Thursday, July 29, 2010

Moments of Genius

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2004)

If you watch a lot of movies, you’re used to people asking you whether a particular film is any good; whether it’s worth seeing. I feel comfortable answering this for the latest Hollywood releases, one way or another, but as you move further along the spectrum of art cinema the question becomes more problematic. The movies I most love are great, but many of them might not be good. More and more, I find a certain kind of failure more stimulating than many successes. And then of course, there’s the entirely different aesthetic judgment you apply to your favourite directors, viewing individual films in the context of the whole oeuvre.

Fuller And Polanski

I’ll throw out a couple of (almost random) examples of this from my own recent viewing. Samuel Fuller’s White Dog has any number of problems, and perhaps my only downright bad viewing experience at the Cinematheque Ontario came a few years ago, seated in front of a boorish couple who laughed through the whole movie. The debits include a dated early-80’s look (mainly incarnated in lead actress Kristy McNichol), overly declamatory dialogue, excessive simplicity in the plotting and in the staging of the action scenes, and excessive anthropomorphism in depicting the title dog – an initially lovable German shepherd that turns out to have been trained by racists to attack black people on sight. But if you’re attuned to Fuller’s punchy mindset and his uncompromising approach to issues, the movie’s central dynamic is so potent that it overcomes all these problems. A black animal trainer called Keyes (played by Paul Winfield, who died recently) becomes obsessed with retraining the dog – the two face off each other for hours and weeks in a circular caged arena, like gladiators; the epic subject of prejudice distilled down to an elemental test of endurance. The film’s denouement suggests that racism, once instilled, cannot be destroyed, only deflected, which merely diverts its pernicious consequences. The film ultimately seems a touch naive (actually a rather endearing quality in a veteran filmmaker), but brilliant.

Roman Polanski’s What?, which I saw again at the Cinematheque as part of its Polanski series, seems like an odd digression from him (he made it between Macbeth and Chinatown) – a discursive, perverse variation on Alice In Wonderland where a young woman wanders into a big European estate to escape from would-be rapists and finds herself among a gallery of weird characters. The film was dumped in some cinemas as soft-core porn (lead actress Sydne Rome spends much of the time naked) and could easily seem like a grotesque self-indulgence. And yet, watched in the context of Polanski’s other films, it’s completely fascinating. All his themes are there: claustrophobia, looming darkness, the questioning of fundamental assumptions, kinky sexuality, exploited innocence. Virtually everything that happens in the movie is contradicted by something else, and when you think you’ve identified any kind of key to it all, it’s snatched away; the more you think about it, the more the film parallels the downward spiral of despair in his most recent film, The Pianist. It’s far more elegant and ornate than most of his other works, but the more you think about these differences, the more the film impresses through the consistency of Polanski’s sensibility. It’s ultimately rather silly, but brilliant.

Kill Bill, Vol. 2

Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is of course the sequel to Vol. 1, which opened last fall, and followed a character identified as The Bride, played by Uma Thurman, as she went on the trail of five ex-colleagues who mowed down her husband at the altar and left her to die. It didn’t do a whole lot for me – I wrote one of those reviews where, reading it now, I can tell my heart wasn’t in it. Here’s some of what I wrote:

an impressive piece of action choreography with a sometimes-flamboyant sensibility. Supposedly it’s full of references to genre movies – I only picked up a few of them, if any. The story is wafer thin, and the film seems extremely padded, with numerous digressive scenes that could have been lost with no sacrifice of entertainment or thematic value. Without these scenes though, the film would seem programmatic – its peculiarity is really the main point of interest. ..

Maybe, I wrote, rather plaintively, Vol. 2 will make everything clearer. Well, Vol. 2 achieves that on a narrative level at least – not that that was ever my primary concern. The back-story is now filled in, and Bill (who never appeared directly in the first film) is now a fully-fledged character. Where the first film was tight-lipped, the second is voluble, with numerous scenes of extended conversation, usually to no particular end. Thurman dispatches the two remaining assassins (Michael Madsen and Daryl Hannah) on her way to Bill, but there’s no action sequence to compare with how Lucy Liu got her comeuppance last time. Even the ending is relatively low-key by contemporary standards.

There’s little thematic payoff to all of this – except, unexpectedly, a closing paean to the redeeming power of motherhood (which both seems arbitrary in the context of Tarantino’s work, and rather reductive in that one of the first film’s main points of appeal was its refusal to stereotype or overly sexualize feminine power). And yet, Tarantino is perhaps the only present-day filmmaker who can score major box office while so studiously ignoring conventional commercial calculations. An anxious studio head could have chopped at least an hour out of the film (or combined the two volumes back into one) without affecting much of anything, and yet for now Tarantino manages to convince enough of us that his private whims are worth indulging.

Kill Quentin

His sympathy for old tropes and moods and references (most pleasingly evidenced by his wonderful use of overlooked actors, which continues here with the return of David Carradine, who’s pretty good) is a likable trait, and maybe the best hint to his most profitable road ahead. Compared to Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol. 2 seems rambling and uncontrolled, evidencing a slackening not unlike that of many great Hollywood directors in their later films. Of course, Tarantino isn’t at all old yet. But I can almost imagine him ending up like the Robert Altman of Cookie’s Fortune and Gosford Park, standing as the sole representative of certain lost values. If so, we may look back on Vol. 2, with the benefit of that hindsight, and see in it a great turning point, a significant signpost to multiple complexities ahead, or maybe an incompletely achieved work – a White Dog or a What? – which may seem great if you know the director. It’s not a sure thing by any means though – the film seems to contain several signs that Tarantino is straining for ideas. The next few movies, it seems to me, will either make him, or kill him.

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