Thursday, February 23, 2017

Real war

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

The other day I was watching Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River – one of my favourite director’s best films. In the first half of the film, I always get lost in its feeling of authenticity – the stampede and the river crossing and all those epic views of the cattle traversing the desert. But of course, Red River isn’t “realistic” in the sense of aspiring to the pace and cadences of normal exchange. Hawks’ style was naturalistic in some ways, but he kept things within certain parameters of behaviour, generating a wholly distinct, recognizable stylization.

In Red River, it kicks in particularly in the last third, when a woman gets involved. She meets Montgomery Clift in the middle of an Indian attack, falls for him even though he’s brusque toward her, and by the end of the evening she’s in his arms. Then she sets the basis for a reconciliation between him and John Wayne. It’s scintillating as a study in character, but it’s clearly idealized, and in some ways it rubs oddly against the film’s more verisimilitudinous aspects. Rio Bravo, my favourite Hawks film, seems more unified – notionally a Western, but actually an almost abstract world where Hawks indulges his notions of character to the hilt.

Meaning of Right

A few days afterwards, I watched Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, and Red River came to mind in two ways. First, my wife had half-watched Red River, and when the Indians are circling the wagon train she remarked it looked like an old-fashioned view of natives – one that probably wouldn’t get put on screen today. Which may be true for the Indians, but Black Hawk Down’s portrayal of the Somalians as a similarly anonymous, gun-toting mob seemed awfully close to the same thing. And then, before going into battle, Josh Hartnett says how he “just wanna do it right today,” and I thought how much Red River cites the notion of being “good.” If you watch enough Hawks films, you figure out his meaning of “good.” The ambiguity of Black Hawk Down is whether you think it know the meaning of “right.”

Scott used to be regarded as a brilliant eye, whose visual mastery might compensate for lesser acuity in matters of character and storytelling. But the failure of 1492 and White Squall seemed to put paid to that phase, and he’s not reinvented himself as the ultimate Hollywood general – knocking out Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down in less than two years. All three can probably be seen as pure hackwork. But if Black Hawk Down is hackwork, it’s such an accomplished example as to make the term meaningless.

The film, set in Somalia in 1993, is about a failed military mission – a group of mostly young Americans in Humvees and helicopters fly into the centre of Mogadishu, to capture a bunch of warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid’s lieutenants. The mission goes astray almost immediately, leaving many of the Americans holed up, trying to hold back bloodthirsty waves of Aidid’s supporters – it’s a land where bread is scarce but guns apparently plentiful.

State of Hostility

It’s a superb recreation, exhibiting only minimal contrivance; it evokes the sad desolation of Mogadishu and the pounding chaos of battle with equal skill. But there may never have been a war film so unconcerned with the broader context, with the political and strategic rights and wrongs. The film has an unusually long series of captions at the start, fixing the time and place and the approximate state of hostility, and again at the end. But in between, we just get the event itself. To the film’s detractors, this is a key point of moral as well as artistic weakness. This is Rick Groen in The Globe and Mail:

“Without any surrounding context – without a deeper characterization of the men or a proper account of the politics that brought them there – we’re left to respond to the blood and guts viscerally but not emotionally. The edge of our seat gets a strenuous workout, yet our heart and mind go pretty much untouched…if this is artistry, it comes perilously close to the spirit and intent of propaganda – a paean to the triumph of soldierly will.”

Maybe…and yet, if the blood and guts attains such realism, what artistic prodding should we need in order to respond emotionally? Isn’t our reason for grieving inherent in what’s being shown? Maybe that sounds like moralizing on my part, but I think it’s conceivably an artistic strategy by Scott.

Triumph of will

I started wishing he had gone even further with this – that the film was an even more aggressively self-contained, claustrophobic experience. It still has many of the trappings of the conventional war movie, albeit downplayed. There’s the motley bunch of recruits (although the film is mostly reticent about their backgrounds), the theme of naivete and bluster receiving a harsh wake-up call (at the start, the men are so nonchalant about the mission that they leave behind standard pieces of equipment), the contrast between the turmoil on the frontline and the general in his high-tech bunker, the pep talks and one-liners (“It’s what you do right now that makes a difference”). Saving Private Ryan contained two or three magnificent sequences, and a lot of mundane padding. Black Hawk Down sharply reduces the mundanity ratio, but it doesn’t find a new vocabulary of war – it doesn’t have the grand vision and shocking introspection of Apocalypse Now (but then, I query how “realistic” that film really is) or the troubled poetry of The Thin Red Line (ditto). I think it might have got there, had it taken its approach even further – to the point where character and personality might virtually disappear completely.

As it is, as I mentioned, character and personality disappear only among the Somalis. This too might have been a persuasive artistic strategy, if Scott didn’t sometimes seem to be personalizing them – through shots of children carrying guns, or in which a face is picked out of the crowd (usually just before being blown away). And a scene in which a captured soldier is interrogated, providing his captor the most dialogue of any Somali in the movie, may be the most clich├ęd in the picture. This aspect of the film ends up seeming confused and a little opportunistic.

The brutal reality leaves many of the Americans dead and serves as a rite of passage for the others. I suppose that amounts to the “triumph of soldierly will” in Groen’s phrase, but what is that really saying? Ultimately, Black Hawk Down illustrates the limits of placing so much store on authenticity. I expect the film can be read to support whatever preconception the viewer brings to it. Maybe that’s an artistic evasion by Scott, but it’s sadly not untrue to its subject.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Different universes

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

On a recent weekend, I went to see both Todd Solondz’ Storytelling and Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days. Well, I’ve never been accused of going to movies just for the spiritual uplift, but maybe this was taking things a little too far. Each film has a caustic view of mankind; each is uncompromising in its own way. But not too unsurprisingly, the European film’s notion of uncompromising comes from an entirely different universe than that of the American one.

Dog Days (an Austrian movie) follows a few characters in a seemingly affluent suburb, suffering through a heatwave. The movie opens with a young man humiliating his girlfriend and abandoning her at the side of the highway. Then it shows a fat old man pottering around the garden in his underwear, followed (quite shockingly if you didn’t know it was coming) by some hardcore orgy footage. This turns out to be in some kind of private club beneath a shopping mall, from which one of the orgy participants (looking prim and middle-class) drives home to the house she shares with her ex-husband. He endlessly prowls the rooms bouncing a tennis ball while she lounges naked and hangs out with her paid bedmates.

Dog Days

A few more characters are introduced too, but we’ve already been exposed to the crux of Seidl’s methods. How does he get people to expose themselves like this? We perceive quickly enough that the woman at the orgy is unfulfilled, compensating for a huge void in her life (the death of a child). But we’ve also seen her in explicit, unquestionably unfaked sex acts, during which, by the way, we’ve been amply able to observer her (like almost everyone else’s in the film) tired, droopy body. Dog Days takes the voyeurism inherent in cinema and blows it up to the point that conventional pleasures quickly wither, leaving us scrambling for self-justification.

Seidl provides enough relatively easy (if never comfortable) laughs and points of identification that the film’s generally an enveloping experience, but to the extent to which it’s straightforwardly pleasurable just makes all the more uncomfortable the myriad occasions on which it isn’t that. Near the end, a dumpy old woman (let’s say maybe seventy years old) performs a striptease, which Seidl’s camera captures with his usual lack of reticence. After she’s finished, the old man watching her pronounces it very good – “Just like in the Orient.” This could be viewed as Seidl’s cruelest exploitation, and yet I think the scene should be read straight, allowing us to see the woman as a functioning sexual being.

When our concepts of sexuality are so consistently associated with beauty and conventional allure, Seidl arguably does something truly valuable here. His characters may look pathetic in a certain way, and we may wonder about the sanity of the actors, but the point is that we end up pondering a unique sexual terrain, and one that’s expansive rather than limiting.


Ironically, nobody is talking about the wild sex in Dog Days, whereas article after article discusses the red rectangle that, for American release purposes, blocks out the offensive bits in a certain scene from Storytelling. In Canada, we get a clean print, but everyone writes about the red rectangle anyway.

Where Seidl’s film is rough-edged and grainy, Solondz’ Storytelling is glossy and carefully composed. The film consists of two separate, although thematically connected stories. The first, titled Fiction, involves a college student who sleeps both with a disabled fellow student and then with her college professor; both these encounters generate short stories that are discussed in class. In the second, called Non-Fiction, a documentary filmmaker makes a movie about a dysfunctional suburban family, centering on the disconnected oldest son.

Storytelling has evoked quite a debate over whether Solondz is a petty, mean-spirited creep who creates characters only to abuse them, or whether he’s something more valuable than that. I think it’s the latter, but not by wide enough a margin to get excited about. He has a facility for clever plotting, for concepts and characters that tap a timeless (but essentially adolescent) cynicism about bourgeois values. Storytelling’s short ninety minutes pull in homosexuality, interracial sex, sex with the disabled, racism, Jewish self-consciousness, and much else. The effects are sometimes shocking, sometimes trite, but rarely profound or even stimulating.

This may not be clear while you’re actually watching it, for the movie does have a certain crisp earnestness. Fiction in particular has a symmetry and ambiguity that, in tandem with the segment’s daring elements, almost seem as if they must be significant. But in the end it can offer up only humiliation and evasion. Non-Fiction is more explicit about a theme that lurks below the surface of Fiction – that the creative process will almost inevitably belittle those who get caught up in its glare. But since this insight is built on a character who’s a nebbish, no-talent filmmaker with no artistic vision or talent, it’s not clear how wide an application this thesis might have. Maybe it’s not meant to have any. The film contains a leaden moment of self-reflection where the filmmaker’s editor tells him the rough-cut of his movie condescends to the characters. I guess Solondz thinks he’s being smart in anticipating his critics, but that just shows how narrow his preoccupations are.

In the Bedroom

Almost everything in Storytelling is clever, but almost nothing in it is intelligent. I have no problem accepting that Middle America is a solid bucket of banality. But Solondz just swats snidely at one thing after another, seemingly blind to the weariness that this provokes.

When I watch movies, I sometimes try to imagine the director behind the camera, watching and nodding and coaxing and shaping. If you did this while watching Storytelling, you’d imagine a precocious but whiny guy with several chips on his shoulder who seldom leaves his bedroom. Which means that rather than make the movie, maybe he should have just gone outside and got some fresh air. On the other hand, for all his film’s rampant sleaziness, Seidl comes across as a weirdly genial eccentric who’d talk your head off in the bar for hours. You wouldn’t agree with everything, and once in a while he’d probably make you wince, but it would be – not just euphemistically – an experience.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2002)

Don’t get me wrong – I love ambiguity. It’s a rare movie that’s not better off for a dose of it. But at a certain point, ambiguity turns into evasiveness, and I’m not sure that’s as productive an attribute. The greatest directors are frequently restrained to the point of mystery – they understand that the complexity of the human condition makes a mockery of over-assertiveness. Their greatness is more about how they explore than about what they find. Except, maybe, for true pessimists. It’s surely easier to be definitive about the darkness than the light. Which is maybe why Alfred Hitchcock’s films have more great endings than just about anyone else’s.

Mystery, no doubt

I liked a line that David Thomson wrote about Robert Bresson in his Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema – “Mystery there is in his work, but no doubt.” Meaning that although Bresson is “a great director…no other great director seems less intrigued by cinema itself…Bresson’s is a cinema of demonstration, so broad in its consequences that its wordly narrowness is made irrelevant.” Thomson retained that last description in the latest edition of his book, but removed the sentence about mystery and doubt – perhaps now considering it too trite a summarization of such a master. Or maybe he realized that, in a different way, it might as easily be applied to Antonioni, Godard or numerous others.

Several recent movies have been superb at sowing ambiguity, but they fail to find their shape, meaning that in the worst case their qualities come to resemble gimmicks. Some would place Mulholland Drive in this category, although as I wrote a few months ago, that film ultimately seemed to me almost more coherent than anything else released last year.

After a long delay, Francois Ozon’s Under the Sand recently opened here. The film stars Charlotte Rampling as a woman whose husband disappears while on vacation. It seems he may have drowned, but there’s no body, and she doesn’t accept his death. She continues to talk about him in the present tense, and imagines his presence when she’s alone at home. Gradually the evidence mounts that he is indeed dead, and sometimes she seems on the verge of acceptance, but then her faith, or her self-delusion, takes over again.

Under the Sand

The film is supremely poised, and takes much of its tone from Rampling’s classic, sculptured beauty. She gives a performance of great nuance, accommodating numerous interpretations with equal-minded finesse. At times, the psychological choreography of the film is quite dazzling. Towards the end there’s a moment when you think she’s finally given up, then she bursts into laughter. Moments later she’s crying on the beach, then she reverses again. When you dissect it, it has an experimental if not arbitrary aspect to it, but Rampling provides immense coherence.

But in itself, however well mounted, this doesn’t inherently amount to more than an elaborate guessing game. Beyond that, what does it all mean? The most obvious interpretation would turn on feminism. Rampling’s insistence on interpreting her own reality represents the ultimate transgression. It’s clear from the film that it’s not a matter of pining for a lost utopia – the marriage seems stable and comfortable, but also largely silent and cast in routine. Her state may not have been particularly liberated, but in insisting on maintaining it even when it’s been snatched from her, she almost makes it so. At the same time though, there’s enough genuine weakness and emotion in the film that it never seems like a theoretical exercise.

But this kind of project no longer seems particularly radical. The very same day I watched Under the Sand, I watched Carl Dreyer’s 1943 Day of Wrath – about a young woman who transgresses her strict seventeenth century society and ends up denounced as a witch. Although the film has a whole set of thematic and social concerns that Under the Sand doesn’t share, it could nevertheless be read in much the way I just described – as depicting the pitfalls of female self-determination. And that’s just the other film I saw that day – hundreds more could be read in a similar way.

Beyond this, you would have to resign yourself to the absence of explicit meaning, and take Under the Sand as purely an aesthetic construct. It has enough beauty and flair to make that viable. It’s certainly possible to regard the details of the narrative as incidental, to step back from what individual scenes might or not mean, to look at the film as a kind of meditation on doubt and memory and desire. It’s difficult though, because the film looks and smells and sounds like it’s telling a story. You can’t easily luxuriate in it in the abstract way that you might a piece of music or a sculpture – the pull of the next scene is too strong.

We were Soldiers

The very fact that the film can prompt such musings is, of course, part of its achievement. Compare it to We were Soldiers, the big movie that opened here on the same weekend as Under the Sand. We were Soldiers, a Vietnam war epic, is also well executed – the equal of Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down in the authenticity of its battle scenes. Given how bars get raised, I suspect that’s already a moot point, and that there may never again be a war movie that doesn’t equal those two films in authenticity. The grisliness of We were Soldiers (I’m thinking in particular of a depiction of a burning face) is especially chilling though in comparison to the film’s earlier piety (an unusual number of prayer scenes).

Also like those other two films, We were Soldiers treads a safe line in its attitude to war. This goes as follows: (a) war is hell on earth; (b) despite that, American soldiers are entirely admirable, and the soldiers on the other side are more to be pitied than despised; and (c) the politics of the situation are complex and not worth addressing in detail. We were Soldiers, written and directed by Randall Wallace (the writer of Braveheart) applies this formula cleanly and prototypically, and as I watched it I kept thinking there was something I was missing – some homely subtext that an urban liberal couldn’t hope to understand.

It’s been said that film aspires to the condition of music, but We were Soldiers seems to aspire more to the security and comfort of an incredibly vivid slideshow at a small town church hall. Under the Sand doesn’t quite satisfy on the highest level, but it’s conceived out of a love of cinema, and its mysteries are a fair homage to those of the medium itself.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Foreign films

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

The accepted wisdom on foreign (non-English language) films is that they hit their peak of popular acceptance in the 60s and 70s, when you just weren’t plugged in unless you were up on Fellini and Bergman and Antonioni. Those giants waned in the 70s, and the next generation never attained the same visibility. Foreign films remained a strictly marginal commodity through the 80s and most of the 90s. But in the past few years the mainstream has become more accommodating of subtitles. Life is Beautiful was a big moneymaker, and won an Oscar for best actor. Then Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon passed the psychologically important $100 million mark at the US box office, and also did well at the Oscars. This year Amelie, although not quite at the same level, has been a very steady crowd-pleaser.

This is heartening, but the resurgence shouldn’t be overstated. I still often talk to regular moviegoers who view subtitles as a general no-go area, and who ask me if it isn’t hard (meaning I guess hard on the brain) to watch so many films on that basis. The movies I mentioned are the merest tip of the iceberg – not compensating for the dozens that limp along in barely visible commercial releases, even less for the hundreds that never get released at all. And of course, when a foreign film makes it big, it tends to be because it doesn’t actually seem that foreign. Maybe it’s not coincidental that directors who’s worked in America made the three films I mentioned.

Brotherhood of the Wolf

Recently I’ve been to numerous foreign films that attracted the usual meagre audiences, and a couple in which the cinema was almost if not actually full. Brotherhood of the Wolf has been playing downtown at the Paramount – perhaps the ultimate stamp of commercial approval. When I went on a Saturday afternoon, the audience looked like it had come to see Lord of the Rings.

My sense is they had a good time. The movie is set in the 1800s, in a French town terrorized by an unseen predator. An intrepid young scientist rides into town, accompanied by his Native American sidekick. For the first ninety minutes, the film is fast-moving but relatively sane. The last hour spirals off into what seems almost like free association, yielding astounding conspiracies, characters who aren’t what they seem to be, dead people who turn out to be alive, and major mayhem. Writing this review two weeks after seeing it, I have to concentrate really hard to recall the film’s nominal plot, but I certainly remember the pace.

This is conveyed through dashing camerawork; action sequences that have a Matrix-life hi-tech, metallic choreography (incorporating martial arts, kickboxing, etc.); intensive mythmaking; an overall sensibility that’s absorbed in the intrigue of a specific time and place while also being crisply modern. The film is a similar project to last year’s Crimson Rivers – like that contemporary thriller, it progresses from coherence to complete nuttiness. Actually, although Hollywood movies are so often criticized for their dumb plotting, Crimson Rivers and Brotherhood of the Wolf both have an abandon that’s distinctly different from American movies. Maybe American movies are generally too cautious to create the kind of whirling, involved narratives that typify computer games, comic books and teenage cults. Director Christophe Gans may truly have beaten them at their own game here.

Italian for Beginners

Italian for Beginners is a very different case study. This is the latest film to be shot in the “Dogme” style that represents a return to a simpler, less contrived cinema – Dogme films have natural lighting, hand-held cameras, a generally minimal, intimate style. Most Dogme films applied this technique to material that benefits from the added “realism.” Italian for Beginners applies the style to a contrived piece of romantic wish-fulfillment. For me, this inherently didn’t make much sense. But I’m in the minority again, because for its target audience (people who saw Amelie) it looks like another big crowd-pleaser.

The film revolves around six individuals – three male, three female – so the object is to see whether they’ll resolve themselves into three couples (take a wild guess…) They all attend an Italian class once a week, which for most of them represents a rare escape from their humdrum lives. For a comedy, I was impressed by the film’s dedication to presenting the full extent of that humdrumness. There’s a lot of death in the film – three secondary characters pass away, and another is in mourning as it starts – and no one in it is at all affluent, or even comfortable. And some of the quirky character traits – like one woman’s constant clumsiness – are presented with an unusual edge of desperation. Even rarer for a comedy – one of the six is a pastor, and spiritual faith is one of the film’s secondary themes.

This is all pretty interesting, but is far outweighed by the movie’s fluff content. For example, a dumpy, unremarkable middle-aged man develops a crush on a scintillating young Italian waitress. Happily for him, but inexplicably to the rest of us, she almost simultaneously develops a crush on him. Despite the consequent total lack of suspense, the movie dawdles for an hour and a half about getting them even to take a walk together. This is hardly realistic and falls short of satisfying escapism – one can only sit back and allow time to pass.

Fluff and kickboxing

The film’s notional centre, the Italian class, counts for less than you’d expect, although it does facilitate a scenic detour to Venice toward the end of the film. But it’s funny how the Danes latch onto the Italian lessons as a window into a better life. Especially in the age of the Euro, maybe we tend to see Europe as an increasingly undifferentiated mass. And there’s one of the flaws, of course, in my broad statements about “foreign” films – it’s a category so broad as to render all generalizations meaningless. Still, it’s not as if I’m the only one who ever used it. Virtually every video store, even the most refined ones, diligently separates out the “foreign” section.

Which is crazy, because a rack that includes Bergman, Kurosawa, Godard and Eisenstein (to name just four of the staples) contains such diverse promise and challenge that no label could ever summarize them. Except that they demand an open mind and intellect – an investment they repay ten times over. If the demands made by foreign films, and their rewards, are no more or less than those of the average American film, why separate them out at all? Yet we always will, because for more people than it should, the stigma of the subtitle will always render the most innocuous of films just a little too demanding. Fluff and kickboxing notwithstanding.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Thrill of the chase

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

I write movie columns my own way, no questions asked. Got it down real tight. I emerge from the mist, plan the job, see the movie, write the piece, deliver it, return into the mist. There’s a few out there like me, roaming the land. Those who need us know where to find us.

Den of critics

I get tipped off about a job in the East End. A guy – calls himself “Smith” – needs 20,000 words on John Waters’ Pecker. It’s a three-man job – a hundred bucks a head. We meet in an abandoned warehouse in Scarborough. Smith lays out the plan. The burly guy with a French accent does the plot summary. The tattooed kid from the Prairies handles the snippy comments about the actors (I take one look at this kid and know he’ll let us down – he talks the talk but hasn’t served his time. I throw out a line about Pink Flamingos and the schmuck comes back with some crap about seagulls). I’m the “artistic overview” man. I sit back, let Smith say his piece, draw his diagrams (it’s his money). “It won’t work,” I tell him then. “We need a fourth man. An editor.”

“There’s no editor. You three are the team.”

“What are the 20,000 words for?”

“You don’t need to know.”

“Are they for kids, for novices, for enthusiasts?”

“You’ll get that information later.”

“If we’re not doing the job right, my price goes up. A hundred now, a hundred on delivery.” He stares, sees where I’m coming from, retreats into the shadows and places a call, presumably to the real money men. The French guy offers me a cigarette, which I accept. I feel pretty good about him. He looks and listens, but keeps his mouth shut; he knows the rules, he’s one of us. Meanwhile the kid starts bragging about his cousin who works for Eye magazine. I just soak it up. I’ll take care of him later.

Smith returns, agrees to my terms. The screening’s in two days, maybe three. Then we have a day to carry out the job. It’s going to take killer planning. I check out the equipment. The computer’s OK, although the “F” key sticks. Smith commits to a new keyboard. The beverages suck. No one writes on Mountain Dew. The chair hurts my ass. He promises it’ll be replaced.

The documentarians!

The next night. We’ve set up a deal with a research gang from North York to buy a stash of John Waters clippings. We pull up in the designated alley, wait for the flash of their headlights. We emerge from our car, two guys emerge from theirs, we meet in the middle. “We’ve got the money,” says Frenchie, and when they ask to see it, he holds up the crisp twenty dollar bill (and that’s U.S.) in the moonlight. “Where’s the stuff?”

They tell us it’s in the trunk. Frenchie and the kid follow them to the car. Suspicious, I hang back. I scan the night like the cat. I notice they’re parked right under a streetlight. I see a rustling in the shadows; a glimmer off a lens. I instantly figure it out. “They’re not researchers,” I yell. “They’re documentarians. They’re putting us in their goddamn video.” My partners turn to steel, tackling the others as I go for the secret shooter. I overpower him easily, smash his camera. They’re no match for us. We get away with the Waters clippings and some Star Trek videotapes we find in the back seat, and we keep the twenty.

Well, more on that some other time. Now, for a complete change of pace, to John Frankenheimer’s new thriller Ronin.

French twists

Ronin is a grand, somewhat old-fashioned concoction, in which an international band of mercenaries come together in Paris to pull off the theft of an extremely important and closely-guarded suitcase. The movie has a great pace, beautiful French settings, some of the best car chases in memory, lots of neat little plot touches and Robert De Niro – not in one of his lazy cameos as the villain, but as the smartest and most resourceful of the group.

And the movie’s kind of cool. De Niro and Jean Reno (as the second smartest and most resourceful of the group) always do it just right. They’re not demonstrative or ironic quipsters in the contemporary style – maybe just a throwaway remark to break things up – but they get things done. There’s an impressive imagination in the details here. During a struggle, De Niro gains the upper hand by strategically spilling a cup of hot coffee he’d left in a particular spot a few moments earlier, apparently having foreseen exactly when and how he’d need it. Casing out their adversaries in a hotel lobby, he effortlessly orchestrates a false alarm to see how they react in an attack situation, while setting up a tourist to take pictures of the whole thing. He has a slight weakness for a beautiful woman, but…well, that’s allowed as long as you don’t go overboard. And he doesn’t.

On balance, Ronin should displace Out of Sight as the consensus choice for the year’s best thriller so far. The latter was a little too self-conscious in its effects for my taste: I liked the individual pieces well enough, but it didn’t take off for me. The actors seemed somewhat distanced from the material, all doing their own charismatic pirouettes, all determined to get good reviews, whereas Ronin looks as if everyone turned up on the set, nodded taciturnly to each other (perhaps through a cloud of cigarette smoke) and went to work. The style is beautifully fluid, dazzling in its clarity and simplicity, right on the nail. The only way to do the job.

I mean, after the young punk proved me right and double-crossed us, you don’t think we struck a pose and cried into our soup do you? A man I know from the old days at the agency got us a fix on the kid’s cell phone. We tracked him down to a room in Guelph (those John Waters cultists try to avoid the bid cities). Frenchie and I pulled up outside, and waited. And then, when he finally came out to buy Entertainment Weekly, we pounced!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Comedy overboard

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

Two new comedies with exactly opposite problems: one too unambitious and set in its ways, the other with a reach that far exceeds its grasp. From that summary, the former sounds like the best bet for the conservative viewer, until I tell you it’s directed by the legendarily wicked John Waters. But, as we know, the once shocking has a tendency to become endearing over time. Not that Waters’ work wasn’t truly jaw-dropping at its peak. But if it makes you quiver nowadays, it probably isn’t with outrage, but rather with disbelief that (a) Waters ever thought up that stuff, and (b) that he then found anyone willing to enact it. The chicken molestation scene in Pink Flamingos is pretty high on my list of things I wouldn’t do for any amount of money (and would be even higher if not for the dog poop-eating scene).

Ode to Baltimore

But Pink Flamingos, despite its central theme of Divine enacting the “filthiest person alive” – a status I’m sure most viewers happily conceded – had a weird affinity for family and domesticity, even if enacted by grotesques and perverts. Over the years, Waters has become softer in his approach to these subjects, while growing almost as famous for his love of Baltimore as for the, uh, other stuff. His new movie Pecker synthesizes these strands in a way that’s perhaps revealing about the earlier work. Young Pecker (ostensibly so named for his habit of pecking at his food – well, isn’t that convenient), a sweet-natured youth who constantly captures the world around him on his cheap camera, becomes an instant sensation when a New York gallery owner happens upon an exhibition (on the walls of a burger dive) of his artless but helplessly evocative photographs. He’s whizzed off to New York, where the intelligentsia fawns over him and he’s showered in adulation, money and commissions.

But the often-chronicled dark side of fame quickly sets in, with adverse consequences for Pecker’s entire family and social circle. Must Pecker sacrifice the pursuit he loves to regain harmony? Well, you’ll have a pleasant enough hour and a half finding out. Indeed, the most striking aspect of the movie is its sheer amiability. Pecker’s life in Baltimore is a down-at-heel paradise, bursting with goodwill toward the homeless, the crackpots, the kleptomaniacs and – with particular relish perhaps – the gays (Martha Plimpton’s role as Pecker’s sister, devoted to her role of professional fag hag, is perhaps the best of many goofily precise performances in the film). The shock value in Pecker consistently seems based in a delight at the foibles and eccentricities that keep people going under economically and environmentally challenged conditions. Some characters – like the dotty grandmother who puts a parrot-like stream of “Full of grace”s into the mouth of her plastic Virgin Mary, then claims she’s witnessing a miracle – are treated with as much kindness as they could hope for anywhere in Filmland (in There’s Something About Mary for instance, granny would have been stripped topless and the Virgin sold into bondage).

Limp and Limper

That might have been fine if Pecker never moved out of Baltimore, but I found the film’s overall direction really quite off-putting. The jabs at New York styles and pretensions have substantially less wit to them, and although Waters’ inherent good nature staves off bitchiness, it’s hard not to read the film as being simply anti-intellectual. The quirky tolerance of Pecker’s environment is appealing from the outset – it’s not like It’s a Wonderful Life, where the protagonist needs a series of revelations to show him the true value of home. In that light, the picture’s entire trajectory is redundant. As it went on, I wasn’t sure whether I was witnessing a display of insecurity, or one of self-congratulation. In any event, Pecker ends up seeming progressively limp.

That’s nothing though compared with the startling tailspin of Stanley Tucci’s current The Impostors. It’s a consciously old-fashioned farce, with lots of running around and mistaken identity and comic violence and lust and that kind of thing, built around two unemployed actors (played by Tucci and Oliver Platt) who inadvertently become stowaways on a cruise ship. The first twenty minutes or so, consisting of a series of sketches around Platt and Tucci’s mishaps on dry land, are fairly wonderful – visually stylish, imaginative, painstakingly written and acted, with a fresh eye for classic slapstick and bumbling (and the cameo by Woody Allen doesn’t hurt either).

Sinking feelings

But once the action switches to the ship, with twelve or so key characters to juggle, the rot quickly sets in. There’s not much wrong with the concept that I can see, but the movie foolishly overburdens itself with plots (a kidnapping, a conspiracy to blow up the ship, a suicidal entertainer, a deposed queen, to name about a third of them). The slamming of doors (and the accompanying musical motif) becomes increasingly tedious; the actors get squeezed; the jokes get mechanical; things become purely (and barely) functional. The cast, pretty strong on paper, is squandered: the likes of Steve Buscemi and Lili Taylor have never seemed so dull, and how could Tucci make Next Stop Wonderland’s intriguing actress Hope Davis so washed-out and, well, ugly? The film’s closing Blazing Saddles-like conceit, in which the cast dances off the ship, through the set, and out into the studio parking lot, is a blatant (and failed) attempt to strike a camaraderie with the audience that the movie’s second half distinctly fails to earn on its merits.

Given the success of the earlier tighly-focused sequences (and of Tucci’s first film, Big Night, co-directed with Campbell Scott), this looks primarily like a case of over-reaching – a flaw easily correctable for the next film. As for The Impostors, the highlights I’ve mentioned – as well as a few other bits here and there (I particularly liked Billy Connolly as an untypical homosexual predator) – make it no more than a passable time-killer.

So although in principle it seems more commendable to aim too high than too low, Pecker scores a clear win as the better film of  these two, if only by default. Unless Waters hits on something new, or steps into something really disgusting, Tucci should get the better of him next time round.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Trailers and ghosts

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

It’s a common complaint that trailers nowadays give away too much. I haven’t seen America’s Sweethearts, but on the basis of the trailer, I feel like I have. Of course, depending on how you look at it, this might mean that the trailer functions just perfectly, allowing the viewer to save the ten bucks without even minor regret. I was also sure that the Planet of the Apes trailer had given me all I needed, but since the film’s directed by Tim Burton I went anyway. The film was just as dull as the trailer – and, of course, about sixty times as long. Probably the main advantage of seeing Planet of the Apes was that the five or six trailers preceding it gave me lots of additional insights into movies I can avoid over the coming while. Of course, the trailers are all on the Internet nowadays anyway, so there probably wasn’t even that much real advantage.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

If it’s the job of a trailer to make the film look as good as possible without yielding up all its secrets, then the one for Hedwig and the Angry Inch must be the recent best. On the basis of those three minutes, the film is a Rocky Horror Picture Show-like cornucopia of outrageous gender-bending tableaux, including lyrics up on the screen for audience participation, cartoon inserts, and general unpredictability all over the place. It looks like a matter of taste, sure, but you imagine the film’s going to be consistently wacky and diverting. Well, I now know that the trailer was concocted only by meticulously pruning the film’s most eccentric and colourful moments. The rest is oddly dour, even depressing.

The film is written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who also stars in it (quite impressively). Hedwig is born a boy behind the Berlin Wall, but undergoes transgender surgery to marry an American GI. That gets her to freedom in the States, but the GI soon walks out on him, and then the Wall comes down anyway. Hedwig now tours through a series of dismal concert venues with her inexplicably faithful band, capitalizing on her sexually ambiguous persona. Much of the film consists of musical performance (the songs generally aren’t at all bad, both on their own terms and as knowing parody of the glamrock idiom); in between, Hedwig bemoans its past and present problems.

Hedwig’s surgery was botched (as one of the songs puts it, “Six inches forward and five inches back; I’ve got an angry inch”) and the character occasionally marshals this trauma as performance art. At other times, Hedwig’s seemingly on the edge of a breakdown. The film constructs a surprisingly comprehensive study of the character, and there’s something grandly imaginative about the notion of sexual confusion served up as a legacy for political transgression. It’s a rather hermetic metaphor though, and the film never manages to override an air of “So what?” Through sheer force of will I guess, Rocky Horror still manages to make a lot of people buy into its worldview – if only for 90 midnight minutes every now and then. Hedwig is just too reticent: ultimately, it seems like little more than another sob story. Except for those few scattered moments (about a trailer’s worth) of eccentricity.

Ghost World

I haven’t seen the trailer for Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, but I feel confident in asserting that it couldn’t possibly have succeeded in giving away the whole movie. This is about two young women – apparently congenitally ironic and apathetic and distanced from most of their peers – in the weeks after high-school graduation, hanging out around their boring neighborhood and wondering vaguely what to do. One eventually goes to work in a Starbucks clone and gradually seems to be inching toward normality. The other holds on longer, but she’s clearly under siege. She’s played by Thora Birch, who’s just about perfect – as opaque as a truly alienated teenager should be, but no more than that.

The movie has lots of funny lines, generally rooted in sarcasm or in the sheer consistency of Birch’s resistance to much of what surrounds her. But the film’s real strength is in how it defines and maintains a rather unique mood of creeping dread – rooted in Birch’s pervasive antipathy, her secret nervousness about the course she’s on, and her reluctance to change. During the course of the film she tries out a vast array of clothing, from a tacky dinosaur T-shirt to the almost elegant (her friend at one point refers to her former “old lady period”). She’s trying identities on for size, but not realizing how her experimentation has to go deeper (her helmet-like black hair and heavy-framed glasses seem like a perpetual armor). In one scene she rants against “extroverted” types; in the next scene, she’s enjoying a radio DJ (extroverted, of course) that her companion yells at for being unbearably shrill. In school you can maintain arbitrary self-definitions because it’s sheltered and your little subgroup’s in it together; step out into more open territory and things quickly start to break down.

Psychic territory

Birch meets a dorky middle-aged old-record enthusiast (played by Steve Buscemi, in a performance that should conclusively dispel his ratbag image) who grows on her. He impresses her by virtue of his difference, even if the way in which he’s different doesn’t have much in common with the way in which she is. Their relationship is very sweetly portrayed; neither fully understands whether the territory they share is superficial or deep, and by the time they think to ask, it’s probably too late. When they sleep together, it carries absolutely no Lolita-type subtext – itself a sign of how well the film avoids the norm. Sometimes, as in the scenes involving a pretentious art teacher played by Ileanna Douglas, Ghost World does take easier paths, but since those scenes are consistently among the film’s funniest, it doesn’t seem to matter too much.

The film has a fanciful ending, in that it manages to avoid compromise and to allow Birch to retain most of her psychic territory. It’s also the only time that the film seems to take the supernatural undertones of its title too literally. But that hardly matters either. Ghost World lasts 111 minutes, and yields at least 109 minutes of satisfying movie watching – a ratio directly opposite to the other pictures I mentioned.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Too much heaven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

In What Dreams May Come, Robin Williams dies in a car crash and ascends to heaven, while his grieving wife kills herself and gets sent to hell (mandatory for suicides – them’s the rules). Williams bravely sets out across the divide, to find her and bring her to join him in Paradise (rules aside, getting into heaven’s apparently largely a matter of who you know). As I often like to say, place your bets now on whether he makes it or not. But I was well-primed to identify with Williams’ quest, because I recently had to search for my own wife, on a Saturday afternoon in the Eaton Centre. Oh God, the crush, the airless horror of it all. I was sure I was condemned. But I found her, and somehow we escaped, maybe not with our souls intact, but with most of our money.

My lost soul

A facetious response to a crucial spiritual concept, you say? Perhaps that’s right. I am, quite certainly, a bit of a spiritual wasteland. I’m happy to admit ignorance of all the big questions, but also to admit a blithe disregard for them. Whenever I go to the zoo, I’m struck by the inadequacy of evolution as an explanation for such strange, weird beauty, but I lack the faith to believe in a single Creator. So I just amble along, presuming I know nothing.

In much the same way, I tend to shy away from any talk of “vision” or “soul” or any of that intangible inspirational stuff. My ideal image of myself, I suppose, would be as an easygoing pragmatist. I just like to get things done, in my own way, with the minimum bother to myself or to others. I’m amiable, I think, but not at all touchy-feely – actually I don’t much like to touch anyone at all except my wife (who must apparently have been on good form this week to deserve all these mentions), and I’d rather reserve all sentiment for the same recipient. As you can see, I don’t mind talking about myself to some extent, but the more superficial the better.

I’ve set all this out as a comprehensive acknowledgement that I’m not the ideal viewer for What Dreams May Come. It’s not that I couldn’t warm to the setting of heaven and hell, if there were some point to it – surrealism, or allegory, or whatever. In fact, one of my favourite films, Jean Cocteau’s Orphee, moves deliciously between this world and the next. In Orphee, it’s really the weird specificity that’s so compelling – the juxtaposition of outlandish mythology (mysterious messages received on a car radio; mirrors that act as portals to hell) with moments of rustic comedy or mundane potboiler. The spirit world’s emissaries zoom around on motorcycles; the angel Heurtebise hangs around the house in an open-necked shirt. Orphee consistently evokes the strangeness of the creative muse in a way that’s still fresh and alluring.


In What Dreams May Come the only point seems to be size (it’s the Godzilla of sappy couple movies). With all the kindness I can muster, I can’t see the relationship between Williams (in one of his distinctly dull modes here) and his wife (played, sort of, by Annabella Sciorra) as more than a self-important, patently fake Hollywood invention. It’s all puffed-up talk, ponderous looks and confessions, enacted in one dreary flashback after another. Despite all the wet dialogue about their rare status as true boundary-crossing “soulmates,” the film conspicuously fails to evoke mutual delight, scintillating rapport, or any of the qualities that might send a man more than, oh, a few blocks in search of a missing spouse. It’s rather grotesque to elevate the attempted reunification of this mediocre pair to the level of Most Momentous Love Story in the History of Creation. If it were Bogart laconically trekking through a maelstrom of evil in search of Bacall, I might have considered it.

Be warned too that Williams’ journey, after all the build-up, isn’t actually that onerous. One might have thought that penetrating Satan’s empire would entail enough resistance to require, at the very least, the assistance of a Bruce Willis, but it turns out to be primarily a matter of achieving a state of mind that transcends all obstacles. This is convenient for the filmmakers, of course, because if there are no objective rules or limitations on their chosen universe, they can make any narrative leaps they like, at any point, without worrying about the normal stumbling blocks of causation and plausibility. The strange result is that it’s apparently far easier to engineer the meeting of lovers across heaven and hell than to pull off the same thing in, say, Boston (the setting of the current Next Stop Wonderland).

Chicken Soup for the Vegetarian

I should acknowledge that the film has another selling point – its computer-generated depictions of the next life. When Williams wakes up in heaven, his surroundings have the consistency of paint; they threaten to melt away as he touches them. It’s a beautiful depiction of his fantasies and dreams made real, still fragile in their newness. The film’s concept of hell is a bit more generic, but still undoubtedly unappealing (although a film less concerned about the family audience might have turned up the evidence of pain and suffering a bit, or might at least have trotted out a few more lawyers and accountants). Some critics think the movie’s visual qualities compensate for any weaknesses in the storytelling. My own view on that: if a story’s not worth telling, it’s not worth telling beautifully.

What Dreams May Come is one of the year’s most pretentious movies, somewhat laughable in its hunger for grandeur. But as I said, I’m not the spiritual type. The only one of those inspirational “Chicken Soup” books I might consider buying would be “Chicken Soup for the Chicken” (in the hope of bleak cannibalistic irony). Still, despite my distinctly earthbound soul, I’m lucky enough to know a little bit about love (there’s that woman again) and this film failed that basic test of recognition. I would have forgiven it all its missteps in depicting the big celestial canvas, if it were only truer in capturing the small intimate one.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

2003 Toronto Film Festival Report, part six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2003)

L’histoire de Marie et Julien (Jacques Rivette)
77-year-old Rivette is one of my all-time favourite directors. His films have a choreography and poise that walk an often-magical line between naturalism and artificiality. He seems to me a highly uninsistent artist – his films aren’t conventionally passionate or prescriptive; they reflect the open-mindedness of someone who has a generously expansive vision of both life and cinema. The new film, once again, is uniquely his. It commences as a (to be honest, not overly engaging) study of a relationship, focusing on Julien as he tries to rekindle a past relationship with the enigmatic Marie. It slowly transforms itself into a supernatural reverie.

Julien is a repairer of old clocks, living alone with his cat; he’s also a blackmailer – an exploiter of secrets – and while I detected a certain fairy-tale-like element early on, I thought the model might be one of those stories where the princess ends up imprisoned in the tower. But Rivette starts to invest the movie with sex scenes that (although mild by contemporary standards) are more vivid than we’re used to from him, and as they make love, the two create fantastic narratives, redefining their relationship. Around this time, the film’s logic becomes gradually more dream-like, with Marie holding the key – at one point, she admits that she doesn’t know how the (highly arbitrary-seeming) rules actually work – she only knows what they are. And later there’s a secret sign that utterly transforms reality.

This is highly reminiscent of the magic candy that triggers the other world in Celine and Julie Go Boating, and there’s no doubt that Marie et Julien will be most rewarding for a Rivette fan. If you’ve accustomed yourself to his particular kind of enigmatic elegance, you could watch it forever. It’s almost as if he’s working through the genres in late career – Secret Defense was a thriller, Haut bas fragile was a musical – and the films all possess an elemental joy at the explorations he’s undertaken. Like Celine and Julie, the new film seems like a pure creation of cinema – someone refers to Marie, in her past, as a “prisoner of the image she cast for others,” and Rivette’s films, with their labyrinthine implications, always provide the sense of a creative process that’s invested to an unusual extent in the viewer. And the film demonstrates his profound affinity for femininity. It has chapter headings that explicitly identify the shift from the real to the supernatural with a shifting focus from the man to the woman. Emmanuelle Beart (who starred in his La belle noisseuse) is the perfect Rivette heroine – beautiful, not glacial like Catherine Deneuve, but leaving no doubt that our understanding of her stretches only so far.

This is obviously a review written by a fan, so I hesitate to say that Histoire de Marie et Julien is the best film I saw at the festival. I guess I should just say it’s my favourite.

The Event (Thom Fitzgerald)
Fitzgerald burst on the scene with the acclaimed Hanging Garden in 1997, since when his reputation has stagnated. This year’s The Wild Dogs, a scrapbook of odds and ends about a Canadian pornographer in Budapest, received virtually no attention at all, but it was the first of his films to persuade me he might have staying power. Reminiscent at various times of Kusturica, Fellini, Egoyan and Loach, it can be faulted in so many different ways I don’t know where to start. But the raw elements are fascinating, and the movie ultimately comes to resemble a troubled, rough-edged sculpture where the personal and the political fuse into a semi-recognizable dream landscape.

The Event, which has already opened commercially, seems like an equally personal project, about a man who’s died of AIDS, and the assistant DA who suspects it was an assisted suicide; her investigation focuses on the blow-out party that occupied his last evening. The film was reportedly meant to shoot in Toronto, and then moved to New York after the funding fell through – maybe this accounts for a cast that bizarrely combines Canadian stalwarts like Don McKellar and Sarah Polley with Olympia Dukakis (as McKellar and Polley’s mother!) and Parker Posey. This somehow sums up the film’s oddly dislocated quality. Compared to The Wild Dogs, it’s a fairly concentrated story, and it runs nearly two hours, yet everything about it seems to be given short shrift: characters, locations, themes all fail to register, with much time spent on barely meaningful vignettes and digressions. And sadly, the film (set in 2001, although it feels like earlier) doesn’t provide much valuable perspective on AIDS and its consequences either. If The Wild Dogs gave you the sense of a director running himself ragged, The Event seems like its exhausted aftermath.

Out of Time (Carl Franklin)
Franklin’s thriller, with Denzel Washington making another festival appearance, has also already opened commercially. The program book sells the movie valiantly, referring to “refreshingly rich characterizations,” “emotional investment from the audience,” and “phenomenal flair.” Well, it just looked like a serviceable suspense piece to me. Washington plays a small-town police chief who bends the rules to help his girlfriend, and then finds himself framed for murder; he works frantically from within to impede the official investigation, while tracking the real crooks on the side. For added refreshing richness: the detective in charge of the investigation is his estranged wife! The movie opens in lush, languid mode, and then cranks up the pace; Washington’s manipulations are highly entertaining, but then the film resorts to a hackneyed and fake-looking struggle on a rapidly collapsing balcony, and after that it goes through the motions.

I spent much of the movie musing on Washington’s star image. He’s regarded both as a bona fide sex symbol and a great actor, but his filmography contains a disproportionate amount of low-wattage action filler (The Siege, The Bone Collector, Fallen, Virtuosity, now Out of Time), as though he feared his vaunted coolness left him with something to prove. And yet, he doesn’t invest the roles with the relish that might help make the case. Too me, he walks through these movies, seldom seeming engaged or perturbed; in Out of Time, even at the height of the crisis, he barely breaks a sweat. But he seems immune to conventional assessment. The two women he romances in the new film (Eva Mendes and Sanaa Lathan) are 20 and 17 years his junior respectively, but no one’s been making the conventional observations about how Hollywood privileges the older male – it just seems like the natural order, Denzel-wise. As Out of Time becomes increasingly abstract and detached from plausibility, as virtually all thrillers do. Washington’s remove takes on the contours of a philosophical challenge. Albeit a challenge considerably less bracing than that of the Rivette film.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Missing persons

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2004)

In 1980, the revised edition of David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema had an entry for Henrik Galeen, co-director of the 1914 version of Der Golem, that made a strange impression on me as a kid and sticks in my mind even now. It starts out:

  • As this is written, Galeen must be ninety-one – if he lives. Apparently in 1933, Galeen left Germany for America, though his last recorded film Salon Dora Green has German actors and a German title. No other information is available.
At the time I was just getting into movies, and into life in general, and I think it struck me as remarkable, stuck as I was in my mundane circumstances, that someone could simply vanish, while yet leaving enough of a footprint to earn a place in the reference books. In a certain way it seemed to encapsulate the romance of the movies themselves – ethereal, yet indelible. I certainly imagined, as Thomson seemed to, that Galeen was still alive, lurking in some benevolent shadow, frail but still plotting his comeback, no doubt chuckling at the mystery he’d left behind.

Finding Henrik

The Galeen entry vanished from the next edition of Thomson’s book. Perhaps the memory of him had finally become too frail. But when I thought of this again the other day, I looked him up on the Internet Movie Database. And there I found, rather to my amazement, the following:

  • Date of death (details) 30 July 1949 Randolph, Orange County, Vermont, U.S.A. (cancer)
There’s no more information (except the tantalizing bit that his spouse for the last two years of his life was called Comptess Ilse von Schenk), but there’s no reason to disbelieve it. Other than, that is, simple refusal to accept such a lame substitute for the myth woven by Thomson. I think it’s the parenthesis around “cancer” that really kills the magic, like something lifted from a drab medical report. Which may of course have been the source of the information.

Intrigued by this, I searched for Galeen on Google and came across, which gave Galeen’s year of death as 1940, and provided a link with the intriguing prospect: “Search his grave.” This supposedly led to a site called, which hasn’t worked for me the several times I’ve tried it. Another site, The Missing Link, gave the 1949 date, as did the German film institute site and a few others. But who’s to tell that all these apparently corroborating sites aren’t merely picking data off each other, spinning out the same piece of misinformation.

That’s about as far as Google took me, but I almost wish I were fascinated enough to launch my own investigation, which I like to imagine would spiral off as things do in movies into an unimaginable web of secrets and skeletons. I’m not quite that intrigued though, no doubt in part because I’ve never actually seen any of Galeen’s movies. Of course, it may be that never was much of a mystery, and that Thomson, writing in the pre-Internet age, simply didn’t have the resources (or the application) to track down a piece of not-particularly-obscure information. But if so, it’s easy to see why he didn’t search for as long as he could have: if the romance fits, who needs the facts?

Other mysteries

Cinema, generally a prohibitively expensive art form where deal making counts for at least as much as artistic vision, seems particularly suited to such missing person stories. A few strokes of bad luck and you might never get up there again. A recent Variety article pointed out “dozens of…examples over the past 20 years of Sundance award-winning films that never find distribution and hot new directors who never make another film.” Matty Rich won a prize in 1991 for his debut Straight out of Brooklyn, made one more (flop) film, and hasn’t directed another movie. Leslie Harris won an award in 1993 for Just Another Girl on the IRT and hasn’t been heard from since. And so on.

It’s not just directors. Just to take a few random examples from hundreds available. Andy and Dave Lewis wrote the fine script for Klute in 1971 and won an Oscar nomination. The Internet Movie Database lists one more credit for each in the following few years – since then nothing. Kitty Winn won the best actress prize at Cannes in 1971 for Panic in Needle Park, then appeared in The Exorcist and its first sequel. Since 1978, nothing. In part I wonder about the economics. The movies pay well, but I don’t see how someone retires on the back of the Klute screenplay. Could someone go from Sundance stardom to McDonalds? Absolutely. But you just plain wonder how they can stand it.

But maybe I’m letting my taste for the magic of cinema get the better of me there. Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” dictum is cited often enough that it obviously makes some sense to most of us. People can win a dream vacation, enjoy the hell out of it, then go back to their lives without any adverse effort. Why should making a movie be any different? Sure, some child stars never adjust to adulthood and to the loss of the spotlight, but it seems that the greater number just get on with things.

Comptess Ilse

Which might have made for a happy last decade for Henrik Galeen, out there in Vermont. But there’s a major problem with any attempt to convince oneself he opened a corner store or became a mail carrier – namely Comptess Ilse von Schenk. According to the IMDB he married her in 1948. It doesn’t seem likely that Galeen met someone with that kind of moniker just hanging out around Randolph, Vermont, although of course it’s possible. Maybe she was another refugee from fame (or from the Nazis), who followed the same random currents to New England, one day their eyes met at the corner store, they each recognized a kindred spirit, and that was that. Maybe she was a childhood friend, or an old flame from the wild parties in his film-making heyday. Maybe her real name was something like Adelaide Frump, and she changed it because she sensed the history books (or history websites) would demand her husband pair off with someone more exotic. She must be well over a hundred, if she lives. But no other information is available.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Ozu to Oz

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2004)

Reasons why we love the Cinematheque Ontario, Number 2,456: the recent Yasujiro Ozu retrospective. Only a few of Ozu’s films are generally available (only two are on DVD), but the Cinematheque had around forty, many of them revelations. Some of them are pure genre pieces, melodramas made under considerable constraints, but even the simplest has a poise and sophistication that’s startlingly modern (one of the series’ great revelations is that 1930’s Japan, at least as depicted in those movies, seems more westernized than the country does now).

William O’Meara

Some of the Ozu movies were silent, with live piano accompaniment by a man called William O’Meara. I’ve seen O’Meara at the Cinematheque many times over the years, and I’ve always been amazed by him. He always generates a wonderfully well-judged score, always perfectly attuned and synchronized to what’s on screen. I don’t know how much preparation he does for each film, if any, but you could have imagined each one was a major undertaking.

He doesn’t overdo it though. Silent movies aren’t necessarily corny, of course, but at the very least they use a slightly heightened mode of expression (sometimes much more than slightly heightened). O’Meara makes his scores a little more melodically obvious than a contemporary movie would ever allow, and as such echoes the visual idiom quite perfectly. According to a biography I found on the internet, he’s an accomplished classical musician who’s performed all over North America, in Brazil, Poland, Italy and elsewhere, as well as frequently on CBC Radio and NPR. We’re immensely lucky that he makes himself available to the Cinematheque.

At the same time as the Ozu season, the Cinematheque had a season of films by Vincente Minnelli. I love Minnelli’s movies, particularly The Band Wagon, which I’ve written about here in the past. I couldn’t make it to the Cinematheque to any of those films, and especially regretted missing the rare chance to see The Cobweb again – it’s an intense drama, set in a mental hospital, of which I retain the most fascinating (now 20 year old) memories.

Anyway, I partly compensated by watching Singin’ in the Rain again on TV. It’s a classic film of course, containing the iconic image of Gene Kelly performing the title song, Donald O’Connor knocking himself out on “Make ‘em Laugh,” and at least five other knock-out musical numbers. Unlike popular classics such as Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain (co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen) is a bona fide critical classic as well, placing tenth in the most recent Sight and Sound critics’ poll of the best movies ever made.

I’m Happy Again

In addition to everything else, it’s one of the most memorable depictions of how sound rocked Hollywood, going in a few months from a gimmick that no one thought would last to a revelation that made some careers but killed off many more. In Singin’ in the Rain, this is indelibly embodied in the character played by Jean Hagen, who looks like Jean Harlow but sounds more like Fran Drescher. The Debbie Reynolds character, sublimating her own career, provides Hagen with a more suitable voice, until the truth is revealed at the end, with an insouciance that my wife, watching the movie with me, found rather nasty.

Actually, Gene Kelly seems to me an inherently cold personality all round, with an expression that too often creeps a little too close to a sneer, and a way with the romantic bantering that verges on bullying. It’s odd that although Kelly and Fred Astaire are the two screen legends of dance, they share a distinct frostiness; Astaire’s way with his female co-stars often just drips disdain. It’s as if their mastery of the form, over their own feet and more subtly of their comportment within the frame, imposed a distance that could only be mitigated, never conquered.

That said, Singin’ in the Rain has amazing joie de vivre, and there’s something almost eerie about so much iconic exuberance coming at you in scene after scene. The theme about the transition from silent to sound, in particular the way they patch over the aesthetic deficiencies of a doomed film by turning it into a musical, seems somehow to embody the very essence of the genre. There’s no other kind of film that strikes such a relationship between the vividly emotional and the wantonly abstract, and perhaps no musical that exploits that odd displacement with such wicked charm.

Sometimes the songs in Singin’ in the Rain are part of the action; sometimes they belong to the “real” world of the film; sometimes, as in the “Moses Supposes” number, they seem to deconstruct the “real” world, to eat away at it until it disintegrates into gibberish – but gibberish you can dance to. It’s a dizzying fantasy of imagining and living out, from Kelly’s monologue at the start where he lies about his “dignified” past history while we see the much less rarified truth on the screen, to the end where a star’s voice turns out to belong to someone else.

Off to see the wizard

A few days after that, with my appetite for classic musicals now whetted again, I watched The Wizard of Oz (it played at 1 am on Bravo, which seems in some way like a sign of a pretty cool station). Unlike Donen and Kelly’s film, this doesn’t actually seem very well-directed to me. Much of the action is staged any old way and it has a herky-jerky quality throughout. But you can certainly see why the movie’s sometimes interpreted as a big acid trip – the intensity of Dorothy’s reimagining of normal life seems way beyond mere childish dreams.

Still, it’s one of the happiest of movie accidents. Everything about it – Judy Garland’s odd girl-woman performance (it struck me at several points that Dorothy could be read as being a bit stunted), the peculiarly elemental nature of her friends’ deficiencies, the vividness of its mythology (the yellow brick road, the ruby slippers) – somehow coheres. Although by now it’s impossible to know what one reacts to in the film itself and what you’re absorbing from the popular culture.

The title of this article, of course, is a gimmick – there’s no reason why Ozu and The Wizard of Oz would be in the same article. Except that I did indeed see both in the same week. I watch such a mixed bag of movies that I end up with these wacky juxtapositions all the time (in the last few days, as I write, I watched Exorcist II: The Heretic, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon). But no matter how often, it always strikes me as a small miracle.

Monday, November 28, 2016

More big movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2004)

Notes on three of the better recent films

The Triplets of Belleville

Already a contender for the best of 2004 list – and, as Letterman used to exclaim, it’s a cartoon! Sylvain Chomet’s film has a plot, but it would sound dumb if I tried to summarize it, and that’s one of the things I loved about the movie. Like Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (which quickly comes to my mind only because it’s the last animated film I saw in a theatre), it has a unique sensibility – one pitched at a previously uncharted angle to the world. It’s not quite as far-out as Miyazaki’s film though – another thing I loved about the film is that despite its brief 80-minute running time, and despite a trailer that makes the thing look like a blur of activity, it’s actually surprisingly languid (especially for a cartoon!) Perhaps half the running time is taken up merely with wonderfully precise observation – of a fat old dog’s routine while waiting for his owners to get home; of the bizarre mealtime rituals of a trio of old-time singers. In this respect and others, the closing dedication to the memory of Jacques Tati doesn’t seem at all gratuitous.

I also loved (someone stop me here before I gush) the distinct queasiness at the film’s centre. One of the notional protagonists is a Tour de France cyclist whose non-stop training has driven him to physical grotesquerie and apparent near catatonia – registering neither highs nor lows, he goes through the movie like a dazed war survivor. His mother – who sets out with the dog to find him after he’s kidnapped – is essentially a tyrant operating on a blinkered view of the world. And so on. The movie has an elongated, angular visual style that’s far more realistic than Miyazaki’s work, and it’s constantly diverting and dramatic, but it also skirts the fringes of nightmare, as if the elements of our world had been stretched slightly too far and might at any moment collapse. Sometimes, it goes in for Hanna-Barbera-type ideas (at one point the dog is used as a spare tire) but usually it’s closer to plausibility than that. Like I said, there’s no way to pass on the coordinates: you have to go there for yourself.

Spirited Away was the surprise winner of last year’s Oscar for best animated film, I don’t think Belleville can beat this year’s favourite, Finding Nemo, but it deserves to. Finding Nemo is a fine movie too, but when you compare it to Chomet’s film you see how calculated it is. Nemo has no downtime – it sweeps across you like a fresh cold wave, wearing the brightest colours you’ve ever seen. Sure, it’s not just for kids, but if it’s for adults, it’s for adults on definite downtime. The Triplets of Belleville is the real deal – a cartoon that most kids probably wouldn’t get. To me, that’s the kind of thing that could become a cult movie.

The Cooler

In Wayne Kramer’s debut film, William H Macy plays a Vegas loser whose luck is so bad that he can kill your winning streak just by standing next to you; he’s consequently hired by casino boss Alec Baldwin to move around the tables and keep down expenses. One day he falls in love with waitress Maria Bello and his luck turns round – now people are winning jackpots all around him. It’s a big problem for Baldwin, a Vegas traditionalist trying to keep away the modern theme park family-friendly glitz. This nostalgia is one of the film’s dominant qualities, and you could almost miss the fact that old Vegas – world capital of gangsters, hookers, etc. – wasn’t all wonderful (although Baldwin’s unashamed, utterly amoral use of violence is unflinchingly presented). Otherwise it’s all about the love story, which is presented with a lot of wistful sentimentality, introspection, and a sexual specificity that – given the musty nature of the surroundings – almost seems out of place. Nothing about The Cooler is very surprising, but most of the individual scenes play pretty well, aided by committed acting. The overall arc though seems unsophisticated. Underneath it all, it’s a transplanted fairy tale with an inevitable happy-ever-after trajectory, and fundamentally you’re never doing much more than waiting until it runs its course.

The Fog of War

Errol Morris’ Oscar-nominated documentary reviews the life and times of Vietnam-era US secretary of defense Robert McNamara, anchored around a series of interviews with the man himself, now 87. Filmed in vivid close-up, staring directly into the camera, McNamara remains a commanding presence. It’s an amazing life story – he was at the heart of the bombing strategy against Japan during WW2; he rose to the top of the Ford motor company, and later ran the World Bank. He brought to all of these roles a piercing analytical mind – a meticulous focus on objectives and processes. But such rationality might seem to verge on inhumanity, and some have seen McNamara almost as the embodiment of the devil – he admits himself that if the US had lost WW2, he might have been prosecuted as a war criminal.

Of course, Vietnam was the ultimate moral meltdown – an endeavor entered into without clarity or, it seems here, real conviction. McNamara attributes some of that now to basic misunderstandings: the Americans believed it was about global positioning; the Vietnamese thought it was about Vietnam itself. He thinks JFK would have found a way to get out before the casualties mounted, but the sobering point is that Kennedy had already let things go too far. The film has numerous extracts from the White House tapes of conversations between McNamara and Lyndon Johnson, chilling for their superficiality and sense of hopelessness. Eventually McNamara submitted a memo arguing for a fundamental change in direction, but even if he could turn back, Johnson couldn’t, and McNamara was gone a few weeks later.

Morris has a flashy visual style, including repeated use of things like dominoes falling on a map of Vietnam, and the film has an immaculate score by Philip Glass. It seems to me a bit overdone, and yet in a certain way this approach helps make the point – Morris’ towering cinematic edifice underlines McNamara’s hollow intellectualism, and the film’s over-craftedness serves as a metaphor for his tragic limitations. Ultimately, the film is a close cousin to Morris’ last documentary about Fred Leuchter, an expert in execution technology, and Holocaust denier. But Leuchter is merely a small-time buffoon next to McNamara, and you sometimes feel The Fog of War slightly unequal to its subject, yielding as if acknowledging that it will take a higher court than cinema to make him accountable. “Is it the feeling?” asks Morris, in response to another question dodged, “that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t?” “Yeah, that’s right,” McNamara responds. “And I’d rather be damned if I don’t.”