Thursday, September 30, 2010

Inner Journeys

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2004)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s classic works (The Conformist, Last Tango In Paris) can be rewatched almost endlessly without exhaustion. They’re all the more fascinating because of a slightly over-emphatic quality that speaks to his youth at the time (he was only 32 when Last Tango came out). Bertolucci is one of those directors whose complexity, as an almost tangible quality, seems to spill from his films. A published poet before he turned twenty, he’s associated with left-wing politics and scandal and blasphemy and agitation. After his rapid start, he entered a long phase of experimentation and slight underachievement – the movies were seldom outright successes (even his Oscar-winning The Last Emperor seems to have few passionate defenders), but always possessed a high degree of formal intelligence and a fluid sense of cinema. Still, the likes of Little Buddha and Stealing Beauty were clearly too enthralled by conventional beauty; too short on his piercing analytical facility.

Bernardo Bertolucci

His last full-length film was Besieged in 1998, which I liked very much. On a second viewing you realize how much it relies on artful surprises and small miracles of craft, but it’s still one of the best-looking and sounding films in memory. The lead actor David Thewlis always seems like someone who’s invented himself and might do so again, posing a clear echo of Brando in Last Tango. Despite its title, the movie feels far from oppressive, but the title captures the network (emotional; political; historical; circumstantial) that impacts on the characters. Since then, he made by far the best segment of a compilation film, Ten Minutes Older, but he clearly doesn’t make as many films as we need from him.

Recent articles on Bertolucci seem unsure what to make of him. A recent Globe And Mail profile titled “Bertolucci the bourgeois” described him in his New York hotel suite “regally waving in a room-service waiter who bears an espresso and warm milk”; the piece was peppered with references to his bad back, lack of “real passion” and apparent general fatigue. Bertolucci, concluded the article, is “no longer either enfant nor terrible.”

His new film, The Dreamers, seems to invite this kind of waffle; it’s explicitly predicated on a sense of loss and nostalgia. It’s 1968 in Paris, and a young American student falls in with a twin brother and sister whom he meets at the Cinematheque Francaise. The twins’ parents leave on vacation, and the American moves into their apartment. With the Cinematheque temporarily closed (in a famous real-life incident following the French government’s attempt to replace the founder, Henri Langlois), the three fill their movie-free time with sexual experimentation, hardly leaving the apartment even as Paris is seized by strikes and protests. The film’s sexual frankness earned it an NC-17 rating in the US, the first film in six years to go out on that basis.

Journey Of Discovery

At times, I found The Dreamers utterly vibrant and compelling. Early on, the movie pivots on Michael Pitt’s quiet delight as the American settling into Paris; he has a tentative, unformed kind of style that works well here, and for the first third at least it feels like a young man’s film. The trio acts out scenes from their favourite movies, at which Bertolucci cuts in brief glimpses of the originals – it’s a straightforward device, but presented with great panache.

As things get weirder, the film starts to resemble a warning on how easily excessive movie-watching could tip over into withdrawal and skewed perspective (the early scenes at the Cinematheque show the rows of young people staring up at the screen with open mouths, looking like victims of mind control). Cinema falls away for the three, and the movie becomes absorbed on the twins’ strange relationship and Pitt’s attempts to redefine it – it feels at times like Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, like something pushing the horror genre. In the end their activities finally become aligned with the upheaval outside – it makes for a visually arresting ending, but not one that’s very meaningful.

I generally didn’t find the nudity that arousing because it’s all so odd and abstract, and I think the emphasis on so much youthful beauty rather blurs the film’s thematic possibilities. In making a film that draws so explicitly on his own origins, Bertolucci almost seems to be acknowledging his need for rejuvenation. Pitt’s odd journey of discovery parallels the way the director exploded as a young man, touching almost every possible point of achievement. If you look at the film that way, it seems especially poignant when we last see Pitt, with the spell broken, turning and disappearing into the crowd.

Touching The Void

Back in 1983, I remember (don’t ask me why) Leonard Nimoy being interviewed on the release of the Star Trek movie The Search For Spock (which he directed), and acknowledging with a laugh that the movie’s outcome might not be in much doubt given the unlikelihood, with that title, of ending up not finding him. Kevin Macdonald’s new film struck me almost as following the path that Nimoy eschewed. It’s the true story of two young British adventurers, on a tough mountain climb in South America in 1985. They made it to the peak, but on the way down one of the two broke his leg; the other tried to lower him down, but then the injured man slipped and found himself hanging in space, with no hope of pulling himself back up, slowly dragging the other down with him. The other, seeing no alternative, eventually cut the rope and let his friend drop, presumably to his death. But both men survived – the injured man after an agonizing, edge-of-believability crawl back to the base camp.

The film is told through a combination of interviews with the surviving men, and a seemingly flawless reconstruction with actors. The actors barely get to speak, and the reconstruction appears intended almost as much as a marvel in itself as it is a way of illustrating what happened. The interviewees are prosaic and straightforward, barely venturing into complex analytical or spiritual territory. One of them is a goofy looking guy who says “really” every second word (a tic he might have been given some help with). The other, the man who was injured, recounts how he kept moving by setting a series of mundane targets for himself – reducing an unimaginable experience as close to ordinary as possible.

The “void” of the title might be the huge empty space in which the injured man dangled, or the vast crevasse into which he fell, or a way of expressing the imminence of death, and those readings are all fleetingly possible, but in the end the main void that played on my mind was the absence of a human response seemingly commensurate with the events that unfolded. I’m not saying that to criticize the men – it makes for a more interesting movie than an experience of endless “oohs” and “ahs.” But I’m not sure it’s what Macdonald intended, and it means the movie, for all its clear achievements, has a rather implosive, absent feeling to it. As if the search for Spock had failed.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Week Of The Dog

So I mentioned the other week that I wasn’t going to the film festival this year, largely because it coincided with the arrival of our new eight-week-old puppy Ozu. I’m not saying everyone should choose a puppy over the festival (if nothing else, such a policy would cause a problem on a cumulative basis) but it was certainly the right choice for me. Ozu, a Labrador retriever, burst into our lives with enormous determination and intuition, barely showing an iota of uncertainty about anything, deftly negotiating between our desires and his own, and of course looking startlingly cute at every stage. He grasped the geography of our home so effortlessly you might have thought it was embedded on his microchip, and in little more than a day was generally trotting off to the designated peeing spot (I just say generally); he also provides persuasive evidence that the perceived supremacy of lying on the owners’ bed is innate within the Labrador psyche (I’m not saying he’s a genius of course – he also spent a lot of time trotting off to stare at the other dog who lives in the mirror by the front door). After two days, we were already a family, in which if you’re doing anything of even vague interest, you’re no longer doing it alone. And when I work from home, as I do most of the time, I now often have a dog at my feet again (he’s there right now), although sometimes he’s biting my feet.

Hachi: A Dog’s Story

I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a moment of it more than I had to, so that’s how things had to be. Now of course I still watched movies. During the span of the festival I watched films by, among others, Spike Lee, Eric Rohmer, Akira Kurosawa, Robert Altman and Buster Keaton, so I don’t think I have too much to kick myself about. I stipulate this at the outset, to guard against the immediate credibility loss I might suffer when I say I also watched Hachi: A Dog’s Story. This was on Ozu’s first full day in our home, so it only made sense to watch a movie that might contribute to his spiritual development. No, who am I kidding, I would have watched it anyway.

Summarizing the plot inevitably entails spoilers, so this is my warning in that regard, although I don’t suppose it’s the same as giving away the ending of The Sixth Sense back in the day. It’s based on the real 1920’s story of Hachiko, an Akita dog who waited for his master at the railway station every day. When his master died suddenly at work, the dog was given away, but he kept escaping and returning to his old home, and then to his spot at the station. He kept it up for nine years, getting fed by people around the station, and becoming a national symbol of loyalty. When we were in Japan we saw the statue built in his memory. As a kid I knew of a similar story, of the Scottish terrier Greyfriars Bobby who guarded his master’s grave for some fourteen years. It doesn’t seem as cool a story of course because it’s (a) only Scotland and (b) only a terrier.

Richard Gere, Perfect Dog Owner!

The movie moves the story to small-town America in the recent past, but it’s still built around an Akita, called Hachi for short, who comes to the family in mysterious circumstances when he gets lost in transit. If you’re unfamiliar with the movie – and it was never really released in the US, although it’s readily available now on DVD and cable – it may come as a surprise that it has an Oscar-nominated director (Lasse Hallstrom, who made The Cider House Rules, Chocolat and the unconnected My Life As A Dog) and, as the music professor who takes him in, Richard Gere! And I will quite honestly say that Hallstrom, whose work has never meant much to me, does the best possible job of presenting Gere as the optimum dog owner, someone who might indeed inspire such devotion (on the other hand, the film presents the son in law, who along with the professor’s daughter takes the dog in after his death, as a pretty consistent boob, so maybe any half-competent ghost would have seemed superior.)

If the film is moving for people who don’t immediately succumb to its mega-dog content, it’s probably because of the glowing picture of small-town community. During the entirety of Hachi’s life, he crosses paths with the same stationmaster (Jason Alexander), the same station hog-dog vendor, the same friendly people at the nearby butcher, and so on. And despite some probably unintended hair-raising moments when I thought Hachi’s early insistence on heading off to the station every day might see him hit by a car (I know that didn’t happen to the real Hachi, but you never know how faithful they’re going to be to the original), it appears everyone in town observes a safe ten mile an hour speed limit. My wife, who watched it with me knowing nothing of the story, was wondering for a while whether Hachi might lose it and attack someone, which would have been a grimmer direction for sure.

Ultimate Loyalty

I mentioned that Gere plays a music professor, and his wife (played by Joan Allen – you see how classy this thing is?) is restoring the interior of an old movie theatre: that is, they’re people of culture. And so Hachi’s loyalty takes on the feel of a vigil not just for the professor, but for a way of life that’s essentially predictable, but also sustaining and sustainable. The movie pitches itself at too glossy a level for its depiction of community to be readily identifiable, which may be why it didn’t achieve anything commercially, and you could say the resort to mysticism, to a dog mysteriously imported from Japan, suggests a disillusionment with the capacity of America’s own resources. Maybe it’s just the wrong message at the wrong time.

Too much to read into a family-friendly dog story you say? You might be right. But since Ozu is our second dog, I realize much more this time how we’re not just “getting a dog,” we’re entering into a decade-plus story which will as rich and nurturing and as comic and tragic as all but the rarest of human relationships. So as I finish writing this, on his third day now, with him once again sleeping at (or really more on) my feet, you can’t blame me for being receptive to the higher possibilities of canine existence. Not that I intend ever not to come home, nor that I’d blame him for moving on if I didn’t. But if he had, say, just a trace of the Hachi stuff in him, that’d be pretty cool. And I guess he’d say it’d be pretty cool if I had a trace of it too.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Zabriskie Point

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2009)

I wrote a couple of years ago about Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, one of my very favourite films. When I first saw it, as a teenager, I was enchanted by its sense of mysticism, encapsulated by a long final shot that seems to transcend physical laws (starting inside a hotel room, moving through the barred window, and then circling round the courtyard outside to observe from the other side of the bars). Over time though, I react as much to the film’s geographic and political specificity, and the more I see it as a particular reaction to a particular time, the more I marvel it remains so resonant.

Extraordinary Disaster

Every four or five years, the record shows, I also return to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, his last narrative film before The Passenger. Zabriskie Point was intended, broadly speaking, to illuminate something about late 60’s America in the same way that his Blow-Up seemed to encapsulate “swinging London.” David Fricke, in an article available online, sums up the story as well as anyone:

…”just about everything that could go wrong with the project did go wrong, and Antonioni's great dream would prove to be his worst nightmare. Released in March 1970 after nearly two arduous years in production -- a period that included long, exhausting shoots on location in the California desert, pitched battles between Antonioni and M-G-M executives, and a protracted, frustrating search for the perfect musical score -- Zabriskie Point was one of the most extraordinary disasters in modern cinematic history. The arithmetic alone was astonishing. Reeling from severe management trauma yet eager to capitalize on the booming counterculture youth market, M-G-M…poured $7 million into the film, an extravagant figure for that time and nearly five times what Antonioni spent to make Blow-Up. But where Blow-Up…had taken in more than $20 million at the box office, Zabriskie Point made less than a tenth of that -- a mere $900,000 -- in its humiliatingly brief theatrical run.”

The plot, such as it is, brings two young people from LA, Mark and Daria, together in Death Valley – on the run from police after getting mixed up in violent strike activity, he’s stolen a small plane and flown out there; she’s a secretary driving out to meet her boss in Phoenix. They hang out in the desolate rocks, and make love, which we see extrapolated into an image of dozens of couples, peppering the valley in make-out sessions. They go their separate ways, he eventually to his death, and Daria to a spectacular vision of the Phoenix house exploding, one of the most astonishing spectacles of beautiful destruction ever put on film perhaps.

Cry Of Despair

The film is, no doubt, slow and overblown by almost any narrative standard, and can certainly be judged pretentions. Many writers on the film find it hard to get past the limited performances of the two leads (neither did much more acting - Mark Frechette died in prison a few years later; Daria Halprin married Dennis Hopper for a while). I’ve always been fascinated by it without necessarily knowing why. But watching it again recently, now that it’s out on DVD, it seemed more diagnostically precise than it has ever before.

It opens in the midst of a student meeting, the kind of fervent debating and strategizing that eternally comes to nothing in the big scheme of things: Mark gets up and walks out. Switching to Daria, Antonioni emphasizes the depersonalization of the corporate architecture around her (sure, it’s a cliché); we see her boss planning one of those land development deals that have come to symbolize the grandiose excess of the American middle-class; subsequent scenes study a city whose aesthetics rely increasingly on billboards and corporate logos; when Mark and his friends want a gun, they get one easily. Deliberately strung out and rather laborious, it’s like a cry of despair.

On her trip, Daria stops in a small town and finds herself in a Lord Of The Flies-tinged situation with some menacingly rambunctious much for the next generation. With almost nothing left to salvage beyond the inherent possibility of beautiful youth, Mark and Daria meet in the desert, and Antonioni allows us the fantasy that the youth movement, and maybe the new world beyond, might find its roots here. But it can’t last. Mark returns to civilization with a defiant symbol of renewal, painting the plane like a psychedelic album cover, but his return flares out. Daria hears the news on the radio and for a while it seems she might just snap into place, but the movie has one astonishing coup ahead of it.

That makes it sound much more schematic and coherent than it really is – the movie (which has five credited screenwriters, including Sam Shepard) is often described as virtually plot-less, and the glue of it is much more intuitive and aesthetic than overtly thematic. You can still feel Antonioni’s excitement (albeit filtered through his immensely elegant psyche, and fighting the logistical challenges Fricke mentioned) at this messy society, in many ways still working out its basic rules of engagement; freer and more affluent than anywhere on earth, and yet already showing signs of devouring itself.

Sense Of Possibility

Taken just as a cinematic creation, Zabriskie Point is astonishingly rich – a feast of haunting images, bracing choices, the passing visual glories of the commercializing human project and the overwhelming wonders of the landscape outside it. It always makes me think of Hitchcock a bit: some of the business with the plane in the desert recalls North by Northwest and Rod Taylor from The Birds plays Daria’s boss, but more subliminally I’m thinking of Topaz, made around the same time, which also had a more diffuse plot, relatively anonymous performers, a somewhat self-conscious political relevance, and moments of intense visual stylization. Hitchcock didn’t really achieve his best work there, but Antonioni’s film still benefits from the echo, as if confirming how the establishment was crumbling within the cultural vortex he depicted.

Despite the gloomy subtext of Zabriskie Point, you still felt the sense of possibility, its desire that the human project surmount its worst instincts. But virtually every negative harbinger in the film just went on getting worse, and now California itself, debt-ridden and virtually ungovernable, seems increasingly like a lie or a delusion. At the end, there’s something almost supernaturally commanding in Daria’s stare as she conjures up that vision, as if proving there really was a way all along to unlock the dream of expanded consciousness and revolutionary action. Watching Antonioni’s film, even now, I still almost believe it myself.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Rising Flood

I’ve been wondering lately what the point is, ultimately, of a country, of what we loosely call society. In the US, unemployment is steadily creeping toward 10%. According to Bob Herbert in The New York Times, whose columns increasingly seem to shake with anguish, that’s “14.6 million people officially jobless, and 5.9 million who have stopped looking but say they want a job, and 8.5 million who are working part time but would like to work full time…nearly 30 million Americans who cannot find the work they want and desperately need.” Herbert says: “The politicians’ approach to the jobs crisis has been like passing out umbrellas in a hurricane. Millions are suffering and the entire economy is being undermined, and what are they doing? They’re appropriating more and more money for warfare while schizophrenically babbling about balancing the budget… The U.S. will not remain a stable society if this great employment crisis is not addressed head-on — and soon.”

What’s A Country For?

Herbert seems tragically correct to me. Policy-makers mention those millions of Americans, in an abstract kind of way, but not with real urgency or passion, and it’s true, nothing ever gets done. The ideological divide between spending and tax cuts might as well have an electric fence running along it; no one ever penetrates from one side to the other. The media, to the extent it addresses these issues at all, seems much more interested in interest rates and inflation risks and corporate sentiment than in the underlying human experience. The country sometimes seems to have become deranged, and Prime Minister Harper, you increasingly feel, would happily steer Canada the same way.

The real proof of this idiocy is in Herbert’s other point about the rationality exemption apparently attaching to war. When you listen to the supposed rationales about national security and potential threats, there’s really no way to make sense of it except to assume that every American life must be almost boundlessly precious, justifying any amount of defensive expenditure. A mature and self-aware society, surely, would focus on the real problems of its citizens, rather than fixating morbidly and grandiosely on largely theoretical dangers. No one seems willing to say that the risk of major terrorist attacks – which in any event doesn’t seem very high – might, beyond a certain point, just be one of those tolls society has to bear. We can fixate on it, sure, just like we could let our lives be constrained by the (much more tangible) likelihood of being hit by a bus, but it’s just not the recipe for an optimum collective existence. Which brings me back to my first question: if thirty million suffering people don’t prompt the sense of urgency and purpose that 9/11 fleetingly did, then what’s the country for?

If God Is Willing

It’s impossible not to keep returning to this question, and the endless sad variations on it, as you watch Spike Lee’s four-hour If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise, currently playing on HBO Canada. It’s a follow-up to his earlier documentary on Hurricane Katrina, When The Levees Broke, five years later, revisiting some of the same people and issues and examining what may have come of all the rebuilding promises made at the time. The movie starts off with the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl victory, but from there it finds many more lows than highs. What eats at you isn’t that there’s still so much devastation; even in the best of scenarios, the physical and psychic rebuilding would have taken decades. It’s how little collective weight the community still carries for decision makers, despite everything.

Perhaps unpredictably, the film is often most riveting when most immersed in purely local issues, such as the woes of the school system, the gutting of the mental healthcare infrastructure, or in the apparently copious evidence that development and property interests trump just about all other considerations (it has lots to say about the local police force too, but I guess that kind of corruption narrative is all too sadly familiar). Many of the points of light, sadly, involve the efforts of celebrities, in particular Brad Pitt’s astonishing project to build attractive, viable low-income housing in the most devastated area. Pitt’s work here probably serves to earn him the unwarranted deification he’s received for other reasons, but you wonder if this is what the country’s come to, relying on the instincts of privileged individuals, with government’s theoretically greater power for good now neutered or squandered.

Because Lee’s canvas is broader than in the first film, he sometimes seems to be barely in control of it – subjects like the local diet’s dismal nutritional virtues, or the legacy of Mayor Nagin, come and go in just a couple of minutes. He makes a detour to the devastation in Haiti, which someone says made Katrina look like a garden party, but the exact point he’s getting at there eluded me. The film later moves on to the BP oil spill, which in geographic terms may largely be a horrific coincidence (one of the speakers says that after so much bad luck he’s recently come to believe in voodoo), but which many people also believe would have attracted a more incisive government response if it had happened in the Hamptons. Or, I suppose, Lower Manhattan. The film leaves no doubt about the widespread vein of grievance running through the region, but it seems this only intermittently turns into rage or organized action.

Party Scene

It ends on a long rundown of all the on-camera participants, which seems to last almost as long as a normal movie. Lee stages a cast and crew party, at the end of which the participants all troop off the stage, almost like the end of a Fellini film. It’s unclear whether this marks Lee as a great optimist or rather, for all the seriousness of his intent, as something of a dabbler (as if encouraging us to take the latter view, he reminds us at the very end that he’s from Brooklyn). But then, for better or worse (and his filmography truly has ample evidence for both conclusions) he’s never been too worried about letting his movies drift off course now and then. Still, it does mean you don’t come away from If God Is Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise seething in the way you might have anticipated. On the other hand, in its perhaps messy but highly valuable laying-out of wrongs, in the emphasis throughout on community, and in that final assertion of his film as a collaboration, it certainly suggests a better vision for America than the one currently holding sway.

Friday, September 10, 2010

At War

Samuel Maoz’ debut film Lebanon came out of nowhere to win the top prize at last year’s Venice film festival, which as an instance of over-rewarding promise and innovation seems to me a bit like giving Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize. The film is indeed set in Lebanon, in 1982, although there’s a bleak irony in that title, because as far as its participants are concerned, it could be anywhere. They’re an Israeli tank crew, and except for the first and last shot, the entire film takes place in the tank’s interior – we see the outside only through the crosshairs of the scope. With no autonomy, taking all orders from the commander outside – who occasionally comes inside to berate them for various errors – the men encounter a Syrian prisoner, and a couple of Christian Arabs, one of them from Turkey. The view outside is sometimes pure horror-of-war – a chicken farmer bleeding to death from his severed limbs, a hysterical woman whose daughter has just been killed, running around naked after her dress catches fire – and sometimes just chaotic abstraction.

Bad For Morale

This sounds like an exercise in intense, distilled realism, and partly plays like that, but the overall effect for me was closer to a cinematic concept piece like last year’s Paranormal Activity, in which the entire narrative was seen through a video camera existing within the world of the film. Of course the tank is claustrophobic by its nature, but the film doesn’t feel as intense as you might imagine, despite the repeated shots of the dirty water on the floor and the general sense of sweat and grime. There’s a lot of conflict between the men, often expressed I’d say in rather stagy terms: an early exchange in which one of them questions why he’s been chosen to stand guard could easily play like a whining Woody Allen monologue, if delivered somewhat differently. And the scenes of the exterior have a shifting impact. They don’t all seem to be pure point of view shots, because Maoz frequently cuts to tighter close-ups. Compared to the dirty colour scheme inside the tank, the outside frequently looks pristine and glowing, giving even the more horrible sights a sharpness that blunts their pure horror a bit, sometimes even evoking a sense of very black comedy. The tank spends a big patch of time parked at the site of some kind of travel agency, where the camera gazes at images of the Eiffel Tower and the World Trade Center; the safe location they’re headed towards is known as San Tropez.

This bewildering confusion of coordinates, along with the fact that the tank crew barely seems to have any grasp of the underlying politics, connects the film to a long series of works that, if they’re not explicitly anti-war, certainly see a vast gulf between the human experience and the rhetorical one. The tank crew, a representation of Israel’s conscript army, is a pretty dismal example of military efficiency, with no governing coherence and failing several times to carry out their basic orders. J. Hoberman in The Village Voice reported that the movie had a mixed reaction in Israel itself: “Conservative commentators saw the movie as bad for morale; on the left, Lebanon has been criticized for identifying with Israeli soldiers and objectifying their Arab victims.” Both perspectives seem plausible, but then “morale” in the context of war has often depended on maintaining blindness and ignorance, and the second criticism is inherent in the film’s very concept, where we only see what the tank crew sees. Lebanon doesn’t have any parallel to the scenes in American movies where the half-crazed soldiers get high on mowing down the Vietnamese; the soldiers barely seem sufficiently integrated into the war effort to register killing as a duty.

Sam Fuller

Lebanon runs a very tight 90 minutes, and you can see it’s an engrossing experience. I find myself though tending to describe the film rather than productively react to it – it doesn’t prompt any particular thoughts about Israel, or combat, or cinema, which I didn’t have before. Maybe that sounds like imposing a high hurdle, and yet if art doesn’t move us forward in some way, what’s the point? Hoberman calls the film “at once political allegory and existential combat movie—Sartre's No Exit as directed by Sam Fuller” and sums up the allegory like this: “Lebanon may be the movie's title, but, blindly plowing through everything in its path, the beleaguered tank is Israel.” Well, maybe, but as allegories go, that’s not much of one – and actually the tank spends as much time sputtering and almost breaking down as it does blindly plowing through everything in its path.

The Sam Fuller reference is interesting though, especially since a few weeks previously I’d watched his 1958 film Verboten! Set in occupied Germany immediately after the end of World War Two, the film is even more concise than Lebanon, lasting just 80 minutes, but explores an astonishing canvas, encompassing a GI’s marriage to a German woman (for him it’s love, but she admits later in the film that she did it for the stability and the money), her brother who’s flirting with the Nazi revival movement, and the Nuremburg trials. It’s obviously a film of strained means, drawing heavily on stock footage, but ultimately carrying a staggering scope and impact. Fuller marshals a great range of perspectives on the war and the reconstruction, but starkly setting out the central chasm between unambiguous Nazi evil, and the lack of glory attaching to even a “just” war against such evil. Set against this hopelessness at the centre of civilization, tolerance toward the calculations of a desperate woman ought to come easy.


Elements of Verboten! may well seem cheesy now, such as the theme song that croons about their love being verboten, but when you watch it you find your sensibility in overdrive, whipped up by Fuller’s untiring kineticism and the density of his interests. If we’re ever to transcend our primitivism on this topic, it will only be by blowing open the heavy, distorted calculus of threats and obligations, and the neutering language of patriotism and “supporting the troops,” and Fuller’s movie still seems to me a more productive contribution than Lebanon, or just about any other recent film about war, to developing that ideology. Closing where I began, my enthusiasm for Obama largely evaporated with his Nobel acceptance speech, blathering about necessary wars; his failure to reshape America’s disgusting adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan wipes out any sense that he might even be a more progressive brand of warrior, let alone a peacemaker. Lebanon isn’t a pro-war film by any means, but I’m willing to mark it down for not being anti-war enough.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2008)

This is Rex Reed in a recent New York Observer: “no matter how bad you think the worst movie ever made ever was, you have not seen Synecdoche, New York. It sinks to the ultimate bottom of the landfill, and the smell threatens to linger from here to infinity.” Having a field day, Reed aimed a cannon at the Toronto festival’s description of the film as “part dream, part puzzle, part brainteaser,” calling it “the most overblown, hyperbolic stretch since Lassie played a war veteran with amnesia.” And so on. Game over, it seems. Except that the somewhat more plugged-in Manohla Dargis in The New York Times wrote this: “to say (the film) is one of the best films of the year or even one closest to my heart is such a pathetic response to its soaring ambition that I might as well pack it in right now.”

Bottom Of The Landfill

Can such diverting views possibly be reconciled? I’ve not always shared the general enthusiasm for the work of Charlie Kaufman, making his directing debut here after writing Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. The films are extraordinarily clever, structured to allow any number of ensuing impressions and bafflements, but my pleasure in them has never have gone beyond the academic. Synecdoche, New York focuses on Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a New York state theatre director going nowhere much artistically (stuck trying to put a fresh gloss on Death Of A Salesman) nor personally (laden down with physical ailments and fears; married to an artist who can’t wait to get away from him, and doesn’t).

After receiving a major grant, he embarks on a project of immense ambition, renting an abandoned warehouse in which he starts creating a fictional world of immense complexity, employing hundreds of actors improvising scenes in response to such written instructions as “You were raped last night” or “You lost your job today.” As time goes on, the project endlessly evolves, focusing increasingly on recreating his own life, with an actor playing his own role in orchestrating all of this; and then as that actor becomes increasingly enmeshed in the master-plan, taking on another actor to play him (except by then it barely matters if the casting is true to gender or other considerations, nor even whether it’s the actor seeking to replicate the subject, rather than vice versa).

Confused already? I used the phrase “as time goes on” – but it’s not so clear what that means here. The film seems to span twenty, thirty years or even more; despite no apparent income, Caden’s still maintaining a huge infrastructure, long after the originating grant would have run out. At one early stage, before the project kicks off, it’s seriously unclear whether his wife has been gone for five years or merely for a week or two. The movie is clearly not “realistic” – apart from the logistical absurdities, it features such whimsies as a perpetually burning house. What portion of it takes place in Caden’s mind, or the mind of others, is impossible to divine.

The Biggest Masochist

The structure’s “puzzle” aspect was prominent in Kaufman’s other films too of course. The reason I liked Synecdoche, New York more than those others is that Kaufman seems here to have reached a rueful maturity, spawning immense narrative and thematic complexity without seeming trapped by it (and without betraying the slightest hint of virtuoso pleasure). Reed’s evocation of a “landfill” isn’t entirely off base - the film’s opening stretch is suffused in bodily functions, maladies, general malaise; but also in a formative-feeling curiosity, about articles in the newspaper, the meaning of words, the building blocks of everything. Hoffman – “the biggest masochist in the Screen Actors Guild” as Reed has it – transmits almost utter despair and pain: seemingly consecrated to a career as an “artist,” but devoid of any particular theory or inspiration. For a while the movie is suspended in agonizing indecision – how can (or why should) such a man possibly go on living? Then he gets his big idea…why crap into the toilet, when you can do it directly into your art?

That might sound crude, but as Reed points out, at one point Caden goes to his ex-wife’s apartment and scrubs her toilets, in the guise of a woman named Ellen. “Don’t ask,” Reed adds. Well, maybe you should. Why would the master orchestrator of such a grand sprawling creation invest himself in such a meaningless, uncreative pilgrimage? Because, I think, he finds it doesn’t matter. The more he hones his art, the greater the impossibility of ever lifting it to any kind of transcendence; certain failure might be its only badge of authenticity. As such, the movie’s twisted gloom surely relates very well to its content. But, of course, at the cost of withholding almost all the easier pleasures of Kaufman’s earlier work.

That’s not quite true I suppose – there’s much diversion in the performers, including a wonderful line-up of notable actresses (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton and many others). But as it goes on, the film clenches up. Death and loss come in a relentless march. Dargis calls the film “as much a cry from the heart as it is an assertion of creative consciousness. It’s extravagantly conceptual but also tethered to the here and now, which is why, for all its flights of fancy, worlds within worlds and agonies upon agonies, it comes down hard for living in the world with real, breathing, embracing bodies pressed against other bodies.”

Futility Of Art

I guess that’s right, in the sense that the film sees the futility of excessive immersion in art. But on the other hand, it’s too deliberately unrealistic a construct to yield much of a discovery about the merits of the real world. To me, for all his suffering, Caden might still be the lucky fulfilled one, relative to the masses lining up to toil almost facelessly in his project’s inner layers, or to the other screwed up people passing through the film. The film offers only a thin endorsement of art’s redemptive powers, that’s for sure, but it still might be the best available. Either way, Kaufman manages here to inch onto the territory of the great directors; those from whom we accept irritation and incoherence and perhaps occasional repulsiveness, because we come out of their films richer than when we went in. Even if that richness has to be measured in a new kind of sadness.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Veterans Getting Low

I don’t usually spend a lot of this space talking about actors, because I think too many movie reviewers do little more than that, and often in hopelessly subjective terms (basically they like him, they don’t like her). But Aaron Schneider’s Get Low doesn’t allow you much opportunity to do anything else. Anyway, the topic was in my mind because when I saw the film, the trailers were unusually irritating, mostly for the people in them. First was Philip Seymour Hoffman in Jack Goes Boating, which looks like scene after scene of look-at-me showboating. Then came Carey Mulligan and others in Never Let Me Go, which looks like scene after scene of being haunted and wistful. Then Paul Giamatti in Barney’s Version, which looks like scene after scene of irritating attitudinizing (and yes, I’m completely aware it’s based on a classic Canadian novel). Then something else equally off-putting, which I’ve mercifully already forgotten. Of course, trailers frequently make movies seem less subtle than they actually are. But honestly, it was like a ten-minute film essay on the sledgehammer crassness of current cinema and its supposed standard bearers.

Get Low

So then I watched Get Low. Set in the 1930’s, it depicts Felix Bush, a small-town hermit (Robert Duvall) who’s been holed up on his farm for some forty years (the first thirty-eight are the hardest, he says), spawning all kinds of local legends. Sensing time running out, he suddenly decides to organize a “funeral” for himself, at which he’ll give away the posthumous rights to his land in a lottery, hear what people say about him, and most importantly deliver the story behind his long self-confinement. Local undertaker Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) needs the work, despite the assignment’s unique challenges. Sissy Spacek plays a widow who knew Bush decades earlier, and is linked in some way to his life’s big secret.

The film’s getting lots of positive reviews, mainly for the actors, and indeed that’s its only facet of even modest distinction. Any dramatic impact depends on anticipating what Bush is going to reveal about himself, but the film drops so many hints along the way (including in the very first shot) that it’s entirely predictable in general if not specific terms. There’s really no thematic or other strength there to override these narrative shortcomings – the film doesn’t have more at its centre than the generalized redemptive, humanizing notions of every other TV drama. And Schneider’s direction, which frequently seems overly fussy, doesn’t evoke any kind of period flavor – people dress in old-time clothing and drive vintage cars, but that’s about it.

Duvall and Spacek

So to the actors then. Duvall, who may well be a major Oscar contender for this (he previously won for Tender Mercies), is of course an esteemed professional, but I have to admit he’s never been a personal favourite of mine. There’s an authoritarian quality to his approach that in low-grade material (and he’s been involved with a lot of it) frequently brings out a strutting, self-righteous vein. Get Low flirts with this problem in its early stretches, allowing him to have a field day with the taciturn, rifle-wielding, get-off-my-property thing. The performance becomes significantly more interesting as he loosens up a bit – he’s very amusing and touching in a scene where he tries to impress and entertain Spacek – but this only shows up the earlier lack of subtlety. Duvall really is astonishing though in his climactic moment, where the old man strains his inner resources to evoke the pivotal event in his life, seasoning the story with eccentric sound effects and asides. Unfortunately and bizarrely, Schneider undermines his efforts by repeatedly cutting away to Spacek’s reactions as she listens.

Spacek was surely most interesting in her career’s first decade, when her quirky, deceptively reticent persona added astonishing texture to a potentially hollow creation like Carrie and to more naturalistic material like Coal Miner’s Daughter (note that both she and Duvall, like Jeff Bridges this year and Reese Witherspoon a while back, won their Oscars for playing country singers, so wow, those awards really do capture the diversity of the world we live in). Since then though, she’s mainly delivered plain contributions to trivial pictures, with only In The Bedroom perhaps tapping those earlier chills. In Get Low she plays, basically, a nice old widow; the part itself, and the film’s handling of her, doesn’t encourage any great depth (the film, in general, idealizes women, which may be quaint, but isn’t the same as doing them a favour).

Murray and Cobbs

And then you have Bill Murray, to me one of the most intriguing resources in American cinema, although seldom optimally deployed (his artistic highpoints include Groundhog Day, Lost In Translation and Broken Flowers). Murray’s most interesting recent work - other than cultivating a considerable personal legend – may have come on the Letterman show, where he dived into a water-filled dumpster, hitting his head in the process (perhaps on a piece of floating garbage) and then dried himself off during the ensuing interview, during which he seemed unusually reflective and, actually, serious. Murray is obviously extremely wayward, constantly reacting against the norms of pop culture, and yet – one guesses – too diffident about everything else not to be happiest at least somewhere inside the tent. Perhaps the archetypal recent story is his claim that he took on the task of voicing Garfield the cat in Garfield: A Tail Of Two Kitties because he mistook the film’s co-writer Joel Cohen to be one of the esteemed Coen brothers.

He does well with Frank Quinn, but it’s a pretty simple character as written – an individual of possibly shady origins, possibly susceptible to the temptation of so much lottery money stuffed under the mattress (or in this case, hidden in the casket). Similar to the way he approaches his career, Murray plays some elements of the character straight down the middle, and others with eccentric, dry abstraction. It’s always great to watch, not a waste of his capacities like some of his roles, but hardly a full deployment of them either.

Along with these three, the film also has the less-heralded veteran presence of Bill Cobbs, one of those guys whose name you might not place even though you’ve seen him fifty times. In his late seventies now, his scenes with Duvall convey a very satisfying sense of mutual delight in the encounter, only lightly camouflaged by grumpy old man exteriors. Even there though you feel a missed opportunity – Bush’s choice of a black man as his prime spiritual confessor seems to demand a bit more from the film than politically correct colour-blindedness. Anyway, on the whole, you wish Get Low tried more often to get high on its amazing resources, but there’s just about enough there to send you home quietly content. You might want to skip the trailers though. Get late!