TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 2
This film is pornographic, and by that I’m not referring to explicit sex, but to another kind of privacy self-violation. Toronto couple Billy and Antoinette Edwards are exhibitionists, not simply in the narrow sense that we see them (and their ~3-year-old son Bogart) nude on the beach, but the fact they agreed to make this film at all. And somehow trusted a stranger (or even a friend) into their home to see what we see, not only for his benefit but for the eventual benefit of the whole world. I feel like Marge at the end of FARGO, musing about how there’s some things in the world she just doesn’t understand. Why would two people who love each other, who ever loved each other, do this? I can’t think of a film in history where there is such a gap between my enthusiasm for the film and my enthusiasm for the film’s existence.
Don’t get me wrong, A MARRIED COUPLE is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, portraying a loveless marriage in all its pettiness and rawness, and suggesting sideways that this is what the sexual revolution and feminism does to marriage. Near the end, when the D-word is breached (I have married Catholic friends who say never broach the subject, because you can never take it back), Billy says “the problem is not the framework or the social structure, it’s you and me.” Wrong. This is a very modern marriage, in which the concept of “dying to self” and “mutual submission” and other religious mumbo-jumbo is literally foreign. Each is in the marriage for what they can get out of it as individuals, and that’s the root of all the quarreling. The quarrels here put Cassavettes and even Bergman to shame in how it always comes out that they’re either really about something else (getting a harpsichord is about status within the marriage; who gets the car in the morning is about who is a servant, and eventually even what “service” is). Or they are about the simple satisfaction of being right and doing things “my way” (the issue of returning some borrowed records reminded me of a much-more-comic quarrel on “All in the Family” between Mike and Archie over putting on socks and shoes).
After the film, you really feel like you want to take a shower or go home to your wife with some loving act or gesture. But I eventually decided that that reaction makes the film worthy, for me anyway. The film’s verite approach, apparent single-camera shooting and lack of commentary or even explicit self-awareness (I am told there was one reference to the camera’s presence, which I apparently missed) leaves open the space for us, or for me anyway, to detest these people and the ugly self-exhibitionism on display.
To plagiarize myself … In 2009, TIFF had a Korean film featuring a veteran actress as a dotty old lady whose son-figure is involved in a sex crime investigation. In 2010, TIFF had a Korean film featuring a veteran actress as dotty old lady whose son-figure is involved in a sex crime investigation. In 2009, Bong Joon-ho’s MOTHER was my favorite film of the festival. In 2010, Lee Chang-dong’s POETRY … will not be. Lee’s movie seems machine-tooled to prove by negative example all the things Bong did right. While Bong expertly used the conventions of the detective story and the policier genre, both for their own effects and to goose us for what the film was finally really about, Lee just includes a lot of behavior and potential ideas, none of which ever give the film much pull.
There’s the poetry class, though it’s hard to see why this woman would be attracted to it, except as retreat from reality (and there’s the unfortunate fact that poetry is not only hard to translate, but also ideas about poetry is differ greatly among cultures; I was mostly left unmoved by the poems we hear or see). There’s several scenes in poetry class where people describe their happiest moment, and I wanted the film to do that and become like Kore-eda’s AFTER LIFE; bit it doesn’t. There’s the Alzheimer’s diagnosis that implies that POETRY is going to be about a lot of things that it never is, about making art as one tragically loses one’s grip a la Schumann in Haneke’s LA PIANISTE (certainly the analog to the mother’s fate at the end of Bong’s film is withering). A compensation thread doesn’t really go anywhere interesting and is eventually canceled out, suddenly and without much internal drama. There’s a scene where the old woman wanders into a Catholic Church where there’s a memorial service for the dead girl, and you’re thinking of (Lee’s vastly superior) SECRET SUNSHINE, but the film goes no farther with that. Bong’s son figure was a lively comic “retard” who really didn’t like being called that; in the Lee, he’s just a big ungrateful lump who lies there (even his fate at the end is flat and uninflected). And I guess that’s the problem I had with POETRY in a nutshell — it was so damn inert.
Here’s the basic problem. If Joaquin Phoenix really had a meltdown, this film is pointless and stupid (and coming from one’s brother-in-law, ugly and enabling as well). If Joaquin Phoenix pulled an elaborate stunt for two years, this film is an ugly form of misery tourism and a too-spun-out pointless practical joke. And as one of the “Entertainment Tonight” talking heads put it near the end when the real-or-fake subject is broached, “most of all, do we care” if it’s real or fake? No. Either way, I’M STILL HERE is only intermittently funny and a failure in every other conceivable way. The Letterman interview is one of the great comic moments in recent television; Puffy’s reaction to Phoenix’s rap record is priceless (whether he’s in on the joke or not); and there’ll always be a special place in my heart for a Hollywoof celebrity who sleeps through Obama’s inauguration.
The basic problem is that there is no on-camera difference, unless multiple textual layers become explicit and that doesn’t happen here, between being an asshole and playing an asshole. And so to do it full-time as part of a stunt doesn’t really tell us much, the effect on the viewer is the same. When Affleck shows an assistant’s penis upon Phoenix’s on-camera insistence or Phoenix snorts coke off a hooker’s body, it’s a public humiliation either way, and to leave open the “fake” question is just ugly. At least the Edwardses quarrels were genuine, whatever might be said of their exhibitionism about them (to see this film the same day as A MARRIED COUPLE was crushing).
And that simple fact points to where Phoenix’s project was doomed. He laments early that “I don’t want to play the character ‘Joaquin Phoenix.’ I just want to be myself, and be rid of all these preconceptions people have of me.” Sorry, but I call “bullshit.” If you want to retreat from fame, you retreat from fame, like JD Salinger or Thomas Pynchon or Terrence Malick or later John Hughes. You don’t make a documentary about your new career (also a show-biz one, mind you, only Phoenix craptacularly sucks at rap). Further, nobody is (or should be) under the illusion they’re saying “the real Big Star So-and-So.” We pay to see their image and their artistry, not their real personalities, which are no more interesting than yours or mine.
So for now, I’m with the “it’s fake” crowd. There are scenes, supposedly impromptu quarrels, where there’s cross-cutting between the two parties which implies either a two-camera shoot (unlikely for a homemade movie and the “other camera” is never visible, which implies careful “blocking”) or, as most fiction-movie scenes are made, shot over and over from different angles. The camera is also in some too-fortuitous for belief places — looking through a hotel peephole, just out of visual sight but within audio range of a crying Phoenix lamenting the end of everything at Central Park). Like Lee’s POETRY did to Bong’s MOTHER, this film really made me appreciate another film in my Top 10 to-date for the year — Banksy’s EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, another is-it-real or is-it-fake headscratcher, but one which was actually used the uncertainty gimmick to be about something other than itself (hucksterism in the art world and ultimately the nature of creativity).
The most-important thing to know about this very silly film is that at Midnight Madness, to get the audience in the mood while we were all filing in, the sound system was playing, among other things, the “Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl” theme song (yes … I can recite all the villains and most of their sidekicks without looking it up — Ali Baba and the Genie, the Sorcerer and Miss Dazzle, the Pharoah and Cleopatra, Glitter Rock and Sideshow, Spider-Lady, the Empress of Evil and Lucretia … and I’m damn proud of that). And it has Ellen Page in the “sidekick” role that she takes to … extremely enthusiastically. And it uses Cheap Trick’s “If You Want My Love,” a song that deserves to be as well known as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” in the ass-kicking, love-theme genre. You know from this descriptions what you will think of SUPER. Again, it’s fun cheese with fantasy elements designed to appeal to comic and other geeks
SUPER is basically a superhero parody film, deliberately low-budget and comic-book-y (the film includes “splat!!!” and “pow!!!” balloons) but it’s smart and knowing (though deliberately funny at the same time) about what’s repressed when, say, a superhero with no powers decides to make a wrench his weapon and go “splat!!!” and “pow!!!” It also, a la SERIAL MOM, shows the super heros getting increasingly … well, picky … about what deserves an ass-kicking. SUPER is a bit spell-it-out explicit about the needs the protagonist (Rainn Wilson) feels in order to put on the superhero costume — “I am [effing] interesting,” he yells at one point. Between that and the vigilante angle (unfortunately dropped late), SUPER might have had a chance to plumb some serious unexplored depths. But only in a world where THE DARK KNIGHT didn’t already exist.
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