Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Family Project

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2005)

Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad Of Jack And Rose isn't really a good movie – it’s rambling and vague and under-developed. But it does have a definite loopy ambition, which coupled with some rather perverse undertones makes it far more fascinating than I expected from the diffuse trailer and generally bored reviews. Daniel Day Lewis plays Jack, an expatriate Scot who’s been living for decades on an island off the US East Coast – he used to be part of a thriving commune, but now it’s just him and his daughter Rose. Jack is dying from a heart condition, and he invites his girlfriend Catherine Keener and her late-teenage sons to move in. With no TV or other stimulation, this unleashes various batches of hormones, leading to various encounters and disasters.

Jack and Rose’s relationship has a potentially incestuous undertone, the sense of which seems to form at least part of Jack’s motivation to rearrange his life. He’s an idealist, but his idealism has become programmatic and dour – consisting of a rigorous daily regime and a hatred toward the property development that’s starting to eat across the island. Although Rose is happy with her life and resists change, she barely has a distinct personality. Her sense of her sexuality, for instance, seems abstracted, and when she loses her virginity to one of Keener’s sons it’s an action defined more by its effect on Jack than its effect on her (she hangs the blood stained sheet prominently on the washing line, with a helpful caption). This same event causes the accidental release of a snake that she’s stashed under the bed, which seems like a fairly obvious evocation of Eden and the apple.

Rebecca Miller

A cursory knowledge of the filmmaker only adds resonance to all this. Miller is the late Arthur Miller’s daughter, and Day Lewis is her husband. Arthur Miller was of course an icon whose life encompassed some startlingly vivid digressions. Day Lewis is famously wacky and idiosyncratic, lately seeming likely to give up acting altogether (this is only his third movie in ten years, after The Boxer and Gangs Of New York); he’s also the son of a writer, Cecil Day Lewis. It’s impossible to know what this all means as formative influence, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the director and her husband reinforced one another in maintaining a, let’s say, greater than average sense of self-dramatization. The Ballad Of Jack And Rose at times presents messy family dynamics as though they held some key to society.

Miller’s first film, Personal Velocity, rather impressed me at first viewing (in part because I was utterly unprepared for it). Based on her own short stories, it contains three modest stories of female lives in transition. The second, with Parker Posey as a Manhattan book editor who decides “to dump her beautiful husband like a redundant paragraph” is easily the best; it sweeps in a vast amount of digression and flavour while maintaining an exacting sense of pace and structure, and Posey is excellent in it. The first, with Kyra Sedgwick, is a bit weaker and the third, with Fairuza Balk, substantially so; these two stories seem to indicate over-confidence (in a worst case, arrogance) on Miller’s part, as if she equated her own observation with objective revelation.

Blind Beast

Part of the problem with Personal Velocity and The Ballad Of Jack And Rose is their lack of anything much you might call “cinema.” Maybe this will sound reactionary, but while Miller’s loose, often handheld camera style yields something in the way of a “you are there” feeling, I miss the sense of a guiding intelligence behind the camera, to which framing and lighting and the elements of the medium matter as much as character and behaviour. After I watched Jack And Rose, I watched Yasuzo Masumura’s Blind Beast, the 1969 Japanese film about a demented blind sculptor who imprisons a kidnapped model in a bizarre warehouse representing his displaced sexual obsessions (I’d been invited to do a guest lecture to an evening film class on “obscure cinema,” and since I was told that the students responded well to anything with sex and/or violence, this somehow popped into my head).

Masumura’s film, although not a masterpiece, forms a handy springboard to talk about any number of topics, and as I watched it again I noted numerous shots or sequences where I could freeze frame or slow down and could discuss how the composition is key to the film’s overall effect. Of course, one could do the same thing with Hitchcock or any great director, but Blind Beast has an elemental quality that makes it rather easy – I’m very much a novice at teaching this stuff.

I don’t think one could do much of that with The Ballad Of Jack And Rose. And it’s a shame, because the film’s ideas about sexuality and human intercourse would have been much more piercing if they were examined more rigorously. But I suspect Miller would take this suggestion as oppressive. The most “cinematic” sequence in the film has Rose setting up simultaneous movie projectors and making a visual display out of old commune footage; evoking acid trips and a generalized overheating of emotion, the sequence leads quickly to disaster and seems to symbolize escalating inner (and in Jack’s case physical) malaise. So much for nostalgia, and cinema.

Putting People First

The film’s other primary themes are environmentalism and conservation, as Day Lewis locks horns against a local land developer who pays lip service to the issues but pronounces, in best George W. Bush style, that he believes in “putting people first” (it’s a nice performance by Beau Bridges). In one scene, Day Lewis mounts a bulldozer and simply knocks down a wetland-encroaching model home he finds particularly offensive (we see him rev up the bulldozer and start to move forward but the destruction itself happens off screen – this may reflect budget constraints but in any case provides another example of the film leaves you feeling cinematically short-changed). The environmental strand leads to some of the film’s most intriguing dialogue, in which Day Lewis realizes how his original idealism and commitment has merely become a kind of snobbery, and his disagreement with Bridges more a matter of taste than of ideology. But having brought Jack to this realization, the film (almost literally) has nothing left to ask of him.

The film closes with a dreamy epilogue that seems to me distinctly tacked on; reasserting that Jack’s dream of communal living need not be futile. But to say the least, this ducks the film’s political issues. In the end the film ducks the sexual issues too. It ducks everything, petering out in the same way as those two episodes in Personal Velocity. The idea behind that title was something about individual potentiality and capacity, that we all eventually attain some kind of equilibrium. The Ballad Of Jack And Rose reflects the same philosophy, but the problem, it seems to me, is that the philosophy is either trite or (more likely) false – it’s an emblematically well-to-do liberal kind of construction.

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