Saturday, April 27, 2013

Mamet's fable

What is David Mamet all about? Like many people, I could watch a highpoint like Glengarry Glen Ross almost endlessly, but what does it ultimately amount to? One online source explains: “He writes of a world in which alienation is a fundamental, perhaps even universal, experience. A common theme in his plays is the potentially destructive force of the American dream.” But you could restate that as meaning little more than: Everything and everyone sucks. And indeed, I’m not sure Glengarry is about much more than that. But the epically well-cast film version seduces you completely, alternately compelling for setting out the savage grind of its salesman characters, and for the genuine elation of the moments when they glimpse (real or imaginary) transcendence. The scene where Al Pacino’s character seduces a poor schmuck in a bar into a real estate investment he doesn’t need and can’t afford preserves the peak of Mamet’s art – on the page, the dialogue looks barely coherent, but in the hands of a great actor, the fragmentation becomes proof of its metaphysical authenticity, in evading the dull causation of normal human exchanges, the conventions that imprison and belittle us. In a less effective version, as in a Soulpepper production of a few years ago, the artifice and mannerism remains too obvious, leaving the audience largely perplexed.


One of Mamet’s more recent plays Race – which as I write is just finishing its run at the Canadian Stage – is reminiscent of Glengarry at times, but only to the newer work’s detriment: the poetry is gone, and the ideas and themes (basically a monotonous iteration of the notion that race influences everything, and that everything we claim to think about it is probably either a self-delusion or else an outright lie) are expressed much more starkly and insistently. Of course, he’s an accomplished professional, so it goes down easily, but it comes perilously close to feeling like autopilot (especially if you saw last year’s Soulpepper production of Speed-the-Plow, which often feels like much the same play). The same goes for much of Mamet’s odd side career as a movie director: his early films like House of Games were highly promising, but most of what followed seems to evidence little ambition beyond becoming a skilled no-nonsense professional (Homicide might be the strongest, although it’s far from perfect, not least because of a similar sense that Mamet is over-stirring the racial pot). His movie work teems with cons and bluffs and red herrings, as if reality were more to be mocked and undermined than actually engaged with. It would be appealing to think his pitiful recent writings on his conservative beliefs and his pro-gun views were another kind of con game, but I’m afraid it’s all too serious.

Mamet’s latest project, Phil Spector, which he wrote and directed, is now playing on HBO. Pacino plays the famous record producer, who was convicted (after two trials) for murdering a young actress, Lana Clarkson, in his house in 2003, and Helen Mirren plays Linda Kenney Baden, a key member of the defense team. Although these are real people, and the film is plainly based on fact to some extent, the opening titles describe it as a “work of fiction,” and Mamet referred to it in interviews as a “fable.” I haven’t tried to learn any more about the facts than the movie provides, but the film strongly suggests Mamet thinks Spector is innocent – just based on what it gives us, the evidence about the trajectory of the wound and the absence of blood on Spector’s clothes seems incontrovertible.

Phil Spector

This hardly matters though – the finding of justice is as much a theatrical presentation as a search for truth, and although Spector is certainly theatrical, little about him suggests ideal casting as a wronged innocent. He rants, grandstands, refuses to conform to accepted notions of propriety (in a clever touch, the laughably big wig he wore to court one day becomes the film’s thematic climax); his achievements count for very little because no one remembers them; and he’s a convenient vessel for the system to atone the mistake it made by letting OJ go. Regardless of what a rational weighting might yield, the narrative that ends with Phil Spector being convicted is much more compelling than the one that leads to his innocence. Indeed, pointedly, even Baden in one of the closing scenes will only concede that she has reasonable doubt of his guilt (although at various points in the film, she seems more convinced of it).

Mamet supports this sense of justice looking in the wrong place by deliberately focusing on what a more traditional approach would deem to be the wrong stuff. He spends far more time on the defense team’s exercises with fake trials and mock juries than on the actual trial and jury; he doesn’t try to recreate the crime itself, and when a key member of the legal team departs, we just hear about it afterwards. Much of the film takes place in somewhat disembodied spaces, in near-darkness or dull artificial light. Pacino doesn’t seem to be trying to think his way into Spector’s psyche in the way he did with Jack Kevorkian in his last HBO project, and Mamet doesn’t want him to – he’s written the character as a barely graspable stream of consciousness, his monologues messily combining (sometimes in the same sentence it seems) references to past career high-points, philosophical reflection, social commentary, and echoes of Pacino’s own past work.

I Never Go Out

Sometimes, Spector acknowledges the artifice of his behaviour, but that doesn’t mean he’s capable of stopping himself, and there’s a recurring sense that as a showbiz veteran, no matter how much times have changed, he understands the inevitable outcome of this show better than his lawyer does. Baden is suffering throughout from ailments which culminate in full-blown pneumonia, and the film occasionally conveys a sense of two beaten-down psyches huddling alone against the procedural and existential steam-roller (it’s hard not to regret though that Mamet’s original idea for the role, Bette Midler, pulled out after a week or two of filming).

All of this makes Phil Spector more distinctive and intellectually satisfying than most of Mamet’s film work, and sparks some optimism that he might not yet be creatively spent. That’s still a relative assessment though, and I think this might be an occasion when the film seems more interesting in retrospect than while you’re actually watching it. In that same interview, Mamet asserts “that the film is controversial (and) we are unused to seeing real controversy in mass entertainment,” but I fear there’s some wishful thinking there – a few interested parties aside, I don’t think people cared enough about the movie for it to be truly labeled controversial. Asked about what Hollywood thinks of his new conservatism, he says: “I don't think they ever liked me here anyway. But that's OK, because I never go out.” Which might just mean he’s too consumed by living the alienation to be an effective chronicler of it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

November movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2009)
Lars von Trier’s Antichrist isn’t really much fun to watch, although I did find it gave me a lot to think about afterwards. Already notorious for some explicit sexuality and extreme violence, as well as for von Trier “touches” such as a talking fox (“Chaos reigns!” he says), some have suggested it might literally be the work of a man on the verge of a breakdown. There are only two speaking parts: Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play a couple whose young son falls out of a window to his death (while they’re making love), plunging her in particular into anguish. They take off to their rickety cabin, miles from everywhere in the Northwest forest, where he tries to unlock her psyche; when he succeeds, in a certain manner, he unleashes a form of hell.

“Nature is Satan’s garden,” says Gainsbourg at one point, and as I read it, the film suggests a horrific dislocation in our relationship with Gaia and correspondingly with each other. The classically erotic, slow-motion sex scene that opens the film is a symbol of malign alienation, the latest manifestation of a patriarchal oppression stretching back for centuries; the film has the audacity to present the brutality required to strip this away as being ultimately inevitable (the ending, I think, suggests the possibility of a revolutionary new synthesis of the elements). In this light, coupled with the frequent beauty of von Trier’s imagery, the closing dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky doesn’t seem as pretentious to me as it has to some (it reportedly evoked hoots of laughter when the film was first shown at Cannes). For the most part though, I found the texture too dour to make it more than theoretically interesting. It does have the feeling though, like Cronenberg’s Crash and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange among many others, of a film one might evaluate higher on repeated viewings, as the more provocative elements lose their initial edge. Certainly the raw pain in Gainsbourg’s performance is something to remember.


Meanwhile, back in the real world, it’s still all about trying to get by and snatching some workable concept of happiness and continuity. Amreeka, set in 2002, follows Muna, a middle-aged Palestinian divorcee who immigrates into small-town Illinois with her teenage son, moving in with her sister’s family. In the wake of 9/11 and with the invasion of Iraq in its early-stage jingoistic glory, there’s a lot of casual suspicion and prejudice floating round; the brother-in-law’s medical practice is shedding patients, putting the family under strain. Muna’s initial optimism about continuing her career in retail banking is rapidly stalled, and she ends up working in White Castle, which she hides from the others; meanwhile her son starts smoking dope and getting into fights.

The movie is always interesting, but there’s hardly a scene in there that doesn’t recall other, better films, and Cherien Dabis’ writing and directing are workmanlike at best. It finds its way to a final scene that may strike you as either provocatively ambiguous, or else somewhat blinkered. On the one hand, Muna seems to be over the hump, and is able to enjoy a family meal while still wearing her White Castle uniform; the family is recovering some of its frayed bonds, and she’s making some new connections. On the other hand, none of her underlying problems are solved, and all the underlying indicators appear lousy. In this sense, I guess, she’s indeed become an American.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Werner Herzog must be an American now in some sense – he’s lived in Los Angeles for years, and most of his recent work has been in the English language. But can such a flimsy nation ever contain such an unleashed spirit? Thirty years or so ago, he seemed like a true visionary – traveling all over the world, generating endless stories of personal eccentricity and foolhardiness, yet working too efficiently and sensitively merely to be categorized as a flake. As the 70’s got duller and sillier, it seemed Herzog might be at the vanguard of something new and galvanizing. But in the 80’s, as corporatization found its glory, he foundered, quickly becoming marginal. Funnily enough, now that all certainty is lost and the extent of our misdirection becomes more apparent, he seems to be flourishing again.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a loose reimagining of Abel Ferrara’s classic Harvey Keitel movie, stars Nicolas Cage as the troubled police officer, progressing up through the ranks while his inner life crumbles. Afflicted by chronic back pain after jumping into the rising water to save a prisoner from Katrina, he’s constantly high on whatever he can get, shaking down kids, stealing from the evidence room; he’s also addicted to gambling. Cage is completely immersed in the character, offering a more ingratiating portrayal than Keitel did; his relationship with his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) is rather sweet, without quite tapping the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold clichés.

The plot itself doesn’t avoid clichés much though – it’s one of those standard-issue investigations in which some garbled exposition trips you along from one set-up to the next. Herzog does a solid job with all this stuff, and then undermines it every five or ten minutes through weird inserts (subjective shots from an alligator’s point of view, or a high-intensity look at two seemingly imaginary iguanas), an absurd but blissfully breezy wrap-up to all the loose ends, or some inspirational excess from Cage. It’s hardly as sustained an experience as, say, Aguirre: Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo, but then as I said, it’s not the 70s any more.

Actually, it’s a bit disappointing that Herzog doesn’t seem more interested in New Orleans itself: after that opening water rescue scene, and except for some desolate urban landscapes, it could almost take place anywhere. The out-there protagonists of his recent documentaries, such as Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, were interesting through the extremity of their life projects; after his initial burst of heroism almost busts him up, Cage’s character sticks to an increasingly demented performance art. This seemed to me initially to leave too much metaphorical possibility on the table, but then look at how New Orleans has been allowed to fester, the grand promises of renewal long gone; America claimed to look and respond with sympathy, but in the end found it easier not to look at all. Where should a broken spirit go to survive, other than into a desperate ongoing dance with its own intricacies and capacities?

By the People: the Election of Barack Obama

You can catch this smooth but mostly unrevealing documentary, following the Obama campaign from its modest Iowa roots to its ultimate triumph, currently on HBO Canada. Like many of us, I just wish Obama, now he’s in there, was more passionate, better at shaping the agenda, less of a politician, more of a bad lieutenant. Hmm, I wonder what Werner Herzog’s working on next.

Ultimate reward

I don’t mean to repeat myself, but I was writing last week about Cristian Mongiu’s Beyond the Hills, concluding that the film doesn’t seem to me remotely difficult to watch, nor (as some have it) unduly dark or depressing, but that: “Mongiu’s guiding principles are far removed from those of the mainstream, and so his film must either be ignored or else smothered in warning signs.” And now this week’s subject is Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, which only opened here some months after its US release, on just one screen at the Bell Lightbox (from which I fear it’ll already have disappeared by the time this article appears, although if so it’ll be available in other formats soon). If we take the ordering of film reviews in Now and the Grid as a rough indication of relative significance, it’s around the week’s sixth or seventh most important release respectively, and although both reviews are broadly positive, they’re hardly passionate about it. Much the same goes for coverage elsewhere. The subtext is clear – all but the most esoteric, or perhaps self-punishing, of viewers may safely drive by.

Like someone in love

Well, I’m obviously out of sync, because I don’t know what it means to have a meaningful passion for cinema, and certainly not to try making a career out of it, if not to luxuriate and celebrate in such a film on the rare occasions we’re allowed to. It’s a luminous viewing experience, and reviewers’ insistence that it’s a difficult one in one way or another (the Now and Grid reviews both use the term “elliptical”) only confirms again how the pandering of most cinema comes to constitute an all-shadowing, all-corrupting “norm.” By “pandering,” I mean that so many films leave you little or nothing to talk or think about afterwards beyond asserting that you liked this or didn’t like that, that you enjoyed him but didn’t like her. Of course, these subjective impressions can be analyzed further than that, but it would be an exercise analogous to analyzing the layout of a grocery store; an aesthetic experience of sorts, but concerned with deadening rather than enhancing a consumer’s sensibilities, and thereby numbing the distance between human being and commercial cog. The only way not to be duped is not to take part.

In comparison, as Geoff Pevere put it in the Globe and Mail: “By insisting that it’s the experience of watching (Like Someone in Love) that is its ultimate reward, and by refusing to explain what we’re watching so that the experience remains mysterious, (Kiarostami is) honouring one of the most enduring traditions of the so-called “art” cinema – which is that mystery is one of the medium’s most powerful properties. The basic combination of moving images, recorded sound and structured arrangement of elements through editing baffle us into seeing things differently.” My only problem with this is that it still casts such work as a somewhat marginal sideline, as the “art” cinema that dwells in the shadows of, I suppose, the “actual” cinema. Pevere comments that if you try describing the film to a group of dinner guests, “you’ll be clearing the dishes in no time.” Well, fair enough if the guests just aren’t interested in cinema – not everyone has to be. If cinema ever comes up with most of my own friends, I usually change the topic – it’s not worth getting into it. But no one should respect a table of self-described gourmands whose taste buds have been hopelessly corrupted by McDonalds.

Assignment in Tokyo

The film starts in a Tokyo bar, with a young woman, Akiko, pressured by a man we gradually understand to be a high-toned pimp, into putting aside her studies, and her wish to meet with her visiting grandmother, to fill an assignation with a favoured client, an elderly intellectual and former professor. From what we see of it, the evening unfolds more like a courtly dinner date (although we never see the dishes get cleared) than a sexual encounter; the following morning, he drives her to the university, where her boyfriend, who’s unaware of her secret career, takes the old man to be her grandfather. Even from that brief a synopsis, it’s clear the structure is indeed shot through with mystery and artifice. But just on a narrative level alone, I found the film as suspenseful as any straightforward thriller, almost unbearably so in its final stretch.

Like someone in love lacks the raw elements of clichéd filmic beauty – rolling landscapes, epic crowd scenes and the like – but is as ravishing as anything you’ll ever see: every scene is a small miracle of composition and light, sometimes astounding you with its simplicity, sometimes with its detail (Now’s critic commits a howler when he calls it “unfocused”). It may revolve around a highly structured situation, but it teems with unique observation – the plight of Akiko’s poor grandmother, heard only in a series of voice mails, is heartbreaking, bleakly funny, and as summed up in a stunning shot from a passing car, possibly unforgettable.

Best not to ask questions

And one shouldn’t take assertions about the film’s mystery to indicate a kind of rarified distance from contemporary concerns. Kiarostami, over seventy now, spent almost his entire career in Iran before making Certified Copy a few years ago (that film attained more prominence than the new work, but seems to me a narrower achievement). It’s hardly a stretch then to observe how much Like someone in love draws on notions of female oppression and lack of empowerment, and on a broader feeling of siege and dissatisfaction. Just about every review of the film comments on how much of it takes place in cars, but it’s not the open road of the American dream; these journeys are transactional, the transition between different kinds of limitation and threat.

“When you know you may be lied to,” says the professor, “it’s best not to ask questions.” He says it as a piece of practical wisdom in negotiating relationships, but the remark has greater resonance about how one anchors oneself in society (technology providing ever more ingenious ways of not asking any questions that matter). At the same time of course, not asking questions just amounts to accepting the unspoken deception. The film is called “Like” someone in love, not Someone in love, but as the lyrics of the Burke/Van Heusen song (heard here in Ella Fitzgerald’s version) make clear, the hedging and distance implied by the “like” isn’t necessarily reflective of inner truth (“Each time I look at you, I’m limp as a glove, and feeling like someone in love”). Of course, an Iranian director, using French money to make a film in Japan that prominently features American music, reflecting on identity and interaction and status…this may be the epitome of self-absorbed art film calculation. Or maybe it’s the mark of a director who could hardly be more of the world.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Child abuse

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2005)

Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation is a personal memoir by the 31-year-old director, composed primarily of still photographs and old home movies and some contemporary footage. It was edited on a Mac, and famously bears an official budget of $218. And, it seems, a lifetime of pain. Caouette’s parents split up before he was born, and his mother Renee, a former teenage model, went through years of hospitalization and electroshock therapy –which he suggests was less a considered treatment than a symptom of her own parents’ controlling malevolence. Caouette spent time with foster parents, who molested him, and then grew up with his grandparents, during which time he was frequently hospitalized. He knew he was gay early on and at 13 was sneaking into clubs; he experimented with drugs, and suffered a permanent reaction after smoking marijuana laced with PCP and formaldehyde. In his early twenties Caouette moved to New York where he entered an apparently stable relationship and forged a better relationship with his mother (long past her best days, particularly after a lithium overdose in 2002). He even met his father for the first time.

Pop-Culture Nightmare

The film has the feeling of a pop-culture nightmare, telling most of the story through large, simply worded captions that initially carry the sense of a fairy tale, accompanied by music like “Wichita Linesman”, while images flash on the screen. From around the age of eleven Caouette was playing with Super 8 cameras, and as a teenager he made “underground” movies with titles like The Ankle Slasher and The Goddamn Whore, which appear from what we see of them to have a stark, sleazy power. In school he and a friend staged a musical version of Blue Velvet, using music by Marrianne Faithfull. The main cultural reference points in his apartment seem to be the likes of Carrie and The Exorcist.

Caouette thus has an intuitive feeling for sensationalism as a window on real neurosis, and expertly marshals his materials in this direction. At one point, depicting himself flicking channels, he expertly creates a montage out of Rosemary’s Baby, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean, and other odd-looking stuff I didn’t recognize. This is all hovering at the edge of camp of course, and Caouette has earlier shown us a monologue – amazingly shot when he was 11 – in which he dressed up in drag and delivers to the camera an agonized account of feminine trauma. His agony appears real, but it seems likely that the young Jonathan already understood both the reality of life’s horrors and their mythological possibilities.

The film has some vague similarity to last year’s Capturing the Friedmans as an excavation of domestic traumas, and like that film, Tarnation depicts both the absurdity of family structures and the pain of their absence. It always feels showy and shameless, carrying a quasi-glam rock quality, and yet appearing like the guiltiest of secrets. It will be interesting to see if Caouette has any more films in him. The most conscious parts of Tarnation are presumably the present-day segments that were shot after the conception of the film had taken solid shape, and at these moments his instincts are conventional – he shoots one last monologue in which he seems to be too consciously willing himself to tears, and then he lays his finger on his sleeping mother’s lips, lies next to her and goes to sleep. “No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should...,” says a monologue (from Desiderata) playing in the background, “ is still a beautiful world.” Throughout the film, Caouette transforms ugliness into a spectacle without negating its essence – it’s difficult to see the closing note of comfort as the optimum arrival point.

Moments Choisis

Tarnation was one of last year’s most acclaimed films – it made the top 20 in the Film Comment critics’ poll. I admire the film, and yet I find it difficult to summon my deepest enthusiasm for it. A couple of days before I saw the film, I saw Jean-Luc Godard’s Moments Choisis des Histoire(s) du Cinema at the Cinematheque. The film is a 90-minute summary of some chosen moments from Godard’s multipart Histoire(s) du Cinema – it’s clearly less easily accessible than Tarnation and not as immediately enjoyable. But among much that one could say about it, maybe the most obvious comment is how little cinema Godard’s purported history of the medium actually contains –and what it contains is often fleeting, seen only in stills, or not readily identifiable. It discourses on painting and physics and history and philosophy, understanding that the history of cinema is that of the last century (and vice versa), and that a chronology or celebration of the medium would be merely a sop, when we still think so little about the nature of its beauty or its frequent submission to ideology. At the same time, it realizes the fallacy of objectivity or of dispassionate illumination.

In contrast, Tarnation conveys doubt about many things, but the film ultimately feels overly certain of its parameters, conveying a certain ideological submissiveness. It could have been about the creation of our sense of the past, or the formation of adult sexuality, or about ideas of mental illness and dysfunction, but no, for no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. The film’s outrage is muted for being too wholly based in personal neurosis. I do not mean this to sound too heavy a complaint – the film’s existence is a minor miracle. But you know, more than we acknowledge, minor miracles abound in our world.

The Woodsman

After seeing Tarnation I went to see Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman. Kevin Bacon plays a child molester who’s released from prison after twelve years and tries to rebuild his life. He gets a steady job as a woodcutter, falls into a relationship with a strong-willed woman (Kyra Sedgwick) and makes slow progress toward repairing his broken bonds with his family, but despite knowing that one more offense will send him back to jail for life, he puts himself in the path of temptation. A couple of sequences, where he trails young girls in the mall and (especially) where he lures a 12-year-old to get close to him in the park, are utterly creepy.

The film’s primary object, presumably, is to increase our understanding of even an extreme transgressor such as Bacon, and it’s quite brave in daring us to acknowledge the burgeoning sexuality of pre-pubescent girls (perhaps the film could only possibly have been made by a woman). The actor communicates effectively the depth of the character’s pain, and as circumstances go against him, we understand how the ongoing visibility of sexual offenders might destroy their hopes of rehabilitation. Ultimately though, the film seems substantially too easy and schematic. It juxtaposes Bacon with another molester whom he watches from his window, hanging around the schoolyard across the street, and this provides him with too easy an opportunity for redemption. It suggests that Bacon’s offense is more common than society allows, which as presented here seems like a little too much rationalization. In this regard, its relatively short running time (less than 90 minutes) and small number of characters work against the development of much context or complexity. Finally, The Woodsman feels more like a fragment than a fully developed character study.     

The movies aren't the same

Even allowing for the natural tendency toward excess in commemorating the recently departed, I found something rather offensive in Barack Obama’s remarks that “for a generation of Americans - and especially Chicagoans – Roger (Ebert) was the movies…The movies won't be the same without Roger.” It rankles in part because Obama plainly doesn’t believe it – insofar as the remarks make any sense, it’s certainly not true that Obama’s own experience of cinema, or anyone else’s, has been entirely filtered through or shaped by what Ebert had to say about it. And Ebert almost certainly wouldn’t have wanted it to be true – I’m sure he had a healthy ego, but not to the point of desiring to be an all-defining gatekeeper, rather than say a constructive facilitator or reference point. I know I may be making too much of this, but Obama’s remarks tap into the same vein of lazy supplication to institutional power that contributes to America’s endless problems.

Roger Ebert

Of course, Ebert’s death was poignant in several ways. I doubt anyone could have remained unmoved by his response to his physical challenges. His final blog post, released the day before he died, overflowed with unfulfilled plans and ambitions, including the comment that: “I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.” This surely conveys something about the clouds within every silver lining – if someone as powerful and rich and esteemed as Ebert couldn’t have achieved such a modest fantasy years ago, then what hope for the rest of us? In this regard, it’s also rather sad that his last review to be published before he died was a forgettable bread-and-butter write-up of the (presumably forgettable bread-and-butter) movie The Host. If Ebert was indeed the movies for one or more American generations, it would be at least partly because of how, even by his own account, he couldn’t help putting commercial interests ahead of his own, thus symbolizing the audience’s perpetual surrender.

As far as I can tell, Ebert didn’t review Romanian director Cristian Mongiu’s film Beyond the Hills (playing at the Bell Lightbox as I write, and no doubt available soon in other formats). It would have been a much worthier deployment of his stature and talents – this is the kind of film that needs, well, any kind of attention at all, but in particular of a kind that encourages patient, constructive engagement. Something other, that is, than the first line of Rick Groen’s Globe and Mail review:If you long for the bleak intelligence of an Ingmar Bergman film, where humankind is deeply flawed and God is indifferently silent and the landscape is cloaked in perpetual winter, then Beyond the Hills promises to be your cup of despair.” It’s accomplished phrase-making, but of course the number of readers who long for such an experience is basically zero. Although it appears that Groen intends for the review as a whole to be positive, he’s already closed the gate.

Cup of despair

It’s especially regrettable because in interviews, Mongiu emphasizes the openness of his process, how as a director “sometimes you don’t have a clue…(and) you think you control it all, but actually you don’t.” Intertwined with his emphasis on simplicity – using only one shot per scene, no music, no “funny angles” – and on promoting engaged viewership, on giving “people all the detail and information they need to form their own opinion,” this creates a remarkably engrossing, multi-faceted film, likely to be one of the year’s most satisfying. And one in no way reducible to a “cup of despair.”

It’s set in more or less the present day (based on real-life case from 2005), in a small Orthodox convent set above a small rural town, where a young woman, Alina,  comes to visit one of the nuns, Voichita, with whom she more or less grew up in an orphanage (and with whom she may have had a sexual relationship, although this is one of the many points on which we must form our own opinion, or better, accept our inability to do so). Alina wants Voichita to come away with her to Germany; when Voichita refuses, unwilling to leave a structure in which she feels secure and fulfilled, Alina’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, leading to her hospitalization after something resembling an epileptic fit. After the hospital, itself a strained institution, discharges her, the nuns and the overseeing priest attempt to provide care, but the situation worsens, causing them to believe she’s possessed, and to take the steps they think that indicates.

Extending his first sentence, Groen reads the film as denoting that “everyone is implicated, which makes guilt easy to assign but very hard to define – it’s just our natural state.” But this grim metaphysical fatalism seems directly contrary to Mongiu’s intentions, or to a fair reading of the resulting work. If everyone is “implicated”, it’s only because everyone is connected: Mongiu goes out of his way to show how the convent – notwithstanding the very specific governing doctrines – has strong secular ties to the community. One of the nuns is married and may go back to her husband, and for orphanage girls, there may be no other option other than homelessness (or worse, hinted at through brief references to a sexual abuser at the orphanage, and via uncertainty over how Alina might be earning money in Germany or previously); there’s a regular flow of commerce, donations and services between the settlement and the town.

Warning signs

 Mongiu reinforces this through very tangible attention to detail. When the nuns use ropes to tie Alina down, they’re the same ropes they use to draw water from the well, and they have to ensure to retrieve them from the hospital. Later on, the chains used to tie up the dog are similarly reused; likewise, we understand the provenance of towels and sheets and planks. Lives and actions are constant negotiations with what’s physically present and available, and because that’s very little, the gaps in the world are achingly wide. They may be filled by religion, or by the human structures that keep us going regardless of whether we know why, or by what’s sometimes called hysteria (which, we shouldn’t forget, has always been a convenient label to stick on non-conforming women). In the film’s closing scenes, there is indeed much talk about guilt, but Mongiu masterfully places it among the mundane, transient preoccupations of the modern world. Perhaps justice will be done, as that’s defined, but whether that bears any correlation with truth or progress is unknowable.

Beyond the Hills doesn’t seem to me remotely difficult to watch, nor unduly filled with despair, but of course, Mongiu’s guiding principles are far removed from those of the mainstream, and so his film must either be ignored or else smothered in warning signs. For a whole generation, or several, of Americans and Canadians, that’s the movies.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Unresolved issues

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2009)
I wrote a few weeks ago, reviewing The Reader, about my disappointment that cinema hasn’t served us better. So many “serious” movies, I said, focus on the past, or on contrived emotional dilemmas purportedly illustrating the universal triumph of the human spirit (or something like that) or else on foolish, often violent melodramas only capable of being interpreted as serious-minded within a degraded set of cultural criteria. After writing that, I moved on to Gran Torino, which without Clint Eastwood’s unique sensibility and inbuilt resonance could easily have fallen into that second category. And now to John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, another heavy presence in the year-end awards race. It’s based on Shanley’s own Pulitzer-Prize- and Tony-winning play (which I never managed to see on stage), and is only the second film he’s directed, after Joe Versus The Volcano, almost twenty years ago.

Lost and not alone

The film, set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, is essentially a showdown between the martinet school principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) and the parish priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Younger by at least twenty years, he has a reformer’s instincts, manifested through discursive sermons, a casual way with the pupils (especially the boys), and a willingness to include Frosty The Snowman in the annual Christmas pageant. She thrives on the church’s inherent authority and difference, consciously operating through fear and intimidation. The school has its first and only black pupil, and a younger nun (Amy Adams) confides in Aloysius her fear that something improper may have happened between Flynn and the boy. Seizing on this either from intuitive certainty of its truth, or for ideological reasons, or both, Aloysius moves quickly to confront the priest. He denies it, not unconvincingly, but although she has no proof, she has her certainty, and refuses to let it rest.

Doubt, then, is as tangible an ingredient to the film’s fabric as were Gold or Zombie Strippers to the movies of those names. The film’s first scene has Flynn preaching on the potential virtues of not being sure of yourself or your beliefs (“when you are lost you are not alone”) and its climax turns on an unexpected confession of doubt. In between, of course, there’s much debate on conflicting beliefs, impressions and value judgments. It’s all fairly meaty and engrossing material, and the two stars are in barnstorming mode. But at least in this form, it seems to me like minor material at best.

There’s nothing inherently bracing or illuminating about the central structure, which is merely a dressed-up version of he said/she said procedurals. Any theological resonance seems grafted on, and Dr. Shanley’s operating procedure has an eye-rolling propensity for such metaphorical snake oil as the thunderstorm accompanying the ultimate showdown, or “significant” moments underlined through light bulbs spontaneously breaking, or a cat catching a mouse. Unlike say Mamet’s Oleanna, which could legitimately posit that the alleged transgression (sexual harassment) might be in part a matter of perception or cultural misunderstanding, our society defines child abuse as objectively definable and identifiable (maybe it shouldn’t, I don’t know, but that’s a different argument). If the movie withholds certainty about what happened, that’s merely how this particular machine is calibrated. Stephanie Zacharek in Salon said the film “has an insurance policy built right into its title: Have no earthly idea what point Shanley is trying to make? It's all good -- you're just having Doubt!”

Uncertainty, no doubt

The film does profit from a subject lurking in the sidelines – the Catholic Church’s fraught recent history. Aloysius may be old school, but she’s clear-eyed about the evil that men can do; it’s clear that Flynn’s notion of a more fluid relationship between the church and the community will at the very least inadvertently contribute to the scandals in the decades to follow, and at worst may be little more than self-serving facilitation. But it’s equally as true that any movie set in the Catholic church of the last few decades would need only to juxtapose a boy and a priest for that subject to come rolling off the screen.

Long before I had ever seen any Robert Bresson movies, I read David Thomson’s essay on the director in his Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, which I’d always remembered as ending this way: “Uncertainty there is in his work, but no doubt.” Actually, I just looked back at it, and Thomson wrote “mystery” rather than “doubt” – I was so sure, beyond a doubt, that my recollection was right. Anyway, I was always intrigued by the distinction (in my misremembered form). Later on I learned a bit about accounting, where it makes perfect sense, albeit not exactly in a Bressonian way. Uncertainty is central to measuring a business’s condition and performance, because future events can always undermine how you estimate value today: obviously a lot of people understand this now more personally and vividly than they did a year ago. The main mistake people make about corporate financial statements and results is probably to overstate their accuracy and overlook how much estimation and variability is inherent in there. Uncertainty is a commodity you can grapple with, illuminate, disclose. But the accountant strives for certainty in how he or she deals with the inherent uncertainty; he or she is allowed no doubt.

Illuminating a valley

Beyond that, of course, what visibility we have about our future has clouded terribly. Virtually no one predicted what would happen this past year, and there is no consensus about the coming one, other than that it will be worse than we hope. And that’s just the short term. Our public discourse remains full of longer-term policy landmines that no one should realistically expect to stay dormant forever (government debt; infrastructure; climate change; global famine; etc.). For me, the most depressing aspect of our current situation is that while our leaders rail at past mistakes, and stridently insist on the propriety of this step or that, it hardly ever surpasses the merely reactionary; we’re always dealing in tactics rather than strategies. We overestimate the recent past’s validity as a guide to the likely future; we behave as if knowing the road we’re on (albeit yielding occasional unexpected bumps) rather than acknowledging the GPS gave out miles back.

No doubt we have the leaders we deserve, and let’s assume fear and fuzziness, rather than malevolence, is often what drives our missteps. It all leads to the same place. Uncertainty and how we manage it is one of the great topics of our time. But Doubt helps with this about as much as a candle illuminates a valley. I ask again: where are the serious films we deserve?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Girl power

How could one ever face Hiroshima head-on without causing all conventional narrative to dissolve? That’s the question running through Alain Resnais’ 1959 Hiroshima mon amour, as I wrote a few weeks ago, and it reoccurs in a different form while watching Sally Potter’s new film Ginger & Rosa. The film starts with images of the mushroom cloud and the accompanying destruction, then switches to Britain, to two young women giving birth, each to a girl, who grow up as best friends, in mostly dingy circumstances. In 1962, deep in the folds of the Cold War and of nuclear escalation, it’s plausible to think the world might be on the edge of wiping itself out, spawning a fruitful time for radicalism and activism.

Ginger & Rosa

But on the other hand, the destiny of young women has too often been largely a matter of biology. An early scene patly sets out the two paths – as the two girls sit in the bathtub, shrinking their jeans, Rosa reads Girl magazine; Ginger cites Simone de Beauvoir. It’s not particularly surprising, really, where this leads Rosa, but then, why would it be? One of the film’s cleverest strokes though is in how it intertwines the two trajectories, to draw on how grandly expressed ideologies of freedom and resistance have always lent themselves – in the hands of the men who’ve primarily owned those narratives – to justify self-aggrandizing, callous treatment of women, who are then saddled with the aftermath.

The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen found much to like about the film, calling it “beautifully observed,” but judging it “a bit lumpy when the plot heats up…the melodrama doesn’t quite dissolve into the porridge.” I’m not sure his imagery there is ideally stirred either, but I know what he means – the film’s closing stretch contains a relative flurry of scandals and traumas, not ultimately anywhere near resolved. But it seems to me that’s largely the point – that from Ginger’s point of view, her existence presents itself as an irreconcilable mess of missteps and prisons (both literal and figurative), of love and hate, all of it plainly trivial against the shadow of the bomb, and yet too immediate and present not to be felt and lived, whatever the cost. In the end, she’s hung on to her idealism, and seems to glimpse a unity of vision that may become central to her adult worldview. But she’s still just a kid, so who knows when or when the ingredients and perceptions ever become fully blended.

A pint and a half

Ginger & Rosa doesn’t really convey a textured sense of time and place in the way of, say, a Terence Davies film: Potter is more interested in the intimacy of interactions and experiences, and the film’s first half conveys the thrill of discovering and exploring the new, even if their pinched surroundings don’t allow that much of it. At several points, the girls hitch a ride, sometimes late at night; we never clearly see the drivers, and it’s hard not to super-impose modern anxieties about the situation and to anticipate some kind of danger. But at least for the film’s now, the practice just embodies the possibility of movement and connection; likewise, you might impulsively snog a stranger at the back of the bus shelter, but that’s just another kind of social glue. And in a way, the overly defined place of women constitutes a kind of clarity. I liked the moment when another activist buys Ginger a drink, and without asking what she wants, orders a “pint and a half.” In Britain of the time, there’s no need to specify a pint of what, or to question the relative capacities of male and female (even if you’re supposedly a man who devotes yourself to questioning the norm).

I don’t think it’s accidental either that a large chunk of the principal cast is American, divided between those playing transplanted Yanks (Oliver Platt and Annette Bening) and those assuming English accents (Elle Fanning as Ginger and Christina Hendricks as her mother). No matter how well they pull it off (and by common consent, Fanning manages considerably better than Hendricks) there’s no way this can serve as an aid to realism; on the contrary, it can only make us reflect on the film as a representation, and on the complexities of evoking history, culture, and indeed Britishness. In the latter regard, these casting choices might lend an air of the exotic, but only by conveying a sense of authentic Britishness (whatever that might mean, of course)  being pushed into the margins, which again resonates against the broader backdrop, whereby the whole country (virtually overnight, it must have seemed) went from Empire to mere potential collateral damage (early on in the film, the radio recites estimates of possible casualties in the event of war, as if the estimate wasn’t basically, of course, everyone).
Changing what is there

Looked at this way, Ginger & Rosa’s relative conventionality, compared against Potter’s earlier films, isn’t perhaps the “major surprise” Groen identifies it as being, because, indeed, it’s only relative. Potter is in her mid-sixties now, but this is only her seventh full-length narrative work. Her most famous is the gender-bending time-traveling Orlando; many of the others are underappreciated. I placed The Man who Cried on my top ten list for the year (admittedly a little generously): an epic of sorts, with international settings and a big name cast, it seemed designed to be susceptible to analysis in the same way that film theorists mull over Bette Davis’ 1940’s films, and it came pretty close. In Yes, the dialogue is spoken completely in iambic pentameter; some found it banal, but it radiated visual and thematic immersion. However, her last film Rage was barely noticed, and it had never occurred to me to go searching for it.

In some ways, Ginger & Rosa links back though to Potter’s first full-length film The Gold Diggers, which might still be her most striking – a seminal “feminist” film in which she allures the senses as movies always have, while withholding their traditional clarity and closure, and so implicitly rejecting the dominant male ideology that drives those qualities. “Even as I look and see,” says a woman at the end of that film, “I am changing what is there,” and Ginger could almost say much the same at the end of the new movie; although incapable of affecting either the immediate or the overriding human mess, she’s starting to feel her way to a radicalized identity beyond rhetoric and clichés. Statistically, for a young woman at that time, the odds may be against her making it, but as Potter herself can testify, it’s not hopeless.