Sunday, November 28, 2010

Personal Damage

If nothing else, I’m grateful to Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours for not carrying out the implied threat of its first five minutes – to beat us over the head with frantic editing, speeded-up split screen imagery, ear-hurting music, and general compulsive jitteriness. I suppose Boyle’s intention is to have us feel how overwhelming the normal grind can be, and why a young guy like Aron Ralston (James Franco) would love escaping into America’s unspoiled grandeur. When Ralston hits the open spaces, the movie duly slows down: point made. But it’s a banal point, and a super-banal way of expressing it.

127 Hours

At this early stage, the viewer will already have Boyle’s film pegged pretty accurately. One needn’t worry about giving away spoilers in describing the plot – everyone knows Ralston’s arm got trapped by a fallen boulder and he only escaped by hacking it off with a blunt penknife and leaving it behind. The only question then is how the film will surmount the significant challenges of having only one character for most of its length, and furthermore, a character with very limited mobility (twenty years ago, there might also have been some intrigue in finding out how the movie would present the climactic self-surgery scene, but nowadays, digital effects make everything possible – initial reports suggested some viewers were fainting, but that sounds mostly like wishful thinking by marketers).

Boyle opens up the space by illustrating how Ralston’s mental space drifts between memories, self-recriminations, fantasies, ramblings. It’s all quite ably done, but to be blunt about it, he just isn’t that interesting a figure: he dredges up some dating regrets and a wish he’d returned his mother’s phone calls more diligently, and that’s about it. Franco is an engaging and resourceful actor, but achieves no more in the role than you’d expect from a competent performer – with nothing to bounce off against except rocks and his own wits, the role doesn’t really lend itself to great acting beyond a certain point.

Essential Cinema

I’ve written variations on this about a few people lately, but while Danny Boyle obviously has a talent for deploying the tools of cinema, and he’s good at keeping things peppy and colourful, that doesn’t inherently mean he’s an artist, that he has any ability to convey something we ought to give a damn about. 127 Hours reminds you at various points of films like Picnic At Hanging Rock and Walkabout, but only because Peter Weir and Nicolas Roeg were able to coax something other than pretty pictures out of all that desolation. I’m grateful too that Boyle doesn’t go in for a lot of sugary “triumph of the human spirit” uplift, but if he sees anything in this material other than a technical challenge, he fails in conveying what that is.

It’s really to the shame of the TIFF group that Boyle’s last film Slumdog Millionaire, a gaudy contrivance if there ever was one, made it onto their list of a hundred “Essential Cinema” films; I doubt anyone could rationally articulate what that movie’s “essentialness” consists of (certainly not in contributing to a meaningful sense of what it might mean to be born poor into the Indian slums, or how that might be remedied). Slumdog Millionaire isn’t actively repulsive, like Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, which could only possibly have made the list on the basis of some train of thought about holding your enemies closer than your friends. It’s just a fine piece of coordination and imagination which, nevertheless, as an ongoing contribution to your life, doesn’t amount to a teaspoon of rice.

And so it is with 127 Hours. Without resorting to the transparent reviewer tricks of describing the plot in endless detail and suchlike, I can’t think of a single other thing to say about it.

Love And Money

In 1982 or 1983, I read a review of James Toback’s Love And Money in the old UK Monthly Film Bulletin, and on that basis it’s been on my mental to-see list ever since (I guess it must have been a good review, but I don’t even remember now); I’d periodically searched for it, without a glimmer of success. Until a few weeks ago, when it was suddenly on Amazon, as part of a treasure-trove Warner Archive program offering made-on-demand bare-bones DVDs of mostly unloved movies. So, finally, I saw it.

Toback made it after his first and still most admired movie, Fingers, and it represents an apparent attempt to replicate that film’s intensity and spikiness in a more ambitious, sprawling setting. The protagonist, Byron, (played by Ray Sharkey) is a bank loan officer, approached by Stockheinz (Klaus Kinski), a wealthy businessman, to buffer his relationship with the radically-minded president of a small South American country, who happens to be his close friend. Byron turns him down, focusing instead on pursuing Mrs. Stockheinz (Ornella Muti); when she abandons him, he takes the job after all. Remarkably, the great silent-era director King Vidor plays Byron’s hopelessly confused grandfather.

That summary only hints at the extreme oddity of Love And Money. The movie’s theme, I suppose, is the corrupt and dissatisfying nature of, well, virtually everything, and yet with a persistent sense of a fix that’s not beyond reach, if you have the balls and imagination to go for it: Vidor for instance embodies a past classicism now losing its way a bit (and when Byron has trouble getting aroused with Catherine Stockheinz initially, he remedies things by having her recite “The Star Spangled Banner”). Toback gives the film a rather garish, visually un-nuanced look which, along with the once-in-a-lifetime casting and the frequently deliberately ridiculous plotting, evokes an adult cartoon. It’s all fascinating, but it’s also not hard to see how it could be taken as being somewhat clumsy.

If memory serves, his next film, Exposed (another one I can’t locate anywhere at present, although I’ve seen it a few times over the years) was a significantly more accomplished fusion of disparate strands (Nastassia Kinski! Rudolf Nureyev! Fashion! Terrorists!). Since then, Toback’s output has been sporadic and highly variable – his most recent, a documentary on Mike Tyson, came out a couple of years ago. I don’t suppose anything of his came close to making the Essential Cinema list, but if you’re drawn to directors whose films feel like the outcome of lives rather than careers, he’s a magnet (by the way, nothing of King Vidor’s made that list either).

Anyway, Love And Money is well worth seeking out, as a film of considerable if rather messy ambition, not so old in the scheme of things, but still a relic from a vanished cinematic age, in which even if you didn’t like a particular movie, at least you generally saw some point to its existence.

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