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.


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