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. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Identification of a Woman (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1982)

Identification of a Woman is hardly one of Antonioni’s most galvanized or necessary works – it often seems mired in bewilderment (or in figurative - and in a couple of its most striking scenes literal - fog). It seems all too obvious that the protagonist, Niccolo, would be a director uncertain about his next project – at one point saying he’s no further along than knowing it will be about a woman, and later on seeming bogged down merely in searching for striking faces. But uncertainty isn’t the same as resignation, let alone surrender, and the film has a constant sense of reaching for something potentially transformative, and of welcoming the accompanying frustrations. In the first section, Niccolo’s relationship with the aristocratic Mavi exposes him to threats from unknown presumed competitors, to a social group he’s uncomfortable with, and ultimately to her unexplained disappearance; the sex scenes between them often carry a sense of wanting to conquer the surrounding space, or to break through it. In the second section, he meets an actress, Ida, who embodies quieter and more intimate mysteries. Antonioni shows us little of the development of either relationship, and the film has a constant sense of roads not taken or threats narrowly avoided – long looks exchanged with other women, warnings of pending violence – or of understandings from which Niccolo is excluded: he certainly seems here like the most passive of filmmakers. In the end, the film suggests his artistic (and perhaps personal) redemption must lie in transcending earthly mysteries, to move into science fiction, where the investigations are celestial; describing the project in his closing voice-over, his imagination for the first time seems free and his wonderment unjaded. The film certainly feels strained at times, and never approaches the glories of L’Avventura or The Passenger; its strange poignancy lies in the sense that Antonioni no longer thought himself capable (or worthy?) of aiming for them.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Mr. Patman (John Guillermin, 1980)

John Guillermin’s Mr. Patman (identified on the print I saw as Crossover) is one of the more interesting legacies of the late 70s Canadian tax-shelter boom. Like most of the films that came out of there, it has an imported star and director, and although filmed in Vancouver it’s mostly vague about its setting – nothing about it tries to evoke or illuminate “Canadian” themes or issues. Coburn’s Patman is a night-shift nurse in a psychiatric hospital, empathetic and easygoing and popular, in severe contrast to most of the self-absorbed, tight-assed doctors; women seem to fall into his lap, although his primary emotional relationship is with his aging cat. Patman starts to see things, to imagine people watching his apartment, or colleagues turning up dead: a conversation with one of the patients – suggesting most of them can turn their conditions on and off at will, if there’s ever a reason to (the movie makes several ominous references to the grim state of the world) – sets him thinking increasingly about the relative virtues of their life versus his own, and from there on the plot’s general trajectory is never in much doubt. Although it has elements of conventional psychological thrillers, the film never commits very passionately to such genre mechanics, seeming happiest with odd bits of business involving the patients and doctors, and with finding ways to inject a bit of nudity. Coburn seems far too imposing for his role, but he gives a real performance, at once engaged and brooding; despite (or in part because of) Guillermin’s murky visuals, he turns Patman’s, uh, crossover into a largely plausible existential journey. And that’s why the film might stand as a symbol of that maligned cultural era – almost everything about it is ultimately about denial, of Canada, of its star, of sanity, of possibility, of rationality…many (not me of course) will choose to add: of meaningful entertainment. It’s an embodiment of the insecurity and benign confusion that spawned the ill-fated tax-shelter policy, and that shapes much of Canadian policy today for that matter. Perhaps then it should be reclaimed as a great Canadian movie, albeit largely because of its denial of any such identity.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Another melting pot

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 1997) (obviously at a very specific time in modern Canadian history – a referendum on independence for Quebec had failed very narrowly in 1995, and the risk of a second, successful attempt at it felt very high).

It’s obvious by now that I can hardly articulate my thoughts, except by referring to movies. But then, why would I need to, when fate (or as the case may be, Alliance, Norstar and so forth) keeps delivering such eerily topical stimulation to our local screens.

Last Friday night I had some drinks and, the way the conversation went, I ended up getting all depressed about Quebec. The next afternoon, clear-headed again, I went to see Broken English, a new film directed by Gregor Nicholas. This movie tells us (a) that diverse societies can be hell, (b) that they needn’t be, and (c) that either way, it’s better than the alternative.

The alternative, in Broken English, is war. In one of the more idiosyncratic melting pots I’ve encountered in a movie-going life, based largely on the search for diversity, the movie presents a family of Croatian refugees, living in New Zealand, and the consequences when one of the daughters (played with effective sexiness by Aleksandra Vujcic) falls in love with a Maori cook from the restaurant where she’s a waitress.

The most prominent subplot involves the Vujcic character’s arranged marriage (she has citizenship by virtue of her mother having been born there) to a workmate’s Asian boyfriend. Just on a basic line-by-line and scene-by-scene level, the movie isn’t always easy to assimilate for the very reason suggested by its title: the mix of accents and idiosyncrasies – intermingled with bursts of foreign dialogue that are sometimes translated and sometimes not – means that your sense of what’s happening is occasionally only approximate.

This isn’t a big problem, though, because the characters aren’t staking out particularly complex positions. The Croatian father (Rade Serbedzija, whose other movie this year was The Saint) has managed, through his entrepreneurial activities (at least some of which aren’t quite within the law) to acquire a passably middle-class house and such trappings as a mobile phone, into which he talks a lot.

Economically and structurally, he’s essentially absorbed into the society. Culturally, on the other hand, he doesn’t even try. He basks in his difference; he asserts it frequently. He doesn’t even seem to try modifying his hot temper and (by Western standards at least) wildly unreasonable treatment of his family; he conducts himself with a self-righteous, passionate swagger. When Vujcic’s character brings her Maori boyfriend and Asian friends for a visit (a venture that we always know will end in tears), he makes a remark about it resembling a UN peace-keeping force, which isn’t delivered with the tone of an endorsement.

This all plays out in a relatively unsurprising fashion (and, coming on top of Once Were Warriors a couple of years ago, has the effect of making you a bit depressed about New Zealand). The climax of the movie is violent and hopeless – a racial war on a suburban lawn. But the final image is uplifting: a moment of unambiguous, pragmatic, cultural unity that, however – because it consists of people posing for a photograph – is also an explicitly artificial creation. So can we take away a feeling of optimism about this particular melting pot (and, by extension, our own), or are we just being thrown a final reconciliatory mirage to distract us from the ongoing fractures?

As usual, the answer is probably both, although it’s encouraging that the younger people are, on the whole, better integrated than the older ones (also as an aside, the Croatian daughters seem to be more independently minded than the son). Love, economic opportunity and the plain desire to have a life that’s easy and uncomplicated, and that allows you a measure of pride and self-respect: these seem like obvious motives for assimilating as much as you can of your governing environment.

On the other hand, depending on the time and place, and on how the cards are dealt, they might all seem like equally obvious motives for rejecting it. Serbedzija’s character might be described as prejudiced against the Maoris and the Asians (one wonders how he’d react to a WASP, but the movie hardly contains any of them), but his actions are based in his desire to perpetuate values and traditions that he knows will otherwise be swallowed whole by the multi-cultural society. That’s not a justification, but it’s the way he is.

So I said I was thinking about Quebec. As Jack Nicholson said in Mars Attacks, just before the aliens zapped him, “Why can’t we all just get along.” Movies, or any media products for that matter, seldom suggest that any situation is utterly intransigent. The nature of a narrative, of the artistic process, and of imagination itself, is to find a way to get from here to there – however crazy and idealistic the goal.

The real world, unfortunately, generally follows more incremental mechanisms: in politics, it pretty much always does. Our leaders may or may not have vision, but they seldom apply it to their policy-making (which is perhaps just as well, given that the Megacity idea was a bold enough leap to be attributed to a vision of some sort). And I guess we just have to accept, for the most part, that they do the best they can given the tradeoffs required.

The thing that depresses me about our current situation is that we might actually need some inspiring leadership. If I were in Quebec, listening to the Bloc trying to pull me out of the country on the one hand and (if this is how it develops) Preston Manning seeming to push me out of it on the other – of course I’d be tempted to vote for independence.

Why would I want to be locked into that perpetual debate and psychic trauma with its uncertainty -  I’d rather pull the plug and hope for the best. Which would be the wrong decision. The economics of separation are probably just devastating. But as we know, people play their hunches as far as economics goes.

Next time round, then, the argument for continuing unity had better be as clear as a bell. Which it wasn’t last time, and won’t be again, unless someone starts meticulously communicating it long before the situation becomes dire. And as for whether Chretien’s the person to lead that communication…well, I think we’re all aware of his limitations by now.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the reason that Broken English gives me some hope isn’t in the characters who assimilate, but in the Croatian father who doesn’t. Despite his hot-headedness, he knows that culture and economics are two different things: separation in one can – in a diverse world – must coexist with assimilation in the other. Not everything is a matter for the gun, or even for the ballot box. Although the world of Broken English is hopelessly fragmented, this is just a reflection of the fact that in an open facilitating society, people make the choices they must. And if they choose to erect internal walls, well…there’s nothing wrong with separation as long as we’re all in it together.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)

I suppose your assessment of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket depends largely on how you see the relationship between its two halves: the first set in a South Carolina training camp where a group of newly-recruited Marines are belittled and terrorized by their drill sergeant; the second following a couple of the characters to Vietnam, to be belittled and terrorized by the war itself. The first time I saw the film, the transition seemed jarring, but over time I’ve come to see it as validating the sergeant’s tactics as much as damning them. Of course his relentlessness makes them tougher, but Kubrick pushes the abuse into the realm of twisted poetry and mythmaking, into an exercise in fictionalizing oneself (no one ever gets called by their real name) and then wearing that fiction like a full metal jacket. If Matthew Modine’s character “Joker” copes best, it’s perhaps because of his head start on such a project with his dumb John Wayne impersonations and smart mouth. In Vietnam, working for the Stars and Stripes newspaper and chafing at its mediocre reporting values, he craves greater engagement, then gets a dose of it, and in his final voice over is retreating back to the imagined, to the world of the sergeant’s invented “Mary Jane Rottencrotch,” and thereby finding a measure of peace, even of satisfaction. Given time, he might retreat even further, maybe into a photograph as at the end of The Shining; the interiors in the first half of Full Metal Jacket often feels like it might have been shot in some of the back corridors of the Overlook Hotel, and the second half might just be taking place inside a more cunning and noisy metaphysical maze. Whether it’s an “anti-war” film seems somehow like the wrong question; any attempts even to engage with it – as in Joker’s simultaneous wearing of a peace symbol and a “Born to Kill” slogan on his helmet, explained as some kind of comment on the “duality of man” – seem draining and futile. As such, the film, even if it’s not one of Kubrick’s very best, is an astounding exercise in strangifying.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)

Tati’s Playtime hardly encourages a deep sense of people as individuals – few of its dozens of characters are even granted a medium shot, let alone a close-up. The movie seems to warn of nothing less than collective obliteration – submersion into mass standardization, into absurd consumerism, into systems and surfaces that can only be stained by human intervention (and of course this is even before the online/social media revolution), into hopeless distance from basic pleasures (embodied by the American visitors to Paris who are kept well away from all its points of differentiation). Looked at a certain way, it can feel overwhelming, and even depressing – Tati’s choreography is so staggering, often involving multiple bits of foreground and background action in the same shot, that it hardly seems designed for a human spectator. Of course, this is also at the heart of the film’s inexhaustible glory, of its status as one of the most singular of all cinematic masterpieces. And Tati seeds his design with remnants of past humanity or portents of a future one – the sudden appearance of old friends, of mysterious near-doubles, of things that are just funny despite everything. The brilliant extended climax in a restaurant that all but gets destroyed on its opening night speaks to the capacity of collective action for transcending stifling corporate calculation. But it’s also plainly a one-off, incapable of shaping the following day for more than a few dreamy early-morning hours. In one of its final gags, the movie posits that a moving window might actually influence the object that’s being reflected in it – something that might have seemed like the ultimate loss of control, except that Tati presents it as an elating moment, a promise that all isn’t yet heavy and tethered. Least of all, of course, M. Hulot, who returns to the crowd as modestly and mysteriously as he emerged from it.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Husbands (John Cassavetes, 1970)

Husbands is perhaps Cassavetes’ most darkly disorienting work, and probably his most aggressive one: its trio of protagonists interrogates and/or attacks virtually every utterance, every assumption, every active moment and every quiet one, exhausting each other (and possibly us) in their search for a new stable structure – the old structure fell apart after a fourth friend suddenly died. After Harry (Ben Gazzara) gets into a violent fight with his wife, he decides to take off for London – Gus (Cassavetes) and Archie (Peter Falk) tag along; they all set out to find women for the night, and all succeed (the inevitability of this, at least, is one thing the film never questions), but it never feels like conventional coupling will generate much of an answer to anything. The film sees better prospects for renewal within the dynamics of mysteriously-assembled groups, often from using song as a tool for moving past language, to a purer expression of emotion. As with most of Cassavetes’ work, the impact is hardly naturalistic, and doesn’t necessarily seem like an excavation of “truth” either, but it’s an astounding exercise in unbound performance, in traumatic destabilization. And you constantly feel Cassavetes’ delight in faces and voices and expressions, particularly it seems in observing English women with their strange accents and turns of phrase. Harry stays in London (defined here solely by its cramped interiors and its rain); Gus and Archie return, if only because they can’t figure out how to make a case for doing anything else. “What’s he going to do without us?” they ask, but the real question is the opposite one – how they’re meant to reconfigure their relationship yet again to accommodate a further loss. But whether they manage it or not, the final moments of Gus returning to his family (played by Cassavetes’ real-life children) leave little doubt that they’ll be husbands, and fathers, whether or not they’re also living out their concept of being men.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Mother Kusters goes to Heaven (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975)

You might initially consider Mother Kusters goes to Heaven to be one of Fassbinder’s flatter, less stylistically interesting films, until it occurs to you that’s probably the point, to record a cross-section of a society that hardly has the emotional and intellectual energy to lift its drab ugly ass of the ground. Mrs. Kusters works at home assembling electrical components (some 1,500 a week of them, we’re told) while her husband toils in a chemical plant, where one day he kills a boss’s son and then himself. The media pounces on the story as a lurid tabloid sensation, trashing the family accordingly; her daughter grabs the chance to wrap herself in scandal and advance her singing career, while Mrs. Kusters’s bewildered loyalty to her husband makes her an easy toy for the left, seeking to brandish her as the surviving spouse of an unrecognized revolutionary. Virtually every face is familiar from other Fassbinder works, feeding its sense of claustrophobic insularity, of self-devouring ugliness (nobody ever captured eye-hurting 70’s clothes and d├ęcor better than Fassbinder did, no matter that he did it in film after film). The restored version of Mother Kusters initially seems to end in terrorism and death, but then a caption introduces an alternative ending, originally used only on the American release it says, which leads to further dissipation of energy, before an act of kindness and a hint of a possible return to happy domesticity. There’s no suggestion Fassbinder ever envisaged showing the film with both endings, and yet it’s just about perfect, underlining how the tangle of personal and political will only ever resolve itself arbitrarily, either due to the unkind whims of society, or to the (perhaps) more sympathetic ones of the artist. Viewed now, at a time of particular shakiness for progressivity, the film speaks louder than ever of a collective inability to diagnose and shape the present, let alone look to the future.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Best of 1997

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 1998)

I hope to indulge in the popular critics’ tradition of selecting my favourite ten films of 1997 (actually twelve, due to some subtle cheating). These come in the order I saw them, although Les voleurs is artistically as well as chronologically first. Apologies to any masterpieces released in the last two weeks of the year.

In a better year I might have hoped for some of the items on this list to be in my “Ten second-best” list rather than in the highest echelon. There was certainly a lack of overall knock-down slam-dunk masterpieces. Even the movies I liked tended to have fairly extensive flaws, and for that reason (out of fear that I’d make those flaws sound more significant than they are, putting people off from going to see them), I steered away from writing about some of them. Still, I’ll watch any of these again any time.

Les voleurs Belgian director Andre Techine is presently making wonderful movies. They’re highly involving as narratives, and yet they’re almost wantonly complex and provocative. The title of this year’s movie (“Thieves”) clues us in perfectly to the prevailing scheme – the array of “steals” across sexual, cultural and professional boundaries (professor Catherine Deneuve having an affair with cop Daniel Auteuil, who’s having an affair with a crook): it’s a quietly anarchic, intellectually thrilling view of human involvement.

Blood and Wine My favourite thriller of the year (an authentic spine-tingler), this film also works as a cynical examination of modern-day family and communality. The violence in this movie is a convincing expression of bitter characters driven by strong antipathies and desires. Every scene has old-fashioned, meaty behavioural resonance; Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine are in their best form for ages.

Everyone Says I Love You/Deconstructing Harry This Woody Allen double bill shows why he’s still a vitally important filmmaker. The first, a musical, has a classical, utterly captivating (if deliberately over-generic) grasp of what the genre should be. The second movie is an almost unbearably vicious self-examination in which Allen virtually invites us to find him repelling. Even if I hadn’t enjoyed these two as much, Allen’s prolific body of work would still add up to one of the most fascinating (and nowadays perhaps underrated) meditations on character, truth and fiction in the modern cinema.

The Daytrippers This movie is about a family that maintains an amiable screwball-comedy wackiness, as long as it remains in its natural suburban habitat. Then it travels into the big city and quickly succumbs to strain and fracture, which is an appealing metaphor for the complexity that families so often avoid. Parker Posey gives the best performance – vibrant, alive, giving wonderful line readings at every stage. But the cast is really a miracle of good direction. Daytrippers gave me some of my biggest laughs of the year.

Brassed Off This exceptionally effective picture elicited as much audience applause as any commercial movie I’ve ever seen, and had me choking up all the way, through the evocative power of music, blue-collar muck-raking and heart-plucking, and some authentically bleak worldviews in which even a fleeting, symbolic victory seems like a gift from God. The movie is the best kind of old-fashioned proletarian filmmaking in that it’s rooted in a recognizable, just slightly idealized, community of insular, battered idiosyncrasy.

Where is the Friend’s House?/And Life Goes On Two separate movies set in presumably remotest Iran, but for those of us who discovered director Abbas Kiarostami for the first time this year (courtesy of the Carlton Cinema’s brilliant programming), one sublime experience. Both films are thrilling illustrations of universal human concerns conveyed patiently through staggering visual images, quirky ideas about the nature of cinematic art, and even comedy, in the midst of highly unpromising circumstances. (I thought less of Kiarostami’s newest film, A Taste of Cherry, but a defender of the movie wiped the floor with me in an email argument on the subject, so maybe that should be up there too).

L.A. Confidential This movie takes some utterly familiar genre mechanics and fills them with knowing vigour and pep. As unselfconscious and nimble as a great movie could be, one sometimes wonders if director Curtis Hanson (whose previous career indicated no possibility of such an achievement) could possibly have made it by accident. At the time of writing, this is my tip as next year’s Oscar winner.

Irma Vep Shown only four times at the Cinematheque Ontario, this French film by Olivier Assayas evokes a pure joy in the myth and substance of cinema. It’s so light and unforced, so deceptively frivolous, and the structure (if any) is so cleverly obscure and elusive that the movie calls out to be underrated. But it’s also a serious investigation into the creative process, and closes with the single most mesmerizing sequence of the year – evoking a cinema that’s both regressively simpler and purer, yet as forward-looking as science fiction.

Underground The 1995 Cannes winner, belatedly released here, lives up to its reputation as a daring, boisterous epic overflowing with messy imagination. It’s frequently sentimental, grandiose, or even silly. But no other picture this year had such passionate ambition (second place in the “sheer audacity” subcategory goes to Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book – an intricate film of images within images that dazzled me with the sheer concentrated strenuousness of its design, even if I was often puzzled as to the point of it all).

One Night Stand A bit of a problematic choice, but I found parts of this movie as spellbinding as anything that turned up on the screen this year. Director Mike Figgis shoots in an allusive, sensitive style that (with the help of varied casting, well-chosen symbolism and a beguiling jazz score) achieves a deeply-satisfying, universal look into emotions in motion. At the time I thought the ending almost ruined the movie, but in retrospect I’ve decided it’s a fitting sign of Figgis’ openness to innovation and alternative directions.

And the best Canadian movie (and my 11th favourite of the year) was The Sweet Hereafter.

Since I’m under no compulsion to pay for movies that don’t appeal to me, I doubt very much that I saw the worst movie of the year. Of those I did see, Evita probably constituted the most painful experience. This seems by and large to have been one of those love-it-or-hate-it movies. For me, the high-decibel incoherence and bombastic self-importance slowed down time so effectively that I swear I could have fitted my entire summer vacation into the time Madonna took to sing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Maybe it’s largely in reaction to this ridiculous attempt at a musical that I rated the Woody Allen movie so highly.

Thank you to all the readers of this column. I hope you had a great Christmas and will be back reading this column in 1998.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Canterbury Tales (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1972)

The last scene of Pasolini’s wondrous Canterbury Tales emphasizes the narrative as an end in itself – “here end the Canterbury tales, told only for the pleasure of telling them” – and this reflects the film’s sense of joyous tumble, one narrative often almost subliminally moving into another. But there’s also something relentless about it, a feeling of people lacking in any real agency over themselves, as puppets of their own desires, as tools of those whose desires are stronger than their own, of the corrupt authorities, of the angels and devils which the film occasionally depicts as walking among the living. There’s carnal overdrive and naturalistic nudity galore, and of course the film carries an erotic charge, but one that leads time and again to humiliation, misery, betrayal, pain, or death, and ultimately even beyond that, to one of the most tangible visions of hell ever put on film. The film is a triumph not so much of casting in the usual sense, but of human placement – an astonishing canvas of flesh and faces, suggesting people torn directly from the Medieval earth (the matchless English-language soundtrack, if you choose that option, adds considerably to this sense, when not evoking Monty Python, not that I’m saying that’s a bad thing); and whether or not the various settings are historically accurate, they likewise feel discovered rather than created. At the same time, there’s no doubt we’re watching a work of extreme stylization, and not just in the episode that happily channels Charlie Chaplin; characters generally seem to be addressing the camera, or the void beyond it, more than each other. Which leads back to the movie’s sense of desperation, that few of its possessed characters expects more from their compulsive screwing than the most fleeting of releases. The classification of the film as part of a “trilogy of life” seems, to say the least, ironic.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer, 1981)

Viewed today, Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way seems even more clearly an expression of America’s divisions and fractures: sleek images of privilege clash with outbursts of paranoia, dark fantasy and instability – the film’s evasive mastery lies in the frequent difficulty of determining the dividing lines. Jeff Bridges’ Richard Bone witnesses the late-night dumping of a murdered woman, and thinks the murderer may be a wealthy oil mogul; his friend Alex Cutter hatches a plan to tease out a confession by threatening blackmail; Cutter’s wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) keeps much of her thoughts and her sadness to herself behind a fixed but fragile smile. John Heard’s Cutter is a singular creation – an eye, arm and leg lost in Vietnam, he seems initially like a wildly provocative, undisciplined drunk, but it becomes clear that there’s some methodical artifice to this madness, even if the only rational outcome of it is self-obliteration. The film hints at past entanglements, crimes and lost possibilities, suggesting that the outrage of Vietnam was only the most visible manifestation of the mess at home. And the outstanding ending delivers an emblematic charging toward justice on a white horse, foretold early in the film, but accompanied by pervasive confusion of a precisely plotted kind only achievable through immaculate creative clarity. When the mogul is finally directly confronted, there’s a direct line from his chilling response - “What if I did?” - to (say) assertions about one’s ability to stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and kill someone without losing voters; the stage is larger, but the challenge to stability and morality (or what's still intact of both) is the same. The main difference, beyond even what the film foresaw, is that our own rampaging mogul would hijack so much of Cutter’s self-justifying paranoia, without any of its moral purpose.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Far from home

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 1997)

After watching Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? at the Carlton cinema the other day, I was walking down Victoria Street, casually looking around, when I suddenly saw a topless woman standing in a second or third floor window. I guess she was aware I’d noticed her because she then held up a big sign. I was too far away to read what it said, so I kept going. Maybe I was looking into the back of one of the Yonge Street strip joints and it was some kind of a marketing strategy. Maybe it was a political statement. Maybe she was insane. Who knows?

As I walked on, I started thinking how that 10-second scene might seem if it were presented in a movie. If I were a character in an Antonioni-like exploration of longing and alienation, the moment might drive home the distanced, passionless emptiness of my existence. If I were in a Taxi Driver – like rage against the modern world, it might underscore the sleaze and immorality I think I see all around me. If I were part of a documentary about the liberation of women, the scene might speak solely about her; her self-determination over her own body.

And of course, the interpretation would be influenced further by the way the scene was shot and edited. For example, would the camera remain at a discreet distance or would it zoom lasciviously toward her? The scene would also be influenced by the preconceptions of viewers. After all, no one is entirely neutral about topless women.

This little incident could hardly be less directly relevant to what lies in store for the viewer of Where is the Friend’s Home? But my train of thought reminded me that even for Western cinema, with its generally familiar styles and settings and subjects, any claims by the viewer to have identified a film’s “truth,” to have hit on an objectively verifiable interpretation of what’s being provided, is highly problematic.

How then should we trust our reactions to a 10-year-old Iranian movie? The plot is virtually all in the title – a small boy looks for his friend to return the school notebook he’s accidentally taken; the film is populated by people whose sense of their lives is far removed from ours – its rhythms are slow and not apparently designed for the viewer’s easy gratification. Beyond giving it a superficial thumbs-up for showing us a different “window on the world,” can the unprepared Western viewer do any justice to this picture?

When I saw the movie about twenty percent of the audience (three out of fifteen people) left before the end – that seems to happen with every other movie I see nowadays though. But I was more interested in the reactions of two women sitting in front of me who laughed and giggled (not dismissively but with real appreciation) through many of the scenes. I’m not sure I would have thought of it otherwise, but the movie’s simplicity and naturalism often do generate an effect similar to that of deadpan comedy. The boy’s single-mindedness, and the generally disinterested reactions of the people he meets in the course of his search, conjure up a sense of stoic perseverance arguably not dissimilar to that of a Blake Edwards picture.

There’s a scene in which the boy initially tries to persuade his mother to let him return the notebook: he keeps harassing her and she keeps telling him to go and do his homework, and their back-and-forth exchange is repeated to such an extreme that you almost start laughing from exhaustion. Similarly, when the boy’s grandfather reminisces about how as a child his own father would every week give him a penny to spend and a beating to teach him discipline, and “he sometimes forgot the penny but he never forgot the beating” – his unsentimental countenance generates an ambience of long-suffering black comedy. But is it meant to be funny? I don’t know.

It’s not that important of course what the movie means to do. Movies must expect that viewers take them as they find them. In this respect, you couldn’t find a much better lesson in the universal power of cinema as storytelling. By Western standards the movie’s premise probably seems ridiculously slight, but in the opening scene we’ve seen the teacher threaten the deprived child with no less than expulsion if he comes to school again with his homework written on anything other than the pages of the notebook in question. The seriousness of the situation is all in the faces of the children. Kiarostami gives us plenty of time to study those faces, and in a way their sincerity and simplicity are just what a Western viewer needs – we might not understand the culture, but we understand the uncomplicated impulses of a child, and as strangers are able to trust the child to lead us on the journey. Which might be harder to do with, say, an Olsen twins movie.

If I were less cautious, I might state that there’s nothing in the movie about Iranian politics or – on a macro level – society, and that the whole thing is essentially minor. But how do I really know that? The comments I quoted from the grandfather are made in the context of berating his grandson’s relative lack of discipline and control. We’re likely to read that as a comment on the impulsiveness of a child, but who knows where subtle rebellion lurks or deeper irony lies? I won’t attempt to gauge how much Kiarostami’s work is worth as a specifically Iranian film. But it’s a film the world as a whole can be proud to own.

A few weeks ago, in some comment triggered by a recent description of the radio show Morningside as “the glue of the land,” I dismissively wrote that “real cohesion is based in shared need, not in shared recipes or suchlike.” My friend Walter Ross has taken me to task on this. He informed me that recipes can be a great force for national glue, and in that vein presented me with a recipe for “very good marmalade,” copied out in his best handwriting. To win me over further, the instructions provide time to take in no less than three movies. I shall frame this recipe to remind me of the importance of small things. To Walter, thank you and good luck, and to Lucien Bouchard, expect to receive a year’s supply of marmalade before the end of the week.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Leo the Last (John Boorman, 1970)

John Boorman’s Leo the Last is at once a parable (of the rich man who seeks to give away his wealth to the poor), an attempt to bottle the revolutionary spirit of its times, and an exercise in grand provocation, insisting on itself as art (to the extent of unseen commentators wondering out loud what kind of movie we’re watching) but often feeling as much like a semi-improvised accident. Marcello Mastroianni plays an exiled European prince, moving after his father’s death into a mansion at the head of a London cul-de-sac, surrounded by a staff of manipulative sycophants; working-class slums stretching on either side, largely occupied by immigrants, otherwise by rapists and prostitutes. The class divide is strictly observed by all, until the unfulfilled Leo starts to fill his days by voyeuristically watching the world outside, first becoming fascinated with it as narrative, then as an opportunity for personal action and meaning. Boorman’s simplistic juxtapositions skirt offensiveness at times: take his cut from the poor black family congregated around a (stolen) chicken as it's lowered into a pot, to the tooth-bared, face-smeared meat-gorging at a gathering of the oblivious toffs (which, of course, later evolves/devolves into an orgy). But he also digs deep into the community, finding camaraderie and song and belief, rooted in shared experience, to which Leo can never be more than a visitor. In the end, the mini-revolution over, it seems Leo's happy with the change he’s achieved, even if there’s little pretense that its impact can be more far-reaching than, well, the impact of a film as whimsical as this one. Despite its extreme otherness, the film is actually among the more sociologically grounded of Boorman films (when not in thrall to stereotypes), but nothing in it has the force of real diagnosis, or of lasting myth.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Night Visitor (Laslo Benedek, 1971)

Laslo Benedek’s The Night Visitor is quite effective on its own chilly terms, ingeniously reconciling two contradictory premises: we’ve seen Max von Sydow’s Salem running in his underwear through the nighttime snow, presumably the cause of the two dead bodies that show up in the film’s first twenty minutes; and yet it’s entirely clear that he’s locked inside his cell, inside an Alcatraz-like asylum (if Alcatraz was on land). The physical demands made on von Sydow in bridging these competing realities are considerable – I’ve seldom seen an actor appear to be so authentically freezing his ass off. The plot turns on various propositions of madness, investigated by a police detective played by Trevor Howard: whether von Sydow was correctly judged insane in the past, whether his detested brother-in-law might be insane in the present - the filmmakers surely meant such heavy themes, enacted within Scandinavian landscapes with the presence of both von Sydow (a chess player here again) and Liv Ullmann to evoke the spirit of Bergman (in 1971 about as mighty a spirit as there was). But for the most part it’s all much too enjoyably literal-minded and briskly calculated for that to be meaningful. Among the more Bergman-like elements are the displaced conception of the setting (the Volkswagens and phones indicate it’s set in the present, but that aside it might almost be taking place at a time of beaten-down workers toiling in the shadow of a towering castle) and the troubling stoicism with which the film’s people seem to adjust to the arrival of death, no matter how unforeseen or savage. But ultimately, whereas (say) the title of Bergman’s The Silence denoted a definitional existential conflict, the Night Visitor really is just a man with an ingenious revenge plan, too occupied with its logistics to bear much thematic or symbolic weight, and that’s without considering the contribution of the parrot.