Sunday, February 10, 2013

Contrarian views

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2006)
A couple of acclaimed movies this week, and a few others that were commercially and critically dead on arrival. Typically, I go somewhat against the consensus on all of them. Hey, who wants to run with the pack?
Don’t Come Knocking

Wim Wenders is the prime example of a once-great director who has now fallen –someone recently pointed out that it would have been better for his chances at posterity if he’d passed on around the same time as his countryman Fassbinder. Absolutely no one liked The Million Dollar Hotel, and the hectoring Land of Plenty was barely released. I went to see the first showing of his new film Don’t Come Knocking on a Friday afternoon, and was the only person in the theater – this despite the trailer having played for months, and the presumed star power of Jessica Lange and Sarah Polley. It’s an obvious return to the past glory of Paris, Texas, again written by Sam Shepard, and also starring Shepard as a Western movie star who impulsively walks off the set and embarks on a journey through his past.

The movie can plainly not be taken seriously as a contemporary chronicle – Shepard seems to have the kind of career that hasn’t existed since the heyday of Randolph Scott, and the main setting of Butte, Montana is presented as the kind of place where you can go nuts, throw all your furniture into the street, and leave it there all night virtually unnoticed and untouched. The film is overwritten in some parts, and utterly vague in others, often seeming made up of tired, almost random leftovers from a catalogue of American myths. Nevertheless, it seems to me Wenders’ most beguiling movie in a while. Chaotic as it is, the relationship between filmic and emotional identity is ultimately intriguingly plotted, and the ending stumbles toward a giddy affirmation. Still, Wenders’ head is buried deep up the ass of his past glories, and nothing here provides optimism for his next step.

That may sound like highly qualified praise, but it’s just about the most positive thing anyone has said about Don’t Come Knocking.

I am not a good booster for Canadian film, and barely registered the release of Amnon Buchbinder’s Whole New Thing until someone mentioned it at dinner one night. I’m glad I went. The film starts off with a too-good-to-be-true family of ecologically attuned intellectuals living in rural Nova Scotia, it breaks the unit wide open, and tentatively points to a realignment at the end. The focus is the precocious teenage son who’s sent to the local school for the first time after a lifetime of home schooling – he develops a crush on his teacher (played very originally by Daniel MacIvor), setting up some compelling (if ultimately perhaps a little too knowingly spine-tingling) suspense. The movie has all the virtues one would expect from a well-made low-budget film, and quite a few one wouldn’t have thought of. 

3 Needles
And then two days later, I saw another Canadian film, Thom Fitzgerald’s 3 Needles. Fitzgerald burst on the scene with the acclaimed Hanging Garden in 1997, since when his reputation has stagnated. My favourite of his films is The Wild Dogs, a wildly flawed but fascinating scrapbook of odds and ends about a Canadian pornographer in Budapest. His next movie The Event, about a man who’s died of AIDS and the assistant DA who suspects it was an assisted suicide, seemed however mainly dislocated and exhausted.

3 Needles is another film about AIDS, and a very ambitious one. It blends three stories, set in South Africa and China and Montreal, all premised on the disease’s horrific potential and the human mess that results from it. The project sometimes seems a little forced, and there are more than a few moments of rather glaring melodrama. But the film is immensely absorbed in its subject, dense with local observation, and bursting with authentic tragedy; for every bold-faced narrative hook (like the nun in Africa who decides to sleep with the local plantation owner in order to tap his wealth; or the Montreal mother who injects herself with AIDS for the sake of a viatical settlement on her life insurance) there are ten glimpses of quieter human tragedy. The movie captures the immense complexity of individual motives around the disease, showing how even altruism may be based primarily in personal neurosis, and how apparent benevolence may be a front for outright evil.

There were only two other people in the theater when I saw 3 Needles (as you can see, it was a pretty lonely week), and I do find the lack of attention it received highly surprising – it’s far more intriguing and illuminating than Crash for example (although of course it lacks the easy gratification). Personally I think Thom Fitzgerald’s body of work is much more rewarding than, say, Atom Egoyan’s over the same period. Still, the movie, like Don’t Come Knocking, was gone after a week. So I guess what I’m really doing here is logging a video recommendation.

Two Admired Films

Set for a much longer run I expect, The Devil And Daniel Johnston, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, is a documentary about cult singer and artist Johnston, who’s built up a substantial body of odd, cartoonish (but some say visionary) work despite being in and out of mental hospitals for years and continuing to be slightly over the line of quirkiness. Maybe I’ve just seen too much of this kind of stuff, but the movie – which has been generally acclaimed – didn’t do a thing for me. The biggest problem is that I just couldn’t get close to buying in to the notion of Johnston as a “genius” and one of the “best American songwriters.”  That’s partly subjective of course, but also reflects the fact that the movie simply doesn’t apply itself to making the case in the way that the somewhat similar Jandek On Cornwood did about its own idiosyncratic musician subject, or that In The Realms Of The Unreal did about eccentric artist Edward Daeger. And it’s far less probing and distinctive than Tarnation or Capturing The Friedmans, among other excavations of emotionally fraught domestic footage. I think the movie takes the goodwill of its audience too much for granted, although I can’t deny that plenty of people have gone along.

Hard Candy is another widely admired film that should be around for a while. It’s basically a two-hander, about a teenage girl and a man in his thirties who connect on line, and then meet in a coffee shop. Mostly going along with her suggestions, he takes her to his house and serves her screwdrivers, constantly asserting that he knows where the lines are; suddenly he’s groggy and unconscious, and when he wakes up the tables have been turned. People have said it’s difficult to watch, but I found it far too contrived and artificial to have any real impact. But if you like the title, I guess you may like the movie.  

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