Sunday, March 25, 2012

Difficult histories

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2009)

I didn’t get a chance to write promptly here about Quentin Tarantino’s WW2 adventure Inglourious Basterds, but it’s hardly a problem when the Internet’s overflowing with so much rich debate and commentary about the film. Whatever one’s views on it, very few movies now have such a sense of active pollination; it’s expertly seeded with nuances and oddities and excesses and mysteries of the kind that feed a thousand blogospheres. Why does a character pull out a giant pipe in the opening scene? Why does he later offer a young woman a glass of milk?…these are already as debated as the Obama health plan. Add to that Tarantino’s inherently provocative approach to history (flagrantly rewriting not just a few details but the whole mega-narrative) and his happy mining of cinematic allusions, and you spawn a range of reaction from charges of “Holocaust denial” (Jonathan Rosenbaum) and rampant self-absorption, to clear assessments as a masterpiece (the film’s final line puckishly suggests Tarantino might share this view).

Holocaust Denial?

I’ve often been cooler on Tarantino’s movies than the critical consensus was, but I happily cast my vote with the enthusiasts here. It’s an old example now, but I recall being appalled by Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, a movie which I think came by its feel-good aspects dishonestly. Tarantino takes more overt liberties with the facts of the Holocaust than Benigni for sure, but he’s truer than the gutless Benigni could ever be to the most important thing: that this was cold-hearted calculated mass murder, and that any “beauty” lying in its margins was at best compromised or fleeting or inadequate. With this established, well, I suppose anything less than absolute fidelity to historical truth (impossible in any event within a manufactured narrative cinema) could be called a form of denial, but one person’s denial is surely another’s form of dialectical assertion. Either way, I agree with Scott Foundas in Film Comment, noting how Tarantino “seems actively engaged here in exposing the cheapening, rewriting, and wholesale liquidation of history through its cinematic representations, even as he himself makes a self-aware contribution to that very legacy.”

But the main thing is that it’s such a rich, assured and consistently impressive viewing experience. Tarantino structures his film in five chapters, and even in the fourth of these is still introducing major central characters, but then ties it together brilliantly in the fifth. As he always has, he evokes past movies galore, and allows his people to chatter away at length - these traits have often seemed undisciplined, but he consistently controls them here for the purpose of considerable (but not cheaply earned) suspense, black comedy, or thematic complexity. Tarantino himself has been emphasizing his film’s fidelity to language, noting the limitations of classic genre contrivances (such as the undercover Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare seemingly speaking German perfectly behind enemy lines, although what the film’s audience hears of course is English standing in for German); his opening sequence might seem at first to be succumbing to this tradition as what’s initially French dialogue switches to English, which then reveals itself however as a conscious ploy of the key Nazi character, calculated simply to detect and kill Jews.

Killing Machine

Far from being a denial, it seems to me this captures the basic horror of the Holocaust, its redefining an entire environment as an ethnic killing machine, better than any gloomy epic recreation. This is just one example of the film’s amazing scope; it manages to seem less constrained by facts and propriety than almost any war movie ever made, while never making you think this means the director simply doesn’t know, or has forgotten.

As he always has, Tarantino reinvents the careers of many gifted actors, most of all here the barely known Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who’s now a winner at Cannes and could easily contend for an Oscar. Waltz is indeed brilliant, fusing perfectly with the director’s sensibility, but Tarantino also gets the best-ever performance out of the usually negligible Diane Kruger, while doing better than fine with just about everyone else involved. I’ve just about lost my appetite for Hollywood’s formulaic one-week wonders, but although Inglourious Basterds lent itself to being sold as that (the initial Brad Pitt-centric trailer could hardly have evoked its overall fabric less accurately), it joyously and thrillingly isn’t. It’s no surprise that Tarantino is smart and funny, but I never thought he’d so successfully find a way to unashamedly dive into his long-standing passions – from both the high and low culture drawers - while actually seeming artistically brave and, goddamn it, even wise.

Lorna’s Silence

Another movie I liked and didn’t write about at the time, but which should be out soon on DVD, was Le silence de Lorna by the Belgian Dardenne brothers. It’s a similar bottom line actually: I’ve often liked the Dardenne’s movies less than other people did, but with this one I’m up to speed. They specialize in unadorned treatments of deprived (financially or spiritually or both) working-class Belgians, and are often described as having a quasi-documentary type style, although I’ve sometimes found some of their narratives overwrought. The new one actually has the most potentially melodramatic elements yet. Lorna is an Albanian immigrant into Belgium, who recently obtained citizenship through a paid marriage to a local junkie, planning to kill him off so she can enter into a reciprocal arrangement with a Russian; her true love, with whom she opens of opening a snack bar, is another man again.

And that’s just the start. Who knows how widely representative these machinations are, but the film’s fabric is convincing and engrossing, as Lorna’s initial appearance of self-determination, of climbing the rungs of melting pot Europe, slowly reveals itself as an illusion. The film starts with money changing hands (for film buffs, the Bresson bell rings!) and retains a grimly transactional view of even intimate relationships: when Lorna finally finds something true and moving, it transforms her internal world, while all but destroying her external one. This could also be seen as rather over-determined, but on this occasion I appreciated the filmmakers’ generosity toward her, even if it’s necessarily limited.

European co-productions used to evoke unwieldy and/or trashy brews of mismatched directors and cast members, often marked by lousy dubbing, ragged editing and a general displaced quality, which might nevertheless occasionally suggest a certain wayward genius. Tarantino loves this genre, and gleans much of its spirit for Inglourious Basterds (not least of all the title, which doesn’t particularly represent the film he made). Now Europe itself is an ongoing co-production, with mobility and intermingling of capital and policy-making and employment and influence: it’s a noble dream, but as the Dardennes show, mostly an inglourious basterd of a reality.

A terrible person

I’ll admit to you that my impression of Sarah Palin is entirely negative. I don’t think anyone’s had a more malignant impact on America in the last decade. At a time of extreme difficulty and complexity, when innovation and intelligence should be at a premium, she embodies the pious dumbing-down that’s driving the country into the ditch. Her instincts are hypocritical and self-serving; her lack of empathy and capacity for reflection is chilling. Frankly, I think she’s a terrible person. And Tina Fey’s high-profile caricature of her, for suggesting we might regard this monster with even a scintilla of grudging affection, seems to me an inadvertent exercise in collaboration.

Game Change

The new movie Game Change, currently playing on HBO, dramatizes how Palin came to national prominence; it doesn’t contain a lot of new information, but what could ever adequately explain such a leap into madness? In the summer of 2008, Republican nominee John McCain is behind in the polls, his Democratic opponent Barack Obama capturing a much bigger portion of the national imagination. With time running out to select a vice-presidential candidate, his aides persuade McCain of the need for a game-changing selection; to put up someone who’ll excite the Republican base and, crucially, reduce his polling disadvantage among women. Their research (as depicted here, consisting primarily of Google and YouTube searches) leads them to the governor of Alaska, highly inexperienced (only in her second year in office) but otherwise hitting most of the right buttons. Most of the usual vetting process goes out the window, for example, no one ever tries to gauge Palin’s knowledge of international issues: the audacity of the idea sweeps them all away, and she gets the nod. For a while it seems to work, then it just starts getting worse and worse. By Election Day, even one of the campaign’s senior staff can’t bring herself to vote for the ticket.

The movie is primarily an amiable work of assembly, expertly splicing the actors into the real-life footage, no doubt condensing things drastically for dramatic purposes, but providing an effective springboard for reliving the wretchedness of it all (the director is Jay Roach, best known for Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers movies; he pulled off something similar with Recount, about the 2000 Bush/Gore election). It treats McCain (played by Ed Harris) exceptionally kindly, never really holding him responsible for the colossal recklessness of being willing to put such a person a heartbeat away (a 74-year-old heartbeat at that) from the most powerful job in the world. It even allows him to go out on a note of sad prophecy, warning Palin not to be swept up by the Limbaugh wing of the party (an exercise in futility of course). Woody Harrelson expertly embodies Steve Schmidt, the man at the centre of the campaign, confirming the remark I made the other week about the actor’s indispensability.

Boundless ignorance

But they’re both a sideshow of course. Julianne Moore plays Palin, quite effectively, although I’m not sure the role lends itself to particularly great acting. If the film has any revelations, they’re all about how the woman was even less capable than we knew. She ignores all attempts to prepare her for the infamous interview with Katie Couric, spending the sessions obsessing almost catatonically on her multiple Blackberries. Her ignorance, bolstered by a lifetime of intellectual laziness and steadfast lack of curiosity, is boundless: she doesn’t know what “the Fed” refers to, she thinks the British queen is the functional equivalent of the US president, she can’t distinguish the war in Afghanistan from that in Iraq (this last one is particular notable perhaps, given that her son was serving in Iraq at the time). She becomes obsessed with incidentals, such as how the national exposure might be affecting her poll numbers in Alaska. Someone in the movie speculates about her mental stability – an entirely credible concern based on what we see here at least.

Of course, the situation would have strained anyone. Despite the warnings, she could never have predicted the extent of the scrutiny into every aspect of her past (even including, if you recall, an allegation that her youngest child was actually born to her daughter Bristol). The movie emphasizes her straightforward love and dependence on her family. And it also makes clear her undoubted strengths – her ability to connect with certain people in a way that feels unprecedented to them, the way she intuitively raises her game in front of a camera.

But this only points to Palin’s most sinister aspect. Early on, before the heat gets turned up, Schmidt remarks on how totally unfazed she seems by all this; she responds simply that it’s God’s plan. She looks at the opportunity to become vice president much as you or I might regard an opportunity to visit a nice restaurant for a free lunch. Of course, thinking one could run for such high office virtually demands a colossal degree of arrogance, powered by certainty in the rightness of one’s grasp of the moment and of the necessary prescriptions. But Palin’s agenda doesn’t seem to extend beyond her vacuous ramblings about freedom and her reflexive antipathy to anything proposed by the Democrats. She believes herself inherently entitled to power, and therefore exempt from any requirement to earn it or to deploy it with respect for its consequences. The implications of this seem to me horrifying.

Being There

Game Change might be seen as a contemporary version of Being There, in which Peter Sellers plays a simple-minded gardener whose incomprehension is taken as grave profundity, possibly capable of elevating him to the Presidency. Even that simple synopsis tells you a lot about how things have degraded in the thirty years since then though, because being perceived as being profound would likely mark someone now as an unelectable elitist. As we all know (and expressing daily gratitude for this wouldn’t be excessive), Palin wasn’t ultimately a game changer for the election; Obama won fairly comfortably. But she certainly contributed to changing the larger game, to the poisonous divisiveness that so limited Obama’s capacity for action, and left the country drifting further into self-destruction. And if her prominence is thankfully fading at last (at least she had the wherewithal to perceive she couldn’t win the 2012 nomination on her own merits, or maybe it was more about sticking with the easy TV money), it’s only because a new gallery of uglies has supplanted her. Listening to these people obsess on such topics as women’s access to contraception, it’s like watching a deranged beast chewing on its own decaying flesh. Game Change only hints at what lay ahead. But then, why would we need a movie to show us that, when we have our own eyes, ears and brains.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

In South Africa

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2005)

In My Country is the latest film by veteran director John Boorman, whose career encompasses classics from Point Blank in 1967, through Hell in the Pacific, Deliverance and Excalibur to The General in 1998; his last release was The Tailor of Panama in 2001. He has twice won best director at Cannes (for Leo the Last and The General) and has several Oscar nominations, but is likely to be overlooked in any list of the greatest filmmakers – regardless of whether the list inclines to artistic or to popular excellence. His career includes numerous projects of mythic ambition and numerous major flops, and the two categories frequently overlap: Zardoz, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Where the Heart Is (perhaps his nadir, a Dabney Coleman comedy based on an updating of King Lear). David Thomson says that Boorman “is a unique, visionary filmmaker, but his yearning for new types of material does not quite hide a record more at ease with reliable genres. His most conventional pictures, the most accessible in their situation, have been the best.”

In My Country

In My Country might be the most conventional and accessible of them all – a dramatization of the hearings held in the 1990’s by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told through the prism of a romance between two journalists – an American from the Washington Post (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and a South African (Juliette Binoche). But the film has only received a minimal release (I saw it at the Carlton with a handful of other people), and the reviews were almost uniformly bad. Stephen Holden in The New York Times called it “high-minded but hopelessly wooden.” In one of the better reviews, Roger Ebert nevertheless found “something too calculated about the movie's pairing up of the political and the personal.”

I'd agree with that, but I think I end up admiring the film more than anyone else seems to. This is a little surprising to me, because I’m not generally a fan of the approach that relegates the victims of mass tragedy to potential bit players in their own story. A few months ago I mildly criticized Hotel Rwanda in this regard, and I’ve often written that Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom may well be my least favourite film of all time. In My Country is hardly the formula’s most subtle application. The two characters are introduced as political opposites. Jackson is outspokenly skeptical of the Commission’s approach, which allowed amnesty to apartheid offenders who made an honest accounting of their crimes and could convince the panel that they were acting on orders. Binoche, more in tune with the country’s deep divisions and challenges and its urgent need for healing, is much more inclined to trust the effort, but her privileged upbringing has rendered her unaware of the scope of the company’s atrocities.

Tossing A Pancake

They come together in a way that echoes decades of genre convention, with a booze-sodden night easing the way. The film’s transitions between the mechanics of the hearing and of their relationship are astonishingly blatant. Anguished snippets of testimony are elbowed aside by an exuberant Binoche dance scene. A grisly statement about a dismembered leg leads directly to the first time they have sex. As her political conscience develops, she disrupts a bland poolside get-together by asking if rape can be a political act; it’s odd psychology, but good dialectic.

When she ultimately confesses the affair to her husband, the conversation takes place in terms of hearings and amnesty. It’s too glib an appropriation of vitally important terminology for mundane personal ends. But that seems to me meaningful in sealing off the film’s pervasive theme of the white South Africans’ inadequate sense of what happened within their borders. And the film’s very last incident, where Binoche’s amiable black colleague suddenly meets with his come-uppance for his own culpability while a powerless Jackson looks on, indicates how this inadequacy spreads across races, borders, and ranges of intellectual commitment.

I’m sure my description of all this makes it sound somewhat obvious, which indeed it is. But Boorman has a profound sense of how meaning is produced in cinema, and it seems to me that the film works best if you distance yourself from the details of the love story and view it in the abstract; as a phenomenon which by its very smallness tells us something broader about our understanding of such events. If memory serves, he may have been doing something similar with his use of Patricia Arquette in Beyond Rangoon, and even the modest Tailor of Panama sometimes seemed to achieve an almost metaphysical scope through sheer confidence and assurance in quirkily contrasting large and small motives. After wrapping up its sweeping plot of international politics and cross-border meddling, that movie ends on a final freeze frame of kids looking on as Geoffrey Rush tosses a pancake. It could hardly be a more meaningful, throwaway final image, and I guess that was the point.

Boorman’s big mistake in In My Country, I think, was to lose control of his stars. I don’t mean that Binoche or Jackson overact – actually they’re both fairly sombre – but Binoche in particular is so inherently evocative that she’s almost incompatible with realist cinema (I don’t think that any of her English-language work really counts as a normal contemporary role). In In My Country she sometimes looks as beautiful as she ever has, and of course this is saying something. Her emotional turmoil, however well-acted, is allowed to radiate across the screen, and I think it seriously skews the overall balance.

No Surprise To Us

This obscures the film’s broader awareness that the truth of a situation like South Africa’s is only partly a matter of law and transparency and at least as much a matter of personal identification. Early on, Binoche proclaims that she belongs to the African continent, and when Jackson asks what that means, she responds simply “I would die for it.” But toward the end, the arch-abuser played by Brendan Gleeson similarly cites his readiness to die for his country in defending the killing he carried out in his name. The malleability of the concept of dying for one’s country reminds one (in a manner that’s particularly timely given the current rhetorical excess in the US) of the cheapness of maxims and stated positions.

The inadequacy of words is signaled in another way when Jackson asks why the native blacks aren’t crying, as Binoche does, at a particular testimony, and receives the simple reply: “It is no surprise to us.” As with the Holocaust, the original victims retain a privileged place in any consideration of the event, but political reality cannot stop with that. The idea that a 70-year old outsider like Boorman could tell us anything direct and revelatory about Africa is hopeless, and the ways in which the attempt fails are perhaps as meaningful as those in which it might have succeeded.

Arthur Penn

Reading the obituaries in the newspaper, I often find myself musing over how frequently the measure of someone’s life – at least to the extent it’s deemed worthy of recounting in print – covers only a relatively few years; in particular, often sweeping the last decades into a cursory final paragraph. Of course, this doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of that life, measured day to day. Maybe it’s only one’s own fear of stagnation or decline that makes it tempting to impose a narrative of regret on some of these stories.

Bonnie and Clyde

This went through my mind when the director Arthur Penn died in September 2010. Penn was 88, and universally acknowledged as a great and significant filmmaker; he’s always figured hugely in my inner cinematic landscape. But he only made thirteen full-length theatrical films (along with a lot of work on TV and in the theatre), and the most famous of those – The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man – all came out between 1962 and 1970. Consequently, most obituaries couldn’t help but convey the sense of a staggering career peak, followed by decades of relative drift. Penn commented in several interviews on how movies had changed, moving away from his own strengths (“I'm not into outer space epics or youth pictures”) but he always seemed to me to be pretty objective about it.

He was known for his advances in screen violence, in particular for the shoot-out at the end of Bonnie and Clyde, but showed little interest in following the trajectory of Sam Peckinpah. Similarly, while those key films seemed to distill some essence of the 1960s, they’re the work of a clear-minded observer rather than a delirious participant. It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me why Penn wasn’t able to use his great work in that decade as a springboard to engaging more fully with the ambiguities of the 1970s (some writers refer to personal problems in the first half of that decade). Anyway, his industry “bankability” petered out in 1976 with The Missouri Breaks, a notorious Brando/Nicholson flop at the time, although evidencing many of the qualities of his previous successes. Luck plays a part for film directors, obviously, just as for anyone else.

Bonnie and Clyde was one of my favourite films for years; I’d hardly ever seen anything so vivid, so dazzling as an evocation of the past while seeming so directly relevant to the present. For a moody teenager, it seemed to embody the possibility of transcendence and tenderness even while pursuing one’s inevitable self-destruction. I suppose I value the film a little less now, seeing it more as a masterful exercise than a reference point of ongoing significance, but I can’t imagine not returning to it every few years.

Penn and Teller Get Killed

When Penn died, I found my mind drifting more toward his later works, the ones forming a mere footnote in the obituaries. For example, I haven’t seen his 1985 Gene Hackman/Matt Dillon thriller Target for years (has anyone?), and Penn himself didn’t seem to rate it very highly. At the time I remember esteeming it almost as greatly as the earlier films, as a thriller responsive to its times, and since those times were peak-Reagan era, the movie’s seeming superficiality was stylistically very eloquent…at least, that’s what I remember thinking back then. Anyway, that’s definitely one to return to before long, along with the 1981 Four Friends, which applied some startling narrative techniques to a drama of fracturing times.

But I first found myself thinking of Penn’s penultimate cinema release, the 1989 Penn and Teller Get Killed (the Penn is no relation, although it’s such an anomalous project for the director that it’s tempting to think someone was following a train of free association in offering him the job). Another commercial failure, and all but forgotten now, it’s available on mail-order made-on-demand DVD from Warner Archives. Penn and Teller play themselves, the anti-magic magicians, caught up in the career grind of late-night talk shows and Atlantic City casino gigs (nowadays, I believe they spend most of their time in Vegas). Shooting his mouth off in customary fashion, Penn says on TV he wishes someone were trying to kill him; it would add some excitement and provide a handy excuse for skipping out on various commitments. Soon enough, it seems, he’s getting his wish.

As the movie depicts it, the pair messes around with life itself just about as much as they do with the conventions of magic; there’s a hilarious early bit where Teller keeps tossing coins at a guy playing the slot machines, while Penn loudly accuses him of poisoning the environment with his Commie redistribution of wealth. Most of what follows is inherently ambiguous, up until one of the more distinctive final acts in movie history, simultaneously both ridiculous and cosmically meaningful (and in its own wacky way, yet another advance in screen violence!)

Penn’s Genius

If Arthur Penn’s name wasn’t on the credits, I’m not sure too many people could rapidly identify it as his work. Early on the tone of things seems a bit forced and uncertain, but the movie becomes much more assured as it continues. It’s certainly an effective showcase for the two stars, but ultimately, in a very integrated fashion, it provides some analytical perspective on their art as well. In that sense, it’s ultimately entirely consistent with Penn’s earlier work, although of course with the handicap that Penn and Teller provide an inherently much more narrow field of study than, say, the sixties counterculture. But again, it seems to me the 80’s were bewildering to mostly everyone. The most high-profile and active chronicler of those times was Oliver Stone, but it’s questionable how much lasting analytical perspective a film like Wall Street actually carries.

Penn and Teller Get Killed didn’t really lead Penn anywhere (unless into greater oblivion) and received only a token mention in those obituaries I mentioned. I think most people, if they thought about it at all, would write it off as the project of an aging filmmaker (he was in his mid-60’s by then) just taking what he could get. But of all the preeminent American directors, Penn feels among the most pragmatic (although very ethically so) and the least defined by cinema; his particular greatness was largely rooted, I think, in a kind of wariness of it. There’s a sense of fascination in Bonnie and Clyde, a delight with how Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway shimmer before the camera, soldering us to the social history they embody and yet so empathetically present that the movie can’t help but be about now, whenever it is you might be watching it. In Penn’s case, I think distance helped to nurture that fascination. Presumably he would ideally have chosen to make at least a few more films than he did, but his work suggests he was just too darn wise and sensible not to understand, and take appropriate pride in, the value of what he’d achieved.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Movies I don't want to see

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2006)

I’ve had the same conversation with two different people at work. They said they don’t want to see A Prairie Home Companion because they don’t want to watch a movie with Lindsay Lohan in it. This, obviously, is nuts – it’s nuts to such an extent that I don’t even know how to respond to it. You’re saying you’re going to sit there and the wonderful work of Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor and Meryl Streep and so on will be neutralized because, every once in a while, Lindsay Lohan pops up on screen. Not to mention, by the way, that she’s just fine in the film.

I’ve also heard several people say they don’t want to watch Tom Cruise any more because they can’t get past all the weird stuff they’ve read about him (based on the diminished box office returns for Mission Impossible III, this may be a widespread aversion). I can’t understand any of this. I just don’t sit there looking at actors and compulsively running the tabloid record through my head. As I hope you may have noticed, I try not to even write that much about the actors when I review movies. But maybe it’s a losing battle. So I give up. Because much as I try to suppress them, I have my own aversions too. And I’m letting them all out right here.

Nacho Libre

Napoleon Dynamite was cute, but I have no idea why it took off as it did – certainly not because of actor Jon Heder, who was the lamest Saturday Night Live host of the last year (yeah, I still watch SNL – or actually, I tape it and watch it the next day with my finger poised on fast forward – usually makes for a solid half hour show). So now the director Jared Hess makes his follow-up, and it’s something about a Mexican wrestler. Sounds to me like a movie no one would want to make, other than as a stale, calculated attempt to appear fresh and uncalculating.

And then he puts Jack Black in it. Black has always grated on me – he’s loud, pushy, a camera hog. At best you might have him around the edges of a film, like the casting equivalent of a spicy dip. Putting Black at the middle of a film is like putting a cement mixer on an opera house stage (I just came up with that). Just get a few drinks into Peter Jackson and ask him how he thinks it worked out on King Kong. And then in Nacho Libre it looks like he spends a lot of the time exposing bits of his pudgy body. I saw a few seconds of it on some TV show and felt like I wanted to head right for the gym. I don’t want to sit through this film at all.


For years now people have told me how Shrek and The Incredibles and all those others aren’t really kid movies – that if you listen to the dialogue it’s written “for adults.” I just want to ask those people if they have any idea what “adult” cinema can be. If Finding Nemo is for adults, then who is Ingmar Bergman for? Deities, I guess. No wonder he never found a mainstream audience. But this tells us that adult entertainment is all about consolidating known territory rather than occupying a new one. You recognize a reference to some popular TV show or whatnot, so that scores you a point. Are you further ahead in any worthwhile scheme of things? Nope.

I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy those movies I mentioned, but I watch around seven movies a week (from all sources), so I figure I can afford the odd softball. Most people watch maybe one or two movies a week, which, if you ask me, means that none of these cartoons would ever make the cut. And need I point out that even by Hollywood standards, these things are utterly contrived – the nature of the process precludes spontaneity and minimizes the scope for those happy accidents that may present themselves as gifts to live action films (if the directors are smart enough to allow it). It’s like sticking your head inside that same cement mixer, although not necessarily on the stage of the opera house.

The premise of Cars is talking cars, which is just stupid. The plot sounds deadly dull. Apparently the movie has some finesse in evoking car mythology, so that this too may in fact be for adults. It all makes me think I should get my oil changed. It has the voice of Paul Newman, whom I revere, but that’s not enough either. You think he’d be spending time on this if people sent him some proper scripts?

The Lake House

See, my Jack Black thing aside, I think I have a generous spirit. I don’t like to pile on the usual targets. If it was up to me, Tom and Katie and Angelina and Brad would be left alone to get on with things…although if it was really up to me, I guess they might still be waiting on tables. Obsessing about that stuff is the lowest form of conversation, except for when it’s done in that faux-ironic, above-it-all tone, which to me ranks even lower (ask me some time what I think of the Sunday Star). So I’ve got nothing against Keanu Reeves and nothing against Sandra Bullock. But what’s the deal here? Two lonely people separated in time, sending messages through a magic mailbox. It’s romantic, and then afterwards you can have a lively debate about the plausibility of the time travel angle. Great, but how would I know my brain hadn’t died on me?

The Lady in the Water

Now despite everything, I may go to see this one, because I may get suckered again by M. Night Shyamalan. I’m only human after all. But let’s review the record. The Sixth Sense was pretty good, conceded. Unbreakable was mind-blowingly silly. Signs was simply the most horrible pious self-regarding thing imaginable (as an aside, I don’t want to see any more Mel Gibson movies either). The Village was probably the dumbest of all, because it purported to be set in the real world, with no supernatural infiltration. At that point I felt a bit sorry for Shyamalan. But by all accounts he’s a colossal ego who can take care of himself. Anyway, the latest imminent fiasco stars Paul Giamatti as a janitor who finds a mermaid in a swimming pool, or something like that. If Giamatti were the ordinary unassuming guy he always claims, he’d never come close to this script (the only actor I can think of offhand who’s stuck to his principles and never seemed to chase the pay cheque is Daniel Day-Lewis). The trailer calls it a “bedtime story.” Just skip the movie and go straight to the nap.

Bad cop

Oren Moverman’s film The Messenger was an excellent examination of the military’s distorted contours, focusing on a young sergeant assigned to casualty notification, accompanying an older captain who informs the next of kin about fatalities. I included it here on my list of my favourites of 2010, calling it “very finely crafted.” Moverman’s new film Rampart might make the equivalent list for 2012, we’ll have to see, but if it does, it won’t be with the same rationale, because Rampart increasingly seems to define itself by not being finely crafted. The Messenger conveyed the sense of meticulous research and reflection and attention to detail; Rampart really doesn’t. The fact it’s so fascinating for all its incoherencies and weirdness might, of course, be evidence of being even more finely crafted for hiding the fact, which I guess only tells us that phrase doesn’t mean much.


Set in Los Angeles in 1999, it studies police officer Dave Brown, a Vietnam veteran not so far from Clint Eastwood’s Harry Calahan in his approach to the job; his colleagues call him “Date Rape” for supposedly cold-bloodedly murdering a serial date rapist some years earlier. He gets caught on film beating up a guy who rammed into his car, becoming a media sensation and the subject of a civil lawsuit; maybe he was set up to distract from the endless scandals attaching to his division; maybe he only survived this long because of friends in high places. The scandal puts pressure on his unconventional domestic arrangements – he married two sisters consecutively, they live in adjacent houses with his two daughters, and he comes and goes, always on the prowl for other women.

The film’s first half carries us along on the back of Brown’s imposing self-righteousness and confidence, suggesting a broadly familiar narrative journey to come, although distinguished with entertaining writing and good observation. Brown is as adept at playing with language as he is with mangling procedures (he studied unsuccessfully for the bar exam); he’s negotiated his way through this jungle for so long, he can’t imagine it not continuing. But Moverman soon starts to undermine the firmness of the terrain; for example, he shoots a conversation between Brown and two others in a series of recurring circular pans, as if intercutting between three carousel rides. It’s a crazily intrusive, unmotivated way of filming an essentially straightforward scene, emphasizing the artificiality of the proceedings, and so calling into question Brown’s grasp of them.

Losing control

Such techniques become more prominent as the movie goes on, reflecting the escalating confusion about what’s actually going on, mirroring Brown’s slipping sense of control and increasing pessimism. As his legal bills mount up, an old colleague tips him off on an illicit way to make some quick money, but it goes wrong, suggesting another set-up. His “wives” kick him out of the house; a casual pick-up in a bar maybe isn’t that; his phone’s tapped. Moverman conveys the sense of a situation, and correspondingly of a film, bursting at the seams, potentially even courting madness in trying to keep it all together. Ultimately, the picture seems to be toying with multiple endings, showing Brown possibly toying with suicide, trying to cut a deal, possibly contemplating just disappearing and never being seen again; more broadly, trying to maintain any last sliver of control over a situation that’s rapidly overflowing his assumptions and capacities.

I’ve previously quoted from The New York Times’ A O Scott on The Descendants: “In most movies the characters are locked into the machinery of narrative like theme park customers strapped into a roller coaster. Their ups and downs are as predetermined as their shrieks of terror and sighs of relief, and the audience goes along for the ride. But the people in this movie seem to move freely within it, making choices and mistakes and aware, at every turn, that things could be different.” I like the sound of that too, but I’m not sure The Descendants is the best illustration of it. The line came to mind again as I watched Rampart, if only because Moverman seems so anxious (perhaps overly anxious at times) to challenge our sense of predetermination: having chosen one of the most familiar genres and basic situations in American cinema, he strives constantly to make it strange and unfamiliar. The opening scene is standard banter between cops, except for Brown’s weird insistence that his young female partner (another well-worn device in which the movie loses interest early on) eat up the fries she ordered. Time and again, potentially conventional scenes become distinctive through fresh bits of behaviour, and the imaginative casting supports this project too: Moverman casts esteemed Broadway actress Audra McDonald as an easy pick-up, and it can’t be coincidence the wives are both played by actresses well-known for bisexual histories (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche). Woody Harrelson (who got an Oscar nomination for The Messenger) plays Brown with a fascinating ambiguous flatness; a more conventionally accomplished actor might have given the closing stretch a greater dramatic contour, but only at the cost of simplifying the overall effect. He’s starting to feel like one of the most valuable of stars; his presence links the film to the great quirky works of the 1970’s, when eccentric personalities like Hoffman and Nicholson could be major stars while making stubbornly spiky films.

Vietnam veteran

Brown’s status as a Vietnam veteran links back to that era too, to the long line of movies - Taxi Driver for instance - where the protagonist’s experiences in that wretched war constitute more than just aimless background detail. Taxi Driver, if you recall, has a deliriously incoherent ending: the deranged Travis becomes a repulsive killer, then a hero, then he’s back behind the wheel, and that summary doesn’t come close to conveying how unreadable Scorsese actually makes it all. Rampart doesn’t engineer anything like that, but it draws on the same trauma: Vietnam exploded the country’s myths about itself, and while those who stayed at home might be able to ignore or bandage the wound, the veterans saw too much ever to be duped again about the country’s essential coherence or righteousness. Put more bluntly, given what soldiers were expected to do in Indochina for the sake of abstract strategic positioning, how could they take seriously the hypocrisies operating at home? Why wouldn’t a cop turn bad?

Early on, Brown’s daughter (who addresses him using the “Date Rape” moniker, just for additional family coherence) makes a collage of provocative sexual imagery, which for all his boundary-crossing, leaves him clueless. Again, it’s an overdone metaphor perhaps for how he’s falling out of alignment with the arrangement of things, but if so, at least it’s a fault of artistic over-exuberance, of a director unable to stop gluing new pieces onto his own over-stuffed, but rather shakily gorgeous collage.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Don Quixote

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2009)

I’ve written quite a few times about my continuing wonderment at the ever-increasing availability of great cinema. I used to read about most of the great foreign directors with resigned futility, knowing I’d never likely get to see more than a handful of their works. The Japanese master Ozu seemed to embody inaccessibility, and now I have fourteen Ozu works on my shelf at home. In a way that’s just a triumph of niche consumerism; in another way, perhaps, a transient state en route to a world where every extant movie is perpetually downloadable. Or looking at how things are, maybe it’s a high water mark, which will only survive as a trace of a time when people foolishly thought they could spend money on movies as opposed to, you know, food.

Orson Welles

(Well, let’s leave that last thought aside.) As with so much else in cinema, Orson Welles presents a unique case here. It’s not just that some of the titles most cherished by Welles aficionados – The Other Side of the Wind, The Dreamers, The Deep, various others – aren’t available on DVD: it’s that they were never completed in the first place. Some of this comes down to bad luck (for example with shady financiers), some of it perhaps to a wayward temperament, but in any event Welles seems to me more and more like a spiritual father of our new multimedia age. Long before YouTube and DVD extras and other challenges to the paradigm, Welles seemed intuitively drawn to working in glimpses and fragments, the classical “finished film” apparently increasingly incidental to his creativity. Perhaps this just reflects having to learn to play the cards he was dealt – and he did that brilliantly, discarding the rest of the deck (and most of the players) and making up his own highly iconoclastic rules.

Welles started making a version of Don Quixote around 1955, filming it in bits and pieces over several years (often punctuated by acting jobs on other movies, the fees for which largely got ploughed back into this labour of love). His vision of the work fluctuated, the lead actors died, the world changed, but it appears he did accumulate enough material for a finished film. He edited and played with it on and off for years, but never settled on a final version. At various times he joked (or not) about calling the film When are you Going to Finish Don Quixote?

Jess Franco, who later went on to a hugely prolific if artistically marginal career (almost 200 films, deploying almost as many pseudonyms) was a second-unit director on the film, and almost twenty years ago acquired the rights to most of the available footage. He made an assembly of the film, and screened it at Cannes in 1992, to very limited enthusiasm. Almost no one thought it adequately represented Welles’ likely intentions, even less his standards of quality. Still, it’s been the best there is, and its unavailability in North America has bugged me ever since then. But no more, for it’s now been released on DVD, by Image Entertainment.

Jess Franco’s Orson Welles film

The biggest surprise to me was how coherent it is – by which I mean it has a beginning, a middle and an end, with only intermittent evidence of externally imposed artificial limbs. I don’t suppose this should have been a surprise, but the project’s turbulent history and the poor reviews for Franco’s version had led me to expect something far less viable on its own terms. Many long sequences feel much like finished Welles, even if it’s often hard to maintain focus through the myriad technical challenges: Franco’s project must surely be a labour of love, and yet seems shockingly slapdash at times. It has an often very poor picture quality, and a murky soundtrack fluctuating (or so it sounds) between Welles’ voicing all the main characters at certain times, while using other (rather jarring) voices at others. Some (I assume) “special effects” added by Franco are as bad as anything you’ll see outside, well, his own films. The second-rateness carries over to the DVD – if ever a project needed Criterion-type explanatory notes and extras, this would seem to be the one, but there’s absolutely nothing provided.

Even so, the project’s inherent charm and virtuosity win through much of the time. Welles’ concept has Quixote and Panza finding themselves in the modern world, adding a further level of absurdity to Quixote’s self-invention as a “knight errant.” They joust against bicycles; they become enchanted by television; Panza finds himself cast as an extra in a movie directed by the famous visiting American, Orson Welles (some travelogue material used here, with Welles wandering through Spain, may actually have been intended by Welles for other purposes). We’re accustomed now to such inventions, but it still seems fresh and radical here.

I mentioned YouTube already- what a source of treasures that is for Welles aficionados. In addition to several sequences from The Other Side of the Wind, there’s a sequence from Don Quixote not included in the DVD (apparently Franco couldn’t obtain the rights to it) – although with a missing soundtrack– where the knight visits a movie theater and attacks the images on screen. It might actually have been one of the film’s most inspired inventions, and it’s hard to imagine Welles would have excised it from his dream version.

Tracking Welles

Obviously this alone would be a fatal blow to any notion of the Franco DVD being, in fact, Orson Welles’ Don Quixote. And yet, the fragment does take on an extra sheen for its crippled disembodiment. Another invaluable website is (updated, for a site devoted to a long-departed figure, far more regularly than you might think as the ripples of his legacy perpetually wash up new wonders). This has an article by Audrey Stainton, his secretary for a time, where she describes how even after years of work and much monetary investment, Welles carelessly left the negative languishing for years in a Rome vault, neglecting to pay long overdue storage costs. Only a huge fluke kept it from being destroyed.

You can probably see that if I had the time, I could track and collate and muse about pieces of Don Quixote for weeks and months. Not that I could add anything to what’s on Wellesnet and in the ever-growing library of Welles literature (and no, I don’t buy all those books). But it’s not necessary that we all be academics or movie detectives. The DVD is strange and beautiful enough, sometimes in its very frailty and severe imperfections, to warrant your time on its own terms.

Remembering the righteous

Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness is set in the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Lvov in 1943, built around Leopold Socha, a Polish sewer inspector and opportunistic looter. He discovers a group of Jews tunneling underground, as a desperate escape route from an anticipated assault on the ghetto, and forces them to buy his silence about their plan; after the attack comes, he helps them hide, supplying them over fourteen months with provisions and lying to the Nazis about what he’s seen down there, gradually becoming motivated by altruism rather than money. It’s based on a true story: the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum commemorates Socha and his wife as members of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”

Agnieszka Holland

Holland is a survivor, a respected filmmaker for almost thirty years, her name connoting a general sense of solidity and class, without ever being cited as a truly great director. Three of her pictures, including this one, have been nominated for the foreign film Oscar; she’s also made a string of largely forgotten English-language movies (it seems to sum up something about her that she’s worked several times with Ed Harris). In recent years she’s directed episodes of classy TV shows like The Wire, The Killing and Treme. It’s an enviable career by any standard except the very highest one. Still, In Darkness doesn’t show Holland at her sharpest. Jaime Christley on the Slant website called her “a reliably terrible filmmaker” and said of the new film, “shot after shot demonstrates that Holland has absolutely no idea where to put the camera, is completely indifferent to lighting, and almost certainly must believe that authenticity can be attained by giving her makeup artists and art directors carte blanche to pile on as much dust and muck onto the actors and sets as possible.” I wouldn’t put it that strongly myself, but sad to say, I do know what he means: the film’s a generally lacklustre and monotonous viewing experience, often unnecessarily confusing or murky about what’s actually happening, never feeling like much more than one academically written and executed scene after another.

With some films, you register flaws and quibbles, but the overall power and acuity of the vision makes them incidental. Sadly, and a bit surprisingly, In Darkness never acquires any existential momentum, so that after a while it’s hard not to start mentally chipping away at the thing, something Holland makes shockingly easy (unfortunately, based even on cursory research, it’s obvious that the movie deviates far from the historical record). Sometimes it seems manipulative to the point of callousness: for example, from the initial large group that descends into the sewer, Socha only allows eleven of them to continue on with him; the conversation about who goes and who stays has all the urgency of organizing a shopping trip, and Holland demonstrates a complete lack of interest in the reactions and subsequent experiences of those who stay behind.

Shampoo commercial

It’s full of only-in-the-movie contrivances, of grim fates narrowly avoided by sheer coincidence or last-minute interventions. For example (not even the most egregious example), when Socha unexpectedly receives Nazi visitors, his young daughter is sufficiently innocent and unaware to blurt out that the food he’s serving them is meant to be for the Jews (a moment that induced a widespread gasp in the audience when I saw the film), but then sufficiently shrewd and resourceful to instantly improvise her way out of it. Perhaps most jarringly, in a scene of one of the women taking a shower, the movie momentarily seems to turn into a shampoo commercial.

As I said, these and many other deficiencies wouldn’t seem so prominent if the film were drawing on something broader: in the circumstances, its failure to do so is rather shocking (the closing credits offer the observation that we don’t need to draw on God in order to punish one another, but it seems trite and tacked on). I actually don’t agree with Christley about the surfeit of dirt and muck on the actors and sets – Holland isn’t very successful at conveying the surely nightmarish conditions down there. In this regard, several writers have inevitably linked the film to Andrzej Wajda’s 1957 film Kanal, another film set predominantly in sewers, this one depicting a group of resistance fighters beneath Warsaw. Wajda really is an acclaimed director – he won a special Oscar in 2000 for his body of work – but I think sitting through it all now would be a bit of a slog. Kanal is one of his best though – a viscerally powerful expression of the limitless degradation of war. It informs us at the start that the people it depicts will die that night, and many of them argue bitterly against descending into the sewer like rats, rather than standing and fighting; the film proves them right, covering them in filth, blurring their perceptions, closing off all possibilities, choking off what remains of their brave humanity. But the film also intermittently contains a much more vivid sense of tragic beauty than anything in In Darkness, and frequently grips you with the stark power of its imagery.

Holocaust cinema

You’d think we’d have evolved to a point where concepts like military intervention and invasion finally carried the weight they warrant, but we never get there; every new leader, reluctantly or not, whether because of perceived national interests or some selective sense of our broader duty, turns into an armchair general, extolling the courage of the troops and their sacrifices while shielding us from any vague sense of the blood and the butchery. It’s obviously a compelling and worthy subject for cinema – without wanting to pontificate about it, I do think films like Kanal enhance the viewer’s humanity (I’ve always believed it would be hard to absorb the best of cinema history without becoming progressively more liberal). But at the same time of course, war has long become a genre, with its well-established sub-genres and conventions; whether or not the genre glorifies war, it certainly contributes little to understanding it.

There’s a growing sense that the Holocaust in cinema has become such a genre in itself, with so many precedents and cinematic reference points that any new film can’t hope to transcend them. Liam Lacey asked in a recent Globe and Mail article whether “popular Holocaust dramas really ensure that people never forget the extermination of Jews in World War Two, or do they cloud history with sentimental distortions?” As far as I could tell, he didn’t take a stab at an answer, and I wouldn’t like to either (beyond noting that any film focusing on the “Righteous,” rather than on the far greater number of those who died far from righteous intervention, will always be a distortion of sorts). But certainly In Darkness doesn’t constitute very strong testimony for the “never forget” aspect of the argument. On the contrary, it’s the kind of Holocaust drama that would be made by well-meaning people who’d nevertheless forgotten far too much.