Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2009)

I wrote a year or so ago about Paul Mazursky’s Blume In Love, one of my favourite films of the 1970’s. Who, you say? It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time (around the period of An Unmarried Woman) where Mazursky was often viewed as a leading American filmmaker (along with Cassavetes, Altman, Coppola, Woody Allen, and Michael Ritchie, also mostly overlooked now). For a decade or so, he seemed almost uniquely equipped to explore the era’s contradictory middle-class experience: unprecedented affluence, stylishness and sense of self, running ahead of the human capacity to handle it all. He belongs to the age where every film seemed to feature a psychoanalyst (Mazursky sometimes cast his own); where terms like “hostility” and “impotence” get a healthy airing. In the age of Reagan, the prevailing social narrative hardened, and Mazursky’s films became first more contrived (modern versions of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and of The Tempest) and then coarser, if fleetingly more popular (Down And Out In Beverly Hills). In the last decade, now in his mid-70’s, he’s made a little-seen documentary about his Jewish roots, but otherwise worked more as an actor than a director.

The Way We Are

I recently watched again Mazursky’s first film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Made in 1969, it’s perhaps best remembered for the shot of (reading left to right) Ted, Carol, Bob and Alice lined up in bed, with the expression of a group of vacationers trying to figure out a confounding road sign. Of all Mazursky’s films, you might think this is the one we could most leave in the time capsule now, rooted as it is in a particular Californian vogue for self-discovery. The film immediately heralds the era’s presumed possibilities, with a chorus of hallelujahs on the soundtrack as Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) drive up to a self-styled “institute,” to a 24-hour group exploration session. Mazursky spends a fair bit of time illustrating this process, and although most of us would likely find elements of it inherently funny (the swings from laughing to crying; the group hugs as one of their number reaches an epiphany), there’s not a hint of condescension or overt mockery in the presentation. His films are comedies in the almost now vanished sense – that if you pragmatically and affectionately examine some aspect of life not affected by inescapable tragedy or deprivation, or by deranged melodrama, then it’s probably going to be inherently pretty funny. That’s just the way we are.

Inspired by this experience, Bob and Carol spill out to their uninitiated friends Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon) about their new emphasis on feelings rather than thoughts, their new appreciation of love and beauty. But you can only change so much so fast. Bob admits to Carol he slept with another woman, but can’t handle it when she accepts it with equanimity. He then comes home to find Carol with another guy, and reacts just as any jealous husband would. Ted gets inspired by the idea of the affair, but can’t see the virtue of telling your wife about it. Alice is torn between thinking herself modern and just not liking the contours of this new world, but ultimately she’s the one who proposes (while they’re together in a Las Vegas hotel suite, half an hour before a Tony Bennett concert) that they swap partners. It’s the logical extension of what they’ve been doing, which isn’t to say it’s the right one.

What The World Needs Now..

The film ends in the hotel parking lot, the triumphant opening music now replaced on the soundtrack by Dionne Warwick’s much more prosaic “What the world needs now, is love sweet love…” The four are caught up in an almost strenuously diverse crowd, ethereally mingling and looking deeply into the eyes of strangers, as Bob and Carol did during one of the exercises at the institute. It’s a carefully ambiguous ending, but clearly not one that rejects the new age teachings; it suggests, it seems to me, that ambitions for greater self-awareness and connection are entirely valid and attainable, but that they’re going to need a more specific inner diagnosis and action plan. There’s some compromise and even cheapening in this of course – that choice of song must have been a little obvious even in 1969 – but also possibilities beyond those offered by mechanized professional therapies.

Of course, attaining the velocity for that kind of take-off isn’t easy. One of the best scenes has Alice at her analyst, where it may or may not be significant that she referred to “liking” her husband as opposed to “loving” her child, that she accidentally refers to making love with Bob rather than Ted, and that she still refers to her private parts using a term from her childhood (and then of course, just when she might be getting somewhere, time’s up). How do you find yourself within that? Honest intuitive reactions to infidelity or other things are to be encouraged, as long as properly examined for what they reveal - a talk process hopelessly intermingling unburying facts and spinning fictions. Before they all go to bed together, Ted goes into the bathroom, seemingly going through his usual routine, perhaps stalling, perhaps merely exercising habits and a personal sense of standards more pressing than any looming, possibly life-changing erotic possibilities. Maybe he kills the moment; maybe it helps all of them find the right one.

Fruitful Ground

It’s disappointing how seldom we get films now like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. For one thing, sexuality has virtually disappeared as a serious subject in American cinema. But more broadly, I miss the sense of mainstream cinema actually taking on emotional mysteries, rather than trafficking in bland certainties. It’s worth remembering that Bob & Carol.. received several Oscar nominations, for Gould and Carroll and for the script; could that happen now, when the consensus view of serious cinema has become so soggy at one end (The Reader), so degraded at the other (No Country For Old Men)?

Among the many things we’re not adequately addressing about the economic crisis: its implications for “relationships” as we’ve come to view them in an age of debt-inflated, media-stroked, materialistic inanity. Oh, we’re getting all the stories about how dating is tougher when the purse strings tighten, and about people living longer with their parents and suchlike, but we all have to know- if we examine it at all – that this is merely the tip of the reinvention iceberg. We hear about “sacrifice” and “living within our means” on the one hand, but meanwhile we collectively hope for some “stimulus” back to a state of arrested development. It’s dire, and yet for an engaged artist, what a time it should be to find real stories and people. But for now, a few honorable exceptions like Wendy And Lucy aside, most of what’s being released isn’t worth the time of day. However distant the preoccupations of Bob & Carol… might be, they’re still more useful to us in the here and now than anything at the multiplex. Or, sadly, even the arthouse.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

2010 Toronto Film Festival Preview (Yours, Not Mine!)

For the first time since I moved to Toronto in 1994, I’m skipping the film festival entirely this year. This might seem crazy to you given my obvious cinephile status, especially because this year’s edition, with the opening of the new Bell Lightbox festival centre, should be one for the ages. But as I’ve occasionally written here, I’ve grown fonder of having things my own way, cinematically speaking, and while the festival never ceases to generate great films, it seldom constitutes the optimum way of seeing them. There used to be a sense of needing to grab opportunities while you could – I saw Jacques Rivette’s Haut bas fragile at the festival in one of those early years and loved it, but I’ve never been able since then to see it again. That’s less common now in an expanded-access world though, and to the extent it’s still sometimes true, you’ll never catch up anyway (even the most self-destructively dedicated festivalgoer can only see 15 or 20% of what’s on offer during the week and a half).

My Festival Days

Of course, there’s the spectacle and the celebrity sightings and so on, which was definitely exciting to me in the early years. I think the first festival film I saw - selected more or less randomly at the last minute – was Somebody To Love, by the subsequently underachieving Alexandre Rockwell: I hadn’t realized someone like Rosie Perez (and I guess she meant more at the time too) would actually be there. A couple of years after that I saw Al Pacino introducing Looking For Richard; later again, Jean-Luc Godard carrying out a gorgeously impenetrable Q&A. But more often than not, I sat through lots of boring, unrevealing chatter and somewhat misplaced adulation and fawning, so I eventually just started ignoring that aspect altogether. I guess, at the end of the day, movies really aren’t a social activity for me. They’re vitally important to me, but because of that very fact, I need my own relationship with them. The festival, for all its unquestioned importance and achievement, eventually became a bit of an interloper.

There’s more to it than that though. The first full day of this year’s festival is the same day we bring home our new eight week-old Labrador retriever puppy. He will be named Ozu, in honor of Yasujiro Ozu, and is the successor to Pasolini, who died on March 2nd. Ozu’s arrival is a major event in our household, and I realize now – after welcoming Paso at the same age and seeing him through eleven years of comedy and tragedy – that it’s the start of a decade-plus chapter that, on a nuts and bolts day-to-day level, will be defined much more by the dog than by the so-called owners. In other words, it’s a big deal. So it’s pretty obvious where I have to spend my spare time during that initial period, and it ain’t pushing for a glimpse of David Schwimmer.

Jean-Luc Godard

So that’s my story. But as a public service, I’ll record here the movies that would have been high on my list if I had been going, and then if you bump into me at any time in the near future, you can laugh in my face and tell me what I missed (nah, I know you’re not like that). Well, talking of Jean-Luc Godard, he has a new film after several years, Film Socialism. It’s supposedly, to continue a theme, gorgeously impenetrable. The Oscars are really showing some imagination this year by giving a special lifetime achievement award to Godard, although it’s a bit like putting out a cookie as an offering to God. They had trouble even locating JLG to let him know about this, and there doesn’t seem to be much chance he’ll bother showing up to pick up the prize (although if he does, it should be quite the speech). If I were just going to see one film, this would almost certainly be it.

The other overwhelming attraction is Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives by (and this is where I need to apologize to my spell check software) Apichatpong Weerasethakul. After just a handful of films, AW is already in the top tier of filmmakers: I saw his Tropical Malady on DVD for the first time this year, and was so intrigued by it that I watched it again almost immediately. His new one won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and is reportedly a magical, impressionistic masterpiece. Happily for those of us who miss it, it’s already been scheduled for a longer run at the Lightbox this fall.

Always Buy Brand Names

You can see I’m a big devotee of the “always buy brand names” philosophy when it comes to movies – another reason why the festival’s potluck aspect doesn’t really chime with my own approach (I realize I’m probably making myself sound really dour and chilly, but if you saw how well I’m gonna treat Ozu, you’d reconsider). Jerzy Skolimowski made some very appealing, spiky, whizzkid films in the 60’s and 70’s (Deep End may be the best known) but more recently generated nothing for almost twenty years - now in his 70’s he’s back with his second movie in three years, Essential Killing. And then there’s Raul Ruiz, also touching 70 now. Ruiz has made over 100 films (many of them truly hard to find), and 2009 was the first year since 1966 not to have any new entries alongside his name in the Internet Movie Database’s listing. But he’s making up for it with three new titles in 2010, including the festival’s Mysteries of Lisbon.

If I were taking a chance on directors I know nothing about, I might be drawn to The Autobiography Of Nicolae Ceausescu by Andrei Ujica, which I’ve read some dazzling things about. The most interesting of the mainstream selections may be Black Swan by Darren Aronofsky (who last made The Wrestler), supposedly a dazzling psychological thriller with Natalie Portman (and Barbara Hershey! and Winona Ryder!) And it’s appealing to think John Carpenter’s return, with John Carpenter’s The Ward, might be a major return to form, although Carpenter’s work started going downhill around the time he started inserting his own name in the titles. And that was in 1978 folks!

But the fact is, since I’m not going, I haven’t even spent much time looking at the line-up – it’s also the first time in fifteen years I didn’t buy myself the big program book. So that’s all I’ve got for you. While I’m messing round with house training and getting my fingers chewed, please have the time of your lives!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

May Movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2008)

Five films that should have been better, and one that could hardly be better at all.

My Blueberry Nights is the first American movie by the fine and inventive Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, with singer Norah Jones in her first acting role. She plays a bit of a lost soul who bonds with New York café owner Jude Law and then goes on a road trip, limited here to mini narratives in Tennessee (with David Strathairn and Rachel Weisz) and Arizona (Natalie Portman). Jones’ tentative performance seems well in tune with the director’s own approach; both reticent here, touching some conventional notes and some quirkier ones, but never coming in for an emotional or thematic kill. Wong reportedly spent some time feeling out real American locations, but for the most part the film could have been shot overseas on sound stages – it’s a road movie with no apparent taste for the road or the detritus on its borders. This isn’t necessarily a criticism though if you can succumb to the gauzy mood; I just about could, but you get the overwhelming sense of a rather bemused director, camouflaging and filigreeing an essentially inert piece of work.

The Visitor

The Visitor, written and directed by Tom McCarthy, is a nicely crafted but definitely overpraised film. Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a bored, recessive college professor who finds an illegal immigrant couple living in his New York apartment; he initially throws them out but then tells them they can stay. When the male, Tarek, is arrested and taken to a detention centre, Walter finds something to care about for the first time in years. McCarthy’s film moves deliberately and pristinely, with not a cinematic hair out of place. The thesis seems somewhat obvious – how America’s post 9-11 heavy-handedness toward immigrants turns the country away from its better nature and denies it a richer cultural fabric. But the film would be a more challenging liberal text if Tarek wasn’t the happiest, most inspiring soul imaginable, and one who comes with a hot widowed mother. Jenkins is getting a lot of attention for his performance, but there too McCarthy eschews much complexity, pushing the actor into a rather clichéd minimalism. The nicest touch is Walter’s fascination with Tarek’s drum playing, but this too mostly seems like only-in-the-movies stuff.

David Mamet’s Redbelt is the latest in the director’s odd apparent project to prove himself much plainer a filmmaker than a playwright – another smart but limited creation with good tricky plotting, dollops of patented exchanges, and a spareness that’s intriguing for a while but ultimately underwhelming. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a jujitsu teacher, highly capable and noble but struggling to keep his studio afloat, drawn into a complicated series of events involving a Hollywood action star (Tim Allen), a troubled lawyer (Emily Mortimer) who accidentally shoots a bullet through his window, a stolen watch, and in the background to all this, the sport’s escalating commercialism. It’s only when you try to recount the plot afterwards that you fully realize how good Mamet is at spinning it all out, until that is it’s time to start steering toward home and then the big bus doesn’t seem so nimble on the curves (the last ten minutes almost feel as if someone else was drafted to pull all the strands into some kind of ending). Even at its most successful it never seems like more than a B-movie, and of course that’s an honorable place on the spectrum, except that the time when such genre exercises could seem truly subversive and instructive has generally passed.

Son Of Rambow

Son Of Rambow is set in the early 80’s; pre-DV cameras and of course long pre-YouTube, when cinema was still a citadel and video a dream around the edges. In the UK, a BBC kids show called Screen Test held an annual competition for narrative home movies; I remember watching the show, but in my circumstances (financial constraints; parental skepticism, general cluelessness) I could never have imagined it meaning anything tangible to me. Now I wish I’d had more wherewithal, and Garth Jennings’ movie hit me as a slight rebuke. It’s built around two unfulfilled boys who collaborate on a Screen Test entry - a sequel to Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood – marked by cheesy home-made stunts and of course mounds of heart and quirky artistic integrity (the movie is a transatlantic cousin to the recent Be Kind Rewind, although it cheats a bit more). One of the boys belongs to a religious group that’s kept him from watching TV or movies; he loses his cinematic virginity when he accidentally views a pirated Rambo video, and his imagination runs wild. It’s a cute idea, and has a highly honorable resonance; the esteemed and austere director Robert Bresson raved late in life about (presumably) his first viewing of a Bond movie, praising the “cinematic writing” of For Your Eyes Only.

Son Of Rambow doesn’t evoke Bresson in any other sense, being ultimately a bit too formulaic (and having a silly view of the French), but the idea and good humour takes it a long way. It’s a nice tribute to the pleasure of creation, and to the perilous relationship between expanded resources and creative control, depicted here via the tension between the two boys when the project takes off and too many other kids want to get on board.

Giuseppe Tornatore is best remembered for his own work of mushy cinematic nostalgia, Cinema Paradiso, which the Internet informs me is a lot of people’s favourite foreign language film. Since then he’s seemed to have trouble hitting his stride, but his new film The Unknown Woman cleaned up at last year’s Italian Oscars. Hard to see why – it’s an entertaining melodrama, but really all about the cheap thrills. A young Ukrainian woman sets her mind on working for a particular Italian family, managing to get in as nanny to their young daughter (in part by tripping up her predecessor at the top of a long flight of stairs); her relationship with the young girl clearly has something behind it, and the flashbacks of her past are unremittingly lurid. Tornatore holds it all together, but isn’t aiming real high.

Flight Of The Red Balloon

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight Of The Red Balloon was my favourite film of last year’s film festival, at which time I raved about it here, and it will likely be my favourite release of this year. I haven’t been able to find confirmation for this, but I’m almost certain that the film festival version contained several scenes missing from the print now playing at the Royal – when I say the film could have been just barely better, I’m wishing to get that material back. But the 98% that remains is almost uniquely graceful and complex, a stunning, counter-intuitive tribute to the 1956 French film The Red Balloon and more generally to art in a globalized world. If you didn’t see it, it’s surely the year’s most necessary pending DVD release…but I hope they add back the missing stuff.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hello Sweden!

We spent a week in Sweden earlier this year, including four nights in Stockholm. It’s not quite on the tourism A-list; everyone assumed we must be going because of family connections or suchlike, but actually we just wanted to see Sweden. Stockholm’s old city, built on a series of linked islands, is quite beautiful, with a waterfront that exhausts your field of vision, and for the most part looking much the same as it might have looked a century ago – the contrast with Toronto’s squandered ambitions is a bit depressing. It’s very easy to walk in – the bridges and paths lead you naturally along, and traffic volume isn’t very high. We had great food, and of course everyone speaks English. If you’ve never been to Europe at all then sure, I’d go to London or Paris or Rome first, but if you have the luck to expand your travel history a bit, it’s well worth a visit.

Visiting Sweden

Compared to our own city or to those others I mentioned, Sweden’s relative lack of diversity is hard to miss. It’s not quite the stuff of stereotypes - everyone isn’t actually blond and tanned and good-looking, but if you picked people at random in the street, there’s a fair chance they might be that. We often got the impression the Swedes weren’t particularly interested in us. I’m not saying at all that they should be, but on many other trips we’ve detected a greater interest in us as visitors, whether because people were genuinely interested, or because they work more consciously at faking it, or because they wanted to scam us. The Swedes were generally polite, but distant. We came away with the impression (which, sure, may just be our own construction) of a country perhaps aware of its limitations, but collectively very clear about what it wants to remain, and of the difficulties attached to that in the age of globalism, and thus drawn toward internal discipline. The fact of retaining its own currency adds to that too.

Some people would put a darker connotation on what I just said, detecting in Sweden a profound malignancy – racism, perversion, corruption. The UK Observer newspaper recently explored the roots of this, theorizing that a “disenchantment” entered the Swedish psyche over the last few decades, and concluding rather startlingly: “the Swedes who worry about the subterranean darkness might actually be on to something. It's just that they're looking in the wrong place. It's not necessarily in the system, or the state, or the police, or under the sea. It may just be in themselves.” Yikes!

The Summer Of Stieg

The Swedish darkness is in vogue now of course, because of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, kicking off with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (I should state categorically that our trip to Sweden was in no way a reflection of jumping on a Larsson bandwagon, and it had nothing to do with ABBA nostalgia either). Larsson died in 2004, and the books (along with the movies based on them) ran their course in Sweden a while ago, but they seem to be everywhere else in the world right now. That includes here in our house, where my wife got through the first in near-record time. She’s obviously more restrained than the archetypal Millennium reader though, because instead of moving right on to the second book, she started on Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter and more or less simultaneously on a book about Nelson Mandela. See, this ain’t a house of chimps.

Anyway, it works unusually well, for the world beyond Sweden, that the movies are all lined up and ready to go just as the books become a certified phenomenon (as The Globe and Mail put it, it’s “The Summer of Stieg”!). Of course, you can’t really expect people to deal with those ridiculous subtitles, so Hollywood is already lining up a remake, reportedly to be directed by David Fincher and to star Daniel Craig. I don’t have much interest in reading the books, but I did recently watch the first film, which is now on DVD (the second – The Girl Who Played With Fire – is now winding down in theatres). Several people had told us we’d enjoy it if only because of the pleasure of recognizing bits of Stockholm, but given that this accounts for maybe five seconds of screen time, I’m glad we didn’t put too much weight on that pay-off.

The trilogy revolves around a crusading journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and a younger computer hacker with a murky past, Lisbeth Salander. In the first story, Blomkvist accepts a private commission to investigate a 40-year-old mystery – what happened to a teenage girl who disappeared without a trace? The job comes from her uncle, a wealthy industrialist in his eighties, and perhaps the only decent individual in the extended family (his three brothers, for instance, were all Nazis). Blomkvist makes only modest progress before stalling; Salander – who’s been hacking into his computer and monitoring his progress – emails him an assist; they end up working and sometimes sleeping together.

What’s The Fuss?

The movie is a solid viewing experience, but if you actually can cope with subtitles, it’s already much more like watching Hollywood than like watching something, you know, new. The family is conceived in such melodramatic terms – the key members all live in close proximity on a bleakly beautiful island – that nothing about it carries much broader resonance. The broader indictment of endemic corruption comes through a subplot involving Salander’s sleazy probation officer, but this strand merely consists of a series of easy revulsions and cheap thrills. Salander is already an iconic character, but I couldn’t really see what all the fuss is about – she’s a tough cookie with a distinctive look and a damaged psyche…it’s not really new, and at least as it plays out in the movie, it’s a pretty cartoonish conception. Some reviewers noted the chemistry between the two lead actors, which I frankly couldn’t detect at all. The core plot, once revealed, is a grotesque invention, but one that takes its place alongside a long filmic line of them.

I offer this, of course, solely as my response to the film in isolation, and not to any other aspects of Larsson’s achievement, of which I know nothing. But if indeed there’s more to be learned about the darkness within Sweden, I’m not that confident the other two films in the trilogy (if indeed I bother to watch them) will provide it. And as for the Hollywood remake, enough already. Anyway, it’s a big world, I’ve probably spent as much time on Sweden as it warrants. But I’ll truly savour my vacation memories. And my stash of Ingmar Bergman films.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nicolas Roeg

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2007)

For a brief time in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Nicolas Roeg embodied a very particular notion of a glamorous modern director. As a very properly spoken Englishman, born in 1928, the man was always an interesting counterpoint to the myth. But the coolness factor was overwhelming. After a respected career as a cinematographer (including on Lawrence Of Arabia) he made Performance with Mick Jagger (co-directed with Donald Cammell, who deserves his own article one day), and then a series of strange but sexy works in glamorous settings. Don’t Look Now is still cited for having one of the best movie sex scenes between an on-screen married couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie). The Man Who Fell To Earth had David Bowie, and lots more sex.

Right at the time I was seriously getting into movies, it was widely reported that Roeg would direct Flash Gordon; I seem to remember Debbie Harry was going to be in it. In the end Mike Hodges directed it, very unmemorably, instead, but then Roeg met Theresa Russell, who at the time (Roeg’s career, more than most, seems very much a matter of how things were at the time) was one of the hottest actresses, with a wanton quasi-cultish aura about her. They made Bad Timing and several other films, and despite their 29-year age gap, they got married (and later split up).

Humbling Years

In the early 80’s, Roeg made Eureka, my favourite of his films, but a big flop, and his work never had the same prominence again. For a while he continued working in his familiar style, but with declining material, and then he started to go where the work took him, all the way down to a TV version of Samson And Delilah, starring Elizabeth Hurley. His profiler on the Senses of Cinema website puts it as follows: “As someone for whom Nicolas Roeg was and remains a favourite director, the last few years have been humbling.” Roeg’s last credit was a mysterious 13-minute work, unenticingly titled The Sound Of Claudia Schiffer, but he apparently has a new film in post-production, a thriller called Puffball.

I watched four of his films again recently – Don’t Look Now, Bad Timing, Eureka and the later Cold Heaven – and generally found them as fascinating as ever. Even when you know they’re basically silly and crummy – like Cold Heaven in particular – they’re alluring. But what does it all amount to? The Senses Of Cinema writer says Roeg is one of his favourite directors, but remains vague on the rationale: “When I first became enamoured of Roeg's work as an overenthusiastic teen cinephile in the '70s, I called him a ‘romantic nihilist.’ I think the label still applies and I think this combination of overreaching expressionism and elegant despair is what makes him such a fascinating director.”

Human Complacency

He also lists the raw materials of this project: “the intricate use of flashback, the unapologetic use of jump cuts and zooms, the far-flung settings, and the obsessive characters.” Roeg’s films can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s – they feel dense and tightly packed, disrupting the progress of their own narratives in myriad ways. BFI Screen Online says they operate like “experimental visual machines, bent on puncturing human complacency.” Roeg’s stories are often explicitly or implicitly supernatural, or at least based on behaviour lying outside normal parameters, and the films’ intense montage seems to reflect their extremity.

But in looking through various appraisals of Roeg, even the positive ones, it seemed to me that other writers too found it hard to pin down their enthusiasm for his films. If Don’t Look Now is the most fondly remembered overall, it’s probably because of the strong emotional pull of its central couple – a couple grieving for a lost child – against the lush Venetian settings. As well as that iconic sex scene, and its effectiveness as a creepy mood piece. But nothing about that, to cite the BFI again, “(shakes) our preconceptions about civilization and cinema.” I've read some committed analyses of Bad Timing, but none that overcomes the sense that (as the song under the closing credits put it) it’s the same old story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl (although with distinctive kinkiness, and a heightened sense of the wretchedness of it all).

The only Roeg film that seems to me truly paradigm-defying is Eureka, and I suppose the real point of this article is to point a few people to that generally unknown and unappreciated film (available on DVD). Generally regarded as marking the end of Roeg’s classic run, it stars Gene Hackman as Jack McCann, who strikes gold in the Yukon after half a lifetime of trying, and becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams. Years later, in the 1940’s, he lives in splendour in the Caribbean, but with no real pleasure beyond his daughter (Russell again), and he becomes embroiled with mobsters determined on extracting a piece of his land.


The theme is clear enough, that Jack McCann’s life was over as soon as he found what he thought what he wanted, and everything that followed was a mere extended death spiral. This “odd drama, even for Roeg,” as Leonard Maltin puts it, works its way to a courtroom conclusion that feels needlessly melodramatic and protracted, as well as being unusually conventionally presented for him. By this time McCann is gone from the movie, obliterated with the mobsters with a glee that goes way beyond practicality, and the courtroom scenes seem to me like a wiping clean, a recourse to the institution where “truth” is identified, a new beginning that parallels the finding of the gold. Except of course that McCann’s discovery was substantial and real – shot by Roeg as a truly cosmic event – whereas the outcome of the trial is presented as laborious and little better than arbitrary (and, as the verdict is announced, overshadowed by news of the war).

This is followed by an epilogue that further establishes the theme of ongoing restlessness, and then there’s a return to Hackman years earlier, and a touching recital from Robert Service’s Spell Of The Yukon: “..it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting so much as just finding the gold. It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder, It’s the forests where silence has lease; It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder, It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.”

Eureka indeed exposes human complacency and punctures it, but also has the vision to present a dream of something finer, however fleeting. It’s the only major Roeg film I think that closes on a note of genuine happiness, even if from a dead man, as such suggesting the director may been limited by his attraction to elegant despair. I’m sure Roeg found the life he wanted, at least for a while, but if he found joy in it, he excluded that from his art. When you’re a moody teenager this seems rather cool, but later on – if you’re lucky - you realize the limits of nihilism, however romantic.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Celine and Julie Go Boating

Jacques Rivette is one of my favourite film directors. I’ve been saying that for maybe two decades now, but I have to admit it was based for a long time on faith as much as knowledge, because his work has been awfully difficult to see. Even now, half his films - most Rivette specialists would say the best half - remain unavailable on DVD. Still, even this is streets ahead of where things used to be, and at least it leaves us something to look forward to.

Jacques Rivette

I was originally enraptured by the idea of Rivette because of the first edition of David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary Of The Cinema, which I bought when I was around 16 years old. Thomson is an establishment figure now, and his writing has become mundane, but the original volume was a revelation (it was recently voted by a Sight and Sound poll as one of the best five books about cinema, with which I certainly agree): it shimmered with the possibility (perhaps the necessity) of becoming a pure creature of cinema, one for whom the achievement of engaging with Orson Welles and Fritz Lang would neutralize mundane needs (fortunately, I just about kept enough perspective to find a workable career for myself). Part of Thomson’s appeal was his immunity to the prevailing consensus; he was largely resistant to Ford and Fellini for instance. I obviously lack his independence of mind, because even now I find it hard to forge a thought on those directors that isn’t influenced by Thomson (on the bright side, I’ve always liked Cassavetes much more than he does).

On Jacques Rivette, he started off like this: “The informed filmgoer might not leap to support the contention that Rivette is the most important film-maker at work today.” This was in 1975, when a solid chunk of the all-time greats were still operating. To emphasize the point, Thomson called Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating “the most important film made since Citizen Kane.” Labeling it “the first film in which everything is invented,” he said it “pursues humour, idiosyncrasy and exhilaration and provides a way of seeing how old-fashioned such concepts as comedy and melodrama have become.”

Intuitive Connection

Rivette was one of the core French “New Wave” directors, moving from writing for Cahiers du Cinema to making his first film in the late 50’s. It’s virtually obligatory to point out, and so I won’t resist, that he’s never achieved the status of Truffaut, Godard and Rohmer. But then you could argue – even for the restless, unprecedented Godard – that status imposes limitations. Rivette is reportedly a recluse with few or no conventional friends, which we might fancifully imagine has been the price of his immense artistic sensitivity.

I recently saw Celine and Julie again, and it generates as much delight as ever (I actually saw it the day after I saw Inception, which helped underline that film’s laborious literal-mindedness, not that I needed help). The two women meet in Paris and forge an intuitive connection, marked by playfulness and collaborative creativity. Their interest converges on a boarded-up house, where an ornate narrative of desire and death concerning a widower, his young daughter, two women and a nurse – embodied at different times by Celine or by Julie - seems constantly to repeat itself. With the help of a magical candy, they acquire the ability to view the narrative from outside, like a movie jointly projected directly into their consciousnesses, and then they set out to change the story’s grim arrival point.

I don’t know if it’s strictly correct to call it the first film in which everything is invented – many avant garde works or animations surely fall into that category in some sense at least. And more importantly, it wouldn’t be as vibrant if it wasn’t anchored in a recognizable early 70’s Paris and a particular kind of intelligent but under-utilized young woman: Julie has a dull library job and a seemingly boring boyfriend, and although Celine is more overtly creative – she has a magician act in a low-grade nightclub – her boss seems to pull all the important strings. In other words, their project seems to specifically reflect feminist politics; the melodrama they triumph over draws heavily from old style creations where women cut each other to pieces for the sake of a man.

The Essential 100

Against that backdrop though, almost everything in the film embodies a desire to overcome these strictures. Rivette has frequently rejected normal assumptions about a film’s duration, most famously with Out One, which runs twelve and a half hours, and was long considered to be essentially lost. Celine and Julie lasts around three hours, peanuts by comparison although still a challenge to normal expectations. Certain elements, like the opening sequence where Julie chases after Celine, go on much longer than they would for any other director; at other times we’re locked in repetition. Throughout, it critiques the conventions that restrict cinema, and that therefore restrict all of us who value it.

Rivette’s films have frequently referred to theatre as a source of relative freedom – a good few hours of Out One consists of rehearsal scenes from two different productions. Celine and Julie, at least temporarily, manage to craft a liberating fusion of both arts. But of course, it’s a fantasy, a story of ghosts and magical candies. In the film’s closing stretch, the women’s invention reaches its zenith, hinting for a while at unambiguous victory. But in the end it’s unclear whether they’ve accomplished anything at all. In the decades since then, Rivette’s occasionally returned to related mythologies – the beautiful Story Of Marie and Julien sets out a whole set of rules for the afterlife. Even more often, he’s experimented with notions of conspiracies and mysteries, seldom providing traditional closure. And he’s continued to meditate on the creative process, most famously in La Belle Noiseuse, around two hours of which consists of a nude Emmanuelle Beart posing for a painting.

Another problem, sadly, with Thomson’s assessment of Celine and Julie Go Boating’s relative importance is perhaps an empirical one – if it’s the most important film since Citizen Kane, why don’t more people know it? Unfortunately though, cinematic greatness is a declining kingdom nowadays (I wonder how many of the TIFF Cinematheque staff are fuming about being associated with a list of “the essential 100” films that includes Slumdog Millionaire and Life is Beautiful, but nothing by Rivette). Now in his eighties and reportedly in poor health, he receives a bit more attention than he used to, although it’s obvious from the reviews that many of those writing up his later work lack much feel for what came before. If one views his most recent (and most easily accessible) works in isolation, I hope they’d be rewarding, but I’d imagine they’d have to seem – to say the least – a little quirky. But if your aspirations for cinema amount to something greater than a series of sugar highs, spending some time on investigating Jacques Rivette might just about change your views of everything.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Two Minnelli Musicals

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2006)

I recently watched two musicals by one of the genre’s great directors, Vincente Minnelli: The Band Wagon and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. These are two films I’ve watched many times – particularly The Band Wagon, which I sometimes think belongs in the list of my ten favourite films. A genuine classic – although I’m not sure it has the profile it should – it stars Fred Astaire as a Fred Astaire-type movie star now past his peak, who comes to Broadway to star in a “modern version of Faust,” mounted by a pretentious hot director (Jack Buchanan). The play is an instant flop, and Astaire then takes charge, transforming the show into something light and breezy, which is duly a hit. He also gets the girl, played by Cyd Charisse.

The Band Wagon

The film, made in 1953, has some of the most sublime musical numbers ever filmed – Shine On Your Shoes, Triplets, Dancing In The Dark and the iconic That’s Entertainment. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen overall technique that’s so perfectly aligned with the music. And the somewhat self-referential script, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is outright funny. I don’t have a thing to say against it. Although the more I watch it, I do speculate about some of its structural quirks.

For example, the start of the movie seems somewhat over-emphatic in establishing Astaire’s diminished status, including an auction of his personal memorabilia that fails to raise any bids, a derogatory overheard conversation on a train, and a low-key welcome for him at Grand Central Station (contrasted with the adulation for Ava Gardner, who briefly plays herself). Astaire was always a rather clipped personality who seemed to find his redemption in dance, and The Band Wagon plays that up all the way. Matching him against Charisse, who is utterly ravishing when she dances but also somewhat frosty at other times, the film conveys a definite sense of two emotionally fraught characters, who can find their way to each other, to anyone, only through pure performance.

To highlight this, the film’s lengthy closing stretch has almost no dialogue – it’s a cascade of musical numbers (Scorsese tried something similar years later in New York, New York). And when in the final scene Charisse finally tells Astaire that she wants to be with him, she does it in the most displaced fashion possible, via a metaphorical speech about the show and how it’s going to run forever, delivered in front of the entire cast – their resulting kiss lasts only a few seconds before the others pull them into a reprise of That’s Entertainment. Plainly, whatever they may consummate offstage will never be as enveloping as their nightly pairing in the delirious Girl Hunt ballet.

Melancholy Baby

To some extent, these oddities are merely a mark of the genre, but over time I’ve come to think of The Band Wagon as a particularly knowing and acute expression of them. The film’s offstage restraint, its lack of the kind of boisterous happiness that characterizes, say Singin’ In The Rain, comes to seem very close to melancholy, even at the moment of its greatest triumph. Maybe this is partly Minnelli’s sense of the end of an era – he would make no more musicals until Gigi five years later, and Astaire had only a few left in him.

After Gigi, Minnelli’s next musical was On A Clear Day.. in 1970 (by then he hadn’t directed anything at all since The Sandpiper in 1965). The film had the hottest young musical star of the age, Barbra Streisand, who'd already worked with William Wyler and Gene Kelly in Funny Girl and Hello Dolly, and thus with the Minnelli hat-trick seemed to carry potential for bringing an entire genre and generation back to life. Based on a not particularly successful Broadway production by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner, the film co-stars Yves Montand as the psychiatrist and college lecturer who treats Streisand’s Daisy Gamble via hypnosis for compulsive smoking, and finds out she’s the reincarnation of a 19th century English psychic, He falls in love with the psychic, while finding the modern Daisy merely enervating.

On A Clear Day is as ragged as The Band Wagon is pristine. Just on a basic level, the film does not seem at all fluid or well controlled. Old-style studio sets (Montand’s office is more spacious and glamorous than the average penthouse) mingle with bland location shooting. Streisand is allowed to be too much her fizzy self as Daisy, and plays too much the great lady in the flashbacks. Montand seems entirely out of place, and his accent is often downright incoherent (I’ve puzzled for years over some of his lines). The film shows hints of a serious interest in reincarnation, but never makes it gel.

On A Clear Day...

Most fascinating by far is its portrayal of conflicting cultures. At one point, the college students mount a demonstration in support of Montand’s experiments – this at a time when student unrest was a very active and prominent commodity. The movie usually looks like classic Hollywood, but then seems at times to aspire to be a cousin to Hair. Exhibit A in this: none other than Jack Nicholson, after Easy Rider but before Five Easy Pieces. He must surely have seemed hugely anomalous even at the time, let alone with the benefit of so much hindsight. What’s more – Nicholson probably gets the girl in the end (I say probably because while it’s established that Montand will get her in a future reincarnation, her fate in the current one is unresolved).

For all this oddity, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever still belongs in that category of the kind of movies they don’t make any more, but you wish they did. You can’t imagine a musical of such manifest flaws and oddities being made now. Movies like Chicago and Rent are worked over to the point of airlessness – they’re conceived and designed and executed like battle plans. In my mind, On A Clear Day... works best when you sense Minnelli beside the camera, wrapped up in the performers, ventilating the material with the taste and elegance he’d been bringing to bear for thirty years. When his grasp loosens, the film flails or stagnates, and yet it’s a brand of chaos rooted in the times, in a desire for contemporariness.

It’s welcome that the genre has recently shown a bit more life, but rap and hip hop and silly teen stuff aside, I can hardly imagine a musical of even semi-serious intent being set in the modern day. Rent balked at making even minor updates to its early 90’s setting. The adverse consensus on that film’s strategy would be most useful if it prompted filmmakers of musicals to think more carefully about the relevance of their pictures. Instead though they’ll probably retreat into the past, and the movie musical will continue to be denied a meaningful next chapter.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Being Asleep

I was almost tired of Christopher Nolan’s Inception before I even saw it. I visit a fair number of film-related websites, and for a week or two they were clogged up with crap. First of all came a “this year’s masterpiece” batch of advance reviews. The next wave was more measured, sometimes outright unenthusiastic. Then the defenders of the first wave turned on the second wave. Then people started analyzing the whole thing. This is all before the movie even opened. Then it did open, and the world largely moved on. The New York Times’ A. O. Scott summed it up like this: “Film culture on the Internet does not only speed up the story of a movie’s absorption into the cultural bloodstream but also reverses the sequence. Maybe my memory is fuzzy, or maybe I’m dreaming, but I think it used to be that “masterpiece” was the last word, the end of the discussion, rather than the starting point.”


Scott was having fun with the whole thing, but to me, it was mostly pathetic. I’ve said it many times before, but it all serves Hollywood’s needs so much more than our own. The history of film overflows with opportunities to reflect and respond and learn. Obsessing about the big shiny new thing, just because it’s there, is only part of “film culture” in the way random violence and destruction have occasionally been part of “soccer culture.” It’s an appendage, a hanger for neurosis and connectivity and whatever it is that keeps people churning away on Facebook and Twitter rather than, you know, living a life with some shape and purpose and solidity. And it just makes tools of everyone, because of course, the studios love it.

Maybe I especially disliked the way this played out with Inception because Nolan’s previous film, The Dark Knight, was so grotesquely over-praised. When I wrote my review, I quoted Peter Howell’s response in The Star: “The movie is almost Shakespearean in its fascination with the good and evil that resides within all of us. It suggests that the greatest challenge of life is not to reject dark impulses outright, but to learn how to control them so they don't overwhelm our loftier goals.”

My reaction was as follows: “OK, and the upshot of this suggestion is…what? Be a good girl in the workplace and a whore in the bedroom? Try as I might, I just can’t see what would be magnificent about this insight, assuming the film was particularly eloquent about it in the first place, which I’m also not convinced by. Others have found commentaries in the film on virtually the entire latter-day political agenda, such as the morality of torture – indeed, the parallels may be there, but I’m not sure what one can do with them other than note the evocation and move on.” Beyond that, I commented on “contrivance, coincidence and shortcutting that seems extreme even for the genre.” And that was just about all the time I had for it.

Probing The Grey Matter

Here’s an extract of the less than iconoclastic Howell’s three and a half star review of Inception: “Where Nolan breaks fresh ground is how deeply he probes the grey matter of both his characters and the audience. He makes no concessions to mainstream notions of plot and character development, even as he constantly one-ups the thriller and heist genres with dazzling action scenes.” This is so dumb that even if you were reading it in your sleep, it’d jolt you awake. Does Howell, who presumably didn’t get this far without some general sense of the cinema that came before, truly feel his own “grey matter” was probed by Inception to a degree constituting “breaking fresh ground”? It’s hard to see how he rationally could. To name just the most obvious thing, wouldn’t “fresh ground” be marked by something more radical than one-upping the thriller/heist genres?

As you probably know by now, the core concept is that dreams can be manipulated and infiltrated, creating possibilities for raiding the subconscious of one’s enemies and competitors, or perhaps for planting ideas which they perceive as their own (the “inception” of the title). Leonardo DiCaprio plays the leader of such a dream team, engaged by a super-rich businessman to manipulate his main competitor. The film posits an extremely complicated set of rules for how all of this actually works, including the relationships between the inner and the outer worlds, and for descending levels of dreams within dreams.

To the extent it has some new concepts and angles on things, it indeed breaks fresh ground now and then. But then, so does an especially fiendish jigsaw. Inception is extremely cleverly structured and assembled. But the fact of it being about dreams, ultimately, is arbitrary. With a few tweaks to the set-up, it could have been about parallel worlds, or a computer-generated matrix, or a fantasy taking place in the mind of a madman. The biggest disappointment to me is how unlike a dream it all is – the inner worlds for the most part have the clean edges and fixed relationships of reality as we know it. I know Nolan anticipates that objection and addresses it in his dialogue, but still, you could watch Inception a thousand times and come to understand his fantasy conception of things in perfect detail, without learning a single useful thing about your own grey matter (actually, I Am Love, which I wrote about two weeks ago, comes much closer at times to evoking a dream state).

Waking Up

As I mentioned, once Inception opened, higher-level interest seemed to drop off pretty quickly, at least on the websites I monitor – for the most part, it just became another blockbuster. In that same week, the US went through the Shirley Sherrod incident, where a bunch of right-wing hate mongers defamed a black government employee by doctoring a video to make her seem racist. The media jumped on it; everyone panicked; she was fired; then people looked at the full video and realized they’d been had. You couldn’t have a better example of the degraded and stupid times we’re living in; the main perpetrators didn’t even have the decency to be embarrassed about it. It’s more and more obvious how we’re losing any sense of collective perspective and purpose.

The inane clutter surrounding movies like Inception comes from that same hyper-charged, neurotic vein. Ironically, a movie exploring the undermining of will and consciousness could have been devastatingly relevant and biting to these times, but even The Dark Knight’s strained parallels aren’t much in evidence here. For all its formal skill and occasional highpoints, watching Inception is ultimately distressingly like being asleep, and not in the way its director intended.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Our Woody

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2005)

I think I devote this space to a Canadian movie perhaps once a year an average, and the subject today is Don McKellar’s Childstar, so this might be it for 2005. I feel obliged to lamely assert I have nothing against Canadian films, but I’m also not patriotic enough to actively seek them out, so I just end up seeing whatever rises to the top of the heap. McKellar’s film opened in a couple of theatres in the usual low-profile kind of way, and it’s perplexing in the way that many Canadian films are. It’s clearly a homegrown product – explicitly set in Toronto, with familiar locations and local references. But in other ways it seems to gaze towards Hollywood, although not sharply enough that anyone down there might take note.

Don McKellar

It’s only fair to admit many of us must envy McKellar at least a little bit. He writes, he acts, he directs – of the last decade’s more notable Canadian films, it feels like he’s associated with half of them. And he does TV stuff too. All this, and he seems like a quirky, modest kind of individual. I saw him referred to somewhere recently as Toronto’s Woody Allen. That’s a bit of a stretch, because for all his achievements, McKellar's obviously never captured our cultural focus, or seemed to define our city’s aspirations for itself, in the way that Allen did for Manhattan during his most successful period. Maybe Toronto is too diverse and sprawling ever to sustain a Woody Allen.

McKellar’s directorial debut Last Night dealt with a bunch of characters in Toronto on the last night of the world. At the time I quoted the film festival program book as follows: “Last Night transcends its epic subject matter in a way Hollywood couldn’t fathom. As we approach the millennium, nay-sayers run around whipping up hysteria with doom and gloom theories. Meanwhile, McKellar calmly asks: What would you do if it was your last night on earth?” It’s a fascinatingly contrived write-up. Last Night can only sustain its calmness by positing a totally unrealistic scenario (a world in which everyone knows it’s over at midnight, and yet there’s no sign of disease or climactic trauma or any other manifestation of how the apocalypse is going to happen). It’s made up mostly of various vignettes about family and sex and relationships, none of them equal to the apocalyptic backdrop. It’s not about the end of the world in any sense that can be plausibly extrapolated from our current circumstances (circumstances which suggest to me “whipping up hysteria” might be well-advised at this point in human history).


The write-up suggests a particular notion of Canadian film – pick a big subject (to show ambition worthy of the world stage), then dodge (to show we’re not possessed by American grandstanding). The new film Childstar does not have as big a subject, but you can see a similar dynamic at work. It depicts a 12-year-old TV star (nicely played by Mark Rendall) who comes to Toronto to make a movie (about the US president’s son stepping in to save the day when his father is kidnapped on Air Force One). McKellar plays a teacher and low-budget filmmaker who gets a job driving him around, and quickly starts up an affair with his mother (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh). The kid is an arrogant little brat, but gradually starts to show his vulnerability, and asks McKellar one night to teach him about women. That night ends in the kid getting together with an actress-model (who’s been paid for her trouble), and the next day he disappears, pushing McKellar into detective mode on his trail.

As an aside, the ease with which the unprepossessing McKellar falls into bed with Leigh, and his casting himself as romantic mentor to the kid, provides another angle on the “Toronto’s Woody Allen” concept. But the film’s main preoccupation seems indeed to be no more or less than the ambiguously tragic situation of child actors – referred to in one (distinctly overblown) monologue as “sacrificial lambs of America...suffering for our sins.” Apparently McKellar got the idea in part after meeting Haley Joel Osment at an Oscar party and musing about how Osment “would never have an opportunity to enter adulthood correctly” (another character in the film is a former child star who now works as a film set gofer, haunted and screwed-up by his experiences even as – in classic style – he perpetuates the syndrome by helping to lead Rendall astray). And this in turn captures something broader about the debased focus of popular culture.

Eye magazine’s review placed the film in the context of Telefilm Canada’s recent push for more commercial projects, suggesting Childstar was calculated in part to meet the funding body’s lamebrain prerequisites while still retaining a distinctly Canadian individuality. Some aspects of the movie – like the fact that the art film made by McKellar’s character, called The Stupidity Of God, looks like pretentious nonsense – do maintain a pleasant irony. In the midsection, as the kid embarks on his odd journey, I thought it might be taking on a vaguely existential quality, and might be finding a way to leave its familiar milieu completely behind, to transform the thin cultural ingredients into something new. But it falls back to earth, and ultimately, the film’s core ambition seems as limited as that of Last Night. The film makes its peace with the Hollywood machine – taking the climax at face value (and there’s no obvious reason from what’s in the movie to take it any other way), McKellar’s character becomes assimilated in return for a few crumbs from the table. No indictments are handed out.

Turn Away, Or Attack!

Childstar is barely funny at all (a major practical problem in the comparison to peak-period Woody Allen), but it’s pleasant and it looks good. But I also wonder about McKellar’s strength with actors. Leigh’s career is faltering as it is, but here she barely registers – the film seems uninterested in her. A host of others (Dave Foley, Gil Bellows, Alan Thicke, Eric Stoltz) troops through, never delivering any specific value. The only explanation for their presence seems to be to add a mundane kind of cache. Which is a calculation from the same place that fuels our fascination with child stars.

But what is that place; what is the true nature of that fascination; is it even a real fascination (how many of us really give a hoot about the Diff-rent Strokes stars), or just a capitulation on all our parts to a discourse that’s defined elsewhere? The film shows no appetite for such questions. It seems to me Canadian film will never make much of a future for itself as long as it places itself in such callow, affable opposition to America. Either turn away altogether, or attack – that’s what I say.