Sunday, November 17, 2013

Redford exposed

There was a time in the 70’s when Robert Redford was just about the most golden star alive, floating in that magical zone where the movies are regarded as intelligent and classy while also being huge hits; perhaps since then only Tom Hanks, in the second half of the 90’s, has experienced a comparable run. The films included The Sting, The Way We Were, All the President’s Men, the latter adding to his impeccable progressive liberal credentials. Although too level-headed to be a great screen lover, he acted with most of the leading ladies of the day: Fonda, Streisand, Dunaway, Streep. In 1980 he directed his first film, Ordinary People, and won an Oscar for it, an achievement subsequently somewhat tarnished in the history books by the fact that it beat Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

Robert Redford

It would have seemed unlikely at the time, but that was probably the moment of his greatest stature in Hollywood. He didn’t work for another four years, and very sparingly from then on, and his projects usually seemed weighed down by calculations of prestige and significance; the other pictures he’s directed have often been unaccountably dull. He founded the Sundance film festival, which has certainly become an institution, but by now there’s a notion of an archetypal “Sundance movie” which provokes only passing excitement at best. By the standards of some of his contemporaries, Redford came to seem one part lightweight to one part drop-out, content to stay on the margins of his art, plainly well aware of its limitations. When I think of him, if I focus on the one part drop-out, I tend to think of the loss of American promise, of a time when modern-day genre cinema embodied a company’s capacity for building on the past without evading its future.

Redford has never won an acting Oscar, and was only even nominated once, for The Sting; by now it seemed unlikely in the extreme that he’d ever add to that. But his new film All is Lost makes him one of the favourites for this year; The New Yorker said something to the effect that he does more acting in this film than in all his previous ones combined. You could almost turn that round though, to say that Redford’s effectiveness in the film lies in finally mastering the art of presence, to the exclusion of visible acting. Years ago in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman recounted how Redford almost ruined The Verdict, in which he was originally cast, by trying to turn the character into a white knight; the producers eventually pushed him out and went with Paul Newman, who embraced the flaws and weaknesses with complete lack of vanity. All is Lost might almost constitute an act of penance for such past excesses. Among much else, you realize how little you actually saw Redford in his heyday, how classic lighting and framing softened our sense of him, both internally and externally. The new film, both literally and figuratively, strips away his hiding places.

All is Lost

Redford (identified in the closing credits only as “Our Man”) is a man in a yacht, by himself in the Indian Ocean. After a brief opening voice over (which, although you’d hardly guess at the time, constitutes by far the most we’ll ever hear him say), we go back eight days; he’s shaken awake as the yacht hits a shipping container, presumably dislodged from a vast ship (perhaps, it’s tempting to think, as a result of another, more expansive movie playing elsewhere, a version of the recent Captain Phillips); there’s a hole in the side and water is flooding in. From there the film charts what he does to survive: fixing the damage as best he can, coping with storms, his resources and options gradually becoming depleted and stripped down.

Even more than while watching Captain Phillips, All is Lost shows up the trite characterizations that marred Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. We can intuit from his circumstances that Our Man is fairly wealthy, and the opening monologue seems to hint at various regrets, but there are no flashbacks to happier times, no fantasy conversations with family members, not even a photograph on display in his living quarters (which otherwise seem as well equipped as any modern condo). The title carries a hint of longing, that perhaps this calamity is the natural extension of whatever unresolved desires would cause a man at this stage of life to be out here alone in the first place, that all must be lost so that something can be found; there are passing moments when he seems exhilarated by the challenges.

But Chandor impressively avoids making his film too existentially schematic, or overloading it with symbolic significance. Much of the film’s interest is in the simple mechanics of how things work; if you don’t know anything about modern rich man yachts, it’s quite informative. But it isn’t a procedural either; sometimes we follow his actions from A to B to C; sometimes we jump to G. In the physical and temporal as in the personal, the film suggests a pattern we don’t fully grasp. It has some beautiful compositions, but doesn’t surrender to them (Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is another work that comes off badly by comparison, not that it ever came off well). The film’s least convincing aspect is its ending, but it doesn’t matter too much; as you absorb the journey, it’s always evident that the destination, whatever it may be, will be somewhat arbitrary.

Margin Call

This is only Chandor’s second film. His first, Margin Call, examined an imperiled vessel of a different kind: a New York finance house pulling every lever to avoid financial calamity. It got a lot of praise, but struck me as an implausible contrivance, focusing its attention on the wrong things (it shows nothing of the outside world, except at the very end) while straining for broader resonance. All at Lost feels as if Chandor perhaps wanted to correct something in that work, by stripping down further, to a situation so spare and austere that any misstep would be magnified. Such one man shows aren’t that unusual – in recent years we’ve had movies about someone who can’t leave a phone booth, someone trapped inside a coffin – but they’ve seldom seemed like more than stunts. That term never seems remotely applicable here, because you feel the director putting himself on the line in a way the previous filmmakers never did.

If that’s impressive enough, it’s remarkable that Chandor got someone like Redford to take comparable risks and accept such exposure, to be so thrown around and battered. I don’t know if that’s what we always wanted from him, but the credit has it right – if at the height of his fame he was never quite Our Man, it feels like he is now.

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