Friday, January 27, 2012

December movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2007)

Seth Gordon’s documentary The King of Kong depicts the battle for worldwide supremacy in the venerable video arcade game of Donkey Kong. In the one corner, the strutting, beyond-parody Billy Mitchell, a legend among the (with all due respect) geeks who make these pursuits as much a part of their day as eating or sleeping (and a distinctly larger part of their day than, say, exercising, much as several people in the movie try to make the case that Donkey Kong and its ilk are as demanding as the decathlon). In the other corner, suburban family man Steve Wiebe, rather unfairly painted by the movie as an emblematic loser. Wiebe sets his heart on the Kong title, actually beats Mitchell’s long-standing highest score on a machine in his garage, but can’t get it accepted by the self-styled statistical gurus at “Twin Galaxies.” Further twists and turns follow.

It’s an enjoyable thing – one of those documentaries (like the girls’ basketball chronicle Heart of the Game) that seemingly got lucky in being in the right place at the right time and then took care not to screw it up. If, like me, you come in with the prejudice that this stuff is basically for slackers…well, I don’t see how the movie does much to change that. But it’s all rooted in real needs and desires of course, and certainly the quiet, sympathetic Wiebe ultimately walks off with a huge chunk of audience sympathy. The real stars though are the unnamed (and for all I know, expired) inventors of Donkey Kong, whose creation is pored over and analyzed as though handed down by God.

The Mist

The Almighty bestows something much nastier in Frank Darabont’s The Mist, or at least that’s how some of the characters see it. A conventionally motley group is trapped in a small town supermarket when a strange mist rolls in – at first they suspect poison gas from the local military research base, then they see what’s hidden in the mist, and it’s even worse than that. One bunch, led by an overwrought (presumably as per director’s orders) Marcia Gay Harden, turns into a nutty end-of-days faction; a dwindling number of levelheaded good guys (led by Thomas Jane) try to ward off the interior and exterior threats and just stay alive.

This is all hokey stuff, based on a Stephen King novella, but shows again that you can get good mileage out of such contrivances if you play it straight and don’t get too fancy. Darabont’s last two films, The Green Mile and The Majestic, were way too much for my taste, so this one looks like a deliberate retrenchment. The dialogue could frequently have been pared back a bit more, but the movie builds effective dread and intensity. And then there’s a remarkably bleak ending. I’m not sure if it’s meant to have some kind of moral charge – it doesn’t work as such, and some viewers may consider it a mean-spirited resolution – but it’s certainly distinctive.

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner, based on the bestselling book, received largely bored reviews, and I wasn’t much looking forward to it. But you know, I enjoyed it, without being able to cite much more support for that than a surrender to smooth Hollywood mechanics. Which tells you that even though it’s set in seldom-depicted foreign locales, the vast majority of the movie is subtitled, and no one you’ve ever heard appears in it (unless you’re an Abbas Kiarostami fan), this has studio values all over it (the director is Marc Forster, who last made Stranger Than Fiction and is lined up for the next Bond movie).

The worst of this is in a climax that struck me as immensely contrived. I don’t know how it seemed on paper, but as presented here it’s a series of events simply beyond plausible dramatization. But by then the movie’s already repaid your investment, in large part through the sad comparison between the relatively relaxed Kabul of 1979 and the barren hellhole of the present-day. The characterizations are good and often moving, although again seldom breaking away from familiar furrows (in particular it kept reminding me of Mira Nair’s The Namesake, although it’s much better than that lax effort). I guess I haven’t told you anything about the plot, but I suppose you basically know already…two kids, Afghanistan, kites, redemption.


Maybe this is too much information, but I got sick during my viewing of Atonement and spent virtually every second in a state of squirmy exhausted nausea (except for the five minutes I was in the washroom throwing up). So can my impression of the movie possibly be trusted? Well, with a lesser film I would probably have given up and surrendered completely to sleep, or to the journey home. Atonement is a powerful story, told here with remarkable clarity and visual acumen; every scene leads you immaculately to the next.

This is another literary adaptation, based on Ian McEwan’s book (I haven’t read that one either…it has its price, watching this many movies). Cecilia (Keira Knightley) falls in love in pre-war Britain with the lower class Alex (James McAvoy). Cecilia’s younger sister Briony, not understand what she’s seeing between the two of them, and carrying her own secret crush on Alex, accuses him of sexually assaulting another girl, destroying his life and Cecilia’s. War arrives and the three characters all enlist in various capacities, all still carrying the stain of this past action.

As I said, the film barely puts a foot out of place, but I’m not completely sure what that place actually consists of. It ultimately seems like a rather small story, focusing on art as a means of atonement for physical misdeeds (towards the end it engages in some calculated misdirection, which would be more impressive if such techniques weren’t so familiar now). And yet at times it has the ambition of the greatest of epics, most famously in a bravura single shot, lasting five minutes, around the military evacuation on the beach at Dunkirk. It’s technically magnificent, but rather forced and puzzling.

Ultimately the film then is an intriguing hybrid – part convincing evocation of a world gone by, the kind of film they don’t make any more, and part postmodern, somewhat flashy creation of the kind they make all too often. I can’t quite join with those who see it as one of the year’s best, but I’ll state with confidence that I don’t blame it for my getting sick.

This is a rich season for movies – hope you have a chance to fit one or two in there. Have a great holiday season and a fantastic New Year, and I’ll be back to you next week.

Aesthetics and morals

The most interesting line in the new version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy comes almost at the very end, when the unmasked traitor describes his actions as being more an aesthetic decision than a moral one. The thought isn’t explained further (maybe it’s explored at greater length in John le Carre’s original novel, which I haven’t read), but I took it as elegantly summarizing the natural extension of the Cold War super-spy’s endlessly labyrinthine environment. At least as depicted by now in countless films, the definition of “intelligence” was only tenuously linked to verifiable facts; strategic advantage might lie for instance less in obtaining useful information than in confusing the opposition with misinformation, or in obliterating the distinction between the two (assuming such a distinction ever existed). I suppose the positive interpretation of this would be that it was a truly scary time, with the greatest possible stakes, requiring huge strategic finesse, and it’s no wonder if it generated its own twisted structures and ideologies – after all, what doesn’t?

On the other hand, of course, this comes with a legacy of ethical and legal contortions and breaches, the justification for which would have grievously offended the national consciousness if known (Clint Eastwood’s recent J. Edgar muses on related territory). But anyway, the reference to betrayal as an aesthetic decision suggests we might regard all this as a self-contained art form, an elegantly perpetuated system in which the artist’s achievement would be measured by the complexity of his participation in it – a measure for which the complications of double agency would provide a huge, even necessary, advantage. Faithful patriotism would only be the proof of one’s limitations, therefore of one’s failure.

The Human Factor

Of those countless films I mentioned, I think the last one I happened to watch was The Human Factor, Otto Preminger’s last work, made in 1979. It’s not usually regarded as a strong ending for the masterly director, but I found it a fascinating depiction of British spy-craft, depicted as a mixture of drab formality and unacknowledged derangement. Going over to the other side is the ultimate transgression, meriting death, even though the characters dispassionately leak their own intelligence for strategic advantage; the film’s traitor is a more stable embodiment of traditional British virtues than any of his colleagues (he started passing information out of gratitude for the role played by a Communist in getting his wife out of South Africa). Preminger does justice to the subject, capturing the inherent mediocrity of the environment and the people, which of course renders their power all the more disturbing.

I might also mention David Hare’s Page Eight, the closing gala at last year’s film festival, which played soon afterwards on PBS. This one’s set in the present day, but things haven’t changed much – at one point someone mentions how the dreams for a post-Cold War world failed to materialize, and indeed the agency’s busier than ever now (this is also true of course of all government bureaucracies, of any kind, anywhere). The notion here – again not a new one of course – is that America’s conception of its own strategic interests (and in this case, British kow-towing to them) obscures its own core values, but the movie’s too abbreviated to do much with that idea. Still, it very effectively delivers the kind of seasoned, laconic character-play on which the genre depends.

High-placed mole

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy actually delivers a bit less of that, choosing a mode of often-chilly restraint (it’s directed by Tomas Alfredson, best-known for his very creepy, and very wintery vampire film Let the Right One In). The protagonist is George Smiley, a veteran fired from his senior position within the agency (referred to here as the “Circus”) after a mission failure in Hungary. When evidence emerges of a high-placed mole, Smiley - originally under suspicion himself, but now cleansed by his time outside – gets called back to investigate, knowing his target is one of four senior people.

In addition to not reading the book, I haven’t seen the famous British TV adaptation of it, in which Alec Guinness played Smiley. The film is only about a third as long as the series was, obviously allowing much scope for comparing and contrasting the two (a recent issue of Sight and Sound did this quite absorbingly, regardless that I had mostly no idea what the article was going on about). Some reviewers found the picture hard to follow, and I’d hate to be tested on my grasp of every single detail, but overall I thought it was admirably clear, without being heavy-handed about it. The film draws on a fine cast, including Gary Oldman as Smiley and last year’s Oscar winner Colin Firth, without ever feeling like a series of star turns (thus avoiding a common pitfall of the genre – Bill Nighy is great in Page Eight for instance, but so stylized he threatens to become disembodied from everything else). And the tone feels right – atmospheric but not strenuously scenic, stylish but not flashy, capturing the uneasy relationship of the 1970’s to our current age: recognizable in some ways (jackets and ties don’t fundamentally change that much), entirely alien in others (accessing the records of British intelligence appears to be a matter of finding the correct hand-written notebook, stealing it from the file room, and then hoping someone hasn’t torn out the relevant page).

Ineradicable rot

The Sight and Sound article came out behind the picture, calling it a “hugely successful treatment of formidably resistant materials,” but noting it could only hint at le Carre’s “central preoccupation…does the existence of a mole at the centre of the Circus indicate some ineradicable rot in the upper classes – the ruling class, to this day, of England?” Given the current state of England, the question remains relevant, in fact urgent, but in responding to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, you wonder whether the nature of the rot, and what it would take to diagnose and treat it, would be best grasped by obsessively turning over this narrow (albeit fascinating) chunk of the past. Well, perhaps the assertion of aesthetic over moral considerations comes as close as any explanation ever could, as a demonstration of embedded decadence. But on the other hand, a society defined entirely by morality would amount to sterile totalitarianism – and has there ever been a ruling class that didn’t ultimately succumb to rot? Maybe betrayal and treachery are inherent to creativity and awareness, and the Cold War spy genre remains fascinating because it’s a particularly stark embodiment of the traps and excesses and confusions we still sense defining our fragile progress through the world.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2009)

Tyson (Mike, that is) is a new documentary about the former heavyweight boxing champion. The larger part of the film, directed by James Toback, is simply Tyson talking through his life (no interviewer is seen or heard); supplemented by the usual array of archive footage. There’s no direct input from anyone else. Even the average non-boxing fan, like me, likely has a fairly good sense of Tyson’s general trajectory: astonishing teen phenomenon, winning all his early fights in early-round knockouts and evoking doubt he could ever be beaten, to a brief and reputation-staining celebrity marriage, the shock loss of his title to a presumed journeyman contender and a much more mixed record thereafter, an increasingly turbulent personal life peaking in a three-year sentence for rape, and more ups and downs thereafter. Still only in his forties, he’s aging well; his immaculate clothes, odd Maori-inspired facial tattoo and heavier features mesh now into a monumental but quite serene exoticism. Then he talks, still in that somewhat unformed voice, and it’s a free-for-all: sometimes eloquent and moving, at other times crude and defiant. What kind of inner life it all adds up to, I can’t imagine.

Morally Reprehensible?

Writing in Film Comment, Amy Taubin called the film “morally reprehensible,” focusing in particular on Tyson’s (astonishingly unguarded, to say the least) remarks about Desiree Washington, the young woman he was convicted of raping. Taubin says: “In relation to libel law, not to mention documentary ethics, it doesn’t matter if Tyson believes that he is not guilty of rape, his remarks are still libelous, and Toback bears responsibility for putting them on the screen without either contesting them or offering evidence to support them.”

I don’t know about libel law, but the reference to “documentary ethics” is intriguing. I Googled the term and one of the first things that came up was this: “A good documentary film maker would never interfere with the happenings in front of the camera, a good documentary film maker would need to be like a machine. There are no documentary making robots yet so you have to do your best to impersonate one.” That might sound good, but it’s essentially meaningless; any apparent restraint evidenced by “non-interference” in events would be swept away by the much more complex (and to some extent invisible) choices involved in deciding what to put on screen, in editing, in mixing, etc. In fact, the sense of documentary makers (or journalists) as in some sense “robots” surely rejects the medium’s primary catalytic possibility: simply (robotically) observing and cataloguing the real is merely a variation on the passivity that afflicts us already; it’s the nature of the engagement with it that might spark something useful. To take an extreme but high-profile example, Michael Moore interferes compulsively with events before the camera, to the extent that you end up discounting much of his films’ supposed “facts,” but he does at least set a dialectic in motion (on the other hand, so does listening to the idiots on Fox News).

James Toback

But anyway, by this measure, we might assume Toback functioned at least somewhat like this non-interfering robot, allowing Tyson to mouth off as he saw fit. As for the ethical obligation to contest him – well, isn’t that already implicit in the fact that he was convicted and served three years? Regardless, in the next edition of Film Comment, Taubin got taken down a notch by her own editor, who called the libel-related comments “unsupported,” and apologized to Toback. I’m sure this was the end result of hours of wrangling, and yet you suspect Toback must have been at least a little pleased by the whole thing; better such eloquent antipathy, you suspect, than the usual dispassionate judgments, whether pro or con .

Toback has been making movies for over thirty years now, although often separated by long intervals, but it’s hard to sum him up. His first film Fingers might still be his best; with Harvey Keitel as a gangster’s son and part-time debt collector who dreams of becoming a concert pianist, it’s a highly subjective portrayal of extreme internalized dysfunction, within a world of confusing cultural and social symbols and signs. A few years after, he broadened this sensibility onto a global political stage with Exposed, a unique (and if memory suffices quite brilliant) teaming of Nastassja Kinski and Rudolf Nureyev (I swear I’m not making this up), blending the fashion industry and terrorism. Exposed is seldom seen now, and Toback’s second film Love and Money seems to have disappeared altogether. Since then he’s made odds and ends, usually with some “provocative” element or other; best among them may be the delirious Black and White (which featured Tyson in a supporting role); he also won an Oscar nomination for writing Bugsy, and by all accounts has a good old time gambling and womanizing and being “colourful.”

Mike Tyson makes pretty good sense as a Toback focal object, but it’s hard to rank Tyson as a major addition to his oeuvre, if only because it’s so obviously capitalizing on a found object. In this regard it’s interesting how Toback (who often appears in his own films) stays way out of the way, and doesn’t jazz up the movie too much either (except for some occasionally rather jarring editing experiments).

Loss Of Belief

I was most intrigued by Tyson’s very open emotion about his first trainer, Cus d’Amato, who he credits essentially for all the good things that happened to him (and blames for none of the bad). The tale of this old (white) guy turning round the challenging young Tyson (well established by the age of 12 in drug dealing and assorted crime) sounds like hokey stuff off the Rocky shelf, except it happens to be true. Tyson seems to perceive and lament the loss of this simpler narrative that might have been. “I lost that belief in myself,” he says, “once Cus died”- which is all the more striking when you realize d’Amato died before any of Tyson’s major successes got under way.

But then, at other times, Tyson clearly relishes being able to say (and be heard to say) things like: “I like a woman with massive confidence and then I want to dominate her sexually.” So he’s a contradiction; well, in our smaller way, aren’t we all. One could make various kinds of symbols out of him, or fit him into various theories, and certainly the sport of boxing hasn’t had the same hold on the popular imagination since he packed it in. But ultimately, is he interesting as more than a particularly outlandish manifestation of the tired old case history, of the prodigious talent that burns too strongly and naively and burns itself out? Tyson is probably too opaque a movie to do other than sending us home with the same preconceived impression we had when we came in.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Our moment in time

Steve McQueen’s Shame is an absorbing contrivance, an adult Steven Spielberg movie substituting orgasms for sentiment. The protagonist is Brandon, in his 30’s, rather coldly attractive, pulling down good money in some kind of boutique New York firm, living in a Manhattan apartment, and almost entirely consumed by sex: online porn, casual hook-ups, prostitutes, solitary masturbation in the company washroom (he says, presumably truthfully, that his longest relationship lasted four months). If he were left alone, this might all be grimly sustainable – we can’t really tell – but he has a sister, who turns up near the start of the film to mess with his routine and his mind. He toys briefly with the idea of a more normal relationship with a co-worker, and when that doesn’t work, cranks up the extremity of his behaviour, as if longing to be judged and sentenced (and redeemed?); the film leaves it unclear how successfully he navigates through this personal hell.


Shame has been widely praised. Its star Michael Fassbender won the best actor prize at the Venice film festival, and it made the Globe and Mail’s list of the year’s best pictures. In a year-end Globe article (portentously titled Twelve 2011 movies that moved spirit and soul) Joanna Schneller noted some conflicting views of the film, but went on: “I still maintain it’s the film of 2011, because it’s so about this moment in time: the nexus we’re living in of social and sexual freedoms, technology that should but doesn’t always make us feel more connected, and (most of all) unprecedented access to pornography. Believe it or scoff at it, but you should see it.” Well, I’m not sure that believing or scoffing constitutes the universe of available choices, but regardless, I can’t see how Shame is in any meaningful way “about” these matters. The point about technology, for instance, is hard to avoid in any summation of our age, even if most commentaries about it just get tangled up in trying to disentangle the ironies. But wherever that may be leading us, Brandon’s contortions aren’t much of a medium for illuminating it.

Insofar as I can think my way into the head of a sex addict, it seems to me (like all addictions really) it would be a big drain on your time and/or your money. In age-old Hollywood fashion (regardless that it’s actually a British production), Shame skates over both of these – Brandon has no apparent problem financing his high-class call girl budget, and although his job must surely be demanding, he seems to have plenty of time to wander the streets, or sit around looking pained, or suchlike (the movie’s sole concession in this direction is to make a few references to his habitual lateness). Of course, McQueen could easily counter this objection – the movie is about Brandon’s spirit and soul, he might say, not about his calendar. Or he might just say, this movie isn’t about all those other mundane sex addicts, it’s about this unusually privileged one. But that’s why the movie seems to me aligned with mainstream melodrama – whether we’re looking at space aliens or at the contortions of a tiny elite, we’re not looking at a meaningful version of ourselves.


That title, Shame, of course, isn’t exactly unironic, and as the film proceeds, McQueen stirs the psychic pot until it threatens to burn your eyelids, including almost hilariously ominous musical underscoring. This sequence includes an impulsive visit to a gay club, which as presented here, comes across as an embodiment of how utterly Brandon’s lost his bearings. Again, true for him perhaps, but it also seems we’re living in a “moment in time” when plenty of people (especially if they’re rich and urban) are happily and functionally bisexual (weirdly, my mind drifted at this point to Woody Allen’s Vicki Cristina Barcelona, which in retrospect started to seem somewhat radical in its relative serenity). A more broadly relevant, or at least constructively thought-provoking movie on the subject, perhaps, might be called Glee, if that title wasn’t taken.

Despite the praise for Fassbender’s performance, which is certainly committed, it seemed to me to rely on a lot of meaningful staring and loaded silences, of the kind that few men – even rich, good-looking ones – could pull off without seeming creepy, or else stunted. A sequence in a bar, where his less sophisticated boss strikes out with his babbling, while Brandon scores without hardly uttering a word, has all the subtlety of a deodorant commercial. Even so, I started by calling the film absorbing, and so it is – it’s often dazzlingly assembled, and McQueen has an immense facility with cinema: sometimes sweeping us up in intricate montage; at other times investing entirely in his actors, leaving the camera to run for five minutes or more. However skeptical you might be about its inherent value, it often feels like you’re watching an important film.


Writing at the time, I called McQueen’s first film Hunger – set in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison in the early 80’s – “a remarkable debut.” I noted it was wrenching at times, but said “it also resembles an immense multi-faceted art installation, with numerous points of entry and exit…the film sometimes recalls one of Kubrick’s filmic labyrinths (The Shining or even 2001) but without ever bastardizing the potency of the central human experience. McQueen also brings to this a tough-minded awareness of how the extremes of human suffering and ugliness shimmer with iconographic possibility.” Much of this might broadly apply to the new film too. But as well as everything else, Hunger was a serious work of historical reconstruction, for example putting up a closing series of captions (as would a more conventional film) reminding us of the grim facts. Perhaps the restrictions of that history, and of the prison walls, were vital to McQueen’s success there. Shame is painted on a much broader canvas, but as a result seems stifled, grabbing at ideas and possibilities, affecting a hard shell, but soft and indulged beneath.

The truth is, a much less heralded picture like Jason Reitman’s Young Adult has more to say about this moment in time. As I wrote the other week, that’s hardly an unflawed film, but it has instants of grounded observation surpassing anything in McQueen’s movie, and it evokes how the traditional markers of full maturity are increasingly unattainable now, with arrested development becoming a national condition (actually, this strikes me as a more sophisticated perspective on the mixed blessing of technology than anything in Shame). I’m not saying Shame isn’t worth seeing. But if you’re the kind of person to whom it’s remotely relevant, you’ll be too consumed by other things to see it anyway.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Jacques Demy

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2009)

About six years ago, I wrote here about the French director Jacques Demy, just before the Cinematheque Ontario held a season of his films. They had another one last year, and it actually lured me back to the Cinematheque after several years away (due to perpetual scheduling problems and the considerable consolation of a pretty good DVD collection). In particular, I couldn’t pass up his last film Trois places pour le 26, which I’d never had any opportunity to see before, nor the chance to revisit his version of The Pied Piper (with Jack Wild and John Hurt!), which I recall used to play sometimes on morning TV when I was a kid in Britain, but is never seen now.

Missing Films

The most astonishing thing about the Cinematheque season though was the omission of three of Demy’s films (there are only twelve full-length works in all, plus one made for TV): Lady Oscar, Une chambre en ville and Parking. I only say “astonishing” because the Cinematheque has regularly performed miracles in finding films that virtually all official sources list as inaccessible. The missing Demy movies aren’t that old – they date back to 1979, 1982 and 1985 respectively – but it’s as if they’ve been swallowed up.

I’ve only seen glimpses of them, in the 1995 documentary The World of Jacques Demy (made by Demy’s widow, Agnes Varda). Une chambre en ville (a musical set against 1950’s labour strife, featuring Michel Piccoli cutting his own throat in mid-song) looks fascinating. Admittedly, Lady Oscar and Parking look dull and (sad to say) awful respectively, but what good is the age of information and digital transmission if not to facilitate our judging such things for ourselves?

I’ve come to love Demy’s films more and more during these six years. And like Orson Welles, the gaps in the available record come more and more to be part of his identity. Five years ago I quoted David Thomson as follows: “(Demy) does not seem quite possible. Did he really live? Have those wistful, gentle and melodic films been made? Or is he only an ideal director one has dreamed…It may be more comfortable in this age of dread-ridden movies to believe Demy never existed.”

It’s an alluring quotation, if you stop (as the Cinematheque did five years ago) in the early 70’s. To that point, Demy’s career indeed consists mostly of some of the loveliest movies ever made. His first two films, Lola and Bay Of Angels, both filmed in pristine black and white and drawing on the magnetism of Anouk Aimee and Jeanne Moreau respectively, are still as evocative as ever, and then came the preeminent The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. One of my saddest filmic memories is seeing that film at the Carlton during its re-release more than a decade ago, and being stuck behind a group of women who laughed condescendingly through the whole thing. But the memory’s silver lining is that it confirms the project’s audacity, and Demy’s immense skill in rendering it (if sadly not to all of us) so natural. His notion that subjects like the Algerian war (a huge subject in 1964 France of course) and unmarried pregnancy could possibly be addressed – and seriously - through a musical seems no less visionary now, and the film’s craft remains sublime in every way.

Undemanding and Lollipop

After that, with Catherine Deneuve again, he made The Young Girls Of Rochefort, a more conventional musical but almost as successful, flooding the screen with colour and dance and wonderfully conceived interactions, and with Gene Kelly! At this point I should acknowledge that “more conventional” is a relative term in Demy’s case. Even the brightest of the films feature murder, incest, whoring, all kinds of sexuality (not to mention, in his least successful film from those I’ve seen, a pregnant man). Thomson, I now think, places too great a gap between Demy and today’s “dread-ridden” movies, for it’s clear how easily Demy could be drawn into a darker vein. The Pied Piper, for example, is far more rigorous than most fairy tales would be in depicting the horrors of the plague.

Continuing through the chronology, Demy went to Hollywood to make The Model Shop, intending to cast the unknown Harrison Ford but ending up with 2001’s Gary Lockwood. It’s a fascinating, melancholy film, but didn’t do well. Demy returned to France to make Donkey Skin - a rapturous fairy tale, but with a clear sense of gathering disillusionment. The Pied Piper and The Slightly Pregnant Man followed: all the films he made to this point are either available on DVD or (in the case of The Model Shop) turn up quite often on cable. Six years followed before Lady Oscar and that final heavily hit-and-miss decade (he died in 1990).

An article on Demy on the Senses of Cinema website cites Jean-Luc Godard’s assessment of him as juvenile and passé and (re the Hollywood episode) a tragic sell-out, states that his films may appear “undemanding and lollipop” and appears to share a view that the work has “aged poorly.” The article concludes, seemingly rather reluctantly, that he nevertheless belongs among the auteurs if only for his “consistency of vision.” But actually it’s their very inconsistency in large part that renders his work, and the man himself, so fascinating. The beauty of Umbrellas of Cherbourg only becomes more cherishable for its originator’s apparent doubts, preoccupations and bad luck.

Glimpses and Guesswork

Agnes Varda, who also made the part-documentary/part-reenacted Jacquot du Nantes about Demy, must know his soul better than anyone. They were married for some 30 years, working in close proximity to each other, and raising two children. The World of Jacques Demy basically reinforced the Demy of that Thomson quote, presenting his films out of order as if to fuzzy the sense of his downward trajectory. Varda also didn’t mention there that (at least according again to Senses of Cinema) that they broke up for a year or two in the early 80’s. Clearly, her sense of how to tell his story evolved, for in last year’s documentary The Beaches of Agnes she reported for the first time that he died of AIDS, although again without joining the dots further.

It all leaves me far more preoccupied with Jacques Demy than with many directors I know to be objectively even greater. His films are immensely worth fighting for, but I’m not sure we have the story that best makes sense of them. Most of all, until we’re able to see those missing works, we’re relying too much on glimpses and guesswork. But in the meantime, the earlier films’ pleasures are undiminished. Seek them out, and love them, but be aware that yes, he did live, and not undemandingly, not like a lollipop.

(January 2012 update - thanks to the Internet, I've now seen Une chambre en ville (magnificent!) and Lady Oscar (less so). Still waiting to see Parking)

Wenders' dance

I wrote here a few years ago about the sad decline in the career of German director Wim Wenders. When I was seriously getting into movies in the mid-80’s, his Paris, Texas was the acknowledged benchmark of class – authentically both European and American, sexy and mythic, familiar and unprecedented. He followed this with his angels over Berlin rhapsody, Wings of Desire – even more beloved by some, but in retrospect full of warning signs of an artist seduced by his sense of his own greatness. Since then it’s been twenty years of almost unbroken disappointment. I’m not riding a band wagon here – I was one of very few people who gave a qualified thumbs up to both The Million Dollar Hotel and Don’t Come Knocking. But even I couldn’t rouse myself to a kind word about some of his output, in particular the hectoring Land of Plenty.


Wenders intersperses his fiction films with documentaries, with similarly declining returns. The most significant is the semi-legendary Lightning over Water, a productively ambiguous examination of – in effect – the death of director Nicholas Ray. The most broadly famous though is Buena Vista Social Club, which apart from the inherent worthiness of its service to the long overlooked musicians didn’t excite me much. His documentary on Yasujiro Ozu, Tokyo-Ga, is touching in concept but suggests no understanding whatsoever of Ozu’s importance, and exhibits in spades Wenders’ tendency to set himself up as an aphorist-for-hire, shoving aside Ozu in favour of a stream of quasi-profundities which nowadays wouldn’t even make the grade as Tweets. Likewise his documentary Notebook on Cities and Clothes, where the term “notebook” seems to be code for the lack of rigour behind the film’s endless blather on the relationship of fashion and film.

This is also perhaps the greatest weakness of Wenders’ new documentary Pina: whenever people say anything, it’s usually some generic insight or personal recollection of the kind you can scrape in layers off any life achievement presentation (Wenders at least acknowledges the limitations of the talking head format, but only by separating sound and image to play the voices over shots of non-talking heads). Happily, this only accounts for a small percentage of the film. The rest is largely sublime.

Pina Bausch

Pina illustrates the work of Pina Bausch, the German choreographer. She and Wenders planned to make a film together in 2009, but then she died of cancer; he put the project on hold before resuming, working closely with many of her dancers and collaborators. My knowledge of dance pretty much stops at Fred Astaire and what you get at the Mirvish shows – I’ve never once been to the ballet for instance – so the following remarks may mainly illustrate my own ignorance. But Pina made me think about the form as I never have before. My (no doubt clichéd and reductive) view of dance tends to emphasize grace and technical precision, but these qualities aren’t particularly prominent in the film. Instead, it communicates the possibilities of dance as narrative, grounded in vibrant emotions, in earth and sand and water, and as diagnosis, fearlessly and with immense resourcefulness circling around the core question of – as someone puts it toward the end – what are we longing for. The dances in Pina often seem thrillingly torn from some larger story, or perhaps from the heart of all stories,

Wenders made the film in 3-D, and it stands with Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Hugo in largely conquering one’s reservations about the format. There are still moments when the extra definition of the foreground comes at the cost of a weirdly flattened background, or when the excess of focal points makes the real seem oddly fake. But for the most part you forget you’re watching any kind of special format, and lose yourself in the play of cinematic and physical invention. Without ever feeling intrusive or over-analytical about it, Wenders allows us to move within the performance, to commune with the performers and the space as Bausch herself as might have done in rehearsal.

The film doesn’t confine itself to the stage though – it takes the dances outside, into the country, but also to the edge of highways, to the underside of train tracks, or into the train carriages. Some of the effects – cutting between different performances of the same dance, for instance – clearly go beyond what was originally on the stage, but in the absence of any knowledge of those originals, it’s impossible to know how much. These devices might easily have seemed like over-reaching, but they seem to me to work, because one imagines Bausch would have wanted her work to be treated as a conversation, and thus to solicit an answer.

Kings of the Road

In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane drew a link between Pina and Wenders’ earlier works, colourfully evoking those as a “volley of unpredictable gestures—solemn or wild, often futile, but not without a streak of comic dignity.” He evokes a moment in Kings of the Road where a man drives his Volkswagen Beetle into a river and “stays in the driver’s seat as the water rises, furiously turning the steering wheel this way and that, as if he still had someplace to go and some hope of getting there.” Lane asks: “Who would have seen the joke, and the horror, more clearly than Pina Bausch?” In Kings of the Road, one of Wenders’ best, once the driver exits the water, he latches on the river bank onto a man who services film projectors, and without even introducing each other they fall into a rhythm, travelling together from one small town movie theatre to another. The picture talks to the necessity of exercising control over one’s trajectory even in drab and barren times, even if only by a form of negation, by rejecting almost all personal possessions and fixed coordinates; it’s one of those films you feel could continue almost indefinitely, gathering further incremental power through continued encounters and variations and adjustments.

Pina can’t quite return Wenders to that rare state, but it’s an achievement that the film even makes you think back to it. “Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost,” stands as its final motif, but of course it reminds you of the injunction to ‘dance fools dance’, to lose yourself in misdirected merriment, the better not to notice your descent to hell. Wenders’ recent career has more than its share of such misplaced dancing, making it all the more miraculous that in a film that might have constituted the final surrender, he rediscovers himself. He says now he’s going to make all his movies in 3-D, but that’s hardly the most necessary takeaway. It’s more important that he engage us again in nourishing and unpredictable conversations; if he can simultaneously cut back on the annoying talk, all the better.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Taking off

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2004)

Readers may remember that a few years ago I amused myself by speculating on the directors that might have received a Nobel Prize for cinema, if such an award had been created in 1970. I won’t repeat the whole list here, but the first winner was Jean Renoir, followed by Charles Chaplin and Luis Bunuel. My list ended in 1999, but I’ve gone on adding a name every year, with the four subsequent entrants being Stan Brakhage, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Manuel de Oliveira and Claude Chabrol.

Nobel Prize

In previous years I’d found room on the list for Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, but there aren’t any other obvious contenders for me from the current American cinema. Francis Coppola and Woody Allen might at one time have seemed like sure things, but the fall-off in their work makes me pause. Arthur Penn and John Boorman are worth considering, but I’m not sure their bodies of achievement make it at the very highest level (although Chabrol eventually got there over similar reservations). Spike Lee or Jim Jarmusch might be clear possibilities if either one were to round out the resume with a flat-out masterpiece. Before Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, the Coen Brothers looked like stronger contenders than they do now.

I wonder how many of you, at this point, are wondering about my failure to mention Steven Spielberg. His list of films is nothing short of staggering. Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and Jurassic Park are all cultural landmarks of one kind or another. Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan won him his Oscars and addressed many concerns about his lack of gravity. Some think that A.I. brilliantly fused his own sensibility with that of the late Stanley Kubrick. Most recently, Minority Report was as accomplished as ever, and although Catch me if you Can was one of his lightest efforts, I think it may have been one of his most subtly meaningful and beguiling. All this in addition to the classic Duel, the much underrated Empire of the Sun, and a fistful of others.

It’s an amazing line-up, and I don’t know why I don’t feel more genuinely enthusiastic about it. I think it’s because – and I’m not trying to throw this out in a flippant way – when I go back through those films I recall one awesome sequence after another, but the emotions attached to them – wonder, love of family, commemoration – don’t seem particularly stimulating. You clap at his films, but you don’t stop and think about them. But I wouldn’t deny that part of this may be a preconception on my part of what art is all about. With the greatest directors, I’d suggest, you feel a measure of respectful striving in every frame. Spielberg’s films feel like they come too easy. Despite his often-extraterrestrial themes, his films remain earthbound; knowing no constraints on his resources, it’s as if he had never had to undergo the sweat and self-examination that might have molded his facility into art.

The Terminal

Spielberg’s new film The Terminal is an odd project. Starring his apparent favourite actor Tom Hanks, it’s the story of an Eastern European who’s stuck for months at JFK airport when a civil war breaks out at home and his visa gets revoked – he can’t go forward, can’t go back. He builds himself a bed near an abandoned gate and puts together a functioning routine of friends, meal arrangements, diversions and good deeds. He also romances a flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Set almost entirely inside the airport, the film is surely one of the director’s most regressive in some time. With a disregard for logic and plausibility striking even by Hollywood standards, it feels like an old-time studio movie – to me, the glossy aesthetic has a smell of the mid-60’s about it. This sense is highly bolstered by Zeta-Jones’ role – a poignant, strung-along type such as Shirley MacLaine must have played a dozen times. The film’s themes, such as they are, are utterly shopworn – wonder, love of family, commemoration.

Spielberg’s other skills are somewhat muted here too; I can’t think of a film of his with so little visual panache. At one point I started thinking of the huge set that Jacques Tati built for Playtime. The film ruined Tati financially and almost in every other way, and every frame rings with his wrenching desire to strike a perfect alchemy of the physical and the personal; (paradoxically) to use the biggest set ever as a tool to dissect the minutest compromises of human behaviour. Except for a repeated use of people slipping on freshly mopped floors, Spielberg shows little interest in the space’s possibilities. He said in an interview that he talked his way onto the project after getting the script from Hanks, and it’s as if it appealed to him to act like a director for hire, perhaps channeling the genial but bland stoicism of Hanks’ character. God knows Spielberg’s entitled to do anything he wants, but it will only confirm suspicions that he’s a craftsman rather than an artist.


In 1985, when Steven Spielberg received a much-discussed apparent snub at the Oscars (The Color Purple received nine Oscar nominations; he didn’t get one for directing it), Brazilian director Hector Babenco hit his high-water mark with Kiss Of The Spider Woman, which by winning an Oscar for William Hurt and inspiring a Broadway musical became another cultural tentpole. Babenco briefly became a Hollywood director with the dull Ironweed and the interesting but unadmired At Play in the Fields of The Lord, and then, except for a barely seen 1996 Argentinean film, that was it. He reportedly spent much of the period seriously ill, coming close to death.

His comeback film Carandiru is set in an infamous Brazilian prison (the real Carandiru was destroyed in 2002), watching a cross-section of prisoners through the eyes of a sympathetic doctor. The film is a deftly orchestrated mixture of flashbacks and highs and lows, blended together in a generally fairly genial manner with a persistent emphasis on headline issues such as AIDS prevention and general inmate welfare (Babenco may be thinking of Jean Renoir, as well as classic socially conscious melodramatists like Elia Kazan). Although the place is a pure hell on earth, a fact driven home in particular in the sprawling riot sequence that ends the film, Babenco doesn’t have the feeling for the streets and the squalor, or the cinematic fire, of recent South American films like City Of God. I started thinking that the doctor – beaming his way through one anecdote after another in a pleasant but rather detached manner – was a proxy for Babenco himself; an educated man of impeccable intentions, struggling to capture a world far beyond his normal experience. But it’s one of those films where the rough edges add to the overall interest; the signs of Babenco’s struggles somehow act as a badge of authenticity. Truth is, a few more films like this, even with as many flaws, might push Babenco ahead of Spielberg in the Nobel stakes.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Badly behaved

In Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a marginally famous Minneapolis-based author of a series of novels for teenagers (her name’s only on the inside; the original creator’s on the cover). The series is coming to an end, she’s blocked on writing the last installment, she’s divorced, and she’s an alcoholic. Receiving an email blast that her now-married high school boyfriend is a new father, she gets it in her head to drive back to her home town of Mercury, where he still lives, and steal him back, on the fuzzy basis that this might provide a kind of rebooting.

Off to St. Albert

I saw the movie on December 22nd, the day before flying out to St. Albert, Alberta for Christmas, and I must say that for a movie that’s not actually about St. Albert, Alberta, it captures the essence of the place especially well (I’m glad I didn’t watch it while I was there – it would just have been too depressing). Some of this is relatively easy stuff – the parade of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut on the way into town. But the movie, written by Diablo Cody, frequently catches you with more subtle observation. When Mavis checks into the hotel, one of the first things she does is to plunk down her laptop on the desk and pull out the extensible USB cord: I’ve done that dozens of times myself, but I don’t remember ever seeing it in a movie before.

The dialogue, also, frequently justifies Cody’s reputation. I loved an exchange where a local woman, who’s secretly admired (maybe even loved) Mavis ever since school, denounces everything about Mercury, saying the people there might as well be dead. For Mavis it’s the right insight at the right time, and her gratitude for it is genuine, but when the woman imagines she might get out, Mavis summarily rejects the idea. It’s not that she’s being consciously cruel (not at that actual moment anyway); it’s that the idea lies so far outside her plausible frame of reference, it’s not even worth considering. In nineteen out of twenty American movies, Mavis would feel an obligation to let the woman down more easily, but that only reflects how seldom America’s increasingly brutal sense of strain finds expression in the cinema.

Hate Crime Guy

Mavis isn’t actually that young an adult – she’s closing in on forty – but the title cleverly evokes how the traditional markers of full maturity are increasingly unattainable now, with arrested development becoming a national condition. In Mercury they imagine she’s got it made, but their sense of the world seems to stop at Minneapolis: they don’t know, as we do – from the film’s opening seconds – that she lives in an unprepossessing apartment in an ugly building, without much of a view. And who has any idea what being “an author” really means?

Everything I’ve described so far is just great, and explains why I liked Young Adult more than any of Reitman’s previous films (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air). Even so, its overall success is limited, for various reasons. Mavis is played by Charlize Theron, who’s terrific in the role, but also gorgeous beyond any normal parameters, especially for someone who seemingly abuses herself so badly. Her fixation on the old boyfriend, although ultimately explained in a way that makes more psychological sense than it initially seemed to, is still a major contrivance. And then there’s the third major character, Matt, a guy she runs into at a local dive, and barely remembers even though he had the locker next to hers all through high school, until it clicks that he’s the “hate crime guy,” permanently disabled from being beaten up by a bunch of guys who thought he was gay (which at least got him some minor fame until people found out he wasn’t gay, so that it wasn’t a hate crime anymore); after that she starts coming to his house every night to get hammered, even if (or of course, to some degree, because) he’s the only one telling her the truth about herself. Here too, no problems with Patton Oswalt’s performance, but however distinctively written and played, the character has a sitcom-friendly convenience about him.

Simply Insane

Matt describes his ongoing sexual dysfunction so vividly that when the movie actually throws him a sex scene, you might feel deprived for not getting to see more of the mechanics of how (or whether) it works, in the way of Jane Fonda and Jon Voight in Coming Home. What I mean, more broadly, is that Young Adult ultimately isn’t turbulent enough. The main objection to the film in the reviews I’ve read is that Mavis just isn’t likeable enough to be the focus of a film; conversely, see this as a sign of courage. Roger Ebert, zooming in on her self-description as an alcoholic, says: “civilians (and some of the critics writing about this film) are slow to recognize alcoholism. On the basis of what we see her drinking on the screen, she must be more or less drunk in every scene… alcoholism explains a lot of things: her single status, her disheveled apartment, her current writer's block, her lack of self-knowledge, her denial, her inappropriate behavior. Diablo Cody was wise to include it; without such a context, Mavis would simply be insane.”

Others in turn, quite rightly, took issue with the notion of “simply” being “insane.” And of course, alcoholism doesn’t remotely “explain” someone being single; you might as well reverse the two, and say being single explains alcoholism. The reference to Diablo Cody’s wisdom in including this “explanation” suggests Ebert views a good movie as a kind of exercise in connecting the dots. But that’s only possible if the dots were too easily spaced to begin with. It might have been unfortunate that in recent weeks I’d watched several films by the European director Andrzej Zulawski, all of them studies of extreme behaviour of one kind or another. At their best, you ride along in gorgeous delirium; at their worst, you just wonder what the hell’s going on and count the minutes. I don’t really think Young Adult needed a touch of the Zulawski exactly – that would hardly be true to Mercury, or to St. Albert. But ultimately it’s limited by excessive tidiness. As I mentioned, for more people all the time, being an adult, young or otherwise, isn’t everything it used to be. It’s not just the post-baby boomers, stuck with the bill for their retired parents, but everything that’s coming up behind: the angst across the developed world about youth unemployment and the threat of a lost generation. Maybe we’re reaching the dire point where for many people, living in America (or Canada, or Britain, or Greece…) will “explain” being an alcoholic. We could use some films about that. I mean, badly-behaved ones.