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.

No comments:

Post a Comment