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.


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