Rightwing Film Geek

TIFF 10 Capsules — Day 7


POTICHE (Francois Ozon, France, 7)

The “return to roots” theory was only mildly successful for Tanovic, but it applied big-time in the case of the other director to whom I applied it pre-festival — Francois Ozon. Two of the three films of his that I would call really strong (ANGEL and 8 WOMEN; UNDER THE SAND being the exception) are candy-colored heavily-perfumed exercises in game-playing genre pastiche, centered on comically outlandish female characters. Everything is in italics, even (eventually) the italics themselves.

POTICHE is 2/3 of Ozon’s best film, as he has France’s greatest actress-symbol, Catherine Deneuve. She plays the trophy-wife (the meaning of the film’s title) of an exaggeratedly evil corporate executive and she becomes dissatisfied with the role she plays to the hilt. Did I say “exaggerated”? Let me repeat — every gesture and emotion in the first 2/3 of POTICHE is played to the hilt and beyond. The dialog is bitchy, references to other films abound (Deneuve owning an umbrella factory; Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu leading a “Saturday Night Fever” disco line) the costumes and decor are fruity, and the playing is comic caricature. Karin Viard probably has the most fun, as the owner’s secretary/mistress. It’s admission-price-worth-it to see her eyes glow as she says “I will make Monsieur my special broth” and runs offstage, or savor her arm and neck motions as she dispenses a big aerosol can of hairspray around her head (the movie is set in the late 70s).

The reason this grade is as low as a 7 is the complete failure of the third act, the content of which I won’t spoil except to sat becomes all serious and surface-redemptive and … ahem … straight. It’s as if the film has to atone for all the frothy fun it’s had with a sincere politically-correct politics story. Did Ozon not think the first 2/3 were feminist enough? After all, though through the conventions of comedy, they are about a woman taking over her husband’s company and doing a better job than he did.


BURIED (Rodrigo Cortes, Spain, 8)

When Alfred Hitchcock made LIFEBOAT, he at least gave himself a big enough confined space to fit about 7 or 8 characters. And daylight. Cortes not only invites the Hitchcock comparisons right away (the Bass-style credits and Herrmannesque score had me scribbling “NxNW” in my notes), but he submits himself to an even tighter constraint — a coffin illuminated only by the limited resources of a lighter, a BlackBerry’s display and a flashlight. For this story of US truck driver kidnapped and buried alive in Iraq, he also constrained himself by having only one actor (all the other roles are mere voice-overs on the BlackBerry or hallucinations), no flashbacks or visual backstory (some plot backfilling obviously occurs in the conversations), and rigorously staying inside the coffin for near enough the whole film (there is one God’s-eye POV and one [spoiler] shot). As someone who loves Hitchcock’s “constrain myself” exercises (I watched TCM for the majority of DIAL M FOR MURDER again last night in my hotel room) and tension-machine plots, if BURIED was any good at all, I was fated to love it. And it would be a festival-best contender instead of “only” an 8-grade if it weren’t for one scene.

The sound designer gets the first credit after the star and director, and that unusual order says a lot about how the constraints put huge burdens on sound design to create the film’s space and reveal plot points. The proverbial “pin drop” never has been truer. Reynolds is racing against oxygen, battery life, and trying to get the right person to help. Eventually, his family, his company, the State Department, the military and the Iraqis who took him hostage get involved. And inside the coffin … well, some holes develop, meaning such outside elements as unwelcome animals and really unwelcome and coffin-filling sand can find their way in.

One thing Hitchcock understood about narrative tension (“suspense”) is that banality and ordinariness and even humor play a role in it. Cortes completely absorbed these lessons, giving us, for example, a phone operator at whom Reynolds flies off the handle when she (understandably) doesn’t completely absorb the seriousness if this to-her-routine call. She responds curtly, “there is no reason to be rude, sir.” (Hitch also regularly made fun of bureaucratic officialdom’s following the rules.) And the semi-comic conversations between Reynolds and his wife’s best friend are pricelessly funny in picking over old issues and are not even BURIED’s best conversations. Those occur when he reaches his senile mother; though they’re of a completely different tone.

As a tension-filled thriller, BURIED is a complete triumph, though it is marred by one lily-gilding scene that immediately perked up my radar and had me mad enough at the film to contact a lawyer friend and a legal reporter. Since I don’t care about spoiling a scene that sucks and which doesn’t contribute to the film anyway: the company, which hired him under a contract to work in a war zone and therefore presumably under some sort of federal auspice or oversight, calls Reynolds to tell him he was fired and to cancel his job-related pension and insurance policies. The contract cancellation took effect immediately and without notice or other due-process requirements over a sexual misconduct charge that is news to Reynolds as he is in the coffin, minutes from death. It doesn’t complicate the story in any way, which makes it seem like a gratuitous Political Subtext About How Mean Corporate America is, not realizing that (1) operating under federal supervision, (2) under a standard contract, (3) with pension and insurance issues, and (4) providing notice only during a duress period all raise potential legal issues that even an estate can raise. We aren’t talking about at-will or entry-level work and so, given that it doesn’t complicate the story in any way, it comes across as a mere pile-on and a play to the leftwing wank set.

While it’s not exactly a constraint in the Von Trier-Leth sense, Cortes did not pick an obviously great actor — a Ken-doll named Ryan Reynolds, whom I’ve only seen in a couple of supporting parts but never in one of his Hollywoof starring roles. On the upside, Reynolds’ presence means there is no reason one of the best films here shouldn’t play in multiplexes (though BURIED is entirely a Spanish production, Reynolds and the wholly-English dialog means few in the audience will notice). On the downside … well, there isn’t one really. Reynolds does deliver a credible performance as a man growing in desperation, precisely because he can’t move much or rely on his looks or charm. Constraint is good, again. I’ve repeatedly compared Cortes to Hitchcock, so let me conclude by comparing this film to one by the “French Hitchcock.” (vague SPOILER) BURIED’s ending is for people who thought THE WAGES OF FEAR’s too uplifting, too humanistic and lingered over for too long.


BRIGHTON ROCK (Rowan Joffe, Britain, 5)

Start with the good news — BRIGHTON ROCK is not the religious gutting of Graham Greene’s novel that I feared. And I also might not have gone had I known beforehand the film’s setting had been moved forward to 1964 to add in the mods-and-rockers riots and diegetic references to the debate over ending the death penalty in Britain (the last two hangings were in August 1964). Fortunately BRIGHTON ROCK is reasonably faithful to the novel — at least as so as the 1947 film Greene himself co-wrote, even with the same camera gesture right at the very end as the record plays — one of the times I thought Joffe’s overdirection paid off. And the explicit Catholicism of two of the characters is not hidden or downplayed.

But I didn’t care much for this story as a film the first time around either, though it’s about a theme I generally eat up — a Catholic who devoutly believes he is irredeemably destined for Hell. My problem with the 1947 film was simple — I never bought Richard Attenborough as a vicious gangster or a tortured anything for one second. (Unbelievably to me, BRIGHTON ROCK was Attenborough’s breakthrough role.) This film doesn’t have that problem at all — Sam Riley is darker, meaner, more brooding, more believably working-class. But there are casting problems with the other two central chracters — I found Andrea Riseborough as Rose overdoing the shrinking weakling bit. And though I acknowledge it’s there in the original to be overdone, it’s hard to believe a girl this recessive would fall for a guy like Pinky. And while Helen Mirren is obviously a great actress, she doesn’t do “earthy” a la Ida, much less do so as well as Hermione Baddeley did in 1947.

Still there is enough of Greene here to salvage a mixed grade, as Riley’s performance embodies the essence of the Greene hero — a man who never believes in the Commandments quite as devoutly as he does while he’s breaking them. The scene where he marries Rose, he tells himself (incorrectly, according to Church teaching, but that’s who he is) that this is this not a real wedding and he and Rose can never go back to church. When the civil authority asks for a ring, Pinky brushes him aside with “this isn’t a church, we don’t need one,” and Riley has the right mix of darkness and devil-may-care (no … “devil DOES care”) to play a man convinced he is damning himself.


CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (Werner Herzog, France, 7)

This is really more of a great occasion than a great film, the first time a serious artist has used 3D for something other than a popcorn movie. Werner Herzog provides film audiences with an experience almost all of us could never have — seeing the oldest known works of art in the world, Cro-Magnon drawings preserved from 40,000 years ago on the inside of a cave in France that is almost always sealed off to all but a few eminent scientists. And Herzog is a valuable guide, making some interesting critical points — that the bison have multiple pairs of legs, which he calls an attempt to represent motion in a static form. And he points to a handprint (it was all I could do not to yell out “Banksy”) as a man’s first signature, putting his own personal imprint on something. The 3D form (which I hate on principle) really helps us see into the caves’ contours and “shapes” the drawings properly. Because Herzog eschews using 3D as a stunt (including one sequence where the temptation must have been mighty), even if it doesn’t work, you can’t resent it. (UPDATE: And how did I forget the radioactive albino alligators?)

However, Herzog’s sequences outside the cave seem more like half-hearted stabs at his “colorful eccentrics who say more than they intend.” But the perfumist cave-smeller doesn’t really go anywhere; the effort to demonstrate how powerful caveman arrows were just falls flat though thankfully, we get no arrow-flight or aims-at-camera shots to show 3D off; and playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a caveman flute would make Osama bin Laden feel sorry for that song.

But those last two things allude to why I did not find myself bowled over by this film. The art itself just isn’t very interesting on its own terms. Oh … I *get* its importance historically and I appreciate the experience. But this is why I liked better Sokurov’s RUSSIAN ARK, another “technical stunt” “museum tour” movie — in that case, through the various rooms in the Hermitage in a no-CGI-fakery 90-minute single take. Sokurov had better art on display. As I was making this point over frosted malt beverages during the fest, Scott Tobias told me, “c’mon Victor, give the cavemen a break.”


KABOOM! (Gregg Araki, USA, 2)

Sample dialog from early in this film: “This was all cute and fun when we were 15. But we’re adults of legal age now.” Actually … no.

A movie is in trouble if you hate the characters so much that you spend every minute wishing it would turn into a SAW movie so that everyone on the screen will die the most hideous, painful death imaginable. A movie is in real trouble if the director makes it obvious that he shares everything detestable about the characters and expect you to find this at least somewhat appealing. The characters in KABOOM! aka LIFESTYLES OF THE YOUNG DUMB AND FULL OF CUM, Part II are stupid, infantile sluts and aggressively proud of being stupid, infantile sluts. And director Gregg Araki proves he loves them and that their sensibility reflects his by putting them in a stupid sex-drenched plot so aggressively infantile that it can only possibly work as a joke or as an excuse for actors to get naked and fuck as much as possible. (Here’s one sample exchange: “have you heard of the New Order? / you mean the seminal New Wave ban of the 80s.” Hint: there was an earlier antecedent that had something to do with world conquest, the context of the scene.) It’s not the worst film I saw at TIFF this year, but it IS the one I’d least like to sit through second time.

The plot, which kicks in once the sex roundelay has (relatively) quieted down, has something to do with a secret cult-cabal with plans to take over the world unless the hero agrees to succeed his father as cult-commander-in-chief but has nuclear weapons stored in every city. At one point after a lengthy exposition catchup speech, one character says to another “how do you know all that,” and I said aloud (though nobody more than a seat away could have heard me) “because the script requires it.” Oh … and there’s secret agents wearing animal-mask costumes — “and I woulda gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids.” OK … not exactly, but KABOOM! really IS just a two-part Very Special Episode of Scooby-Doo, with lots of fucking.

You could make a campy film with those elements, but KABOOM! has nothing to do with anything remotely related to people or experiences in whom I have the slightest interest. This is a movie for people for whom normal experience involves having sex with two people on the same day, getting a both-ways threesome as a birthday present, having someone pewk on your shoes at a party and walk off without a word, fucking your half-sister and telling Mel Gibson jokes. This film has no other reason to exist except as narcissistic fantasy for such people.

Which hints at the thing that pushed me over the edge with this movie — it’s utter absorption in the most juvenile of gay stereotypes, where the central character is a promiscuous slut who’ll fuck anything and everything. This is also the kind of movie with three really muscular men. What are the odds that you’ll walk in on two wrestling shirtless on the dorm floor calling each other “fag” over and over again? But guess what all three turn out to be? Even though one is married, a fact we only learn however after an anonymous sex encounter on a nude beach? Guess? Those who’ve been exiled in Timbuktu for 30 years get help from this bit of author’s message “dialog”: “the fact they can’t suck each other’s dicks make them gayer than gay boys.” And guess why else they turn out to be? (Hint: Animal masks.) This sort of smirking fuckfest not only belongs in the 2am Cinemax slot, but, from a 51-year-old man, provides grist for the old Freudian theory of homosexuality as a form of arrested development. In at least one case, it is. (By comparison Francois Ozon is 43 and Xavier Dolan a mere 21. And, despite making at least some identifiably “gay” films, both men are at least recognizable as adults.)

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September 20, 2010 Posted by | Francois Ozon, Gregg Araki, Rodrigo Cortes, Rowan Joffe, TIFF 2010, Werner Herzog | 3 Comments

Life and death of a Grizzly Man

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GRIZZLY MAN (Werner Herzog, USA, 9)

Take me home, oh Muddah, Fadduh, Take me home, I hate Granada,
Don’t leave me out in the forest, where I might get eaten by a bear.
— Allan Sherman, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”

GrizzlyPosterIt’s amazing how much a man can will himself into not knowing or not regarding — even the simplest things that make for a throwaway joke in a parody-campfire song.

Werner Herzog’s documentary “Grizzly Man” is, on the surface at least, a nature documentary, like this summer’s surprise hit “The March of the Penguins.” But in nearly every way it’s not only the opposite of, but even the antidote to, “Penguins,” whose appeal is based on how “cute” its semi-personified little animals are — Tennessee Tuxedo and his bud Chumley the Walrus. But Herzog does the opposite — covering the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, an environmentalist who camped out in an Alaska nature reserve to live among giant grizzly bears and “protect” them (from whom or what is never exactly made clear). Very early on (so not a spoiler), we learn Treadwell and his little-seen girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed by one of the wild bears, whom he treats like Winnie the Pooh and the Hair Bear Bunch, even giving them cute names and cooing over their piles of dung.

A large part of what makes “Grizzly Man” a masterpiece is that Treadwell shot hundreds of hours of video of himself among the bears, usually setting up the cameras on the ground and then talking to the lens about what he was doing or giving his latest manifesto, like it was his vacation slides at Disneyland or “The Real World, Alaska.” In his frequent German-accented voiceover, Herzog also reads liberally from Treadwell’s diaries.

At the start, Herzog apologized for using so much of Treadwell’s footage, rather than his own. There was no need — he couldn’t have matched this. At one and the same time, the Treadwell footage is funny, unintentionally revealing, sad, and chilling. It’s like watching a man die on his own reality TV show, while he doesn’t know what the show’s premise is. (And a woman just following him where, the few clues we get suggest, she doesn’t want to go.) Herzog also milks the footage timeline for maximum emotional impact, like the great fiction film-maker he also is — one piece of footage was only minutes before the fatal attack and probably shows the actual bear in the background.

The reality TV parallels and “life as performance” themes come in elsewhere, in some of the interviews. For example, Treadwell friend Jewel Palovak is given his “still-ticking” watch by the coroner, and it’s so transparently a “staged” moment that it practically recodes itself as the film unspools. The “spontaneous” chatter and the stiffly practiced “thanks for giving me my friend’s watch” lines are almost parodic — the sort of bad naturalistic “acting” you see on porn films. But Herzog lets the film go on for several seconds after the “scene” is over and the difference in naturalism is palpable.

GrizzlyMan2It’s clear by the end of the film that Treadwell is a complete nutter. He becomes increasingly paranoid, seeing neutral or congratulatory messages and even a smiley face painted onto stones (planted by whom … if not himself, in order to be “found” and photographed later?) as warnings and proof that “they” are closing in on him. He levels an obscene volley of expletives at the Park Service over regulations that Herzog calls “perfectly reasonable” about getting too close to the bears. In a movie filled with almost Sophoclean moments of hubris (practically every shot of Treadwell cooing over the bears), that one stands out particularly, as if Treadwell were deliberately courting death. At some points in the footage, he matter-of-factly talks about his possible death, and at others insists these cuddwy widdle fwiends will never hurt him. Also, it was never quite made clear what exactly Treadwell was doing, as he insisted he was, to “protect” these grizzly bears. We see only one shot of other human beings (besides Treadwell’s little-seen girlfriend and the pilot who flew him there) — and that was people in boats taking photos of the bears ashore, only Treadwell insists they’re really poachers. But even apart from the complete lack of evidence of this, all Treadwell does is watch, photograph and comment, like he’s playing the host of a nature-TV show. It’s as if he’s consciously playing a self-presented role, an image, a persona, rather than doing something. Herzog also shows how Treadwell contrived his whole image, even down to doing multiple takes of the same “natural” shot in the wilderness for the film he planned to make of himself.

So why?

In a word — religion. Or a kind of self-created religiosity, certainly. A search for self that flees from oneself. Treadwell says at one point “I had no life. Now I have a life” in the bears. It’s also an attempt, Herzog says, “to leave his humanness behind” and be one with what he worshipped — a common religious theme not unknown to, among many others, St. Paul. Treadwell even founded a group called “Grizzly People.” In his reconstruction of Treadwell’s past, Herzog makes it explicit that Treadwell’s whole life was afflicted by erratic wanderlust — going off to school then dropping out, abandoning his family, going out to California to surf, the frequent drug use, claiming a mysterious past as an Australian orphan, and then finding God in nature. We practically know the script by heart, it seems.

But like Adam and Eve who thought they could be as gods themselves, Treadwell is a postmodern trangressive who sees no limit to what his efforts can do — “God would adore me for what I do,” he says at one point; and on another, he commands God to produce rain because the bears are starving from low river flows. He didn’t accept his createdness as a limitation, instead thinking he could transcend nature by babbling on about how he’ll be safe from the bears because of samurai codes and showing no fear around the bears, as if they make any difference GrizzleManEyesin such an unequal physical matchup (“man-vs-bear” is not quite “fighting above your weight class”). Treadwell exemplifies a refusal to accept that nature limits you, whether it’s in communication (Herzog says he looks in the bears’ eyes and sees only the mystery of their absolute Otherness) or the ultimate natural end — death, something only a god could transcend.

The ironic thing is that “Grizzly Man” shows how real pre-modern cultures may be simpler, but are much harsher and far more realistic. They know not to trangress nature’s limits and know it demands human sacrifice — two things that happen in “Grizzly Man.” Herzog gives a short interview with an Alaska Native (you know … the Native Americans who are so in touch with nature) who says Treadwell paid the “ultimate disrespect” because “he tried to be a bear. You can’t do that.” The Alaskan also points out that Treadwell may have done more damage by habituating at least some of the bears to man, another boundary the bears would naturally know to respect. Nature intrudes everywhere, spoiling man’s plans, even for nice unobtrusive documentary footage. The pilot who describes finding the bodies (probably the sanest man in the movie) gives his account amid a sea of unwanted insects — constant reminders of nature.

Herzog has a well-earned reputation for obsession with insane or dysfunctional characters. Of the six films of his I’ve seen — two have starred a certified schizophrenic, the child-like Bruno S. (“Stroszek” and “The Enigma of Kasper Hauser”), one portrayed a whole town of lunatics (“Heart of Glass”) and three centered on men who (sorta) lose their grip on reality in the course of pursuing some mad plan (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo” and “Nosferatu”). And some of the footage of Herzog himself in Les Blank’s documentary “Burden of Dreams,” about the making of “Fitzcarraldo,” shows a paranoid man at the edge of reason, even in a nonconfrontational talking-head interview.

But here in “Grizzly Man,” Herzog stands apart from the material much more than he ever did in his fiction films. At one level, Herzog clearly sympathizes with Treadwell. After hearing denunciatory letters about how Treadwell got what he deserved, saying that “I would like to defend him as a film-maker,” proceeding to cite and show all the interesting features of Treadwell’s footage. But he lays his final cards on the table when he says that Treadwell was done in by an an oversentimentalized view of the bears, which was part of his overall childlike view of nature as good and harmonious. Herzog then describes some of the “nature, red in tooth and claw” features of bear behavior and says he sees the “common denominator in the universe as chaos, hostility and murder.” Even when Treadwell sees two male bears fighting over a female, and afterward, he still doesn’t *see.* He interprets it in romantic triangle terms — “Saturn is like Michelle Pfeiffer” — and he talks of “Mickey,” as though he was a boxer who had just lost a close 10-round decision rather than a badly wounded creature who may not live, because of his self-consuming desire to mate.

GrizzlyManFight

By the end, like Norma Desmond clutching at her comeback role, Treadwell has become his own delusions, been enfolded by his dream. Even though started out the Grizzly Man role as a contrived image, he’s become what he’s seen himself as. “He was no longer an actor in a role, but fighting civilization,” Herzog says of a late rant, adding that he himself had seen that kind of “incandescent rage” only on a movie set (Klaus Kinski’s performances in “Aguirre” and “Fitzcarraldo,” plus the Blank documentary, gave us vague clues about what he’s referring to). But in one of “Grizzly Man’s” most powerful sequences and the only one to have Herzog appear onscreen (though on the edge of the frame and with his back to the camera), the film-maker listens in front of Palovak to an audio tape of the fatal attack (Treadwell’s camera had been on, but the cap hadn’t been taken off the lens, so no video footage exists). Jewel says she has never listened to the tape, though it is in her possession. We hear nothing but the room’s ambient noise on the soundtrack, but if you have any imagination at all, the silence is deafening. Herzog tells her not to ever listen to it, and even destroy it because it’ll be the white elephant in the room for the rest of her life. Herzog may be a little touched, but like the Alaska natives and unlike Treadwell, he respects nature and fiction for what they are, not how he’d like them to be, and knows how far they can and cannot be pushed. Treadwell did not. Herzog is a sane madman; Treadwell an insane madman.

August 24, 2005 Posted by | Werner Herzog | Leave a comment