Friday, June 15, 2018

The Pnantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel, 1974)

Luis Bunuel’s late run of films is one of my favourite streaks by any filmmaker – I don't know that anyone else ever achieved such sustained, unmediated self-expression, marked by such unfussy cinematic elegance. The Phantom of Liberty is a consistent astonishment, fundamentally a loosely-linked collection of sketches, all of which challenge some aspect of convention or perception – in its most famous bit, the guests at a dinner party sit on lavatories around the table and discreetly absent themselves to eat in private. Its sequences subtly vary in their relationship to reality: in some cases providing a relatively simple reversal of expectations (the “dirty pictures” revealed as mere tourist postcards); in others savagely firing at religious sanctimony (monks who embrace booze, smokes and poker but recoil from sexual display); in others suggesting a mass breakdown in perception (a little girl who everyone counts as disappeared, even as they acknowledge her continuing presence); an episode involving a call from a dead sister gives the dislocation a psychic dimension. The film belongs securely to the living rooms and fancy offices of the bourgeoisie, except that suddenly Bunuel shows us a mass shooter gunning down random victims, and we’re dropped into real streets and markets and cafes, into real disruption (of a kind of course that doesn’t seem dated at all), and it’s clear how the film isn’t just a semi-affectionate ribbing, but rather a suggestion of a malaise spreading out from the establishment, a toxic discharge from so much self-absorption and self-congratulation and under-examined reliance on hypocritical moral precepts, of a kind that brings us down whether we know it or not (the film’s most pointed political dialogue actually addresses the environmental consequences of increasing population). Phantom doesn’t feel revolutionary or anarchic – it’s too comfortable with its settings and people for that – but it’s never complacent, wondrously ventilated by Bunuel’s timeless assurance.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Grasping at ashes

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2000)

If any movie ever pushes me into giving up on cinema, it might well be something like Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes. While watching it, I was so miserable that I seriously considered walking out – which, if you knew how stubborn I am in these matters, is like Preston Manning saying he’s thinking about switching to the Liberals. I didn’t even walk out of Parker’s last film Evita, even though I swear the thing took five years off my life.

Parker has made some of the most vacuously overblown films of the age, as well as a few moderately intelligent works which were filmed so as to appear vacuous and overblown. My favourite of the bunch is probably Shoot the Moon, a story of a failing marriage where – if memory serves – the ranting and raving somehow coalesces into a raw, chilling picture of emotions on the edge. Parker himself seems, from studying all the evidence, like a bull-headed loudmouth. One of the joys of cinema comes in fancying that you can feel your way through the screen into the soul of the director; avuncular Robert Altman beaming his way through Cookie’s Fortune; Paul Thomas Anderson hurling Magnolia into an inspired frenzy. Try that kind of thing with a Parker film and your head feels like burnt pizza.

Stopping the shouting

But Angela’s Ashes marks a change – according to a recent Globe and Mail profile, it’s conceived as a quieter film. “I think maybe I felt before that no one would listen,” says Parker, “if I said something in an understated way. Now I have the courage to know that sometimes the more understated a scene is, the more powerful it can be. You don’t have to shout all the time to be effective.”

But here’s the crazy equation – Alan Parker minus shouting all the time equals a big empty space. The new film is entirely inert – dramatically and thematically and artistically negligible. It has no ideas. One thing follows another. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. People get older. Three Hail Mary’s here, a pint of Guinness there. Whatever. It’s as boring as hell. Which could be a compliment if it meant the film were stoically and faithfully transcribing the painful barrenness of a disadvantaged childhood. But that’s not how I meant it.

It’s based, of course, on the best-selling memoir by Frank McCourt, who grew up in abject poverty in Ireland, then emigrated to the States and worked as a teacher until achieving literary fame late in life. I haven’t read the book, but I’m told the film is a faithful adaptation, at least in the sense that it preserves the structure and key incidents. The father can’t hold a job; drinks away the family’s meager income; eventually abandons them altogether. The mother struggles to feed and clothe her children. The kids do the best they can.

Well, here’s the thing – so what? That personal history, in itself, is utterly unexceptional, and the telling of it might amount to no more than a Greatest Hits of Misery and Suffering (with, of course, occasional light relief indicative of the possibilities of the indomitable human spirit). But the book had McCourt’s narrative voice, which struck people as being warm and moving and artistically vibrant. Even though the Toronto Star recently had a story about how he’s been boring people with this stuff for years. “Stop whining,” said his wife allegedly, “I’ve heard enough about you and your miserable childhood.”

Designer poverty

The book presumably rose above that, but it’s exactly the kind of review the film deserves. Scene after scene passes, lit with uniform steely grayness, each as carefully composed as the last. The Globe and Mail reports that “Parker knew there was a danger of falling into presenting what he calls ‘designer poverty.’” It’s a trap the writer of the article implicitly seems to view as having been avoided, regardless that he praises the film as “beautifully photographed.” Am I missing something in thinking that a film about poverty and suffering ought not to be beautifully photographed? Did Parker even seriously try not to fall into the “designer poverty” trap?

When my wife was reading the book, she was especially moved by the vivid evocations of hunger. The key passages are in the movie, but not in a way that will cause you a moment’s disquietude as you munch on your popcorn. Through his inability to abandon middle-brow notions of quality filmmaking or to get in close and dirty, Parker lets everything get away from him. Regardless that it may be based on truth, the film seems more and more like fiction as it crawls on – especially in the final scenes, where Frank almost miraculously comes by the money he needs to finance his passage to America.

Of all recent films, this is the one that least needed to be made. If the book’s that good, who needs the movie? How could it not have failed? And it certainly doesn’t fill any detectable hole in cinema history. Elia Kazan’s America America was a far more evocative account of the immigrant dream and its price. Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy is but one of dozens of movies that deal with Irish childhoods, or Catholicism, or childhoods in poverty, or absent fathers, or all four.

The idiot’s game

All in all, it’s a deadly boring experience. And I suppose it’s just the mood I was in, but it seemed close to a back-breaking straw. You go and see what’s alleged to be literate Hollywood cinema – Snow falling on Cedars, The Hurricane. Angela’s Ashes – and just get hit with turgid, self-important crap time and time again. Man, it’s depressing. I don’t want to end up a mainstream-spurning elitist who watches nothing but Iranian movies at the Cinematheque because, well, for one thing this column would suck. And beyond that, I want to enjoy the thrill of new openings, to succumb occasionally to the hype and the marketing and even to the star-gazing and the Oscar buzz. But it’s really an idiot’s game.

You need to clear your head afterwards. The film I watched after Angela’s Ashes was the 70’s exploitation flick Foxy Brown, starring Pam Grier, which I taped from Moviepix for what I would claim were historical reasons. And it’s awful – cheesy, poorly written and acted, clumsy, whatever you want to say about it – but I would argue vehemently that it’s a better film than Angela’s Ashes by any measure that counts. At least it lives and breathes and captures something of its time. And in terms of entertainment value, of course, it’s a complete no-contest. So watch Foxy Brown, or rent a porno video.

Or – and I admit this seems a bit radical to me – you could read the book.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Blue Collar (Paul Schrader, 1978)

Blue Collar, Paul Schrader’s first film, might not be easily identifiable as a Schrader film if you didn't know: for long stretches of time it almost feels like something arising organically from the factories and the surrounding community, particularly from the male workers who navigate between profane self-assertion and constant losing-battle economic anxiety. This doesn’t mean it feels like documentary – it increasingly submits to the mechanics of the plot and to the journey toward its final cinema-fist freeze-frame – but much of the movie carries an enormous feeling of ease and almost unmediated expression, with all three lead actors as fine as they’ve ever been. The film explores the complex equilibrium of the worker – at once proud of the union and what it represents but mostly contemptuous of the specific individuals who embody it; adhering to a traditional role as head of household while constantly on the lookout to subvert it with drugs and available women; sensitive to criticism and accusations of fallibility while constantly aware of their circumscribed place in the system. It’s a gripping film from beginning to end, but inevitably now it’s the sociological aspect that holds sway, given the subsequent decline of such labour-heavy production methods, and its consequences for the kind of worldview and social infrastructure Schrader explores. The film’s treatment of race is also notable: the film’s protagonists - two black and one white – are joined by what they have in common without being suspicious of what they don’t, until their unity poses a threat to the system, and so must be not just broken, but converted into active hatred. That ending freeze-frame isn’t subtle, but watching the movie now, it’s like a portal to the toxic present, in which such communities are plundered for easy votes, with never a shred of economic concession or compassion given in return.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Arrival of Joachim Stiller (Harry Kumel, 1976)

It's only in its final moments that Harry Kumel’s The Arrival of Joachim Stiller resembles an explicit parallel of Christianity, and it’s a measure of the film’s scope that this represents one of the more modest potential destinations. The film’s protagonist, Freek Groenevelt, starts to observe strange events, many of them linked in some way by that name “Joachim Stiller” – the unseen Stiller starts to assert himself as an explicit presence in the life of Freek and others, for example in letters arriving correctly addressed despite having been mailed decades earlier. Over the course of its two and a half hours, the film sometimes seems to be building the kind of myth that in contemporary Hollywood hands would yield a portal to hell surrounded by swirling CGI demons; at other times though “Stiller” seems more like an abstract expression of all that’s unresolved in our personal or collective pasts, or else like mere mischief-making, some kind of local in-joke. The film’s closely-observed Antwerp setting is certainly a major part of its appeal – we spend so much time observing the city’s trams and streets and cathedral that you wonder if Stiller doesn’t work for the local tourist bureau. But equally as important are the copious narrative strands and throwaway scenes that in terms of their strict contribution to the resolution seem to be neither here nor there, in particular a bawdy extended subplot about a near-feral local graffiti artist and the unprincipled entrepreneur who sets out to profit from his work: as in the Hitchcockian opposition between suspense and surprise, you get the sense that the film’s scheme depends as much on what doesn’t happen, or on what can’t be rationalized or justified, as on what does and can. For all its considerable eccentricity then, the film stands as a more intriguing and rewarding exploration of personal and spiritual striving than a more devout or linear work would likely be.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Klansman (Terence Young, 1974)

If nothing else, Terence Young’s The Klansman has you feeling persistently outraged and repulsed, which seems like the broadly right reaction to a drama about modern-day Southern racism. It’s generally a bit unclear to what extent this reflects conscious sociological engagement and illumination, versus tasteless pot-boiling, but the ambiguity isn’t uninteresting in itself. It’s tempting to credit co-writer Samuel Fuller for what’s most interesting in the film – usually when it looks beyond the rather ploddingly ugly foreground drama to explore the wretchedly symbiotic coexistence between white fear of blackness and its economic dependence on it. There’s an acknowledgement for instance of how the black population in the county actually outnumbers the white, thus providing constant fuel for voter intimidation mechanisms, and the film is pretty good on how the Klan bastardizes language and religious precepts (in these regards as in numerous others, the film’s substance feels less dated than its surface). The plot turns around sheriff Bascomb’s attempts to maintain equilibrium in the community when various events, including a white woman’s rape and a voting rights demonstration, stir up the perpetually stir-ready Klansmen (that is, basically, the entire local male population) – his concessions are monstrously favourable to the racists who occupy the driver’s seat, but of course it’s never enough. The film surely spends too much time wallowing in swaggering interactions, and it’s hard to look kindly at its relative treatment of white and black female sexuality and its violation – it lacks anything as cinematically or thematically powerful as the central concept of Fuller’s later White Dog. Unless that is you react a certain way to the presence of O. J. Simpson as a one-man avenger, essentially occupying his own space within the movie, just as he does in the movie of our lives. Young's film fails particularly in its ending, delivering us merely to inevitable mass violence and destruction, and to a predictably bitter closure lacking in any broader meaning or implication.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Eating Shakespeare

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2000)

Sometimes the shape of the room depends on where you came in. I started making a serious habit of sneaking into 18-rated movies (or X-rated, as they were at the time) in the early 80s. This was before video really came in, and you’d seldom see a mature film on British television that wasn’t cut in one way or another (I remember that Chinatown, for instance, was broadcast without the scene in which Jack Nicholson gets his nose knifed, entailing that he suddenly just turned up wearing an unexplained bandage), so this was major new territory for me. I remember every one of them as a distinct exotic exploration. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was the first (even then, obviously, I didn’t follow the crowd), and it only added fuel to my enthusiasm despite its disastrous reputation. Ken Russell’s Altered States was the second. I’ve watched that movie four or five times again since then, and it seems sillier every time, but to me nowadays it’s like visiting a declining mentor in his hospital bed; you sit and smile and remember the better days.

Paul Bartel

Another of my earliest expeditions into the X-rated movie was Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul, a 1982 black comedy who take up murder and cannibalism. The film was well received at the time, and seemed likely to be Bartel’s stepping-stone out of B-movies into broader acceptance. But he never really followed through. His last movie of any note (and then not much) was Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, made in 1989. More lately, he was seen here and there in tiny acting parts. He died the other week, and I doubt the obituary meant much to most readers. But reading it, I experienced the same heavy-hearted thud that accompanies the loss of a thriving career – no more Paul Bartel films, I thought to myself, as though we’d lost Robert Altman or Mike Leigh. Because his brief moment of relative glory coincided with my own awakening, I guess Bartel was always a prominent filmmaker to me. And this despite the fact that I haven’t bothered to see Eating Raoul again in the intervening eighteen years. It’s disconcerting, when the inner child suddenly kicks like that.

The death I should have mentioned, I suppose, was that of Sir John Gielgud – obviously a much more estimable figure than Paul Bartel overall (although, in a reversal of the way obituaries usually work, I don’t think I ever read as much criticism of Gielgud as I did after his death – all ringing tones and no passion, was the common rap). A few commentators noted (to no particular end) that Shakespearean stalwart Gielgud died in the same week that Michael Almereyda’s contemporary version of Hamlet opened here. But the odder echo for me came from Bartel’s appearance in the climactic scene. Looking embalmed and distant, he had but one line – “A hit – a palpable hit.” Taken out of context, that might not seem like such a bad exit line for a film director.

Michael Almereyda

If I’d thought about it, Almereyda might have seemed until this year to carry every likelihood of dwindling away in Bartel-style. Some of his films, like the vampire movie Nadja, had points of interest, but not enough to sustain even the flimsiest of legends. In fact, Almereyda was best known for his odd enthusiasm for Pixelvision – a plastic video camera produced by Fisher-Price – a technology he’s deployed in several movies.

At the Toronto film festival two years ago, they showed a movie of his which was then called Trance (subsequently released on video as The Eternal). It starts off promisingly, depicting a New York woman’s slow alcoholic suicide in fairly raw and striking terms. But after ten minutes or so, the action shifts to Ireland, where she visits her ancestral home, occupied by a wacky (naturally) Christopher Walken and an ailing aunt or granny – I forget which. I recall watching through escalating layers of dense exposition and strained mythology and being utterly baffled as to the nature of the artistic merit that got the film through the festival selection process. It’s too idiosyncratic to be dismissed as a run-of-the-mill potboiler, but that’s not synonymous with having much merit. Anyway, the film was barely heard of after that, which seems about right.

But Almereyda really turns things around with Hamlet I think. The film reinvents the Denmark of Shakespeare’s play as a “Denmark Corporation” based in New York, and translates its brooding characters into an environment of modern-day corporate skullduggery; it locates “to be or not to be” in a milieu of brand names and modern architecture. Almereyda’s almost ideal cast includes Ethan Hawke, San Shepard, Julia Stiles and Bill Murray. He brings the film in at under two hours. This all sounds pretty smart, if you assess it as you would at a pitch meeting.


I enjoyed some scenes of Hamlet as much as any Shakespeare I’ve ever seen on film. I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, so I can’t comment with much authority on where Almereyda’s transcription stands in the pantheon. It never seemed to me that his approach yielded any specific insight into its contemporary setting. And one doesn’t need to be a purist, I suppose, to take the view that “To be or not to be” would be better presented “straight” than (as it is here) on a video screen, by a Hamlet holding a gun to his own head. And yet, for the uninitiated (or to put it another way, for those who were brought up on Paul Bartel rather than on Gielgud), the presentation, even if it’s a little overwrought, does illuminate the subtext.

But that approach runs the risk of Hamlet for dummies. The real miracle of the movie for me is how enthralling it is even when it’s played relatively straight. Bill Murray, for example, doesn’t have much support during his scenes, but he’s quite terrific, rendering his speeches entirely clear and enthralling and naturalistic. True, there were also major stretches which rather went past me (I’ve never had the courage, incidentally, to tackle Kenneth Branagh’s four hour version from a few years ago). But if nothing else, Almereyda’s film is surely a serviceable introduction to the play. I actually thought about seeking out the original text. Especially perhaps during those few seconds when Bartel was on screen, as somber as though foreseeing his own demise; as though numbed by the knowledge that his few aficionados would shortly move on to something more substantial.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Manon 70 (Jean Aurel, 1968)

Across such an intervening distance, it’s hard to know how much Jean Aurel’s Manon 70 is channeling the specific morality of its era, versus merely engaging in pretty, titillating fantasies. Journalist Des Grieux (Sami Frey) sees Manon (Catherine Deneuve) in a Japanese airport, and his first transgression follows almost immediately – blowing expense account money on upgrading to first class to boost his chances with her. The gamble works, but the die is already cast – not too much later (whether in narrative or in screen time) he’s out of a job, and tolerating behaviour from Manon of the kind for which he earlier said he’d kill her. But then, everybody’s doing it – Manon’s brother (Jean-Claude Brialy) appears to live primarily on the earnings of pimping her out, even getting a nightclub out of it when an American millionaire Ravaggi (Robert Webber) enters the scene (Ravaggi is the one character who seems turned on primarily by tuning into his own rapaciousness, which may be intended as a shot at the under-sensualized US) . The film crams a lot into its 100 minutes, too much to impress as a serious sociological and psychological investigation, especially when everyone and everywhere looks so ravishing (except for Stockholm which is made to look like the back end of Siberia). Aurel takes Deneuve mostly at face value, which indeed is worth a lot, until one compares to her greatest  works of this era. It’s hard not to think of the film in relation to her recent cautionary comments on the “Me too” movement – it exemplifies a notion of messy, self-gratifying act-now-work-out-the-details-later hedonism. Perhaps that’s not really much of a view of human interaction, but as the film is at least notionally based on an 18th century work of literature, you might conclude it’s drawing on some weary notion of the long view.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Movie notebook #3

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2000)

I’ve been thinking for a while that I’d like to do an article on my ten favourite films, but it always comes up against a practical problem – I can’t decide what they are. And even if I could, I should really check out the contenders again before committing myself in print. I think Bonnie and Clyde and That Obscure Object of Desire are on the list, but I haven’t watched either of them for a few years, and I never seem to get round to it. A sign perhaps, that they don’t belong on the list.

I think John Cassavetes’ Love Streams must be a major contender, for I watched it only last week, and would happily start all over again. Note that I was only talking above about my ten favourite films – a wantonly subjective criterion. Cassavetes’ two-and-a-half hour film is obsessive, obscure, self-indulgent; it often seems to be talking only to itself. But I adore it.

Love Streams

The film revolves around two characters. The first is a writer, played by Cassavetes, who lives in a vaguely explained harem-like situation, through which he wanders in a tuxedo and a cloud of cigarette smoke. He represents a highly narcissistic, defensive, formalized view of love and relationships, never yielding the truth about himself, regardless that he insists that a beautiful woman must give up her secrets.

This contrasts with his sister, played by Gena Rowlands, whose marriage has crashed under the strain of her highly fluid notion of love as a stream that never stops flowing, whatever the ups and downs of relationships; she almost cracks in her attempt to implement this vague philosophy. Even if I didn’t find the film artistically scintillating, I think I’d still love it just for the ambition. Love Streams has a story, with a resolution, but it feels more like a feverishly molded sculpture than a narrative. Cassavetes, as an actor, had a uniquely aggressive stylized quality about him, yet as a director he was devoted to a notion of discovery and exposure. I think the balance shifted over the years toward the actor in him, for whereas his early work (Shadows) was naturalistic, Love Streams is essentially a spacy, distended fantasy, swooping across moods and tones. A passage where Rowlands buys him a mini menagerie and brings it home in a cab is one of the most delightful deadpan scenes of the last twenty years; at other times the film is so raw that it bleeds.

Well, Cassavetes has been dead for some fifteen years now, and I still miss him. Of course, one occasionally sees films that evoke elements of his style – the Dogme 95 group for example – but they don’t have his showmanship or his blazing vision. I remember Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 a few years ago as being unusually satisfying in that kind of vein – but I’d need to watch it again to know for sure (I must get around to that).

Miss Julie

I was thinking about this again recently as I watched Mike Figgis’ latest film Miss Julie. Figgis is the director of Leaving Las Vegas and Internal Affairs – a likely candidate for the Hollywood A-list if he were interested. But he’s taken to blasting big-budget money as being inconsistent with good work, and says he’s tired of conventional filmmaking. His last, The Loss of Sexual Innocence, was a freeform scrap book of images, widely regarded as ludicrous (I liked it more than not). His next is apparently a thriller shot in a single ninety-minute take, or something like that.

Miss Julie is an adaptation of a Strindberg play, confined almost entirely to a single set, dealing with the fleeting but disastrous relationship between an aristocratic young woman (Saffron Burrows) and her father’s footman (Peter Mullan). It’s powerful, savage material – fiercely laying bare the hypocritical, self-deluding niceties of relationships across class and sexual lines. Figgis’ film is appropriately corrosive and disquieting; he gets a fine performance from Burrows (his girlfriend and apparent muse).

For the most part Figgis plays things fairly straight, but a couple of times near the start of the film, he engages in shot selections that seem ludicrously artificial and jarring (the footman viewed from the point-of-view of the wine glass he holds in his hand; a disorienting one-take shift of focus from one character to another, then again to another), and at one point he uses a split screen. I took these devices as deliberate attempts to force us beyond mere identification with the characters, to make us think about the events depicted within the broader context in which we watch the film (text book kind of stuff), but whatever the intention, they’re very strained, not particularly interesting.

Being unconventional

I was more intrigued by a sequence when the rest of the servants briefly take over the kitchen; drunk and giddy from a Midsummer celebration, they dance and chant and spew vulgarities about their masters, while Burrows listens from a corner. There’s an odd disembodied feeling to this sequence; the servants don’t register as characters, merely as a shambling yet vaguely menacing mass, ritualistically venting its scorn – the sequence seems like a momentarily much more imaginative evocation of the intractability of the class system, and its placement forms a significant meridian in the central relationship.

But since that’s only one sequence, I’m really only saying that Figgis isn’t actually offering up an awful lot, relative to all the fuss he’s making about steering clear of the mainstream for the sake of a higher calling. Miss Julie is certainly very different from The Loss of Sexual Innocence, but you almost wonder if that isn’t the whole point. With both films, you might be up on one piece of it and down on another, but it’s a pretty fragmented kind of response either way. And of course, the films aren’t massively different from the mainstream – they still have actors, recognizable plot strands; they don’t run upside down or backward. Looking at Figgis’ attempts so far at “unconventional” filmmaking, you just feel like you’re missing the frame of reference. Mike, what did you say was broken? And just tell me again, how exactly are you fixing it?

Personally, I thought Figgis’ most distinctive film was his 1997 commercial flop One Night Stand, but that’s a minority view. It’s certainly ironic that almost as soon as he embarked on his mission, a number of fine unconventional movies emerged from within the wretched Hollywood system. But whether Figgis chooses to work within or outside the system, I hope he manages to forge a persuasive case for our continued interest in his work. He seems to have the ambition of a Cassavetes. But Cassavetes was a visionary whereas Figgis, at present, merely reacts.

(2018 footnote – here’s an article I wrote subsequently on my top ten films)

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Revolution (Hugh Hudson, 1985)

At its sporadic relative best, Hugh Hudson’s Revolution seems to aspire to becoming a work of pure texture and movement and evocation of time and place, prioritizing collective over individual experience; at such times it sometimes puts one in mind of the great and overlooked Peter Watkins. That’s not necessarily helpful to the film as it stands though – Watkins would surely have rejected the big-star casting and the narrative contrivances, and would have found his way to a far more probing kind of authenticity (among so much else, the film doesn’t have much sense of real labour, or of real pain), even while acknowledging its artifice. Obviously the film was largely shaped by more commercial considerations than that, but it’s still disappointing that the makers couldn’t have avoided the lame love story between the fur trapper who gets swept up by events (Al Pacino’s Tom Dobb) and the child of privilege who abandons her family for the sake of becoming a figurehead of the revolution (Nastassja Kinski); or the over-reliance on Dobb’s fierce love for his son as an all-consuming motivation and engine of personal transformation. The film presents the English as being grotesque either in their effeteness or else in their brutality, and invests heavily in the inherent moral superiority of the rebels, to the point of expunging any notion of exploitation of the indigenous people, or (I think) any reference to slavery: perhaps these simplifications can be interpreted partly as a function of one man’s subjective experience (and the film certainly emphasizes that Dobb is illiterate and under-informed) but they mainly seem hollow and calculating. Revolution does acknowledge in its closing scenes that the new regime may primarily come to represent new means of exploitation and misrepresentation, but that’s mainly for the purpose of stroking us with Dobb’s new awakening and articulacy (which then in rapid order meets its primary reward, that of getting the girl). The nature of the film’s failures is almost always interesting, but it seldom feels like a meaningful conversation with American history, nor with its present.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Slums of the film festival

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

I'd never use this space to advance a personal grievance of course, so it’s as a matter of objective commentary that I report on the Toronto film festival’s refusal to issue me a press pass for this year’s festival. Well, they didn’t actually refuse – they just ignored my request. I thought a circulation of 12,000 might have counted for something, but maybe, gentle readers, you just don’t seem arty enough. But I shouldn’t blame you. My cultural credentials were shot as soon as I gave Lethal Weapon 4 twice the rating of Smoke Signals. They were probably worried I’d be a conspicuous lowbrow – a dissenter chanting “Jackie Chan rules” during Bernardo Bertolucci’s press conference.

The movie vigil

Anyway, I didn’t want to go to the festival any less because of this painful snub, so I got up at 4 am on September 3rd and hauled myself over to College Park to stand in the ticket order line. If you’ve never been part of it, the film festival involves a highly complex ordering process that entails visiting the box office on at least three separate occasions. The key date is that on which – two days after announcing the film schedule – they collect advance ticket orders. These are processed on a first come, first serve basis, starting at 9 am, but given the festival’s popularity, all the best movies would already be sold out if you actually turned up at that hour. Some people arrive the previous evening and spend the night. Arriving at 4.30 am, there were well over a hundred people in front of me. The line ultimately circled the south side of College Park, then trailed up Yonge, west on College, down Bay at least to Gerrard, and even further south for all I know.

My early start paid off – I got ninety-five per cent of the movies I wanted. But many of those who struck out will undoubtedly make an earlier start next time. I go an hour earlier every year and never make up any ground. I dread the day when I feel obliged to spend the night there (now you start to see how my interest in getting the press pass might not have been wholly altruistic), but how far off can that be?  Still, although I’m not any sort of morning person, and the street got pretty hard on my rear end (wiser people bring folding chairs), the time passed surprisingly quickly, eavesdropping on others in line and diligently reviewing an extremely long and dull but somewhat important work-related document (I was really pleased with that aspect of it – I got to charge virtually the whole stint!)

The cinematic zoo

My big gripe is that the incredible enthusiasm for obscure movies that erupts in Toronto for ten days each September seems disproportionate to the general year-round appetite for such films. Last year I tried to get tickets to an afternoon showing of Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth, but it had already sold out. I eventually saw it commercially six months or so later – me and the four other people in the theater. The picture lasted a mere  two weeks. How do you reconcile those two extremes of audience interest? The Cinematheque Ontario regularly shows wonderful, rare movies by cinema’s greatest directors, to half-empty theaters. I appreciate that it’s easier for people to fill their quota of challenging cinema in one dose – take the week off and cover the waterfront. But that’s not much of a place for art cinema in the scheme of things – to be experienced primarily in a concentrated tumble of sleep-deprived viewing excess.

Roger Ebert recently pointed out that the film festival circuit is becoming, in effect, the primary means of exhibition for more and more foreign films. I think the Toronto festival has enough clout in these parts to be a bit of a bully. Instead of giving the best ticket selections to those willing or able to wait in line the longest, why not give priority booking to people who’ve been to the Cinematheque at least ten times during the year? You can debate the pros and cons of that, but at least it would characterize the festival as being rooted in – and the high point of – a thriving film culture, rather than as a short-lived annual explosion. It’s in danger of resembling a cinematic zoo – wildly popular for its many strange and exotic exhibits, but of little or no relevance to the survival of those species in their natural habitat.

And you know I’m sincere about that. What axe could I possibly have to grind?

Among the masses

Anyway, my original idea was to cover the festival highlights in these pages, but I guess they didn’t want me to do that, so let’s head back into the commercial jungle and the current Slums of Beverly Hills. A film far more accomplished than its raucous trailer and Adam Sandler-ish title suggest, it’s about an economically-stretched father of three, played by Alan Arkin, and his family’s ups and downs in the down-at-heel outer regions of B.H. The film’s raunchy energy is much better rooted in a meaningful plot and worldview than were the bad-taste selling points of There’s Something About Mary. For instance, a scene where two women (well-played by Natasha Lyonne and Marisa Tomei) dance around the room while throwing back and forth a vibrator is titillating and laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s also a perfect expression of how Tomei deliberately draws the younger woman toward sexual awareness, despite the fragility of her own state. And the end of that scene, with Arkin entering the room and catching his daughter enjoying the vibrator a little too much, may be predictable, but – along with just about everything else in the picture – has an accomplished light touch.

The ending is sentimental, but very level-headed – the family doesn’t get out of the slums. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I wanted the hand-to-mouth experience to triumph. Shut out from the film festival’s equivalent of the great mansions, naturally my only option is to enjoy the communal experience of the proletariat. And I really do enjoy it. The press pass would have been pretty neat. But the main thing – whatever it takes – is to see the movies.

(2018 postscript – I did receive a press pass the following year, and held on to it for a decade. You can read many of the resulting reviews on this website. But I haven’t seen a single film at the festival since 2009).

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Slap the Monster on Page One (Marco Bellocchio, 1972)

Marco Bellocchio’s Slap the Monster on Page One certainly reflects a particular time and place, seeped in the self-satisfied calculations of the monied Italian establishment, but it resonates bleakly in our time of heightened political cynicism and authoritarianism and of systematic disregard for truth. Gian Maria Volonte’s Bizanti is the editor-in-chief of a prominent newspaper, leading its self-portrayal as a societal bulwark against violent leftist forces. When a young well-connected woman is brutally murdered, the paper seizes on the story in the way media always does, as a flagrant circulation booster and, when a likely suspect emerges, as particularly potent evidence of the degradation of the left. But the reporter on the story becomes aware that the trail is all too well-lit and the conclusion is too convenient a contribution to the narrative of a looming election; his reward for his awakening is to get fired. The film’s subtlety lies in how Bizanti isn’t at all oblivious to his personal corruption and culpability: on the contrary, he exults in it, seeing himself as the operator of an elaborate machine contributing to keep the worker suitably and obediently incentivized, and at the same time implicitly assuming that the worker understands and accepts his subjection to this calculated narcotic. Anyone who can’t perceive (and it seems even appreciate, as one does a work of art) the workings of this system is merely a contemptible moron – including his wife, as he expresses in a memorably cruel outburst. In the end the truth is placed safely in storage, although with an understanding that it may be allowed to emerge in the future depending on the outcome of the election; the film ends on images of the Catholic church (by then degraded by an earlier deranged juxtaposition of the dead girl with the Virgin Mary) and then – amusingly if not subtly – on a river of garbage. Concise, dark and potent, the film might still be capable of inciting outrage, at least for a viewer still in possession of any sense of societal optimism.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Corporate rocket

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 1999)

I am no great symbol of any aspect of corporate culture, but the new satire Office Space catches me at a convenient time in my personal history. After twelve years on the ladder, I recently quit, and at the time of writing I’m serving out an extended notice period. I have a feeler on another job, representing a modest change of direction, but it may very well not work out, in which case I’ll be looking in the short term at unemployment. What could have possessed me? Frustration, arrogance, idiocy, idealism? Certainly all of those. But perhaps it was primarily an act of imagination. I’d been complaining for years on and off about my career track, and how I felt I was painting myself into a corner, but it kept meeting various objective measures of success, so I kept going. I needed to evolve a vision of how to quit, to approach my dilemma creatively, to craft a vision of how my soul would hold up under all the alternative scenarios. After that it became easy, even inevitable. Right now I feel great. Of course, that may not last (see above comment re unemployment).

Downsize this!

This all gives me a greater than academic interest in the central conceit of Office Space: the idea of packing it all in, of not playing the game anymore. Variety predicted in its review that the movie might become a cult comedy for office workers, with repeat viewings tacked on to happy hour. I went to see it on a Friday lunchtime – a perfect time to spot such individuals playing hooky (I hasten to clarify that in my closing days on the job I’m being paid only for a 75% week, making my own presence there quite legitimate). But there wasn’t a tie or briefcase in sight. Of course, casual Fridays are so pervasive now that it’s hard to tell who’s working and who’s en route to the golf course. I’ve always refused to do casual Fridays. Before I quit, that was my primary act of rebellion (that and the Exposed movie poster in my office), and you know you’ve been around too long when your primary act of rebellion involves choosing to wear a tie.

Anyway, the central character of Office Space, drowning in a monotonous corporate culture, finds himself suddenly liberated, to the point of recklessness, after an overstimulating hypnotherapy session. He starts coming in to work only when he feels like it, speaking his mind without caring about the consequences, dressing casually (and I don’t mean business-casually). He just doesn’t care anymore. But instead of getting him fired, even as the firm downsizes ruthlessly around him, his candor and individuality earn him a promotion. Not that it makes him care a jot more. When his by-the-book buttoned-down buddies get the axe, the three decide to take their revenge by ripping off the company. And then there’s more plot-driven kind of stuff.

The grass is greener

When you hear that his new attitude also enables him to reel in Jennifer Aniston as his romantic interest, you may guess that Office Space allows itself a little too much latitude in the area of wish fulfilment. The film’s early stretches contain some reasonably effective potshots at the usual Dilbert-type targets, but the second half is little more than an extended wrap-up (with developments such as his break-up and reunification with Aniston leaving as much impression as an empty toner bag). And if there’s a message more profound in there than that corporate life kind of sucks and it’d be kind of neat to do your own thing, it bypassed my in-tray.

But there are obvious reasons of self-preservation for why most of us stay at our desks. Maybe Office Space is just a big whine about the grass being greener (it persistently mocks a waiter who immerses himself too ingratiatingly in his restaurant’s upbeat ethos, but what’s wrong with adapting to your situation?) I don’t want to get all pious about this, but another new film reminds us how lucky we are to have the desk and the commute and, maybe most of all, the air conditioner. In October Sky, based on a true story, a teenage boy dreams of escaping from his dire home town, where a career down the local coal mine is taken to be as inevitable as night following day. It’s 1957, the time of the Sputnik launch, and the protagonist and his friends start to experiment with homemade rocket science.

Alternative histories

This has the practical upside of providing a possible ticket to the science fair, a winning scholarship, and escape. But much of the film’s surprising emotional punch comes, I think, from the potency of the recurring images of the homemade rockets – once they’ve got them to work – traveling crisply into the heavens, their scissor-straight tails slicing the blue sky. It’s a compelling, sleek evocation of limitless escape, touching as a contrast to the soul-destroying grimness of the town. The movie gets so much play from the wretched existence represented by the mine (embodied through a standard-issue conflict between blinkered father and dreaming son) that it’s almost Dickensian, although in the end – perhaps aware of the dangers of condescension to the blue-collar segment of the audience – it makes a game attempt at asserting that the mining life isn’t inferior; it’s just different.

But few career hazards could hold the sheer disgust of having one’s lungs fill up with coal dust. My Welsh ancestors were primarily farmers, but my grandfather was a minister, spending much of his career in mining towns. He went down the mine shaft once, and never forgot the experience. It all seems pretty distant, sitting in downtown Toronto. And one can’t measure one’s own happiness by dwelling on the alternative histories that were narrowly missed by the accident of a generation here or a bloodline there. Still, October Sky almost made me inclined to reconceptualize the downtown office core as my personal Cape Canaveral, and to rush to beg for acceptance back into white-collar security. Almost, but not quite. Even after writing this article, and thereby thinking about the whole thing too much, my imagination’s still buzzing. For today, I’m still wallowing in the idea of escape.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Target (Arthur Penn, 1985)

During his rather brief but glorious heyday, Arthur Penn seemed incapable of generating a merely functional scene; his work was at once thrillingly intimate and engaged and yet full of weighted, often melancholy implication. His work has the quality of a cinematic barometer - at its most vivid in the sixties; silent for much of the misbegotten seventies and then disillusioned and wayward; and then never fully himself from the eighties onward, as if America had lost its power to stimulate. Target is no doubt one of his least-cherished films, although by some measures (the more conventional ones) it's among his most proficient - it's seamlessly plotted, compellingly paced and entirely on top of its action scenes, especially the car chases. Gene Hackman's Walter Lloyd is a small-town lumber yard owner, so boring he won't even accompany his wife on a European vacation, until she disappears and he heads over with his son (Matt Dillon) in search of her: the first dead body shows up at the baggage claim, heralding Walter's past identity as a CIA Cold War super-operative, the detritus of which now provides a resurgent threat. Hackman is surely in tune with the broader idea, that however much the 80's might have seemed like a time of settling and resignation, nothing had been resolved; the surface might still crack both for worse (undermining all concepts of stability and predictability) and for better (Walter's resurrection of his buried self, and the consequent rewrite of his relationship with his son, portends a healthier and more vibrant future for the family). It’s no surprise of course that the peril turns out to be caused by rot within the system, by duplicity and weak character. I suppose the degree to which you think the climactic fire symbolizes a broader possibility of cleansing might depend on how optimistic you felt at the time about peak-Reaganism. But it seems certain that the younger Penn would have found stranger and groovier patterns in the flames.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Les plus belles escroqueries du monde (1964, Horikawa, Gregoretti, Chabrol, Godard)

At least in its current form, the five-part movie’s most beautiful swindle perhaps arises when you arrive at where Polanski’s segment should be (as per the opening titles) and get only a caption saying it’s been removed at the director’s request – a nice reminder, at least, of the contingent nature of the supposedly finished film. This leaves ninety very easy to take minutes, barely held together by the notion of “beautiful swindlers” though – at least two of the four segments present women who are ultimately victims (but then isn’t that always the way). Horikawa’s Tokyo sequence is lively and sexy, but doesn’t amount to much more than the sum of its parts. Gregoretti’s Naples sequence instantly announces itself as being more socially grounded, and ultimately almost vicious in its turning of the self-serving tables. Chabrol’s breezy segment depicts a scam to sell the Eiffel Tower to a Paris-obsessed German, and amounts to exactly as much as meets the eye (although the recessive nature of Deneuve’s participation is a bit of a mystery in itself). And then comes Godard’s Moroccan sequence, of course turning the project’s dynamics on their head. Jean Seberg (“Patricia,” as in Breathless) plays a TV documentarian from San Francisco, moving through Marrakech with her camera, briefly accused by the police of passing counterfeit money, and then finding the real perpetrator, whose motives turn out to be complexly yet dreamily philosophical and subversive. Patricia’s unexamined faith in the camera as a captor of truth, and in subsequently reporting these events to the police for the sake of her conscience, stand as profoundly unequal to the counterfeiter’s complex imaginings, and as Seberg’s camera turns in the final shot to stare back at us, Godard subtly indicts whatever easy pleasures we might have gleaned from the movie to that point. No surprise then that the movie’s original American release was missing this section rather than Polanski’s.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (Christopher Petit, 1982)

I don’t know anything about the P D James source material, but Chris Petit’s film of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman has a dark and unexpected take on its catchy title. As the detective doing the unsuitable job – engaged by a rich man to find out why his son hanged himself – Pippa Guard’s Cordelia Gray unearths clues and follows leads as capably as any man probably would, and has sufficient physical agility and determination to escape at her major moment of peril. But she embodies little of the classic authority of the investigating protagonist: she expresses herself untidily and allows herself to identify too much with the dead man (to the point of almost accidentally replicating his suicide), and she’s much more watched upon than she is the watcher – the fact that the dead man was found dressed as a woman contributes to the sense of destabilization. When she finds her way to the truth, it yields little sense of actual or figurative light – the denouement takes place in darkness and in near-silence, as the culmination of a long-standing familial fracture. The fracture isn’t just that though – it’s that of an England in which the stability of the grand houses and the bucolic cottages and the very proper accents is rotting from within, eaten away by avarice and evasion and hypocrisy (the solution to the mystery lies, literally, in the blood). Petit’s minimizing of narrative in favour of mood and intuition has elements both of diagnosis and potential cure - given the movie’s period, it’s hard not to think of Margaret Thatcher as the overwhelming national reference point for any assessment of unsuitability, and for considering how that assessment might or might not correlate with gender identity. Certainly Thatcher’s public persona was largely built on denying the intuitive, often - so to speak- un-Guarded openness that characterizes Gray here.