11 SEPT (skipped two morning “filler” films to catch up sleep
OPERATION FILMMAKER, Nina Davenport, USA — 7
MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, Noah Baumbach, USA — 8
PARANOID PARK, Gus Van Sant, USA — 3
SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO, Takashi Miike, Japan — 7
ITS A FREE WORLD …, Ken Loach, Britain — 5
THE LAST MISTRESS, Catherine Breillat, France — 4
ATONEMENT, Joe Wright, Britain — 8
A GIRL CUT IN TWO, Claude Chabrol, France — 4
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 9
Mike generally has a generally good sense of my tastes, so I’m curious why he was unsure whether I would like this film, given that he (accurately) predicted that moral/religious reasons would not be a problem. When Ryan and I began discussing 4 MONTHS sitting in the theater during the credits, at almost the same point, we said “Dardennes,” i.e., one of my 2 or 3 favorite current filmmakers. This film is the answer to that eternal riddle “what if the Dardenne Brothers had been born in Bucharest?”: the style and general interest is exactly the same — all-natural light, down-at-the-heels urban milieu, characters at the economic margins but not exactly poor, no music but a very precise sound mix, constantly roving camera, short period of time, tightly focused plotting, a narrow life-defining quest pursued with dogged DOGGED persistence in the midst of a variety of other tasks, naturalistic performances. The major difference is that Dardennes deal in moral dilemmas and their consequences; in 4 MONTHS, there really aren’t any. Mungiu made a film much more about the most-hectic shit day of your life, trying to juggle 100 tasks, remembering what lies you told, and get around others in your way (in that sense, not unlike THE CHILD).
Surprisingly, the central Rosetta-like protagonist is not Gabita, the woman seeking an illegal abortion, but her college roommate Otilia (Anamaria Lucia, a great performance). Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is a real airhead, and not in a funny way; indeed her stupid lies and avoidances set up potential fatal situations. And so it’s believable that her friend would simply “help” a la Vera Drake, seeing herself as a protector of a friend in over her head. All the while, trying to deal with her own boyfriend issues and trying to get by in Ceaucescu-era Romania where cigarettes serve as a kind of second currency, scarce commodities are traded as needed, and the black market for all goods, not just abortion, is considered a part of life. Scene after scene plays with perfect attention to detail and balance. Especially fine is a scene of a birthday party where everybody is engaging in fairly-interesting party talk while the camera keeps a tight frame for several minutes on two people privately miles away. Indeed, life in actually-existing-socialist Romania is portrayed as nothing but lies, where lying about things large and small, hiding things, maintaining appearances, getting around others is ubiquitous. Everybody does it. And everybody knows everybody else does it, making social life one long cynical day of pragmatic getting-by. The short performance by the abortionist himself (Vlad Ivanov) should be on Wikipedia as the illustration of “Pragmatism,” subfield “ruthless.” And anyone who thinks THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU had unbelievably insensitive hospital personnel is invited to look at the hotel workers here.
As for the portrayal of abortion. Yes, this movie is in a very broad sense *about* the quest for an illegal abortion. Abortion as either a moral matter or a political issue simply does not appear, on either side. The decision to abort was made before the movie begins, and the abortion and disposing of the dead baby are simply tasks in a laundry list and, unlike in VERA DRAKE, nobody says abortion is wrong. But there is a shot of the result of the abortion that doesn’t last long but is as in-you-face and bloody as any pro-life group poster (this being the 5th month, it’s an undeniably human form and it’s far more explicit than the original ALFIE. Squeamish: Consider this your warning.) On balance, I would put it this way: 4 MONTHS is a movie where nobody says word of pro-choice propaganda and which shows an aborted corpse dead on the floor. That’s a net plus. Indeed, I wonder how this film would have played had it not come with the reputation and handy tag “Romanian abortion movie.” The A-word, like with the central plot points in THE SON, LA PROMESSE and THE CHILD, is not even mentioned until quite a way into the movie, though there is much indirect (not the same as euphemistic) talk about what had already been arranged offscreen. Would the first 20-30 minutes have played differently, as more mysterious, with the shocking A-word clicking together what much of the talk’s been about? The world will never know.
HAPPINESS, Hur Jin-ho, South Korea, 5
The kind of moderately entertaining festival fare that tends to evaporate in your head fairly quickly amid all the great stuff (and crap) surrounding it. Starts like the Feel-Good Movie from Hell though, as a high-living South Korean secretly flees the big city and the alcohol that has given him cirrhosis in his 30s. He heads for a kind of health farm, filled with wacky characters, including The Girl Who Will Save Him but has has own fatal disease (lung cancer). But it takes some surprising turns in its second half and is much tougher on the central character and more serious than it starts out as. Still, to be perfectly frank, it’s four days later and nothing particular or singular, for good or ill, about it has stuck in my head (hence the grade change from 6 to 5). Except that HAPPINESS maintains current South Korean cinema’s near-perfect record of having in every film one scene or one action or gesture of shockingly (to this and most other Westerners) unmotivated or excessive-for-the-motive brutalism, even in a movie that you wouldn’t call violent.
ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE, Shekhar Kapur, Britain, 2
Begins with a lie — an internally-secure Queen Elizabeth saying in 1585 that Catholics will not be punished in her England for their beliefs, but only for their actions (every British Catholic grows up knowing what a “priest hole” is). And it ends with a lie — a title card saying that with victory over the Spanish Armada, “England entered a time of peace and prosperity” (no, it became victorious in its external wars and there were great cultural and exploratory achievements; but anti-Catholic persecution became much more vigorous and culminated in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot against Elizabeth’s successor; the English Civil War came within 50 years of Elizabeth’s death). And in between — there isn’t much: bombastic style with pompous score, portentous camera angles and sinister shadows that pound everything into the ground. Cate Blanchett is playing a middle-aged Elizabeth, so she doesn’t have the girlish charm that made her performance in the original so winning. Worst of all, the film frankly traffics in some quite ugly anti-Catholic imagery. And to be clear, I’m talking director’s choices — things like having crucifixes and rosary beads sinking slowly down to the bottom of the sea to triumphal music. No sane man denies the obvious facts of history: Spain WAS a Catholic power and the Church DID try to overthrown Elizabeth and used English Catholics in its efforts. I quite liked the first ELIZABETH film, and, like most British Catholics, I really do have pretty thick skin about British history, thicker than a lot of St. Blogs’s Americans. But this pissed off even me.
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, Werner Herzog, USA, 6
ENCOUNTERS doesn’t have a central protagonist as compelling as GRIZZLY MAN’s Timothy Treadwell. Nor does it really have much of a unifying idea or structure — it would be very easy to dismiss ENCOUNTERS as a T-shirt saying “Werner went to Antarctica and all we got with this lousy [sic] home movie.” And Herzog for the first time (to me, anyway) shows a side to his persona that can fairly be called ugly. He steps on people’s self-descriptions as “ridiculous” or “I’ll make a long story short,” which comes across as especially mean from Werner Herzog, since no human being walking the face of the Earth has made a better life from being or from chronicling the sort of “touched” eccentrics whose lives are “efforts to jump off the world” and so collect at its Antarctic bottom? But with those limitations stipulated, and the 6-grade noted, this remains a very entertaining and often amazing piece of Discovery Channel programming (though it’s more of an anti-doc than a doc). And in fairness, Herzog does hold back at certain moments — the Russian who doesn’t want to discuss his past, say. And his “Stuttering John/’Man Show’ Boy”-schtick of asking inane or bizarre questions that prompt “keeping up appearances” answers (“is this a great moment?” say) is never not funny. And the imagery Herzog gets of the world under the ice is simply unbelievable — and even 75 inches of the best plasma won’t do it justice: jellyfish with visible hairs on their tentacles; droplets of water (though who knows what size they are) on the underside of the ice sheet, converging like droplets of ink on the table; swimming through fields of small marine life that cloud and blotch the visual field like the pulp in a glass of orange juice. And Herzog can still get the image too bizarre to be believed — the “piece of luggage act,” the blonding-snowstorm training both look like games that “It’s A Knockout” would have envied. And there ARE penguins in this movie. But this being a Herzog mnovie, it is not a spoiler to note that they are deranged.
BUCKING BROADWAY, John Ford, USA, 1917, 4
Presenter Peter Bogdanovich, who brought down the house with his Ford imitations, called this film “interesting for what Ford became, not so much for itself.” The DW Griffith influence is here very obvious — e.g. the climax has cowboys riding to the rescue, intercut with the barroom brawl where they’ll intervene. In this 50-minute featurette cowboy star Harry Carey is the dominant artistic force, here playing a bit more gung-ho than usual. But like with a lot of silent films, BUCKING BROADWAY is interesting simply as social archeology and rebuttal of what you thought you knew about film history — the cowboy is already somewhat “Other,” the object of fish-out-of-water in the city comedy, barely two decades after the closing of the frontier and the cowboy’s heyday, and with Wyatt Earp still around in Hollywood. Also surprisingly, there’s here a moment of purely-associational editing for psychological metaphor (involving a radiator). This is 1917, long before Eisenstein and Kuleshov.
IN MEMORY OF MYSELF, Saverio Costanzo, Italy, 3
I thought from the opening scene that I would love this film about a Catholic man in formation for an unnamed order (but apparently some kind of contemplatives). The initial interview asks all the right kinds of questions and the lead actor has an appropriately serious face. The opening scenes indicate how silent rules work, and the seminary environment is presented as devout, austere and without a hint of irony or parody (the film gets metaphorical points for never becoming anti-Catholic … see that later). But MEMORY’s script is all ellipses without drama — there are two other men who the lead character appears fascinated by, but we never really learn why (is it a homosexual crush? is it holiness? is it past acquaintance?) and they only come into focus when they leave, and the revelations turn out fairly banal and hardly justifying of either the lead man’s fascination or ours or the portentous loudly-mixed score ladled all over the film. And MEMORY stretches out its few plot points to death … no, it s t r e t c h e s t h e m o u t. The last few scenes get stronger, with the central character finally giving voice to some of what ails him, some of what conflicts him, and while they’re not things every devout man has not felt, it is truthful and causes him to consider whether God can really be calling him. But by the very end, and after plenty of telegraphing that “The Big Moment of Choice is coming, folks,” it didn’t matter which way the film-maker turned it — either in terms of its plausability or in terms of my caring.
NIGHTWATCHING, Peter Greenaway, Britain, 6
Well, I didn’t try to tear down the door at Burgundy’s, so that’s obviously a vast improvement over the last Greenaway film I saw. I swore the night I walked out of TULSE LUPER 1 in anger that I’d never watch another of his films. But I relented and NIGHTWATCHING turned out to be exactly what the buzz said it was — by Greenaway standards (underline that part, newbies), a fairly coherent, entertaining and accessible movie with a very good central performance by Martin Freeman, who plays Rembrandt as a bon-vivant “character” who learns what a bunch of asses an Amsterdam regiment is and decides to ridicule them and basically accuse them of murder in his “Night Watch” painting. There’s a couple of great scenes — one of Freeman recounting into the camera Rembrandt’s Greenawayized biography and doing it in a manner somewhat like a human being, and the unveiling of the painting, with cutaways to illustrate not only Greenaway’s theories but the elements in the drama which we had just seen (which made the typically stylized narrative seem not so arbitrary). Lots of elements in common too with COOK, THIEF, one of my all-time faves — the opening scene of a man being forcibly stripped nude on a setting made to llok like a stage, an opening curtain, lots of stylized talk about Art and other Big Topics (most of it intentionally stupid). Still this is Greenaway — there are tedious scenes and the specific historical thesis, that the painting caused retaliation from the officers, killing Rembrandt’s career is [insert Dutch words for “bullshit” and “self-serving”]. And I knew the former even before doing any research, simply from the way Greenaway “waterproofs” his theory by having the head of the team say nobody must do anything publicly, in order to hide their Vast Conspiracy from future generations. The broader thesis, that artists are night watchers who paint onto the black screen of the void, made sense. But the day’s next film went from preaching that to just doing it.
SILENT LIGHT, Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/Holland, 9
What is so special about the incredible opening shot, which some of my buds say is among the most beautiful in movie history? It’s not simply some “inherent beauty of nature” (I would not have been impressed by that), but the fact that the sunrise actually happens before our very eyes (though time lapse is used) and that Reygadas takes the time to show the light change the world, or actually creating our experience of it. And there’s real drama — what gets revealed to us as the shot continues. As in Genesis 1, in the beginning, the movie screen was a void. Then there were the stars. Then there was the light. Then there was a cosmic shape. Then there was nature per se [trees, hills]. Then there was nature as shaped by man [farms, crops]. Now that the natural world is fully revealed — cut to a home on a street [i.e., to man as fully civilized]. Yes, it’s a very lengthy shot but (1) we see the universe happen within it and (2) its length and slowness prepares us, trains us, for what follows. SILENT LIGHT is, in almost every conceivable way, paced slowly but precisely for that reason is deeply moving. The father in a Germanic Mennonite family in Mexico is having an affair but his religious conscience (he has seven children) will not let him at ease. This milieu makes the Official Art-House Style seem more like a natural fact. The people in this semi-separated religious community (they’re not isolated, like the Amish; they drive trucks, etc.) do speak slowly, do pause between sentences, never talk over one another, never engage in idle chat, etc. And so even such elements of Reygadas style as long takes and slow camera movements seem more like a reflection of this world than an imposed authorial contrivance. Simple. Beautiful. Perfect.