Sunday, April 29, 2012

Back from beyond

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2009)

I was pretty big into the original Star Trek for a few years – enough that at one time I could reel off all 79 episodes in order of their first airing (nowadays I can just recall bits of it, the major scaffolding having long eroded); I owned a Star Trek encyclopedia and various other long-vanished books. Later I bought maybe twelve of the episodes on video, in the days when owning anything on video seemed like a thrill. But by then my interests had broadened considerably and any adherence to Star Trek was purely nostalgic. When the franchise gained new life with Next Generation and the other TV spin-offs, I responded (in that-never-join-a-club-that-would-have-me-as-a-member way of mine) by largely jettisoning all remaining interest. I haven’t seen an episode now for well over a decade. But I did get a big kick out of Leonard Nimoy’s recent vacation back in the spotlight – doing the top ten on Letterman, a walk-on on Saturday Night Live, a cameo on the hot new show Fringe.

The Appeal Of Star Trek

 Spock was definitely a big part of the mystique for me – offering, to a teenager struggling with his own emotions and social skills, a fascinating proposition in triumphantly assimilating the ultimate nerdy outsider. I loved his clashes with Dr. McCoy, as a primal dialectic on the confounding question of how to go about this whole adult thing. Star Trek felt adult – the diversity among the crew was always very striking, and there was a rich contour to many of the relationships - but the sense of discovery and exploration differentiated it from the grim, washed-out adulthood I mostly saw around me. Even something as giddy as the colour coding of the uniforms (red, yellow, sky-blue), if mysterious, was a happy, life-enhancing kind of enigma. And the show was good at crafting accessible allegories and philosophical challenges. It might seem trite now, but I still remember how the episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (the one where two guys, each divided down the middle into white and black, carry out an endless race war, based on which colour goes on which side) helped me clarify my own feelings about prejudice (a diversity-free Welsh village wasn’t much of a location from which to become progressive on that topic).

 I was as excited as anyone when the original cast reunited for a series of movies, starting in 1979 and continuing for a decade or so (I do recall there might at one point have been a school essay in which I referred to Star Trek: The Motion Picture as the best film ever made, a judgment I’ve since revised a little bit). The movies offered some pleasures, but never really achieved an inherent sense of purpose. When they announced a year or two ago that J. J. Abrams (creator of Lost and Alias) was reviving, or (as they like to say now) rebooting the (as they like to say now) franchise, I didn’t have much reaction. I mean, there’s nothing very mysterious about the calculation there: take a property with enormous name recognition, bring in a young master of the new vernacular, and just watch the curiosity value skyrocket.

Star Trek Rebooted

 Recently, as regular readers will know, I’ve become tired of Hollywood’s weekly parade of mechanical marvels, and by the time Abrams’ movie actually opened, I might well have decided to skip it. Good reviews, and the Nimoy victory tour I mentioned, tipped the balance. Half an hour into the movie though, I was already tired of it, and going through my ‘how do I keep falling for this stuff’ internal conversation. The scenes setting up the young Kirk are so raucous they hurt my head; those setting up the young Spock are boring.

 It gets better, once it settles into what we’re all there for. The cast is almost uniformly strong, whether they’re somewhat reinventing their characters (Chris Pine as Kirk, Zoe Saldana as Uhura), working more in straight evocation mode (Karl Urban as McCoy, Zachary Quinto as Spock), or doing their own sweet thing (Simon Pegg as Scott). Although there is no plausible way in this world (nor in one of those alternate universes so beloved of modern mythmakers) to explain how a bunch of kids (a drop down the age scale was an inevitable part of the reboot) gets to run the show on a piece of technology as stunning as the Enterprise, the movie probably does as well with this as it possibly could. And the use of Nimoy as the old Spock is certainly one of the better time-travel contrivances.

 As it often did in the show, the use of the “transporter” as a plot short cut is jarring; whether or not that’s a plausible technology, it certainly doesn’t seem feasible within the universe depicted. I could go on. But as you see, I am merely reduced here to reeling off my own subjective debits and credits, measured against the original series. If you ask the broader question, whether the film achieves any kind of valuable distinct presence, then I’m afraid it’s a pretty clear no. The more it revs itself up into the mother of all cosmos-eating, mankind-threatening, time-and-space-whipping extravaganzas, the clearer it is it’s about next to nothing at all.

At Least It’s Fun

 Well, you say, there’s that all-important commodity, fun. But when you look at the immense increase in our fun-gleaning options over the last decade, from PVRs to smart phones, it gets awfully hard to rationalize how any of us can possibly need the minimal additional stimulation represented by whatever Hollywood’s peddling this week. If we do need it, then surely it’s only at the cost of admitting that this explosion of possibility has failed us, that instead of being better able to craft our own menu of choices (as the hype tells us) we’re merely better placed to be manipulated into the next narrative of supposedly necessary cultural consumption.

 That famous opening voiceover - “Space, the final frontier…to boldly go where no man has gone before”- is easily parodied, but then you think about those times. The moon was yet to be conquered, all manner of social progression barely yet envisaged. Star Trek perceived and dramatized these as two sides of the same urgent renewal; it was fun, as an engaged conversation is fun; it delivered easy entertainment, but persistently reached further. The new movie has resources and possibilities they couldn’t have imagined back then, but they also couldn’t have imagined that surviving for this long would count for so little.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Surrender to the dance

So I was writing last week about The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies’ first narrative feature film in twelve years, and coincidentally the subject this time is Damsels in Distress, Whit Stillman’s first film of any kind in fourteen years. Although Davies is likely the greater artist of the two, I’ve missed Stillman more: I’ve loved all his films. Barcelona, in particular, focusing on the entanglements of two American cousins working in Spain, seemed like a near-revelation at the time (1994), very funny and full of astoundingly engaging dialogue (I remember being stunned at the notion of a movie where the characters talked so much about management theory), engaging deftly with real politics and personal frictions while simultaneously conveying a sensibility way beyond the here and now. Last Days of Disco, made in 1997, was a little narrower in its scope, focusing on a small Manhattan clique and their sense of entitlement and predestination, somewhat deferred while they toil in rather menial jobs (it’s no surprise Lena Dunham of Girls loves the movie), perceiving themselves at the heart of a great social phenomenon but barely capable of meaningful action except in relation to each other. Again, it’s a joy to watch and to listen to, with a deep sense of loss and idealism, all the more so in hindsight for the silence that followed from the director.

Damsels in Distress

 Much like Davies, Stillman doesn’t try to gloss over the difficulty of his time away: he tried and failed to get several projects off the ground, his marriage ended, he became homeless (albeit a genteel, well-connected kind of homelessness it seems). Interviewed in the Star, he said: “It’s terribly frustrating and terribly humiliating and impoverishing. I’ve been away with my daughters — they got scholarships — but yeah, it’s just terrible. I don’t know how other people do it. I was really badly humiliated.” Damsels in Distress seems to evidence this regret, underneath a proud and slightly cranky defiance. At one point a character mentions Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses, and you can’t help but make a regretful connection; Truffaut was able throughout his career to make a lighter movie in the knowledge that he could turn to a heavier one next time. I liked Damsels in Distress a lot, but it ought to be Stillman’s Stolen Kisses, not his, well, everything.

The film takes place on the Seven Oaks college campus, in more or less the present day (someone refers to the prevalence of electronic communication, but I don’t think we ever actually glimpse a smartphone in the film). A new transfer student, Lily, quickly falls into the orbit of Violet (Greta Gerwig) and two others, a trio dedicated to improving the local environment: it’s a multi-faceted project involving volunteering at the suicide prevention centre (attempting suicide seems to be a popular activity thereabouts), dating men less intelligent than themselves, promoting better hygiene and in Violet’s case, trying to devise a new international dance craze in the tradition of the Charleston or the Twist. While admiring the group in some ways, Lily also maintains her distance, dating another student who lies about working in “strategic development” and then another who claims to be in an obscure religious cult, entailing particular sexual demands (and celebrating the Sabbath on Tuesdays). Violet experiences a “tailspin” when her manifestly unworthy boyfriend cheats on her (his main positive point seems to be that he’s at least a bit quicker than his roommate, who has to strain to remember the names of primary colours), but she comes out of it when she checks into a cheap motel room that turns out to have an unusually satisfying brand of soap. And so it goes.

Dignified unity

 I made that plot summary a bit longer than I usually do, as the best way of conveying the film’s considerable strangeness, and – let’s say – its distance from the pressing issues of our times. If you‘ve never seen a Stillman film, the above might suggest a fast-moving screwball farce, but actually his pacing is extremely deliberate, with each utterance occupying a carefully delineated space (it’s a rare movie where someone asks “how” something happens and the response is “How, or in what ways?”) As in the previous films, he likes framing groups walking together, moving in the same direction in a somewhat stately fashion, preserving a certain dignified unity despite whatever tension might exist in the exchanges. Stillman also likes the idea that even a brief interaction between two people might place them in some kind of spiritual alignment; Damsels in Distress has a constant sense of people connecting, reflecting on how they relate to one another, checking their frames of reference, readjusting.

 Even those dumb guys I mentioned preserve some dignity; they may be impeded, but their desire to attain clarity seems sincere (the most dubious people, it seems, are those who might be labeled “operators”). And one person’s point of eye-rolling obviousness is another’s unchartered revelation. At one point Lily stares at artichokes cooking on the burner, seemingly having never come across them before. The limitation of all this though is that Stillman’s deconstruction and strangifying doesn’t always seem to amount to much more than that: the broader resonances of the earlier films don’t flow as easily here. In fact, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to comment that the movie doesn’t arrive somewhere so much as happily dissolve itself, ending in two consecutive musical numbers (one of them accompanied by captions to facilitate audience participation).

Love Train

 The Last Days of Disco also ended with a dance, with Manhattan subway riders surrendering to the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” but it seemed there like a fanciful postscript: in Damsels in Distress by comparison the dancing seems, in itself, to be the main arrival point. The choice of the Gershwins’ “Things are Looking Up,” following right from a scene in which a seeming suicidal dash turns out to be instead a rush to appreciate a rainbow, seems like the sign of a fundamentally optimistic filmmaker, especially when he then so explicitly extends the offer of the dance to all of us. But it can’t be taken as more than a transient or contingent arrival point: it seems clear the characters will continue to lie and stumble and screw up. Whether they’re learning anything remotely helpful or lasting at Seven Oaks is a question firmly outside the scope of the movie.

  There’s hardly a person over thirty in the mix, and several of those who do appear seem primarily intended as brief echoes of the earlier films. For a director who’s somehow found himself hitting sixty, that might be viewed as charming and progressive, or as a sign of denial. Damsels in Distress suggests both are applicable, but pushes you a bit too much toward the latter interpretation. And the film is so plainly marooned on its own little artistic island, it provides little reason to think we won’t have to wait as long again for Stillman’s next work. And that’s nothing to dance about.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Great Ape


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2005)

I haven’t devoted this entire page to a single film since August, and the film in question was (of all things) The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (although I spent about half the space on digressions of various kinds). Since then I’ve been playing catch-up with festival reviews, the vast fall movie agenda, and then the year-end bonanza. But confronted with the granddaddy of them all, the rebirth of one of cinema’s founding icons, I force myself to stop and marvel and reflect more deeply. This is all about Kong. King Kong.

It Takes a Blonde

 The new film, as I’m sure you know already, is directed by Peter Jackson, his first since winning an Oscar for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is (as I’m sure you know already – sorry, I’ll stop with that) a remake of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s (still wonderful) 1933 original, although with a much fuller concept of the central relationship, and is probably not influenced at all by John Guillermin’s 1976 remake (about which I remember nothing except Jeff Bridges’ wild hair, Jessica Lange, and the considerable publicity devoted at the time to the giant hydraulic arm). Naomi Watts plays a struggling Depression-era actress fast-talked by producer Jack Black into boarding a ship on which he’s filming his latest project. Little does she know he’s heading not for Singapore but for elusive, perhaps mythical Skull Island; little does he know that Skull Island, once they find it, is home to incalculable layers of peril – cannibalistic natives, giant insects, dinosaurs, and towering above all, the giant ape Kong.  Watts is quickly taken by the natives as a sacrifice to appease the monster’s rage, but instead of chewing her up like countless predecessors, Kong decides he likes having her around. He’s surly, jealous, hotheaded, but with increasingly revealed inner sadness and capacity for tenderness. All of this is best revealed by handing him a blonde.

Well, almost no one's been able to write about the film without cracking the occasional line, and I'm no exception. But the film grows heavily in my mind, the more I think about it. In particular, the central love story – and it’s not stretching a point to call it that; by the end of the movie Watts has done everything for the ape short of taking it all off – although easily enough dismissed by its very nature, becomes more resonant. Watts is a wonderful actress, but is allowed no real character traits here except sheer empathy. At the start we see her in vaudeville, losing herself behind make-up and deft but silly routines; the film establishes an older actor as her long-time father figure who, finally beaten down by the Depression, departs and leaves her unmoored. She’s drawn to playwright Adrien Brody before even meeting him, sensing in his plays a sensitivity that, it appears, might serve for her as a catalyst for further self-definition (when she and Brody meet, the film dallies briefly with some friction based on clumsy misunderstandings, but then plunges them into romance with a dispatch bordering on shorthand). Once the exposition is over and they’re on the island, she barely talks again – she runs, reacts, stares, weeps, performs for Kong, but barely gets to speak. The portrayal amounts to little more than a blank slate, but one that through Watts’ expressiveness (worthy of a silent screen queen) establishes all the clichéd evocative possibilities of femininity.

Male Traits

This is then matched against a male protagonist who, by virtue of being a big gorilla, obviously taps an even more primal gender-based characterization (!) As virtually everyone has pointed out, this evocation of Kong surpasses anything previously seen in giving life and “character” to a digitally created beast (much of the performance was derived from actor Andy Serkis via motion capture techniques). The climax on the Empire State building is surely as emotionally affecting as it possibly could have been. But if this were all there was to it, it would likely seem more perverse than anything else. The film’s first third spends much time establishing a variety of male traits and stereotypes – the selfish blowhard Black, the sensitive Brody, a subplot about a young sailor and the older hand who’s his father figure, much rowdiness and man-of-action exertion. It’s appealing to see a distinct symmetry in the film that posits Kong merely as the synthesis of all this.

 Many have described the first third as laboured and overlong, and the second third as being almost as excessive in how it abandons all reflection, plunging into a perhaps unprecedented succession of dazzling action sequences. But it seems more rational if you view the first third as belonging to the world of males, messy and sometimes tedious and bungling for all their scheming, whereas the second belongs to that of Kong, the ultra-Male, by his strength and sheer presence sweeping aside these human idiocies, to be replaced by almost pure motion and spectacle, which nevertheless proves as effective in causing the submission of the female. This segment ends of course with male mankind’s most egregious idiocy, capturing Kong as a commercial trophy, leading to the destructive comeuppance in the excellently rendered New York climax (of course, it isn’t a spoiler in the circumstances to reveal that Kong dies, but the victory is too compromised even to be termed Pyrrhic).

Vision And Intent

Maybe that all seems over-analytical, but I don’t know how else one would make sense of the movie. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was never really my thing, although I did like each of the movies more than the one that preceded it. King Kong seemed, when he announced it, like an odd follow-up, but now it all seems to make much more sense – the endlessly sprawling canvas of the Rings movies gets replaced with something possessing as much cultural prominence and possibility for transcendent technique and spectacle, but with an almost infinitely more concentrated inner core. The end of the third Rings film was widely criticized for going on forever, adding endless elaborations and epilogues, and I got as tired of it as anyone else, but along with the apparently self-reproducing extended versions, commentaries and other sideshows it speaks to the impossibility of bringing easy closure to a project that so consumed the director.  King Kong by comparison was a much more discreet endeavour for him, and exhibits an almost gleeful concentration of vision and intent.

The film's a hit of course, but not on the level of the Rings films, and some have divined a lack of appeal to female audiences. I find this ironic since women were seldom more than a pictorial, ethereal presence around the edges of the trilogy, but I suppose the female interest in those films was far from political. If audiences think about it though, the gorgeous perversity of King Kong is surely more rewarding. And I haven’t even mentioned the film’s ecological themes, or even made much of its immense logistical prowess and visual skill. You know, far from being another easily ignored big budget Hollywood product, it may even be worth a second visit.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

After the war

Terence Davies’ career illustrates both the glory and the cruelty of a life devoted to cinema. He’s often regarded as one of the greatest living British filmmakers, yet at the age of 66 he’s only managed to complete six full-length films. I recently rewatched his 1992 The Long Day Closes, a stunning evocation of his childhood in a Liverpool tenement, embodying the odd connections and random choices of memory without ever becoming chaotic or fanciful. Like many of his works, it’s suffused in movies and popular songs, commemorating their mysterious allure and strangeness, how they colour an existence even as they confirm its day-to-day claustrophobia. In 2000, Davies moved onto a larger stage, using major stars like Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd in an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. Although less striking than the earlier works, it’s very moving for its quietly intense focus on its poor protagonist, immaculately charting the quiet cruelty of her environment and her escalating failure to navigate it. Watching it now, this impression is heightened by the knowledge of Davies’ own subsequent experience; unable to get a film made for almost a decade, he’s described it as a very lean and difficult time.

The Deep Blue Sea

In 2008 he made a documentary essay about his home city, Of Time and the City. The film was well-received and has some wonderful passages, but I found it almost insufferable at times; Davies’ narration often just seems plain crabby, no matter how sympathetic you are to his disappointments. Still, it set the stage for a return to narrative cinema with The Deep Blue Sea, which has now been released here. An adaptation of a play by Terence Rattigan, set in the early fifties, it focuses on Hester, who’s left her husband, a senior judge and knight of the realm, to live in threadbare circumstances with her lover Freddie, despite knowing he doesn’t truly return her feelings. As the film starts, she composes a suicide note to Freddie, then turns on the gas, lies on the bed, prepares to die; her mind (or the film’s mind, as it were) travels almost wordlessly over the events that brought her there. She survives, but when Freddie learns of the attempt, it knocks away what little commitment he still holds to their affair.

The opening caption actually identifies the date as “around 1950,” which immediately signals how the film, although highly focused on Hester’s individual story, is also preoccupied more broadly with post-WW2 dissatisfaction and displacement. Hester remarks that Freddie has never been as happy as he was at the height of the war, where he won medals for his heroism as a pilot; he’s an embodiment of how Britain’s self-satisfaction at its success at fighting Hitler (and at the undoubted moral righteousness of that cause), and its nostalgia for the rituals of the war years, blunted its ability for growth and self-reflection in the subsequent decades. Hester’s husband, defined by class and convention and propriety, embodies a different aspect of this deep-freeze; a superb scene where he and Hester visit his mother, presented as a flashback, illustrates the extreme rigidity of what constitutes acceptable interaction in those circles, with even a modest expression of provocation viewed as offensive. The superb British stage actor Simon Russell Beale, seldom seen in movies, conveys perfectly the character’s growing sympathy for Hester’s actions, even perhaps a quiet admiration for them, and the pain of his resulting self-reflection.

Rachel Weisz

Among the actors though, the film belongs to Rachel Weisz, who even though she has an Oscar, might be the most underappreciated great actress of her generation (she contributed greatly to a recent underrated Canadian film, The Whistleblower). She certainly conveys Hester’s desperation, but more crucially, her intelligence, her ability to diagnose and rationally describe her hopelessness even as she’s consumed by it. She seems completely attuned to Davies’ intentions without being a mere vessel for them, and as a result the film is often most mesmerizing in its most modest, unadorned moments. Near the end she polishes Freddie’s shoes for him, another ritual, taking the brush out of the tin box where it’s kept, cleaning one shoe and then another, keeping them off the table (it’s bad luck) – I know it doesn’t sound like much, but the passage carries total visual and aural authenticity (I’m sure Davies’ paid great attention to the scraping of the box-lid and the crackling of the shoes), true to the huge underlying tragedy, that Hester will likely relive this memory every day of her life.
At times, Davies evokes the broader collages of his earlier films. Hester runs into the underground, stands on the platform waiting for the train, approaching in the distance; suddenly rubble is falling onto the tracks, and we’re back in the war years; a young man is singing Molly Malone and the camera tracks past a platform filled with people waiting out an alert, eventually finding Hester standing close to her husband, and we’re jolted back to the present as the train speeds by. It’s a stunning sequence on its own terms, and entirely true to the tensions of memory and influence operating on Hester. One’s only regret about The Deep Blue Sea is that it might be even more intoxicating to receive a Terence Davies film crafted more fully in this vein; maybe we’ll be lucky, because his next project is reportedly coming together much more quickly.

Act of creation

That’s not to suggest the current film is somehow narrow or restricted. It’s true that it only has a handful of characters, and the majority of it takes place in a few interior settings: Davies even emphasizes these limits by crafting largely symmetrical opening and closing shots. But as we know, the notional size and scope of many “bigger” movies is merely a matter of puffing up a nutrition-parched dish with empty calories. Throughout the film, in a way that’s rare now, you feel a vital guiding presence alongside the camera, totally immersed in the act of creation, working closely and humanely with his collaborators. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if it were more angry and bitter than it is, in the vein of Of Time and the City; after all, Britain’s perverted laws and conventions destroyed an untold number of lives (the film’s subtext certainly isn’t confined to women like Hester – the playwright Rattigan was gay, as is Davies). But instead it’s a film of immense compassion. And when you think of that phrase – of being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea – although it connotes being stuck between hopeless alternatives, it’s also intensely poetic, suggesting one’s inner pain extends to touch the loneliest depths of this world, and the dark heart of the next. It exactly sums up Terence Davies’ gorgeous capacity, that in his hands the smallest of films feels like the largest.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Movie phantoms

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2008)

I’d been watching the Criterion DVD of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1966 film Le deuxieme souffle, and then worked my way through the typically generous extras. One of these, a French on-the-set TV report of the time (who finds this material?!), mentioned in passing that Melville’s cast included the actor Mel Ferrer. Now I know what Mel Ferrer looked like, and I was pretty sure he wasn’t in the movie – no surprise, since his name wasn’t in the credits either. But then I did a Google search and found several sites which did list him as a cast member. Oddly though, those sites didn’t have a specific character against his name, as though he’d been merely an extra.

Mel Ferrer Mystery

Well, in the end I found the story, via a French-language website. According to my own translation, Ferrer started shooting the film, and Melville decided during his very first scene that he wasn’t right for the role (in part because, and again you have to rely on my shaky skills here, he was knock-kneed). Melville then set out to exasperate the actor, quickly succeeding to the point that Ferrer fell into the trap and declared he would have nothing more to do with the film. And things went on with a replacement.

Nothing so strange about that story – actors are recast all the time in the course of shooting. Sometimes (as in Woody Allen’s September) virtually the whole cast turns over. What’s unusual with the Ferrer example is how the alternate universe, in which he does appear in the film, continues to trace through the real world in which he doesn’t, even forty years on. I love these oddities of cinema – I can’t imagine I would ever have searched Mel Ferrer’s name on account of any of the films in which he did appear (maybe the feat of having married Audrey Hepburn is worth the occasional Google search in his memory though).

One of the more famous examples of a phantom film appearance concerns Quentin Tarantino, and Jean-Luc Godard’s 1987 King Lear. Tarantino was cited for years as one of the film’s cast members, and included it in his own publicity brochure, but he later said he made it up: “I put it on my resume as an actor, and said I was in that, because nobody would ever see the film.”

Fair enough, except I have a distinct memory of actually seeing Tarantino in the film – it’s just about the only thing I remember clearly about it (except, to bring him up again, Woody Allen’s disconnected appearance as the Fool). Assuming Tarantino is telling the truth about lying, what accounts for this? I’m pretty sure I saw the film after Tarantino rose to fame, so I must have picked out some vaguely similar actor and imprinted the then-hot auteur’s identity onto him. Did Tarantino base his lie in the knowledge that a vague look-alike did appear in the film, increasing his chances of getting away with it?

Tarantino Mystery

I don’t think the film is readily available on DVD, but I expect if I had the willpower I could track down a definitive answer to this mystery. But you know, it’s more fun this way.

Tarantino’s recent flop Grindhouse is a different kind of phantom – a film originally released, you’ll recall, as a double-bill, along with faked intervening trailers, only to be rapidly withdrawn from that form and cannibalized into two separate releases. I admired the exercise more than I might have, and there must be another alternative universe in which it hit the spot, unleashing a whole new wave of skuzzy, decaying-before-your-eyes anti-entertainments. But in this universe, it didn’t work too well, and may seldom be seen again as originally intended.

And Tarantino slowly drifts from supreme hero (it’s fair to say no one in the last twenty years of American cinema directly inspired so many imitators) to rather forlorn figure, laboriously injecting his increasingly tedious “touches” into unworthy material. His new project, a remake of the Italian war meller Inglorious Bastards (a film long forgotten by everyone except, perhaps, the same narrow audience who got the Grindhouse concept) hardly seems likely to turn things around.

Tarantino reveres Godard, even naming his production company - Bande a part – after one of Godard’s films. But what a difference in trajectories. I’m currently reading Richard Brody’s Godard biography Everything is Cinema. It’s a long read, but necessarily so to convey the often-painful grit of Godard’s life-long struggle to be at peace with his art, and with himself, if there’s any distinction. For all the detail, the man himself barely comes across – you glean his turbulence and waywardness, and of course his intellectual overdrive, but if you ask if he’s ever been, say, happy?...I’m damned if I can tell.

Of all the filmmakers I most value, Godard’s the one in whom I’ve always felt my investment of time and concentration to be the most inadequate – at worst, you come away from his films with just scraps and impressions (albeit dazzling ones). But I can live with it – I’m just a dabbler. What about Tarantino, a biography of whom might also carry some variant on the “Everything is Cinema” title (such as: “In Search of Kick-Ass Flicks”)? Doesn’t he feel, for lack of a better word, lazy, by comparison with his hero’s giving of himself?

The Tiger’s Tail

Maybe the saddest kind of cinema phantom is the kind haunting us in plain sight. Thirty years ago, Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man who Fell to Earth) was another cult hero – his latest film Puffball opened earlier this year for one lonely, under-advertised week. A similar example just arrived, long after its release in its native UK – John Boorman’s The Tiger’s Tail. Boorman made Point Black and Deliverance, and while those films still get mentioned from time to time, his more recent work (Country of my Skull and now the new movie) just doesn’t seem to matter to anyone.

It’s a Doppelganger concept – big-shot Irish businessman Brendan Gleeson, struggling to keep his head above choppy economic and personal waters, starts to think he glimpses a double, who then starts to take over his life. This could have, should have been a good platform for the kind of mythmaking Boorman’s specialized in, but the film becomes heavy and weary, and the metaphoric force rapidly dissipates. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not in any sense a necessary one. And where is the veteran director in there? That plot, of a country and then an identity getting away from you, might be all too meaningful for the man notionally at the helm. Unlike Mel Ferrer, he’s certainly there, and yet in all the ways that used to matter, he barely is.

Peter Watkins

If the Jeopardy category were “enigmatic directors,” then Terrence Malick might be the basis for most of the questions. For an “art” movie, last year’s Tree of Life had an exceptionally high degree of visibility; I sometimes wondered if it was being projected directly onto everyone’s doorstep, rather than at a nearby cinema. It now seems Malick is in the sweet spot both of being able to do whatever he wants – suddenly working faster than he ever has in his life, he’s already completed another film and reportedly started yet another - and of being guaranteed immense respect and deference. Certainly Tree of Life is a serious-minded work, evidencing a phenomenal ease with the tools of cinematic creation. But it’s essentially egotistical and ungenerous: it doesn’t evidence a scrap of interest in the life experience of anyone other than Malick himself, and doesn’t give you anything that you can practically use once you leave the theatre. With a little less refinement, the film would have resembled a dazzlingly eloquent bore at a party, sucking up the air with his wacko theories.

Early works

I like my cinematic enigmas to be more humble and grounded, and I thought I’d try today to turn your attention toward Peter Watkins, one of the least industry-integrated filmmakers ever to win an Academy Award. He was born in the UK in 1935, and came to prominence with two films in the 1960’s. Culloden reconstructed the 1745 battle of that name as if TV cameras had been present. The War Game depicted the aftermath of a nuclear attack; it was rejected by the BBC for its intensity and then won a documentary Oscar (a particular testimony to its power, given it’s a work of speculation). Watkins then plunged into the swinging sixties with Privilege, studying themes of manipulation and indoctrination through the medium of a cult pop hero: the film is dazzlingly imaginative and energetic, wildly of its time, and quite prophetic.

His next two films were biting allegories. The Gladiators depicts East and West channeling their aggression into “peace games,” broadcast on TV. More didactic and narrow than his best work, it suffers now from various points of similarity to other dystopian works, although it exhibits all his skill at nailing establishment ideologies. Punishment Park imagines that the America of Nixon and Vietnam might offer its young dissidents the choice of trying to evade draconian prison sentences by taking their chances in a (rigged) desert survival exercise. Cutting between the desert and the judicial proceedings, the film was despised at the time, and hasn’t lost any of its power: actually, after Guantanamo Bay, and against a backdrop of escalating complacency in the face of destructive war-mongering politics, it may seem even more relevant now. In fact, it’s arguably so gripping as to undermine its own intentions, drawing the viewer into fascinated but generalized revulsion, at the cost of evoking a meaningfully directed response.

The Freethinker

At this point Watkins might still have followed a direction at least vaguely related to the mainstream. But he didn’t. He went to Sweden to make a film about Edvard Munch, which received significant acclaim (I skip over it here only because it’s been too long since I saw it). That was in 1974: his sixth credit in ten years. Since then, working and (I believe) living primarily in Scandinavia, he’s only made seven more films, the last of them over a decade ago. Worse, most of these have barely been seen, and aren’t easily available – for example, his film The Seventies People was effectively buried after its first screening, and is apparently now missing except for one print held in Paris and another in Denmark, neither of them generally accessible and neither with English subtitles.

His 1994 film The Freethinker is on DVD though, and I recently watched that. It’s a long, sometimes deliberately grueling meditation on the dramatist August Strindberg, disorienting the viewer by switching between different phases of Strindberg’s life and by sowing deliberate confusion as to (for instance) whether at a given moment we’re watching a representation of Strindberg or rather being told about him, whether we’re watching a recreation of his life or a scene from one of his plays. The film doesn’t use talking head experts, but periodically drops us into contemporary discussions about his legacy, as well as sensitizing us to the wretched poverty and prejudice in Sweden at the time.

Disastrous impact

The film amply illustrates then Watkins’ emphasis on the necessity of an alternative audio-visual language (made explicit near the start of the film). A statement on his excellent website ( emphasizes the “increasingly irresponsible manner in which the mass audiovisual media (MAVM) function, (and) their disastrous impact on society, human affairs, and the environment” and refers to “the widespread public passivity towards the way the MAVM flagrantly comport themselves as proponents of violent, exploitative and hierarchical ideologies, and to the catastrophic and ongoing lack of public knowledge about what the mass audiovisual media are doing to us.” I take the point of The Freethinker to be not so much Strindberg himself, but to sensitize us to the bland linearity of most historical representation, shaped and conditioned around a selected set of “facts” and interpretations (the fact that most viewers likely aren’t particularly interested in the subject might be a deliberate device for promoting our focus on this deconstructive process).

Watkins’ website is crammed with provocative material, such as a scathing essay on the coverage of Princess Diana’s death (“I heard media professionals who had either completely lost their sense of reason, or had become even more manipulative than my (previous statements) indicated”); it’s a detailed and fascinating record of a stubbornly iconoclastic path through life (a recent update says a distributor in Toronto is working to release some of these missing works on DVD, and that Watkins is “preparing a CD-Rom lexicom on the media crisis”). His critique of mass media malignity becomes ever more relevant as the standard of our public discourse grinds relentlessly into greater trivia, shrouding the mass erosion of quality of life and prospects for sustainability. One imagines Watkins would view Tree of Life as belonging to the same camp as the mass media he despises, tying up our faculties with a superficially warming sense of belonging and wonderment, which only blunts our capacities to fight for our rights and futures. Of course, valiant as his efforts may have been, he’s been hopelessly outmatched. Still, in addition to The Freethinker, Edvard Munch and the earlier films I’ve mentioned are available on DVD. If you hope to spend any time on cinema that enhances and instructs you, you could do much worse than allocate some of your time to Peter Watkins.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

More Big Movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2004)

There have been lots of good movies lately. Among those I liked but didn’t have time to review were the Golden-Globe winning Afghan film Osama, Michael Winterbottom’s In This World, and Nathaniel Kahn’s Oscar-nominated documentary My Architect. Those three are already on their way out of theaters, but here are four notable works that should still be around when this article appears.


David Mamet is a vastly resourceful playwright, whose work in the theatre carves out a dazzling niche of compulsive, compromised behaviour. His first few films as a director – House of Games, Things Change – seemed to be an extension of this oeuvre, albeit with a beginner’s fascination with the tools and techniques of cinema often crowding out thematic and psychological interests. But with The Heist and now Spartan, he seems embarked on a new project, to become a lean, terse action craftsman of superior plotting skills. It reminds me of how Robert De Niro, around the time of Ronin, seemed to become primarily interested in submerging himself beneath genre mechanics.

Mamet’s new film, about the kidnapping of a President’s daughter and the secret service men on her trail, has as many imaginative twists and turns as his previous work, but other than a general notion of disillusionment with political institutions, it’s hard to glean much of a subtext from it. Which isn’t a huge problem in a movie as well sustained as this one. The film is violent, dark, and well-acted (the star is Val Kilmer) and the dialogue – by Mamet standards – is so toned down that when he slips in one of his traditional high-concept phrases it almost sounds out of place. Bonus element; although the President and his venal advisors are fictional, it sure feels like an acerbic projection about the current administration.

Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs de Coran

Francois Dupeyron’s French film might be taken merely for a curio – an increasingly odd story of a teenager, largely ignored by his anguished single father, who falls under the wing of a local “Arab” shopkeeper (played by Omar Sharif in his best role in years). Initially, it’s a slice of 50’s life, permeated in period music and the delights of street bustle - particularly the local whores on whom the kid spends every available franc. But as it goes on, and Sharif’s behaviour becomes odder, it takes on peculiar psychological undercurrents, some of which are never fully explained. Certainly, to a degree, the film is about how the life of the imagined, of the self defined, may be as real as the physical – indicated in ways from the invention of major life details, to quirky details such as Sharif telling the kid to serve cat food to his father and tell him it’s pate (it goes down pretty well). The ending has its regressive aspects, but also seems to me a delightful fusion of the film’s multiple strands. On the whole, it’s a very subtle work, working in a familiar emotional register, drawing in ideas we’ve seen a hundred times, but investing them with a very distinctive panache and abandon.

Goodbye Lenin

Wolfgang Becker’s comedy was a big hit in its native Germany – not a surprise, since it deftly exonerates them for much of their post-war history. It’s 1990 in East Germany, and a young man’s aging mother, devoted to her homeland’s socialist ideals, suffers a heart attack when she sees her son participating in a protest march. She’s in a coma for eight months, during which that wave of protest becomes tidal, resulting in the Berlin wall coming down and in the rapid Westernization of the East. Miraculously, she wakes up, but when he’s told another shock will kill her, the son decides to hide the news of what’s happened outside, enlisting family and friends to help him pretend the Erich Honecker regime is still going strong. It’s fairly easy as long as she stays bedridden in one room, but as she recovers her strength the signs of change become unavoidable to her. He can only reconcile all this with his lie by taking the story in a dramatic new direction – that the East is actually triumphing in the ideological war, and the signs of encroaching pop culture are the detritus of refugees fleeing from the West. Key to the deception is the help of a video buff friend who patches together increasingly convoluted fake news bulletins, absorbed by the old woman with growing amazement.

It’s an effective conceit, although as it goes on the movie seems to reflect a strain similar to that experienced by the protagonist – you get the feeling that the filmmakers barely avoided writing themselves into a corner. They deserve credit for pulling that off, but not for the film’s consistent avoidance of anything resembling real bite. The movie allows the West all its triumph, while throwing the East some pretty substantial bones of comfort, but lost in this clever calculation, aside from anything resembling a political analysis, is any concerted acknowledgment of the devastating human cost of those forty wasted years (the subplot with the father who skipped to the other side, leaving wife and children behind, plays in a predictably sentimental manner). I know there’s no reason to feel guilty at having a generally undemanding good time at such a movie – the Germans obviously didn’t – but there’s no reason either to pretend that it amounts to much more than that.

Love, Sex and Eating the Bones

A rare mention for a Canadian film – a low-budget one that actually had a run at the Paramount. Directed by Sidz Sutherland, it’s the amiable chronicle of a young would-be photographer, making ends meet as a security guard, who falls in love with a gorgeous marketing manager. The only trouble is – he’s a pornography addict who can’t function any more without his tapes, and she’s a conservative type coming off two years of chastity. The film has lots of conventional plotting and somewhat lame-brain ideas – the fantasy sequences featuring his favourite porn star seemed particularly strained to me – but it has lots of humanity, and there’s something weirdly appealing about a comedy built so explicitly around dysfunction. His admission that he “likes to watch,” coupled with the fact that both his day job and his calling are equally visually-oriented, suggest that the film could have ended up as a weird variant on Peeping Tom. In the end it avoids that kind of darkness, but not before charting some unusual territory. The movie uses Toronto locations in a nice understated way and the cast is highly effective. I’ve often wished that Canada could have its own Truffaut or Woody Allen to match the darker talents of Egoyan or Cronenberg – Sutherland isn’t that yet, but he might be the best current hope.


The other day, I impulsively watched Woody Allen’s 1973 film Sleeper, which I hadn’t seen for decades. I never feel much desire to revisit Allen’s older work, given how he always has a new one just around the corner. The new films are always disappointments of course – I pretty much always vote the party line on that one – but if you’re like me, you go to them anyway, out of a sense of tradition (you know, like observing the Queen’s birthday). In recent years, it seemed maybe it was only me; Allen’s movies haven’t grossed as much as the rounding error on your average short-lived crowd-magnet. But then, out of nowhere, Midnight in Paris turned into his biggest hit ever. Of course, inflation contributed to that, but still, what a resurgence!

Early Allen

I wouldn’t be surprised if that prompted many people to go back to Annie Hall or Hannah and her Sisters, but I vaulted even further back, into what’s now generally seen as Allen’s funny but less substantial warm-up period. Like Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Everything you always wanted to know about sex… and Love and Death, Sleeper was built around a big conceptual hook, designed as an engine room for jokes. The jokes, of course, largely reflected the attitudes and hang-ups of Allen’s contemporary New York environment, or at least of Allen’s no-doubt unrepresentative take on that environment. Like his great hero Groucho Marx, his characters in this period were imposed on the films more than integrated within them; but unlike Groucho, Allen contrived to evoke and even embody a quasi-aspirational way of being. This is really something - that someone whose screen persona was built so much on weakness and limitation, and who then inserted that persona into a stream of nonsensical environments, could even have come close to being an intellectual heartthrob. Of course, disingenuousness was always a large element of this alchemy, prominently the supernatural access to beautiful women (regardless of the conceit of complaining about the sex).

Anyway, Sleeper is the one about a health food store owner, Miles, who goes in for a routine operation and wakes up two hundred years in the future. It’s pretty funny, but I was surprised how radical it seemed in many ways. In part, this reflects the sense you get from watching almost any film of the early 70’s; the editing rhythms are easier and funkier, there’s a sense of collaborating with the audience, not simply projecting at them. Sleeper has numerous sequences you might call action set-ups, where Miles is pursued by the cops of the future, that kind of thing, and it regularly condenses these into abstraction: cut from Allen and Diane Keaton running away, with a crowd in close pursuit; to the not particularly athletic duo having covered a vast amount of ground, with the pursuers now somehow further back, that kind of thing. There’s no attempt to paste over the gap with flashy angles or cutaways to something else; you just take it as it is. Such devices go back at least to the silent era, but they’re not fashionable now. Toy Story 3, for instance, seamlessly choreographs the passage of its toy protagonists through the threats of the evil daycare, to their near-annihilation in the trash furnace.

The Future

Many of the jokes in Sleeper flow from Allen not amending his then-persona at all; everything he says is festooned with references that don’t make any sense in the future, and no one calls him on them (I think Keaton’s character only remarks once on how little she understands of what he says). When a future scientist shows him a bunch of 70’s era photographs, trying to learn more about what they depict, he dismisses each of them in a snappy one-liner, which the scientist then meekly accepts. Done a certain way, this could just have been vaudeville, like some of Mel Brooks’ films. But Allen, at this stage in the film, does something much more sophisticated – he plays the future world absolutely straight: the evocation of future architecture is immaculate, and the actors could easily have stepped out of Kubrick’s 2001. The friction between Miles’ chronic escapism and the chilly solidity of his surroundings reinforces the endless expressions of insecurity; it’s a tangible expression of a lonely worldview. In contrast, Owen Wilson’s passage between past and present in Midnight in Paris is as easy as dreaming, executed with a grace that instantly eliminates any real possibility of adversity.

As the film progresses though, Allen changes the rules of the future world, tacking toward rampant absurdity. The authoritarian state is enforced by inept cops who can’t handle their own fancy weapons. There’s an absurd-looking genetically engineered giant chicken. And to cap it all, it turns out that the iron-handed ruler has been blown up in an explosion, with nothing remaining of him but his ear, from which they intend to clone the whole man back to life. Although it’s earlier been made clear that the society knows virtually nothing of the time Miles came from, Keaton later evidences an intimate familiarity not only with the text of A Streetcar Named Desire, but with Brando’s interpretation of Stanley Kowalski.

Sex and Death

This might sound like the anything-for-a-laugh approach of a Scary Movie or an Airplane. But I was surprised how it all coalesced into a persuasive worldview, one based on sheer perseverance. Allen is famous for his self-discipline and solitary habits; his artistic longevity seems largely based on sheer stubbornness. Sleeper embodies that better than most of his films – Miles remains defiantly himself, and the world eventually bends. And although it’s maybe not much of a world, it’s malleable enough, if you work at it. There’s a giddy kind of optimism to jokes like the Volkswagen that’s been hidden in a cave for two hundred years, and then starts first time.

In the end, Keaton asks him what he believes in, since he’s already disavowed any belief in science or God or politics, and he says sex and death, two things that come once in a lifetime, but at least after death, you’re not nauseous. It’s not hard to imagine a latter-day Allen character making much the same joke (he must have coined a thousand variations on it), but I don’t know if he’d be as likely now to end on an evocation of nausea. The emblematic Allen title of later years (although far from the best movie) is Whatever Works, usually applied as a reflection on the unpredictability of personal fortunes. Sleeper is one of his most extreme predicaments, but also his most cosmically confident bending of the elements. In Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson finds himself and maybe finds the girl. In Sleeper, by comparison, Miles is by several measures the most notable human being in the world, and what does that get him? The freedom to resume life in his comfort zone, built around endless jokes about his own epic failure. And definitely the girl. Of the two, I think that’s the more stimulating outcome!

Sunday, April 1, 2012


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2008)

When I first started seriously watching movies, the bulk of my education came from the Hollywood classics. It’s not that I’m so old – this was in Britain in the late 70’s and early 80’s. It was still a different time and place though. Video was in its expensive, patchy, formative phase, and there were only four TV channels. Contemporary adult movies, if they made it there at all, were often cut (for example Chinatown was broadcast without the nose-slashing scene), and although you could usually track down one or two foreign films a week, they were most likely to be anonymous dubbed thrillers starring Romy Schneider or Maurice Ronet. For a few years, there was no bigger preoccupation in my life than the hope of one day getting to see, say, Belle de Jour or Persona or the many others I read about, my imagination straining to drain the nuances of every sentence or still photo about or from them, in the film books that monopolized my shelves in those days.

Turner Classic Movies

The chances were excellent though of gaining access to Some Like It Hot or His Girl Friday or Fort Apache, the likes of which filled up Saturday and Sunday evenings and every other gap on the BBC’s schedule (my memory tells me the likes of The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven were broadcast at least annually, although maybe I’m compressing things in my memory). It’s primarily because of those years that I can proudly proclaim to have seen just about every major Hitchcock film, every Hawks, every Minnelli, and so forth. So I made the most of my opportunities. After I left Britain, which more or less coincided with a new age of technology and access, I focused more on foreign films and on keeping up with the new stuff. Which of course is a project that can never be completed.

Hawks for example is still one of my favourite directors, but I’ve probably only managed to watch about one Hawks movie a year for the last decade; for others it’s not even that good a pace. If I had the time, I could almost go back to the beginning and start again, rediscovering all those films that thrilled me as a teenager. I wish I did have the time. And this brings me to the recent launch in Canada of Turner Classic Movies, the absence of which I’m sure must have eaten away at many Canadian movie buffs for years. I look at the schedule regularly, and if I had the time I could happily tape a couple of things a day from there, no problem. So far though, I’ve been rationing myself severely. I already regret in particular not having pounced on the early Barbara Stanwyck pictures that played in succession a few months ago. Oh well, I guess they’ll come round again.


There is one event I didn’t miss – the expanded version of Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 silent film Greed. This was first broadcast on TCM in 1999, and I read about it at the time with huge interest, but didn’t get to see it neither then nor subsequently. In fact, Greed is one of the big fish to have completely slipped through my net. If I (or you) had seen it at all, it would have been a version of some two and a quarter hours, and in that version it’s often been regarded as one of the greatest films of all time (although it usually slips down the rankings a little further now).

The TCM version lasts around four hours. This is, what word to use, an evocation perhaps (they view it as a “reconstruction,” but that doesn’t seem quite right), of the original nine-or-so hour version, reportedly only shown once to a small group before the studio descended on it. The exorcised seven hours were simply destroyed, so in this version the lost footage is represented by still photographs, which is all that’s known to survive, with some applied camera movements (pans, close-ups and so on). This might sound to some like a rather academic viewing experience, but the film’s power is so immense that after a while the portions represented by photographs becomes almost as vivid as von Stroheim’s extant footage. Still, it’s always clear that this is, if not a skeleton, still lacking the majority of its true flesh.

Based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris, the film’s centre is the relationship between McTeague, a self-taught dentist of essentially simple needs and reactions, and Trina, the delicate beauty he manages to entice into marriage when her existing suitor, Marcus, steps aside. Trina wins $5,000 in the lottery, an event that eventually, as their fortunes otherwise decline, pushes her into crazed miserliness, McTeague into confused and random anger, and Marcus into sheer hatred at the loss of money he regards as his. Set against the contrasting (for better and for worse) experience of their neighbours, the story spans years, ending in a sequence in Death Valley that’s still as raw and passionate as the best elemental cinema.

Necessary Viewing

Von Stroheim is best remembered, fairly or not, for autocratic over-reaching, and Greed is a film of immense flourishing confidence, but I was most taken by its profound focus on its characters. The performances have a heightened expressionist aspect to them, but with remarkable attention to the psychological and social detail of the characters’ trajectories. Of course, this is partly implicit in the length, but it’s remarkable what sense of conviction persists over those four hours. The TCM version frequently uses yellow highlights, applied to coins or a pet canary or (overwhelmingly) to the sun in the final desert sequence (presumably these follow the director’s original conception) and it’s amazing how successful this device is in underlining the story’s many points of hope and threat. In one of the most amazing effects, an elderly neighbouring couple who've found love late in life are momentarily pictured in full colour, which sounds like a corny form of contrast, but is actually completely eloquent and moving.

The best detailed account of the Greed reconstruction that I’ve seen is by Jonathan Rosenbaum and available on the Chicago Reader website. Rosenbaum contrasts von Stroheim with Orson Welles, perhaps the cinema’s all time leading fount of lost or butchered films, and there’s obviously a poignant or tragic aspect to both these careers. There’s still a viable hope of reclaiming some of the unseen Welles material, but it seems that this is as good as it gets for Greed. It broke von Stroheim’s heart, and our sprawling, staggering cinema heritage would surely have been further enhanced if the full version had survived.

Still, Greed’s place in that heritage is prominent, and I’m sure I am not the only newly empowered TCM viewer who lunged at the chance to see it. The next time it’s on, if you aspire, even vaguely, to own a sense of cinema, then it’ll be the necessary thing to watch that week.

Fields of study

Joseph Cedar’s Footnote perhaps isn’t such a major film in the scheme of things, but at the very least it’s a refreshing contrast from what we usually get to see, like getting the morning off work to attend an enjoyably peppy seminar. Eliezer Shkolnik is an elderly philologist in modern-day Jerusalem, who’s devoted most of his life to painstakingly studying historical iterations of the Talmud; his plan to publish his findings was tragically derailed, one month before publication, when a competing academic made a chance discovery of a long-lost manuscript that while confirming Shkolnik's research, rendered his record of it obsolete. The most tangible trace of his life’s work then is merely that he was mentioned in a footnote within a largely unknown scholarly text.

Not the Hunger Games

Among his many grudges is a lifetime of being passed over for the prestigious Israel Prize for Talmudic study; then, when he’s finally given up, he gets a call telling him his time has come. It’s perhaps the happiest day of his life, but it’s based on a mistake – the committee meant to give the prize to his son Uriel, also a Talmudic scholar, and a much more charismatically high-profile and productive one. The dilemma: do they rescind the prize, while publically humiliating the old man and possibly breaking his heart, or leave things as they are, even if the committee considers Eliezer undeserving?

Not exactly the plot of The Hunger Games. But as I said, the film (which was nominated for this year’s foreign-language film Oscar) goes down very easily, with Cedar using voice-overs, flashbacks and digital-aided glitz to jazz up the basic story. It’s a calculated move, laying the film itself open to charges of the same kind of compromise that lie at the centre of the plot, but at least you’re drawn to engage with the film’s devices rather than simply succumb to them.

In perhaps the film’s pivotal scene, letting down his guard in a newspaper interview, Eliezer rails against the lesser lights that won the prize before him, and then gets drawn into contrasting his work with that of his son. Suppose you have a collection of pot shards, he says. His approach consists of examining the pieces in detail, researching their provenance, working meticulously to recreate something historically valid and meaningful (and therefore presumably more truly aesthetically moving as a result). His son on the other hand, he says, examines the pieces only cursorily, glues them together into a pot that looks superficially nice but makes no historic sense, then moves on to the next thing (when Uriel reads this in the paper, he blasts his father’s approach as mere masturbation).

How to live?

This is a far from trivial point of disagreement of course. On the face of it, Uriel’s life is much fuller than his father’s. But much as Eliezer’s disappointments may have made him a virtually catatonic figure (often shot in a blackly comic sad-sack manner), his life governed by repetition and the narrowest of parameters, the film drops hints of a more turbulent and possibly unsavoury past – even providing glimpses of someone who might be a past lover. And would that be a scandal or a validation? Uriel’s wife says she has no doubt about his fidelity to her, but says she attributes it to his cowardice more than his devotion. Footnote is at its best in setting out these contrasts and ambiguities, which really go to the question that ought to override all others, but instead gets trampled by the weight and pace of the mundane: how should we aspire to live?

It’s a gift if one can even ask the question of course – most people are too occupied and tired out by living to be able to step back and philosophize about it. But even when people have the time and/or money to take some control, they often seem to have nothing better in mind than to construct a better equipped version of the same treadmill everyone else is on – bigger cars and houses, more expensive gadgets, better tickets to the game, and so on. Intellectual reflection isn’t prized at all – you think things can’t get dumbed down any more, and then the bar falls again (even as the complexity of our challenges rises). And yet, people who achieve something meaningful in life don’t do so by succumbing to all this – they do so by creating their own space and investing years of often-lonely time and effort into it. It’s a cruel paradox perhaps – the world promises boundless, unprecedented experience, but for the most part they’re forms of surrender to someone else’s agenda. We say we prize diversity, but that’s only partly true – in most of the ways that count, possibilities and experiences are becoming dismally standardized. People obsess over random tales of individual lives lost through murders or tragedies or whatever, as if every existing heartbeat had to be inventoried and kept beating, but spend no time considering (except in the most clichéd and unproductive manners) whether a life squandered (either because society allows it no room for anything else, or because of personal cluelessness) isn’t as great a loss and a disgrace. Of course, if our leaders started to talk in these terms they’d be dismissed as moonbeams. But then at the same time, polls and voting inactivity only confirms the lack of trust in those leaders. Isn’t it at least possible that on some unarticulated level, many of us know we’re not having the right conversations?

So little at stake

In the meantime, universities provide almost the only refuge for such investigations, and Footnote is in part an understated parody of that life: in a recent interview Cedar quoted a line attributed to Henry Kissinger – “The reason academic politics are so bitter is that so little is at stake.” In this sense, the film – although very “Jewish” I guess – might take place almost anywhere (it doesn’t concern itself with Israel’s politics for instance – several scenes depict the heavy security marking day to day life there, but this primarily serves to underline Eliezer’s isolation). But if little is at stake in the immediate politics, a vocation like Eliezer’s could be seen as a huge inner rolling of the dice. Except that at the end of the film, in a certain sense, he accepts a pot he knows is inauthentic. Cedar leaves it to us to assess whether this is a small compromise or a major self-betrayal.

As I said, despite these points of significant interest, the film isn’t the most major of works, at various points resorting to contrivances and simplifications better suited to network drama. It’s more a film you politely appreciate than one you lose yourself within. But then, losing oneself is something one should only do with great discrimination.