Saturday, October 15, 2011

Downward assessments

I was writing last week about my satisfying recent run of movies, and then right after sending off that article I went to see George Clooney’s The Ides of March, which broke the streak. And not even in a close-run decision. The Ides of March is so deficient it might make you reassess everything you’ve previously believed (albeit not very deeply) about Clooney’s supposed taste and intelligence – it’s the work of a shallow, artistically lazy thinker and filmmaker.

The Ides of March

It’s a drama about modern-day American politics, depicting the climactic stages of the Democratic primary season, with two remaining candidates going right to the wire. Clooney plays Governor Mike Morris, the great progressive hope. His opponent, the colourless Senator Pullman, holds some tactical advantages in the remaining states, but also seems like a weaker candidate against the Republicans in the long run. Ryan Gosling plays Morris’ hotshot young press agent, Stephen Myers; Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are the opposing campaign managers. The plot turns on Myers’ naiveté and susceptibility to manipulation, and also on something he finds out about Morris; depending on his motivations, he might either do everything possible to bury the information, or use it to his advantage.

The film is largely based on a play, and feels like it – it’s mostly a series of men talking in rooms, without any sense of pace and atmosphere and context. The communications and social media revolution barely seems to have registered on Clooney: the candidates receive a ridiculously low volume of calls and messages, one key plot turn depends on the hokey device of a character accidentally answering someone else’s phone, and the climax asks you to believe Morris would respond to a call at the climactic point of a pivotal choreographed media event. Of course, just about every movie relies to some extent on such conventions and short-cuts, but because The Ides of March exudes such belief in its own importance and topicality, these kids TV-level devices are particularly grating.

Defects Galore

The defects in the raw material are compounded by dramatic ineptitude. For instance, much depends on a heated showdown between the Hoffman and Gosling characters. The film depicts some of this before cutting to the next scene, leading you to assume the conversation is essentially over; later on though, we discover it took a further twist, and that Myers’ motivations have completely changed as a result. Since we never see the exchanges that signify this turnaround, his subsequent actions feel abstract as a result, carrying none of the intended dramatic weight. One assumes, correctly or not, either that Clooney and his collaborators couldn’t adequately dramatize the scene, or that Gosling couldn’t play it effectively; it has the sense of trying to mask a problem (Gosling’s sky-high reputation has to take a hit after the financial disappointment of both this film and of Drive, a much smarter use of his recessive qualities).

Even if the film worked as a narrative, it would be useless as political commentary. It never grapples with ideas, beyond the sound-bites we hear in Morris’ speeches. The gap between the idealism and glitz on the surface of politics and the venal manipulations and compromises beneath isn’t a trivial issue of course; indeed, the preeminence of process over substance, the embedded intellectual vacuity, is one of the greatest impediments to crafting a global conversation equal to our challenges. But The Ides of March seems to assume we don’t yet know this, that we’re all as idealistic as Myers supposedly starts out as being. That’s irritating enough, but the film then compounds it by making the secret about Morris as clunky and unimaginative as it possibly could have been. Such scandals are part of the scene, no question, but they’re not central to the diagnosis of why politics is failing so wretchedly. The film contains nothing that you could usefully apply in interpreting Obama’s current plight, for instance.

I also agree with Anthony Lane in The New Yorker that the movie is “full of great actors, but not enough people.” He contrasts it with Michael Ritchie’s 1972 film The Candidate, a film which remains much more informative than Clooney’s dead-on-arrival epistle, and infinitely classier, but also more “scruffy (and) alive.” The Ides of March truly feels as if the notably productive Clooney had only a certain amount of money, time and personal engagement to invest in it, limiting his demands on himself and others accordingly. This works – more often than not - for a filmmaker like Clint Eastwood, where the style reflects a recurring pragmatic worldview. But it means Clooney’s film carries about as much lasting impact as a cable channel filler segment.

George Harrison

I’ve written before about the oddity of Martin Scorsese, often regarded as one of the greatest American directors, being happy to spend so much time and effort constructing tributes to his musical and filmic heroes (not to mention Fran Lebowitz!). It’s an endearing trait of course, but the more he does it, and the less interesting his own films become, you can’t help reassessing his overall stature too. Still, his Bob Dylan documentary of a few years back was completely engrossing, the Lebowitz portrait was more than pleasant, and his examinations of American and Italian cinema were very evocative at times.

His latest work in this vein is George Harrison: Living in the Material World – a three and a half hour telling of the “quiet Beatle’s” life and influence, currently playing on HBO Canada. As the title suggests, the film places much emphasis on the interplay of Harrison’s spirituality – his interest in meditation, in chanting, in his garden, in preparing to die a good death once the time came – and his huge fame and stature, with the accompanying material advantages, enormous connections and entanglements, and frequent temptations. Scorsese takes a largely impressionistic approach, providing enough basic biographical data to keep us on track, but otherwise coaxing us to feel Harrison rather than necessarily learn about him. The strategy works well for the much-covered Beatles period, but less so for the subsequent years; even allowing for the choice of approach and the time constraint, there’s an awful lot missing - for instance, an uneducated viewer might come away thinking Harrison hardly recorded anything again after his All Things Must Pass album, excepting his Traveling Wilburys side project.

Still, it can’t be all bad if you perceive three and a half hours as being a time constraint. And obviously, Scorsese didn’t conceive his film as one-stop shopping: it’s a point of entry into an enormous multi-faceted myth. It’s a valuable contribution, and even if you tend to wish Scorsese would pull his gaze away from other people’s windows, there’s no doubt he’s among the best at explaining what he sees inside the room. In contrast, I wouldn’t trust the director of The Ides of March to describe my own living room to me in a way I could recognize.

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