Sunday, September 29, 2013

Spectrum of Ambition

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2008)

It’s hard not to like Kevin Smith, the writer-director-sometime actor. He might cram his movies with dirty talk, but you know he wouldn’t hurt a fly. I don’t recall whether anyone ever held a gun in any of his films, but if they did, I’m sure it came across as a toy store prop. Of all high-profile American filmmakers, he’s probably the one working most consistently in the “write what you know” vein. And it’s not even so aggravating that he doesn’t seem to know very much. His cinema’s increasingly static quality seems to me an increasingly intriguing touchstone, for those of us who find ourselves in a bemused, no-direction-home middle age.

Kevin Smith

A few years ago, Smith conspicuously announced he was done with the whole Jay and Silent Bob thing, announcing Jersey Girl as the demarcation of his new mature phase. That movie went nowhere, and he soon retrenched to (and there’s an almost defiant quality to this unashamed announcement of reversing fortune) Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Embracing being stuck in reverse, he then went back to his very first film, making Clerks II. Like I say, it’s easy enough to enjoy this stuff. Especially I imagine if you’re stuck in a dead end job, and the extent of your life’s ambition is to buy up the dead end job, put up a nicer sign, meet some strippers, marry a blue-collar princess, and develop a good repertoire of scatological heckler’s retorts. And who among us, sometimes at least, wouldn’t sign up for that?

His new film Zack and Miri Make a Porno sounds like progress, no?  Nah, don’t be fooled. Zack and Miri are platonic best friends, sharing a rental, barely keeping afloat via their dead-end jobs (here we go again), who devise a good idea to raise some dough – make a porn movie, centering on their own first (business-only) coupling: they figure the sales to people who knew them in school alone will get them into the black. So they assemble a posse of porn wanna-bes and away they go…except it’s not so easy to make a porno, logistically nor, if you have unaddressed feelings regarding your co-star, emotionally.

Zack and Miri

Many people have commented on how Smith almost seems marginalized in his own movie by the spirit of Judd Apatow, who’s taken out the lease on the slacker male territory – Apatow’s frequent co-star Seth Rogan plays Zack. It’s especially evident because Smith’s forte – his skill at making dialogue that evokes a talking toilet (and yet never the same way twice!) - seems muted here. The porn milieu provides some obvious scope for riffing on pop culture (of these inventions, Star Whores is the only repeatable one that comes to mind), but what really gets Smith’s creative motor going – not for the first time – is gay sex. Even at the climactic moment of Zack’s big declaration to Miri (if I spoiled the suspense for you there, you definitely need to get out more), he’s suddenly talking to someone else about a male mutual pleasuring technique. It’s awfully tempting at times to see all this as a massive exercise in displacement (especially since it always seems a little odd to me how Smith casts his real-life wife, Jennifer, in horribly unflattering roles).

But even suggesting that much complexity and nuance tends to oversell the movie’s merits. Smith has a good (if over-studied) feel for economically marginal lifestyles, and he keeps things rattling efficiently along. But he’s never learned a thing about camera language – a limitation that, again, almost starts to seem defiant by now. Zack and Miri is emotionally a little fuller than most of his films, in large part because of Elizabeth Banks as Miri. But his attempt to turn the porn-makers into a plucky community of the marginalized (as if in a threadbare homage to Boogie Nights) falls very flat, and I cringed early on at how Smith whips up a painfully contrived monologue about racial insensitivity.

So why watch it, and why write about it even to the extent I have? Because, all these reservations notwithstanding, Kevin Smith is interesting. Close on forty now, he has it made by many measures, but you can’t imagine he either wants to or would be allowed to keep making films in this mode. So I admit I’m intrigued by the question – what will he do? In part because for all his lack of artistic resonance, there’s a bit of me that says Smith’s answer to that question might be relevant to my own. I mean, I’m not very much like him, but I have the same uncertainty about how to evaluate the journey so far, how to take it from here. I was thinking about porn too, but now I’ve dropped that idea.

Slumdog Millionaire

Conventional wisdom suggests I should have been writing instead about Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, this year’s winner of the Toronto festival People’s Choice Award, viewed as a feel-good long-shot Oscar contender. Shot in Mumbai by the director of Trainspotting and Sunshine, it pivots on a lowly call-centre employee on the verge of winning it all in the local Who Wants to be a Millionaire, for which he’s hauled off to the cops under suspicion of cheating. Turns out the questions all tied into key moments in his life – a life encompassing torture, child exploitation, rampant crime, and all manner of misery. There’s more style and imagination in any five minutes of this film than in all of Zach and Miri – it’s the product of creative imaginations working as if at their limit.

But I just didn’t care for the film. It’s a close cousin to the other festival triumph (and subsequent Oscar-winner) Tsotsi – another movie that shows something of the reality of life in a wretched time and place, but then zooms in on one plucky protagonist, puts him through a string of implausible events, and purports thereby to be illustrating something about that dreaded phrase “the human spirit” (like Rocky, but with more aesthetically bracing suffering).  Slumdog Millionaire is the more egregious of the two – it’s massively contrived, and crammed full of cheap villainy that might as well belong to any Hollywood B action movie. At the end the population appears united in celebrating his triumph, but I find it hard to enjoy seeing India’s grim reality used as an aesthetically zesty backdrop to a story that says nothing about their prospects, or ours. Almost everyone likes the movie, and I guess India itself (despite coming across as a bona fide hellhole) would be grateful for the business, but I find the whole calculation hard to trust. Sometimes, wild ambition and over-achieving energy are just off-putting, even if you’re not a slacker.

Two late films

Quentin Tarantino recently talked about why we shouldn’t expect him to be still making movies as an old man: “I’m really well versed on a lot of directors’ careers, you know, and when you look at those last five films when they were past it, when they were too old, and they’re really out of touch with the times, whether it be William Wyler and The Liberation of L.B. Jones or Billy Wilder with Fedora and then Buddy Buddy or whatever the hell. To me, it’s all about my filmography, and I want to go out with a terrific filmography... I do think one of those out-of-touch, old, limp, flaccid-dick movies costs you three good movies as far as your rating is concerned.”

Out of touch

Well, it’s easy to know what he means (although I could take a stab at defending Fedora in particular) but I think the formula underlying the “rating” is more complex than that. I don’t think anyone narrowly extrapolates back from a filmmaker’s weaker late movies to retrospectively downgrade the merits of earlier masterpieces (although of course there might be any number of reasons why reputations rise and fall), and the sense of a director being “out of touch” with the times can constitute multiple strengths: perhaps because being out of touch with the times isn’t necessarily a bad vantage point for commenting on the times, or because the supposed “limpness” seems to reveal or confirm something elemental about the man (and what’s the point of pretending, it almost always is a man). Actually, for many directors – Hitchcock, Bunuel, Ozu, Rivette, Rohmer - I find myself rewatching their late films more often than the objectively more perfect earlier ones, although this might only tell you something about my own sentimental flaccidity.

I recently rewatched two late movies – each in fact the last full-length work by its maker – which would almost certainly have made Tarantino’s list of geriatric mediocrities if he’d continued to add to it. The Osterman Weekend, made in 1983, holds little or no place in the usual conversation about Sam Peckinpah’s mastery, and indeed it’s shockingly flat at times, as if going through motions with little remaining sense of why they matter (Peckinpah uses his well-honed slow motion effects in various action scenes, with miserably uninteresting results). Based on a Robert Ludlum book, it’s a bewildering narrative, about a TV talk-show host manipulated into laying a trap for three of his old friends, claimed by a government agent to be traitors; actually, he’s a pawn in a bigger game, although it’s all but impossible to tell what that is (as with much of Peckinpah’s work, he argued with the producers and was reportedly unhappy with the final product). The film ends on a monologue about the manipulative power of television, and the difficulty of freeing oneself from that influence, but this hardly seems like a logical summation of what we’ve been watching. It’s not hard to see how one might dismiss the whole thing as a tired mess.

The Osterman Weekend

And yet, that’s oddly appropriate for a Reagan-era document, as a missive from the time when cold war stridency was losing conviction and old economic models staggering, and everyone was looking for the next renewal; in Hollywood, likewise, the immense creative energy of the 70’s had largely run its course, but without yet yielding the reductive clarity of the full-blown blockbuster era. The Osterman Weekend overflows with notions of fragmentation and alienation, personal and structural and institutional; the ending dramatizes an era where you’ve lost all capacity to know who you’re talking to, not just ideologically, but even literally (the TV show’s title, Face to Face, is a monster irony, and the duplicitous agent’s name, spelt “Fassett” in the credits but sounding like “Facet,” is carved right out of that irony). The ultimate point, perhaps, isn’t really the bankruptcy of television, but rather of all discourse, and looked at that way, many of the film’s weaknesses become arguable as relative strengths, because to believe we could ever extract narrative or moral clarity from any of this would only be a capitulation to fragile establishment claims (whether Hollywood’s claims about entertainment or Washington’s about national purpose). Played straight, the film would be a self-contained mediocrity, as vacuous as The Hunger Games, but in Peckinpah’s hands, it comes to seem eloquently despairing, and perhaps more relevant now than then as things become more desperate and dissociative.

I suppose that might sound like something of a stretch, and perhaps it is; as I said, it’s not hard to dwell on the film’s weaknesses. On the other hand, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds – a series of four short narratives, connected by scenes of a film director considering his next project - seems to me as easy to defend as any film of the last twenty years. Antonioni was 83 when he made it, and hadn’t worked for a long time after a stroke left him seriously incapacitated, unable even to speak; Wim Wenders joined the project to provide insurance cover and to film some linking material. Some people liked the film, but the Village Voice, summing up another common view and laying down the tracks for Tarantino, thought it embodied the “discomfiting experience of watching the giants inch into their dotage, refusing against better judgment to retire.” Indeed, I don’t think I valued the film particularly highly when I first saw it at the time.

Beyond the Clouds

But now it seems to me a beautiful expression of the persistence of possibilities, and of our imperfect grasp of them. In all four stories, characters reach out impulsively to each other, with mixed results, but through their actions exploring and embodying a more refined sense of life. “More refined” might sound like code for elitism, and indeed Beyond the Clouds is one of the last great expressions of the classic “art” cinema – emphasizing beauty and eroticism and pictorial splendor and the struggle of creation, barely concerned with economics or other practicalities of life. But this isn’t just an affectation – Antonioni brings his people closer to their elemental needs and desires, movingly illustrating the nobility of pushing through the fog of normal human transacting, even if that only sometimes inevitably yields profound losses or sadness that might have been avoided otherwise.

Where Peckinpah dramatizes the need to engage with the painful human mess, Antonioni reasserts the possibility (or at least the need to believe in the possibility) of evading it. And his capacity for creating mesmerizing cinematic structures remains undiminished; the physical interplay of his people and their settings continually deepens the film’s emotional subtext. It’s a defiant film in many ways, eloquently testifying against the apparent limits of Antonioni’s own condition, and so likewise against the turgid preconceptions and rituals that condition so much of our existence. Such as the preconception, perhaps, that the only sane creative response to the difficulties of age is to surrender to them.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Movie town

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2004)

Twelve recent movies in just over 1,000 words, and not a mainstream movie in sight. Well maybe just one. Could this happen if we were living in Thunder Bay?

Man on Fire

Tony Scott’s Mexico-set revenge thriller has style to burn, like all his films, but ultimately it’s one of those films where the technical facility underlines the mediocrity of the material to an almost depressing extent. Denzel Washington plays a troubled bodyguard (not that Washington’s good at conveying troubled, but that seems to be the idea) protecting a young girl; when she’s kidnapped and apparently killed, he goes on a roaring rampage of revenge (as Uma Thurman might put it). Washington’s behaviour is vastly over the top (he’s referred to as an artist of death) – given the ending, it seems intended as a symbolically redemptive descent into hell. Whatever.

I’m Not Scared

An Italian film, directed by Gabriele Salvatores, about a young boy in a tiny community who stumbles across a kidnapped child hidden in a cellar. The movie gets its visual and dramatic charge from the contrast between luscious golden cornfields that go on forever, and dark claustrophobic spaces charged with foreboding – the orchestration of mood compensates for the fairly straightforward plot and the somewhat thin thematic underpinnings. In many ways the film seems to evoke ET – with the kidnapped child almost resembling some ethereal alien being – and those who resist Spielberg’s film may well have a similar reaction here.

Go Further

Ron Mann’s documentary follows “actor and activist” Woody Harrelson on a consciousness-raising bus tour in 2001, promoting organic living.  It’s a modest endeavour, and Harrelson doesn’t seem too disingenuous when he says that the conversion of just one person would justify the whole project for him. The film, an ambling, loosely structured thing, is just about as consequential as its subject, but at least seems aware of its limitations. As an experience it’s generally more like hanging out in the hemp store than actually watching a movie, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
Cremaster 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Matthew Barney’s already semi-legendary Cremaster cycle, made over the last ten years, finally arrived at the Cinematheque, then at the Carlton. Cremaster 1 is like a gorgeous art installation that you circle round and slowly absorb – it’s strangely serene, and occasionally reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick (with hindsight it seems very much like the womb of the cycle). Cremaster 2 retains some of the first film’s visual concepts but is much more open ended and allusive – sweeping Harry Houdini, Gary Gilmore, Canadian Mounties, rodeos and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir into an alternately playful and troubled melting pot of human experience.  Cremaster 3, at three hours running almost as long as the other four films put together, starts with the series’ most blatant fantasy, includes its most meticulous narratives, and then for the last half hour explodes in a delirium of weird and wonderful performance art. It has an opening quotation on the will as the generator of character, and the film can indeed be seen largely as a paean to persistence and individuality.

Cremaster 4 juxtaposes a motorcycling  race on the Isle of Man with another weird (but at this point in the series, oddly affecting) narrative of creation and transcendence, and is maybe its most accessible metaphor. Cremaster 5, featuring Ursula Andress, follows a more familiar, operatic aesthetic for a while, placing the films’ preoccupations in a broader context and perhaps toying with art’s capacity to become oppressive, before returning to a summation of the cycle’s primary visual motifs. Overall it’s an amazing achievement by Barney. The films are as consciously “arty’ as anything you’ll ever see – their perversity and incredible individuality serve as a constant challenge to all preconceptions, but despite that they achieve a remarkable degree of coherence. With the director himself turning up in a variety of weird guises, the series is certainly narcissistic, but Barney’s multi-dimensional mirror also seems at times to reflect almost the entire span of creative endeavour, and it’s thrilling both to watch and to contemplate afterwards.
The Saddest Music in the World

Guy Maddin’s movies look as if they were dug up in a graveyard; the artful archaicism and visual murkiness intertwine with his odd, allusive narratives to create something highly distinctive and perhaps brilliant – outside of clearly experimental figures like Stan Brakhage, and indeed Matthew Barney, it’s hard to think of a director who makes film seem so much like a visceral object of sculpture. The new film has Isabella Rossellini as a rich double amputee who sponsors a contest in 1930’s Winnipeg to find the saddest music in the world – family intrigue, off-centre sexuality and the music itself form a delirious fetishistic parchment. It’s easier to grasp than Maddin’s other movies, which for such an idiosyncratic filmmaker might actually stand as a slight debit.

Mayor of the Sunset Strip

George Hickenlooper’s documentary about Rodney Bingenheimer, a long-standing LA DJ (since 1976) and fringe rock industry figure (one-time club owner; stand-in for Davy Jones on The Monkees; partygoer), is diverting without ever seeming particularly necessary. The film wheels on an array of celebrities from Nancy Sinatra to Courtney Love to testify to his...uh..well, it’s never clear what exactly they’re testifying to – even his stated passion for the music doesn’t come across very deeply. The movie tries to paint Bingenheimer as a poignant figure, but it’s a familiar kind of special pleading (for example, the biography of porn star Ron Jeremy took exactly the same tack).
The Far Side of the Moon

Robert Lepage’s latest film posits that space travel is primarily a form of narcissism, and then spins this somewhat obscure thesis into an odd, loosely-assembled narrative about an underachieving scientist and his weatherman brother (both played by Lepage himself), contrasting their ups and downs with childhood flashbacks. The allure of other worlds winds through the film, often generating some quite beautiful visuals even when the general quasi-magic realist approach seems fairly familiar. Like other Lepage films, it feels a bit over-calculated at times, but in the end the film finds a plausible way to allow the dream of space to infiltrate everyday life, and it (literally) defies gravity.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...and Spring

This gentle film by Korean director Kim Di-Duk begins with an aging monk and his young acolyte, living a serene life in picture book isolation, then revisits the location at four subsequent points in time, during which their lives undergo harsh disruption before circling to a new beginning. There’s nothing too surprising about this film – although it seems slow and meditative by mainstream standards, it’s a knowingly accessible and ingratiating piece of storytelling, artfully tapping a wide emotional register.  The movie’s ultimate direction is predictable from quite early on, but its primary appeal - a beautifully visualized fantasy of triumphing over civilization by rejecting it – is hard to resist.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pure cinema

I have a book called American Film Now, written by James Monaco and published in 1979, which includes a chapter on seven “whiz kids” – “directors who’ve become star celebrities”: Bogdanovich, Friedkin, Scorsese, De Palma, Lucas, Spielberg and Schrader. Remarkably, all seven are still making films thirty-five years on, and they’ve all maintained their high profiles (in contrast, one of Monaco’s choices for the five directors then “at the ‘hot center’ of American film, Michael Ritchie, is barely remembered now, and another, Paul Mazursky, isn’t generally esteemed at that level). Scorsese, Spielberg and Lucas could hardly have been more successful; Bogdanovich and Friedkin have made it to elder statesman status through severe ups and downs; Schrader, inherently more of an outsider, got more publicity than he has in years (for better and for worse) with his recent movie The Canyons.

Brian De Palma

Which leaves the strange case of Brian De Palma. He’s widely admired for his immense skill, and several of his films – Scarface, Carrie, The Untouchables – are widely viewed as modern classics. But there’s also a widespread sense that he somehow fell short, having spent too much time trying to emulate Alfred Hitchcock, or repeating himself, or wasting his efforts on second-rate material, or all three at once. Even thirty-five years ago, commenting on the successive projects of Carrie and The Fury, Monaco commented that “it’s hard to tell what De Palma had in mind taking on a project so similar to the one he had just completed” – to this day, his decisions often evoke similar bemusement. Many of his pictures seem like “assignments” that might have been taken on by someone else (something that seldom applies to the works of most of the others I mentioned): his most overtly ambitious or “relevant” films, like The Bonfire of the Vanities, are often among his weakest, as if confirming his limitations.

This certainly held for his most recent film, Redacted, which dealt with the Iraq war, via the conceit that everything in the movie is being intermediated –through surveillance cameras, or webcams, or so forth. “Isn’t it ironic,” said De Palma at the time, “that in order to tell the truth about Iraq, you have to create the truth?” But this “truth” as De Palma presented it, although apparently based on real events, focused on a sensational incident hardly representative of the individual contribution of most soldiers (and not at all of the broader issues, except in the most crassly symbolic sense). Some effective moments aside, it was mostly stilted and juvenile and just not very useful, suggesting De Palma’s long immersion in cinema had muffled, if not destroyed his real-world antennae.


It’s certainly possible to detect recurring thematic interests in his work. Writing on the Senses of Cinema website, Keith Uhlich suggests for instance that “De Palma forces us to remember, to confront our dark pasts and secrets in an effort at recognizing our perpetual humanity.” I must admit though I’d find it hard to reach that same judgment – at the very least, De Palma seems to express the darkness and the secrets more fully than the humanity.

The title of Monaco’s old book, American Film Now, resonates oddly against De Palma’s recent work, and it’s interesting to apply it word by word to his new film Passion. Firstly, the director himself is almost the only American element in there - it’s a German-French co-production, set notionally in Germany but more generally in some unspecifiable Euro-zone, starring the Swedish Noomi Rapace and the Canadian Rachel McAdams. As for “Now” – Passion takes place in the present day, in a corporate world influenced by YouTube and viral marketing, but De Palma (as if acknowledging the failure of Redacted) shows little interest in these elements, approaching events as a largely disembodied series of formally enacted encounters and rituals.

Which leaves “Film.” It’s ironic that Passion will largely be seen on-demand (although it’s also playing, as I write, on one local screen too, at the Carlton) because it might be taken as the knowing last gasp of an immersive brand of “pure” cinema – something you consciously experience as an aesthetic creation, an appropriation of structures and devices and techniques associated with the medium’s classical heyday (with Hitchcock, once again, in particular).

In the most striking sequence, De Palma uses a split screen: on the left, Rapace’s character watches a ballet duet; on the right, McAdams’ character takes a shower and prepares for a sexual encounter. It’s a masterful play of movement, stillness, sensuality, desire, with the eerie stares of the dancers implicitly accusing us of complicity in the narrative trap that’s being laid. But one could as easily imagine coming across this sequence as a stand-alone short creation, projected in a dark room in the basement of a modern art gallery. It’s an expression both of hope and despair, embodying De Palma’s undiminished belief in the thrill and virtue of such cinematic expression, and his sense of its shrinking place in the world. A similar ambiguity underlies the film’s title – as numerous writers have pointed out, Passion is an odd title for such a tightly controlled work.

Waking Dream

McAdams plays Christine, an executive at the German branch of a global advertising agency, who plans to leap up to the New York office by taking credit for a brilliant idea created by Isabelle (Rapace). The plan stalls when Isabelle asserts herself, and the relationship between the two women becomes increasingly toxic; Christine keeps developing ways to belittle Isabelle, who starts popping pills and becoming unstable. The film largely enacts Uhlich’s comment that in De Palma’s work: “Helplessness is a constant…a De Palma protagonist rarely has control over the events in which they find themselves embroiled.” It’s best taken, I think, as a sort of waking dream in which the true weight and earthly consequence of actions and events becomes hard to determine; the normal  cinematic language of created realism yields to increasing abstraction, reinforced by the narrative’s escalating confusion about inner states and outer realities. On that basis, I liked the film much more than not, but I’m not sure I know anyone to whom I could confidently recommend it.

Because, sadly, it’s not clear who cares anymore – and it feels like De Palma might know that too. In the film’s very last moment, one of the characters slumps on the bed, her fate sealed, at the end of another bravura sequence that introduces a new form of disorientation even as it wraps up certain elements: the screen cuts to black and the words “The End” carry unusual finality. Even if this doesn’t turn out to be De Palma’s last film (and as he’s now 73, with a series of financial and critical flops behind him, it certainly might be), it seems like an assertion that there’s nowhere else for him to go.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Best in Show

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2008)

Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light is a mysterious, somewhat austere creation. Set in the present day among a Mennonite sect in Mexico (the dialogue is mostly in a German dialect), it follows a farmer, and married father of six children, who’s fallen in love with another member of the sect. He alternates between guilt and helpless momentum; his wife, who knows everything, is being slowly crushed. This leads to a tragedy, and then to an astonishing redemption, very reminiscent (as Reygadas acknowledges) of the conclusion of Carl Dreyer’s film Ordet.
Silent Light

The main difference, if memory allows, is that Dreyer’s film is a much more overt and conscious exploration of the nature and value of religious faith; Silent Light has little explicit discussion of these matters. The film makes it hard to pin down the nature of the protagonists’ beliefs, their motivations; even the location, if one didn’t know it going in, could pass one by (very little about the film “looks” Mexican; at various points we hear snatches of French, English, perhaps other languages too). The ending suggests that miracles remain possible, but that the route to their realization is even more mysterious than in Dreyer’s day. The film is book-ended by long sequences of a sunrise and sunset; they impress on us the majestic beauty of Creation, and of Reygadas’ own creation, but by the same token barely provide more guidance than a black screen.

In the end the film leaves us with an almost perfect enigma, but we can’t forget that cinema is in its second century now, and so many great directors have already navigated way further than Reygadas does now, and with less heraldry. Actually the explicitness of the denouement limits the impact – there must be an explanation, even if we don’t know what it is; it wasn’t the butler, but it might at least be David Blaine. Some of cinema’s most moving mysteries are its smallest, because that’s the stuff of our lives. Still, Silent Light is impeccably achieved, and quite fascinating throughout (although slow, of course, by any normal measures). 

The Wackness

Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness is strenuously, well, you know (although note that wackness is bad – it’s dopeness that’s good), but I can’t say it has a dull moment. It’s set in 1994, just as Mayor Giuliani’s police force is putting on the squeeze; in this tightening environment, two men stumble and toke their way to maturity. One of them is a kid on the verge of college; the other is his much older shrink, played by Ben Kingsley. Kingsley’s performance is exceedingly weird, but just about hangs together; much of the distinguished cast around him is stuck in essentially underdeveloped parts (beneath layers of quirky filigree), although Mary Kate Olsen makes a distinctive impression (I swear!). The movie has more smoking, of various kinds, than any other ten recent movies put together, and its basic shape is conventional, but it has a functional slacker proficiency.

This film is not only one of the year's best,” says the Star’s Peter Howell of The Dark Knight, “it may well end up as the finest of 2008. At the very least, it deserves consideration for Best Picture and Best Director, along with the expected Oscar kudos for (Heath) Ledger, a man whose star burned briefly, yet oh so brightly.” Howell isn’t alone in his enthusiasm, although there’s also a solid cadre of more equivocal commentators. What’s interesting to me, if you devote your professional and perhaps much of your personal life to cinema, is that you’d even want to consider that such a film might be the year’s finest. No matter how smoothly executed it is, calculation and manipulation run rampant through the film, as they must given the corporate investment it represents. Not to limit the possible spawning grounds for great art, but the movie is, you know, about Batman for Chrissake. I may not personally agree with those who consider Silent Light one of the year’s best, but I wish I did – the discovery would be joyous. How excited could you ever get about your own ravings, when they merely consist of rubber-stamping the big machine?

The Dark Knight

But it’s good validation for the crowds who stream in that direction. You’ll have guessed by now that I was also part of the crowd (although one who settled for the boring regular digital screen, rather than the IMAX Experience) and that it’s not the way I’d mark my own fantasy Oscar ballot. Initially I was intrigued by the film’s crisp execution and criss-cross storytelling, even briefly imagining, as someone said, that it might occupy territory comparable to Michael Mann’s Heat. Mann made one of the best contemporary epics there – clearly a fantasy of kinds too, but complex and sorrowful and constantly revealing the loneliness beneath frenetic public personae. Howell likewise sees great things in The Dark Knight: “The movie is almost Shakespearean in its fascination with the good and evil that resides within all of us. It suggests that the greatest challenge of life is not to reject dark impulses outright, but to learn how to control them so they don't overwhelm our loftier goals.”

OK, and the upshot of this suggestion is…what? Be a good girl in the workplace and a whore in the bedroom? Try as I might, I just can’t see what would be magnificent about this insight, assuming the film was particularly eloquent about it in the first place, which I’m also not convinced by. Others have found commentaries in the film on virtually the entire latter-day political agenda, such as the morality of torture – indeed, the parallels may be there, but I’m not sure what one can do with them other than note the evocation and move on.

So I didn’t come away from the film with very much at all. That opening promise never builds. The movie studies the Gotham City power structure in impressive detail, but the wheels are greased here with contrivance, coincidence and shortcutting that seems extreme even for the genre (albeit generally ably enough papered over). Ledger’s performance as the Joker is imaginative and resourceful, and the character’s theory of anarchy provides some of the more interesting dialogue, but whatever psychological over-investment the troubled actor may have made in the role, it remains a stunt next to his work in say Brokeback Mountain or Candy. The rest of the fine cast plays things a little more morosely than they usually do, this being a measure of the film’s seriousness.

I didn’t say it wasn’t entertaining – director Christopher Nolan exhibits all kinds of flair, and notwithstanding all my comments, it’s a better story than you usually get. It’s an ultra-professional corporate product, for a moderately sophisticated audience in possession of plenty of other entertainment options. Of course it’s good, just like the next new brand of cereal will be too. Best film of the year? Well, does Starbucks serve the best coffee? Their commercial future depends on a whole lot of people saying yes. The Star, progressive and astute as it is, would probably say no.



Joe Swanberg seems to have been around forever, even though he’s only in his early thirties – he started young and then worked real fast (fifteen movies as a director already, often acting in them too), like Rainer Werner Fassbinder with lighter hang-ups and, well, he’s actually not like Fassbinder at all, beyond the merely statistical comparison. If you see him mentioned, it’s inevitably in connection with the “mumblecore” movement – or maybe not so much a movement as a slouch – marked by low budgets, modest production values and an improvised feel, focusing on the relationships of the young, educated and largely ordinary. You might also see him mentioned as an early collaborator of Greta Gerwig, who spectacularly broke out to bigger things.

Joe Swanberg

I’ve never gone looking for his films, but I’ve seen a few of them on channels like IFC and Sundance, where they presumably provide low-cost late-night programming. Autoerotic, a compilation of sex-related anecdotes, has a modest diversity and weirdness about it, but gets tired awfully quickly, even though it only lasts 72 minutes (Swanberg’s movies are always very short, which in his case tends to feel more like a limitation than a mark of discipline or focus). Nights and Weekends, with Gerwig, is a good example both of how Swanberg naturally achieves a realistic contour, and of how little that amounts to in the absence of higher artistic powers. Alexander the Last illustrates his more experimental side – built around the rehearsal for a play, it toys with our understanding of the narrative, but without the rigour or panache that might make such confusions worthwhile. It’s been unclear in all this whether Swanberg genuinely likes working fast and small and quick, or whether he hasn’t figured out how to slow down for long enough to do it any other way. I don’t mean all of that to sound as dismissive as it does – he deserves great admiration for carving out his own space and for building up such a body of work: it’s just that, like your neighbour’s new decorating job, you can admire it while still wondering why he invited you around to see it.

His new film Drinking Buddies (now available on-demand as well as playing, as I write, at the Carlton) is a partial step forward, in that it has a bigger budget and recognizable Hollywood actors, drawing from them a newly professional sheen. Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) both work at a Chicago craft brewery, getting along exceptionally well and often meeting up afterwards to consume large amounts of the company’s product (Drinking Buddies may contain more beer consumption than any movie this side of a frat house comedy). The relationship expands to include a weekend-long double date with their respective partners (Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick), during which it starts to seem plausible that everyone might be happier with a partner swap, but it doesn’t quite work out that way.

Drinking Buddies

The film showcases Swanberg’s pleasure in conversation as a game, played fast and loose and ironic; the better you play, the sexier you are (and one feels, in some vague way, the more worthy). The emphasis on a group’s internal rhythms and implied rules puts Swanberg in a line stretching back to Howard Hawks, although it’s an instructive comparison: in Hawks’ case, mastering the group banter also demands absorbing and enacting its underlying ethics, whereas in Swanberg’s case it’s pretty much an end to itself, a way to fill up the otherwise potentially dead zones of existence. In this regard the movie has an interestingly idealized portrayal of the work environment: minor annoyances aside, it seems not so much a job as a way of life, in which professional and personal lives easily blend into one another. It doesn’t seem possible any of them are making that much money there, but this isn’t high on the movie’s mind except, again, in that the group thrives on the mutual consumption of low-cost pleasures like pool and beer (which renders Livingston’s character, being apparently in a somewhat higher income bracket, vaguely suspect).

The movie is generally at its most engaging when simply observing this natural order of things, in particular because Olivia Wilde – previously a beautiful but unengagingly frosty presence in House and various forgettable pictures – is something of a revelation here, entirely engaged and alert and ventilating every scene she’s in. But Swanberg doesn’t particularly cash in on his enhanced resources, and Drinking Buddies just drifts amiably away to an outcome of no particular consequence. Actually, it’s worse than that – it’s a denial of whatever consequences it might embody: for instance, one or more of the characters seems poised to make what we can only read, based on information provided, as a disastrous decision, but we’re invited instead to view it as a happy ending, or at best not to concern ourselves about it.

Paul Mazursky

In respects like these, it seems as if Swanberg’s interest in his characters just peters out, as if he’s more interested in the process than the destination. The film’s closing credits acknowledge a number of illustrious names, including Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Paul Mazursky. I don’t know if Swanberg had any direct contact with any of these individuals, or whether they’re just spiritual mentors, but either way, by evoking them he only draws attention to the limitations of his own approach. Mazursky, for example, certainly shares a similar warm-hearted interest in matters of the heart (in films such as Blume in Love and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice) but he’s also a tough-minded Hollywood survivor who filled his films with substantial, often older performers, and made sure they had distinct beginnings, middles and endings. It’s certainly hard to see Mazursky abandoning any of his central characters in the way I described. Likewise, May seems like a much more meticulous, immersed orchestrator of her films than Swanberg has so far allowed himself to be (to take that point to the extreme, it’s hard to imagine him ever generating such a fascinating grand folly as Ishtar, even in the unlikely event that he was given the chance).

Still, Drinking Buddies has plenty of small pleasures, on the scale of those obtained from another night of beers with the usual crowd. It may be narrow territory, but Swanberg knows it pretty well, and you often find yourself smiling at something in recognition or appreciation. It’s not so much of an achievement compared to the breadth of what Fassbinder evoked, but then, he burned out tragically soon. Maybe Swanberg’s formula of rapid productivity within a narrower range will prove itself the foundation for a satisfying long game.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

In the bunker

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2005)

As you get older you place more trust (perhaps of course misguided) in your own instinct as a key to all things, and in that vein the question of why the German people capitulated to Adolf Hitler seems less mysterious to me recently than it used to be. These parallels may strike readers as grievously overstated, but observe how a large portion of Americans are demonstrably willing to overlook any number of Iraqi-related atrocities on the basis of a broad statement of overall national purpose. Likewise, I found the Terri Schiavo case extremely depressing – both on the basis of the thing itself and given the vast media attention devoted to it – as an index of how easily political, legislative and societal interest can be displaced into an issue of (I’d argue) exceptionally marginal relevance. To put it glibly, the public interest in maintaining the (at best) incremental consciousness of that one woman seems laughably minor set against the horrendous fiscal, environmental and other challenges facing our planet’s four billion people, yet the dynamics of a single anomalous (but easily sloganized) case study sweep all else away. Of course, this merely illustrates the same point as celebrity trials or Janet Jackson’s exposed breasts or one-off gruesome murders or much else. Extrapolate that back sixty or seventy years, to a Germany still smarting from the effects of World War One, with less media transparency and less evolved attitudes in a host of areas, and factor in Hitler’s initial success as an economic revitalist, and I think it’s at least intuitively possible to sense how even good people might have turned the other cheek.

Blind Spot

Downfall is a new German film about Hitler – the object of great debate in its home country; it was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film (I observe that it’s already in the Internet Movie Database’s list of the top 250 movies). It’s attracted some negative commentary for whitewashing Hitler, and I think it’s at least possible to see where this comes from. In the film’s first scene, interviewing young women for a secretarial position in 1942, he’s kindly and avuncular; he forgives the young Traudl Junge when she screws up the secretarial test and allows her another chance. She gets the job, and immediately after this the movie switches to its main setting, the Hitler of the final days, as the allies close in on Berlin and he’s closeted in the bunker with his key generals and support staff, planning a series of increasingly desperate and impractical counter-assaults, gradually realizing the hopelessness of his position. In the last years of her life, the real Junge sat for interviews that were recorded in the recent film Blind Spot, and much of what’s depicted in Downfall comes from her recollections, although the film isn’t explicitly subjective.

At the very end of the film, in a clip from Blind Spot, Junge reflects that her youth was no justification for her ignorance about Hitler – “it would have been possible to have found things out.” The film doesn’t seem to be particularly about this though. Hitler doesn’t mention the Jews, for example, until relatively late in the film, and the film doesn’t show anything of the genocide. In one intriguing moment, he dictates a passage denouncing international Jewry and she looks quickly at him as if questioning whether he really means to say that. But for the most part, the film presents a Hitler capable of resenting anyone, including the German people as a whole. “If my own people fail this test,” he says as Berlin threatens to collapse, “I will not shed one tear for them.”

Das Experiment

Bruno Ganz is effective as Hitler but I don’t know if there’s anything new to be excavated there (in an interview, Ganz said: “Having played him, I cannot claim to understand Hitler…ultimately, I could not get to the heart of Hitler because there was none.”) In a way, the portrayal of Eva Braun is more quietly horrifying. Apparently caught in extreme denial, she initiates dances and soirees within the bunker and adamantly refuses to leave; she never expresses a single political thought and yet accedes to his plans for marriage and then suicide without any apparent reservation. Braun seems to have an autonomous spirit and yet she sublimates herself entirely to Hitler. We can only guess at the roots of this – if known at all, they lie back before what the film depicts – but it illustrates how you better perceive Hitler’s power by looking at others than at the man himself. The portrayal of Goebbels’ wife, agonized at the thought of her children growing up in a world without National Socialism, is even more striking.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s previous film was Das Experiment, about an experiment involving the division of male volunteers into prisoners and guards in a fake prison, where things spiral out of control and become flamboyantly violent. That film ramped up so quickly, and was so obviously designed for visceral impact that it didn’t carry much of a sociological payoff, despite its effective steely look and superbly maintained pace. At the time I wondered to what extent it should be viewed as a specifically German concoction (the word “Nazi” is only spoken once by a prisoner, and in return he gets a whack that ultimately kills him); I concluded that although its German origins gave it a certain specific resonance, the film basically could have been made anywhere.

A Different Film

Downfall, obviously, has an equally bleak look about it. The film is aesthetically fairly restrained; near the end, I registered a cut from gasoline being poured on Hitler’s and Braun’s dead bodies to a drink being poured into a glass by Junge, and this stood out in the film’s context as being almost flashy. It takes on a bleak comic undertone as discipline collapses within the bunker, with soldiers sitting around getting drunk and, eventually, people shooting themselves dead at every turn. After Hitler dies, the film continues for another half hour or so, but none of this material seemed particularly necessary to me.

In the end, the film is always interesting, but seems to me to serve no particular specific function that hasn’t been addressed elsewhere. But maybe I’m taking too much for granted here. I grew up in the UK in the late 60’s and 70’s, when depictions of World War Two were as endemic in the culture as reality shows are in our present one. At the end, Downfall summarizes what happened to the various individuals portrayed, and only one of them is still alive. So the direct threads of memory are becoming thin, and we know about the revival of extreme nationalism across Europe. As I said at the start, I think it’s sadly easy to sense something of how a brute like Hitler succeeds. But I think the lesson is in how the brute is created, not in how he destroys himself. Ultimately, I suppose I’d rather have seen a different film.


Friday, September 6, 2013

In-flight movies

I saw Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster on the day it opened in Toronto theatres, but not at the Varsity: I was on a flight from London to Singapore, and it was included in the rather remarkable range of films on the viewing menu.  Even better, whereas North America got a version with some twenty minutes cut out of it, Singapore Airlines was offering the full 130 minute version. I realize there’s not much point in giving a shout-out here to Singapore Airlines (although, in addition, it was one of the smoother and more easeful experiences I’ve had in economy, including some of the better food), but it was certainly a good omen for a pleasant vacation. Of course, despite all that, I wouldn’t claim a screen in the back of an airline seat is as good as the Varsity, although, frankly, I’ve known audiences there that were more distracting.

The Grandmaster

Anyway, it was a pleasure to see The Grandmaster, although my immersion in the experience was also limited by having to pause it when the meal came, and then later for an extended nap. The film chronicles two decades or so in the life of “Ip Man” (Tony Leung), a real-life Chinese master of martial arts who achieves fame by defeating an old master in a showcase match, but suffers great dislocation and loss during WW2 and subsequently (he trained the young Bruce Lee, although the movie doesn’t address that); he develops great affection for the old master’s equally accomplished daughter (Zhang Ziyi), but circumstances impose a necessary distance between them. The film has any number of carefully choreographed showdowns – people defying gravity and beating unlikely odds and the like – but Wong generally emphasizes the intimacy of these encounters, sometimes to a point that might seem rather perversely contrary: on numerous occasions, an expected fight barely transpires, swiftly resolved instead by the quickest and most subtle of moves. This reinforces the underlying emphasis on these arts not primarily as a matter of skill or physicality, but as one of discipline and ethics.

I’ve seen all of Wong’s films I think, but I haven’t often gone back to them a second time, so my memory of them is a bit limited now. I remember being dazzled by both Chungking Express and 2046, but on one other occasion I was confused to an extent I’d be embarrassed to specify, and only realized how out of it I was when I consulted a plot summary subsequently. The Grandmaster covers territory he’s visited before – his Ashes of Time was also a martial arts drama, and his most admired film In the Mood for Love contained similar strands of unrequited longing and exile. I liked the new film very much, but it would be difficult to say it extends his work in a significant new direction. Indeed, it almost stubbornly seems not to be doing that, as if Wong wanted to draw on his affection for past works and collaborators, and to enmesh himself in an infrastructure he’d never have to leave.

Meditative space

I don’t know which twenty minutes of the ones I saw were removed in North America, but it’s not hard to see how something  could be removed, or for that matter rearranged (it doesn’t entirely unfold in chronological order) or supplemented with more voice overs, or historical footage, or investigations of things only touched on in the current version. This isn’t a weakness – it speaks to the evocative power of what Wong’s created: a meditative space of seemingly almost infinite capacity. The film draws greatly on the grave beauty of its lead actors, but there’s little attempt to depict the aging of the characters through make-up or other means. Judged as history, this sometimes gives a peculiar sense of disconnection, but nevertheless, Wong avoids reducing events to mere captions and backdrops, to the superficial clarity of many such epics. The Grandmaster is certainly a tribute to the Ip Man, but it’s also an acknowledgment of the difficulty in grasping any such figure, that the separation of myth from factual record becomes impossible, and for that matter, for most of us anyway, unproductive. The Ip Man’s richness as a point of multiple intersections provides a perfect medium for Wong’s artistic fluidity, creating a rare movie that’s both accessible and yet fleeting. The more I think about it, the more I think I’ll need to see it again somewhere else.

As it was a twelve hour flight and the selection was so good, I also watched Francois Ozon’s In the House, yet another in the large group of widely admired foreign films which never opened in Toronto. Fabrice Luchini plays a teacher of French, one of whose pupils starts surprising him with unusually eloquent essays, which set out in installments his somewhat creepy interactions with another boy in the class, and that boy’s family. The teacher gets drawn into the developing story, critiquing it as a piece of fiction while choosing not to probe how much of it is actually real, and crossing various ethical lines along the way. Ozon seeds the story with various other themes and strands – the balance of art and commerce, the escalating obsession with China’s economic dominance, and of course confused and/or unfulfilled sexuality – but it never feels over-stretched or forced: it rattles elegantly along in a fairly archetypal French manner.

In the House

It doesn’t have the bite of Ozon’s earlier films though, and its wisdom and complexity can ultimately only stretch so far. I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise by saying it’s ideally suited to being viewed on a long plane flight, but I don’t think the small screen saps too much of its evocative power in the way it probably did with The Grandmaster. That being the case, it seems to me that if you’re going to be sitting on a plane for twelve hours, you don’t need to surrender to the brain-deadedness of the experience for the whole time. I guess someone somewhere must agree, or else In the House wouldn’t have been on the menu. Or maybe it’s a cosmic joke, on the premise that such films are now so unfashionable, you’re only likely to see them if you’re willing to put yourself above the clouds.

As if to prove that, we’d planned to go and see a movie during our stay in Singapore, adding to a quirky list of such experiences that we’ve accumulated over time. But once we got there, the movies on release, and the multiplexes in which they were showing, all looked exactly the same as those back home. So we spent the time doing other things.