alternative but to commence bombardment of their cities with our catapaults.
And conservative American publications realize success of BORAT IN USA to tell truth about Kazakhstan and how it much more better country than Uzbekistan, run by Jewish leader Islam Karimov.
I haven’t gone to the Virginia Film Festival, a four-day Thursday-Sunday fest in Charlottesville, since 2003. It’s not like Toronto or the DC FilmFest at all, which showcase new work. Instead, it has an annual theme and shows an eclectic mix on that theme — classics, new films from the festival circuit, some upcoming prestige releases, indies-and-documentaries, and a silent or two. But the 2004 fest was the weekend before the presidential election, and so getting the days off work was not an option. I forget why I didn’t go in 2005.
But this year — I. Am. Psyched. I got the brochure in my mail yesterday, and the cover page icon said “Revelations: Finding God at the Movies.” The Virginia fest is usually a much more relaxed fest than Toronto — there’s only about 4 or so films or presentations or events going on at any one time. But still, the lineup is so mouth-watering that there’s something worth seeing in every time slot, and dilemmas in a few. There’s classics I haven’t seen (DEVI, I CONFESS); classics I have seen but never in a theater (the DeMille KING OF KINGS, Bunuel’s THE MILKY WAY, and … ahem … ORDET); classics I never get tired of (LIFE OF BRIAN, THE SEVENTH SEAL, THE SACRIFICE), important recent films (THE APOSTLE and THE RAPTURE, which I have seen; IN YOUR HANDS and TRAVELLERS AND MAGICIANS, which I have not); upcoming films (10 CANOES, AMAZING GRACE, 10 ITEMS OR LESS) and several intriguing docs/experiments/presentations (ONE PUNK UNDER GOD, about Jim and Tammy Bakker’s son; GOD OF A SECOND CHANCE, about the black church in DC; the recreation of TRAPPED BY THE MORMONS; Hollywood on prayer; black religiosity)
If you live anywhere near Charlottesville, make plans to spend at least part of the weekend there. I live about 110 miles away; so I will be staying there in town, even though UVa has a home game that weekend.
ADDENDUM: I should make it clear that the festival clearly understand “God” in a very ecumenical way (which is obviously fine in programming a film festival), with films about Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, etc. But by my count, there’s also about six films that set off various of alarm bells in the descriptions and what you can find at the film’s Web site (like A FLOCK OF DODOS and KEEP NOT SILENT).
Adam becomes the latest to weigh in in favor (at least somewhat) of Mike Judge’s dumped-on-by-the-idiots-in-suits IDIOCRACY.
Here’s probably what Mike Judge will have to settle for making next.
Let’s see … what’s the worst scandal going on in Congress right now. Oh, yeah … Conrad Burns’s war on Swedes (scroll down to the last two paragraphs). Or just read here, from the Associated Press:
Also during Thursday’s hearing, Burns asked witness Matt Andersson, senior aviation consultant for CRA International, about the spelling of his name. Andersson said it’s the Swedish spelling.
“Oh, ja,” Burns replied in a mock Swedish accent.
Speaking of Swedes named Andersson — Roy will have a new film (YOU THE LIVING) out next year. It looks awesome, from the stills and the misleading trailer (I was thinking, “moving camera … what the diddle is this”). Since the “Coming 2007” card is in Swedish, I take it that’s the date of home release. Hopefully, it’ll find US distribution more quickly than did the great SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR.