Saturday, May 26, 2012

Two 70's movies

I don’t think most people view the 70’s as a golden age in recent American history, given the economic and political miseries and lousy fashions, but the prevailing confusion was immensely productive for American cinema - many legendary directors did much (or all) of their best work during that decade. We all know about the glories of The Godfather and Nashville and Taxi Driver, but even lesser studio products of the decade usually feel rooted in specific times and places and people and ideas, with an overall texture that seems almost lost now. Of course those films were commercially calculated in their own way, but it’s as if the calculations were carried out in longhand, by people who didn’t necessarily check their math that closely; in contrast, the calculations are carried out now by computer, with superhuman precision, but often therefore with no human stake in the end result. To illustrate, I recently rewatched two minor films by major figures of that era, finding myself delighted once again at their idiosyncracies.

Starting Over

 Alan Pakula was one of my favourite directors of the era – I’ve written before here about his film Rollover. Pakula thrived in the 70’s, with Klute and The Parallax View and All the President’s Men: he was adept at distilling the paranoia and insecurities of the time, the underlying fear of liberty and soul on the line, into dark, gloriously textured thrillers. After that theme lost momentum in the 80’s, Pakula still made some notable films, like Sophie’s Choice and Presumed Innocent, but it was as if his artistic roots had withered away, leaving him to work on artificial turf.

 In 1979 he made Starting Over, a comedy starring Burt Reynolds (the biggest box office star in the country at that point) as Phil Potter, a newly divorced man whose attempts to solidify a new relationship are undermined by unresolved loose ends with his ex-wife. It’s an exceptionally low-key film – Reynolds is so quiet and undemonstrative he seems almost catatonic. I don’t mean that as a swipe at his acting talent – I think it’s a deliberate strategy worked out by him and Pakula, to embody his bewilderment and lack of self-determination, The woman he falls for, Marilyn, played by Jill Clayburgh, is a bit of a mess – not in some stylized movie manner, but in a gratingly plausible way – and on the surface it barely seems believable they’d even make it to a first date, let alone that they’d persevere beyond that. I mentioned it’s a comedy, but of the kind they barely make anymore, rationing the laughs out very parsimoniously. And anyway, those laughs, consisting of such things as Clayburgh falling into a dunking pool, or Reynolds putting on a Santa outfit, are more theoretical than actual. It also has really schmaltzy music.

Romantic comedies

 None of this, obviously, provides any reason to seek out Starting Over at this point. Yet it’s rather fascinating, because of the sense that Pakula was primarily interested in demonstrating the exhaustion of romantic comedy, rather than in actually making one. For instance, there’s a scene where Phil hooks up again with his ex-wife, played by Candice Bergen; Pakula films their undressing in a long single take, both distanced and tentative, while the title song (also distanced and tentative, sung by Bergen) plays on the soundtrack. It’s very weird – you could imagine such a scene being played for passion, or outright laughs, or perhaps tinged with some element of underlying disgust, but I don’t think numbing blankness would occur to most directors.

 Similarly, on and off throughout the film, Phil attends a divorced men’s support group, where again the dominant emotion is a kind of frozen incomprehension. You gradually start to conclude Phil’s pursuit of Marilyn is analogous to the skullduggery carried out in Pakula’s paranoia films, driven by the demands of the system rather than by actual feelings. As with all conspiracies, the logic becomes increasingly self-absorbed, swamping whatever the original motivations might have been. Could he possibly put as much weight as he does on the act of jointly buying a couch with her, for instance, if his head was his own? The notionally happy ending doesn’t feel like one; it feels more like time just ran out. It’s not a political movie, but it seems to convey that what really needs to start over is the whole damn system - which in turn, watching it in 2012, could start off a whole complicated reverie on how much that’s actually happened in the meantime.

The Anderson Tapes

Sidney Lumet made interesting movies for some fifty years, but most people would put his 70’s work (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network) at the top of the list. He made twelve films in that decade, some of them derided (The Wiz), several others largely forgotten. One of those, The Anderson Tapes, made in 1971, has Sean Connery as a recently released convict, instantly snapping back into a life of crime, with a plan to knock off all the apartments in a high-end building. It fits into the heist genre, spending much time on planning and execution; but Anderson doesn’t realize that virtually everything he does is being recorded by various groups; law enforcement teams staking out the mobster who finances him; narcotics agents tracking one of the guys he ropes into the job; a jealous ex-boyfriend spying on the woman he sleeps with.

 This theme of oppressive surveillance is quite prophetic, and closely related to the Pakula movies I mentioned. The surprise though is that Lumet basically treats it as the punch-line to an extended joke: the plan fails, as it must (I can hardly think of a film where the likelihood of it succeeding through some surprise twist seems less likely throughout), but for a very different reason than we anticipate. The movie ultimately isn’t so much about the oppressiveness of power as about the way it creates its own reality. In the first scene, Anderson rails (equally prophetically) about the system that punishes personal transgressions while sanctioning corporate ones, and the film seems to confirm his angry incomprehension, by showing how he can’t hope to grasp how it all fits together (in part, because it doesn’t). It’s not a message movie though: Lumet enjoys himself with all kinds of character stuff (some of it very dated, in particular the depiction of a gay antique dealer) and vicissitudes - for instance, he depicts the efforts of a group of cops to enter the building in more detail than it really seems to need, presumably just because the nuts and bolts of what they’re doing interest him. But even such eccentricity supports that same theme, by tweaking our notions of how such a familiar-looking film should work.

 Again, these aren’t major films in the scheme of things, but they’re more productively stimulating than most of the pictures that get acclaimed now, despite – partly of course because of - their limitations and dated aspects. And of course there’s much more where those came from. I could do articles like this for a year. Maybe I should!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Desperate Women

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2006)

We went to see Friends with Money at the Cumberland on Good Friday afternoon, its first day of release, turning up around ten minutes early as usual, and found the place in the grip of a film-festival quality line-up, marked by mass confusion, angst about deliberate or inadvertent queue-jumping, passing cars stopping to ask what the fuss was all about, and all the other marks of a quiet film going world suddenly gone haywire. We stood in line for about half an hour, and then discovered that a steady stream of people had been circumventing all this and going straight to the members’ side of the ticket booth. We have members’ cards too, but we never thought of it. This could almost be the stuff of which riots are made.

Friends with Money

And what is it with people and the automatic ticketing machines? I agree that the menu format of the new batch of machines isn’t as friendly as it might be, but to me this just means you might take 40 seconds rather than 30. But I swear it takes the average person ten times that long. What are they doing? Diligently reading every single movie title and every single combo option? Simultaneously musing on that night’s dinner recipe? Are they caught in a moment of profound existential doubt that renders them unable to move? It’s all too frightening to contemplate.

Anyway, it’s very difficult to believe that this spectacle can be taken at face value – to indicate that Friends with Money was as significant an event for the Cumberland crowd as was the third Lord of the Rings film for the broader film going public. I guess it was the combination of a free day off and lousy weather. Such is the randomness of public acceptance. Which leads to another question. Is director Nicole Holofcener unlucky in only having been able to make three feature films in ten years (Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing and now Friends with Money) or is she lucky to have had the opportunity to make at least that much?

Before seeing the new film I might have said she was unlucky. I can’t actually remember a thing about Walking and Talking, except that I really liked it (there’s a review for you!). Lovely and Amazing was however a remarkably comprehensive chronicle of feminine issues and hang-ups, with an already legendary scene in which the character played by Emily Mortimer stands naked and is critiqued by the Dermot Mulroney character. There’s a cringe-inducing melding there of actress and role – something that’s even more pronounced in another key character: an overweight young black girl whose behavioural problems feel uncomfortably embedded. A third focal point, played by Catherine Keener (who’s been in all three films) has an anger that goes way beyond a mere thematic device, frequently rendering it amazing that the movie can continue to function as a comedy. Lovely and Amazing often seems to be catering to psychotherapists more than to movie critics, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting edge-of-mainstream films about women.

 Female Viewpoints

The five years since then support great expectations for Friends with Money – what is it they say about the wisdom of crowds? – but these are not realized. It’s again a structure of multiple female viewpoints – four long-time friends, three of them married with varying degrees of success (in apparently descending order of happiness, Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand and Keener) and a fourth, single, played by Jennifer Aniston, who has recently quit her teaching job to work as a maid. This opens up an important new investigative avenue for Holofcener – how poverty defines and limits the place of women. And the film’s best scenes show Aniston, a willing sucker for every male ploy and sob story, systematically allowing herself to be manipulated and exploited. Not to jump on a bandwagon, but it’s only a shame that Aniston is too blandly sunny an actress to push this to where it might have hurt.

In other ways too, the plush Los Angeles settings (the characters include a screenwriter, a designer of overpriced but popular clothing and another of up market bath products, and others who are simply loaded for unspecified reasons) don’t really help forge a case for the film’s broader relevance. The issues of the three monied couples seem at times merely like the fanciful melodrama that comes from having too much time on your hands. The McDormand character has anger management issues, and incidentally has stopped washing her hair because it just doesn’t seem worth it in the big scheme of things. But by the end, for no particular reason, she seems on the road to recovery. So what? And then there’s a running joke about people mistaking her husband as gay. His behaviour at times could hardly warrant any other conclusion, although it seems clear that he loves her, and desires her sexually. It’s a potentially interesting ambiguity, but not very convincing in its details, and it’s always in danger of seeming like a cheap shot.
 Overall, on this occasion Holofcener seems content to observe and very lightly parody, rather than to engage in any kind of diagnosis. The entire movie is a series of softballs that hardly evidence five years’ preparation. And at this point, regardless that Hollywood may still be primarily a man’s business, there have been plenty of movies that set out to show what women talk about when their partners aren’t around, or to delight in behind-the-back bitchiness. All too many of which seem to be set in or around the wonderful world of show business. The movie’s biggest disappointment, and the greatest proof of its low ambition, is in the happy ending it contrives for Aniston – a turn of events that will be denied to 99.999% of the maid population.

Lucy Liu

Which is probably about the same percentage of the maid population that would ever go to see a film at the Cumberland. Anyway, a couple of days afterwards I went to see Lucky Number Slevin (no line-up there of course), which is no more than a pleasant timewaster at best. Lucy Liu plays the kind of woman we’ve seen since the beginning of movies – she clicks with the hero from the first instant, accepts his wild predicament, is attractive and funny and extremely smart, is directly useful in that she’s a police coroner (this at least, if memory serves, marks her as unusual), sleeps with him on the first date, and in the last scene seems ready to throw in her fate with his completely. If that’s not a male fantasy, I don’t know what is. And yet this archetype, even at this late date, still seems to me a more promising object of investigation than the desperate wives of Friends with Money.

Claude Chabrol

Claude Chabrol, the great French filmmaker who died in 2010, made movies for over fifty years – more than sixty of them, as well as various television projects - and his career embodies the richness and bumpiness of a full and varied life. In his youth, he was part of the French New Wave, fresh and modern, drawn to everything excluded to that point from classical cinema. In his maturity, he became known as an acidic observer of the weaknesses in human nature, making several unforgiving studies of murder and adultery and betrayal. As an old man (he lived to be 80, working right up to the end), he became a cinematic (and, by all accounts, actual) gourmet, generating a startling variety of variations on themes of corruption, deception and compromise.

Alice ou la derniere fugue

 Although esteemed, Chabrol’s reputation was certainly more mixed than that of contemporaries like Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, and it’s tempting to say he simply liked making movies too much. His filmography teems with oddities – lumpy international co-productions of the kind where you can tell the actors were speaking their lines in different languages, genre quickies of the sort that would go straight to DVD these days. Actors like Rod Steiger, Jodie Foster, Mia Farrow and Alan Bates turn up in his lesser films, not one of them achieving anything that would make the cut in their obituary essays. Sometimes his films feel rushed and ragged, as if churned out under strictures applied in some mysterious game show.

The mid-70’s were a particularly quirky period in Chabrol’s career; none of the films he made in that period made the cut for a Bell Lightbox retrospective a while back. I recently rewatched three films he made in succession in 1976, 1977 and 1978, and while they wouldn’t really be an adequate entry point for someone unfamiliar with his work, they’re a wonderfully quirky encapsulation of why he’s so rewarding. The best of them, by some distance, is the one he made in the middle, Alice ou la derniere fugue. It starts in the middle of domestic desolation; a young wife (played by Sylvia Kristel, of the Emmanuelle films) gets summoned by her husband, and forced to listen to his insufferable account of his day and his problems. When he’s done, she calmly announces she’s leaving him. She drives with no fixed destination in mind, ending up a guest at an old man’s country house after she has an accident during a storm. The following day, the house is empty, and there’s seemingly no way to leave the grounds. Realizing she’s being manipulated by some force beyond this world, she attempts to shield her inner life from her manipulators, while looking for a way out.

Blood Relatives

 In the end, the film falls into the same category as countless other cinematic teases, with the closing scenes requiring you to reinterpret all that’s gone before. But Alice is an unusually alluring puzzle, rich in the texture and rhythms of the old house, constantly disquieting for Kristel’s icy delicacy and its quietly sustained cruelty. The character’s name and the premise certainly evoke Alice in Wonderland, but there’s nothing down this rabbit hole except squandered promise, a theme carrying a strong feminist subtext here (albeit somewhat ambiguous, as it would have to be in a movie built around a then-icon of erotica).

 After this, Chabrol came to Montreal, for the French-Canadian co-production Blood Relatives. It stars Donald Sutherland as a detective investigating a young girl’s brutal murder; the only witness, her cousin, identifies her own brother as the killer, driven crazy by an incestuous attraction; but the familial dysfunction goes deeper than that. This is one of those wayward co-productions I mentioned, perfunctorily written for the most part, suffused with a feel of just trying to get it done, with international actors meaninglessly present in supporting roles (Donald Pleasence though is very memorable as an unreformed sex offender). It benefits in the home stretch from some structural quirkiness, as Sutherland spends most of the last half hour reading the dead girl’s diary, after which the mystery is wrapped up in about five minutes. And the denouement features some authentically Hitchcockian echoes (a recurring influence on Chabrol’s work). One can’t help cherishing any movie that brings Canada into the sphere of the greats, but unfortunately it only adds to our reputation in that era for squandering our artistic opportunities.

The Twist

 The Twist, or Folies bourgeoisies, is much weirder. Bruce Dern (allowed to indulge his intense line readings to the point of extreme unpleasantness) plays an American writer living in Paris, married to a Frenchwoman (played by Stephane Audran, Chabrol’s wife of the time and the star of many of his best films), undergoing a creative block, having an affair (with Ann-Margret!) and generally approaching a breaking point. The film sometimes evokes Blake Edwards of all people, illustrating the writer’s chaotic inner and outer world by bending normal rules of behaviour and interaction, spiced up with sometimes quite lurid fantasies). Taken at face value, Chabrol’s handling often feels rather stunned here too, as if he were simply trying not to fall off the bus; the film patently doesn’t “work,” assessed against any conventional criteria.

 And yet there’s something true at its centre, about how our rituals and obsessions and proprieties have become an end in themselves, rendering us distorted and miserable, eroding our natural bonds, and pushing us into absurd attempts at over-compensation (for instance, the wife suddenly purchases a flamboyantly impractical old country castle).

I think Chabrol wanted to make a film that strands the viewer, teasing us with the prospect of  a relatively conventional comedy of manners but then withholding almost all the pleasures and pay-offs that accompany that; it ends with an incoherent flurry of behaviour shifts, ending with a highly unconvincing expression - delivered in the dark - of a willingness to try. You feel the twists, the bourgeois follies, could perpetuate themselves forever.

Chabrol’s reputation would be much the same as it is if he’d never made these three films, and as a general rule of course, in a world of excess choices and too little time, we’re better off seeking out a director’s major works before burying down to the secondary ones (two of his most esteemed early works, Le beau Serge and Les cousins, came out on Criterion DVD a while ago). But I must admit I love these lost children of world cinema, in all their imperfections; in the same way that you love someone more for their eccentricities and quirks than for the stuff on their resume. They’re a part of the reason why I perpetually think of my crazy consumption as a true nourishing adventure, not merely an obsessive duty. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

More summer movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2009)

This year’s Woody Allen disappointment, Whatever Works, uses Larry David as stand-in, playing a self-proclaimed genius and proclaimed-by-all pain-in-the-ass who somehow gets married to a much younger (but improbably both stupid and naïve) woman (Evan Rachel Wood). I don’t really know where to begin on setting out the movie’s problems – I suppose the fact of having virtually no laughs would be as good as anywhere. David is great on his own show Curb Your Enthusiasm, but isn’t at all appealing in this role; he’s merely cold and hectoring, whereas Allen himself would have lent all the drivel a greater inherent warmth (since it so plainly is drivel - everyone’s a loser and what’s the point since the universe is ending anyway etc. – it seems over-compensatory that the character is a former brilliant physicist who once came close to the Nobel Prize). The events that overtake the Wood character’s parents, once they turn up, might suggest a developing thematic interest in sexual unorthodoxy and self-discovery, if you’re in the camp that thought the three-way thing in Vicki Cristina Barcelona was more than an affectation; but even if you appreciate the intention, you’d surely hope for more (i.e. any) finesse in the plotting and characterization. The philosophy is pretty much laid out in the title, except of course it’s more a rejection of philosophy; a notion of life as a clumsy series of lurches, where you sometimes fall on top of someone else and out of exhaustion or apathy just decide to stay that way. I don’t mind that Allen’s given up on aspiring to be Ingmar Bergman, but you’d hope he could at least be more diverting than a random surf through daytime TV.

The Girlfriend Experience

Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience stars Sasha Grey as a high-end escort in Manhattan, alternating the nuts and bolts of client service with trying to build her profile and earning power, even as the economy crashes around her. Grey in real life is a porn star who seems to be doing the Madonna-esque thing of positioning herself as a conscious manipulator of image and affect (for research purposes I checked out the general access sections of her website, which are very snazzy), although on this evidence she’s a pretty recessive personality beneath that.

It’s only been a few months since the release of Soderbergh’s ambitious two-part experiment Che, and the new film surely carries more modest aims: to capture something of a time and place, set up some parallels and oppositions, and leave the audience mildly provoked and intrigued. It generally achieves that, but it’s such a narrow métier that the movie doesn’t ultimately feel very important. Grey’s character must surely be at the extreme high-end of the sex worker spectrum, and her white-bread relationship with a personal trainer going through similar entrepreneurial struggles (but with less focus and finesse) surely can’t be that representative either. I expect this is part of Soderbergh’s point though, that we’re watching a very particular (and likely short-lived) phenomenon; where for a determined or lucky few, a perverted economy and crazed notions of communication and self-definition (both technological and personal) seem to open up almost unlimited possibilities. The ending of the first half of Che, with the guerilla leader high on the success of the Cuban revolution, captured something similar; the much more downbeat and morose second half showed what generally becomes of such apparent new paradigms, and The Girlfriend Experience’s rather poignant final scene starts to return us to her profession’s more familiar mechanics and surroundings.

Tokyo Sonata

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films usually have at least a foot in the beyond – Pulse makes the Internet’s dehumanizing potential literal and murderous; Charisma concentrates a spectrum of environmental worry and paranoia into the tale of a mysterious tree. He’s an accessible storyteller, but flexible with narrative and behaviour in a way Hollywood norms wouldn’t allow. Tokyo Sonata is the most grounded of his films that I’ve seen, with no overt supernatural or otherwise inexplicable content; but then, since it’s about the modern Japanese economy and its dehumanizing impact on the nuclear family, the strangeness takes care of itself. The father loses his director of administration job when it’s outsourced to China, and can’t bring himself to tell the family; he becomes part of an army of briefcased liars, trying to preserve some notion of authority and viability while it all gets away from them. The movie doesn’t find too much positive in the twisted structures of modern Japan, and through references to Iraq casts a wider critique too; ultimately it suggests that the way forward (as individuals, if not for the economy as a whole) lies in a fuller attention to small pleasures (art, family, making the most of what there is. It’s maybe not that amazing an insight, but still one the policy implications of which are yet to be fully grasped.

Public Enemies

Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is an exciting crime thriller, but may be most satisfying if viewed as an almost quasi-abstract meditation on image making and identity in an age of corporatization and depersonalization. I don’t mean today (although the contemporary resonances are a large part of the movie’s excitement), but rather the 1930’s, where a politically pressured FBI (led by a young J. Edgar Hoover) pulls out all the stops to capture bank robber John Dillinger, popularly regarded as the most wanted man alive. As played by Johnny Depp, Dillinger is certainly ruthless and capable of anything, but he’s also a romantic, leaping to create a classic love story with a hat check girl (Marion Cotillard), and apparently increasingly intrigued by his own public image; he never seems to take particular pleasure in the money or the rush (some have found Depp’s performance too opaque, but it’s much more allusive done this way).
The public, seeing him as a Robin Hood-type character, largely esteems him, but his type of crime is becoming a threat to the organized interests (who, as they exploit the new technology of the telephone to extend the reach of their gambling operations, make as much in a day as he does from any of his jobs). Mann never seems to be straining for easy present-day parallels, but his approach is inherently allusive, and the use of digital technology renders everything almost eerily vivid at times. The movie is frequently reminiscent of his earlier Heat, both in its overall shape and even in many specific scenes, but the historical period (although scrupulously recreated) allows the film to work more in a classic genre vein; it feels throughout both like a memory and a prediction.

Bad schools

As I write this, Tony Kaye’s Detachment is in its second week at the Yonge-Dundas AMC – I hope it makes it to a third (if not, then of course it’ll be on DVD soon). After writing in recent weeks about new films by Terence Davies and Whit Stillman, Kaye provides a hat-trick of veteran directors (he turns 60 this year) who’ve endured long gaps between projects. After making it big in advertising and music videos, he hit the ground running in 1998 with the eye-popping American History X. I recall a few commentators calling it a potentially dangerous film, on the basis that its portrayal of the bad (life as a strutting white supremacist) was so much more vivid and exciting than the presentation of the good (repentance and renewal). You could see what they were getting at – Edward Norton (who received an Oscar nomination) was at the peak of his powers as a man who’s fully articulated and rationalized his beliefs and derives an intense, sexy physicality from them, whereas the movie’s expressions of the case for not being a racist were constantly anemic. Despite the epic ambitions implied by its title, the film barely took the first step at setting out the broader context for what it portrayed; still, it was exceptionally vivid and gripping. Kaye professed himself unhappy with it though, saying it was edited against his wishes; at one point he tried to replace his name in the credits with that of “Humpty Dumpty.”

Tony Kaye

Eight years later, he released the documentary Lake of Fire, a long and unsparing journey through America’s abortion wars, sufficiently even-handed to leave the filmmaker’s own sympathies in some doubt (although it was unmistakable that one side of the argument sounded much more bombastically neurotic, and male-dominated, than the other). The film shows up most high-profile documentaries for the trifles that they are, but given its subject, it didn’t get much exposure. That’s the extent of Kaye’s official cinema career up to now.

That doesn’t mean there’s been nothing to write about though. At various points, Kaye’s eccentricities reportedly included a phase of taking an inflatable E.T. doll everywhere he went, and a breakfast meeting at the Beverly Wilshire, where he ordered a 30-egg omelette and "exactly 2.7 ounces of dried oats." In 2002 he was involved in one of the more fascinating phantom films, a documentary to be called Lying for a Living, covering an acting class taught by Marlon Brando and attended by Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nick Nolte and Michael Jackson. But the relationship between Brando and Kaye broke down, with the actor allegedly leaving death threats on the director’s voice mail; Kaye announced he wouldn’t be stopped from “taking the footage and exploiting (Brando) to hell,” but nothing of the work has ever been seen. In 2008 he made a thriller called Black Water Transit, which remains unreleased and apparently lost in a sea of lawsuits.

It’s been impossible from all that to know whether to expect any more films from Kaye, or what they might possibly look like, but Detachment is something like two parts Lake of Fire to one part nutball (the opening titles denote the movie as a “talkie by Tony Kaye”). Adrien Brody plays Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher taking on a one-month gig at a semi-hellish inner-city school, so disconnected from the community that when they hold a parents’ night, no one shows up. Henry’s an effective teacher, with the knack of connecting even with the roughest kids, but his refusal to commit to a permanent assignment means his impact is perpetually transient, and his inner life is a mess. But then, whose isn’t? - the rest of the staff (played by a diverting cast including Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks and James Caan) are just as marooned in misery, loneliness, or at best in some battle-hardened caricature of themselves. There are moments of connection and enlightenment, but overall little sense of possibility – most of the kids, plainly, will sink into minimum-wage misery, at best.


Detachment obviously belongs in general terms to a long line of hard-edged school movies, but Kaye’s approach is somewhat impressionistic, severely rationing the familiar scenes of classroom interplay. Its title refers to a quote from Albert Camus - “And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world" – and it returns constantly to Henry’s exploration of that state: he tells the class he doesn’t have any feelings they can hurt, but we see him in tears while riding the late-night bus. Actually, the character talks so often about his and our pain, hollowness, loneliness, failures and so on that it gets distinctly repetitive. Presumably that’s largely deliberate though – stasis and stalled momentum is a large part of the point.

And it’s not just that the educational system is stalled, but that it’s actively corrupted. A visiting speaker talks about the school’s dismal reputation deflating local property values – not an unfair point perhaps, but one that emphasizes how educational achievement is just another input into capitalist machinations. Henry extends the point further, talking to his class about how an active consciousness provides their only defence against the overwhelming doublethink promulgated by the prevailing powers (the implication though is that they can only expect limited assistance from the school in developing this consciousness).

Sanest person in the room

It’s plain from all this that Detachment is one of the more ambitious current movies, but it’s ultimately rather limited: for every moment that connects, there’s another that feels cliched or unfocused. Kaye seems to have titanic ambitions for Henry, whose burden also includes a dying grandfather; a murky family history, evoked in distorted flashbacks throughout the film; and an increasingly fatherly relationship with a teenage hooker, but these aspects of the film are probably its weakest. At times Kaye seems inclined to carry him to some point of no return, but actually the final scene is probably the film’s most conventionally hopeful (albeit in the sense that you might draw hope from seeing a plant growing on a trash heap).

One might imagine Tony Kaye is just too old and weird to achieve much more than he has already, if parts of his films (and pretty much all of Lake of Fire) weren’t so spellbinding and incisive. Maybe it’s all an act, like the time Joaquin Phoenix recently spent pretending to have lost it. I did find an interview where Kaye calls himself “a very normal and orthodox person that goes out of their way to present eccentricity,” adding that he’s now realized that if “you want to make challenging movies, you’ve got to be the sanest person in the room.” But of course, a lot depends on what kind of room you choose to enter.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Final summer movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2007)

As summer winds down, here’s as mixed a bag of movies as I’ve ever covered in a single article.

Moliere, directed by Laurent Tirard, is a Shakespeare in Love – type creation, positing that an episode in the famous French dramatist’s younger years might have dropped him in the middle of an intricate real-life farce (a lecherous merchant, a misconceived arranged marriage, etc.) thus laying the groundwork for the development of his later artistic personality. Writers much more knowledgeable about Moliere than I am pretty unanimously pronounced the film a dud, and it certainly often feels laboured and superficial. It probably works better if you forget the pretensions to real life, and just take it as an undemanding trifle, in which case the enjoyable performances and easy contrivances might be enough to put it across. Although I do think I already saw this film last year, when it was called Casanova.

Director’s Downfall Oliver Hirschbiegel, the talented director of Downfall, is the latest European artist to be beaten to a pulpy hack at the hands of Hollywood. It’s not all his fault - other directors supposedly perpetrated much of the damage on The Invasion, which bears his name, after he left the project. It certainly evidences a confused guiding spirit. Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers remains intriguing material, and this version – centering around Nicole Kidman (who’s indifferently deployed) as a Washington psychiatrist watching everyone around her turn into a pod person – has some serviceable paranoid moments. But it’s hard to think of a recent movie where the writing and editing are so consistently wrongheaded.

Would you believe I’ve never seen a single episode of The Simpsons? But here I am, a big screen snob to the last, shelling out money to see (as Homer points out) something I could be watching at home for free. So I’m not able to comment on how the movie enhances, or doesn’t, the TV show, but I can report that I enjoyed it – it’s fast moving and inventive and you’re never waiting more than thirty seconds for a pretty good gag. It didn’t seem that ambitious to me though, and if the litmus test was whether I’m inspired to watch any episodes of the show from this point on, it probably failed. But maybe my snobbery is such that it never had a chance of going any other way.

Rocket Science, directed by Jeffery Blitz (who previously made the overrated Spelling Bee documentary Spellbound), is a quirky little movie about Hal, a compulsively stuttering teenager who gets pulled into the high school debating team by a hyper articulate girl (on whom he unsurprisingly develops a crush). For a while, as we watch his sincere but wretched efforts, the film feels rather unpleasantly cruel, then there’s a twist and it evolves into something much more intriguing. There are lots of quirky little movies out there, and this one has more than its fair share of strained Rushmore-seeking wackiness, but there’s some seriously impressive overall thinking woven in there too.

Summer Of Apatow

The summer of Judd Apatow continued with Superbad, on which he’s officially only the producer, but for which he’s nevertheless scooping up all the credit. Jumping back a few years from Knocked Up in Apatow’s exploration of arrested male development, this one follows a couple of high school buddies on a wild odyssey in search of booze for a big party, at the end of which they expect to break their lifelong sexual losing streaks. Actually the movie’s a rather lumpy hybrid – half the above, and the other half the adventures of two grossly unprofessional cops, which plays merely like an over (and over) extended Saturday Night Live skit. The stuff about the kids, although hardly revelatory, is consistently well played and even quite sensitive in spots, and the non-stop raunchy talk inevitably produces a good stream of laughs. Best of all, the movie doesn’t have a central flaw as egregious as Knocked Up’s implausible conception of the central female – indeed the young women here are surprisingly well-observed.

Better so than the heroine of The Nanny Diaries, directed by the makers of American Splendour. I don’t actually share the common disdain for Scarlett Johansson’s talents – she doesn’t do much here, but that’s just fine for her aimless character, who spends a summer as a nanny in a fabulously wealthy, fabulously screwed-up Upper East Side household when she can’t decide what else to do. The movie occasionally casts itself as an anthropological study, but is drastically short of revelations, and the occasional potential for something more painful and cutting (mostly embodied in Laura Linney’s performance as her employer) isn’t taken up. It’s nice enough to watch, but you wish it mattered more.

The Real End

Lady Chatterley is a French version of the D. H. Lawrence novel, directed by Pascale Ferran. It won best film at the French equivalent of the Oscars, which tells you a lot (if you didn’t know it already) about the difference in cultural sensibilities. Running almost three hours, it’s an extremely detailed observation of the frustrated Connie’s sexual and emotional awakening, via an increasingly passionate affair with the gamekeeper on her disabled husband’s vast estate. This is very much a woman’s story, and has been criticized in some quarters for what might be seen as wishy-washy romanticism (and in others for overlooking Lawrence’s social consciousness). But if you submit to Ferran’s sometimes-quirky perspective, and to the mesmerizingly detailed performance by lead actress Marina Hands (who also won the top French award), it’s the most satisfying film covered in this article. It’s certainly a cousin to The Piano, but (high praise coming) it also put me in mind at times of the composed mystery of someone like Jacques Rivette.

It hardly seems appropriate to include The 11th Hour, this year’s documentary on our wretched post-industrialization prospects, in this company. At one point it (correctly of course) points to crazed consumerism as one of the many contributors to our malaise, and I couldn’t help musing at that moment about how the movie itself is merely being offered as an alternative to Rush Hour 3 and Becoming Jane, catering (based on what I saw) merely to a tiny audience of the predisposed. Doesn’t it somehow demand more than a movie, some more all-encompassing forceful platform? Actually, The 11th Hour itself probably doesn’t – the basic message is incontrovertible and incredibly depressing, but this is a superficial, overly polite, rushed treatment of it. And as with so many others, it insists on closing on a note of optimism and faith in human possibility, presented so tritely that it undercuts the impact of what comes before. But the real ending of course will be presented soon enough, playing in your local piece of the planet.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A British film

The British film industry is persistently insecure, driven by perpetual funding challenges, variable critical and commercial reactions to most of what it produces, the noisy shadow of the US, and the heavy sense that it all used to be much better and should be again. Much the same applies to the Canadian film industry, except for that last item: it’s hard to say our national cinema has ever amounted to much, a few bright spots aside, so we’re used to it. We’d be over the moon if one of our sound editing guys won an Oscar, let alone Christopher Plummer, but the British usually think they’re robbed if they don’t win all the Oscars. They didn’t manage that this year, but these are still relative boom times for them, hitting recent home runs for example in the stiff upper lip (The King’s Speech), gritty genre mash-up (Attack the Block) and contemporary prestige (Shame, We Need to Talk About Kevin) departments.

British cinema

As with anything, it’s easy to stereotype the British film canon; to overlook for instance its weird avant-garde crevices or the immense depth of its social realist and documentary heritage. The most visible aspect of the latter came in the 1960’s, when actors including Albert Finney and Richard Harris rose to prominence in films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life: it’s easy to generalize about them now, to view them as an affected miserable wallow in the kitchen sink, but I’m old enough to have seen some of those kitchen sinks with my own eyes, and to have felt the misery. Even at the height of what was called “Cool Britannia” in the Tony Blair era, this strand of British cinema kept ticking along, usually becoming even darker and despairing (no doubt as an expression of revulsion at the supposed “Coolness”, as for example in Ken Loach’s work), and like an inverse indicator of where things are at, it’s flourishing again now as Britain enters a new age of extreme constraint. Put simply, it’s bad over there – on a recent trip, everyone I talked to seemed preoccupied by shrinking resources and tightened living standards, and since just about every economic indicator is still headed in the wrong direction, there’s immense anxiety about the escalating social toll. Those old kitchen-sink films radiate physical and existential claustrophobia, and overwhelming pre-determination based on class and geography; if the characters glimpse the possibility of transcending it (often through sex) it’s usually identified by the end as an illusion, and one fueled, of course, by lots of booze (in this respect, the lives of the actors famously seems to have mirrored their art). Britain seemed for a while to be transcending that grim momentum, but there’s an awful sense now of succumbing to it again.


The most recent release in this tradition, now on DVD, is Tyrannosaur, written and directed by the actor Paddy Considine. It starts with Joseph, a violent man, who drunkenly kicks his dog to death in the opening minute, and in subsequent scenes seems to be willing society to hate him. At his most despairing, he meets Hannah, a worker in a charity shop, who tells him God loves him and prays for him; at their second meeting, he callously abuses her, bringing her to tears, but keeps being drawn back to her. Hannah lives in much better circumstances, in the good bit of town, but her husband abuses her, physically and mentally. What else? Joseph’s best friend is dying, and his best relationship is with a neighbourhood kid terrorized by his mom’s boyfriend’s vicious pit bull.

In the scheme of things, Tyrannosaur is a “small” film; the lives it depicts couldn’t sustain what we think of as a big one. But it’s stunningly acted, and consistently provocative about how constraint and loneliness and repetition push people into poisonous, distorted behaviour. It’s broadly true, as Rick Groen wrote in The Globe and Mail, riffing off the film’s title, that it’s “replete with all manner of rough beasts slouching toward something. For most, it’s something bad; but for a few, behind the snarl and deep within, it’s something better – a profound wish to feel the touch of civility, and be tamed.” But to me, this is less striking than the huge cost of that relative taming, and its cruel arbitrariness. It’s Joseph who’s consistently strained the social contract, but Hannah pays the greater price; the film’s last moments are its most conventionally peaceful and beautiful, but those qualities are at least severely compromised, if not, again, largely illusionary.

For all its great strengths, Tyrannosaur isn’t entirely successful: it feels overly calculated at times, and the individual pieces are somewhat more striking than the work as a whole. Maybe that’s in part because, expressed in Groen’s terms, this kind of British cinema is most effective when it puts aside any hope of being tamed, and stares deep into the eyes of the beast.

Two recent comedies

If you could keep only one strand of British film history, you’d have to consider going for the comedies. True, this would mean the loss of a golden opportunity to erase the memory of the Carry On pictures (nah, I wouldn’t want to do that anyway), but you’d also have the Ealing studio output like The Ladykillers, and Peter Sellers’ early work. On the other hand, in recent years a lot would depend on how much you like Hugh Grant and the Shawn of the Dead guys. But two recent films, both also available now on DVD, brighten the picture considerably. Submarine, directed by Richard Ayoade, is a rare comedy set in Wales, a not-so-distant cousin of Rushmore, with a major dose of Annie Hall, finding multiple modes of expression for its unconventional young protagonist’s inner life, making every moment distinctive and colourful without feeling forced. Any film about modern youth that depicts Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc as a date movie clearly has a major quirky streak, but it’s also well in touch with the repetitions and compromises that shape much of adulthood.

Even more striking is Chris Morris’ Four Lions, a foul-mouthed comedy about suicide bombers: a homegrown quartet who set their minds on blowing themselves up for the cause of radical Islam, just as on another day they might have decided to start up a soccer team. The four are mostly idiots, and Morris fearlessly plays the situation for laughs, from their absurd strategic and doctrinal arguments to reckless police shootings and unplanned detonations. This might obviously be considered tasteless, but there’s a chilling truth at its centre: their doggedly mundane commitment to destruction (in one of their cases with the happy support of his wife and kid, the most normal people in the film) evades any tidy social diagnosis or strategic response, mercilessly and scarily nailing the superficiality of “war on terror” rhetoric.