Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hours of Trash!

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2007)

I definitely like the premise of Grindhouse, because although I don’t come from the culture that inspired it, I carry a lot of nostalgia for my own formative movie-going experiences, and I’ve written about them several times here in the past. I miss the double features, the wayward distribution patterns, the rickety picture palaces, the hokey “Feature Presentation” graphics and terrible local ads (actually, maybe I don’t miss that last one so much). In 1970’s Britain, I recall nothing larger than a triplex within miles of where I lived, but there were a few of those, and the smallest screen was almost invariably showing some garishly advertised soft-core flick. Even Disney films thus seemed mildly racy, given the proximity to such exotic provocations. Projectors would break down all the time, although I don’t remember being aware of entire missing reels (with many of the movies I was seeing back then, it might have been tough to tell). Overall, although I know this is perverse, I miss the time when you could make true discoveries: being a movie fan was way less convenient than it is now, but because of that adversity, it delivered the occasional incredible rush.

Planet Terror

Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino have devoted an entire three-hour feature to evoking their own perspective on this history: an old-style schlocky double bill along with trailers for coming attractions, scratchy visuals, technical problems, and so on. The movie was highly anticipated, and an instant financial disappointment. I make that point at the outset because it seems relevant to the project’s inherent perversity – however convincing the artifice on screen, how can the illusion possibly persist when viewed in the plush surroundings of today’s multiplexes? And, in any case, how do you sell such an illusion to an audience that knows nothing of these deprivations? We still perhaps think of Tarantino as being young and hip, but he’s 44. Virtually no one from the current mainstream movie audience, it seems, has much idea what he and Rodriguez are getting at, and given that the project’s twisted ethos is based on delivering something that’s deliberately not that good, it’s not so strange that most people didn’t really care about finding out.

Rodriguez’ Planet Terror is a fast-paced, craftily incoherent mash-up of genre ideas and types – something to do with a noxious gas that’s turning people into pus-oozing zombies, and the disparate band of the immune that makes a stand against them. The advertising focuses on the already quasi-ironic image of Rose McGowan as a go-go dancer who loses a leg, and replaces it with a machine gun. It’s a great concept, but the immaculate computer-generated rendering of it seems to me inconsistent with Grindhouse’s broader premise – if we’re watching a movie that can conjure up such visual wonders, why are we putting up with all the other crap? Overall though, Planet Terror seems to achieve the basic mandate: for the most part it might have been made thirty years ago and most people would have instantly forgotten it, but it would still have a lively shadowy existence on the bizarre websites and obscure cable channels.

Death Proof

Tarantino takes a different tack, trying to evoke one of those low-budget gems that, while delivering the action goods, slipped in a little more awareness of character, and a little more authorial pretension. His Death Proof has a charismatic stuntman, played by Kurt Russell, who entices women into his car…he tells them it’s death proof, but he just means the driver’s side. Around this basic concept there’s a lot – and I do mean a lot – of talk, mostly among a couple of female groups that Russell has in his sights. This is patented Tarantino of course, but the talk has never been as dull as it is here. And I can only assume that this continues his tendency to tie himself into a conceptual knot – that the kind of movie he wanted to mimic would only have been this good and so he pitched his work exactly at that secondary level. The picture is better than Planet Terror (although Grindhouse is designed exactly to blur your sense of good and bad), but it’s more annoying, as a more egregious squandering of its director’s gifts.

The fake trailers are all good, and the three hours pass by painlessly enough, but it’s hardly the rollercoaster of sleazy fun that was intended, and overall feels like a distinctly abstracted experience. Sure, commemorate the past – do it on the web, via DVD re-releases, in film festivals, in a book, whatever. But otherwise, it’s gone. And if Tarantino in particular has any hope of reclaiming his status, he clearly needs to return to making movies at least vaguely relevant to the world we live in now.

Moving on, First Snow, directed by Mark Fergus, is a pleasant enough waste of time, but has less energy and flair in its entire length than you feel in any moment of Grindhouse (which only accentuates that film’s overall failure). Guy Pearce is a hustling salesman with a shady past who, while killing time in an edge-of-nowhere town, visits a fortune-teller who foresees his imminent death; Pearce becomes obsessed with the loose ends in his life that might lead to his demise. The movie has elements of noir, shades of Pearce’s earlier film Memento, some lightweight metaphysical blather, lots of meandering, and no discernible point.

The Page Turner

The Page Turner is a classily mounted variation on the can-she-really-be-that-sweet-or-is-she-really-a-bitch-from-hell genre (think The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or The Temp, with better music). A young girl, devoted to her piano studies, fails an important exam when she’s distracted by a careless judge (who’s also an esteemed performer); devastated, she gives up the piano, grows up, and sets out to take revenge, manoeuvring herself first into a nanny position at the other woman’s house, then into the key role as her page-turner. Remember the Hitchcock definition of suspense being when you think something’s going to happen and then it doesn’t? – The Page Turner is full of intimations of schlocky possibilities, none of which materialize in line with our worst fears. This is to say that the film is delicate and nuanced, at times so French that it threatens parody. It’s all good stuff though, and Deborah Francois (the girl from L’Enfant) is excellently ambiguous in the title role. As someone with no knowledge at all of classical music, I also have to say that I hugely enjoyed the Shostakovich music featured so prominently in the film – it was a real discovery. Although then I left, put on my ipod headphones, and resumed listening to Ghostface Killah. See, I ain’t so classy either.

American trauma

As mainstream cinema becomes ever more of an industry (and even though the trend’s been escalating for several decades now, it still manages to push further each year), the experience of going to movies across the globe also becomes depressingly uniform. When I was in the UK last summer, the line-up at the local multiplex (and that’s the first point right there, that there even is a local multiplex) was barely distinguishable from what you would have found at the downtown Scotiabank at the same time, and the general ambiance of the place hurt your eyes and ears in much the same way too. In 1974, the four nominees for the BAFTA best film award, Britain’s general equivalent to the Oscar, were Day for Night, The Day of the Jackal, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Don’t Look Now, not one of which was nominated for the best film Oscar; none of the four BAFTA winners for acting received Oscars that year, and only one was even nominated (lasting tribute to British quirkiness – Walter Matthau in Charley Varrick and Pete ‘n’ Tillie beat Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris!), But in recent years, the BAFTAs deviate only incidentally from the Oscars, indicating either a woeful standardization of taste, or an equally woeful lack of courage in homegrown instincts. Maybe it’s a symbol for the whole country, how Britishness defines itself increasingly by holding on to trivia, while yielding on all the big stuff (shouldn’t have let that empire slip away I guess).

We Need to Talk about Kevin

The main difference this year is Drive, which fell short at the Oscars but did well at the BAFTAs, a case it seems where the British are more likely to see the substance beneath the style (that’s why they like that other kind of football). Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy also did a bit better there, with an obvious advantage in local resonance, and so did Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, nominated by the BAFTAs for best actress and director. The film was highly praised in the UK; when the British magazine Sight and Sound polled critics on their best films of the year, it ended up in the top ten. But the reaction on this side of the Atlantic was much more mixed, often unenthusiastic beyond offering general praise for the performances.

Based on the book by Lionel Shriver, the film’s protagonist is Eva (Tilda Swinton), now reviled in her community and trudging alone through a miserable life. Operating through a complex structure of flashbacks, it contrasts this early on with her past professional and personal success, married with an angelic young daughter, blighted only by her exceptionally challenging son Kevin, who (back in the present) she now visits in prison. There’s never any doubt Kevin has caused pain and disruption almost beyond processing, even if we don’t find out the details until the end of the movie.

Horror story?

Liam Lacey in The Globe and Mail summed this up as “an ambitious miscalculation, artful to a fault, with a jigsaw puzzle of flashbacks with conspicuous colour design in the service of an overwrought psychological horror story.” That’s a much more prosaic judgment than Sight and Sound’s, which described it as an “exercise in disassembly, suggesting of a catastrophe so explosive it has splintered time…removing control so thoroughly from its main character that she can’t even marshal her own flashbacks – they happen to her out of the blue. Or out of the red.” Meaning the film is suffused in that colour, from strawberry jam to paint to, of course, blood. Lacey appears to regard this as little more than an affectation; Sight and Sound concedes it’s an “intentionally excessive motif” but says “it works precisely as a kind of insult – it’s a colour that won’t leave Eva in peace.”

I think Lacey makes an error in viewing the film as a psychological horror story, overwrought or not. Summing it up that way slots it in with a genre piece like Orphan, where you just wait for the superficially angelic kid to turn into a monster, but Ramsay totally rejects the stale narrative conventions attaching to such items: she never attempts to tease us by positing Kevin as a good boy, nor to allow us the easy refuge of blaming Eva as a flamboyantly bad mother. And the term “psychological” is wrong too, because Kevin represents a wound beyond all analysis and understanding. It’s not just that he’s unruly or scheming; he seems possessed by a contempt and alienation that can never be reconciled. Lacey asks “Can you really be a bad mother to the devil?” but if Kevin were the devil, you’d at least have some reference points in what to do about it. The real horror of We Need to Talk about Kevin is that there are none, there’s only pain and incomprehension.

A British perspective

It must be relevant I think that the film is British, but doesn’t look like it (the same goes for Steve McQueen’s Shame, also on the whole more highly praised over there than it was here); it’s an outsider’s perspective on an American tragedy. Ramsay’s jigsaw encompasses any number of contributory factors: the dehumanizing monstrosity of the picture-perfect big house (which Eva never likes); the masculine idiocy that has Kevin’s father buying him heavy-duty archery equipment for Christmas; the internet, of course; the inadequacies of its popular culture (mainly represented here through soundtrack song selections that might have slotted into O Brother Where Are Thou?). Even the community’s treatment of Eva in the present day, although driven by loss and despair, is marked by continual nastiness and pettiness, showing no sign of the Christian values that supposedly forge its small towns (that’s just me saying that - Ramsay doesn’t extend her canvas to include the church).

Of course, the picture depicts such an extreme situation that you might think it disqualifies itself as a serious evocation of anything. But you can hardly name a recently praised American film that isn’t just as extreme in different ways. It’s fine to praise The Descendants for its attention to character for example, but how about the fact that the characters are fabulously wealthy Hawaiian landowners? It’s fine to say rich people have problems too, but you could see the film’s success as another symptom of the great American con whereby the elite furthers its agenda by insisting it’s the same agenda as everyone else’s. American (and Canadian) culture are pretty good at overlooking how much of the fabric of life as it’s lived is woven out of grief and loss and deprivation. We Need to Talk about Kevin’s depiction of an American trauma may not be subtle, but then not much about the country is, except its illusions. So no wonder the British liked it more…

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Arnaud Desplechin

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2008)

My instinct tells me not even to try writing about the director Arnaud Desplechin. The likelihood of my saying anything insightful, or even adequate, seems too remote, and that of embarrassing myself is palpable. But I swear to you, I could not do anything better with this space than to urge you to seek out Desplechin’s films: most immediately, his new work A Christmas Story.

More and more, he strikes me as the best modern embodiment of the classic “art house” figure. There was a time when cultural credibility demanded some exposure to Bergman or Fellini, or at least Woody Allen; but times have coarsened enough that Desplechin’s best chance for popularity may lie in being perceived as simpler than he is. His films certainly offer some easy pleasures, and they do, in case you’re worried, tell good stories. But measured against prevailing conventions, they’re also rather odd. That oddity could be shoved to one side, as people did with all the talky symbolic stuff they didn’t get in Bergman. But this would be overlooking one of the most thrilling ongoing investigations in cinema.

Into An Argument

Desplechin is sometimes compared to Allen or to Eric Rohmer – his films generally focus on youngish intellectuals in contemporary settings. But the comparison doesn’t take you very far. Allen and Rohmer, in their different ways, belong to a cinema of order; they invite being labeled as “literary” (which, at least in Rohmer’s case, understates his painstaking attention to composition and the arrangement of the frame). Desplechin’s work is discursive, often seeming almost free-associative. Writing about his film How I Got Into An Argument, an article on Senses Of Cinema evokes how the narrative’s present tense “dissolves … into a perplexing mix of past, present, future, imperfect, conditional and subjunctive; musical commentary and leitmotifs which move from diegetic pop, hip hop and jazz, to Baroque playfulness …visualizations of dreams, desires and idealized pasts; episodes over-determined with mysterious symbolic significance, in particular the incident with the monkey trapped behind an office radiator; flashbacks of uncertain status, mysterious dialogues and expressionistically-lit set-pieces; and staged interventions… given as a direct address to camera.”

It’s all true, but could be misread to indicate some flamboyant Fellini-like sprawl. In fact the film (subtitled …My Sex Life) often has an edge-of-melancholy quality. It’s been said that Fellini doodles in chaos; Desplechin never seems to be merely doodling, and never ends up at chaos. That monkey incident must sound wacky, but is actually a distinctly sombre passage, shot through with uneasy subtext; there’s comedy to it, but of a squirmy, get-me-out-of-here kind. And as for the reference to the significance being “over-determined”– true, but that film is over a decade old. I’m not sure Desplechin would offer such an easy device now. The film’s joyous, almost otherworldly contemplation of the nude female body also seems now like something left behind in the director’s evolution.

Esther Kahn

Some brief biographical colour: Arnaud Desplechin was born in 1960 and made his first film in 1991. He’s directed eight times in all. I’ve seen half of those films (the others don’t seem to be readily available), although three of them only once – they’re all high on my list to see again. Esther Kahn, his only English language film, must be one of the strangest ever made about acting. The milieu is turn-of-the-century London Yiddish theatre; Esther is an uncomfortable, not very articulate young woman, and while her rise to prominence suggests some on-stage charisma and alchemy, we barely see glimpses of what that might be. There’s a kinship to John Cassavetes’ Opening Night in the climactic portrayal of an actress traveling through personal hell (chewing on broken glass pre-performance) to unlock a new relationship with her art, although Summer Phoenix’s surpassingly odd performance couldn’t be much further removed from Gena Rowlands’ expert theatricality. The film is stark, almost like video, and has a rather sickly pallor; it feels as if Desplechin’s empathy for his highly idiosyncratic protagonist could only be expressed by forcing himself and his work into studied, expressive strangeness. Few people liked the movie, but it’s one of the most disciplined and audacious of recent years.

The sprawling family drama Kings and Queen is possibly Desplechin’s greatest film to date – it’s not only the title that evokes the term “magisterial.” In an interview on the DVD, he surprisingly cites NYPD Blue as a model for how even briefly-observed characters can establish themselves, and indeed his film suggests the capacity to spill over indefinitely into sequels and parallels and alternate possibilities. Yet it has (again, in Desplechin’s own words) a concluding sense of lightness, as if an impossibly complex and fraught building site suddenly silenced, and revealed at its heart the sanctuary you’ve always dreamed of. The film foregrounds Desplechin’s interest in mental illness – he’s far too subtle to postulate simply that the doctors and the patients might as well change places, and yet the extreme diversity of his narrative and approach to it might be dedicated to exposing our impoverished prevailing views of rational engagement (with life, with art, with each other, with cinema).

A Christmas Story

Those three films are all available on DVD. The fourth, A Christmas Story, was my favourite from those I saw at this year’s festival, and is now in theatres; it’s perhaps only the scheme’s inherently greater familiarity – the near-archetypal messed-up family, home for the holidays and hating it – that renders it slightly less dazzling than Kings and Queen. The volume of doublings and contrasts and echoes and conflicts is again beyond processing; as if from the butterfly effect made flesh, you feel how a loss in one generation continues to screw up the family structure for decades to come. The theatre is a theme here again: a key character is a playwright, another an impresario, but more broadly (and again I’m surprised how Cassavetes keeps coming into my mind as I write this article) in the sense of spiraling self-invention. Which may or may not be linked to any capacity for real self-evaluation.

Desplechin’s repeated use of a few favoured actors helps to see that he’s a miniaturist at heart, but then that’s the eternal wonder of great cinema, that people interacting in a room might generate greater seismic damage than a city-engulfing earthquake. I mentioned his films’ stylistic variety, but he’s not strenuously experimental in the sense that you start noticing endlessly long takes or weird angles. To me it simply feels as if he’s absorbed the tools of cinema better than any of his peers. And also for a better purpose. Only a true and eloquent optimist could explore human behaviour so expansively; only a great director could so convince us that there’s still something urgent and personal to be optimistic about.

(February 2012 postscript - two of Desplechin's earlier films are available online at

Iranian questions

Leah McLaren had some interesting commentary in a recent Globe and Mail, asking the following: “Would a dark and brooding character study such as Martha Mary May Marlene – about a woman’s tenuous escape from a cult leader who specializes in rape – have a snowball’s chance of getting nominated had it been set in Italy rather than New York State? What if Shame were about a Chinese sex addict, instead of one played by Michael Fassbender?...We tend to recoil from challenging foreign films and to overpraise slight ones, to the detriment of our cinematic culture as a whole.” It’s quite true – for instance, I’ve written several times about the farcical disconnection between the Oscar for best foreign language film and the actual best foreign language films, and when people tell me they like subtitled movies, it usually turns out to mean they once saw Cinema Paradiso.

Watching foreign films

But the point I think isn’t just about slight foreign films, most of which we never even get to see. It’s that the audience for foreign films (to the extent it even exists any more) only tolerates so much foreignness, as a seasoning to a main course of universal accessibility. The last two Oscar winners, In a Better World and The Secret before their Eyes, illustrate this exactly – strip away the local colour and they could be remade by Hollywood with barely a rewrite; in fact, the directors of both films have worked frequently in America in recent years. And did you know that the un-esteemed blockbusters The Tourist and X Men Origins: Wolverine were both directed by former winners of that same Oscar? How “foreign” could their sensibilities have been in the first place?

The most acclaimed of recent foreign films, A Separation, provides an interesting variation on this trend. It comes from Iran, certainly a source of some rich cinema in the past (the best known of its directors is Abbas Kiarostami), but none of it experiencing the popular success of an Almodovar. I think it’s fair to say many viewers, rightly or not, would have doubted whether a film from Iran could possibly yield that “universal accessibility” I mentioned – after all, it’s part of the axis of the evil you know, led by a madman, plotting to nuke Israel, or maybe all of us. I don’t suppose that’s really a subject for flippancy, but A Separation seems to make that attitude almost inevitable, by depicting nice-looking apartments with widescreen televisions, and big fridges with magnets on them, and people driving Peugeots. On the other hand of course, all the women cover their heads (some more rigorously than others) and for every exchange we’d read as “normal” life, there’s another lying far outside the Western frame of reference.

A Separation

The separation of the title is between Nader and his wife Simin, forced by her desire to move abroad with her daughter (her unarticulated disquiet about bringing up the girl in present-day Iran is as close as the film gets to criticizing the prevailing regime). He resists, primarily because of the needs of his elderly father, who has Alzheimer’s. Simin moves out, and Nader employs another woman, Razieh, to take care of him, but the relationship quickly disintegrates. After Nader ejects her from the apartment, Razieh falls on the stairs, subsequently losing the baby she was carrying. Nader is charged with murdering the unborn child, with the case turning on several questions: whether she fell directly because of his push; whether her miscarriage resulted from this or some other event; perhaps most crucially, whether he knew she was pregnant.

In its review of the film, directed by Asghar Farhadi, Sight and Sound called it “fiercely intelligent, morally and emotionally complex,” and said “It’s a film that pays us the compliment of letting us make up our own minds.” I find this more persuasive in some senses than others. To the extent that we have to make up our own minds about the facts of the depicted events, it’s largely just the result of a cinematic contrivance, not inherently more sophisticated than any he said/she said police procedural. Critics like to praise films for not imposing their meanings on the audience – for example, when I reviewed The Descendants a few weeks ago, I quoted A. O. Scott’s praise of it as resisting a sense of “predetermination” – but frankly, I don’t know if being allowed to “make up our own minds” is really such a big deal. I mean, we spend a big chunk of our lives making up our own minds, not necessarily with such stellar results. I think we could use more artists who are actually out to change our minds, and who are passionate about it.

Still, within those rather limited parameters, A Separation is consistently intriguing and sometimes very striking. For example, when Nader meets Razieh’s husband, Hodjat, after the miscarriage, Hodjat’s predominant concern is that Nader would have hired her without obtaining his permission. In fact, the film has already shown us how Razieh arranges with Nader to keep this from Hodjat, indicating she views her duties to her husband in this regard as being malleable; in other respects though she’s entirely devout, and the film ultimately turns on her belief that swearing on the Qur’an in a certain situation would be a sin, with tangible repercussions for the daughter she already has. But this doesn’t mean the Qur’an is as dominant a force for everyone – when Hodjat refers to it earlier in the film, it seems to be a function of class sensitivity rather than piety. In other words, it’s constantly provocative and stimulating about the nature of what we’re actually watching.

Making up our own minds

Even this carries the risk though of making us confused between aspects of A Separation that are inherently and productively ambiguous, and aspects that only seem that way because we don’t know enough to interpret what we’re watching. In that same issue of Sight and Sound, Farhadi talked about working within the Iranian system (under which many other directors have been suppressed, or even imprisoned), saying: “My way of dealing with it is, rather than put a message in my film, I raise a question – because if it’s a question, you’re unlikely to get censored.” But this surely puts a different light on the “compliment” of letting us make up our own minds, suggesting it’s in large part a practical compromise, the price of being allowed to keep on working.

My point isn’t that A Separation doesn’t deserve the attention it’s receiving, but that the unfamiliarity of its origin and of the circumstances of its production create a heightened risk of our unwittingly patronizing the film, as another fascinating glimpse at exotic others, all the better for being intelligent in much the way we’d like an American movie to be. It’s doing the film a disservice, I think, not to realize that underneath all the points of identification, it may be in many senses even more foreign than we realize.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Chalk and Cheese

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2009)

I really do wish I liked Atom Egoyan’s movies more than I do. It all sounds right up my alley – his fidelity to Toronto, his analytical modernity, the recurring interest in voyeurism and warped sexuality. Should be great. But even at his best, it’s never really clicked for me, and at his worst – which by my reckoning is the more common state – it’s just a grind. The problem is, Egoyan’s movies always seem off to me, as if generated by a precocious but under-seasoned juvenile. Ararat was all narrow preoccupations and bleeding heart sincerity and kindergarten film-within-a-film self-reflection – it seemed to go on forever. Where The Truth Lies was unpleasant and perplexing, metronomically missing every mood and period it aimed at. Some of the earlier, smaller movies may have had a surer hand, but who has the motivation to go back and check?


His latest, Adoration, is relatively more palatable, being merely minor and fussy as opposed to actively off-putting. A Toronto teenager, orphaned and living with his uncle, claims his Lebanese-born father was a would-be terrorist who duped his mother into carrying a bomb onto an Israel-bound flight; it’s a fiction (his parents died in a car crash), encouraged by his drama teacher, but whips up a storm of on-line chatter. When the truth comes out, the teacher is fired, but she still has a role to play in helping tie up the loose ends of the past.

It’s a clever enough creation, but in the same way as any number of fractured puzzle movies – you contrive some mishmash of family skeletons, mix it all up into incoherent pieces, then spend an hour and a half putting it back together, along the way working in some vague ‘commentary” on various themes that strike you as cool (post 9/11 paranoia; Middle East spillover; the limits of the Canadian melting pot; technology as both facilitator and distortion). None of these themes are explored with any dexterity. Egoyan’s way with actors is as heavy-handed as ever; he pushes them into unnaturalistic emoting and over-determined poses; it comes to feel as if you’re wading through treacle.

I don’t think I’m alone in my lack of enthusiasm for Egoyan’s movies – they nearly inevitably collect a dutiful three stars from the local critics, but the reviews themselves seldom read like the writers gleaned more than two stars’ worth of entertainment or enlightenment. There’s little warmth in his films, and little real respect for the audience; how little he must think we know, that we’d be somehow nurtured or elevated by such arch shuffling of the middlebrow card deck (we aren’t – the audiences are regularly miniscule, although somehow the financing keeps flowing, largely via sugar daddy Robert Lantos). Sadly, the immediate prospects don’t portend much better – his next film, Chloe, is a remake of Natalie, a would-be tantalizing French teaser that trudged its way to one of the least interesting (and most predictable) twists on record. Unless Egoyan has some revelatory new direction in mind, we might as well just throw it the three stars now and make other plans.

Michael Caine

Michael Caine has never quite been among the greatest stars nor the greatest actors – for much of his career he seemed to thrive on the sheer implausibility of such a plain figure somehow making it as a leading man, and on the accumulated audacity of defying so many challenges to his credibility (The Swarm, Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, Jaws 4, etc etc.). He’s carefully honed his own image as a consummate technician and professional, doing master classes on acting and having the good luck to find a solid role at least every few years (just when it might seem, for the tenth time, that he’d finally sink into grim, Bullet to Beijing-type oblivion); along the way he picked up two Oscars for Hannah and Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules, and even in his mid-70’s it’s far from impossible he might win another. But I think it’s fair to say his highs are only so high. His best performances are simply those in which he’s given the best things to say; he can’t transcend mediocre material as the best actors can. But, unlike many, he’s also consistently avoided getting crushed by it.

When I was a kid in the UK, Caine was everywhere – the likes of The Ipcress File clogged up the TV schedules; he was impersonated and parodied (in particular, for reasons lost to time, for supposedly overusing the phrase “and not a lot of people know that”); and, when he relocated to Hollywood for a few decades, he became a symbol of a failed Britain driving out its best and brightest. He might even do it again, based on his reaction to a recent British tax increase: “We've got three-and-a-half million layabouts laying about on benefits, and I'm 76, getting up at 6am to go to work to keep them.” It all helps keep his image colourful, as did the flamboyant disdain of the late Richard Harris, who called Caine “an over-fat, flatulent…windbag, a master of inconsequence now masquerading as a guru, passing off his vast limitations as pious virtues.”

Is Anybody There?

Well, when you add it all up, it’s been fun to follow Michael Caine for all these years, and I hope we’re not close to the end of it yet. His presence is certainly the main asset of the new Is Anybody There?, although there’s also director John Crowley, who made one of my favourite films of last year, Boy A (not that the two works have much in common, at least on the surface). He plays a retired musician, starting to lose his faculties, who enters a low-grade seniors’ home in mid-80’s England, eventually striking up a rapport with the owners’ 12-year-old son.

From that, you gather there’s a fair amount of inter-generational odd couple stuff. But the film gradually becomes quite provocative and convincing as a portrayal of pervasive (existential, mortal, personal) doubt, of strafing at the parameters you find yourself within (an especially apt theme for Britain at that time). The little boy is obsessed with ghosts, traces of which he tries to register on his tape recorder; instead, he catches his dad, a typical lightweight unable to grapple with the passing of time or possibilities, making a move on a young employee. Caine’s character can’t believe how he ended up no better than this. Other old people barely hang on round the film’s edges.

The picture finds a way to tie all this together, but the destination is probably less memorable than the journey (this, at least, might also be said for Boy A). Still, even at its most conventional, it confirms Crowley as a very skillful director. As for Michael Caine – he’s great, of course, in much the same way he always is. And I really don’t mean that to sound like damning with faint praise.

Out of words

The Artist is the favourite to win the Oscar for best film: it would be only the second silent film to do so, after Wings won at the very first ceremony in 1929 (although many of the intervening winners caused most observers to lose the power of speech). It’s hardly fair to group those two together, of course: for Wings silence was the necessary medium, for The Artist it’s the conscious subject, as well as the aesthetic strategy. It starts off in 1927, portraying silent screen idol George Valentin at the height of his popularity, knocking ‘em dead in one Fairbanks-type epic after another. When the sound technology comes in, he laughs it off, but suddenly he’s washed up, replaced by a modern new wave of personalities. One of these, the vivacious Peppy Miller, never stops idolizing him, even as her stardom far eclipses his, and tries to watch over him in his decline.

The Artist

I saw the film on Christmas Day afternoon in Edmonton. Because it was playing on just one screen in the whole city, I assumed the theatre would be just about full, but it attracted just a handful of people. Not to over-extrapolate from that narrow personal experience, but veteran film reviewers might not be well-placed to grasp how plain weird The Artist might seem to some people. To some of us, this is a gorgeous exercise in nostalgia (drawing extra resonance from our knowledge that it’s actually a French movie, even if filmed in Hollywood and with familiar American faces in supporting roles); to others though, it might merely seem like a bizarre exercise in self-denial. Basically, what’s the point of telling a hokey old story, using hokey old means? And for all its strengths, The Artist can’t entirely surmount that objection. Assuming you have only limited time available to invest in watching silent movies, it’s hard to see why you’d prioritize this over Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

That doesn’t mean the film, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is unrewarding though, far from it. You have to admire any movie that relies so much on undiluted, right-between-the-eyes charm. Jean Dujardin is almost spookily perfect as Valentin, smiling too wide and emoting too broadly without ever crossing over into parody or condescension; Berenice Bejo, as Peppy, is equally as winning, but appropriately lower on the dial. And Dujardin shares virtually every scene with a dog – Valentin’s on-screen co-star and off-screen faithful friend – who also hams it up to just the right degree. The movie is full of scenes that certainly feel as if they might be homages to - or for that matter, stolen from - old pictures, even if you can’t place them (it also evokes Citizen Kane and Vertigo at various times, although it’s a little harder to see the point of that). And the overall narrative draws on the classically satisfying arc of A Star is Born without, in this case, simply pilfering from it.

The Artist versus Hugo

Hazanavicius has more in mind than accomplished pastiche though. The movie is constantly about silence, teasing us to consider it as a quality, a commodity. It presents Valentin’s inability to adapt to sound as an existential condition, not just a vocal limitation, and cleverly suggests this conditions his relationship to the real world, not just to cinema: a couple of the film’s cleverest moments, drawing on this, actually do involve sound. The ending might be taken to suggest, very subtly, that silent cinema really did embody a vanished purity, the natural heir to which would be the gorgeous abstraction of Astaire and Rogers. It’s a fanciful thesis, I suppose, but throughout The Artist you find yourself lingering in scenes which would typically pass by much quicker, as if sound could only be noise, a barrier between you and the luxurious truth of things. Which does have something in common with the transcendence of dance.

But if The Artist is a skilled advocate for a certain thesis about cinema, it’s hard to see where it leaves you once you leave the theatre and the smile wears off your face. The film has a fair bit in common with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which I raved about a few months ago; Hugo reaches back even further into the dawn of cinema, before they’d even figured out the movies might depict the real world, let alone make it talk. But unlike The Artist, Scorsese finds a way to make this relevant and vital. By using 3-D – and perhaps using it better than anyone ever has before – he embraces all modern cinema has to offer, while insisting the future is best unlocked by understanding and drawing from the past. And by applying this to a theme of self-repair, of a broken community coming together, he seduces us into believing that cinema – even in its largely disposable current form – is still socially relevant and nurturing.

The Artist embodies a broadly similar theme: the logistics of thriving in a world where the reference points are shifting. But its answer, basically, is to find a way to preserve your past corniness and give it a fresh polish. An acceptable enough answer, maybe, during the undemanding season of goodwill, but not particularly stimulating otherwise.

The Muppets

To illustrate further how undemanding that season can be, I went on Christmas Eve to see The Muppets. I thought the movie was winding down by then, reduced to a single afternoon showing, but it was nearly full (again, this was in Edmonton, not that I’m saying that explains anything). I sat between my wife, who reacted to it with much the same coolness she’d have exhibited at an Ingmar Bergman movie, and my nephew, who laughed at loud at virtually every line, if not every syllable (guess who picked the movie that day?)

The premise is that the Muppets are all washed up and dispersed, their old theatre derelict and facing demolition; then inspired by a young superfan (who doesn’t realize he’s a muppet himself), they get back together to do a fund-raising reunion show. The movie wants to make us happy, and usually succeeds, especially through its appropriately bouncy and giddy musical numbers; my nephew was particularly taken with the series of humiliations visited on Jack Black, playing himself as the unwilling host of the big show (i.e. they kidnap him and tie him to a chair). He failed though to recognize some of the other celebrity cameos who pepper the movie – Judd Hirsch, even Mickey Rooney – or to appreciate the old photos of the likes of Rich Little on the walls of the theatre. That’s right, yet another movie reaching right back to the very dawn of entertainment.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Nothing matters

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2005)

Towards the end of Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, a character sets out at some length what we must take to be the film’s underlying philosophy. Talking to the film’s protagonist Aviva, a teenage girl who’s gone through substantial travails in search of some notion of fulfillment and self-definition, he tells her that no one ever changes, people always end up where they started out, we’re all “robots programmed arbitrarily by nature’s genetic code,” and then if there were any chance of overcoming that, he cites the planet’s depleting resources to explain why it’s not worth it anyway. A couple of scenes later, a song with the refrain “This is the way that Jesus made us” plays over the closing credits. And the audience presumably leaves on something less than a high.


What is one to make of a filmmaker of such a depressing worldview? Many of us would presumably cite ourselves to disprove his thesis – I like to think I’ve gone a long way from where I started, and no one believes that Scott Fitzgerald was right about the absence of second lives in American (or other) lives. Still, whenever I go back home to Wales, I’m struck by the lack of dramatic change in most people, and I’m getting edgy at the thought that I may have exhausted my own capacity for reinvention. Even in the privileged West, true upward mobility may be a gift reserved for a minority. It’s a crucial ideological concept though. US politicians regularly use appeals to the “American dream” and the preeminence of individual opportunity to put a gloss on profoundly anti-democratic policies. Mainstream films usually happily go along. So there’s clearly a place for a filmmaker to speak for the disenfranchised.

But Solondz is no romantic champion of the downtrodden. Cursed with hypersensitivity to the tackiness and contrivances of normal human interaction, his films virtually bleed distaste for everyone in them; they’re about as joyless as it gets. Here’s Solondz on being a director: "I'm just unfortunate that I have this job I hate, I suppose. I keep thinking I've got to find a new career and maybe I will. But for now, this is all I've got. I haven't found a good alternative yet."

Palindromes, his first film in four years, is built around a brave aesthetic concept – the central character, a 12 year old girl named Aviva, is played by eight different actors who vary quite widely in appearance – two of the eight are black, and one is Jennifer Jason Leigh. Early on, Aviva gets pregnant by another teenager; she’s enamored of the idea of having a child and wants to keep it, but her mother (Ellen Barkin) pushes her into an abortion. Aviva runs away from home, landing in the house of “Mama Sunshine,” a born-again Christian who fills her home with disadvantaged children, and whose husband plots the murder of abortion doctors.

Celebrating Empathy

The odd approach to casting is less jarring than it sounds – transitions are marked by chapter headings, and Solondz succeeds in conveying a consistent sense of the character (although this partly only reflects her lack of complexity). In the interviews I’ve read, he’s not particularly articulate on what underlies this strategy; in Eye magazine he said it was largely a function of past frustration at seeing more good actors at auditions than he could ever cast. By its nature, the device might be designed to convey Aviva’s inner complexity, and the universality of her experiences. But this is obviously largely negated by the theme of resignation I described in the opening paragraph.

Abortion is a prominent concept in the film but it’s hard to know for sure where Solondz stands in that debate; probably he’s pro choice without being passionate about it. Paraphrasing her interview with Solondz, Kim Linekin said in Eye: “The fact that Solondz’s mind is so open – none of his films judge his characters, no matter how reprehensibly they behave – has left him open to the criticism that he celebrates depravity. He actually celebrates empathy, and his films can be disorienting as they test our limits of it.”

But this strikes me as a distinction without a difference. Solondz’ depictions of “empathy” – relationships between a teenage girl and a child molester, or across the religious and cultural divide – are invariably fragile and impermanent. And his depictions of families are distanced and faintly (if not openly) disgusted. In Palindromes, there seems to be no question that Mama Sunshine has rescued the kids from miserable lives, and the use of children with real disabilities makes the inclusiveness and goodwill palpable. But Solondz plays the whole thing for laughs, depicting the kids as gooey, indoctrinated puppets who perform gruesomely tacky Christian pop songs (“Why should children with disabilities not be included in satire and comedy and musical numbers?” asks Solondz, in one of his typically displaced self-justifications). The logic seems to be that Solondz’s “empathy” in using the kids in the first place gives him a blank cheque to treat them as he pleases; and if we don’t like it, it’s a sign of our own limited parameters.

It’s A Good Thing

In Solondz’s world there’s barely any good or bad – there are just people and their genes. A palindrome of course is a word or phrase that reads the same backwards as forwards; Aviva’s name is a palindrome and so are those of several other characters. It’s a nice symbol for a world in hopeless stasis, and at the end of Palindromes it’s not clear how much Aviva has retained from her experiences. In the Eye interview, Solondz casts this realization “as a kind of liberation. To be able to embrace who we are, for all our flaws, is a good thing.” But as I noted, nothing about the movie projects a sense of liberation or serenity. And yet Solondz apparently largely financed the film himself, using up his life savings. He’s that committed to his message of negation.

It’s hard not to admire such a nutty kind of prophet. But ultimately it’s an awfully narrow thematic canvas. Consequently, I don’t find that Solondz’ films stick in my mind very much afterwards. I recall a few of the more squirmy highpoints of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, but of his most recent film Storytelling – a story consisting of two self-contained chapters – I couldn’t remember a single thing about the second story until I looked it up. My notes at the time say that the film’s constructions and oppositions were interesting in a formal kind of way, but seemed never-endingly shallow. I wrote that it was extremely entertaining moment to moment because it was so glib, but never yielded much of a point. And a year or so later, it was all gone.

One of Solondz’ quotes – about it being an illusion that we can do or be anything – reminded me of something Prince Charles was recently caught to utter. Of course, the Prince was pilloried for being reactionary and complacent. In Solondz’ case one can only speculate on the underlying neuroses, but the effect is much the same – of an entertaining sideshow, one that may even carry some constitutional upside, but which for all its superficial modernity is snooty and conservative, and just doesn’t seem to be what we need right now.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

All talk, and brilliantly

David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method superficially seems like an anomalous project for him, even for the more “respectable” latter day Cronenberg, but on greater reflection it might be the masterpiece he’s been inching toward for almost forty years. Based on Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, it depicts some episodes from the birth of psychoanalysis, and so by extension from the birth of modern ideology and culture. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) seizes on a deeply disturbed patient, Sabrina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), as an ideal object for the new methods originated by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen); his success helps build his stature as Freud’s primary disciple, and the two men meet and become friends. Their relationship sours however, ostensibly because Jung has an affair with Spielrein and lies to Freud about it, but more broadly because of a profound disagreement about the nature and purpose of the new methodology; at the same time, Spielrein becomes a doctor and a formidable theorist in her own right.

The best stories

I have to concede at the outset that my knowledge of this material is extremely limited, and I can’t come close to assessing the historical accuracy or fairness of what it portrays (in several long published interviews, Cronenberg has shown himself a formidable and phenomenally well-informed defender of his choices). But on its own terms it’s thrillingly complex and overflowing with implication and nuance; one of the most gripping films of ideas in a long time. Primarily, of course, it’s “about” the talking cure, illustrating how some of the ambiguity surrounding its popular perception to this day (it would be hard for anyone to watch the film without a stray thought of Woody Allen intruding at some point) was inherent to its conception. Freud insists on a rigorous focus on diagnosing and clarifying, within a highly sexualized taxonomy; Jung argues against this, but it’s ambiguous whether his objection is scientific or rather strategic, that Freud unnecessarily limits the discipline’s popular acceptance and social import. Conversely, Freud’s objection to Jung’s increasing interest in mysticism and metaphysics, on leading patients to a fuller life rather than on merely fixing their ills, is clearly in large part tactical (to the extent not based in intuitive antipathy to such mumbo-jumbo).

In other words it’s largely about who has the best stories, concisely illustrated in several scenes when the characters, with a glibness that’s objectively rather ludicrous, shoot off interpretations of each other’s dreams. Put another way again, it’s about a battle over the creation of meaning, taking place at a time when the world was up for grabs (when Freud refuses to share his most recent dream on the basis that it would undermine his authority, the pending breakdown of the relationship is clear). Most of the film takes place in the most rarified and elegant of settings, barely touched by the kind of real people with whom the dueling physicians are ostensibly concerned, but signs of erosion are clear. Jung’s wife, who spends much of the film preoccupied by her failure to conceive a son rather than daughters, is astonished near the end by the notion that a first time mother and her husband would both prefer a girl. And Jung and Freud travel to America together; as they view the Statue of Liberty, Jung describes it as the land of the future, whereas Freud wonders if the country’s ready for “the plague” that’s about to hit it – the nexus of those two remarks already foreseeing the fraught legacy of the just-dawning “American century.” A further point on historical import: Freud emphasizes psychoanalysis as a specifically Jewish discipline, a characterization that Jung resists, but which would be central to its evolution (and to their treatment, and Spielrein’s, by the Nazis).

Cronenberg’s history

The most coherent theorist in the film, arguably, is another character again, a doctor called Otto Gross who sees much of society as a cumbersome impediment to satisfying core desires – those for sexual pleasure. Gross puts this into action by placing his own urges over any ethical or other concerns, a position he explains with such charismatic certainty that he influences Jung’s much more conventional instincts. Although compelling on its own terms, for its freedom from the clutter that afflicts Jung and Freud’s thinking, it’s also of course completely unworkable as a basis for a coherent society (as illustrated again by Gross’ own fate). And that’s the point again – this isn’t just about who has the best science, assuming the question is even meaningful in this context.

Astonishingly, Cronenberg manages to treat all this in barely more than an hour and a half. As I mentioned at the start, the film might not seem like his: the popular perception of a Cronenberg film is still heavily influenced by his genre heyday, when he was famous for his externalized traumas, for weird growths and transformations and head explosions - effective representations of malaise, but a blunt diagnostic instrument. A Dangerous Method is astonishingly tightly controlled, even more so than his most recent films (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises), and detractors find it static and overly talky. But surely that’s the point: whatever those earlier horrors were hinting at and whatever easy pleasures they provided, they were only precursors to the truly dangerous investigative method, to strip away all easy crutches and elaborations, and to engage directly with the origins of the modern self (and thus its attendant malaises).

Mannered and artificial

Put that way, it might sound as if the success of A Dangerous Method is measured by not being enjoyable, but it seems to me quite riveting. My brief synopsis above fails to convey how Spielrein is at the heart of the film, with Knightley’s portrayal of her also sharply dividing reactions. A local critic called her “mannered and artificial,” which again seems to miss the point entirely: how would one “naturally” portray a deeply troubled woman at the centre of a historical transformation, engaged in an unprecedented form of self-discovery, without drawing on contemporary actorly conventions which would certainly have nothing to do with the “real” Spielrein (not least of all for the obvious artificiality that none of this actually happened in the English language)? Knightley’s work seems to me immensely eloquent and effective, not least of all in the painstakingly precise sex scenes, superbly encapsulating the film’s tensions (that same critic chided Cronenberg for seeming “much more comfortable dealing with eroticism as subtext than text,” which is even dumber than the first thing I quoted). Overall, even if the film were shown to be largely inaccurate or misleading, it would still be tremendously stimulating on its own terms; I feel like I could just continue right on and write a whole second article about it.