Rightwing Film Geek

TIFF Capsules — Day 9


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.


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

Sincere artifice


DANCER IN THE DARK — Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 2000, 10

This film, the best of 2000, finally won Von Trier the prize he had been craving a bit too openly for the taste of many, the Palme D’Or at Cannes along with a Best Actress prize from Icelandic chanteuse Bjork. And he won over a damn impressive competition field — SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, YI YI, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, CODE UNKNOWN, and FAITHLESS all made my Top 10 for the year they won US release, and CHUNHYANG nearly did. Other people I respect (though not me) loved EUREKA and ESTHER KAHN, and I’ve yet to see the highly-regarded DEVILS ON THE DOORSTEP and GOHATTO.

dancerhands.jpgThe plot is pure 30s Hollywood melodrama — mother works multiple jobs to save enough money for an operation to save her son from the same Movie Disease that is causing her to lose her own sight. She fantasizes music to relieve the misery, until she loses her job and then all her money is stolen. And then things start to go bad. DANCER is very similar to BREAKING THE WAVES in style (the same washed-out look and dizzying handheld camera for the drama scenes) and in its general “Lives of the Saints book” story arc (although worship of God is replaced by worship of Hollywood musicals, and love for a crippled husband is replaced with love for a son going blind). The musical scenes themselves are shot in a quite different style from the drama scenes, all on static digital cameras, with an oversaturated color scheme and heavier editing.

Von Trier, whose public persona is so puckish and ironic, aims here for a deeply felt, all-out appeal to the emotions — an old-fashioned melodramatic “weepie” with no concessions to po-mo sensibilities (possibly excepting the particulars of Bjork’s music). And it works best by being embraced in a straight-ahead, irony-free, face-value manner and avoiding games about genre deconstruction or meta-distanciation. A naivete as utter as Selma’s; one that ties you to her. DANCER should not have worked on me — I generally wouldn’t call myself a fan of Three-Hankie weepies, and Von Trier took away all the theology that I found so fascinating in BREAKING THE WAVES. And he still made a deeply unfashionable masterpiece.

DANCER uses the plot and some of the conventions of a melodrama, but uses the the particularly contemporary genius of Bjork and Von Trier to produce identification with its heroine as thorough as I ever recall getting from a motion picture. In the normal tear-jerker, things are just a little too pretty … what Roger Ebert calls Ali McGraw’s Disease being one example, weeping violin strings on the score being another. Here what Von Trier does is use the same outlandish plots but treat them with deadpan seriousness, exactly the opposite of today’s fashionably Coenesque smirking. The hand-held, washed-out camera gives these ludicrous events immediacy and reality in the way that 30s studio sets and star lighting and makeup schemes just emphasize the phoniness. As for score, I don’t recall a single snatch of nondiegetic music except in the sequences that are explicitly palyed as fantasies. That music itself is Bjorkish — which is say deliberately nonpretty (which is not to say not-moving or in some sense beautiful).

In altering the melodramatic formula in these ways, so many critics tried to justify it by arguing that Von Trier was playing genre games or subverting this or foregrounding that (and in that sense my reaction is somewhat anti-intellectual). If you don’t resist this movie’s mere existence and formula, it’s unbelievably simple. In my favorite sequence in the movie, when Selma and Bill share their secrets, Von Trier uses the most old-fashioned but still effective camera strategy, he just gets really close to the actors’ faces. I mean REALLY REALLY close — at one point there’s nothing in the widescreen frame but Selma’s face from the eyebrow ridge to the nose — exactly how one acts and feels when sharing deep, dark intimacies (in several senses).

dancervertical.jpgAs for Bjork, I’ll cite Catherine Deneuve’s statement that “she can’t act. She can only be.” There is never an actorish mannerism in her, never a moment when we see Bjork sense that she’s got a great bit of Palme bait in her hands. When she’s singing “A Few of My Favorite Things” to herself in her jail cell or “The Next to Last Song” on the gallows, there’s absolutely no way to question the guttural despair, the depth of agony in that voice. I mean, if Bjork’s performance doesn’t strike one as a brilliant example of naturalistic acting, all I can do is shake my head and wonder what one thinks such a thing is.

To quote a Pauline Kaelism some seem to think is damning, DANCER is the sort of movie that makes you feel protective — toward Selma, toward her son, toward Bjork as Selma, even in an odd way toward the sheriff, and ultimately toward the movie itself. It tweaks your operatic responses until, dammit, you’re Selma up there on the gallows at the end. DANCER exists wholly on the level of this sort of emotional involvement or identification, which is the best of all possible worlds for a tearjerker like this because you then look past the implausibilities and lack of “serious, constructive” social criticism as mere cavilling … “can’t you see what matters here” is the rough thought process.

This IS, as I say, an uncritical or anti-intellectual response, but very few films can achieve these heights of pathos. It’s not so much that just blustering operatic emotion is so *easy* (I think picking at continuity errors or dissecting sociopolitical allegories is every bit as *easy*) as that such blubbering is the right response to DANCER, if the film works at all. But maybe this is not the last song, as Bjork sings a song “New World” over the credits, which doesn’t appear in the rest of the movie and seems to be from the POV of a dead woman. So the movie can just go on forever …

April 2, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

TIFF Day Five (with grades from Day 8)

Again, we’ll start short, with my grades from Day Eight at Toronto:

GOD IS BRAZILIAN (Carlos Diegues, Brazil, 2003) — 3
THE SINGING DETECTIVE (Keith Gordon, USA, 2003) — 7
GUEST ROOM (Skander Halim, Canada, 2003) — 7
THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS (Lars Von Trier and Jorgen Leth, Denmark, 2003) — 9
GOZU (Takashi Miike, Japan, 2003) — 8

And here are the capsules from Day Five, with major spoilers for DOGVILLE and A TALKING PICTURE


DOGVILLE (Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 2003, 9)

All right … this is The Big One. The capsule I was dreading having to write. The film people are gonna be scratching their heads over next year. The film U.S. conservatives will blast someone called “Rightwing Film Geek” for thinking it’s one of the best films of the year. It was widely derided by the U.S. press at the Cannes festival in May as an anti-American rant by an ignorant man who had never been here. And not for no reason, mind you.

The vast 175-minute body of this film portrays the reaction of the residents of Dogville to the arrival of the stranger Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, and her involvement and eventual estrangement from the town. It’s easy to see how the usual suspects would interpret this in all sorts of ways (some of them invited by Von Trier, my favorite working filmmaker). But DOGVILLE is much richer and more complex than that (the unfortunately crude and literal closing credits notwithstanding), and Von Trier the artist-prankster is too good to make something dismissable or without formal brilliance.

On the one hand, DOGVILLE, performed on an “Our Town”-style stage where chalk outlines define the houses and streets and there are only a few props, is too unspecific to be convincing as a national portrait. DANCER IN THE DARK had the same “problem” — while clearly and specifically set in the United States, it really belonged in the world of movie melodramas and worked like gangbusters as a weepie (imagine watching TOP HAT for information about Venice, rather than enjoying Fred and Ginger’s dancing, for the sense of what I’m getting at). In the same way, the main body of DOGVILLE is so stylized, not so much general and unspecific as defiantly anti-specific (it literally screams “artificial set” at every instant), that it’s impossible to take seriously in realistic terms as social criticism.

Also it’s impossible to take seriously the closing credits — basically still photos of poor or oppressed Americans to the David Bowie song “Young Americans” — while taking equally seriously (I will speak vaguely) a back-seat car conversation between Nicole Kidman and James Caan near the film’s end. That conversation, which I have barely begun to fully digest, moves the film onto another plane entirely, the level of theological allegory (again, it’s not subtle — Kidman’s character is named Grace), and justifies the decision to stage DOGVILLE in this fashion. Plus, the anti-American Americans (think Susan Sontag) who might be expected to lap up this film will see an uncomfortable portrait of themselves in a certain character, who I also will not name, but it’ll be obvious when you see the movie.

So you have to triage something, and my inclination is to write off the closing credits as a mistake and love the main body of the film and its dazzling, masterful quality *as a film* — the overhead shots of the chalk-outlined stage; the use of sound effects for things unseen like the opening of doors (very noticeable at the start, when we’re unused to the stylistic trope; gradually diminshing as we’re absorbed in the film); John Hurt’s ubiquitous voice-of-God narration; the gallery of supporting performances, so good that no one stands out; the framing of the first rape of Grace so that we see people going about their daily business through the wall-less sets; the blinding quality of the cut to the first “daytime” shot, when the black dome around the set becomes pure white; the gold-orange light shining on Kidman and Ben Gazzara’s faces as she tears the black curtain for the only time in the film; the snow falling on the black stage set.

But what *is* it all about, Alfie? I’ll keep my cards close to the vest until more people have had a chance to see DOGVILLE (though I *have* outlined the essentials of the theory in person to some fellow TIFF geeks), but I think that after making “Lives of the Saints” films in BREAKING THE WAVES and (sorta) DANCER and THE IDIOTS, Von Trier has filmed a theological justification for Hell.


THE FOG OF WAR (Errol Morris, USA, 2003, 6)

A major disappointment coming from a documentarian of Morris’ stature, especially since I was so psyched about the subject matter — a profile of Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson. But it retrospect, I can see how the film’s subject matter was just fundamentally alien to Morris’ talents. The maker of THE THIN BLUE LINE, MR. DEATH and GATES OF HEAVEN makes documentaries like nobody else. He coaxes people into saying things that reveal themselves in unintentional ways — sometimes for evil like the killer David Harris in LINE, sometimes for failure like the brothers in GATES, sometimes for a kind of sorrowful pathos like executioner Fred Leuchter in DEATH, sometimes for poetry like the woman on the porch talking about her dog in GATES. And he shows us parts of the world we hadn’t seen before — the pet cemetery business, a man who builds execution machines, a forgotten Texas death-row case.

And those comparisons should tell you why I found FOG OF WAR so blah — though never uninteresting or boring (hence the relatively high grade), and blessedly free of authorial didacticism. On the one hand, the issues covered here — WW2 civilian bombing, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War — have been publicly debated ad nauseum in one or another forum for decades. And on the other, McNamara is too cagey, too practiced, too much of a smoothie to say anything he doesn’t want to say. The film even includes a few minutes near the end where McNamara saying he handled the press by always thinking “don’t answer the question you’re asked, answer the question you wanted to be asked.” And FOG closes with McNamara hinting (kinda proudly, I thought) at the possibilities he left dangling: “I’d just get in trouble if I said more. One way or the other.” It’s as if Morris is saying “sorry, but I just didn’t get anything.”

The ominous, portentous Phillip Glass score, very similar to the one in THIN BLUE LINE, promises dark secrets, but the film just doesn’t deliver. You would think this would be the last thing ever to say of an Errol Morris movie, but FOG is just too conventional. The 11-lesson chapter structure notwithstanding, it even basically follows the chronological structure of a TV-movie biopic. Even the Interrotron (a camera machine setup invented by Morris that lets he and the subject look directly at each other, while the subject looks directly into the camera) is pretty much wasted, though it’s never uninteresting. THE FOG OF WAR is basically just a very arty Special Episode of 60 MINUTES, an interview/profile that is so disappointing because it did not need Errol Morris to be made.


A TALKING PICTURE (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2003, 4)

I pretty much have to see this film a second time, and I can guarantee you that the rating won’t be “4” afterwards. It’ll likely either be a “7-or-8” or a “0-or-1” (the “4” is merely an average for now), because either this is the most insufferable 95 minutes of pretentious, self-congratulatory Euroweenie tripe ever made, or the most brilliant joke on pretentious, self-congratulatory Euroweenie tripe ever made. I honestly cannot decide, and for reasons I cannot explain without giving away the whole movie. Here’s what happened.

On principle, I have never walked out of a movie in a theater — I will not give a bad film the satisfaction. But at about the 60-minute mark of this movie, I decided to walk out for the first time in my life, as the film was driving me up the wall. To that point, it had literally been nothing more than a vacation film of a Lisbon history professor taking her daughter on a Mediterranean cruise. They (and we) see the sights of Marseilles, Naples, Athens, Istanbul and other cities accompanied by some of the worst didactic, exposition-laden dialogue I have ever heard. These are not direct quotations, but it is the general style:

“Mommy, what’s that.”
“That’s the Parthenon, dear.”
“What’s the Parthenon?”
“It was a temple the Greeks built to the godess Athena.”
“Who’s Athena?”
“She was the protector of Athens, represented in a 50-foot bronze statue.”
“Where’s the statue now, mommy?”
“It was destroyed by [whoever], dear.”
“So is Athens no longer protected?”
(Mother smiles indulgently.)

“The Greeks protect Athens now. It was just a myth.”
“What’s a myth, mommy?”
“It’s like a story …”

And on and on and on and on and on and on. At various stops, legendary European actresses Catherine Deneuve, Stephania Sandrelli and Irene Pappas get on the ship — playing celebrities, but not themselves. They have a dinner Symposium with ship captain John Malkovich, in which all four people, I am not kidding, give lengthy speeches in their native languages, and congratulate one another on how beautiful and multicultural they all are for understanding one another, and how wouldn’t the world be a better, more tolerant and understanding place if run by women just like them (the EU was founded by nasty men, you understand).

I got so sick of all this cosmopolitan cafe society blather that I walked out. I went to the theater’s bathroom, and after I was done thought to myself: “Victor, you just solved part of the reason you were so restless. You’re 0-for-life in not walking out. Go back in.” So I did, but A TALKING PICTURE continues in the same insufferable vein for another half-hour.

However … (and the SPOILERS are coming) then it takes the most bizarre twist I have ever seen. It only lasts about three minutes, has had audiences rolling in the aisles with laughter, and involves a terrorist bomb threat, but it potentially recodes everything that went before it. Is Oliveira saying that these people are a ship of fools, lounging on the Titanic? Is he berating (and, in the film, punishing) cosmopolitan Westerners for narcissism and self-absorption? Does indulgence of Islam spell doom? Does the first 90 minutes play differently, as something other than the leftist Eurotripe I was convinced I was watching, knowing what happens? It’s not so over-the top that it can *only* be parody (unless the pages of the Guardian and the closing credits of DOGVILLE are the same kind of parody). Does such recoding make the first 90 minutes less boring and thus worth trying to unpack all these questions? Stay tuned.

September 12, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 2 Comments