Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Desert island

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2001)

Cast Away is one of the more intriguing recent Hollywood films. If nothing else, it exhibits some mild audacity in the face of commercial expectations, primarily by devoting the greater part of its length to largely silent sequences, featuring a single actor, alone on a desert island. The castaway, Chuck Noland, is played by Tom Hanks, the only survivor from the crash of a Federal Express cargo plane. He spends four years alone, before setting out to sea on a raft. The film’s trailer, and just about all reviews of the movie, are pretty open about the fact that he makes it back to civilization – this isn’t a story of what, but of how.

Hanks’ third Oscar?

Hanks’ commitment to the role pays off in a physical transformation that’s quite moving at times. At the start, he effectively suppresses his mannerisms, sketching a driven, comfortably plump businessman who preaches the gospel of timeliness and tears himself away from Christmas dinner to do the company’s bidding. I’ve always thought that Al Pacino’s performance in The Godfather, from fresh-faced outsider at the start to dead-eyed Don at the end, marked one of the most chilling transformations in any film; Hanks almost matches that standard here. After the action leaps four years, Zemeckis provides a long close-up of Hanks eating a fish that he’s speared – his eyes don’t blink; they’re held steady by faded resignation, just staying alive, keeping on breathing, waiting. As I write, I don’t know whether Hanks won a third Oscar for this – but if he did, he deserved it more than the previous two.

I like the film, but I don’t think it’s as adventurous as some commentators have claimed. It’s around two and a half hours long, but it goes by in a flash. In an age when so many mundane offerings (like Hanks’ The Green Mile) plod on beyond the three-hour mark, I started wondering whether the film mightn’t have been even better if it were longer. I started thinking how stillness, repetition and silence paid off for Chantal Akerman in Jeanne Dielman (a 200-minute study of a housewife), for Andy Warhol, for Jacques Rivette in several films.

What Lies Beneath

Of course, when I say paid off, I’m speaking artistically rather than commercially. American films don’t show loneliness, boredom, repetition – that’s as good a reason as any why they generally don’t tell us much about the way we live. They communicate those states of being – if they’re necessary for the plot – through montages, or snatches of dialogue, or close-ups. Cast Away is no different in this regard. It doesn’t particularly make us feel the weight of Hanks’ four-year isolation. It telegraphs that state as American films always do. The scenes on the island are hardly lacking in incident – actually Zemeckis speeds along quite zippily from one pivotal incident (learning how to open a coconut, extracting a diseased tooth) to the next (learning how to make fire, catching a fish). We see Hanks talking about building a raft – the next thing we see, it’s all ready to go.

Bear in mind that the filming of Cast Away closed down for a year to accommodate Hanks’ physical transformation, and in the interim Zemeckis completed an entire separate movie – What Lies Beneath, released last summer. What Lies Beneath was hardly as ambitious a project as Cast Away, but it shares an unusually deliberate pace for a mainstream film, a certain structural adventurousness (most of the first half of What Lies Beneath is devoted to a plot that turns out to be a tease, and irrelevant to the film’s ultimate direction) and it’s unusually restrained and contemplative for a thriller. Consider the long sequence in which Michelle Pfeiffer lies paralyzed in her bathtub as the water level slowly rises – staged without background music, building considerable suspense from the fact of her stillness and inability to act.

For me, the comparison with What Lies Beneath is instructive regarding Cast Away’s limits. I don’t think the film is a radical departure from storytelling norms and techniques; it’s a variation on them, but positioned safely within accessible limits. For example, Zemeckis’ use of space and silence is unusually striking for a mainstream film, but it doesn’t have the transcendental quality of Antonioni, or even of David Lynch in The Straight Story. At times it comes close. It seemed to me that the film contained an intriguing recurring use of circular motifs – an overhead shot of the life raft, the fading light from Hanks’ flashlight as he falls asleep in a dark cave, followed by the sun streaming in through the entrance; girlfriend Helen Hunt’s picture inside an antique pocket watch; his friend Wilson (see below). But when Hanks is on a plane coming home after the rescue, we see a view of hundreds of fields below, the landscape divided into countless geometrically precise parcels – instantly and subtly conveying the disorientation that accompanies Hanks’ return to order. At the very end, Zemeckis simply allows the character to bask in the vastness of the American landscape and its attendant possibilities.

Return to the world

Many critics have found the material on either side of the desert island sequence lacking – too suffused in mainstream values and attitudes to do justice to the modest radicalism of the film’s centre. Personally though, I thought the closing stretch was well-judged in conveying Noland’s sense of the world to which he returns – sterile spaces, strange artificial noises and (in a scene no less acute for being an easy mark) a buffet table piled with barely appreciated food. When he’s reunited with Hunt, and neither has any reference point for how to behave, the scene convincingly charts the odd topography of their conversation. And Zemeckis’ elliptical approach to the storytelling (for example leaving out the rescue itself, or most of the detail about how Hanks reintegrates into the world) is always intriguing.

I also mentioned the film’s famous “co-star” – the volleyball that’s washed up on the island in a FedEx package, on which Hanks draws a face using his own blood and to whom he converses at increasing length as his exile lengthens. Called “Wilson,” the idea never becomes comic, largely because the face looks more ghoulish than cute. Zemeckis gets perilously close to anthropomorphism here though, through such devices as the wind or the waves nudging Wilson into a nod or shake. But like most everything else in the film, it holds together.

Ultimately, Cast Away succeeds substantially. It never seems like a mere stunt. Numerous aspects that might seem strained on paper (the character’s presumably symbolic surname of “Noland”; the irony of an efficiency-obsessed clockwatcher ending up with nothing but time on his hands) are dispatched deftly. I’ve argued above that the film could have been better, but the likes of Rivette and Antonioni would never have come even vaguely to mind if it weren’t as good as it is.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Canadian horror

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2001)

I’ve cut down in the past few years on my movie-related reading, but I still get through enough that it’s hard for me to be truly surprised by a film. Even at the Toronto film festival, I’ve generally already read reviews from Cannes or elsewhere for most of the things I see – although admittedly I’m not as adventurous as I might be in my selections. But the other day, I was reading the latest issue of the British movie magazine Sight and Sound (which by the way, like everything, used to be better in the old days) and I was amazed to see that the film’s lead review, its “main attraction” for the month, went to Ginger Snaps, a recent Canadian film just opening in the UK.

Overlooked movie

I certainly knew about Ginger Snaps, and I knew it had received generally positive reviews, but somehow it had never occurred to me I might actually go and see it. It’s hard to say why. I don’t think it’s much of a title, and the trailer made it look like Carrie 3 under a different name. But perhaps it’s also that since Ginger Snaps hasn’t opened in the US yet, I was missing the background whirr of publicity and discussion that almost subliminally generates a sense of a film in one’s mind. Maybe if the Canadian cultural mainstream had got behind the film as it does with, say, an Atom Egoyan project, it wouldn’t have mattered as much. I’m sure I’ve read more about Egoyan’s next film Ararat in the Canadian press than about Ginger Snaps, and the thing doesn’t even come out until next year.

Sight and Sound described Ginger Snaps as a “sparky, sharp film marked by intelligent dialogue and a complex view of that moment when girls hover on the brink of womanhood but would rather not take the next step.” This endorsement succeeded for me where Eye and Now had failed, and I went to see the film – fortunately still playing at the Carlton – the next day. And the thing that occurred to me quite early on is now seldom I see horror movies nowadays (there’s no point pretending Ginger Snaps isn’t squarely within the horror genre), and if I see them at all, they belong either to the world of low-budget digital video or to that of high-concept special effects.

Ginger Snaps reminded me of the experience of watching something like Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark in 1987 (I’m not sure I have a much more recent example) – it loves the fact that it’s a horror film, but doesn’t allow that to usurp the considerations of theme and character, and it has an authentically gritty, intimate feeling to it. It feels like a real movie. And the fact that it’s Canadian, of course, is all the better. Egoyan and Cronenberg and Lepage are all great – well, half-great at least – but Canadian cinema will never achieve critical mass without a solid base of viable genre movies.

Horror movies

Ginger Snaps is about two outcast teenage sisters, living in an unidentified, bland Canadian suburb – they do the gothic thing, take faked snuff photos of each other, and have a suicide pact that’s supposed to kick in when they’re sixteen. Ginger, the older of the two, is bitten one night by an unidentified beast that’s been slaughtering the local dogs. Her scars heal mysteriously quickly, but then they start to sprout thick hairs. Ginger develops some powerful instincts she’s never had before. She grows a tail. And, on the night all this starts, she gets her first period, causing some ambiguity over what’s a symptom of what. The second sister hooks up with a local drug dealer who’s into mythology and tries to help her figure out a cure, but meanwhile Ginger is mutating out of control, and infecting the neighborhood as she goes.

A few weeks ago, for reasons that are rather obscure, I received a DVD of the Stephen King film Cujo as a gift. I’d never seen it, and it turns out to be entertaining enough, but it seems very much like an adaptation of a novel in that it’s full of unresolved, disconnected plot strands that surely wouldn’t have existed in a screenplay created more autonomously. I haven’t read King’s book, but I’m guessing that the encounter with the rabid Cujo must have served there in part as a metaphor, as a mode of resolution for the various traumas set up earlier. The movie comes over as forty-five minutes of stilted personal travails resembling outtakes from a daytime soap opera, followed by forty-five minutes of a crazy dog. The second half at least is well staged and quite suspenseful, but the overall shape of the film didn’t make much sense to me.

Positive images

I’m just mentioning Cujo because it’s the last example I saw, but this messiness seems to be pretty typical of the genre. Ginger Snaps is unusually integrated and cohesive, whether measured by its preoccupations or its plot. I thought the movie was at its best when at its most energetically allusive – juxtaposing menstrual blood with that of Ginger’s victims; or dramatizing how she swings between fear and revulsion at what’s happening to her, and fully sexualized divadom where she harnesses the beast and struts her stuff. Her sister  - starting off even less well-adjusted than Ginger – subtly matures through the demands of coping the crisis, setting up a neat counterpoint in rites of passage. And their mildly deranged (in the sense that yours probably is too) mother, played by Mimi Rogers, trying hopelessly to embody a positive image for the kids, contributes a witty portrait of the future that’s at stake.

Katharine Isabelle makes a terrific centre for the film as Ginger – she really commands the screen. Ginger Snaps isn’t perfect though. Too much perhaps is made of the anonymity of the Ontario suburbs – things have a rather under-populated, unspecific feeling that at times takes events too far toward abstraction. And it seems to me that the film ultimately turns into too much of a pure monster movie, leaving several interesting strands unresolved, although not to the extent of Cujo. Maybe this is something no horror movie can avoid, however smart it might be.

Which leaves me with the mild guilt of having discovered the year’s most enjoyable Canadian film only by virtue of a British magazine. Well, I’m viewing that as a learning experience. But maybe I should resubscribe to some of that other stuff I canceled.

Monday, July 3, 2017

From the book

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2001)

I recently ended up in hospital for nine days, which will bring anyone’s movie-watching plans (and many other kinds besides) to a crashing halt. Of course (switching right to the silver lining), it’s great for catching up on books. I read Harold Evans’ enormous The American Century, biographies of directors John Cassavetes and Lindsay Anderson, and even got through the 700-page J P Morgan biography I’d purchased and immediately forgotten a year and a half ago. Lots of newspapers and magazines too. And although I had a TV by the bed and all that time on my hands, my only real concession was to watch Seinfeld twice a day, which I considered pretty restrained under the circumstances.

Sickbed movies

Trying to perk me up with movie humour, a friend sent word that he was prescribing Dude, Where’s My Car as a tonic, but I think that might only have prolonged the stay. Actually, when I was admitted (rather out of the blue) to hospital, I’d been in the middle of rewatching Luis Bunuel’s Tristana on video, which constituted a major unfinished piece of business. So on being released, with at least a week’s convalescence at home ahead before going back to work, Tristana came first, and then I watched my Barry Lyndon DVD. But the new movies were calling as well. So on my second day back, I pulled my slightly battered body into a cab and went to the theater.

I might have chosen StartUp.Com or a second viewing of YiYi, and the official destination movie for the week was supposedly Pearl Harbor, but I ended up at James Ivory’s The Golden Bowl, which is Merchant Ivory’s latest adaptation of a Henry James novel. I haven’t read the novel, although the Morgan biography, in meticulously documenting the social calendar of its subject, had the milieu seeming prominent in my mind. But I suppose the choice of this film, under the circumstances, tells you something about my expectations – that it would cater sufficiently to my ambitions for movies, and substantial movies.

It opens with a melodramatically staged scene of medieval intrigue, which turns out to be a flashback of an old incident from his family history told by a rather impoverished Italian prince (Jeremy Northam) to his American lover (Uma Thurman). Events soon settle down. The prince is engaged to marry the daughter (Kate Beckinsale) of America’s first billionaire (Nick Nolte) -an event that seems to leave the devoted father worryingly adrift until he then woos Thurman for himself. Some years later, the two couples are in place, but the natural affinities cut across them – between the father and daughter; and between the former lovers. The indiscretions of the latter pair become increasingly obvious, earlier to social acquaintances than to their spouses, but eventually to all.

A soldier’s daughter

The golden bowl of the title is an artifact that comes to symbolize the flawed structure in which the characters find themselves (it has a crack in it), and going solely from how the film treats the object, it’s an apt symbol that nevertheless elucidates nothing. James Ivory and his producing partner Ismail Merchant have been subject for years to charges of negating the complexities of their subject-matter by middle-brow tastefulness and lack of imagination – whether historical/biographical (Surviving Picasso, Jefferson in Paris) or literary adaptations (A Room with a View, Howard’s End). Ivory’s last film, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, was hardly noticed at all, but I thought it quite a departure, bearing an intuitive free-form quality that made something quite mysterious out of the material. In one scene, Ivory even seemed to be aping the kind of devices usually employed by Spike Lee. The film left considerable uncertainty over its intentions, but it was a satisfyingly adult kind of uncertainty.

A Soldier’s Daughter appears to have been an isolated experiment, for The Golden Bowl reverts solidly to meticulous portraiture and storytelling. Everything about the film is solid and well judged (it essentially seems like a study in a fragile and illusionary harmony undermined by the inevitabilities of money, propriety and human limitation) – nothing about it is remarkable. The events and relationships depicted here are intriguing, but no more so than any competent dramatist might devise. The film’s best moments are isolated, to the extent that they often seem disconnected from the rest. For example, near the end, Thurman leads a tour of Nolte’s art exhibits. The camera travels down a Holbein portrait of Henry VIII as she describes it. Her description is perfectly apt, and apposite to the film’s themes in more subtle a manner than the eponymous bowl. When the frame cut back from the texture of the painting to the scene as a whole , I felt a distinct jolt of disappointment. There are perhaps seven or eight moments that make such an impact. Certain moments with minor characters have a ripeness, or frissons of surprise, that seems lacking in the central story (which Nolte aside, is hampered by uninteresting casting).

Barry Lyndon

I don’t want to regurgitate the article on Stanley Kubrick I wrote a few months ago, but Barry Lyndon may have provided an unfortunate counterpoint in how it fuses form and content into a whole that’s almost too rich and allusive to be assimilated. Kubrick’s film is famous for some of the most painstaking period reconstruction ever attempted, but in virtually every other respect it resists easy viewing – often through devices and choices which assessed in isolation might have been said to make “no sense.” Whether or not the film would be any more satisfying for knowledge of Thackeray’s source novel, it’s certainly more satisfying for a knowledge of Kubrick’s other films. Which I think is a good way for cinema to work.

Just about everything in The Golden Bowl “makes sense” of sorts, but in a hermetic manner that smacks of limited ambition – limited, at least, in any sense that’s not defined with reference to the source novel. I see no plausible course here other than to cite Ivory’s film as an occasion on which one should indeed stick with the book. Some may want to extrapolate this into a broader comment on the whole business of adapting literature into cinema, but as a non-reader of novels, I’ve never thought that restriction necessary. It’s just that after nine days spent staring at the ceiling, and having made a conscious effort to see a film rather than read a book, it would have been nice to be better and more specifically rewarded for it.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sublime taste

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2001)

The terrific new French film The Taste of Others isn’t actually that new – it opened in New York almost a year ago, and was a nominee for best foreign language film at the last Oscars. It lost to Crouching Tiger. Hidden Dragon, a film of much greater physical sweep, and of course much greater popularity. Crouching Tiger was probably the better winner; a victory for The Taste of Others would have had too many people shaking their heads, and you have to admire a foreign film that hits so many multiplexes. But on merit, you could certainly argue it the other way. Either way, it’s a joy to have the film here at last.

On connait les chanson

The film is directed by Agnes Jaoui, who also co-wrote and co-stars in it with her husband and frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Bacri. I know them best from their work on Alain Resnais’ On connait les chanson, a poised tale of up-and-down relationships. Resnais’ film, made with his usual elegance, used the Dennis Potter trick of having the characters occasionally burst into song, but that aspect of it never seemed like much more than a Potter homage. The most striking element to me was the suggestion of a more supernatural element to the various maladies. In a party sequence, for instance, we get shots of a fluid plasma-like object floating between scenes, perhaps connoting the life force, or destiny, or just the tangible presence that we might wish for our problems to possess.

Another reference point. I’ve written several times before about my admiration for Andre Techine, the director of Thieves and Alice and Martin. I think Techine may be the most underrated director in the world right now. But I do understand how the mistake gets made. The films are lush and filled with large incidents, with narrative gaps that seem to signal a fondness for melodrama. To really get Techine’s work, you have to have a certain predisposition for the off-kilter. Not just in the liberal sense that allows you to blur the distinctions between say whore and professors (although that helps too), but to an extent that you could imagine discovering at almost any moment that the universe is wired differently than everyone’s believed so far. To put this in less rarified terms, I love David Letterman and Larry David’s Curb your Enthusiasm almost as much as I love Techine’s films, and that all seems pretty consistent to me.

The grass is greener

When you navigate your way through Techine’s ambitious structures, you ultimately get to some scintillating human payoffs. The Taste of Others has payoffs as satisfying, but in a way even more impressive for being mined from more straightforward territory. Bacri plays a bored businessman, going everywhere with a bodyguard in tow while he works on a high-stakes deal. He has barely an artistic bone in his body, until his wife drags him along to a play at which he’s strangely mesmerized by one of the actresses. He knows her already – she’s his English teacher, and (herself middle-aged and disillusioned) has made no previous impression on him. But now he starts to pursue her, and even pushes himself into her artistic circle, where he’s regarded as little more than a figure of fun who pays for the drinks.

Meanwhile his bodyguard romances a waitress (played by Jaoui) at a local bar, and of course there’s more going on too. The Taste of Others is clearly in the same register as Resnais’ film – it’s about more or less ordinary people and their shifting connections. But it has no singing and no explicit signs of the metaphysical, and the cinematography and editing could hardly be smoother or less obtrusive.

I think the title holds the key to the film. Note its deliberate ambiguity – it might be implying either a subject’s taste for new experience (the grass is always greener…) or evoking the range of desires and inclinations of those around us (in which case the subject might become the object). The film beautifully sets out both meanings. The businessman’s wife is a would-be interior decorator with a fatal flaw – she works only to her own aesthetic sense, not to that of the customer. “Can’t you see?” she says in desperation. “Some things go together, others don’t.” The fun of the movie is in keeping us guessing about what falls into what category. Its great insight is in its full and mature depiction of the fluidity of the categories themselves.

Beautiful moment

So a relationship might be on the verge of marriage and commitment, but then naturally fall away (given their own long and presumably happy relationship, Jaoui and Bacri are hardly gloomy about the prospects of marriage, but it’s fair to conclude they’re aware of how things might have gone differently). You might take up something new just to win an advantage, or else out of a genuine spontaneous passion -and you might not know yourself which one it is. And the movie doesn’t criticize its characters for their shaky sense of themselves. When the bodyguard chides the waitress for selling drugs on the side, because it’s against the law, it’s clear that this is too simplistic a rationale for her, but the movie has a way of presenting such disagreements that preserves the legitimacy of both viewpoints.

The Taste of Others has a beautiful structure – not in the sense of the “three acts” that still holds sway in the mainstream, but in the sense that everything is counterbalanced and proportioned. It’s often quite funny, sometimes in a fairly conventional way. It has ironies both somewhat predictable and not. And at the end it has one of the most beautiful moments of the year, where a woman (having finally realized where her own taste lies) looks around for a man, doesn’t see him, then suddenly breaks into a smile of pure happiness. The next shot confirms what the smile has so eloquently told us – he’s there after all, and it’s clear from his face that his mood is aligned with hers. You realize how little she’s smiled in the film prior to that, how sealed off she’s been, how close she came to missing her destination. Any realistic depiction of human possibilities has to admit the existence of the happy ending, while also giving us a realistic assessment of the odds. Jaoui’s ending represents the triumph of the long shot, but on this occasion it would probably have seemed tasteless to have it any other way.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The box-office express

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2002)

Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s carbon-copy remake of Psycho a few years ago. Not directly, but in that it’s more interesting as an abstract artistic experiment than as a thing in itself. The concept seems to be simply this: what if a lame but iconic movie was lavishly remade with a superstar cast. “I miss those days,” says Soderbergh, “when you look at a movie like Murder on the Orient Express and there are, like, 12 movie stars. You can’t do it anymore because of the economics.” Of course, Murder on the Orient Express wasn’t such a great movie – it was all about the gimmick, and the very fact of having all those movie stars (at least half of whom, by the way, were well past their heyday, and presumably available relatively cheaply).

Badge of class

Soderbergh nowadays carries inescapable connotations of classiness. He is in that rarified zone where he could get financing to film the phone book. Every time an actor appears in one of his films, it’s established as his or her best performance in years, if not ever. I doubt that anyone thought the new Ocean’s Eleven would constitute the road to an Oscar. But just as a Woody Allen movie used to seem like the ultimate badge of class for an actor, maybe George Clooney and Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts and Matt Damon sensed that their stardom would never be more directly vindicated than this; by being one of Soderbergh’s hand-selected bouqyet of stars.

Oh, in interviews they insist it’s all about the script. But you have to see that from their point of view I guess. The script gives each of the actors at least two or three juicy little “bits,” and various opportunities to hang out together. And no one has to get wet or cold. So in that sense the script must have seemed pretty good to all involved. At the end of the movie, most of the cast stands in a row, gazing at the night-time Vegas sights. The music is elegiac, the tone contented and lingering. Everyone’s at ease and proud of himself. This seems to me what the movie is really about.

No one can doubt the actors had a good time. But I doubt whether much of it will infect the audience. Soderbergh executes his project perfectly – he makes a movie with lots of movie stars, and with minimal distraction from them. The heist in Ocean’s Eleven doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s one of those movie schemes in which each piece of the plan depends on predicting exactly how someone else will react in a certain situation. For example, Damon’s entry to a particular high-security part of the building depends on knowing that after he carries out an elaborate ruse to get past the guards, big boss Andy Garcia will then leave him alone to go back for the pager he’s conveniently “forgotten.”

Hollow fun

There are probably ten such points at which a slight variation in timing or reaction would cause the plot to fail. Of course, the fun of a heist movie is in watching the seamless flow of events as an aesthetic creation in itself, not in worrying about plausibility. But the downside of Soderbergh’s polished facility is that it shows up the hollowness all the more. As heist movies go, The Score by comparison is a triumph of realism.

And of character development too. Most of the cast no doubt gets what they wanted. Clooney and Pitt, with the two biggest roles, seem exceptionally happy and relaxed. The supporting players are generally zesty. Bernie Mac has a nice race-baiting bit (“Might as well call it whitejack…”), the only edgy moment in the whole film. Damon though seems unaccountably bland in his role, and Roberts’ role just isn’t substantial enough for either presence or good acting to make anything of it. These are just my opinions. Others will see it differently. On this occasion, even more than usual, there’s little prospect of resolving such differences of assessment. The movie’s pristine cliff face contains no fingerholds, no crevices: nothing in which a stray flower of life might flourish. Predictably, it’s a megahit, but will anyone remember it? Maybe twenty years from now as the kind of film that can’t be made any more, because of the economics.

But here’s some news for you – I loved Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Yes, I know that critics familiar with the book are lukewarm about it. Elvis Mitchell in The New York Times, not untypically, said it has a “dreary, literal-minded competence.” Well, I haven’t read the book – I don’t intend to. I didn’t have a clue how the movie was going to unfold. I don’t doubt it’s a safe approach to the project – given the economics, and that choice of director, it would never have been anything else. But I found it remarkably engaging, often enchanting.

Harry new year!

From the beginning, with Richard Harris’ magisterial wizard materializing in a dull British housing estate, the film has a nice balance between the quotidian and the phantasmagoric. The first twenty minutes have Harry’s monstrously hissable foster parents and his indulged cousin; a scene where he talks to a snake at the zoo and helps it escape; and thousands of owls surrounding the house, inevitably evoking Hitchcock yet even at such an early point in the film establishing a grand sense of childlike one-upmanship. The film is immediately captivating, and this is all mere preamble. Harry sets off on his quest, and from then on, without ever feeling to me merely workmanlike, the film sweeps in one revelation after another. And the cast (actually not far off a latter-day equivalent of the cast of Murder on the Orient Express) is delightful.

Certainly I have some reservations. Sometimes the film has too much of that distancing computer-generated look about it – one reason why its more intimate concepts (like the mirror that shows what one’s heart most desires) are often the most enveloping. I think the dramatic impact would have been greater if Harry wasn’t treated like the Son of God from the outset – his triumph is no more than confirmation of the hyped-up expectations that surround him throughout the film. And if the outcome of Quidditch depends on the seeker catching the little ball, what’s the point of all the other players?

I’m sure that readers familiar with the mythology are having a good laugh at my expense here – and that’s fine. Truth is, I held off going to the movie for weeks, unsure I would ever find any way into it. Maybe I was afraid the rest of the audience would spot me as an interloper and hound me out of there. But it turned into a perfectly sublime two and a half hours. I even put it in my top ten films of 2001. Harry New Year!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Castles and dreams

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2001)

Robert Redford’s new film The Last Castle was apparently going to be called The Castle, but the title was changed to avoid confusion with an innocuous Australian comedy from a couple of years ago. Surely the concern ought to have been about confusion with Kafka’s novel. But it’s revealing that it wasn’t. For this is a film of amazingly limited thematic or metaphorical intent – so limited that the very absence of subtext becomes the movie’s most intriguing, almost gripping, element.

Redford plays an almost legendary army general who disobeyed orders on his last mission in Burundi, and gets sent to a military prison (known as the Castle). It’s run by James Gandolfini, an effective but brutal and unethical disciplinarian. Slowly becoming appalled by Gandolfini’s methods, Redford decides he’s not fit for the job, organizes the rabble of inmates into an effective machine, and launches a coup. The film culminates, of course, in a fight for control of the Castle.

Stars and Stripes

The climax focuses on the Stars and Stripes, and the movie is obviously about various notions of honor, justice, duty and integrity. It’s awfully hard though to nail down exactly how it’s about these things. It’s not very explicit about matters, except in occasional snatches of dialogue that’s too sentimental and hackneyed to be listened to. It has a pervasive lack of humour, lightness, or irony. It takes place entirely in the Castle, which ought to lend itself to an intriguing abstraction. Yet the movie seems uninterested in crafting more than a strictly functional portrayal of that environment. In some of the dialogue, and especially in the tactics used by the prisoners, the film draws a parallel with the Middle Ages – but it’s hard to see why.

The casting adds to the sense of something missing. Redford is an interesting presence here, but seems too reflective to be the awesome battlefield mastermind and hard-ass that everyone keeps talking about. I don’t think that’s a miscasting though – the film seems to be using Redford’s star image in an old-fashioned way, letting him be essentially himself, but using our knowledge of his liberal credentials to deepen the character’s resonances. Much the same goes for Gandolfini, whose performance here is a much more effective confounding of his Tony Soprano persona than his more stunt-like casting as a gay hitman in The Mexican. They’re both fascinating. But what does the casting actually mean? Why do we need the particular resonances that Redford brings to the role, rather than (say) the more traditional bull-headedness that Clint Eastwood would have embodied? It’s impossible to know. Both characters are given only very limited back story – we have to take them pretty much as we find them: again an apparent strategy of abstraction that counts for very little here.

Waking Life

The Last Castle was directed by Rob Lurie, whose last film was The Contender. I thought that was an awful movie, but it was certainly brimming with ambition and at least a bit of life. It’s very hard to know how this makes sense as a follow-up. The new film is entertaining and well-handled, and seems intelligent enough within the parameters of a big-budget Hollywood movie. But it seems to be dallying with a vision that never comes to fruition.

As a contrast, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life is all vision, all fruition (no real story, but how often can you have everything?) The loosely structured film follows a slacker-type young man drifting from one conversation to another – people talking at (rather than to) him about their theories of life, the universe and everything. The film is in love with the sound and contour of unabashed “deep” conversation, although the approach is often somewhat precious, like listening to a parade of college students on an oral exam. As it progresses, the theme of wakingness versus dreaming comes to the fore, and the protagonist comes to perceive this entire string of encounters as an extended dream, one from which he can’t seem to wake up. He wonders whether this is what death is.

If that were the whole film, it would be intriguing, but not a great advance on Linklater’s earlier films (which include the wonderfully entertaining Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise). But Linklater did something unique – after filming the movie on digital video, he had a team of computer-assisted animators overlay every frame. At its simplest it’s a tracing and coloring exercise, but the style varies hugely from scene to scene. It’s sometimes impressionistic (so when a character talks about our bodies being composed mainly of water, we fleetingly see him as pure liquid), sometimes weird and ghostly, sometimes making broad caricatures of people, sometimes almost resembling a child’s doodling. If that sounds like a gimmick, it’s remarkable how the technique preserves – or sometimes even enhances – the subtlety of the actors’ expressions and gestures.

Or whatever

It’s a consistently strange film to look at – at once familiar and unprecedented. And this of course enhances and extends the central theme – the character’s uncertainty over his state of being is echoed in our own uncertainty over what it is we’re watching. The approach suggests a world that’s struggling to make sense of itself, continually in danger of losing its basic identity, stretched and prodded in line with its characters’ ideas. This definitely makes even the film’s most dubious patches of conversation seem more worthy of reflection.

I can’t quite agree though with the sizeable body of opinion that Waking Life is one of the year’s best films. The flow of probing talk and painstaking technique never lets up, meaning that for all its free flowing structure, the film feels a bit didactic and oppressive. Another problem for me is that the subjects being discussed often aren’t actually all that interesting. This is, I admit, a wholly subjective reservation, and may only tip off the reader to my own superficiality. But I would rather watch films dealing with sex, or identity, or politics – things in other words that we might be able to do something about (and maybe even use the ideas we get from movies as a springboard to do it better). Waking Life, for all its excellence, may not forge much of a connection with people who, once the movie’s over, have a life to be getting on with. Regardless that we may just be a dream in God’s brain. Or whatever.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mysterious movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

I keep a database of notes on every movie I see, new or old. Sometimes I start out describing a film as being difficult or obscure or hard to assimilate, but then in the process of writing about it I arrange things in my mind and end up identifying it almost as a masterpiece. Likewise, I sometimes start these articles thinking I’m going to write a thumbs-down, and find to my own surprise and pleasure that it ends up the opposite. In such cases, I think I subsequently remember that sense of discovery more than I remember the specifics of the movies themselves. This may entail that they become even more elevated in my subsequent memory. Sometimes a second viewing supports this reassessment; sometimes not.


Some films almost seem designed to be played with in this fashion – to be even more of an optical illusion than all movies are already. I especially love movies that seem in command of their own mysteries. I’m not thinking of conscious jigsaw puzzles like Memento – that’s too deliberate and hermetic a challenge for my taste – and I’m not thinking about rootless quirkiness. I’m thinking of films that are unprecedented in their specific wisdom as well as their structure.

I started thinking about this after watching Bob Rafelson’s King of Marvin Gardens again the other day – for a while I was thinking it seemed more fragmented and offputting than I remembered, then it all came together for me. After that I went to see Jon Favreau’s new film Made, about a couple of guys who think they’re going to make it in the world of Big Crime when they get sent on a job. Made concentrates closely  on its main characters, and it’s much more interested in behaviour and interplay than in narrative. Some people have compared the texture to a John Cassavetes film.

That’s very high praise in my book – for me, Cassavetes films like Husbands and (especially) Love Streams are saturated in the qualities I was talking about. Made, unfortunately, is not. One of the main characters, played by Vince Vaughn – basically a stupid, self-regarding weight around the other’s neck – is allowed to be ingratiating, even cute, and never has to answer for anything. That’s not much like Cassavetes. The film cares far too much about keeping the laughs coming. Even the short running time of around 95 minutes testifies to its strained audience-friendliness – Cassavetes usually had trouble keeping his films at manageable length.

Its ending, though, has stuck in my mind, and almost serves to place the whole thing on a higher level (potential spoiler ahead here). When the Favreau character returns from the job, thinking he can start a new chapter with his lap-dancer girlfriend, she rebuffs him instead; when he expresses concern for her daughter, she tells him just to take the kid. Which he does, and in the epilogue some months later he and Vaughn seem to be sustaining an unconventional family.

George Washington

It’s rather hard to relate this development to the rest of the film, but the mother’s abandonment is genuinely cruel and shocking, and the two men’s reaction to it seems like much more fruitful territory than the earlier stuff about setting up a drop point and whether or not they should carry a gun. It’s almost as though Favreau realized what a parched movie he’d ended up making, and couldn’t resist a crazy attempt to do something that might thrust the whole thing into greater profundity – a grungy equivalent of the revelation at the end of The Sixth Sense.

That’s a small thing though compared to David Gordon Green’s George Washington – one of the best films of the year so far. Set in a derelict corner of North Carolina, it follows some kids, mostly black kids, as they hang out and see what happens. Some of the kids are precocious – like the 12-year-old that dumps her boyfriend for someone more mature; others just do the best they can. The film has a languid pace, and it’s full of lightly poignant dialogue like this exchange: “It’s too bad you can’t see the stars on account of the smoke”/”My room ain’t got no windows anyway.”

This is all fine, but a little of it goes a long way, and the film drags for a while. Then a tragedy strikes one of the kids. The scene itself is beautifully conceived and executed, but when the other kids try to cover it up, the film threatens to enter familiar melodramatic territory. The sense of contrivance deepens as one of the kids saves another from drowning, becoming a local hero. He responds to the praise by starting to run around town in a makeshift superhero costume, convinced he may have the power to save more lives.

Of the imagination

As the film’s narrative becomes stranger, everything else about it becomes richer, culminating in a series of images that’s almost hallucinatory. The 12-year-old girl I mentioned seems to be directed as a knowing scene-stealer in the early scenes, but in her last appearance in the film she delivers a disconnected strand of conversation; we’re losing our sense of her – she’s threatening to dissolve into pure poetry. It becomes clear that the movie isn’t about poverty, or racial issues, or about anything much in the concretely here and now. There’s an unusual lack of pop culture in the film; there’s not much of anything to anchor it in time or place except a photo of George Bush Sr. on one of the bedroom walls. It barely distinguishes between children and adults for much of the time. In part it’s about the tentative way people attempt to anchor themselves in their environments and in their own skins. But as much as that, it appears to be a pure creation of the imagination – it could have been documentary or teen movie or much else, but found a strange muse that makes it all of these, and none of them.

I suspect that there’s something in the film to mystify or annoy just about everyone. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum got hung up over why the film only once flashes a caption to identify the date, and it does this at a point that doesn’t seem very relevant to the bigger picture. I liked that touch, but I thought that an uncle’s speech about his fear of dogs – apparently designed as a revelation – was rather silly and stilted. But I don’t want to overemphasize the film’s challenges. Really, it’s not difficult at all. Mainly you just need an open mind and a belief that relatively simple things can work to thrill in very complex ways.

Monday, May 22, 2017


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2001)

One of my friends at the office has been entertaining himself by telling people about his encounter with me at the film festival. He arrived ten minutes into the movie, and with all the seats taken in his preferred area at the back of the theater, he moved down to the first few rows. He came across a row that was empty except for one guy sitting in the aisle seat, who he recognized as me. He whispered my name as he pushed past me, but I didn’t respond. Then he tapped me on the knee, but I again didn’t respond. Then he reached across and tapped me harder, at which I finally did look round, offering a cursory smile before settling back into the movie.

Thomas in Love

I guess the point of the story is that I was unnaturally wrapped up in the movie (an especially unnatural state since this happened at the relatively unengrossing Sex and Lucia rather than at, say, Pulse). My angle on the story is that I knew some jerk was tapping me, but I figured that if I ignored him he’d just go away. It’s true that to me, hell in movie theaters is other people. I like to sit as close as possible to the screen so that I won’t be distracted by the audience. I have an unnatural memory for bad encounters – the old woman with the Scottish accent who caused me to move during The Insider, the guy with the cellphone in Bringing out the Dead, and so on.

The other week I went to see Thomas in Love at the Carlton. I got there about five minutes early and passed maybe five or six people on my way down to the front. I slumped down in my seat for ninety minutes and watched the movie. When I stood up at the end, I realized that I was the only one there. Everyone else had given up at some point during the film. Which puzzles me, because the film surely delivered well enough on what it claimed to be.

But maybe Thomas in Love is best seen in just the way I unknowingly saw it – as a film for one. It’s set in a near future where connectivity has reached its full potential. The title character is a severe agoraphobic who never leaves his apartment and can’t even bear to be in the same room with other people. Living completely alone, he communicates with the world via an all-purpose monitor. The film’s gimmick is that we never see him – we hear his voice, and we see only the screen he’s staring at. In that sense the movie consists of a single unchanging camera angle, although the format accommodates lots of diverse stuff. This includes videophone conversations with prostitutes, his mother, his shrink, and a simulated female with whom he has cybersex via some kind of sensor-laden body suit (a practice that the movie presents as being highly effective, but socially frowned upon).

Better on TV

Given the constraints, the film develops some quite effective story lines – although maybe if I knew what some people already do online or over the phone, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. The film hints at the source of dramatic tension – how can Thomas maintain a love if he won’t let anyone near him? The story arc is pleasant, but ultimately a little rushed – it reaches for an emotional impact that’s not quite there. Thomas’ voice over seemed to me too bland and monotonous, although so much time alone would do that to you.

It’s usually a put-down to say of a particular film that it might look better on TV, but that should be a fair comment for Thomas in Love, which evokes the condition of a whole life spent watching the box. Theoretically, seeing the film on TV might make you more likely to identify viscerally with Thomas’ predicament; on the other hand though, TV lives among all the distractions and paraphernalia that remind us we’re not sealed off from human contact. The movie theater is a far more insinuating environment. The street may only be feet away, people may be laughing and talking in the lobby, but there you are in this dark space, divorced from everything. If the movie works and you’re willing to go with it, you could find yourself anywhere.

The communal aspect of movies, sitting near the back with your pals and your popcorn, whispering and laughing out loud, always seems to me like an evasion of cinema’s power. If you’re watching Me, Myself & Irene, I guess it doesn’t matter – the movie virtually aspires to be hanging out with you in the aisle. I’m not necessarily criticizing – I saw that movie on cable and thought it was just fine. For me though, there’s no need to pay the premium to see it in the theater. If I were interested in the nature and texture of communal experiences, it’d be different. But when I talk to people about movies, I realize how it never occurs to them, even to some of the smartest people I know, that if they put everything else aside for a couple of hours, if they let the coordinates slip, the movie might repay the effort ten times over.


Did everyone all walk out on Thomas in Love because they decided they’d save it for TV? Who knows? Maybe it’s just coincidence – a few people all realizing they’d left the oven on.

This is a wacky town for movies. There’s not a week when the New York Times doesn’t carry ads for five or six cool movies that will never make it here. They’re usually foreign films of course. But then, on the other hand, the Carlton will occasionally make a totally unexpected programming move. Thomas in Love hasn’t played in the States to my knowledge. And Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure recently opened out of the blue – four years old, but extremely welcome.

Cure is one of the best releases of the year, but we’re in a year where even the best releases are a touch disappointing. I know Kurosawa’s work only from his most recent aforementioned Pulse, which played at this year’s film festival. Maybe there’s a problem with seeing his work in reverse – after the apocalyptic Pulse, the more intimate traumas of Cure seem a little tentative. But the film – about a detective investigating a series of apparently unrelated murders – has superb poise. It’s very much a genre exercise, certainly a cousin to standard-issue serial killer fare, but it manages to make the plot mechanics reflective of our deepest fears about the fragility of relationships and self-identity. You don’t want to be tapped on the knee during this movie, even by someone you know.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Too many games

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2001)

Just as The Last Castle retreats from theatres  (a clear box office failure), Robert Redford returns in Spy Game – clearly a shrewder commercial calculation if only because it only stars Brad Pitt. I wrote a couple of weeks ago of my bemusement at The Last Castle’s lack of much significance. In Spy Game, things are a little clearer – the movie is superficial, and doesn’t care who knows it.

It may not have helped me that just before going to Spy Game, I’d been watching The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, the 1975 German film about the interrogation and media hounding of a young woman who’s been having a relationship with a wanted anarchist. Katharina Blum isn’t perfect by a long shot – it’s very strong on the portrayal of the woman and the ambiguous implications of her interactions with the system, but has substantially less finesse in how it bangs the drum against the gutter press. In a case like this though, the flaws are no less integral to the film’s ability to provoke. It’s a film of unquestioned serious intent, with the overall facility to support that ambition.

Katharina Blum

Katharina Blum is a contemporary of the golden age of Redford’s career, when he made The Candidate and All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor and The Way we Were. One might forget how even that latter film, the memory of which tends to be shaped by its sappy title song, spends considerable time tracking the workings of the McCarthy era. It’s as if there was a brief period when entertainment could hardly avoid being challenging. Now flash forward. Katharina Blum was co-directed by Volker Schlondorff, who in 1979 would win an Oscar for The Tin Drum. In 1998 he made the Woody Harrelson potboiler Palmetto, at which time he seemed ready to renounce his former achievements. Schlondorff said: “I want to be more like my brothers who are doctors – just do the operation.” He said of Palmetto specifically: “It’s unabashed trash, and I’m fully conscious of that and it’s guaranteed to have no deeper meaning.”

Since then, Schlondorff has again made a more serious film, so maybe it was just a phase he was going through. But his case is just one of hundreds that would make the same point – that there’s been a pervasive loss of ambition in cinema. Mulholland Drive, which continues to get better and better the more I think about it, is one of the very few films this year that suggests a multiplicity of interests on the part of its maker.

I know I write about this subject too much – like a voyeur that keeps creeping back to the scene of the car wreck. I just can’t get away from it. If I hadn’t written about Spy Game this week, I probably would have taken on Novacaine, an utterly lackluster film that fancies itself to be a daring amalgam of film noir and black comedy. The film evidences no grasp at all of cinema past, present or future.

Spy Game

Anyway, Spy Game was directed by Tony Scott, whose last movie was Enemy of the People – a tremendously fast-moving and stylish piece of work that tapped very ably into our neuroses about being watched and manipulated and outwitted. Spy Game isn’t as fast moving (except for rather odd moments when the film suddenly seems to start running quicker through the projector) and doesn’t have as strong a structure. Redford is a CIA mission director, one day short of retirement, whose protégé (Pitt) is in a Chinese prison, one day short of execution. Realizing the Agency has written Pitt off, Redford puts together his own rescue plan, while the movie flashes back to the greatest hits of their time together in the field. It’s a rather oddly organized movie, suggesting a lack of both focus and confidence.

The action takes in Vietnam, Berlin, Beirut and China – without displaying an iota of specific interest in any of those locales. The film builds to an incident that has the potential to be immensely destabilizing to US-China relations, but then it ends before we know what comes of it. It’s one thing when a popcorn movie conjures up some cartoon version of a rogue state; Spy Game evidences enormous research and care for visual authenticity, but then has no use for it beyond the usual shootouts and set pieces. It’s actually rather unnerving. Other aspects of the film add to  the sense of a skin that doesn’t fit the beast. For example, the casting (Charlotte Rampling, David Hemmings, Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is superbly imaginative – far too much so given how little these actors actually have to do. The fact that virtually all of Pitt’s part takes place in flashback gives his entire role a feeling of dislocation.

But it’s Redford’s presence that most clearly drives this home. How could he have been content to deal so superficially with this material? For sure, this film is a better vehicle for his charisma than The Last Castle – he radiates ease and assurance. It looks like being on the set was barely any more effort for him than being at home – although with all his varied interests, maybe Redford’s days at home are pretty hectic. Unlike most of his media-shy contemporaries, who’ve gradually crept onto Leno and Letterman, Redford still keeps his distance from the media. It’s a shame, because we could use his help in figuring out what the hell he’s up to here.


I have no idea what the Oscar contenders will be this year, except perhaps that Amelie looks like a good shot for best foreign film. Some people might regard this film as exactly what’s needed to cure a movie grump like me – a surefire crowd pleaser with at least half a brain in its head. The title character is a shy witness who intervenes in various peoples’ lives, but has trouble going after the man she desires. The film is sometimes widely expansive (when Amelie wonders how many couples in Paris are reaching orgasm at that particular moment, we’re taken on a quick ride through fifteen heated couplings) and sometimes intimate and whimsical.

One has to admire the thought behind it all – the film gives the impression of hitting every target for which it aims. Whether they’re the right targets is another question. Lead actress Audrey Tautou is perfectly sweet, but might seem rather one-note in a less adept film. And sometimes it’s just too contrived to care about. Still, although there have easily been better foreign films this year, this is probably the one that American voters will feel takes them on best at their own game. But like Robert Redford, Amelie is a long way from the depths of Katharina Blum.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Strategic exercises

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2000)

The day after the final episode of Survivor, I was ten minutes late for a meeting at the office. But it didn’t make any difference because when I came in they were still arguing over the final tribal council. And I didn’t need any help getting up to speed. “Kelly blew it,” I declared, heading for the cookies. “She never even mentioned that she won five straight immunity challenges. However you think the game should have been played, no one could match that. Why was she relying on all that touchy feely stuff?” This sparked a new round of discussion, which I could reproduce here more or less line by line, regardless that the (I assume) important stuff we went on to discuss at the meeting has pretty much faded away already.

Kelly blew it

Well, like everyone said, the show was a phenomenon. I work mainly with accountants and lawyers, and Survivor was as hot a topic in that environment as anywhere else. Maybe more so, because we white-collar types love talking about strategy and tactics, and Survivor lent itself quite magically to those kinds of discussions. Richard certainly got some lucky breaks on the way to victory, but he always maximized his opportunities (even though I really do think Kelly blew it). And in the subsequent days, scanning my regular sites on the web, I read several analyses of Survivor which were barely distinguishable – whether in tone or content or seriousness of intent – from the op-eds on the Bush vs. Gore race.

Mike Hodges’ latest film Croupier isn’t as big a phenomenon as Survivor of course (although the veteran Hodges is shaping up as quite a survivor himself), but it’s doing pretty well in its own way. Initially scheduled for the most minimal possible release, the film refuses to quit and has worked its way up to a box-office gross in excess of $4 million. The audience for the Saturday matinee I attended at the Cumberland was the largest I’ve seen in a while. It’s always a bit of a mystery why some movies take off like that. But if I had to guess, I’d say it’s that Croupier’s cool-headed, articulate artistry appeals to that same strategic bent.

A strategic artist

It’s written by Paul Mayersberg, who wrote The Man who fell to Earth and the unjustly forgotten Eureka and whom I think of as a very strategic kind of artist – working within complex investigative structures that treat time as flexibly as space, casting truth and identity as malleable and unstable. Croupier is about an aspiring author called Jack Manfred who takes a job as a croupier or dealer in a London casino. The film tracks his analytical fascination with the milieu and the people in it, particularly various women – all of which he transcribes into a thinly disguised fiction.

Voice-overs from the novel in progress accompany the action, and it’s these voice-overs that carry the bulk of the film’s thematic ambition, spinning off a dizzying array of one-liners on the metaphorical possibility of the croupier, and of the gambler he might otherwise have become. The gambler is a familiar subject in movies, but the croupier occupies a lonelier and (this film suggests) more ambiguous territory. Forbidden to interact with customers or to intervene in the game, he’s trained to be as impassive as possible, but also to observe the players minutely. Actor Clive Owen’s dead-eyed, controlled performance conveys this internal tension quite well (although perhaps not quite in the Brando or Bogart-like style that the ads suggest).

Jack’s uncertain bearings are unmistakable – a problematic relationship both with his father and his girlfriend, a failed career as a writer, hints of trauma at every turn (most explicitly when he takes excessive relish in beating up a cheat who accosts him outside the casino, and shortly afterwards shakes off the last of that aggression through violent sex with a co-worker). His self-mythologizing is shot through with insecurity, but Jack tends to identify the role of the croupier with an idealistic detached certainty, confusing his own disillusionment with a privileged sense of realism. The gambler, on the other hand, seems to embody all the errors and self-deceptions of mankind: gambling, says Jack, is about not facing reality, ignoring the odds.

This all generates a subtly obsessive quality that’s always entertaining, and effective in evoking the smell of the casino. But the film (at least judged on a first viewing) never goes much beyond simply reiterating its basic ideas. Exchanges like “You’re an enigma you are”/”Not an enigma, just a contradiction” seem trite, and there are an awful lot of them in Croupier.

Master of the game

In the final scene, Jack refers to himself as “master of the game…(who’s) acquired the power to make you lose,” but events seem at least as much to confirm his impotence. In finding a specific place for each of its major characters within the resolution, the film suggests that it might best be viewed as a therapy or psychoanalysis, the object being to tuck all Jack’s loose ends away and regain functionality. But nothing about Croupier is quite that easy to summarize.

I would certainly much rather watch Croupier again than something like The Tao of Steve, another highly-praised movie in which the moderate air of intelligence just makes the contrivances particularly annoying. And at least Croupier doesn’t try to be cute. But even though you could probably discuss it for hours afterwards, I wonder whether those discussions would amount to much more than the post mortem on Survivor. It’s fun to figure out how the pieces fit together, and how the final tribal council is played out. But it’s not worth delaying the meeting for more than ten minutes on that account, whereas real art might force us to cancel it altogether.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Without cream

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

A man walks into a coffee shop, says to the waitress, “Gimme a cup of coffee, without cream.” She says, “We don’t serve cream – want it without milk?” The object lesson (once you’ve stopped laughing): sometimes, in dealing with the unavailable, the form of the absence (or to put it in more contemporary terms – the spin you put on the absence) is just as important as the absence itself. This isn’t leading to a point about Clinton, but rather – after seeing the current comedy Next Stop Wonderland – to one about the eternal subject of romantic yearning; about the bumpy journey to love, and what it says about those who embark on it.


I’ve long been a huge admirer of composer Stephen Sondheim, and I’ve never forgotten reading – twelve or fifteen years ago – a piece about his solitary life, describing how he’d never been in a long-term relationship; written in terms that seemed to paint this as Sondheim’s choice, and that implied his insightful genius was somehow rooted in this emotional austerity. It never occurred to me to doubt the accuracy of this account, and I was so impressed by Sondheim’s apparent superhuman self-control that I’m sure I decided, for at least a few days, to follow that route myself. But you can guess how well that turned out.

More recently, Sondheim’s been open about his homosexuality and about the years of inner turmoil that barred him from attaining intimacy (better late than never, he is in a relationship now). I must admit to being a little disappointed when I found this out. I’d grown really attached to the idea of an artist having a boundless ability to portray the span of romantic frailty in his work, while retaining his own immunity to it. The truth (which frankly seems to me less interesting), by suggesting that you can never take contented isolation at face value, just feeds into the much remarked-on contingent quality that colours our view of living alone. It’s a state that invites analysis and commentary in a way that being coupled just doesn’t.

In Hollywood movies, the single man is generally an icon – his solitary state all the better to afford us an obstructed view of him. Sex comes where he needs it; hang-ups are incidental, if any. A single woman is seldom bathed in such a favourable light. A female critic once said there aren’t any great films about women, because even movies with strong women perpetrate the notion (she may have used the word “myth” – I can’t remember) that a woman’s fulfilment lies in the eyes of a man (based on this analysis, she cited A Touch of Class as the only halfway grear film for women).

Eyes of a Man

An Unmarried Woman, for example, ends with Jill Clayburgh imposing her own terms on the relationship with Alan Bates; still, it is a relationship, and she needs it. Whether she needs it just for physicality, for self-esteem, for fun, because of her biology, her inadequacy – well, we probably all just place our bets based on ideology. Speaking very generally about it, I don’t think Clayburgh’s self-improvement during the course of that film is compromised by wanting a man somewhere in her life. As a practical matter, I wonder whether her ending point wouldn’t have seemed incomplete or impermanent to the mass audience had it not included a man. After all, the assumption of adults organized by pairs holds pretty widely among the population at large, even if not among feminist film critics (I know I’m letting some same-sex themes drop here).

In Next Stop Wonderland, Hope Davis plays a young nurse, recently abandoned by her boyfriend, who walks the fine line between loneliness and romantic wishfulness, and her revulsion at what’s entailed in dealing with those states. At one point her mother places a personal ad on her behalf, setting up a fine montage of Davis’ various unsuccessful dates; hyper-sensitive to insincerity, calculation and “technique,” she occasionally resorts to lecturing the men on their lack of naturalism.

As she goes about her life in Boston, she keeps narrowly missing an easy-going marine biologist who’s amiably juggling financial and career and romantic problems. A film from last year, Till There was You, similarly followed the intertwined lives of Jeanne Tripplehorn and Dylan McDermott, bringing them together – to instant happiness – only in its last five minutes. That was a bad, clumsy film, with nothing to it beyond that gimmick. Next Stop Wonderland, and Davis’ performance, are unusually subtle. The structure as I’ve described it may be too straightforwardly evocative of fate and fairy tale (and eliminates any suspense as to the final outcome), but the picture is shot in a nimble, lightly edited, almost semi-documentary style that dances observantly over the numerous potential pitfalls. The heavy use of Jobin-style bossa nova is a modest inspiration too – being both highly listenable in itself, and evocative of a tasteful exoticism that sums up the character’s ambivalence: she wants the dream, but doesn’t believe in it, and won’t act as if she did.

Wide Awake

Although the title refers to an actual stop on the Boston subway system, it has an initially sappy ring to it that, however, reveals an air of skepticism on closer consideration. Alice woke up from Wonderland of course, which carries a negative implication for the climactic union in this film. But consistent with the movie’s general intelligence and consideration, the final scenes aren’t gooey or overblown in a way that would make you doubt their sustainability – they’re marked more by quiet contentment and peace of mind. To the Davis character, this may be the proof of Wonderland – that it’s a state she more or less slides into, without rituals and calculations and games.

Maybe that’s why Next Stop Wonderland often seems close to being a great film about women – it disdains the notion of a woman as a prize, as a commodity trafficked between men (Davis’ mother is something of a sexual predator, and the film’s other key female character is very much a pursuer rather than one of the pursued). Of course, the best way to avoid the potentially degrading rituals is not to need them – to make an instant connection that transcends all that. Which, conveniently, happens to be a romantic ideal in itself. So although the outcome is preeminent, all routes are not equal. Very definitely, insist on having it without cream.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

My Christmas movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2002)

Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day – three great days of family and tradition, and three trips to the movies. Here’s my take on what the movie Santa brought us.

Starting in the middle, I went on Christmas Day to see Michael Mann’s Ali. Mann is one of the finest American directors. His style alternates between slick (he created Miami Vice) and artfully messy; he draws equally on psychological exactitude and melodramatic grandstanding – much of the fascination of The Insider, his last film, came from the tension between Russell Crowe in the former category and Al Pacino in the latter. His films are glorious works of design and drama, with the music track almost perilously foregrounded. I don’t suppose Mann smokes cigars on the set, but I always imagine he does – he’s that kind of old-fashioned auteur general.

Ali presents him with overwhelming opportunities in these areas, and the greatest surprise of the film is Mann’s relative restraint. Not that the film lacks his usual panache. The opening sequence, intercutting between Ali training for a fight against Sonny Liston, a Sam Cooke night-club performance, and miscellaneous snippets of Ali’s history (including traveling as a boy on the “coloreds only” section of the bus), is dazzling. The fight sequences are staggeringly well-realized. I could go on. But the heart of the film, of course, is the man himself. And for once, Mann seems to blink, coming close to giving the film a soft centre.


Fortunately, he has Will Smith in excellent, perhaps Oscar-winning form, conveying Ali’s mixture of canniness, rough-edged charisma, and bull-headed naivete. The movie has been widely criticized for not explaining Ali to us, but I think it shows how he surely defied explanation even to himself. Near the end, road-training in Zaire for the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman, he wanders off the road, a crowd accumulates around him, and he comes across a huge drawing of himself on the side of a battered old wall. Mann holds the scene at great length; just soaking in Ali’s almost overawed reaction, almost puzzlement (despair?) at the weight of his own myth and rhetoric. The scene goes on for so long, the movie seems about to throw in the towel. And indeed, thereafter, it functions largely as a recreated documentary (largely reenacting the material covered in the documentary When we were Kings).

Veteran sports columnist Robert Lipsyte, in the New York Times, describes as a “major lie” the context in which Ali says the line “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.” The movie, says Lipsyte, presents the line “as a measured explanation for his refusal to be drafted” whereas the truth is that the sentence was “blurted…after a long day of being hectored.” This must illustrate the ambiguity of the film’s portrayal, for it seemed clear to me that the move’s Ali basically does “blurt” out the line, and then decides to stick with it, making up his philosophy on the hoof (one of several such instances in the film). It’s the same mixture of waywardness and populism that has Ali calling himself “The Peoples’ Champion” while insisting in the next breath that he’s going to be the kind of champion he wants to be.

Lipsyte also criticizes the film for leaving out “a reckoning that might have come out of Greek tragedy, (the fact that) Ali’s unique gifts of movement and speech (became) seriously impaired.” The movie ends after the 1974 “Rumble” and doesn’t address Ali’s subsequent Parkinson’s disease, not even in the ending captions. But it’s hard to see how such a last chapter wouldn’t have fallen into morose irony and easily reductive metaphor, falling far short of Greek tragedy. Still, my guess going in would have been that Mann would take it on. His refusal to do so is another example of how he keeps the gloves off. In all, I thought Ali was terrific, one of the year’s best. Still, a lot of that opinion may be based in an appreciation of how it relates to Mann’s other pictures. Absent that perspective, it’s probably too problematic a film to win general acceptance.

Gosford Park

On Boxing Day, I saw Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. As I pointed out recently, virtually every estimable new film nowadays is compared to some Altman film or other. It’s a pleasure to see that the man himself can still get it done. The new film is set in a British country house in 1932, where a group of aristocrats gathers for the weekend. The film devotes equal time to the servants, inhabiting a below-stairs community with its own rules. The essence of the picture lies in its coordination and juxtaposition, and Altman’s handling is masterly – shot after shot takes your breath away with its deftness in moving from one character and mood to another.

The broad premise is that the upper-class are barren and spent (a point ruthlessly executed here) and on the verge of being, if not displaced, at least squeezed by their underlings for supremacy (of any kind). Almost any randomly chosen five-minute chunk of the film would demonstrate this point. The movie turns into a nominal whodunit, with the bumping-off of one of the toffs precipitating an investigation. Altman’s handling of this aspect is so perfunctory that it’s clear it barely matters. Even so, although the denouement is dramatically little more than a shrug, it supports the overall theme. I enjoyed the film enormously, yet among Altman’s later works I think Cookie’s Fortune remains his most rich and scintillating.

The Majestic

Jim Carrey’s latest shot at an Oscar (it’s hard not to concede to the tabloid wisdom on this point) turned out to be his biggest box office flop, and a backward step in terms of artistic credibility. The Majestic has been critically derided, and Carrey may be the weakest thing in it.  It’s a dawdling, feel-good piece about a 50s Hollywood screenwriter who loses his memory and ends up in a small town where he’s mistaken for a long-lost son who was presumed killed during WW2. Carrey helps his presumed father renovate the local movie theater, romances the dead man’s former girlfriend, and has no idea that the FBI is searching for him as a suspected Communist subversive.

The latter element is supposed to establish the film’s seriousness, but is so lamely treated that it undermines the “Capraesque” qualities of the rest. The Majestic is almost incalculably far below the other two films dealt with here. Even so, I find myself more positive on the film than most critics. It seems to me almost identical in quality to director Frank Darabont’s previous The Green Mile; since that (Oscar-nominated) film was incredibly overrated, The Majestic comes as no surprise whatsoever. Much as with Ali, although in a very different way, a lot depends on your expectations. But then that’s Christmas for you!