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.

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