Thursday, November 29, 2012

Kasdan and Rohmer

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2007)
Jonathan Kasdan’s In the Land of Women didn’t do much at the box office, but it got mostly good reviews. For example, Kenneth Turan in the LA Times said that Kasdan “used sweetness and concern to make this story of looking for love and finding your way through life unexpectedly interesting.” Even so, I overlooked the film for several weeks, until the long weekend found me with not much left to see (truth be told, it was really more of my wife’s pick). By then the movie was down to a single screen at Canada Square – by the time this article appears, it will no doubt be far along on its way to a merely modest afterlife.

In The Land Of Women

Before deciding on this, I’d had it in my mind that weekend to write an article about veteran director Eric Rohmer: in particular about the DVD boxed set of his Six Moral Tales, which is very close to being my favourite thing on my DVD shelves. Such a long and eminent shadow might have placed In the Land of Women in a definitely fatal shade, and certainly nothing about this mindset worked to the movie’s advantage, but it made at least for a quirkier viewing experience. Of course, it would be even quirkier if, say, one watched 28 Weeks Later while straining throughout to think of Jean Renoir, but in the case I’m describing, there’s at least a superficial spiritual affinity.

Kasdan’s film stars Adam Brody as a writer of soft porn films (already it sounds like we’re in the 70’s), aspiring to better himself; he’s dumped by his supermodel girlfriend and moves back for a while to his Michigan home town to take care of his dotty grandmother (Olympia Dukakis). In the house across the street lives a perfect-looking family, that of course isn’t – the mother (Meg Ryan) is isolated, and about to go into breast cancer treatment, the oldest sister (Kristen Stewart) is burdened with moody teenager stuff, the father is having an affair, the younger sister is a hyper articulate freak (that’s my characterization, not the movie’s). Brody hangs out with both mother and daughter, kisses both mother and daughter; a lot of confessing, a lot of revealing.

Early in the film he has his first long conversation with Ryan’s character, taking a long walk with the dog, and I momentarily thought the movie might amount to something, in the way of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and its sequel. Extended conversation, after all, is a rarer thing in American movies than we’d hope for; and in this sense, at least, Land of Women is rather distinctive. But after a while you realize that no one in the film has any damn thing to say that you haven’t already heard a million times. We’re in the land of glib self-analysis, of compulsive blurting-out, of journeying toward inner and outer reconciliation; a land where every citizen must initially be grievously broken, and ultimately at least passably fixed.

Crate and Barrel

This is one of the hundreds of American movies where your superficial admiration at the sensitivity and smoothness of the apparatus collides with an unavoidable awareness that no one in the world behaves this way. Dukakis’ characterization, for instance, doesn’t even belong to the same species as her much more credible contribution to the current Away From Her. An example of the broad failing: Stewart complains to Brody that her mother spends her time trying to make her life look like a Crate and Barrel catalog. Fair enough – that’s probably a widely diagnosable condition. But nothing that we see of Ryan supports this description. Sure, she has a nice house – who in such movies doesn’t? – but of all the mixed bag of concerns she spills out during the film, the concern with pristine domesticity isn’t there.

Maybe that seems trifling, but attention to detail counts. The Rohmer boxed set has a wonderful long interview with the director, who now in his mid-eighties is understandably a bit frail but otherwise undiminished. Among the revelations (to me anyway) were that he does his own set decoration, right down to selecting the pictures on the walls, and has a specific colour scheme in mind for each film. These details are seldom if ever cited by the characters, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that they seep into the overall richness of the films. If a Rohmer character was obsessed with Crate and Barrel, they might not even mention it (hard actually to imagine that name turning up in one of his films), but if you watched carefully, you’d know.

Thinking back on the moral tales, I doubt there are as many “revelations” in all six put together as there are in In the Land of Women. Or rather, as Rohmer sums it up, there’s the one revelation in all six films – a man pursues one woman but ultimately realizes that he belongs with another. It’s obvious once you point it out, but I think many viewers might miss the structure’s recurring simplicity, because Rohmer’s variations are so distinct and fully worked-out. By comparison, Kasdan’s film wears its underpants on the outside.

Generation Gap

At this point I should acknowledge that Rohmer is (phenomenally) sixty years older than Jon Kasdan, who is only 27, and that he was already in his mid-forties when he made the first of the moral tales. Before that he was a pioneering critic and teacher; he made numerous shorts and one early feature, that if memory serves is quite unlike his later work. After the six moral tales his work has generally been a little lighter, illustrating ironies and follies rather than severe truths, although in this decade he’s made two remarkable historical works. And he’s completing another film this year (in the same interview, he remarks though that he may stop after this one!) 

It’s difficult not to admire Kasdan’s achievement at his young age, even if it’s plain he would never gotten the chance without his dad (Lawrence Kasdan, who made Body Heat and Big Chill). But you find yourself pausing on a very basic question – why would we expect a privileged 27-year-old to be able to tell us anything interesting? Rohmer’s films have always felt young, but never ever callow; the more you watch them, the more you appreciate how their lightness isn’t so far from being the unbearable lightness of being. Land of Women reflects Kasdan’s genuine sense of personal revelation at affairs and illnesses and the human manoeuvres that surround them. The moral tales are about much less, and much more; fascinated by everything, surprised by nothing. You need only see Kasdan’s film if you’d choose a kid on training wheels over the Tour de France. Wish him luck, leave him aside for twenty years to get somewhere interesting, and at all costs seek out Rohmer’s films instead.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Cinema living and dying

Holy Motors, the new film by the French director Leos Carax, is the most necessary work I’ve seen this year, even if it’s born out of a melancholy skepticism that we’re entering a time when little or nothing about cinema will reach that bar. It follows Mr. Oscar, played by Denis Lavant, as he’s driven around Paris in a white stretch limo on a series of mysterious appointments, each of which involves assuming a different character and – in general terms - enacting a “scene.” Sometimes it’s possible to see these as specific make-up and acting assignments, but sometimes they seem too random and messy for that, although maybe that’s only because we don’t understand the frame of reference. He’s certainly being watched – in one conversation, he regrets how the old infrastructure has been replaced by new cameras no bigger than your head – and as it develops, the film suggests he’s part of a broader network of role-playing, but exactly how that relates to the world as we know it remains a mystery.

Holy Motors

I found the film exhilarating, just as a moment-to-moment experience, if nothing else. Some of Oscar’s assignments generate sequences of staggering sensuous beauty – Eva Mendes’ appearance as a kidnapped fashion model lasts just ten minutes, and she barely gets to open her mouth, but it’s what I’ll always remember her for. Elsewhere in the film, a character positions herself on the edge of a department store roof, perhaps intending to jump, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so aware of physical perilousness, of the creaking of the big letters behind her, of gravity, of the nighttime activity below. Throughout, Carax ventilates the film with strange, sometimes goofy details, like Oscar eating a sushi lunch in the back of the car, or not one but two scenes involving a dog stretched out asleep on a bed.

David Denby in The New Yorker had some praise for the film, but said: “Holy Motors has no motor: the movie keeps starting over again. Carax produces the startling dislocations that Bunuel pulled off, but without the gleeful wit.” It’s a fair enough description, but the implied criticism seems beside the point: Carax just isn’t in a gleeful mood. Some background: he started making movies very young, and by the age of 30 was able to finance a big-budget love story, The Lovers on the Bridge. I remember the film fondly, but it flopped, and Carax experienced an astonishing reversal of fortune, making only one full-length film in the next twenty years, Pola X, and generating nothing in the last decade except one third of the anthology film Tokyo!, a rough-edged tale of a strange sewer-dwelling individual who causes panic when he enters the light (the character turns up again in Holy Motors, as Mendes’ kidnapper).

Boy Wonder

It almost makes you think of Orson Welles – a prodigious beginning quickly losing momentum, leaving the sense of a stalled, if not wrecked boy wonder. Of course, Carax’s debut Boy Meets Girl hardly had the impact of Citizen Kane, but it was quite awesome, a dream clawed piece by piece from the heart of darkness, conveying a compellingly honest reticence and confusion. He’s always seemed hopelessly intertwined with his films, to the point where one might fear for his identity: Juliette Binoche acted in two of his films and was also his lover; later he had a daughter with the star of Pola X, Yekaterina Golubeva, who died last year. His daughter has a role in Holy Motors, and Golubeva’s photograph appears at the end. And by the way, his real name is Alexandre Oscar Dupont – Leos Carax is an anagram of Alex Oscar. As in Mr. Oscar.

If this all potentially seems like background noise, then consider that Carax appears at the start of the new film, waking from his bed (one of those with a sleeping dog on it) and eventually unlocking – with a key that grows organically from his finger – a passage to a movie theater, in which a bunch of eerily still, or possibly even expired patrons are watching something from the dawn of cinema. Some would consider this overdone, but it leaves no doubt who’s the artist; at the same time though, it seems to express some doubt on whether a meaningful audience even exists. Carax seemed to expand on this in a recent interview:  I don't know who is the public; it's a bunch of people who will be dead very soon. I don't make public films, I make private films then invite whoever wants to come and see it.” This seems especially poignant to me given that when I saw the film in the TIFF Lightbox on its opening weekend, it didn’t seem that much of anyone wanted to come and see it.

The Death of Cinema

Holy Motors then has the death of cinema written all over it – Carax has been living with that death on several different levels. But as he stares into the jaws of apathy and defeat, he finds scintillating proof of life. In one of the most glorious sequences, and one explicitly romanticizing modern methods, Oscar and another actor perform for motion capture cameras, their skintight suits covered in jewel-like receptors; sensuously intertwining into one ever-shifting mass. Near its end, the film has Edith Scob put on the mask she last wore over fifty years ago in Eyes Without a Face, and it doesn’t just feel like a stunt, but as a mysteriously meaningful appropriation of history (one can find plenty of other echoes in the movie, of Cocteau and David Lynch for instance). At other times, Carax celebrates the classic structure of the cinemagoing experience, for example by providing his film an announced “interval,” in which Oscar is suddenly in a completely different place, leading a terrifically percussive band. Denby says it keeps starting over again, and that’s true in a way, but it’s hardly from the same place, or without taking you anywhere thrilling.

He’s hardly the only detractor though. Sight and Sound put the film on its cover (“The year’s most provocative film!”), and but ran both pro and con reviews: the first taking largely the same line I’m taking here, the second finding it “too manifestly and knowingly manufactured” and occasionally judging Carax’s sensibility to be “gratingly crass.” To me though, both points speak to the film’s power – by foregrounding the act of creation and transformation as tangibly as it does, it shows up the airless seamlessness of most of what passes. And the grating crassness – well, I see what he means, and sure, Carax isn’t Eric Rohmer, he’s a copiously flawed person who can’t help letting us in on that to some extent, which is why such an objectively outrageous creation feels so intimate and personal. If you’ve read this far, you probably have a pretty good idea of whether you could even potentially like Holy Motors. But there’s no way I could convey just how much you might like it.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Easter movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2005)
A lot of new movies opening in the run-up to Easter – here are reviews of some of them.

Walk on Water

We see a reasonable number of Israeli films, and I can't recall one that failed to fascinate me (although the country’s best known director, Amos Gitai, seems to be running rather dry on inspiration).  Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water is more conventional than much of what we’ve seen from there, perhaps reflecting its director’s American upbringing. It’s basically a political thriller, following a Mossad agent assigned to track down an aging Nazi by posing as a tour guide for the Nazi’s grandson, who’s visiting Israel from Berlin. The agent is haunted by his wife’s recent suicide and disenchanted by what he sees as the mission’s irrelevance, and he’s both intrigued by the grandson’s benign approach to life and somewhat alienated by his open homosexuality. The trail leads to Germany, where the agent has his ultimate epiphany.

Walk on Water is consistently fascinating, taking some historically polarized coordinates and triangulating them into a cunning narrative of reassessment and renewal. As it goes on it starts to seem overly schematic, engineering a reversal between the grandson and the agent that doesn’t seem well grounded in what’s come before, and at the very end it reveals itself to be softhearted. But for me at least the knowing historical resonance (among much else, it’s an effective tourist guide to Israel) succeeds in lifting it onto a slightly higher level than it would otherwise occupy, and to the extent that its flaws seem rooted in the challenge of assimilating the complexity of the Jewish experience, even those are intriguing.

The Upside of Anger

Mike Binder’s film bursts with ambition, aiming for the emotional sweep of a Terms of Endearment. Joan Allen plays a mother of four daughters who goes off the deep end when her husband suddenly leaves – she hits the bottle big-time, takes on major diva tendencies, and falls into a messy affair with neighbour Kevin Costner, a former baseball star (this is a particularly blatant evocation of James L. Brooks’ film). The film crams a lot of incident into its two hours, allowing each of the four daughters a reasonably meaty subplot, all fitting round a general theme of how upheaval leads to greater self-definition. Sometimes – as in the strand about the gay youth who must prove himself through bungee jumping – it all seems rather weird and arbitrary, and as a whole it feels a bit as if Binder basically wrote and filmed whatever came into his head, relying mainly on the actors to provide overall coherence. Consequently, although the movie generally plays very well scene-by-scene, it’s rather bewildering as a whole, and an unconvincing and under explored final twist doesn’t help much. The performances are good though, although the unprepossessing 42-year-old Binder loses points by casting himself, Woody Allen-style, as a middle-aged Lothario who has an affair with 20-year-old Erika Christensen.


Danny Boyle’s career since Trainspotting has been through some odd twists and turns – A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, 28 Days Later. Like so many others, he has great technical facility, and his films all seem individually intelligent but limited, each suggesting that its maker must have achieved better elsewhere, but then you look at the oeuvre and conclude that actually he hasn’t. The new film Millions does nothing to change this – it’s basically beautifully made rubbish. Two kids find a bag of money and set out to distribute it through a mix of materialist self-interest and altruistic idealism, the catch being that Britain is days away from converting to the Euro and the money will imminently be worthless. The movie is chocked full of wonderful images and compositions, and fully deploys the younger boy’s guileless commitment; he’s obsessed with saints, many of whom appear in visions to counsel him along the way. It deftly balances childhood hopes and fears with mild suspense, mild comedy and uplifting images of inclusivity. I was consistently impressed, and consistently put off by the knowing whimsy; it seems to me exploitative and ultimately hollow, relating to nothing except its own pristine parameters.

The Ring Two

Hideo Nakata, who made the original cult Japanese movies, also directs this second American adaptation. The prologue is a direct continuation of the first film, with its videotape that brings death to all who watch it (unless they make a copy and pass it on), but the film soon settles into a narrower focus, seeming more reminiscent of The Exorcist as Naomi Watts tries to prevent the dead girl’s spirit from lodging itself inside her son. The film has some highly effective sequences (although potentially the most striking scene, an attack on a car by a herd of deer, is marred by questionable digital work), and although it gradually gets hi-jacked by the weight of its exposition (which of course, like most such movies, makes little sense), it always retains an intriguingly sparse, clinically brooding quality. It frequently suggests a potential in excess of what it delivers – the film is virtually sexless, and is overly clinical in depicting the mother and child relationship – but overall it’s an effective genre piece.

Bride and Prejudice

I wasn’t going to see Gurinder Chadha’s film, but since the Cumberland offered the Oscar-winning Canadian short Ryan as an added attraction, I eventually went along. Ryan is excellent, and I only wish it were longer. I should have quit while I was ahead. Bride and Prejudice, by any objective standard, is an abomination. No doubt it’s aiming for deliberate cheesiness in evoking Bollywood idioms, but it brings no analytical prowess or stylistic panache to the task whatsoever. The acting, writing and direction are all terrible, and the choreography has an almost surreal messiness. Worst of all though – repulsive in fact – is the film’s utter capitulation to materialism and self-indulgence; it looks favourably on a secondary character who basically sells herself to a complete buffoon for the sake of what promises to be a lushly barren life in California. I’m not saying this choice may not ultimately be tenable, but from a director of supposed feminist leanings (Chadha’s previous film was Bend it like Beckham) we’re entitled to at least a bit more rigour. The occasional pieties about “the real India,” given the context (any hint of deprivation is kept well at bay), make you want to vomit. I could go on in this vein, but searching for a positive note,  I’ll admit at least that the film’s strained decorousness – we never even see the romantic leads kiss – is somewhat endearing. I know some will read this and say I’m being too heavy on it, unable to submit to the fun, but the attitude behind this movie is truly doltish.

Master of the Game

Robert Zemeckis’ Flight might almost be a disguised extension of the Tiger Woods story. As I understand it (or maybe this is just how I wish to understand it), Woods flew for years within an ever-expanding network of sexual landing strips, kept aloft by enough text messages to maintain the average high school population, presumably hidden from tabloid eyes only by significant resourcefulness and ingenuity, and all of this (and this is the key point of interpretation, I guess), far from limiting his professional capacities, was key to fuelling it, to keeping him soaring in the proverbial zone. Since it all crashed, and he was forced into contrition and humility, and (as far as we know) into re-launching himself as a good boy, he’s never been the same again. In a different world, we’d be as fascinated by the public/private alchemy as by the golf itself.


In Flight, Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a charismatic commercial airline pilot who drinks, takes drugs, and parties hard, and that’s just on the days he’s flying the plane. On a short-haul flight to Atlanta, he mixes vodka into his orange juice (executed, in a nice touch, behind his back while he’s standing in front of the cabin to reassure the passengers about the turbulence they just passed through) and then passes out, leaving it to the co-pilot. The plane experiences a catastrophic mechanical failure, and seems doomed, but Whitaker – despite the booze or because of it; who knows how things come together at such moments? – manages to control the descent by flying the plane upside-down, eventually bringing it down in a field with just six lives lost. Presumably he’s a hero, except that a toxicology report soon reveals the shape he was in. How should the moral calculus play out, when a pilot may have accomplished a miracle only because of his contempt for his most basic obligations?

This is a compelling psychological core for the film, and Washington is well up to the task, fully inhabiting the high and low extremes of Whitaker’s existence, from the kind of situation-defining charisma that hypnotizes most mere mortals caught in its orbit, to raw, un-pretty, fleshy, bottom of the barrel self-destruction. Whitaker isn’t like Nicolas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas, committed to self-destruction – he thrives on what he’s getting away with, on placing himself as close as possible to going over the edge, and then somehow defying genetic gravity to pull himself upright. At one point in the film, when he’s been sober for a series of days and supposedly committed to staying that way, he opens a hotel minibar and marvels at the contents. We marvel at them too – it’s like a gorgeous city of light. Absolutely no one in the audience will be surprised by how that episode turns out.

Life experiences

At a couple of points, the movie mulls over the meaning of such extreme life experiences, grouping Whitaker with a drug addict and a terminal cancer patient as prisms for belief in God. At times like these, and in an unusually frank opening section for a mainstream release nowadays, the film feels like it might take us somewhere dark and unchartered, into a spiritual turbulence leaving us no way out. Unfortunately though, much of what surrounds these aspects of the film is conventional and overly tidy, in exactly the same way you encounter in one Hollywood film after another. These familiar sins include, for instance, an incoherent approach to the timeline – it’s impossible to know at times whether events are separated by a day or by several months or more – and by a lack of interest in the institutional complexity of such a major event: in real life, someone in Whitaker’s situation would surely spend hours and days being grilled in endless detail, but in Flight, the debriefing seems to last an aggregate of about five minutes. Likewise, the climactic public hearing on the crash investigation is structured more like a bite-sized 60 Minutes segment than an actual meeting.

As I say, there’s nothing unusual about these simplifications, and I know they’re necessary in keeping the story to a manageable length. But that’s only because the story, ultimately, turns out to be another tale of redemption, steering us to one of the most over-visited of cinematic hubs. It’s not the most galvanizing of arrival points, and certainly doesn’t do much justice to the film’s strengths.

For another example, the same weekend I saw the film, the media was preoccupied with the resignation of the admired C.I.A. chief, David Petraeus, after it came out he’d been having an affair with his biographer. It doesn’t sound like Obama really wanted to accept the resignation, and the reporting and commentary on the matter seemed coloured by several shades of disappointment. The reason most often put forward for the necessity of his stepping down was the position’s heightened sensitivity and susceptibility to blackmail and the like, but it’s hard to see how that could be a practical issue for something already out in the open. For most of those involved, perhaps including Petraeus himself, I’m not sure there was much more to it than, well, that’s just what you have to do. Meanwhile, The New York Times published a piece on Allen Dulles, possibly “the greatest intelligence officer who ever lived,” who led the CIA in the 1950’s despite having had dozens of affairs. “By today’s standards,” concludes the writer, “this master spy would not have been allowed even to join the C.I.A., much less lead it.” Similar observations have been made, of course, about some of the greatest presidents, including FDR and JFK. But surely no one wishes our current “standards” could be retrospectively applied to strike them from the history books. (By the way, I believe golf TV ratings have generally plummeted since Tiger stopped winning).

Teachable moments

 No doubt, the Petraeus incident is only a heightened example of how human interaction is controlled and conditioned by more conventions than we can keep track of – some of them still incrementally useful, others just dance steps we keep on repeating even though the original accompanying music died out long ago. But when these conventions require a sacrifice that no one seems entirely sure is for the greater good of things, it ought to provide a teachable moment, especially in the immediate wake of an election generally viewed as a positive step for liberal social values. Maybe Hollywood is just too morally compromised a community ever to make films that provide much of a reference point for such elevated conversations, but Flight is at least halfway there, and that’s not too bad.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2007)
I started watching the DVD of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 on December 6 of last year, and finished it 19 days later, on Christmas Day. This viewing stretched across four locations – Toronto, Heathrow airport, a London hotel, and finally my parents’ house in Wales – and migrated from considerable initial boredom to ultimate near-exaltation (and not just because of seasonal goodwill). It seems to me that very few people have seen the film, but all who love cinema should. This is not the same as saying you’ll appreciate it, let alone enjoy it, but the film ultimately repays the investment you make in it, despite (and in large part because of) that investment’s very grueling nature.

Lengthy Viewing

The film, released in 1976, suffered all kinds of producer and studio interference, and was released in various cut-down versions, but in its full form, now available on (very accessibly priced) disk, it runs for some five and a half hours. This is at least an hour and a half longer than any version one might previously have had a chance to see (rather like some Orson Welles movies, 1900 seems so inherently chaotic that to be beaten up and chopped around seems in some sense inevitable). I should acknowledge though that this doesn’t explain my leisurely 19-day viewing period. I took several time-outs to watch other movies that I’d taped on VCR and decided to get out of the way: specifically Something New (black woman overcomes preconceptions to get it together with white guy), End of the Century (The Ramones – real and gritty!) and New York Doll (former glam rock icon ends up as nice old man). Then of course I saw various new movies. And given the time of year and that I was winding down in my job before moving to a new one, I spent much time drinking and hanging out and not really worrying about movies at all.

Given all of this, there were certainly times when it seemed unlikely I would ever reach the end of 1900, not that I was sure it would even have an ending. The film starts in 1901, following two boys born on the same day, one to a wealthy landowner and the other to a peasant on his estate. The two become friends, but Italy is evolving, and one finds himself drawn into Fascism (depicted here mainly as capitulation to his psychopathic land supervisor, who uses ideology as a smokescreen for grotesquely self-serving excesses) while the other becomes a hero of the proletarian resistance. Their turbulent relationship, encompassing many personal ups and downs, takes them to the end of WW2, when Mussolini is deposed and the tide finally turns; their friendship survives the reckoning, and the film ends on a snapshot of the two years later, still jostling, almost to the death, their lives still helplessly intertwined.

History and Sexuality

Most writers seem unconvinced of the film’s merits as history, and Bertolucci himself seems diffident on this point (saying for instance of the ending: “I can’t even explain the poetic license”). At the time he was an outspoken Marxist, and the film is at least in part a knowing fantasy on the corrupt malevolence of Fascism and the inherent goodness and inevitable historical triumph of socialism. It’s become increasingly clear though (through films like Stealing Beauty) that Bertolucci has a basic comfort level with the traditional Italian good life, and 1900’s broader ambitions consistently give way to affectionate, dawdling immersion in (visually stunning) historical recreation, usually with a rustic or pastoral inclination.

Bertolucci is also known of course for his interest in sexuality. He made 1900 right after Last Tango In Paris, and he spoke in one interview at his regret for not having depicted Brando full frontally naked in the earlier film. 1900 does almost everything possible to remedy that wrong, working in quite an eye popping collection of erotic and scatological imaginings (it also has some quite shockingly raw violence, particularly in the actions of that evil land supervisor). Some might find this material ugly and self-indulgent, and yet the imagination and conviction Bertolucci brings to it is rather stunning. There’s a recurring sense of investigation and curiosity and self-imagining, whether it be two young boys examining each other’s genitals, or a wealthy young woman imagining herself as blind, and this intersects with a Pasolini-like earthiness and sense of authenticity (the most notorious example perhaps being a scene where the peasants, in a brief episode of release, attack their tormentors with fresh cow dung). Contrasting with the sweeping grandeur of other aspects of the film, this builds a cumulative sense of immense variability, and of a more than merely impressionistic engagement with at least some aspect of the Italian soul.

Amazing Cast

The film is also notable for its amazing cast. The DVD comes with three soundtracks, depending on whether you’d rather hear the American (Robert De Niro, Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland), French (Gerard Depardieu, Dominique Sanda) or Italian actors (just about everyone else) in their native tongues (I chose the Italian, with English subtitles). The cast doesn’t really “work” - the mesh of styles and languages is a bit too obvious, and the weight of so many star images and allusions is more than the premise can bear (Bertolucci said he wanted to make “a dialectic movie, between Hollywood actors and peasants, prose and poetry, money and red flags”). De Niro (who by the way exposes himself as never before or since) doesn’t really create the tragic sweep that his character seems to require (in contrast for example to the later Once Upon a Time in America, which has a similar structure in some respects). But all these caveats aside, it’s the kind of group that will seldom if ever be assembled again, and it’s fascinating to watch throughout.


It’s plain from the above that I’m not really inclined to try “analyzing” the film, even to the extent I ever analyze anything. The film sprawls, overflows, sputters, flourishes, lives and dies. Its director seems to be as much in control as he wants to be, but I’ve always found Bertolucci’s directorial persona (while fascinating and admirable) a little hard to summarize in any event, and 1900 might be the ultimate example of something you vaguely recognize as reflecting “genius” while (at least after one viewing) finding little means of expressing what that actually consists of. Maybe this is just capitulation to size and scope and sheer weirdness. But what’s wrong with that once in a while (if five and a half hours can ever be termed a “while”)? According to the Senses of Cinema website, Bertolucci “has often described the experience as akin to having all his bones crushed,” and you may often feel that way too, but then they reassemble, and it’s all rather stimulating.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The real thing

The other day, I was rewatching Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1994 film Trois couleurs: rouges, and found myself marveling that anyone could ever have come up with it. Stripped to its skeleton, it could be the result of a fiendish artistic challenge: create a coherent narrative, supporting the broad theme of “fraternity,” out of such randomly selected elements as a fashion model who runs over a dog and a retired judge who monitors his neighbours’ phone calls. Kieslowski pulls that off more than well enough, but I was especially transfixed this time by the final stretch, which goes beyond skill, if that’s the word, to a kind of all-encompassing artistic necessity. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about a film hinting that we’ve been watching a dream, or some form of meta-reality, but it’s usually just a gimmick; Rouge suggests instead – quite thrillingly - a more fully sensitized, justified existence. I wouldn’t place it among my very favourite films – the pictures in that category never even make me think that way about the underlying calculation; I’m too fully lost within them – but for a few hours, I just kept thinking: wow, that’s exactly the kind of thing I wish I had the artistic muscles to pull off.

The Sessions

Ben Lewin’s new film The Sessions is an entirely different kind of undertaking. Set in 1988 in Berkeley, it’s the real-life story of Mark O’Brien, a poet and journalist who contracted polio at the age of six and spent most of his subsequent life in an iron lung. In his thirties, still a virgin, he became increasingly preoccupied with his sexuality, and ultimately decided to engage a sex surrogate: the film’s most direct source is an article he wrote about his experiences. Lewin, also a polio survivor, apparently came across the article while actively thinking about a project on sex and the disabled, and Wikipedia quotes him as follows: “I felt that if I could do on film what he had done to me with his writing, then I could potentially deliver something powerful.”

Of course, it requires a million artistic decisions to travel from there to a finished film, and as many elements of chance. One of Lewin’s key choices, it seems to me, was to decide on an exceptionally matter of fact approach to the material, evidenced in particular by how he handles the sex scenes. Helen Hunt, in her most notable role for years, plays Cheryl, the surrogate, with unstinting in-for-a-penny in-for-a-pound openness: there’s little sense of the actress being protected by friendly lighting or camera angles or the like. This leads to one rather jarring moment, when Cheryl holds a mirror up before Mark so he can see his whole body. In a different movie it would be unremarkable that the framing preserves Mark and the actor’s modesty, but here it seems like a basic, uncourageous gender disparity.

Self-hatred and fear

On the other hand, no matter what the actor John Hawkes did to prepare to play Mark, he couldn’t have been expected to starve himself down to sixty pounds, which is how O’Brien describes his weight in the original article: some softening of the experience was inevitable. Hawkes is remarkable nevertheless – I can’t think offhand of another movie where you spend so much time looking at someone horizontally – but The Sessions is mostly about O’Brien’s sweetly screwed-up, wistful side, and doesn’t particularly try to immerse us in the sheer monotony of his life experience, or in the intensity of his “self-hatred and fear,” as he wrote about it. O’Brien described his frustrated sexual feelings as “another curse inflicted upon me by a cruel God,” but the movie casts God mostly as a deadpan straight man, standing in the background of numerous conversations between Mark and his pragmatic priest, played by William H Macy. Actually, just by virtue of his searching, ravaged quality, Macy single-handedly does much of the heavy lifting on  evoking the darkness, conveying an inner fear that even though God might give Mark a free pass, nothing good awaits the priest who tipped him off to it.

As another example, O’Brien wrote his essay a couple of years after the fact, acknowledging that the experience with Cheryl hadn’t changed his life, and that he continued to be as isolated as ever. In the movie though, although it’s a  bit fuzzy about timelines, it conveys a sense of rapid pay-off, that Mark’s new confidence about not being a virgin allows him to make a previously impossible connection (the film’s last scene evokes, of all things, Truffaut’s The Man who Loved Women, or maybe more accurately the Blake Edwards remake of it). Don’t get me wrong – it would take a colder-hearted viewer than I am to begrudge the character any of this. But it still marks the film, at its heart, as a conventional American chronicle of growth, renewal and benevolent community (maybe the latter element comes across particularly strongly because Berkeley is just that kind of easy-going place, I’m not sure).

Triumph of the human spirit

Anyway, The Sessions is completely engaging viewing. I somewhat preferred it to the recent film it most directly evokes, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a depiction of Jean-Dominique Baudry, a former Elle editor with “locked-in syndrome.” Schnabel made extensive use of an inner camera to evoke Baudry’s inner state, essentially crafting the film as a tragically extreme extension of his previous films, about artists on the fringe. At the time I wrote here that the film “conveys an enormous sense of contentment and inner ventilation, as if Baudry’s unleashed spirit had seeped into every aspect of its making,” but reading that sentence now, I’m not sure why I thought that was a good thing. I guess in the interim I’ve become even less susceptible to the triumph of the human spirit thing, or maybe my memories are being adversely coloured by Schnabel’s subsequent picture Miral, which did nothing to advance his standing either as a filmmaker or a thinker. Be that as it may, O’Brien’s essay seems to indicate a pretty methodical and rigorous thinker, and a fortitude that’s hard for the rest of us to imagine, and the film does justice to that.

For the vast majority of us, any treatment of Mark O’Brien’s story would inevitably be far removed from our own lives – trying to close that gap might untap some generalized “universality,” but potentially at the cost of obscuring the truth of his experience. But then, you might argue there’s no reason we should worry about that anyway – this is art, not a legal deposition. We’ll be swirling such questions around for as long as filmed entertainment survives I suppose, and they’re not unimportant, but I’m not sure they ultimately take us much of anywhere either. Put it this way – watching a movie such as  The Sessions is like getting it from a great surrogate, but watching Rouge is doing the real thing.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Movies I haven't seen

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2008)
People sometimes accuse me of seeing everything, which even allowing for hyperbole is an unreasonable stretch. Actually I think I’ve been quite discriminating this year, usually just going to a couple of new movies a week (well, for me that’s a slow pace). Admittedly I did go to see 88 Minutes, but are you comfortable casting the first stone? Anyway, 88 Minutes qualified for viewing on two fronts. First, it had Al Pacino. I realize that’s not a universally applicable criterion but we all have our quirks and there’s no reason to be ashamed of them. Secondly, I didn’t feel I could glean from the trailers and the reviews exactly what it would be like to see the film, and I thought the process of discovery might be stimulating (albeit to an only marginal extent). As it happened I was wrong.

These are some recent films that didn’t pass either of those criteria. Since I feel I’ve distilled the essence of the experience without the burden of actually having to see them, just this once I may as well take the next logical step and review them too. Feel free to let me know I was wrong!

Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?

This trailer really rubbed me the wrong way. Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me – where he set out to illustratively ruin his health by eating only at Macdonald’s - got too much attention, but it had a valid central point and may even have done some broader good. In his new film, presumably after searching at length for an even bigger stunt, he sets out to capture Osama bin Laden; first getting trained back home, then traipsing round various Middle Eastern countries. A large part of his search technique appears to consist of stopping passers-by in the street and asking them if they know where Osama is; in one scene he stops at the mouth of a cave and calls Osama’s name. As best I know, he’s not ultimately successful.

What annoys me here is that you have thousands of filmmakers working their souls and butts off to make serious, meaningful work, much of which never gets even as close to a serious release as Spurlock did to bin Laden, and then (in our Toronto that prides itself, unduly if you ask me, on being a major movie citadel) this piece of one-joke buffoonery glides into the Cumberland and takes up space. Post 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan – are these serious issues or are they not? Sure, you can have a comedic approach to serious issues, but there’s got to be more to that than some camera-hogging idiot. Isn’t this the kind of thing YouTube is meant to be good for?

Fugitive Pieces

This was the opening gala at last year’s film festival, which if you look at the track record is already a problem. The closing gala was Emotional Arithmetic, which sounds basically like the same title (that release has been and gone – I didn’t see it either). Looks like a well-crafted movie with lots of sensitive performances and fine scenery and emotional impact. Something to do with the human spirit, with owning up to oneself. Prominently features the esteemed Serbian actor Rade Serbedzija, the Anthony Quinn of our day (that’s right, not good). Produced by Robert Lantos, who obviously has the festival guys by the nuts – who among us will ever choose to sit again through Sunshine, Being Julia, Stardom or any of Atom Egoyan’s recent movies? They all scored gala spots, were all worthy in much the same plodding kind of way, and all died subsequently. If you can’t recognize such warning signs when you see them, you shouldn’t be leaving the house unaccompanied.

Young @ Heart

This is the documentary about the seniors who get together to sing creaky versions of rock and pop songs. Like Spurlock’s film, I must have seen the trailer ten times; by the end of it, I was in danger of developing a prejudice not only against the movie, but also against everyone over the age of 55. It’s meant to be life affirming, uplifting, cute, and supposedly their renditions of the songs bring out a hidden depth and poignancy in some of the lyrics. The trailer looks manipulative and cringe inducing. I refer you to my earlier YouTube remark.

Speed Racer

Well, by now we all know the mixed blessing of digital technology – it generates wonders the likes of which we couldn’t have imagined, but can’t quite render them tangible. The new Indiana Jones movie (which I did see) suffered from this – the big central chase through the jungle was masterfully conceived, but entirely weightless and abstract (not helped by the actors’ excessive grinning and sense of joie de vivre at what’s meant to be a hair-raising ordeal). Iron Man avoided the trap more successfully, but it’s obvious from the trailers that Speed Racer doesn’t even try. Now that’s certainly a stylistic choice that one can make – a homage, I understand, to some long-forgotten Japanese anime – but once you’ve absorbed the colour scheme (which appears to be a mix of birthday cake, glitter and vomit), where does it leave you? Seems like a film about nothing. 

Baby Mama, Made of Honor, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, What Happens in Vegas

Doesn’t the calculation just drip off all these entries? I toyed with the idea of seeing Harold and Kumar, which seemed to have some subversive possibility, but the reviews suggested it was mostly squandered. Baby Mama and Made of Honor looked like TV shows. What Happens in Vegas looked garish and ugly. Collectively, this bunch communicated all the excitement and panache of an evening in Wal-Mart.

Cassandra’s Dream

I didn’t see Woody Allen’s latest, another British-made drama with Colin Ferrell and Ewan McGregor, which breaks my twenty year plus streak of seeing all Allen’s films, through thick and thin, on their release. That’s because it never opened here. He’s not the man he was, but shouldn’t a major movie citadel have had at least one screen available for this? This was also a gala at the last film festival. So was Cleaner, which just went straight to video. I guess it’s an honour that comes with a suicide pill.

Sex and the City

I actually would have gone to see this, but my wife didn’t want to see it, even though she’d been a diligent viewer of the TV series. I was hardly going to go by myself, so that was that. Just let me reflect though, if I may, on how lucky I am. My wife did go with me to see Flight of the Red Balloon. She could so easily have demanded a quid pro quo. But that’s not the deal I’m living under. Sometimes I wonder why I need movies at all…

In the clouds

It’s amazing that a film as ambitious and as superficially vast as the new Cloud Atlas leaves you with so little to think about afterwards. Based on a novel by British writer David Mitchell, and lasting almost three hours, it has six interlocking stories: one set in the nineteenth century, two in the twentieth, one in the present day, one in a high-concept future landscape, and another after it all collapses and humanity largely returns to primitivism. Officially, this constitutes “an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future.” To emphasize this theme of continuity and interlocking, and to imply a sense of souls transmigrating, the film casts its principal actors in multiple roles: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant for example appear in all six segments, although sometimes so briefly and/or so heavily made up that you only find out from the end credits.

Fiendishly complex

Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) conceived the film and directed three of the segments; Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) directed the rest. The stories have some tonal differences – the present day sequence seems conceived as broad comic relief; the 1970’s story appears to be aspiring to be a fast-paced conspiracy thriller in the style of The Parallax View; the two future sequences are typical high-concept gobbledygook – but for the most part, watching one of them feels much like watching any of the others, and you feel much the same way five minutes into the movie as you feel five minutes from the end. One thing happens, then another, then another, and then it just stops, and you go home. It’s not exactly boring, but it’s seldom impressive in more than a narrowly technical way, and it’s far from enlightening.

In her Globe and Mail column (always a good reference source if you ever forget what the sound of a Hollywood ass being kissed sounds like), Joanna Schneller quotes Lana Wachowski as saying how the process of adapting Mitchell’s “fiendishly complex” novel (which I haven’t read) was “like some horrible higher-level algebra class.” Maybe it ought to constitute a stellar grade that the finished film in no way feels fiendishly complex , but it just leaves you wondering what the fuss was about. Sure, you’re sometimes not clear on what’s happening, but just because someone vandalizes the signposts on a country road, it doesn’t mean the route suddenly became inherently more complicated.

From womb to tomb

Some of the strands – in particular the conspiracy story, built around Berry as a crusading journalist trying to expose the risks at a nuclear power plant – are so simplistic and mechanical they feel more like high-level synopses than actual narratives. The connections between the segments are mostly cursory – for instance, a character in one episode reads a book written by a character in the previous one, and the people in the following episode watch in turn a movie based on his adventures. The multi-casting of the actors is a mixed bag (especially since, for the most part, they don’t fit particularly well into a lot of what they’re called on to do), in no way evoking a sense of reincarnation, or of anything more than a questionably conceived stunt.

And what’s it all for? Schneller quotes, seemingly with approval, the following sample utterance: “From womb to tomb, we are bound to others past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” Peter Howell ends his Star review with another one: “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” And there’s plenty more where those two came from. Well, this all seems to me the epitome of blather that gets you nowhere. Sure, no man is an island, what goes around comes around, all the rest of it. What is any Peter Howell review but a multitude of letters (and most likely not arranged in the best order)? In fact, wouldn’t focusing on its ultimate composition as a multitude of drops be the least productive way of engaging with the meaning of the ocean, of our dependency on it, of how we potentially mistreat it? Maybe I’m sounding pedantic here, but what sense does it make to characterize a film as “daring and visionary” (as Roger Ebert put it) if the “vision” can’t be articulated in terms more complex than a fortune cookie?

Giant follies

The Guardian said the film “carries all the marks of a giant folly,” and you know, cinema would be much the poorer without its long history of giant follies (I’m using the word loosely) – works of enormous ambition and scope that almost inevitably got caught up in fights between art and commerce, often released (or escaping) as a result in multiple versions, which just adds to the sense of something existing beyond your grasp. I was rewatching one of them the same weekend I saw Cloud Atlas – Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. I was watching the DVD of the 229 minute version, which contrasts with the 139 minute version originally released in North America, and also with the 245 minute version they showed at Cannes this year, and also with the 269 minute version they’re reportedly still working on restoring. Another example, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, is just about to be released on a Criterion DVD.

Cloud Atlas surely ought to be such a film – something so large it resists a “definitive” version, leaving you with the feeling there would always be something else to tweak. Maybe it ought to have been made by someone like Terry Gilliam, whose whole career has been marked by such follies. But as crafted by the Wachowskis and Tykwer, it carries a deadened sense of certainty (the reference to an algebra class, with its implication of cracking the equation, and then with no real need to reopen it once that’s done, seems telling). Of course, by their nature, the pieces could have been shuffled differently, or individual segments could have been expanded or contracted, but it feels like a jigsaw that’s been completed, then glued together and covered in a layer of lacquer, before being locked under glass. Oh, no doubt there’ll be an extended version that shows up on DVD, but this won’t add a thing, except more glue and lacquer.


The film belongs with those other works I mentioned in one sense anyway – it’s been a colossal financial disappointment, making much less in its first weekend than Ben Affleck’s Argo made in its third. I didn’t much like Argo, but at least it was stimulating to consider and write about the ways in which I didn’t like it. Writing this review of Cloud Atlas, on the other hand, felt merely like a slog. I hope it’s not an action that’s significantly birthing my future.