Sunday, July 29, 2012

Killed for sport

Kenneth Lonergan shot his film in Margaret in 2005, and then entered six years of hell – he had trouble editing it into shape and there were endless disagreements over its length, the producers sued each other and him, and the delays kept bleeding resources he didn’t have. It finally came out at the end of last year, in a two-and-a-half-hour version, and although it had some passionate supporters – some called it a masterpiece, the year’s best film – it made pitifully little money. It’s now available on-demand and on DVD – the DVD also features a three-hour director’s cut, but I’ve only seen the shorter version.


I don’t think I’d quite call it a masterpiece, but it’s a fascinating film, entirely engrossing, with a texture recalling the great mature American cinema of the 1970’s. Anna Paquin plays Lisa, a Manhattan private school student, living with her mother, a successful theatrical actress. On a quest to buy a cowboy hat for an upcoming vacation, she sees a bus driver wearing the perfect model; trying to get his attention, she distracts him, he runs a red light, and kills a woman crossing the street. Lisa, the only witness, initially tells the police the light was green, but she later regrets it; when her revised statement can’t get the case reopened, she looks for another course of meaningful action. It opens up a legal and ethical tangle, something that for all her mouthiness, she lacks the sense to orient herself within. Through numerous classroom scenes where the students debate literature, America, and the shape of the post-9/11 world, her personal confusion reflects a broader incoherence, the lack of any clear frames of moral and ethical reference.  

The film makes its greatest impact in spurts, in moments of squirmingly real interaction – Jim Emerson on his Scanners blog said: “I've never seen a film that dissects with such precision just how hard it is to have a meaningful conversation, to actually communicate what you want to say to another person, and to hear and process what they are saying.” Of course, this is a near-universal condition, the raw material of a thousand alienated teenager movies, but Margaret (very finely acted by all) is at times almost eerily attuned to Lisa’s psyche, from her self-conscious would-be eloquence at certain times, to her incoherent rages at others.

Thwarted Masterpiece?

In a New York Times magazine article titled “Kenneth Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece,” the writer Joel Lovell says: “There’s something in the very conception of Margaret, in the themes it most ambitiously pursues, that defies perfection…ever-widening and interconnected circles of lives, their private dramas constantly thrumming and colliding. Yes, it’s a big, messy, problematic film. And it’s one that, with a precision and insight and empathy and large-heartedness you almost never find in movies anymore, captures the bigness and messiness and problematicness of life, and does it in a profound and lingering way.” But I’m not so sure. My favourite moment in the film comes during one of those classroom scenes, where a teacher played by Matthew Broderick leads a discussion of Gloucester’s remark in King Lear – “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods, They kill us for their sport.” He slams into a pupil who insists on the unknowability of the gods’ motives, and of whether human activity occupies any of their attention, rather than on the teacher’s more conventional version of its meaning, reflecting their conscious misuse of humanity. The teacher retreats into near-wordless anger, gripping his juice box as though he’s received a glimpse of hell: the playing field suddenly seems to have become vast and frightening.

For the most part though, Lonergan struggles to maintain such an existential charge. The film features rather too many slow-motion shots of Lisa walking, and rather too many pans across city architecture, as if it could invest itself with meaning by taking a deep breath and waving it in. Near the end, Lisa tells two of her teachers she had an abortion the previous week – something we haven’t seen depicted in the film, and which we don’t objectively know to be either true or false. The longer version apparently features a scene in the abortion clinic, confirming her story: omitting this information from the film seems to extend the theme about the malleability of truth, even allowing the possibility that Lisa might have lost her marbles completely. But obviously, the truth about the abortion isn’t inherently unresolvable in the way of a moral or ethical question: it’s just that the movie artificially withholds it from us, as if in a case of a wanton boy toying with flies – a ploy better suited to a detective thriller than a serious contemplation. For all the time it took to get the movie out, it still feels in the end like Lonergan might have been about to give the pieces another shuffle.

Can it be saved?

The final – rather flat - scene takes place at an opera, which seems to indicate something of the film’s intended scope, but I couldn’t help thinking of other sprawling films that have struggled to be seen as their creators intended, such as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. That film (originally released at 149 minutes; later restored to a 229 minute version that still feels weirdly truncated in places; now extended to a 269 minute version) seems to spawn potentially endless oddities and complexities – it certainly deserves the term “operatic.” For another reference point, I thought of the astonishing behavioural pirouettes and narrative swerves of a film like John Cassavetes’ Love Streams (why has the dog suddenly seemingly changed into a man?). It’s not fair to Lonergan no doubt, but still, Margaret seems overly linear and earthbound by comparison, certainly stepping up to “the bigness and messiness and problematicness of life” – and you truly have to admire it for that – but fairly completely defeated by it (even allowing that anyone would be).

Still, it’s easily one of the contemporary films most deserving of your time. I saw it the day after the shooting at the Colorado movie theatre showing The Dark Knight Rises, as Warner Brothers was canceling its Paris premiere and suspending its reporting of box office results, as if this indicated any meaningful respect for victims of urban sickness, when the crucible for the event (not its direct cause of course, but hardly a random venue for it either) was a showing of a massive commercial investment in an enterprise that whips people up into an anticipatory frenzy for narratives of sickening present-day violence and mythic vigilantism. The whole thing, coupled with the hypocrisy of Obama’s banal “life is very fragile” reaction, while refusing even to devote a token sentence to gun control, just about turned me off the whole industry. If it deserves to be saved, films like Margaret provide a large part of the reason.

The Daily Poll

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2007)

I’ve often mentioned the Internet Movie Database ( in this column, because in a relatively few years it’s become all but indispensable. I can’t remember the last time I referred to Maltin’s movie guide, nor to one of my now aging stack of film encyclopedias (excepting David Thomson, but that’s for the turns of phrase, not for basic information, which was never his book’s strong suit to begin with). There’s probably barely a day in my life when some stray strand of movie imagining doesn’t float through my mind – earlier today, for example, I found myself wondering what Virginie Ledoyen has done lately – and with the imdb, the answer’s right there. For sure it’s not wholly reliable – particularly, by its nature, in the data on future projects – but for someone of my limited preoccupations, it’s one of the most compelling examples of how the Internet has changed our relationship to information.

The Daily Poll

There’s a lot of clutter on the site, which is also a characteristic of the Internet of course. For example, I had never really paid attention to the daily poll of registered users, although it’s too prominent to miss altogether. But right after the Oscars, the following question grabbed me: “Now that Martin Scorsese has won an Academy Award for directing, who now holds the title of ‘Best contemporary American director who has never won a Best Director Oscar?’” I hate to admit it, but I spend too much time on such philosophical issues; more so, in truth, than the current status of Virginie Ledoyen. So I checked it out, and the winner (based on 13,127 votes) was Quentin Tarantino, followed by Tim Burton. Then I looked back at the results again a few days later, and the winner (by then based on 26,057 votes) was Alexander Payne. Tarantino now had fewer votes than he did first time round, which I’m not sure how to interpret. Maybe it’s the work of Sideways-crazy hackers.

Anyway, scrolling back over past polls turns out to be an intriguing window on the ebbs and flows of…well, something. Obviously the voters are dedicated film lovers. But bear in mind that based on the imdb’s user ratings, The Shawshank Redemption is the second best movie of all time (after The Godfather). On the other hand, Citizen Kane, Vertigo and The Third Man all make the top 100, so that’s not so far removed from the standard critical consensus. On the other hand, so do The Departed, Life is Beautiful, and weirdest of all to me, Luc Besson’s Leon (The Professional). In general of course, people tend to react more strongly to their current passions. But that aside, who knows what degree of orchestration, cult programming and maybe outright Satanic influence acts upon these things?

Blair Witch vs. Samantha!

Well, back to the poll results. They had an inauspicious beginning: the first ever question, on October 25, 1999, asked who would win in a fight between the Blair Witch (which was freaking out the country at the time) and Samantha from Bewitched. No surprise that a long-nurtured loyalty vote carried Samantha home on that one. A month or so later, we find a consensus that the 1990’s was the decade that produced the best movies. The 60’s came in last. The 30’s and earlier didn’t even make the ballot!

At various points we learn that Monty Python & the Holy Grail is the favourite British film of all time; that the most underappreciated film in Steven Spielberg’s filmography is not Empire of the Sun but rather Hook; that the quintessential movie quote of the 70’s is not “Are you talking to me?” but rather “May the Force be with you”; that the best Bond theme song is the strained Live and Let Die. So you start to get a sense of the plurality of the group – pop-culture literate, enthusiastic, not real heavy.

We’re not talking here about anything statistically too significant. On the day I write this, yesterday’s poll attracted 27,235 votes; the previous day 25,764; before that 22,284. But a year ago the numbers were usually below 10,000, so it’s growing fast. Maybe every day, a dozen people pick this up as a regular habit, and others start to tune in depending on the question or on the vicissitudes of their day.

For half a minute or so I sat during my lunch break in front of the question of the day (“How stoked are you for 300?” – a question it’s already hard to believe anyone ever cared about the answer to) and kept pressing the refresh button. And about two out of three times when I did that, one or two more people voted. I found this somewhat mesmerizing, as one of those crystallizing moments when you feel the wonder of Internet connectivity. I don’t like live messaging, and I don’t use any of the hot profiling sites or anything like that, so this was probably as close to I ever come to intersecting in real time with a human life on the other end. Which I know must sound kind of pathetic.

But that’s cinema for you. I think it’s fair to say that a website called “The Internet TV Database” could never be as successful (and not just because the imdb subsumes all the TV stuff anyway). It instantly sounds tackier, (even) geekier; it doesn’t hold the same promise of potential universality. True, even a lesser-performing network show gets a bigger audience than your average hit movie. But with a handful of exceptions, tuning into that lame show feels like a filler experience even as you watch it. Cinema is still an event, and events spawn conversation, follow-up, engagement. If only because going out of the house is (hopefully) at least incrementally galvanizing.

Alive or Dead?

But what is that follow-up engagement to be? Traditionally, for film buffs, the answer doesn’t make you look so good. You create scrap books, lists, collect memorabilia, you just do anything to try and solidify your connection with this ever-fleeting passion you have yourself caught up in. You become an eccentric, always living in the next movie. Unusually for such an affliction, the film festival prompts hundreds of people to become voluntary addicts for ten days or so, once a year, then they shake it off and go back to seeing maybe a film a month. For others, there’s no relief.

Cinema, I think, can make you feel more alive than any of the other arts, if you bring enough of yourself to it; otherwise it might render you deader. The Internet offers a vast new coping mechanism. Even if you’re basically in control, as I would claim for myself, you probably can’t afford to ignore all these strands of community. I know I haven’t even scratched the surface of it. I mean, imdb also has message boards. But that’s too much interaction, too much like dealing with people. So much better to maintain a large chunk of one’s energy to invest in people on the screen, and then simply to know that others are out there, running up the poll numbers one by one. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2006)

A good test for sorting film buffs into relatively low- or high-brow categories might be to assess their reactions to the title “10” – does it evoke Bo Derek, or Abbas Kiarostami? (For anyone born in the last twenty years, both names might evoke equally blank stares.)  Usually, I suppose I would be on the more culturally obscure side of that contest, but not here. For on watching Blake Edwards’ 1979 movie 10 again recently, I once again found it completely scintillating and mysterious, easily achieving my basic pantheon litmus test of yielding new subtleties and complexities each time I see it.

My Life with "10"

Some background is necessary here. I probably first saw the film in Wales in the early to mid 80’s, when Dudley Moore was at the peak of the success that followed the breakthrough 10 allowed him (he received an Oscar nomination for Arthur, kept his name above the title for ten or so more films of inexorably declining quality, and came to a massively sad end). He’d been around forever in the UK, and his mainstream Hollywood success was covered there with particular proud intensity. The film also had Julie Andrews doing “adult” things, the immediately iconic Bo Derek, and the long-established Edwards seeming to tap his own middle-aged anxieties with a frankness that seemed mildly surprising at the time. It was a period when the notion of a sophisticated adult comedy was still somewhat thrilling. As a teenager, that put it pretty high up in the roster of X-rated movies you had to get to, and I think I was more than satisfied by the experience, for I returned to it many times.

In the film, Moore agonizes about turning 42, and through all my earlier viewings this was a pretty abstract concept to me. I read a line somewhere that the film’s object lesson is that “possibilities are never lost, only the sense of them,” and since I liked the sound of that (regardless of its applicability to this particular film) it stuck in my mind as a reference point. Taking that as the key, the film’s liberating qualities are more striking than its repressive ones. And indeed, this chronicle of a wealthy Beverly Hills songwriter is dripping with conspicuous consumption, a sense of easy privilege, and rampant hedonism (embodied in particular by the telescope on Moore’s patio through which he watches the endless stream of naked women in a facing house). 

If you see it that way, the very fact that he gets into bed with Derek is more significant than the fact that he sours on her free and easy attitude and returns to his more “mature” relationship with Andrews – this ending perhaps being merely a bow to convention. Similarly, one of the things that tends to be “remembered” about the film is that he rates women on a scale of 1 to 10, although this is an extremely minor part of the film, to the extent that it’s not even clear whether this is a contrivance of Moore himself or of his psychiatrist.

Dudley and Julie

Well, at least five years went by until I watched it again the other week, and now the prospect of being 42, although not quite at the doorstep yet, is certainly more tangible than it used to be. And it struck me this time that the movie is nothing to do with having lost and recovering the sense of existing possibilities. Actually it might be closer to say the polar opposite – that it’s about the necessary relinquishment of possibilities for the sake of the stability of conformity. At its heart it’s about defeat, surrender and self-belittlement, all rooted in the indoctrinated consensus of age-appropriate behaviour.

The casting of Moore and Andrews is key to this impression. The central role was originally meant for George Segal, whom I love, but who would clearly have delivered a more conventionally preoccupied portrayal. Moore on the other hand plays the part with enormous individuality, in a way that must surely have carried some risks – stuffed with Britishisms, whininess, obnoxiousness, homophobia and sheer oddity. His lack of height almost makes the point too obvious – the man is a spoilt child, who nevertheless happens to be a millionaire genius (and winner of four Oscars!). At the same time, he’s restless for stability even if he doesn’t know it, but the fact that the film finally comes down on that side of the dilemma can’t overturn the feeling that this is a man who would be better off going with his own tune.

The use of Andrews is even more fascinating. I nearly fell off my seat this time round on realizing she’s meant to be 38. Maybe I’m exaggerating my own youthfulness, but I can’t in any way assimilate the idea of Julie Andrews here as being younger than I am now. She’s self-righteous, hectoring, not sexy, not spontaneous, and their final reunion has the distinct undertone of a man embarking on making love to his own mother. This actually comes across as a terrific undermining of the film’s supposed happy ending, rendering matters utterly perverse and ambiguous. But at this point one has to remember that Edwards is married to Andrews, a woman thirteen years younger than he is, and presumably doesn’t view her in the same way I’ve described (one clue: although playing 38, she was actually 43 when the film was shot). These are the ambiguities of which one’s guilty pleasures are formed. 

Blake Edwards

In the wake of my enthusiasm for 10, I developed a real enthusiasm for Edwards for a time, and regarded both S.O.B. and Victor Victoria as among the best films of the 80’s. After I saw S.O.B. again recently, I felt obliged to revise that opinion down drastically, although William Holden (in his last film, and looking like he might have known it) always gets to me. I now think that Edwards was somewhat messy and over-impulsive, and yet in possession of a deadpan style and sensibility that at least sometimes achieved truly intriguing results. The Party and the early Pink Panther films for example have many sublime moments, but always surrounded by a certain slackness.

10 is crammed with slapstick and knowing low comedy contrivances, and I think a young viewer coming across the film for the first time – without any sense of Edwards or of the principals – might find it merely weird, arbitrary and unwieldy. If you come to it with some background though you can see the real wryness in which it’s all based – how the endless stream of physical discomforts heaped on Moore seems to embody the futility of anything other than conforming, grindingly pushing him back into the place he resists.

I can’t really see the film objectively any more. Clearly it is not one of the ten best pictures ever made, but if I were compiling a list for a desert island, I might have to be honest and put it on there. On a scale of 1 to 10, it grabs me as though it were an 11.

Anything could happen

So I was in the dentist’s chair, waiting for the pain to begin, and the assistant mentioned she’d seen Magic Mike that weekend. I told her that (as documented here last week) I had too – I was really happy about it, because it’s so rare that I manage to find common ground with anyone at the dentist’s – and she was absolutely astonished. She told me she didn’t know of any man who’d been willing to see it, except that one of her girlfriends duped a guy into going by telling him it was about a superhero, a subterfuge which didn’t ultimately work out too well. We didn’t continue the conversation because I had to start submitting to the pain, but it was a rare experience for me, movie-wise, to be considered quirky for having gone to see a big commercial hit: most of the movies I watch nowadays are old foreign ones, which a lot of people think of as just another version of the dentist’s chair (albeit with a bit more nudity, by and large).

Woody Allen

The truth is, I wouldn’t have gone to see Magic Mike except I was sure I could get a good article out of it, because if you’re going to try holding down a column like this, you can’t spend every week on Robert Bresson and Jean Renoir (I’m eternally grateful I’m allowed to spend any weeks on such territory). I would have seen it eventually, no question, but these days I’m happy to wait for cable. I mean, I can name films I’ve been waiting to see for thirty years, so it’s no hardship to put something like the remake of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on ice for seven or eight months, even if it is David Fincher. Truth is, there’s no more than a handful of films a year that I’m so excited about that I’d definitely go see them right away, even if I didn’t have a column – possibly the most recent example was Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress.

That’s a fairly typical example actually – a movie made by an old guy I’ve admired for years, so that the desire to actually see the film is intertwined with some quasi-spiritual notion of keeping the faith. Which brings us conveniently to Woody Allen, because the record shows, I kept the faith – I was there for Scoop and Anything Else and Whatever Works and Cassandra’s Dream and all of them. It must have been quasi-spiritual, because only God knows what kept me doing it. Sure, they met my criterion of generating an article, but it was always pretty much the same one.

To Rome with Love

And then, last year’s Midnight in Paris became his biggest critical and popular hit for years, and ultimately got him another Oscar for its screenplay. I called it one of his most coherent and sustained films in a long time, which was true, but put another way, might just have meant it avoided any major screw-ups. It can’t have been just that though – I wouldn’t have said his new film To Rome with Love has any major screw-ups either, but it hasn’t galvanized audiences or writers in anything like the same way. I doubt Allen’s concerned, given how the new film dramatizes exactly such fickleness: an unassuming clerk, played by Roberto Benigni, suddenly and inexplicably becomes the object of intense media scrutiny, with reporters hanging on the mundane details of what he had for breakfast or whether he thinks it’s going to rain. Until, of course, they just as mysteriously lose interest and move on elsewhere.

Allen’s often built his stories on a sort of magic realism – for example, I recently rewatched his 1990 Alice, in which an unfulfilled housewife remakes herself by taking invisibility potions and suchlike – but in recent years it seems increasingly central to his view of the world. To Rome with Love is suffused with a happy awareness of possibilities and a refusal to moralize about their relative merits, and this spreads beyond plot and character, defining its very structure. The film intertwines four stories, all presumably happening around the same time, but occupying entirely different time frames -  a story spanning only a day is intercut with others depicting much longer periods. In one of the strands, a young man meets an older one and invites him for coffee; at some point the latter ceases to be a real person and becomes a kind of embodiment of the young man’s internal voice, accompanying him on his romantic narrative, until they somehow loop back to where they started and return to their respective realities. There’s no way to make rational sense of it – maybe it’s a dream or a reverie, or maybe our emotional maturity demands transcending our limiting concepts of rational sense.

Concept drawer

This is fanciful of course – most of us have to live in this world, not a parallel one. Maybe that hardly applies to Allen at this point though – this movie’s idea of political content amounts to a few exchanged barbs about “Communists,” and smartphones exist only so a character can kick-start her adventures by fumbling and dropping hers down the drain; economic problems and racial diversity are as invisible in his work as they’ve ever been. Instead, he continues his recent preoccupation with sexual multiplicity – three of the four stories involve seemingly guilt-free couplings outside the characters’ primary relationships – which seems like an earthly manifestation of his ease with bending time and space. He’s also extremely reticent about tying up any of the strands too tidily: the movie ends merely by emphasizing how easily it could keep going, with a whole new bunch of stories.

All of this means that terms like “coherent” and “sustained” don’t ring quite as prominently in one’s reactions as they did for Midnight in Paris, but to me that makes it a somewhat richer work. And personally I didn’t mind at all that Allen was raiding his bedroom drawer of unrealized concepts (it’s an actual drawer, as depicted in the recent documentary about him) for the story about an opera director who discovers a new talent who can only sing in the shower, nor that his comic timing and instinct for the punchline seem to have become a bit blurry, nor that he unaccountably wastes some members of his dream cast, Greta Gerwig in particular.

So this is what keeping the faith is all about. Then we went out to eat, and it was great, except that because of the current state of my dental treatment, I have to chew very slowly, and mostly with my back teeth on the left hand side, which comes very unnaturally to me. I’m finding it’s true what they say though – if you eat that much more deliberately, it fills you up faster. And it feels virtuous to have to concentrate so much. So that was my own version of old-guy serenity.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


(0riginally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2008)

I recently watched Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle again and was so happy with various scenes that I harassed my poor wife into sitting down and rewatching them with me. Then the next day I watched the new Kevin Costner film Swing Vote. I know, wherever I might go from there, it’s not fair. I didn’t expect writer-director Joshua Michael Stern to deliver a treasure for the ages, but how can comedies have such dull sensibilities? Swing Vote is “smooth”, of course; it’s obviously the product of a well-honed machine, but it leaks vacuousness from every joint. For a film about modern politics, this could of course be a fusion of form and content.

Swing Vote

The premise is set up more ably than I expected: following a voting machine malfunction and the tightest election yet, an unremarkable New Mexico citizen is granted the right to a revote, and thereby to pick the winner. Surrounded by the expected media circus, the two candidates compete to pledge, dissemble and possibly even bribe their way to the new kingmaker’s heart, leaping to overanalyze and capitalize on each of his clueless musings. The Republican becomes an environmentalist; the Democrat declares a new assault on Roe vs. Wade. Maybe it’s my own bias (maybe it’s Stern’s), but I found this much more believable for the Republican than the Democrat, although the latter’s outrageous new ads supply some of the film’s funniest moments.

Costner deserves genuine credit for playing a self-indulgent, shallow loser with so little vanity, and the film does occasionally dramatize various slices of the anxious heartland underclass with grim candour. But it has an astounding lack of pace, finesse, and to reuse a word that often comes to my mind on such occasions, relish. The two candidates, played by Kelsey Grammar (too familiar to be funny) and Dennis Hopper (interesting casting, but to no apparent end) are non-entities, and the film has no taste for the down and dirty (see the recent HBO movie about Florida 2000, Recount, for a by no means perfect but infinitely more textured and lively trip into this sandbox). To take one example, you’ve definitely never seen Nathan Lane so bland.

With so much political satire available on TV, maybe there’s just no point even trying for it on the big screen – Swing Vote didn’t attract much of an audience. And yet, the most annoying thing about the movie is the constant sense that it could actually have been good. If, that is, it took a position, developed a voice, tried not to be all things to all viewers, was readier to offend. Get the analogy?

Man on Wire

Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh, is a documentary about Philippe Petit, who in August 1974 walked on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Back and forth, eight times! This came after several years of planning, involving an archetypal “motley crew” of helpers; they made it to the top of both towers after dark, fired a filament-attached arrow from one to the other, and from there managed to get the wire in place by dawn.

Marsh’s style, involving interviews with all the key participants, archive footage, and reconstructions of the heist-like planning and execution, is sometimes a little overblown, but overall highly effective. Petit remains an engaging central figure, who talks as if he swallowed the swankier half of a dictionary. At the time he’d pulled off similar walks above Notre Dame and Sydney Harbour Bridge, and had a dedicated if small team around him, apparently happy to spend hours in his shadow as he rehearsed and strategized. They have film of some of this, and it evokes the Truffaut or Rohmer movies of the time; almost archetypal, pretty young French people clustered around a grand uniting passion, except that instead of social justice or cinema, it was all about Petit’s possibly suicidal project (needless to say, such charisma might actually be dangerous).

At the time the towers were new, in fact not quite finished; the film includes quite a bit of construction footage. It doesn’t mention 9/11, and doesn’t need to - a shot of a plane passing above as he walks the wire would have been breathtaking in any event but of course carries extra resonance now. Apparently his stunt helped at the time to smooth over the buildings’ previously rather off-putting public image – how could they not be softened by their collaboration in such an intimate endeavour?

I mentioned the film has quite a bit of archive footage, some of it recording relatively mundane conversations and interactions – this might have suggested thoughts of posterity, if not that apparently no one was in place to film the walk itself. After the movie my wife reminded me of a skateboarder we’d recently seen on Letterman, toying with the laws of physics on a hundred-foot high ramp, and drew the link from him to Petit; true, I said, but with the difference that the boarder’s feat was conceived and executed in an atmosphere of corporate sponsorship and media exposure. Maybe there’s some rewriting of history going on, but it sure doesn’t look as if Petit’s project was carried out with any specific financial upside in mind; this might now seem naïve, but adds to the sense of expired beauty. Several of the participants, interviewed today, are moved to tears when they talk about the event; putting you in mind of the cliché that perhaps they never again felt as alive as when they collaborated in taunting death.

Happy Ending

It doesn’t sound like the group stuck together for long after the event; a few of them talk about it as a culmination and thus a necessary ending. The film doesn’t tell us anything about what Petit did afterwards (on the Internet I learn he’s continued in much the same vein, if less spectacularly), but we do see him still walking a wire in a field near his home (which turns out to be near Woodstock in New York – another echo of a lost age). He talks about this on the soundtrack as a metaphor for living without complacency; a day without risk, without the possibility of falling off the wire, might as well be dead. It’s the obvious “poetic” take-away from the story, but for once the spiraling sentiments actually seem well grounded. If that’s the right word.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Taking it off

Steven Soderbergh reminds me lately of Orson Welles’ supposed line about a film set being the biggest electric train set a boy ever had. I don’t suppose it’s really as easy as it looks, but he seems to have the ability to make whatever enters his head, and to have mastered the apparatus so that the path from dream to fulfillment is as short and smooth as humanly possible: he’s made ten movies since 2008, including the one he’s currently finishing (and including a project shot in Australia, which he reportedly doesn’t intend to release). It’s less than a year since Contagion, a very compelling, endlessly thought-provoking movie about a global pandemic. A few months after that, he released Haywire, a happily unambitious action piece, seemingly with little in its mind beyond spotlighting its star Gina Carano and smoothly changing the gears. And now he’s come out with Magic Mike, which appears to have been a bigger hit than people expected.

Magic Mike

Loosely based on the early experiences of its star Channing Tatum, it’s the story of a male stripper – and it’s quite true, when I went to see it, the audience was very predominantly female (the New York Times reported it’s also a current popular night out for groups of gay males). The movie kicks off at the height of the magic – Mike, seemingly in his early 30’s or so, and his girlfriend waking up in his handsome Tampa apartment, trying to remember the name of the other girl in their bed; early scenes, firing on all cylinders, lay down a portrait of smoothly-flowing money, diversion and sex (not for the first time in movies, you wonder how much sleep the guy can possibly get), kicking up to an even higher gear as Mike pals around with his new protégé of sorts, Adam (Alex Pettyfer). In the manner of a variation on A Star is Born, Mike starts to lose his mojo as Alex finds his, especially as he becomes more preoccupied by Alex’s sister Brooke, who takes a dim view of the lifestyle. The ending is not remotely difficult to foresee.

Writing here about Contagion, I said that “not for the first time with Soderbergh, you miss the wildness and revelation that characterizes art rather than instruction.” Magic Mike prompts a similar train of thought. The film has any number of strong points – it’s expertly controlled, and Tatum gives a deft performance. Those who paid to see this movie in between summer superhero flicks may have felt, in comparison, that they were being hit over the head with gritty realism. But the key term there, of course, is “in comparison.” In the film’s own vernacular, the film’s an expertly choreographed stripper routine, but Soderbergh never comes close to letting you see the size of his junk.

Satan of strip

I can’t really comment on whether the portrayal of the club is accurate, but it feels too clean and coherent to be. Matthew McConaughey plays the owner and master of ceremonies, strutting and preening like some gleeful Satan of strip. The routines are as tightly choreographed and conceptually advanced as rock videos; the audience is compliant and unthreatening (except for a heavier woman who puts out the back of one of the dancers when he tries to lift her up); it’s much more about coded theatrics than the promise of sex (there’s seaminess around the edges, but the film’s treatment of drug dealing and resulting violence is particularly half-hearted). When Brooke comes to the club for the first time, Soderbergh provides many extended close-ups of her watching Mike’s performance, far apart from the prevailing mood; her precise reaction is unreadable, but the sheer amount of time devoted to her seems to be endorsing her implied critique, to be suggesting that her intelligent, analytical gaze is more worthy than that of the regular patrons, and to start clawing back any straightforward pleasure we may have taken in the spectacle to that point.

This assessment seems to be directed only toward Mike though, not toward the other men up there (including, ultimately, her own brother). His conversation and awareness mark him as embodying greater potential – he could plainly do better. The movie is appealingly specific about money at times, such as in setting out the relative remuneration of stripping versus construction, and in a central scene, Mike’s request for a loan (to finance his real dream of starting his own custom furniture business) is rejected – despite the $13,000 of cash he puts down on the table – because of his lack of an adequate credit history: when the loan officer refers to him as a distressed borrower, he says “I read the news, lady, and the only thing that's distressed is y'all." Soderbergh immediately cuts to black, emphasizing the poignancy of Mike’s plight, as if prompting us to assess him as a victim. But given that we don’t know (for instance) how much he’s looking to borrow or the merits of his business plan, it’s hard to get entirely on board.

Going Fine

The movie eschews any interest in whether, for someone who’s kind of like Mike, but without the talent for crafting custom furniture, this life might actually be viable, even virtuous. Some people, surely, find perpetual fulfillment in the adulation of others; some people remain polyamorous and unsuited for a binary relationship. Of course, Soderbergh couldn’t be expected to explore all those variations, but he chose a pretty narrow path: once we get past the initial razzle-dazzle, the movie starts to seem like a stacked deck, dismantling every element of the Zone we initially thought he occupied (the girlfriend of that opening scene, for instance, suddenly freezes him out and produces a fiancée). If you buy into this implied morality, the ending is a personal victory, but it’s also heavy with the usual Hollywood evasions.

It’s telling that one of Soderbergh’s most satisfying movies, on its own terms, is And Everything is Going Fine, a documentary he made a couple of years ago about the actor and performer Spalding Gray, whose work often consisted of self-written monologues: Soderbergh traced Gray’s life and recurring themes entirely through pre-existing footage, not adding anything new, not even a voice-over or caption, as if seizing the chance to be an assembler of custom cinematic furniture, without the messiness of having to go through the usual grind of obtaining the raw elements. I’m sure Soderbergh likes the process well enough, but his work never communicates the sheer grand/kooky relish of (say) Paul Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. It’s not so surprising that he intends his current activity as a final flourish before formally withdrawing from cinema (although he’s left the door open to change his mind later). I guess, like Mike, he’s got that “is this all there is” kind of feeling. And the truth is, it’s not so hard to believe he’s gotten as much out of this train set as he’s ever going to. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Needing a Filibuster

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2009)

I watched Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington again the other week. It’s never been one of my absolute favourites, but that’s hardly to say I’m immune to it. Early on, when James Stewart’s wide-eyed newly minted senator plays hooky to check out the Lincoln memorial and mists up over the Gettysburg address, and Capra all but allows the celluloid to melt in patriotic bliss, I’m just doing all I can not to fast forward. Later, after his attempt to stand up to the corrupt political machine gets him framed and shamed, he goes back to the statue bitter and disillusioned now by all the imperial hypocrisy, until Jean Arthur’s character points out a way to redemption: turn up at his expulsion hearing and play the Senate filibuster rules, holding the floor and delaying the vote, while she works the press to get out the truth and marshal public opinion behind him. Stewart’s performance in the home stretch, ranging from passionate oratory to corny charm as exhaustion overtakes him, is of course one of the cornerstones of his acting legend, and still exhilarating to watch.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Capra’s film is ultimately an emphatic validation of the system: maybe you can never entirely get rid of the special interests, but if the people elevate the right representatives, who then channel the inherent greatness of America’s core values, its pure and deep waters will always rise to swallow up the trash. It’s key to this that the Senate rules aren’t presented as the silly cookbook of self-absorbed garbage that they are, but rather as almost mystically well-balanced, holding infinite policy complexity in balance and yet occasionally allowing a necessary inspirational reboot. Based on the film’s own logic, nevertheless, it shouldn’t work – Stewart collapses of exhaustion, thus ending his stand, and it’s only through a deus ex machina that the corrupt senator cracks up at that same moment, tries to shoot himself, and blurts out the truth. The film’s underlying logic points more directly to Stewart regaining some respect and credibility through his stand, but still losing the battle for now (if not the longer-term war).

Of course, the world of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is almost infinitely simpler than our own: the political machine for example is able to effectively take over every media outlet in the state, suppressing any and all news that doesn’t fit its agenda. Our fragmented culture has problems galore, but at least seems capable of avoiding that kind of media blackout (however, as in the early and seemingly bright days of Bush’s war on terror, the media frequently blacks itself out). Capra’s film is obviously immensely simplified: timelines are condensed, events are brightly outlined; surely even in 1939 it must have been far removed from verisimilitude. But that central notion about the individual’s capacity to take on the system certainly seemed to people to embody a broader truth, and still does even today.

Can’t We Just Talk?

This is what makes the movie so depressing though, as the notion of Obama as a transformative change agent increasingly seems further and further away. All through the election I worried about this: Bush was such an obvious boob that at least those of us who despaired for America had the comfort of saying, well, he’s an idiot, of course everything’s wrong. But if Obama, seemingly as decent and progressive (and by virtue of just being there, given where he started, seemingly capable of figuring out and mastering essentially anything) were to fail, where would our hope come from after that? This, horribly, increasingly seems to be where we’re going. The terrible spectacle of Obama’s teetering health care initiative tells you a lot, but the most depressing thing to me is the apparent impossibility of conducting a sane debate. Surely everyone acknowledges on some level that things can’t go on as they are: that health care is the most urgent example of almost unlimited needs and demands straining against scary fiscal limitations. If there were any sanity to this, we’d be observing an extended public debate on trade-offs and values and choices and responsibilities. Instead, we hear about death panels and Nazis and socialism, occasionally yielding to abstract sparring about private versus public options, taxing versus spending. Capra’s crooked Senator motivated by a self-serving construction contract is chickenfeed when set against representatives whose whole ideology, untempered by much intellectual curiosity or sense of broader responsibility and crisis, will always boil everything down to a few inflexible litmus tests. Not to mention how blind party affiliation allows rabid antipathy to something over here to coexist with happy indifference to something over there, no matter that they might be factually or morally indistinguishable, if the political warfront happens to cross in between.

My point isn’t literally that we need a Jimmy Stewart (the closest thing we got to that was Ronald Reagan, which worked out a different way), but we so need someone or something to refresh and realign us. But the economic crisis should have been one of the biggest wake-up calls imaginable, and yet it changed nothing – the entire institutional and policy-making momentum seems to be not to learn and improve from it, but merely to find a way to get back to where we were, regardless that it proved itself putridly flawed. There’s no shortage of commentators to tell us this, but it’s all for nothing. So what the hell are we going to do?

District 9

Deliberately or not, the new science-fiction hit District 9 embodies much of our lost capacity for achievement. The great event we’ve long dreamed of finally happens: a spaceship full of aliens enters our orbit, and the best mankind can think to do with them is stick them in a horrible stinking settlement camp and meanwhile plunder their technology for commercial gain. Since it’s set in South Africa, and the alien camps look much the same as the black townships, it’s tempting to see some apartheid message in here, but the situation plays more as a reiteration of that history than an illumination of it (if anything even remains to be illuminated). Actually, I found myself thinking more of the current The Cove: given how we treat the dolphins, why would the aliens fare any better? The film shows all this being handled exclusively as a local problem, with no mention of the UN or other international interests, further suggesting a world that might be losing its ability to lift up its head.

Having set up this intriguing theme, and after laying down some very good initial scenes, District 9 becomes an increasingly conventional chase/conspiracy thriller, with an initially nerdy bureaucrat transforming himself into an all-action superman, happily leaping over holes in the plot. But since mankind as a whole increasingly suggests it doesn’t deserve and can’t do justice to anything other than the mediocre and the ugly, I guess that’s just fine.

Toronto possibilities

Sarah Polley’s directorial debut Away From Her was hugely acclaimed for its emotional truth and eloquence, on occasion inspiring something close to awe that such a young writer-director could have engaged so fully with the challenges of old age. The film was very precisely investigated and crafted, but at times I found it a little too pristine; in particular perhaps, the ending – turning on what would have to be an incredibly wrenching, turbulent compromise overemphasized structural tidiness, irony and perseverance. But I wrote at the time that it was difficult to blame a director as young and enterprising as Polley for retaining a certain measure of idealism in this.

Precision and expansiveness

 Polley’s second film Take this Waltz might have been designed to assert her range – where the first title emphasized the cruel distancing of age, the second asserts youthful connection, at least for as long as the music keeps playing. Michelle Williams plays Margot, a writer living in downtown Toronto with her husband Lou (Seth Rogan), who’s developing a book of chicken recipes. On a flight home from Nova Scotia, she connects with Daniel, the guy in the next seat (Luke Kirby); it turns out he lives on the same street, and they begin to meet and flirt and toy with the possibility of something.

 Even from that brief synopsis, it’s obvious Polley is working within broadly familiar – one might as well say clichéd – structures and set-ups here. Numerous reviewers have commented on the apparent gap between the characters’ seemingly low incomes and their spacious (though not ostentatious) living circumstances. Of course, maybe this can all be explained by information that’s not in the movie (inheritances or whatever), but it seems a bit odd perhaps that the famously radical, committed Polley aligns herself with those pampered artists whose flimsy devices depend on denying the realities of labour and compromise. But then Toronto viewers also know that Margot’s home, precisely identified as being near Queen and Dufferin, is nowhere near the Beach, presented here as an easy walk away. The point seems to be to intertwine geographic precision and spiritual expansiveness, and thereby to externalize the confused but glorious contours of Margot’s inner life.

Random sentences

 Polley devotes much of the movie to observing Margot, alone and with others, and Liam Lacey in the Globe and Mail saw it as a problem that the character “seems not 28, but 18, or younger,” citing for example how she “talks about how a sunbeam on a sidewalk can make her cry; she arranges trysts with Daniel, but then changes her mind.” But I’m sure we all know women (and men) not 28, but 38, or older, who are capable on a daily basis of much more youthful (or unformed, whatever) behaviour than that. Actually, the interplay of sexual desire with the forces that compel her to move toward Daniel but then to “change her mind” – a sense of responsibility to her husband, fear of the consequences and so on – seems to me to have no inherent time limit on it. Presumably this is part of the point of the film’s most cited scene, observing Margot and a varied group of women naked in the shower.

 From my own perspective, I’d agree some aspects of the character seem rather grotesque, like her faking (or actually experiencing, I’m not sure which) a form of disability when she has to make airport connections. But on the other hand for example, when she talks to her husband about the courage required to try to seduce him – something he can’t relate to at all – it struck me as chillingly sad and plausible (although not of course universally so, thankfully). Polley seems to invite such disparate reactions, sometimes switching within seconds from apparent elation to something more ambiguous, if not its opposite (I would never have imagined that the Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star could be used so productively) – if we felt we fully grasped Margot, it could only be by denying some aspect of her complexity. It helps immeasurably that Michelle Williams – observed here with almost eerie care and fullness – could probably take a collection of completely random sentences and make a compelling character out of them. But then, aren’t most of us more like a collection of random sentences than like the controlled, diagrammatized characters of mainstream cinema?

Baby talk

 The real infantilism in the movie seems attached to Margot and Lou’s relationship, which expresses itself through a high degree of baby talk, verbal games and silly pranks, and seemingly little sexual heat. Again, nothing “wrong” with this, if that’s where your desires take you, but Polley presents very skillfully how such solicitude and security could easily become an arid trap. Daniel’s desire for her is very explicitly sexual, summed up in a monologue where he tells her exactly what he’d like to do with her: Williams’ delight at this is palpable – watching the movie a few days after Nora Ephron died, I couldn’t help thinking of that “I’ll have what she’s having’ line from When Harry Met Sally. But in one of the film’s most striking leaps, Polley later on stamps this as a more complex desire than we likely took it for, by intimating that their relationship will lead to threesome activity, with both men and women (Bruce McDonald’s This Movie is Broken, another glowing hymn to Toronto, did something similar near the end – perhaps we’ll end up as the acknowledged cinematic capital of pansexuality, which wouldn’t be so bad).

Anyway, I was very surprised how Take this Waltz played in my mind afterwards, as if it might actually be addictive. Its beauty always seems anchored in inner states, never becoming academic; it’s so full of memorable moments that I lost count. It seems to me an astonishing advance from Away with Her – like comparing a short story to a big overflowing, sensuous mixed-media narrative installation. Now, that probably points to the film’s limitation though, that given the choice, you might sometimes just prefer a well-crafted short story. The problem with Polley’s awareness of alternate possibilities and directions is that you start to wonder whether the film is just a series of evasions; whether it shouldn’t ultimately be giving us something more specific. There’s not much anger in there – at the main points where it seems warranted, Polley cuts around it, or looks away. A great director like the French Maurice Pialat knew how to present the extremity of human behaviour, from its most tender to its most savage, without betraying economic truth or the reality of a particular time and place. But how often does a Canadian filmmaker even demand to be gently critiqued in such terms? By the time Polley’s done, maybe she’ll be the one they compare everyone else against, and she’ll even have made this the place they compare the other places against.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Innocent pleasures

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2005)

Miranda July has received accolades for her debut film Me and You and Everyone we Know, winning awards at both the Sundance and Cannes festivals. July wrote and directed the film and also stars in it as a struggling conceptual artist who falls in love with a newly separated shoe salesman. Other characters revolve around them, linked in generally rather perverse ways. A. O. Scott in The New York Times said that the film “proposes a delicate, beguiling idea of community and advances it in full awareness of the peculiar obstacles that modern life presents.”

Me And You And...

The film is often nicely handled, generally intriguing and sometimes quite funny, and July herself comes across as sweetly quirky. But I must say thatMe and You and Everyone we Know struck me as egotistical and pretentious. The title points to the film’s melding of intimacy and universality – its every line of dialogue seems like a gambit in some celestial game of strategy. The characters have sex heavily on their minds, but there’s no conventional gratification in the film, and its most extreme sexual concepts come from the doodling imaginations of children. But they find a point of intersection in the real world, and July’s film is at its most skillful in crafting connections and parallels. The subtext of these though, intended or not, seems merely to be that one thing is just about as meaningless as the next. The performance art videos made by July’s character appear to be, more or less, improvised drivel, but it appears we’re meant to find them charming (one scene makes fun of the pretensions of modern art, but this seems merely like biting the hand that feeds).

Indeed, watching the film felt less like a conventional cinematic experience than like being before an installation in a modern art museum. This could be praise (certainly it was so for Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle, released here last year) but in this case it’s primarily a reflection of the film’s dubious relation to reality – neither grasping it, not placing itself at an artistically rewarding distance from it. On the Ebert and Roeper TV show, the two reviewers raved about a scene where the two main protagonists have a conversation while walking down a street, praising the dialogue’s individuality and delicacy. But that scene is a fake –no one talks that way, which wouldn’t be a problem if the scene had any other kind of payoff, except it doesn’t. It’s a device for the easily seduced; a plastic bouquet.

In the film’s last scene, July engineers a set-up involving a child, a coin, and the sun, that reminded me a little of Stanley Kubrick’s famous cut in 2001 from a swirling bone, thrown into the air during the dawn of man sequence, to a space station thousands of years subsequently. It’s rather stunning, but July’s evocation of ultimate power is disproportionate to anything justified by the movie, and the scene’s underlying notion of self-determination is merely trite. As for the film’s widespread success, I think it merely illustrates the vanity of middlebrow urban audiences. The mixture of non-denominational new-age spiritual uplift, mildly racy humour, longer than usual words and a general patina of “artiness” just about catches the intersection where I and you and most of whom we know aspire to live.


Sally Potter’s film Yes hasn't received such uniformly positive reviews, which is fairly typical of Potter’s work. Of her last two films, The Tango Lesson was largely viewed as self-absorbed (which made sense to me) and The Man who Cried had virtually no admirers whatsoever. Except me – I put it on my top ten list for the year (admittedly a little generously). An epic of sorts, with international settings and a big name cast, it seemed designed to be susceptible to analysis in the same way that film theorists mull over Bette Davis’ 1940’s films, and it came pretty close. Her new film has a gimmick to rival her earlier gender-bending time-traveling Orlando – the dialogue is spoken completely in iambic pentameter. Joan Allen plays a genetic researcher in a deadening marriage, who falls in love with an Lebanese kitchen-worker; obviously a touchstone for a meditation on contemporary geopolitics.

The film is sometimes difficult to warm to (although the poetic dialogue goes down smoothly enough that you often forget the entire conceit), but overall it’s impressive for all its flaws, and unlike July’s film it feels resolutely like a piece of cinematic exploration, in search of a visceral audience response. Taking the opposite tack to Me and You... (an oddly clean, as in sterile, work), Yes opens and closes on particles of dirt, meditating on its ever-presence, its intimate relationship to human activity, the way it can only be moved around and never destroyed. Initially this sounds merely worth a shrug, but it becomes gradually persuasive as a totem of Potter’s investigative zeal, her belief that all can be transcended if you just analyze and care about it enough. Her scenes radiate visual and thematic immersion (albeit sometimes of a gee-whiz nature), and the film leaps around at times as much as Me and You...,  with as convinced a sense of universal dysfunction. Potter takes her camera to Beirut, she forces herself into the perspective of a Middle Eastern immigrant; and the poetic verbal device denies her the luxury of a single easy piece of dialogue. Thus Allen’s profession, immersing herself in the building blocks of existence, becomes a viable metaphor for Potter herself, and the preoccupation with minute physical matter becomes more than merely an affectation.

Moral Complacency

The movie’s approach to global politics is no doubt romantic and idealistic – Allen’s dying aunt is a diehard Communist who still idolizes Castro’s Cuba, which prompts Allen to take off there, leading to a rather glorious climax that fuses contemporary realities, swooning romantic fantasy, and a final return to the concept of granularity and interconnectedness. The same A. O. Scott gave Yes a blistering review, stating among other things that Potter’s “formal ingenuity..., which it would be unkind to dismiss as mere pretension, is yoked to ideas of almost staggering banality,” that the film “consists of nothing but stereotypes,” and that it “offers a case study in the moral complacency of the creative class, and its verbal cleverness cannot disguise the vacuous self-affirmation summed up in the title.” I can’t argue that the film has its problems, but banal as its themes may be, those are the issues that continue to confound us, and moral complacency is our age’s universal currency. Did I mention that Me and You and Everyone we Know has I think but a single stab at political analysis, via one character’s assertion that “Email wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for AIDS”?

The difference in quality between the two films seems to me all but obvious, but most reviewers saw it the other way around.

Robert Bresson

The film critic David Thomson wrote that a short commentary on the French filmmaker Robert Bresson is “a hopeless task,” in large part because “no other great director seems less intrigued by cinema itself…he seems to shame the extrinsic glamour and extravagance of movies.” The comment about the hopelessness of the task is certainly true – I’ve thought several times of writing an article on Bresson and then backed away, knowing it would only expose my superficiality. But Thomson’s remark about his distance from cinema is a bit misleading, and ultimately unhelpful. I once described in this space an extra on the DVD of Bresson’s last film L’Argent, made in 1983, in which the interviewer asks him about a rumour that he’d recently enjoyed a James Bond film. The aging, massively distinguished director almost leaps to confirm this, saying that he took his two nieces to see For Your Eyes Only because they asked him to. “It filled me with wonder,” he says, “because of its cinematographic writing...if I could have seen it twice in a row and again the next day, I would have done.”

Of this world

I speculated at the time that “for a director brought up in the silent era, who perhaps took himself less seriously than the legend suggests, it’s beguiling to think even a humdrum action film might be divorced from its formulaic plotting (the sense of which of course is primarily rooted in our having seen too many of them) and superficial characterization and dubious moral underpinnings, and regarded solely as a show of light and movement and possibility.” Subsequent to this I read about a French memoir in which one of Bresson’s young actresses basically described him as a dirty old man; the cinematographer on that same film said: “He was immense as a filmmaker. But I would never confide my daughter to him, never.” And it’s said that as a young man, Bresson worked as a gigolo. All of which is only to say that it’s probably unnecessary and unrewarding to see the director, as commentators often do, and as his films might certainly encourage, as someone of such mystical austerity and focus that he barely seems of this world.

In his introduction to a recent series of Bresson’s films at the Lightbox, James Quandt called his a “cinema of paradox, in which the denial of emotion creates emotionally overwhelming works…a chaste aesthetic generates potent sensuality…documentary naturalism becomes abstract formalism.” I think this goes to the difficulty I’ve had in coherently expressing myself – I’ve returned constantly to Bresson’s films (there are only thirteen of them), at least twice a year in recent times, partly out of fascination at how they never quite seemed to feel as I thought they should. For example, the Lightbox program quotes descriptions of his Diary of a Country Priest as “a film of great purity” and “the screen’s most devastating account of the arduous ascent to sainthood.” These comments aren’t at all unearned, but they all but direct you to kneel down before the picture as you watch it. This film too though has a distinct streak of more earthly pleasure. Near the end, the horribly suffering priest accepts a ride on a motor cycle for the first time, experiencing a profound feeling of youth and of appreciation for the risks of youth, which he terms as “blessed.” “I understood,” says his voice over, “that God didn’t want me to die without knowing something of this risk. Just enough for my sacrifice to be complete when its time came.”

The Devil, Probably

It’s possible (at times, probably inevitable) to watch the films without absorbing the full weight of such moments, to collapse their specificity into a generalized “transcendentalism.” But that example richly illustrates the paradoxes that Quandt refers to. The motor cycle seems at first like a somewhat crude intrusion into the film, something a lesser director might associate more with Satan than God. Maybe the priest’s reference to God’s wish for him is a profound breakthrough to the divine; but maybe it’s a rationalization, an indulgence even, just as the term “sacrifice” is inherently overblown as a label for something out of one’s control. At least once in the film, the priest experiences a moment of knowledge that might seem “supernatural,” but the observer reflexively attributes it to Satan. The priest’s death, and his last words that “all is grace,” occur off-camera, described in a letter written by an onlooker; whatever the truth of his ascension, it belongs only to him (and perhaps to God), not to us, and not to “cinema.”

Bresson’s second-last film The Devil, Probably, made in 1977, extends this unknowability to an almost terrifying extent; the French authorities viewed it as an incitement to suicide. At times, the film seems unsubtle for Bresson, incorporating depressing documentary footage of various environmental atrocities. By this point, his use of actors had become more stylized; at times you get the feeling of gorgeous zombies, repelled and often almost frozen by the ugliness of the world, yet always feeling themselves capable of breaking through to something, if only because they’re seduced by their own beauty. The tussle extends right up until the end – the protagonist pays someone to kill him, and the trigger gets pulled as he’s in the middle of a sentence; maybe a cruel joke, denying him his sense of closure, or a mercy, saving him from having to look back with regret from the next world at whatever banality he was about to utter. It’s startling that a director so identified with “spiritual” themes could make such a matter-of-fact film about suicide, an act sometimes regarded as almost the ultimate blaspheme.

Nights of a Dreamer

I’m focusing on those two films only because they’re among the ones I happened to see most recently. The other was Four Nights of a Dreamer,  from 1971, about a young man who intercepts a girl who’s perhaps about to (again)  kill herself after her lover abandons her, and helps her find him again even as he falls for her himself. The film is perhaps Bresson’s most tender and enchanted, less bleak than The Devil, Probably because it acknowledges the possibility of escaping into dreams (or into art, posited here as much the same), short of self-extinction. We’re lucky to be living in a time when the majority of his work is easily available on DVD, not one weak film among them, and although it’s not a large body of work, it sometimes fills capable of satiating your capacities (other than those I’ve mentioned, the most essential include Pickpocket, Au Hasard Balthazar – constructed around the lifelong suffering of a donkey – and Mouchette; Lancelot du Lac is probably the most puzzling for the uninitiated). The films are almost beyond human reckoning, which is why it’s so essential to perceive them as the work of a man.