Sunday, March 28, 2010

William Holden

(Originally published in The Outreach Connection on February 19, 2010)

Compared to most movie reviewers, I don’t tend to say a whole lot about the actors; in fact, I often don’t mention them at all. That’s a reaction partly to too many critics whose pieces consist almost solely (apart from turgid plot summaries) of subjective reactions to the performers, and partly to too many frustratingly rootless real-life conversations. If (say) Tom Cruise is in a movie, there are plenty of people whose reaction to the film will basically begin and end with that fact – perhaps because they always found him off-putting, but equally as likely because of the Scientology stuff, or whatever else they read in the tabloids. Others will insist that if Daniel Craig is in a movie, then it must be worth seeing. For the most part, I guess I take it all pretty pragmatically, just as we have to accept the motley crew we jostle up against in daily life. But then readers will know I’m a true auteurist. Inglourious Basterds for instance had some of the performances that delighted me most last year, both from new discoveries (Christopher Waltz, Melanie Laurent) and, equally strikingly, from known quantities who didn’t previously seem to have it in them (Diane Kruger). They should all be praised, and perhaps win awards, but without Tarantino’s kick-ass dialogue and sensitive directing (and brilliant casting instinct), there’d be nothing to talk about. So I guess to me talking about the vessel isn’t as rewarding as talking about the creator (I know, that’s a little reductive).

Classic Stars

It’s different with the classic stars. I could fill this article solely with a list of people I revere, and who thrill me virtually every time I see them. I’ll name a few just to get your imaginations going: Cary Grant (possibly the greatest of all), Barbara Stanwyck, Jack Lemmon, Catherine Deneuve, Henry Fonda, Kim Novak, Alain Delon…that’s a deliberately quirky list! Sometimes I’ll forget someone for a while and then rediscover them – I was stunned recently when I saw my first Lon Chaney movies in years. Sometimes I’ll watch a movie featuring someone I usually don’t think I like and then I’ll say to myself, well, you know, that guy (or gal) was pretty darn good after all. But I don’t write about them here very much because, basically, when would they come up?

I thought I’d mix it up today though, because I was watching Golden Boy, and it made me think about how much William Holden’s meant to me over the years. Nowadays he’s mostly in that category where people might know the name but then struggle to recall more than one or two movies. As with most of his peers, a lot of it’s not particularly worth remembering. But I think Holden was the first actor who really moved me through his career arc. Everyone ages of course, but he aged rapidly and brutally: making The Wild Bunch in his early 50’s, he looked older than many 70-year-olds (especially Hollywood leading man 70-year-olds), and in a way you knew wasn’t just bad genes: his face was weary, ravaged, and often self-disgusted. In his last decade, he chose a fair number of roles where he got to rail against corroded values: Lumet’s Network (his fourth Oscar nomination), Wilder’s Fedora, and his final film, Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. In that one, playing a Hollywood director, he delivers his final screen line – “So long pal” – while orchestrating a Viking-style burial at sea for an old friend brutalized by the system.

Angels and Demons

At the same time, the dead friend is a nut, and Holden’s character – for all his cynicism – is his hack collaborator in a stupid venture, and also someone who’s drunk too long and deep from the good life. Many of the greatest stars, of course, gain their resonance in large part from what we know of their off-screen life: often to poignant or tragic effect, as with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean and others who died too young. Holden died too young too (he was 63) and yet by then it was already hard to think he could possibly live much longer (not productively at least). When I was getting into movies as a teenager, while miserably wrestling with the point of it all, I found Holden unbelievably relevant, suggesting some bitter triangulation between angels and demons, and utter frankness about what it would all cost.

At that pre-Internet time you could buy big heavily illustrated books about virtually any Hollywood star, and I think the only one I ever bought was The Complete Films of William Holden by Lawrence J Quirk. I still have it. It’s a purple prose kind of exercise: “..(he) drank to forget his ever-increasing inner torment – the torment of a man who did not truly know himself – deep down – and didn’t want to.” His very first film, Golden Boy, already drew on that ambiguity – he’s a hothead whose first passion is classical violin, but then he takes up boxing instead! After that, the younger Holden had trouble finding a niche in the 40’s, until hitting his stride with Sunset Boulevard in 1950. After that he was at the very top for a decade or so, winning an Oscar for Stalag 17, and appearing in Sabrina, The Country Girl, Picnic and The Bridge On The River Kwai. I’ve always loved the way Holden delivered a line – like Morgan Freeman now, seldom forcing it, but often finding some intonation suggesting a richer appreciation of life’s mordant ambiguities. I haven’t seen a lot of the junkier films he made – he’s not the kind of actor whose career seems to demand comprehensive viewing. His very persona suggests a helpless marrying of highs and lows; S.O.B. is an almost mystical intertwining of both.

The Unmanly Art

Some basic facts: he was born in 1918, as William Franklin Beedle Jr., and was found dead in November 1981. Quirk says he’d died nearly a week before, “when he hit his head on an end table in a drunken stupor – and bled to death.” I found that chilling as a teenager, and I think to this day it colors my fears of aging. That’s silly of course, but this is what stars have always done, held out possibilities, complexities, pathways, warning signs. I should rather say that’s what they used to do, because although the greatest stars now may be interesting as phenomena, they’re not very instructive as stories in themselves. Holden supposedly found acting “unmanly,” and I don’t know what he meant by that exactly, but he never communicated any sense of entitlement, never communicated that he was somehow doing anyone a favour by lending his presence. If indeed we’re meant to be learning something now about shedding unsustainable excesses and going back to basics, we could do worse than watch some Bill Holden movies.

Low Life

Jacques Audiard’s Un prophete, given its consensus status as one of last year’s best European films, delivers some surprisingly conventional pleasures at times. As narratively meaty as The Godfather, it centres on Tarik, a young Moslem (although of no great devoutness) starting out on a six-year sentence in a French prison, quickly forced by the dominant Corsican clique to bump off an informer. When he pulls it off, he wins their protection, and gradually starts to rise within the inmate hierarchy while also (through a series of one-day leaves) making himself a player on the outside. It’s a strong, nicely complicated plot, with lots of muscular confrontations and interactions, and Audiard is right in the middle of it; the violence here, although sporadic, is extremely intimate.

Un prophete

The movie’s real impact though – which, I found, becomes increasingly satisfying in contemplating it afterwards – comes from its implications for a Europe in which the old guard’s power becomes increasingly hollow and formal, a vestige of past glories, plainly unsuited to the complexities of the new economy. The title comes from another criminal’s wonderment at how Tarik seems to straddle dividing lines that used to be inviolable, something he expresses in quasi-mystic terms (and for which Audiard conjures up a suitably startling, inexplicable image). But the protagonist never struts around like a creation of cheap melodrama (such behavior also belongs to the old timers); compared to, say, the trajectory of Pacino’s Michael Corleone, his conscious plotting and mastery of the game still coexists with a certain near-guilelessness. The final image, as he walks free at the end of his sentence, captures this superbly, and Audiard stirs the pot further by overlaying a raucous version of “Mack The Knife” on the soundtrack – obviously in its core content a link to a long line of thuggery, but still a beautifully strange and disconcerting cultural mash-up. Un prophete is full of moments like this, reminding us of the deadening precision of the conventional “well-made” film.

Nick James of the British film journal Sight And Sound recently blasted Britain’s equivalent of the Oscars for denying Un prophete a best film nomination, going instead for “an incredibly lazy…list of the most promoted good US films” (plus An Education). Among these was Precious, which he said “has gut-wrenching performances, but is otherwise limited.” Of course, the film’s had a high profile over here too ever since the Toronto film festival, where it won the People’s Choice award; for a while after that people mentioned it as an Oscar front-runner, although it ultimately came in a bit short (it won for its screenplay, and for Mo’Nique as supporting actress). I avoided the film for a long time, suspecting a wallow in sentiment and freakishness, put off by some of its key selling points (the aforementioned award, which hasn’t usually gone to the most challenging works; Oprah’s involvement as executive producer and general drum-beater).


I finally got round to it, and admit to liking it more than I expected. I certainly liked it more than critic Armond White, who called it a “carnival of black degradation,” and went on: “Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés…it is a sociological horror show.” Well, it’s certainly a spectacle at least. Precious is a grotesquely overweight 17-year-old, impregnated for the second time by her own father, physically and psychologically abused by her lazy wretch of a mother, weighed down by learning difficulties and chronically low self-esteem. Things start to turn around when she enters a special education program, developing a better relationship with the teacher and the other girls; also in her corner are a nurse and social worker played by Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey respectively.

My positive reaction was partly relief that the “sociological horror show” aspects, which I’d rather been dreading, counted for less of the film’s overall impact than I’d expected (and ultimately, the most disgusting thing about it all may have been the close-up shots of the hideous food Precious and her mother live on). A lot of it’s pretty conventional bonding and discovery stuff, and while the psychological revelation at the end is rather grotesquely fascinating, it seems to come out too easily. This aside, the movie often feels like a scrap book of ideas and quasi-experiments (some think it’s best taken as a comedy – Jim Emerson on his Scanners blog said it’s a “virtual remake of John Waters' 1974 Female Trouble”). Precious imagines herself in various glamorous situations, and Daniels puts them up on screen, but only to drive home the obvious point that she imagines a better world for herself (the device only becomes forceful in the scene where Precious imagines her reflection to be thin and white). At one point, reaching for his inner Spike Lee, Daniels swirls the camera around Precious while replacing the background with a montage of Martin Luther King and other images of changing times; it looks good, but if the point is that Precious represents some kind of witness to or reflection of history, it’s not at all clear how.

Strenuous Impact

At other times, Daniels certainly seems to frame his shots to emphasize Precious’ bulk, and Gabourey Sidibe, the lead actress, talked in an interview about how he pushed her to assume an ugly, blank expression. Of course, the film has an in-built self-defense, that those who find grotesque the portrayal of Precious merely reflect the attitudes that suppress her (and all the world’s non-conformists). But as White points out, when Daniels even includes an episode of her stealing and then devouring a bucket of fried chicken, it seems that at the very least, the director is using cliché to provoke us. I don’t know what the provocation amounts to though. It would certainly be legitimate to posit that poor food choices and culture constitute a form of ongoing abuse against and within the lower classes, but the film doesn’t have any interest in that topic.

It’s plain we’re meant to reserve at least a little sympathy for Precious’ mother, an ignorant woman who knows no better. But when we see the teacher’s domestic life – she’s a beautiful and cultured lesbian living in a dream apartment – Daniels’ obvious comfort with this stratum of society (you can almost feel his relief at being able to ease off for a few minutes) underscores the strenuous “impact” of the lower-rent material. In summary, it’s a film of moderate interest and impact but almost no lasting importance, and the comparison with Un prophete tells you something about the distinction between unfettered, intuitive artistry and (albeit somewhat fearless) gimmickry.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Messages Of War

(originally published in The Outreach Connection on March 12, 2010)

One day, as they used to ask where you were when you heard about the Kennedy assassination, they may ask where you were when your disappointment with Obama crystallized. For me it was his clinical, politically calculating Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

“ Make no mistake,” he said, “evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason…yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another - that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such. So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths - that war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings.”

The Price Of It All

This is plainly true on some level – the point about Hitler seems apt and proportionate. But the objective looming nightmare that prompted the Second World War monstrously outweighs the ragbag threats underlying current military adventures. Of course Al Qaeda scored a horrific success on 9/11, but it’s never been coherently explained how that justified diverting the national and international conversation to the extent that followed. There’s never been a moment when, for the “average American,” the likelihood of death by terrorist even vaguely approached the daily threats posed by the act of getting into a car, lousy diet, the perils of the average kitchen, and so forth. That kind of point sounds trite to some people, but when our physical, environmental and financial infrastructure is under such threat, and people face such difficulties in getting any kind of functional life together, we owe each other a coherent conversation about what we can expect from life and society, and what we can’t.

Placing a price on human life sounds odious, but we do it in one way or another all the time. As long as people die in poverty, from malnutrition or preventable disease, anywhere in the planet, then we’ve chosen – whether we acknowledge it or not – to accept death. I don’t say that’s wrong – we can only do so much. But it’s puerile, and intensely damaging to our ability to move forward, to fixate on avoidable deaths from certain causes (Olympic warm-ups, Toyotas, natural disasters), while simultaneously sucking up the risks, or the demonstrated bitter costs, of quieter but far more damaging calamities elsewhere. War, as it’s waged by Western society in this century, merely evidences a rush to action against some splashy, exotic threat; a rush the country can’t afford, monetarily or existentially. It’s especially odious since our present-day wars never demand the collective sacrifice that ought to accompany such “necessary” state-sponsored violence. It’s easy for us to say we support our troops when we have no idea who they are or where they come from. I would probably argue now that if war doesn’t warrant some kind of draft or necessary participation, then it can’t have risen to the level of the necessary.

The Messenger

Obama then, to me, with no great finesse, was merely playing the flinty philosopher king. But the very phenomenon of him standing in Oslo delivering this calculated crap reconfirms how war distorts conversations, values and perceptions. It’s noble to give one’s life for one’s country, but shameful to ask someone to do that without a full accounting of how the sacrifice will actually aid “one’s country”. Blind adherence to military culture, values, and notions of honest service carry the real and often-exploited danger of placing too little value on one’s own life and possibilities. I seriously doubt that any 18 or 20 year-old knows enough to be allowed to choose such a path. Even mundane professions demand multiple levels of training and qualification, refining not only technical skills but also the accompanying maturity and sensibility. But since it fuels national dreams of glory while letting the rest of us off the hook, we place no such limits on allowing kids to sign up and throw themselves at horrors that most of us can’t imagine.

The distorted contours of the military are at the centre of Oren Moverman’s very good film The Messenger, which has opened rather belatedly in Toronto (it’s a 2009 release in the US, and was nominated for Oscars for its screenplay and for supporting actor Woody Harrelson). A young sergeant (Ben Foster), injured in an explosion and now back home, is assigned to casualty notification, accompanying an older captain (Harrelson) who informs the next of kin about fatalities. The task, like everything else about the army, comes wrapped in meticulous protocol, some of which contradicts the sergeant’s natural empathy. Off duty, they drink; the older man relentlessly looks for sex; the younger man tries to start a relationship with a young widow (Samantha Morton), struck by her strange disconnected grace at the moment she received the news.

Armchair Generals

After the initial scenes, we see little of the Army except the two men – it’s as if they’ve been cast into some zone of abstraction, purporting (ridiculously) each time to deliver a personal message from the “Secretary of the Army,” repeatedly sparking reactions they didn’t foresee and have no practical way of alleviating. But then, sudden grief is as much a part of the soldier’s iconography as the folded flags and the polished shoes. The Morton character moves the sergeant because she seems to lie outside any normal parameters. When they come to inform her, she’s hanging a man’s shirt out to dry, and the captain lasciviously speculates she’s already moved on to someone else. But the sergeant perceives in her, I think, a quiet complexity that will catalyze his necessary regeneration.

It’s revealed near the end that the captain, for all his mastery of the rulebook, has never seen serious action; he’s a pure creation of the myth and the machine, and internally tortured by the limitations that imposes on him. The sergeant is an official hero, but he knows the arbitrariness of such labels. Because he’s experienced and been damaged by the brutality at the centre of it all, he can afford to define himself less by protocol and more by his own inner truth. When the movie ends he’s only starting to embark on that project, but he knows he’s taken a first step and therefore can go further, perhaps even while remaining in the army. If we’re to find any half-sane place for war in our crazed world, it must be informed more by the humanity it so often makes a mockery of, and infinitely less by the slick babblings of armchair generals.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wheels Of Power

I recently rewatched Alan J Pakula’s All The President’s Men, which inevitably seems like more and more of a period piece as the contours of politics, the media, and the hopeless intertwining of the two continue to mutate and shrivel. Although the two journalists at its centre work for The Washington Post, and thus might be thought to occupy a place of privileged access, it’s striking how little power they actually have: they’re forced to grab at the vaguest of leads and connections, as likely to lead them in a circle as to any sort of revelation. You get the sense there are dozens, if not hundreds, of insiders who essentially know about the Watergate cover-up and how far up the chain of command it leads, but the wall between government and the rest of the world is presumed to be inviolable. There are many frightened people in the movie, but it’s never clear how much this is a function of specific threats or fear of reprisal (at one point, one of the two is told his life may be in danger, but it’s unknown to us whether that’s actually the case). Government, you feel here, doesn’t need to threaten: by its nature, it bends perception and morality, enforcing its will.

Roman Polanski

When All The President’s Men ends, Nixon’s resignation is still a year and a half away: if the movie was about climbing Everest, it would be the equivalent of running the end credits as they reach some intermediary base camp. But in the last scene, of the President’s second-term swearing-in playing on a TV in the foreground, while the two newsmen type feverishly away in the background, there’s the sense of murk and mystique having lifted, and direct battle lines being drawn. Soon afterwards, heavier wheels will begin to turn.

Coincidentally, the following day I watched Roman Polanski’s new film The Ghost Writer. Polanski’s best film by most appraisals, Chinatown, was made a couple of years before Pakula’s, and belongs in the same broad category of 70’s political paranoia classics. It draws more fully on genre expectations though: it has a hard-bitten private eye, a femme fatale, hoodlums with knives, and a true monster in the seat of power. Polanski handled it superbly, but it’s something of an anomaly in his career, owing much to the writer Robert Towne. Elsewhere in his career, Polanski has had to channel his preoccupations through gaudier creations. He’s returned on several occasions to the occult (Rosemary’s Baby, The Ninth Gate), to more conventional thrillers or limited suspense structures (Frantic, Death And The Maiden) or to the outright bizarre (What?, Pirates). It’s often said, and presumably with some validity, that the recurring sense of claustrophobia in his work in some way reflects his horrifying wartime experiences, and no matter how prosperous and successful he’s been, he’s never been allowed the unquestioned freedom or stature that normally comes with that. It’s possible he might end his life in jail, or maybe (in what would sum up a lot of this) an ultra-luxurious house arrest version of it.

The Ghost Writer

The comparison with All The President’s Men helps to underline the limitations of The Ghost Writer. There’s a link in the underlying premise: an over-matched outsider pushing after a truth that severely threatens the interests of the establishment. He’s played by Ewan McGregor, as a ghostwriter parachuted in to patch together the memoirs of Adam Lang, a (very) Blair-like former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan); his predecessor on the project mysteriously drowned. As he arrives, evidence blows open that Lang knowingly sent individuals into the wheels of torture, triggering the threat of imprisonment and a war crimes trial. Cocooning in wintry New England with the former PM and his entourage, the writer discovers evidence of something murky in Lang’s past, and realizes it might be more information than anyone can be allowed to get away with knowing.

The film contrasts grey, perpetually windswept island landscapes with clean, modern interiors, and it’s part of Polanski’s skill that it frequently feels as tightly confined as a chamber piece like The Tenant. From the very start, McGregor’s character seems severely overmatched; apolitical and with no particular resources or stature, he seems like a kid in a world of men (McGregor’s much better directed by Polanski than he was in his somewhat similar role in the recent Men Who Stare At Goats). The movie catches his transgressive thrill as he finds himself a spectator to some high-octane strategizing, but no matter how much he learns and stirs things up, he remains outmatched in some psychic sense, a spectator to a history that will always be bigger and more sure of itself than he can imagine.

All of that said, the film is constrained by conventionality. The puzzle unwinds through documents taped to the bottom of a drawer, bearing a crucial phone number; through coded messages hidden within a manuscript; through the threat of mysterious dark figures driving a mysterious dark car; through highly compressed plotting that has secrets opening up like the doors of busted safes. In other words it’s a genre piece, as so much of Polanski’s work has been. Looking back on his career, you recall many great moments and images, but with the sense of surveying an intriguing case study rather than that of being enhanced by a major artist’s insight.

Fish Tank

At the end of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, the mixed-up protagonist Mia weeps over an expired horse. “She was sixteen,” says the nineteen-year-old who may end up as her boyfriend, “it was her time.” Mia is fifteen, and through much of the film seems to be carrying much the same feeling about herself. Her mother is submerged in her own barely-vanished youth, casually mentioning at one time that Mia was almost aborted; her relationship with her younger sister consists almost entirely of expressions of mutual hate; and she’s on the way to a “special school” for problem students. Beneath all this of course, she’s just a kid, believing she can make it as a dancer, getting sentimental over that old horse, and surrendering to a crush on her mother’s latest lover, of which he’s all too willing to take advantage.

This leads to a horrifying, almost unwatchable, sequence in which, utterly out of control, she toys with the greatest possible disaster; she pulls back from it, and the movie concludes with some relative calm and hope, but this contributes far less to its cumulative impact than what precedes it. The milieu evokes various Ken Loach films, but Loach tends to immerse himself so much in earthy banter that the impact becomes somewhat stylized; things are more grimly grounded here, although it’s still expertly structured and paced as a narrative. It’s a compelling film anyway, with an attention-holding central performance by the new discovery Katie Jarvis.