Rightwing Film Geek

TIFF Capsules — Day 10

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN, Cristian Nemescu, Romania — 6

Of the four recent Romanian films I’ve seen, this is the one that comes closest in style and tone to the East European black-comedies of the 60s (Munk, Forman, Menzel, etc.) — a bureaucratic snafu, an arbitrary decision-maker, allegorical plot, a lot of people waiting around, and establishing a temporary idyll while “the papers are being processed” offstage. With a group of American soldiers trapped in Romanian Nowheresville on their way to Kosovo, you get a range of reactions and interactions, all of them at least bordering on the cynical. I was also floored by the black-and-white flashback to the 40s, which explains exactly why some of the people behave as they do. Compared to the northern part of ex-Commie Europe though, Balkan humor, or at least the behavior of the characters, is a bit less dry and bit more blustery. DREAMIN is a funny delight, but it just went on for too long for the premise and the episodic structure eventually wore out its welcome. I can’t help but think Nemescu would have tightened it up some if he hadn’t been killed in a car accident.

ANGEL, Francois Ozon, Britain/France — 8

I may need to take another look at Todd Haynes’s FAR FROM HEAVEN, to which I had a decidedly mixed reaction, because I so thoroughly enjoyed this movie, which succeeds on exactly the terms that HEAVEN’s fans say it did. A sort of female bildungsroman about a teenage dreamer who becomes a writer of cheap romances and then Britain’s biggest literary star, ANGEL isn’t in any way a parody or a pastiche or a travesty of the 30s/40s woman’s picture. It is simply an example of it, a re-creation of it — outdated conventions and all (complaining about the obvious rear-projection, as does the lead review on the IMDb as I write this, utterly misses the point). And given the subject matter and the central character, this is an entirely appropriate stylistic choice. Like Blanche DuBois, Angel doesn’t want realism, she wants magic. ANGEL is in color — a garish and stylized look by contemporary standards; not so much by the standards of the color available in the 30s, but Ozon is at least nodding in that direction. But in every other respect, you can imagine MGM of the 30s putting out this movie, with Norma Shearer or Joan Crawford or Greer Garson in the lead (even to the lead actress being too old for the early, teenager scenes). You can hear the ghosts of Franz Waxman or Dmitri Tiomkin on the extravagantly romantic, mostly-strings score. The honeymoon is presented in a montage of “around the world” scenography (obvious back-projection again). The sets are deliberately opulent (per the “Tiffany studio” rep) to the point of unbelievable if ANGEL were in any way trying to be realistic or even contemporary, but which by their very stand-out quality, sustain both the illusion of a re-creation and the reflection of a soul who doesn’t want realism. In the same vein, what makes Romola Garai’s performance in the central role so awesome is that she stakes out her own ground within this stylized genre. Garai in no way imitates Bette Davis or some of her particular mannerisms. She simply acts herself but in a manner that recalls Davis, and her character is as much a self-centered dynamic asshole as anything Davis ever created. Like Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE, Garai is clearly having a ball playing an unredeemed bitch in the early scenes and then, when the character starts to suffer as the genre demands, she’s just as self-assured in her pleadings. There is simply no substitute for conviction.

THE SUN ALSO RISES, Jiang Wen, China — 5

When you start training in submission wrestling or jiu-jitsu, the first thing you’re told is that submitting or “tapping out” is part of the game. If you’re caught, you’re caught; and “only wimps submit” is not an attitude you can take. In the analogous spirit in the matter of film criticism … I now must tap out to a sunk-in arm bar. I wimpishly admit that I have no effing idea what this movie is about. It’s got something to do with the Cultural Revolution, and there are stretches of 10 or 15 minutes when it almost makes sense. There seem to be a couple of plot lines, one involving a professor and a film screening of Maoist propaganda, and another involving a crazy mother who climbs trees. I almost hope that Jiang just made it deliberately obscure in order to confound the Chi-Com censors. What makes SUN tolerable is that it’s so gorgeous to look at — the high-contrast images with the colors saturated up to 11 (especially on the orange-red, as if the whole film was shot at Roland Garros tennis stadium). It’s also often quite funny or bizarre (particularly in the mother character, throwing sheep down trees). But seeing SUN was like watching a coloratura opera in another language, without titles, without having read the book. You admire the virtuosity for a while and remind yourself to “read the book next time.” But in the end, you can’t embrace it.

MY WINNIPEG, Guy Maddin, Canada — 8

The key word here is “my.” This is the most humorously self-absorbed “City Symphony” movie since Fellini’s ROMA, and any resemblance between this film and the actual capital of Manitoba is purely coincidental and quite probably actionable (“10 times the suicide rate of any place in the world”? Really?) I was stunned when I saw on the credits that the Documentary Channel had helped finance this film — eccentric, brilliant and side-splittingly funny though it is. Some of the history recounted has a basis in fact — but everything in Maddin’s hands becomes raw material for his wack imagination, maybe the greatest comic mind working in the movies now. For example, I have no doubt that some sort of accident at a Winnipeg racetrack really did kill some horses. I rather doubt that the horses fell into the river, instantly freezing them to death. And I’m positive that the frozen-in-death heads did not remain above ice all winter and become a kind of decorative statuary attraction for Winnipegers. In this, MY WINNIPEG is like the greatest ever segment of David Letterman’s “Brush with Greatness” — absurd comic embellishments off real events that we’re not supposed to believe, but told with a straight face because it’s so much more enjoyable that way. In a similar vein, this gives a reason for the use of the usual Maddin style — a fevered, impressionistic look, silent footage (a copious voiceover narration here, though) and a “looks 70 years old” quality. It’s part of the “straight face,” given how old some of the history is. Maddin also makes the film intensely personal, after his fashion, by re-creating certain episodes of his 60s Winnipeg childhood, but his now 80-something mom playing herself (not so, though this is what is said during the film; see comments), hired actors playing the others in his family. And using a chihuahua to play the family’s boxer-pup (or was it the other way around). And remembering the world’s most absurd TV show (to describe it would spoil it) — “The Pride of Winnipeg.” Writing this capsule, I’m already starting to convince myself I’ve underestimated MY WINNIPEG. One complaint though: there was not a single mention of Winnipeg’s second-greatest artists, the Crash Test Dummies, so stunned that I left the theater asking myself “Hmmmmm?”

JUST LIKE HOME, Lone Sherfig, Denmark — 3

I want to finish this quickly, so I can get to some of the posts and updates I’ve put off. So it’s hardly worth mentioning this completely forgettable sitcom, which, if it hadn’t been in Danish (or at least not in English), would never grace an important international film festival. The minute you see that one of the characters is an uptight Christian virgin, the only question is “whom will she bed by the movie’s end?” This being Scandinavia, it can be literally anyone for all it matters. This also being Scandinavia, she and the rest of the women will also get a chance to see every man in town naked.

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September 24, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments

TIFF Capsules — Day 9

ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON, Eric Rohmer, France — 6

I’m afraid I may be becoming an auteurist zombie with my grade on this movie, an adaptation of a 17th-century novel in the chivalric style, about a 5th-century love split by a misunderstanding. ROMANCE is the weakest film I’ve ever seen by my favorite living film-maker, but not an uninteresting one, exactly because I had such difficulty with it.¹ To state what is most obvious, ROMANCE is very badly acted movie. Atrociously acted. At the bad middle-school, Max Fischer Players level of reciting clearly-memorized lines. It’s so bad that it HAS to be deliberate … this is Eric frickin’ Rohmer, right? And he did make PERCEVAL, a medieval-set heroic tale that was just as stiffly and artificially acted. Right? He did. Except … PERCEVAL was clearly performed as an onscreen text — absurdly artificial cardboard sets, characters self-narrating their actions, a visible music chorus, complete with Foley artists in costume. I can’t entirely embrace PERCEVAL, but it was clearly an anti-realist period film (though I think THE LADY AND THE DUKE much superior in that vein). But there’s none of either earlier film’s visual strategy in ROMANCE, which is shot plain-vanilla style in natural settings that neither evoke the past or signify anything at all. And seeing ROMANCE the same day as THE VIRGIN SPRING didn’t make me more receptive to the “medieval stylization” claim. Theo pointed out to me later that Rohmer begins ROMANCE with a card saying the film would try to recreate how a 17th-century audience would imagine this chivalric-romance story. Which I got, but doesn’t seem like an explanation. Would (or could) Enlightenment audiences have imagined an-already-past piece in the style of cinematic realism? I have such regard for Rohmer that I have no doubt he achieved what he wanted to. I just don’t have the foggiest notion of what exactly that was. And why.

THE WALKER, Paul Schrader, USA — 7

In the midst of all the snooty art films at a festival like TIFF, the good ones and the bad ones, you still need at least a couple of palate cleaners: English-language entertainment films with few ambitions beyond telling a story, making you laugh, giving you a thrill/chill or two. So for the ninth day of a fest, THE WALKER is a perfectly confectionary film. Schrader pretty much made this movie 25 years ago. A “walker” is basically a publicly-presentable escort/companion for older socially-prominent women (no sex occurs, and gay men are particularly valuable since can appear publicly with women without suspicion). In this Washington-set movie, Schrader more or less tells the story of AMERICAN GIGOLO with Woody Harrelson as a gay Richard Gere. There’s a dash or two of political intrigue added in, the latter of which is little more than another example of what I call “liberalism as product placement.” But Schrader handles the mechanics of the semi-political thriller deftly, Harrelson effectively plays both sides of the street — a bon-vivant and a man unexpectedly finding himself pushed into a corner. And any movie with a Diva Row like this one — Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily Tomlin, Lauren Bacall — can only be called “fabulous.”

ERIK NIETZSCHE: THE EARLY YEARS, Jacob Thuesen, Denmark — 3

When reviewing a 1981 film, Roger Ebert asked himself the following question, the most basic one a film critic can ask: “Why is Heaven’s Gate so painful and unpleasant to look at?” and answered that “it is so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen” and concluded that “a director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture.” Since the momentous December 1996 day when I walked half-awares into an Atlanta theater playing BREAKING THE WAVES, Lars Von Trier the director has never failed to make my annual Top 10. But Lars Von Trier the writer, when directed by others, has never avoided an all-caps CON (the only other such title is DEAR WENDY), and both WENDY and NIETZSCHE, a roman a self-clef about LvT’s years in Danish film school, have (among others) the same basic primary visual problem: a beige-brown palette that is simply ugly and dirty to look at. You DO want to try Windex on ERIK NIETZSCHE. The material isn’t all that bad — the pseudonymous “Nietzsche” finding his way through film school — and often very funny (the portrayals of the other students and professors have the feel of getting back on your own high-school class). But it’s extremely one-dimensional and the LvT self-promotion bandwagon has worn out its welcome. And the film’s as ugly as ass.

THE VIRGIN SPRING, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1960 — 8

I’ll describe my particular interactions with presenter Max von Sydow in another post, but to speak strictly of SPRING as a movie (we have all seen it, right?). Von Sydow pointed out after the film how the central scene of discovery, when the mother sees her daughter’s clothes among the thieves’ belongings, Bergman simply held on the mother’s face for a very long time. No cutting away and no underlining score, or any of the other things that a film-maker would do today. “He takes the time to make you feel her loss,” Von Sydow said (quoting from memory; may be a little off). He’s obviously correct about Bergman taking his time when he needs to, but I was struck just as much by almost the opposite reaction — just how efficiently-paced SPRING is. Bergman doesn’t waste a moment in a film that is as lean and fast (but without seeming hurried or harried; that’s the genius) in its storytelling as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Whatever may be said about his other movies, Bergman knew that medieval legends went straight to the point. Uniting my observation and Von Sydow’s — every scene is exactly as long as it should be. SPRING may also represent the peak (or at least “most typical”) example of Bergman’s black-and-white visual style: a bold chiaroscuro with harshly-defined lines around the objects, but with the pearl-gray ambience producing soft shadows, the result of using a kind of diffused light typical of the overcast North. Given that Bergman so comprehensively creates texture, this movie’s medieval setting and parable story produce the effect of looking at tableaux or a series of church icons (like the Stations of the Cross, say) from a time where movies didn’t exist. The thing that struck me most anew in this viewing of SPRING, my third or fourth, was how spoiled and naive is the young girl of the title (like Narcissus, she pauses to admire her own beauty in a pool of water), and how Birgitta Petterson’s performance, effective in this context though it is, seems to belong in another movie. She’s all sunny and light-hearted, as if she doesn’t realize that she’s living in medieval times. Camille Paglia would no doubt have a field day applying her theories of date rape to this girl’s reckless behavior, plus the archetypes Bergman plays to the nines — blonde-vs.-brunette, say. But I will always think that Gunnel Lindblom as the pagan maid isn’t giving is a bit … much of the smoldering hatred act.

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¹ I hasten to say that ROMANCE is not at all “difficult” in the LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD sense of “hard to follow.” Indeed it’s almost too simple, a romantic misunderstanding followed by efforts to straighten things out.

September 24, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment