THE DIXIE CHICKS: SHUT UP AND SING (Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, USA, 6)
I will prescind from my precise experience of seeing this movie at the liberal equivalent of a 1984 Two Hours of Hate, saving that for another post. This movie, seen in its noumenal self, is a conventional but entertaining and interesting backstage account of the two years after Natalie Maines made the group notorious for all the wrong reasons by telling a London audience on the eve of the Iraq War that “we are ashamed that the president is from Texas” (a moment that we actually see in the film– I’m curious how Kopple and Peck acquired the footage). There are places this film could have gone but didn’t (Noel Murray pointed out to me that Willie Nelson has long been linked to left-wing causes, without tarnishing his status with country fans). But SHUT UP AND SING is still much more than a mere VH1 Behind the Music episode, and not just a worshipful encomium to the free-speech martyrs suffering at the hands of Bushitleretardespot. For one thing, Kopple shows without either creating or commenting upon the cleavages in the group — generally between Maines and manager Simon Renshaw on the one hand, and the other two group members, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. Maines comes across particularly as naive — thinking at that the start that any publicity is good publicity. And there is a shouting match between the *three* band members and Renshaw (who frankly came across, to me at least, as a bit of a wanker) in which Renshaw assures them there’s no boycott of their music, even though no radio station will play them. There’s also differences between how Maines/Renshaw and Maguire/Robison view country music, its fan base, and its identification with the red states, with the former being frequently and (behind the scenes at least) openly contemptuous of “that redneck bullshit” and view the furor as an opportunity to do new things without fear of alienating the “hick towns”; while Maguire and Robison want to see what can be done to recover their career with that format. Still, one of the most memorable moments for me was an interview in which Maguire breaks into tears defending Maines in an interview with (I assume) the filmmakers, who are never seen or heard in the film. Also, I’m no music critic, but I must say that I don’t see how the Chicks’ music changes from what we see of their recent album — other than the literal meanings of the lyrics.
MON MEILLEUR AMI (MY BEST FRIEND) (Patrice Leconte, France, 8 )
Yes Mike, the premise is rather sit-commy — man has to find a best friend to win a bet and prove to his circle of non-friend acquaintances that he isn’t a total asshole. I really don’t think any sitcom would take some of the darker turns this story does, nor would the ordinary sitcom have this much heart (Seinfeld couldn’t have turned off the snark). MON MEILLEUR AMI also earns some of its emotional response in non-cheap ways no sitcom would … speaking vaguely … the coda would have occurred that very night in the American remake of this film. Still, I don’t see the point of noting that Auteuil’s smile is rather fake, because it’s a brilliant, constipated contrast with the reason this film is so good despite an admittedly hackneyed premise. That is Dany Boon’s performance as the cab driver whom Auteuil cons into being his best friend, or rather what he communicates through his very Being in this movie (for the record … I had never seen him in anything before this movie). Boon is not simply happy, he is happiness embodied. His face is so open, his gait so light, his eyes so jolly, his smile so present without seeming pasted-on that he carries the movie by making you like him; you want to be his friend too. And so, he gets you involved in rooting for Auteuil — to see what he has in front of him, and what he might piss away. “Infectiously happy” is an easy thing to say, but not since AMELIE have I left a movie theater wiping away tears of happiness. Leconte’s direction and style is not as eccentrically brilliant as Jeunet’s though. MON MEILLEUR AMI is undoubtedly formula; but of a superior grade. And a crowd-pleaser, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with pleasing a crowd. One more thing. Patrice … I am recommending your latest film. Now can we please get MONSIEUR HIRE (the movie that won you my eternal esteem) out on North American home video in something other than an out-of-print pan-and-scan VHS. thanksbud
LITTLE CHILDREN (Todd Field, USA, 6)
SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY (Apichatpong Weerasethakul aka “Joe,” Thailand, 8)
I raised the grade on this in the last few days because it just keeps growing in my memory, even though that memory is very hazy. I got to the theater about 10 minutes into SYNDROMES because my previous movie had ran late. And then, during the film, I hit The Festival Wall and dropped off for 20 winks or so. So in no way could I be said to have seen this film properly. The first half takes place in a small clinic on the edge of a Thai jungle; the second half in a modern hospital. There’s the obvious nature-civilization parallels (a shot that looks into a total solar eclipse is rhymed with a track toward a vacuum hole that sucks in smoke), and they kinda come together at the end, with both coexisting (Joe’s view of industrial civilization seems to be like Antonioni’s in RED DESERT). But I can’t actually say much about what SYNDROMES is about, per se, but I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway, and THAT I can explain. Joe makes movies that you CAN nod off during and still enjoy. I know that sounds like the ultimate back-handed compliment, particularly since Joe has the reputation of being a “Level IV” filmmaker, i.e., the highest degree of difficulty. But I’m referring to something else — the vibe that comes from SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY (like TROPICAL MALADY before it). Joe doesn’t make movies with beginnings, middles and ends. Nor does he make formalist conceits, nor does he engage in mind-trickery. No … Joe makes friendly, inviting films that feel like a light-toned party or even a family picnic (indeed, his films BLISSFULLY YOURS starts with a picnic). And like a party or a picnic, you can show up late, doze off or wander away from one group for a while, and pick up where you left off, by chatting up a new subgroup or try a new dish or drink or listening to someone else tell a new story — it’s still the same picnic. If you go with his flow and realize that you’re not watching a plot, Joe’s films are astonishingly simple and lovable (my friend Charles Odell compared his films to “a nice nap… but in a good way”). They might come together into a thematic or formal whole for you or they might not, but a Joe film is not really *about* “coming together” in that way but about offering moment-to-moment impressionistic portraits of human beings. Frequently, Joe will turn the film over for several minutes at a time to characters that have little to do with the film’s main throughline and let them converse on some topic or tell a story (my favorite sequence of this sort in TROPICAL MALADY was the acted-out story of two monks). Here in SYNDROMES, we get moments out of time like a driver’s-seat shot of a drive through a Thai village while the soundtrack is of three characters offscreen discussing old memories of photographs and tattoos. There’s a sequence about the hunt for orchids that glow in the dark. And another in which a Thai TV talk-show hostess at a hospital, in front of doctors no less, does a traditional remedy on a brain-damaged patient. You just hear the story/watch the sequence and just enjoy the moment. This is what Theo was getting at when he called TROPICAL MALADY an experience, not a movie. When I walked in to SYNDROMES, the first sequence I saw was of a monk getting a dentist checkup. He mentions wanting to have been a DJ before entering religious life. The dentist had musical ambitions too, and he starts to sing. The monk says “is this a checkup or a concert.” Heck if I knew what it was about in the broader scheme of the movie (though I have some ideas). There is a scene in which a woman makes tea in her office while the sun shines through the open window. Nothing happens in this shot, but I wish the whole movie could be that empty. But just as important to their appeal to me is the way Joe shoots his movies. They are gorgeous and delectable — you just want to jump on the screen and devour them. He shoots the Thai outdoors as some place that really exists and that sane people live in and near. It’s inviting, warm and sunny — the key is that the lighting is as soft as tissue paper, without being fuzzy or picture-postcardy. As a result, there’s little harsh contrasts or starkly-drawn shadows in most of SYNDROMES and MALADY. Perhaps this is a feature of an Equitorial climate, where the sun is often directly overhead, and how, even for interior scenes, it affects a director’ssense of how light “should” look. He also frames his images in a distinctive way — shooting his people at social distances, respecting both their private space (i.e., few closeups) and their autonomy (i.e., not framing them in long shot to be consumed by the world, or trapped by tight compositions). Exactly as you would when meeting someone at a party. Another reason you want to follow Joe’s characters through his movies: unlike in a lot of Asian art-house movies, they don’t talk in stilted or stylized phrases or act like glum ciphers … they talk like normal human beings, which makes his films much more accessible from moment to moment than their reputations.
GRBAVICA (Jasmila Zbanic, Bosnia, 5)
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the end of this film, in which Mirjana Karanovic gives a lengthy monolog about some of the atrocities her character — a Muslim woman from Sarajevo — suffered during the war that broke up Yugoslavia a decade and a half ago. You’d also have to have a head of stone not to have seen it coming from the first reel. While GRBAVICA, which won the Golden Bear as top film at the last Berlin Film Festival, is easily the best of this year’s winners at the three biggest European festivals, it’s also the kind of movie that, however valuable, interesting or vital for its native country, can’t help but come across as a bit outdated for the wider world. It’s basically a Bosnian version of THIRTEEN, albeit with a much higher-stakes back story. There’s lots of scenes of mother/tomboyish-daughter fighting, and a working-class mother taking shit at a second job to pay for a trip for her daughter. But scenes of a female achieving sexual awakening through the use of firearms hasn’t worked since Faye Dunaway in BONNIE AND CLYDE (which was made before I was walking upright). Still, this is the best possible “Bosnian THIRTEEN” I can imagine. It is undoubtedly “powerful,” except that I generally react to such movies as “screaming climax and pat denouement.”