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“)?