Saturday, October 27, 2012

More Summer Movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2004)
Mopping up some summer movies I haven’t covered already.


I Robot


Vaguely inspired by Isaac Asimov’s classic novel, Alex Proyas’ blockbuster depicts a generally recognizable future world, but one in which the use of ultra-sophisticated, all-but-human robots has proliferated. Will Smith, swaggering through the movie like a Shaft throwback, is a police detective with an anomalous hatred for robots; amazing coincidence then that he’s put on the case when their famous creator is murdered, apparently and unprecedently by one of his own androids. Actually, the movie’s extremely tortuous plotting ultimately reveals it’s not a coincidence.


The film is a bit of a flat experience: monotonous and emotionally thin, and it’s disappointing that director Proyas (whose Dark City was regarded by Roger Ebert as the best film of its year) does so little to evoke the texture of the future world. There are some throwaway lines about escalating environmental problems, and about the economic turmoil generated by robots supplanting jobs, but none of this coheres into an understandable picture – Spielberg’s Minority Report, similar material in numerous respects, was a much more accomplished creation. And at a time when movies are increasingly overcoming the clinically fake look associated with computer generated images, I Robot represents a regression; I swear in some scenes I almost felt back in the days of Dr. Who.


In a way though, the film’s weaknesses provide some unintentional thematic interest. The robots have been criticized for looking lightweight, almost ethereal, and that’s quite right – they never have a persuasive presence. Which in combination with the pallid work by Smith and the film’s other principals reinforces the sense of dehumanization and alienation. It ends with a tacked on epilogue seemingly attributing some kind of spiritual destiny to the robots, which is more than any of the human characters ever seem in possession of. You walk out feeling somewhat more attuned to the perils of our technological momentum, which is definitely of some value, even if it’s something embodied rather than explored by the movie.


The Door in the Floor


Tod Williams’ film, based on a section of John Irving’s novel A Widow for One Year, has lots of superb moments that ably communicate the writer’s fluid quirkiness. It’s really a mere anecdote, about a teenager who comes to spend the summer with a renowned author of children’s books. The author turns out to be rampantly eccentric, and then the kid develops a crush on the man’s estranged wife – and she reciprocates! (women do that kind of thing in Irving’s stories). Williams, whose first film was the even quirkier Adventures of Adrian Cole, has a sensibility that’s unusual nowadays, engaging his characters’ eccentricities with considerable style and patience. This pays dividends in the author character played by Jeff Bridges, a mixture of geniality and bluster and hedonism that’s one of the year’s more complex characters. Unfortunately, the other main characters are far less distinctive (Irving’s trademark liberal-minded approach to overlapping destinies feels pretty arbitrary here), and the film leaves little after-impression: almost as soon as you think it might be spreading its wings, it draws itself back into a ball and disappears down that eponymous, unchallengingly  metaphorical door in the floor.


Control Room


Jehane Noujeam’s documentary about the infamous Qatar-based Al-Jazeera cable network arrived here on the same weekend that the CRTC announced its widely criticized decision to license the channel for Canada: they allowed it, but subject to a monitoring requirement for carrier companies that seemed uneconomic to most observers – thus the CRTC added to the existing web of opposing perceptions about Al-Jazeera’s place in the world. Control Room, shot in a straightforward style, raises numerous questions (even more than most documentaries, although less than Fahrenheit 9/11) about how the choice of what to put on the screen was made, and the extent to which the presence of Noujeam’s camera influenced events. On the basis of what’s seen here, the channel gets a bum rap elsewhere. Although obviously not denying an inclination to the Arab perspective, the station’s employees appear methodical and conscientious (in one scene, for instance, we see a producer criticize the choice of an American “expert” interviewee who’s too one-sidedly anti-US in his on-air views).


But the film’s real case for Al-Jazeera is made by contrast with the Americans, whom we see engaging in extreme news management tactics (all flowing down from the self-righteous Donald Rumsfeld) and perhaps deliberately bombing the network’s Iraq bureau (the Americans say it was in response to sniper fire from the roof). The American we see most of, a mid-ranking press attaché, seems fairly decent, allowing in one scene that Fox News has a bias (doesn’t sound like such a confession, but did you ever hear it from anyone in the Bush administration?) and sounding genuinely pained by Iraqi losses. Maybe he’s just a better faker than the rest. Anyway, Control Room runs less than 90 minutes, which may be enough to give you a reasonable sense of Al-Jazeera, but leaves the experience feeling rather hermetic. One day, a future Marcel Ophuls may  make a vast sprawling documentary about the Iraqi war, and despite what we think we already know, I expect we’ll all be devastated by it.


The Bourne Supremacy


The sequel to The Bourne Identity has been getting lots of good reviews from respectable critics; for example, David Edelstein in Slate called it “simply a tour de force of thriller filmmaking” and saw something existential in the way that the central character’s relentless action substitutes for his absence of much of a self. I can see all that, but it doesn’t excite me very much, and I can’t help thinking that the praise directed to this meat-and-potatoes movie is an overreaction to the preponderance of digital effects in movies like I Robot (indeed, a number of reviewers basically admitted as much).


Matt Damon returns as Jason Bourne, still plagued by amnesia and thrown back from exile into a complicated set-up of espionage and double-crossing, through which he weaves his way with the relentless ease of someone determined to finish a particularly difficult jigsaw before going to bed. The movie is well made: quoting Edelstein again, the action scenes are frequently so “close and blurry and tumultuous that they summon up your primitive fight-or-flight instincts.” But this also struck me at times as bordering on incoherence, and as such retro pleasures go I kept thinking of the late John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, which had similar existential facets but a much cleaner, classical approach to the characters and the action.


Metallica: Some Kind of Monster


Better than any of the above, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary on the making of Metallica’s last album delivers all the rock genre goods, but with a bizarre (until you’ve thought of it, that is) contemporary twist: the band members undergo relentless talk therapy as they try to hold it all together. It’s intermittently hilarious and always fascinating, and Metallica are still a big band, so why did this movie disappear from theaters so quickly? One to see on the repertory circuit, for sure.

Midnight Run

I can’t fully remember now why I was quite as obsessed with Martin Brest’s Midnight Run – it was nearly twenty-five years ago after all – but I paid to see it four or five times and quoted from it incessantly for months. I know it wasn’t the happiest of times in my life – I was living in Britain, and I hated it; I spent much of the time dreaming of getting out. I loved cinema, but didn’t get to see a lot of it beyond the mass commercial releases. Midnight Run stood out from that crowd for sheer quality, but I think it also conveyed an underlying sense of possibility, of a more complex (if highly stylized) mode of interaction, and by making Robert De Niro – a major icon at the time – so grungily accessible and immediate, it seemed to connect disparate worlds, giving me an odd confidence I might do the same.

Jack and the Duke

Are you familiar with a dish called Lyonnaise potato? Oh sorry, I was remembering something. Made in 1988, the film was Brest’s follow-up to Beverly Hills Cop, with De Niro as Jack Walsh, a low-rent bounty hunter (described by another character, accurately, as resembling a guy with a cup in his hand), engaged by a bail bondsman to track down Jonathan “the Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin), an accountant who stole big money from the Mob, and to bring him to LA before his bail runs out in a few days’ time. Jack takes on the job, and finds the Duke easily enough, in New York, but getting him back cross-country proves troublesome; interested parties include the FBI, who want to take Mardukas into their own custody, the mob, who want to kill him, and another bounty hunter. This all encompasses planes, trains, helicopters and overturned automobiles galore.

If one were studying mainstream screenwriting, George Gallo’s screenplay would surely be a key reference point. It relies a lot on short-cuts and coincidences, no question, but never feels like an airless machine, and Brest’s smooth direction accomplishes a rather mysterious synthesis - delivering impeccable action set-ups at a steady pace, while giving the impression of taking his time, of being seeped in character and interaction. And he’s intuitive enough not to over-polish it, to leave in a lot of odd line readings and gestures and glances.

De Niro and Grodin

De Niro’s casting, as I mentioned, was viewed at the time as rather remarkable – to that time he’d barely shown any interest in making something so overtly commercial. I’ve always thought it’s one of his finest performances. Jack isn’t a particularly quick thinker – the Duke talks rings round him – and he’s often forced either into abrasiveness or inarticulacy, but he’s dogged, with a stubborn moral code that emerges over the course of the picture (like an old Howard Hawks movie, Midnight Run gradually extends to a notion of a community of those sharing essentially common values versus all the others, defined by their self-interest and opportunism). De Niro makes Jack’s inner calculations remarkably explicable, but also invests him with a boyishness that creeps out here and there; you sense how Jack’s denied himself many of the traditional indicia of adulthood and contentment, sensing no other way of holding onto his core.

In contrast, Grodin’s Duke, despite his dire outlook, possesses a mystical certainty, even if it’s not always clear what about. He hectors Jack constantly – for smoking, for roughness, for not leaving a big enough tip – and while this is in part just compulsive behaviour, it also carries the sense of an instinctive investment, as if he perceives from the outset that he can remake Jack, piece by piece, and thereby redeem his own situation. Someone once pointed out that the last shot of the Duke might be taken as evoking a ghost, as if he was never really there; this doesn’t mean the movie can be taken as a heavily disguised forerunner of The Sixth Sense, but it does help indicate its oddly ethereal centre.

All the odder because it’s such a masculine movie in other ways. When Jack says defensively to the Duke that he has lots of people who love him, he turns out to mean an ex-wife and daughter he hasn’t seen in nine years; there’s no room for romance or even for mild titillation. The players are virtually all beefy, unglamorous middle-aged men, all swaggering and delivering imaginative obscenities (I’d love to give you some examples, but I don’t think they’d conform to the paper’s standards), but also distinctly vulnerable: Mafia guys whose public swagger turns to mush at the hands of their boss; an FBI agent who has his identity card stolen and comprehensively abused by Jack; the other bounty hunter, Marvin, who seems to have the most wretched livelihood and morality imaginable. The movie smells of smoke and sweat and coffee breath. And of course, although I guess we’d generally classify it as a contemporary movie (or maybe that’s just me showing my age), it’s devoid of cellphones or the Internet or any hint of digital fakery. All of this gives it a classical solidity that seems almost vanished from contemporary Hollywood.

Midnight Run 2?

In other ways too, the film seems almost impossibly distant. Martin Brest’s career is a distinct oddity – working at a deliberate pace, he followed Midnight Run with Scent of a Woman, then Meet Joe Black, then Gigli, for which the record shows I wrote one of the few vaguely positive reviews. That was nearly ten years ago; as far as I know, there’s never been a hint of Brest making another film. Grodin has been almost as absent from cinema, and while De Niro is more productive than ever, this just makes his iconic former self seem all the more distant. I recently read a report about a possible Midnight Run 2, but it seemed about as credible as past claims of a sequel to Taxi Driver.   

Watching it again recently for the first time in many years, I still found myself recalling many of the lines and exchanges virtually verbatim (although oddly enough, I’d forgotten how the arc of the plot turned out). I enjoyed it hugely, although that now only means I might watch it again in a decade or so. I left Britain in 1990, and I’m pretty sure I watched Midnight Run a few times on this side of the Atlantic in the years right after that, as if it were a component of my bridge to the new world. After that I didn’t need it as much. After all, I was among a better class of people. Your class. Probably all embezzlers too. Sorry, I was quoting…

Friday, October 26, 2012

Meaningful movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2007)
Amazing Grace is the story of William Wilberforce, the pioneering 18th century British politician who persevered as a lone voice against the Empire’s involvement in the slave trade, eventually working his way to a Parliamentary majority for abolition. It is not, I should specify, a depiction of slavery – there are few black faces in the film – and as such it adds to the disproportionately large body of films that seek white perspectives on black history. This doesn’t seem too problematic when the life being portrayed is as significant and interesting as Wilberforce’s, but I was never really convinced that Amazing Grace was providing a rich perspective on that life. This is a very proper film, tasteful and stately, with Ioan Gruffudd held rather at a distance as Wilberforce; by comparison, the supporting cast (a typical stream of cameos by the likes of Michael Gambon and Albert Finney) is almost too well appointed.


Even so, it’s a skillful exhibition of old-fashioned virtues; the verbal accounts of slavery are almost as chilling as any visualization would have been, and the climax is undoubtedly rousing. As time goes on I find myself increasingly pragmatic in acknowledging the diverse motives of films – this is a good story about an underappreciated pioneer, and its dramatization of principled idealism and strategic acumen directed against the commercial and institutional muscle of the day remains resonant. Would it be better to read a good book about Wilberforce? – sure it would, but for most viewers, that’s just not going to happen. And if a film like Amazing Grace seems to belong more to the classroom than the art house, at least it thereby adds to the shallow educational value of most of the popular discourse.


God Grew Tired Of Us


Obviously though, a film rooted in present day Africa  - with black faces – ought to be more what we really need right now. Well, maybe it’s not quite so obvious. The documentary God Grew Tired of Us (if only it were as evocative overall as its title) looks at the experience of male Sudanese refugees, a handful of who obtain refugee status in the US after languishing for many years in a Kenyan camp. Initially their modest subsidized apartments seem to epitomize the land of plenty (maybe too much of the film’s oddly modest running time is taken up with standard, if cute, fish-out-of-water stuff), but after the initial charitable period runs out, they end up in menial jobs, aghast at the country’s distorted values and lack of heart.


They keep striving to better themselves though, or at least the three men at the movie’s centre do: after a few years, they’re all solidly within the educational system, with big (and from what we see of them, not at all implausible) ambitions. This aspect of the film constitutes a plausible testament both to human versatility and to America as a land of relative opportunity. But the film is littered with unexplored hints of sadder fates – not just the vast majority of their friends who remain stranded, but also others who came to America and succumbed either to the lure of the street, or to mental problems, or worse. The calculation becomes obvious – show us enough of the underbelly to be credible, while tapping the standard triumph of the human spirit stuff. And get Nicole Kidman to narrate. I was not convinced.




The new Iranian film Offside, although not a documentary, is a far more fascinating document of the here and now, seeping immediacy and reality. Like director Jafar Panahi’s earlier film The Circle, the focus is on the treatment of women, focusing here on their exclusion from soccer stadiums: the official explanation is that this protects them from the cursing and excesses of the excited males, but of course that’s merely rationalization. Iran are playing Bahrain in the final qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup; there are more than 80,000 men in the stadium, and among them a handful of women who sneak in, in disguises of varying effectiveness. Some of these are rumbled and taken to a holding pen, en route to the Vice Squad.


Presented almost in real time, the film is mesmerizing, and extremely subtle. Again as in The Circle, the focus on the women doesn’t preclude awareness that such an ideology traps both sexes, and there’s much humanity in the guards’ treatment of their captives. Similarly, even though Panahi’s film has been banned within Iran, it’s a real celebration of the country’s spirit; the ending is one of the year’s most jubilant sequences, notwithstanding the continuing undertones. From this you glean that the film isn’t didactic – there’s some (albeit bleak) comedy in many of the exchanges, and the most compelling argument for change is contained simply in the energy, eloquence and commitment of the women themselves. When I saw Offside, on Good Friday afternoon, I was astonished to see so many children and teenagers in the audience. I don’t know if it’s just the soccer or whether this reflects some shrewd marketing I didn’t pick up on, but this is exactly the kind of eye-opening, progressive, and (even so!) entertaining cinema that you’d want them to be seeing.


The Hoax


On a lighter note, The Hoax, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, reconstructs one of the 1970s’ wackier (and not insignificant) episodes – the story of Clifford Irving, who claimed to be the exclusive conduit for an autobiography of Howard Hughes. Irving played this stunt all the way to a million dollar advance (intended for Hughes, but actually deposited into a Swiss bank account by Mrs. Irving) before the great man himself broke his obsessive silence and brought the whole thing down. It’s a fun story, and Hallstrom works here in a looser vein than he usually does; his star Richard Gere has an obvious good time too. Ultimately though, they’re inherently on the more stolid end of the artistic scale, so that the film never acquires the momentum it should.


There’s another huge problem – the looming shadow of Orson Welles’ wonderful 1973 film F for Fake, which blended footage of Irving and other con men into a dazzling essay on art, storytelling, and Welles himself. Welles’ film remains massively imposing, exhibiting more imagination in any random chosen minute than the new film does in its entire length (Hallstrom’s use of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” over the closing scenes might sum up his propensity for taking the road most traveled). It doesn’t seem actually that The Hoax means to evoke “deep thoughts” of any kind. In the later stretches, as Irving’s project becomes dangerous to powerful vested interests, the film’s parameters broaden, but in too cursory a way to allow much thematic payoff. And there’s nothing in the movie about art, storytelling, nor (more understandably) Orson Welles. I think my F for Fake-fueled interest in Irving gave me a head start on enjoying the film for all its problems; if you don’t come in with that much, it’s probably not worth it.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Escape from Iran

Ben Affleck’s Argo opens by plunging us into 1979 Tehran, recreating the swarming of the American embassy, with most of its staff taken hostage. Six of them managed to slip away, entering the nearby Canadian embassy where they remained hidden for several months, without an apparent exit route. As Argo relates it, a CIA agent called Tony Mendez (played by Affleck himself) devises a plan to enter the country in the guise of a movie producer, pretending to scout locations for a Star Wars rip-off, and to get the six out of the country by casting them as his production team, enabled by fake Canadian passports and other credentials. It’s widely known that the plan worked, so the movie is more about the “how” than the “what,” except that since the movie is all just malarkey, as Joe Biden would say, it’s a fake how.

Sacrificed to thrill

That sounds like it ought to be a deliberate irony, but it’s hard to tell whether Affleck sees any correlation between the flamboyant nonsense of the trashy film within a film, and the less flamboyant but still egregious inventions of Argo itself. Now, you might think I’m referring there to the minor controversy in the Canadian media about how the film portrays Ken Taylor, who was our ambassador in Iran at the time, as basically a bystander to Mendez’ efforts: The Star (which has squeezed three or four stories out of this) breathlessly reported how friends of his who saw the opening “were outraged on Taylor’s behalf…at how much history had been sacrificed to thrill.” Affleck obligingly made contact with Taylor, cut out one of the references that caused particular offense, and added a new postscript reading “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian Embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.” Taylor himself is being amiable about the whole thing.

What’s goofy about all this though is the apparent assumption that Hollywood might typically be expected to concoct a more virtuous mix of “history” and “thrill” – that for instance, the movie’s numerous wild inventions (people putting necessary steps in place literally one second before their absence would cause the whole scheme to collapse, that kind of thing) might be more palatable if Taylor rather than Mendez was the one pushing the buttons. Hollywood has always treated history as a shopping mall from what it plucks whatever it cares for, and if that means scooping up a left shoe without bothering to pick up the right, so be it – if you want to get all stuffy about the facts, call Doris Kearns Goodwin. The details of the “Canadian caper” don’t much matter at this late stage, except insofar as they allow us to honour our past “heroes’ – but that just points to one of the core problems, how we interpret our relationships with the world too much in terms of recognizable protagonists, world-changing events, or simple oppositions. It seems to me Affleck’s real lapse is to have made a film about Iran that’s of no practical aid whatsoever in considering that country’s current place in the world, and what our strategy toward it should be.

European Union

I’m referring in particular, of course, to the concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, and the various shades of Israeli and Western response to that. Since Canada recently closed its embassy in Iran and expelled all Iranian diplomats from here, and given the Harper government’s obnoxious swaggering in other matters of foreign affairs, it’s a bit rich to moan about deserving any positive recognition for our global contribution, even for events of three decades ago. But it’ll put us right in the same groove with President Romney, should that nightmarish prospect come to pass – we’ll be right there with the same certainty in our own goodness and supremacy, and the same mixture of hypocrisy and confusion about what that actually entails.

In the same week I saw CTV’s Don Martin fawning over Ken Taylor in an interview, he interviewed former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy about the European Union receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Martin didn’t bother to hide his contempt for the decision, and Axworthy was happy to come along for the ride; a better example of a deserving winner, chirped Martin, would have been Axworthy himself, for his past leadership on landmines. No doubt the EU prize is more than a bit problematic, but then so is the concept of peace; whether or not it’s a conventionally “good” choice, it’s one that looks beyond easy but limited narratives of good people providing incremental value to the world, by biting off a chunk of political, economic and societal revolution that almost no one knows how to properly chew. Serious newsmen might try to help us work our way through that, just as serious filmmakers – contemplating Argo – might be appalled at so much craft and resources invested for such a trivial and transient purpose.

Major Directing

But anyway, if trivial and transient purpose sounds like your thing, but Taken 2 is just a bit too trivial and transient, then Argo (which, regardless of Taylor’s friends, was the runner-up for the People’s Choice Award at this year’s festival) might be the way to go. I just can’t buy into the school of thought that now identifies Ben Affleck (after this, The Town, and Gone Baby Gone) as a major director – the film is well-handled and well-paced, but this only shows that one can learn to be good at “directing” just as at, say, accounting or engineering. The film offers its easiest pleasures during the episodes in Hollywood, where Mendez goes to concoct a suitably plausible surface for his fake project; this bit rolls along, powered by easy digs at the cheesiness of it all, and by money in the bank casting (such as Alan Arkin and John Goodman). I was also gripped by a scene where Mendez and his “team” meet an official in a public bazaar and almost lose control of the situation after a merchant takes exception to being photographed; at that moment the recreation feels intensely real, claustrophobic and threatening. It’s somewhat undermined though when Affleck then cuts to the group driving safely away, simply skipping over what happened in between. So it goes with much in the film.

As the closing credits roll, Affleck juxtaposes shots of the actors, and of some of the scenes, with those of their real-life counterparts, demonstrating how the film scores a pretty good visual correlation throughout. But this again only shows a fidelity to the trivial, as if surfaces were more revealing than depths.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

May movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2006)
Patrice Cheareau may quietly be making a case for himself as one of the world’s best directors, and his new film Gabrielle is a major addition to that dossier. Set in the 1890’s, the film’s premise is plain enough – an arid bourgeois marriage is broken when the wife (Isabelle Huppert) leaves a note that she has gone to another man; three and a half hours later she returns, and the anguished aftermath begins. The film depicts an age where marriage is as much a social as a private affair, a matter of contract and convention rather than of love, and the positions of the two main characters grow increasingly complex (beyond what can be satisfactorily charted after just one viewing); her greater pragmatism is satisfying as a feminist construction (in the classic tradition whereby one responds positively to any female character who’s less morally and spiritually constrained by the boundaries of the times than the man she’s with) and yet it’s distinctly brutal: the movie reminded me of Scorsese’s description of his Age Of Innocence as his most violent film. Cheareau’s approach is masterfully analytical, but not cold; he opens up the action with various devices that could be flashy if they weren’t so effective at pinpointing the underlying trauma and sharpening our analytical engagement with what’s depicted. I suspect that on repeated viewing the ending will reveal itself as even bleaker than I thought first time round. Perhaps one of the year’s finest films so far.

The Da Vinci Code

In a world so deeply affected by fundamentalist religious fervour, The Da Vinci Code’s underlying premise is far from valueless: what if Christianity were based on a basic misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus? I haven’t read Dan Brown’s book, and never will, but the film’s treatment of the question never gets beyond blah blah blah: it’s shamefully undemanding on the intellect. That aside, as just about everyone has said, Ron Howard’s movie is a dull, foolish product with almost nothing to recommend it. It’s no great surprise that Howard brings no analytical prowess to the exercise, but I was frequently taken aback by the extreme lameness of the basic plotting. Add to that the wretched, contrived dialogue and the grim performances and it makes for a long two and a half hours. The pits.


At least X-Men: The Last Stand is entertaining, as two groups of assorted mutants face off against each other for the future of a vaccine with the power to cure all mutations, sacrificing several central characters and a big piece of the Golden Gate Bridge in the process. The first two films were directed by Bryan Singer, who was generally praised for sensitivity to character and for the way he brought out the mutants’ metaphorical possibilities, but this always struck me as a relative assessment at best. Still, this time round, new director Brett Ratner delivers a distinctly more conventional package; you look back at the end at the huge and distinguished cast and can barely remember any of them having done or said anything interesting. Various allegories and parallels just lie there lazily. But like I said, it’s not dull.


In a recent week, three of the four screens at Bayview Village were showing the Israeli co-production Live and Become, the broad Catskills-flavoured American comedy Keeping Up With The Steins, and the French Little Jerusalem. The fourth screen was showing The Da Vinci Code. This seems to me to bear some profound meaning that I am not currently drunk enough to explore further. Anyway, Little Jerusalem is set around two sisters from an orthodox immigrant family in Paris, examining with great precision the personal, sexual, economic and societal pressures impacting on their lives. It’s familiar material in some respects, and one could have wished for a fuller resolution, but it’s philosophically bracing, has intense anthropological interest and a subtle approach to character. It leaves you pessimistic about the prospects for a tolerant multicultural community, but maybe that’s why you then need to cross the hall to see The Da Vinci Code, within which a paradigm-defying answer doubtless lurks.


The Israeli Free Zone didn’t screen at Bayview, but rather at Canada Square. Readers may have noticed that I haven’t been writing many long articles lately about recent movies – but rather dispensing with them in bulk (like this week) and then contributing longer pieces on older films. That’s just the way it grabs me right now. But I did decide in advance that I’d devote more space to Free Zone, and was all poised to blend in observations on the Middle East and the recent CUPE resolution and so forth. Well, I changed my mind. Free Zone isn’t worth it. This anecdote of three women (Israeli, Arab, American – the latter played by Natalie Portman) thrown together on a road trip between Israel and Jordan has good travelogue value, and it’s not at all stupid, but it’s far too strenuous and obvious in constructing its allegorical significance. It reminded me in some ways of Crash, although it would take an article to explain that.

The Proposition

A better film to write about at length would be John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, which is set in 1880’s Australia but otherwise resembles a classic Western – a story of revenge and murder in a faltering civilization, thick with blood and flies and heat and suffering. Ray Winstone is a police captain who captures a notorious bandit (Guy Pearce) and his harmless younger brother, and makes a proposition – to save the one brother, Pearce must find and kill another, played by Danny Huston. The film contrasts Winstone’s fragile attempts to bring civilization to the Outback with the brutal (and yet, in some senses, more sensitive and refined) sensibility of the Huston character; in the end, a chapter is closed, and organized civilization lies one step closer, but at a cost that heralds huge anguish to come, and is tinged with a surprising sense of loss. The film has very good performances and is quite superbly executed – thrillingly and exactingly specific about its time and place while tapping all the pleasures of the genre. By its nature it holds you at a horrified distance, entailing I expect that it will be a film that’s intensely admired more than loved, but I don’t see how its particular project could have been much better executed. Another of the year’s best films!


Fatih Akin made the blistering Head-On, one of my favourite films of a few years back. Crossing The Bridge: The Sound Of Istanbul is an offshoot of sorts, as the musical director of the earlier film returns to immerse himself in the breadth of modern Turkish music, from hip-hop to balladeering. The film is entertaining enough, with lots of good aural and visual colour and texture, but I doubt you couldn’t say that much for the music scene of any modern, even relatively diverse city; as it goes on it feels like you’re spending too much time staring at a single corner of a very large room.

A better reality

I have lots of things to be thankful for, and this might not be the least of them: I’m not in any way addicted to digital games. Some people might say this and then be challenged on their assertion that (say) an hour a day doesn’t constitute an addiction, but I can speak confidently because I don’t play them at all. There was a time when I did, just some of the simple ones, when I was in an insufficiently challenging job and bored out of my mind, but as soon as I passed out of that situation, my interest died.


Reality is broken


A writer called Jane McGonigal, as cited in a recent New York Times article, might say I should be lamenting this rather than bragging about it: “In her book “Reality Is Broken,” (McGonigal) argues that play is possibly the best, healthiest, most productive activity a human can undertake — a gateway to our ideal psychological state. Games aren’t an escape from reality, McGonigal contends, they are an optimal form of engaging it. In fact, if we could just find a way to impose game mechanics on top of everyday life, humans would be infinitely better off.” Researching this a little further, I found a presentation by McGonigal in which she sets out the value of games in overcoming, for instance, “conditions of boredom, inertia, disinterest, and other serious afflictions of dealing with everyday life.” It seems clear McGonigal is a serious thinker whose interests go way beyond encouraging people to hole up in their rooms playing Angry Birds. Still, as the Times article points out, that’s frequently all that this amounts to in practice, and the fact (if it is such) that people might feel even worse if deprived of Angry Birds doesn’t seem to mean they’re actually better off for being able to succumb to it.


Among the many wrong turns we’ve collectively taken, it’s a bit of a doozy to have created a world that teems with distraction and opportunity and access, while at the same time allowing “boredom, inertia, disinterest” and so forth to flourish. McGonigal’s presentation quotes someone else as follows: “Life is crap, and the ONLY thing that makes it worth living is art – and play.” But it seems more and more that (statistically speaking) no one really believes the bit about “art.” The more readily and completely we have great literature and films and music at our fingertips, the harder it is to overlook how few people use their fingertips for that purpose. The central wrong turn, I think, is that those “serious afflictions” of life have usually been integral to the process of actually getting anywhere – no matter how much you like studying, or writing, or inventing, or whatever it may be, it entails major chunks of boredom and disinterest. I think some of the greatest people in human history probably spent huge chunks of their time in that state. If they’d had the choice of easing their misery with a Game Boy rather than pushing through to whatever ultimately defined them, I doubt we’d ever have heard of them again.


Filmmaking of the people


Most depressing to me is how embodying the crapness of life now seems to be a virtual prerequisite to attaining cultural prominence. No wonder people shook their heads at the most recent Oscars for instance. The Artist was a pleasant enough way to kill time, but essentially only turned our heads away from the modern crap for the sake of distracting us with a former brand of it. No one was fooled into viewing films like The Help and The Iron Lady as serious treatments of history – it’s all crap, just like you can’t believe what they tell you in school. And as for engaging with the modern world – films like Beginners and The Descendants are all about rich people problems, strongly conveying the inherent unworthiness of everyone else’s crap.


In some parallel socialist fantasy, cheap technology might have unleashed a new filmmaking of the people. But since the people know only that life is crap, they seldom get further than documenting that in the form of YouTube baubles (which the mainstream media seems increasingly, and to me bewilderingly, to regard as actual news). Even more ambitious projects often seem marked by futility. The most prominent current documentarian may be Morgan Spurlock, one of whose recent works was about selling out to marketers. An example I found oddly depressing was a British film from a couple of years ago, A Complete History of my Sexual Failures, in which a musician/director called Chris Waitt decides to visit the women who’ve dumped him in the past, and to try getting some insight into why he’s such a perpetual screw-up. The movie is interesting enough by its own low standards, and Waitt is self-aware enough to acknowledge the limitations of his project, and to goose it up by letting go of just about all vanity or dignity.


But it becomes increasingly clear that he has no idea why anyone else should care about his issues and experiences – the picture exists only because he views himself as a filmmaker, and this is the only film he could think of making. He tries to lend it some shape, to find something lasting or transcendent or transferrable, but there isn’t anything. He feels a bit better about himself at the end than he did at the beginning, but then that might have been just as true if he’d spent the budget on a fitness regime and an enhanced diet. The movie might have been designed to demonstrate how making “art” is just another boring letdown; better not to bother, succumb to the disappointment, and stave off the worst by playing games.


A Complete History…


Except that at the film’s very conclusion, Waitt finds himself in a new relationship, with a woman he met during the filming (in the course of a cringe-inducing sequence when he takes too much Viagara and runs round Central London asking random women if they’ll have sex with him). Out of understandable caution, the movie itself doesn’t make too much of it, but according to the web, they’re still together, over four years later. This may well be the best possible outcome, but it belongs totally to Waitt, and not at all to us – and is that how art should work?


How would we seriously know whether reality is broken or not, when by design or omission we never look in the right place, and we shirk the boredom of figuring it out? Absolutely, let’s all lose ourselves to games as a way of glossing over our miserable afflictions, but I don’t think the improvement to our reality will be as meaningful as for the people who came up with the stuff we’re losing ourselves to and thereby got seriously rich. I mean, if it’s all crap anyway, at least try to position yourself at the right end of it.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

On the move

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2008)
We moved into a new condo this week. We actually bought the place two and a half years ago, at the concept stage; then the dog and I walked past the site virtually every week and photographed the slow progress (very slow – like many such projects, it ended up around a year behind schedule) from hole in the ground to substantially-finished edifice. Actually, the wait came to be a way of life, and a rather comforting one – we got used to knowing we’d move one day into an immaculate new home and thereby tuning out the deficiencies in our old place, without having to bite the strenuous bullet of embarking on packing, preparing our old place for sale, etc.


Our List of Issues


Well, eventually they couldn’t delay any longer, and we actually moved. By then the housing market had taken a dive - so much for maximizing the value of our old place (the outcome of that story remains unresolved). But the new unit exceeded our expectations in many ways. It’s a big, bright space, twelve floors up, with a great view of the downtown core, in a diverting neighborhood. We may just stay here forever.


But first we have to get past the problems of now. We didn’t have an oven when we moved in. The bathroom mirror still hasn’t been installed. As I write, in our seventh day of occupancy, we still don’t have working Internet. I could go on about this in particular, but who wants to hear another story of bumbling corporations and ineffective customer service? Never mind high-speed – we can’t even get the dial-up to work. Even when I was on safari in Africa, I had working dial-up. This one eats away at me (can you tell?!)


Then we can’t find anything of course. Our living room looks like a conceptual art exhibit – Study In Unopened Boxes. At the rate we’re unpacking, we should be rid of the boxes by some time in mid-2011. And then we worry about the dog. He’s ten and had lived in our previous place since the age of seven weeks old, honing his daily routine virtually to the second. So far he’s done better than we expected on adapting to the new way of things, but we do worry. And then it’s not as if we have nothing else going on. I need to work more; I have to take several plane trips in the next few weeks. Like all of us, I’m worried about the economy. And as I write this, with the US election two days away, I’m in that same zone as every liberal; agonizing about a future of drastically diverging possibilities…and this, I think, is not just a matter of preferred ideology…


Ashes of Time Redux


I’m not someone who walks round with things churning in my head, but you can see why I was a little preoccupied as I sat down to watch Ashes of Time Redux. No doubt I should have skipped a movie that day (or at least settled for something easy). Well, some of us never learn.


This is a Wong Kar-Wai revisiting of his 1994 martial arts film, somewhat reedited and refurbished. I’d never seen the original version, but I’ve seen nearly all Wong’s other films. His status is beyond question. His most recent major works, In the Mood for Love and 2046, are lush, intricate romances, both rich with nuance and implication. He’s known for reworking his films, often making adjustments after their initial unveilings; you can feel this in their unique fluidity and sense of possibility. I tend to think of him in the same category as the Sergio Leone of Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America – their preoccupations are different, but they have the same facility for crafting multi-dimensional landscapes (when Wong came to America though, with his most recent film My Blueberry Nights, you got the overwhelming sense of a rather bemused director, camouflaging and filigreeing an essentially inert piece of work).


Just about every reviewer concedes that Ashes of Time Redux is confusing. Well, readers, I do try to be honest in this space, so I’ll just have to admit it – I could hardly make head or tail of the thing. I have already offered up the main body of my defense, but then I compounded my own difficulties by falling asleep for five or ten minutes. Maybe those missing minutes contained some magical key to the whole thing, but the truth is I probably could have come in there pumped full of concentration-enhancing stimulants and I would still have been – let’s say conservatively – 80% confused.


This doesn’t mean I at all regretted the experience. To borrow the Globe and Mail’s synopsis (no doubt more trustworthy than mine would be) “the film is structured as a series of vignettes over a year in the life of Ouyang Feng, who lives in the Chinese western desert, making a living by arranging contract killings.” Characters come and go, often preoccupied by loss or desire; the theme of memory as a burden on the present winds through the film, encapsulated by the notion of a magic wine that eradicates the past. It has the contours of an epic, but without the often-simplistic clarity of purpose that powers epic characters; motives are frequently mysteries here even to those propelled by them.


Ball of Confusion


The action scenes take place in flurries of movement, as if Wong’s cinematic apparatus were suddenly seized in a wind-storm; around them he creates soulful close-ups, mythical landscapes, and strangely piercing compositions. This is all amply rewarding. But, to return to my confession, I only periodically knew what was actually happening. On several occasions I got mixed up between the characters, or between present-tense and flashback, and for that matter everything else. Listening to the audience on the way out, it wasn’t just me. But if we’d all been tested on our abilities to write a coherent synopsis of the thing, I expect I would have come in near the bottom.


So I left the theatre and went to meet my wife at our old home, where there remains a long and tiring list of to-dos before we can actually list the place for sale. Then we went to eat, and the waiter screwed up our dinner order. Then we went home and both fell asleep from sheer exhaustion, wiping out most of the evening. All of this, and no Internet. But you know, I was happy. Not mainly because of having seen Ashes of Time Redux. But it did add something.