Saturday, December 15, 2012

Virtuoso of chaos

I really wish I liked David O. Russell’s new film Silver Linings Playbook as much as The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis did. Stamping it in her opening sentence as a film that “does almost everything right,” she goes on to talk about Russell as “a virtuoso of chaos, (with) supreme command over a movie that regularly feels as if it’s teetering on the edge of hysteria, in respect to the characters and director both...Like a singer who quavers tauntingly, thrillingly close to going off-key, Mr. Russell never loses control. Watching him pull back from the brink can be a delight.” Actually, something similar might be said of Dargis’ review, a wonderful mini-essay, even if potentially over the top (it cites both Robert Frost and Samuel Beckett): as I read it, I was completely persuaded of Silver Linings Playbook’s greatness. Until I remembered that I’d actually seen the picture, and didn’t actually agree much at all.

Silver Linings Playbook

Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, returning to his parents’ house in Philadelphia after eight months in a mental institution, consumed by the desire to reunite with his wife Nicki, despite a restraining order and the obstacles of their past history. A neighbour, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, in the film’s most varied and resourceful performance) tells him she can get a letter to Nicki, but demands in return that he train with her to be her partner in a local dance contest; he eventually goes along, and as their partnership slowly gels, the human mess around them (anxious parents, a close friend also trying to claw his way out of institutions, another who admits to feeling crushed by his outwardly picture-book life) may also stumble to some shaky equilibrium.

It’s not hard to see why actors are drawn to working with Russell: he actually gives them something to act – crackling dialogue, largely free of conventionally writerly ponderousness; exchanges and moods that zig and zag; multi-faceted human choreography. But this undoubted skill ultimately only makes the film more intensely disappointing. The first half comes to seem increasingly monotonous – just one shouting match after another: as Dargis says, the film may not go off the cliff edge, but you increasingly wonder why we’re always standing so close to the cliff edge in the first place. The second half calms down, but becomes increasingly dependent on unconvincing set pieces involving the dance contest, and Eagles games, and a quasi-mystical melding of the two. When it reaches the inevitable happy ending, it feels largely like something the film collapses into, as if out of exhaustion.

The movie (which won the People’s Choice award at this year’s Toronto festival) is certainly more satisfying than not, and I never found it actively off-putting in the way of Russell’s last film The Fighter, which I could hardly stand watching at times. But just as The Fighter had the sense of being created by a bunch of rich people flattering themselves on doing something important, Silver Linings Playbook feels like a movie where no one ever forgot they got to go back to the hotel at night. In contrast, at various points I found myself thinking of the French director Arnaud Desplechin, whose most recent film A Christmas Tale  has some similarities with Russell’s movie – a dysfunctional family congregating around a big house, a seriously challenging son, and more.

Russell and Desplechin

But Desplechin by comparison makes Russell feel like someone relentlessly pedaling a bike that’s nailed to the spot – the volume of doublings and contrasts and echoes and conflicts in his film is almost beyond processing, but always feels like the natural expression of a fully-formed, thrillingly expansive worldview. And to cite a small yet meaningful example - when Desplechin’s characters discuss a book, as they often do, there’s no doubt they’ve read the book. Silver Linings Playbook also cites literature a few times, but only in terms that might have been skimmed off a Wikipedia summary. Overall, being a virtuoso of chaos (if we concede the title) obviously isn’t a negligible achievement, but it threatens to severely limit how far your films can ultimately travel (Dargis refers to Russell’s “belief in joyous, transporting cinema,” but I think that’s mainly true in the sense that if you shove people into a deep hole, it’s joyous even just to watch them claw their way back to the surface). Desplechin has as keen a sense of our earthly chains, but also possesses a much more fully evolved sense of transcendent possibility, and navigates gorgeously between the two.

It may seem odd to spend so much time reviewing Silver Linings Playbook by writing about a completely different filmmaker (although I guess it’s not the first time I’ve done that). But every two hours we spend watching a film is two hours we’re not spending on another one. Dargis’ image of Russell as a singer who threatens to go off-key evokes the fun of watching something like American Idol, and I guess it’s a fact that a lot of people would rather watch talented amateurs than accomplished professionals. But isn’t that just another sign of our collective comfort with mediocrity?


I’ve written here before about the wonderful moment on the DVD of Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, where the old master praises the early 80’s Bond film For Your Eyes Only for its “cinematic writing,” an assessment seemingly only explicable by assuming Bresson had hardly ever seen a mainstream action movie, and was able to view it with a purity of spirit denied the rest of us. I thought about this again as I watched the new Bond, Skyfall, which is certainly much more ably cinematically written than its hopelessly messy predecessor Quantum of Solace (which felt more like paint hurled against a wall), and sometimes approaches a rather beautiful abstraction, as in the nighttime lights and reflections of a sequence in Shanghai, or the opening chase sequence’s gorgeously precise excesses. Taken as a whole, director Sam Mendes restores something here of the series’ classic essence, but this only shows how meaningless that essence has become. The plot (about Bond on the trail of a master criminal seemingly intent on destroying British covert operations in general, and spymaster M in particular) turns on large doses of pain and brooding, and posits that we have more to fear now from the chaotic shadows cast by anguish and personal trauma than from grand schemes to take over the world; unfortunately though, everything about Bond is coded for a time when power relations (including, of course, those of the sexual kind) carried greater certainty. Still, there’s a lot to enjoy in there, not least of course the usual virtuosity of chaos.

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