Sunday, January 26, 2014

Summer movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2007)

I should really write about the late Bergman and Antonioni, but it’s a hopeless task. It’s trite to say that The Passenger or The Passion of Anna are worth ten (a hundred?) times the films dealt with here, but that’s the magnitude of what we’ve lost. Perhaps worst of all is that despite their great ages, they’d both made films recently enough to allow the faint hope that it might not be entirely over. Still, we must push on, and this is what we have. 


The film version of the Broadway musical Hairspray, directed by Adam Shankman, understands pretty well that the supreme wonder of the movie musical genre is its capacity for sustained happiness. I can’t remember the last film in which, for all the superficial villainies and travails, almost everyone seemed so consistently full of peppiness and delight. The well-known material revolves around Tracy Turnblad, a rotund dance-crazy chick in early 60’s Baltimore who leads the way to integration of the local favourite Corny Collins Show.  The equality theme is utterly frothy here – it’s no doubt valueless as a primer on the real integration struggles - but even so the film’s wide-eyed conviction is completely winning. Shankman doesn’t do much of interest on a stylistic level, but he presents the music and dancing mostly cleanly and brightly – an approach much more appealing than the weary calculations of something like Dreamgirls.

The material’s famous quirk, going back to John Waters’ 1988 original, is that Tracy’s mother Edna is played by a man in drag – Divine, the first time round. This version has John Travolta, whose performance is sincere and oddly low-key, but the truth is there’s nothing about the film’s non-subversive sensibility that makes sense of the casting gimmick. It’s more fun watching everyone else, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken and an outstanding collection of younger actors. All in all, I was almost as cheerful as I was watching Ratatouille the previous week, although in a more limited way.

Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is a tech-heavy science fiction drama, eschewing space opera type stuff in favour of a 2001/Solaris approach – a deliberate pace, mature characterizations, attention to plausibility, immersion in the technology, and a dose of mysticism. The movie is gritty and restrained, but always seems like the work of a true romantic, in thrall to the glory of the sun and the emptiness.

Some time in the future, the sun is dying, and a group of eight voyagers is sent on a mission to try reigniting it, by setting off a vast payload of explosives. A miscalculation by one of them sets off a chain of misfortunes, leading to the inevitable drip-by-drip demise of the crew. The movie has enough self-confidence to have one of them mock the idea that they might ever encounter aliens, but missteps later on by conjuring up a development not so very different from that, losing its balance on the mumbo-jumbo seesaw. For all its virtues, it often seems tedious and over-familiar, and as in most of Boyle’s films, doesn’t really succeed in finding the thematic flesh to fill out the conceptual structure.  

Talk to Me

Kasi Lemmons’ Talk to Me is an often-rollicking entertainment about Ralph “Petey” Greene, a real-life DJ who became a Washington DC folk hero in the 60’s and 70’s. As the movie tells it, he might have evolved into another Richard Pryor, if not for a heavy streak of combined integrity and defiance. Don Cheadle is often mesmerizing as Greene, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is barely less commanding as the station manager who guided his career. The movie creates any number of engaging scenes, but never seems wholly convincing as biography or social history – it’s too full of situations that exist only in movies (too-sharp dialogue, too-pat manoeuvres, etc.) And it’s a bit too fragmented in how it charts Greene’s inevitable decline over the later stretches.

Steve Buscemi’s Interview is a strange follow-up to his last film as director, Lonesome Jim: from a quirkily sincere commitment to blue-collar concerns, to the flighty mind games of the rich and influential. Buscemi also stars in it, as a fading political journalist assigned to interview a fashionable actress (Sienna Miller). The initial encounter is a disaster, but a freak accident gets him into her loft, and they enter a long evening of boozy flirting, fighting and mind games. The movie is fluidly done and well acted, and it’s certainly entertaining enough, but there’s no great poetry in the language, no great discovery hidden within the people, and the only interest is in waiting to see how the spoils of the game are divided. The answer seals an adequate return on the time invested (it’s only some 85 minutes long) but no more than that.

The bottom line is much the same for Patrice Leconte’s My Best Friend, which stars Daniel Auteuil as a gallery owner forced to acknowledge that among all his acquaintances and appointments he lacks a single true friend. Taking on a bet to come up with one, he latches on to a jovial taxi driver (Dany Boon), whose ebullience hides a different sort of loneliness. It’s a pleasant enough comedy, but has virtually no real laughs, and as moral tales go it’s a long way from Eric Rohmer, seeming strangely unambitious for the versatile (if seldom revelatory) Leconte. I couldn’t help thinking that any movie that sets its finale around a very specific (and long) recreation of the French Who Wants To Be A Millionaire can’t be too worried about passing the test of time.

The Bourne Ultimatum

It tells you a lot about the degraded state of the thriller genre that The Bourne Ultimatum seems relatively gritty and realistic. It’s extremely well made and gripping for sure – you suspect the Bond producers would love to entice director Paul Greengrass into their tent. Picking up where the last movie left off, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne strikes back at the CIA in search of his buried past; some in the agency want to reach out to him, others to wipe him out (along with anyone else in his orbit), and he dodges a series of assassins from London to Tangiers to New York, each location yielding terrifically designed and executed chase sequences. Assuming it’s even partly accurate in how it depicts the power of modern surveillance, it’s quite an eye opener, and of course it also draws comfortably on paranoia about Big Government.

Still, all of this depends on a huge amount of absurd coincidence, compression, wild luck and so forth, albeit flying by so quickly, with such a sense of authenticity, that you might not register it. Greengrass’ last film was United 93, which he described as a “Rorschach test” in which the audience might find any interpretation they cared to bring. I simply couldn’t see the point of such an approach – doesn’t 9/11, and more specifically the subsequent misuse of it, warrant interpreting by those who presume to depict it? – but it got him an Oscar nomination. Released from any obligation toward “balance” and “sensitivity,” The Bourne Ultimatum extends that approach even further – I don’t think it really means a damn thing, but it often sure feels like it does.

As opposed to the films of Bergman and Antonioni, where it really did mean something…

Luchino Visconti

It might be strange that in some seventeen years of writing about film for this paper, I don’t think I’ve ever felt a need to mention the name of Luchino Visconti. I mean, many commentators would place some of his works among the finest ever made: Martin Scorsese has mentioned The Leopard as one of his five favourites, and La terra trema was once listed on Sight and Sound’s ten-best poll of the ten best films. When I was first becoming aware of foreign language films in the late 70’s, Visconti’s name was unavoidable – Death in Venice in particular seemed to embody a certain category of stately, scenic, mildly transgressive art cinema. But those qualities never really resonated with me – I preferred the rough and tumble of the French new wave, or the slyer pleasures of Luis Bunuel, or the greater contemporary edge of Antonioni…or, now I think about it, just about anything. Whereas I’ve spent years meticulously trying to see everything ever made by most eminent filmmakers, I’ve never really worried about the gaps in my knowledge of Visconti: I’ve still never seen La terra trema for instance.

Sticky crust

More recently though, I ended up watching a number of his later works, and found him occupying a somewhat larger place in my mental archive. At the very least, I might now disagree with David Thomson’s assessment, which no doubt influenced my own: “If there was a Nobel prize for cinema,” wrote Thomson, “Visconti would have had it long ago; he was as deserving as a Steinbeck, and he was very social. But he does not begin to rate at the highest level: his work is trivial, ornate, and unconvinced.”

Thomson actually has a field day with Visconti, saying for instance of Death in Venice that its surface is “a sticky crust, covering nothing.” Although “nothing” seems to be overstating the case a bit, I still find it hard to warm to the film. Made in 1971, it depicts an esteemed composer, resting at a Venice hotel, and increasingly obsessed by another guest, a young boy. Lasting well over two hours with minimal plot, it’s a film of magnificent compositions and cinematic landscapes; Dirk Bogarde in the main role registers less than as a character than as a tortured melody. In flashbacks, he and a colleague debate aesthetic matters, such as whether beauty can be created as an operation of art or can only exist as an operation of the senses, and to what extent the artist’s moral framework is vital to this function; these questions form a corollary to the film’s central question, of the nature and morality of his preoccupation with the boy (Visconti himself was openly homosexual, at a time when such openness was obviously far less common than now). It’s not an uninteresting creation, but as I say, if Death in Venice were the only evidence, it would seem to speak to a rather heavygoing artistic temperament.

The Leopard

It’s easier to praise some of Visconti’s other films. Rocco and his Brothers, made in 1960, depicts five siblings struggling for economic viability after traveling from the country to the city; with one foot in the neo-realist tradition and another in melodrama, it proceeds through muscular encounters, easily accessible contrasts between goodness and venality, a wrenching sense of steps taken counteracted by steps back, and of regret for what’s been lost. The Leopard, which came next in 1963, leaps from tenements to palaces, from Rocco’s expressionist black and white to some of the screen’s most celebrated colour compositions. It examines an old aristocratic family grappling with the new political and social realities of Italy’s unification, and is perhaps Visconti’s most intellectually engaging film, crammed with exchanges and ideas about the practical demands of revolution and the obligations of the ruling class. It’s far from the most intimate of epics – much of the film carries the sense of watching figures dwarfed by their settings. But this supports the conflicts at its centre – the central figure (played by Burt Lancaster) acknowledges the aristocracy will ultimately be short-lived, and yet the lifestyle and its trappings, as depicted here, seem to defy human transience (and to provide an intriguing contrast with the sense of sickness and corrosion that undermines the almost equally stunning settings in Death in Venice).

Lancaster also starred in Visconti’s penultimate film, the 1974 Conversation Piece, again embodying a character who glorifies in his accumulating obsolescence: a retired professor all but locked away in his magnificent apartment, who has his existence disrupted by an unruly family. It’s another calculated arthouse creation, conveying a sense of moral and intellectual and political siege, but with little feeling for real life and discovery. It’s an intriguing depiction though of the contradictions in the director’s sensibility – sympathetic to Communism and social progressivity, and yet seemingly helplessly attached to ornateness and grandeur (Visconti himself was one of seven children of the “Grand Duke of Modrone”). I found it preferable to his 1969 work The Damned, a tale of a powerful industrial family’s contortions in the face of Hitler’s rise to power – its portrayal of Nazism as a hodgepodge of opportunism and decadence seems, at best, incomplete, and it’s a largely dour and mechanical movie in other respects.

The Innocent

Visconti’s last film, The Innocent, was released in 1976, the year of his death (aged 70). It again has elements of the unrevealing “sticky crust” – another sumptuously rendered chronicle of the aristocracy, with bitterness and amorality below the finery. Its self-regarding character imagines himself a master of his fate, whereas in fact his existence is circumscribed in all directions; his lack of belief in an afterlife leads him into an unbearable moral hell, lacking a framework either to understand himself or to atone. Not one of Visconti’s best regarded films, it seemed to me to carry more contemporary resonance than many of them – for instance, as a posing of questions about whether our own increasingly separate social elite represents an extension of or a threat to universal interests. Despite his own status, The Innocent suggests Visconti would argue for the latter – the useless self-absorption of what he puts on display seems to contain a strong implicit case for usurping the order.

Returning then to Thomson’s comment, there’s surely much in his work (and I haven’t even mentioned Senso or Ossessione, which some might consider his best) that transcends trivia or lack of conviction, and as for the ornateness – if nothing else, one can view any excesses in that area with benevolent nostalgia, as an example of the kind of cinema they truly don’t make anymore. Visconti may not rate at the highest level, but perhaps we can say that not to disparage him, but rather to celebrate the even more remarkable achievements of those who do.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Voyage to China

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2008)

We were lucky enough to spend two weeks in China last year. I could fill twelve columns telling you about it (literally – I wrote a 13,000 word diary) but I’ll condense it into a few lines. Beijing was a marvel, if a rather depressing one – the construction and the traffic and the energy speak to amazing momentum, but the air is not good, the ambiance often oppressive, and you wonder what this collective achievement can possibly mean for most individuals. We ended the trip in spectacular Hong Kong, but in between took the train to the small city of Chengde, far from most standard Western itineraries (our first full day in Chengde was the first I’ve spent in my life without seeing another white face, my wife aside).

Visiting Chengde

The city has some scenic marvels, some of them seemingly barely visited, and the city has a fairly cosmopolitan looking section, but we spent most of our time in areas that no average tourist would ever choose to go to. I don’t mean they were bad or dangerous – just that they were areas where people do no more than live and work. Which means an amazing aggregation of often meager activity – in China, it seems, no economic opportunity goes untapped, however slight. If there’s a faint chance that you might earn the equivalent of 50 cents a day by setting up a melon stall halfway along a remote and strenuous walking trail, someone will do it.

Even by the standards of most countries, purchasing power fluctuated widely. In Beijing (or, that is, the fast Westernizing areas of it we retreated to at night), prices barely seemed any different than they are here, but in Chengde we could get ourselves a feast for under $10. After one such occasion, I gave the waitress what amounted to a $3 tip and almost made her cry with joy. We’d been told that Western visitors are huge objects of attention, that we’d be harassed to appear in photographs and even to hold babies. But except in the tourist traps (our visit to the Great Wall was almost ruined by non-stop, albeit understandable, harassment) it never happened (maybe, it’s just us). In Chengde, people mostly ignored us, regardless that – as we learned from that waitress – we could have doubled their entire day’s takings (Jeez, maybe their entire week’s) by handing across what to us was pocket change. But sometimes I wonder if I really did her a favour, ultimately.

Chengde isn’t at the frontline of the Chinese “economic miracle.” It isn’t a factory town, and the air seemed generally good (although there’s a mostly dried up and rancid looking river running through the city – we never learned if that was a seasonal drought or something more fundamental). The upheaval of the Three Gorges project lies far to the South. People seemed happy, or at least resigned – you get the sense of a lot of sitting and waiting, and it’s appealing to read that as a partly philosophical pursuit, but I suppose it’s much more basic than that. Our sense of ourselves, our expectations for contentment and personal space and whatnot, seemed overwhelmingly decadent. Time and again we’d see five or ten people assigned to a job that in Canada would be done by just one person (if at all). Building sites, restaurants, hotels – they’re all jammed with people. This means that service, as we think of it, is generally great, and of course that’s how Beijing can build major Olympic venues probably in the time it would take our local apparatus to sign off on the planning, but it’s all a function of life being cheap.

Up the Yangtze

A couple of years ago we went to a South African township – a million or so people in incredible claustrophobic squalour. It ought to have been a more sobering illustration in deprivation, and it wasn’t good, but at least there’s the acknowledgment that the townships are generally “bad,” that they embody what has to change. In a way, China is more permanently disquieting, because there’s plainly no hope the miracle can ever reach down far enough, nor of any meaningful widespread activism. Of course one can over-extrapolate wildly from a few days’ observation, but it feels like a place where you’re born, you take the path that’s there before you, and that’s it. There are cell phones everywhere, but maybe they speak to the consolidation of the locality as much to an explosion of mobility.

China is one of the world’s great subjects now for writers and reporters and filmmakers, and two recent films explored this evolution in the Three Gorges region. I wrote last week about Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life (notionally a fiction film, but seriously blurring the line with documentary), which has already been and gone. The other is actually a Canadian film, Chang Yung’s Up the Yangtze. This is a documentary (although unfolding as a narrative) about a 16-year-old who leaves her dirt-poor family, just about to be relocated from their riverbank shack, to go and work on one of the huge cruise ships that travel the Yangtze. The film’s key opposition of course is between the Western tourists, who look like a wretched bunch (is there any way for tourists to look good on screen?) and the bottom-rung Chinese marshaled for their service, or exploitation, the two being much the same. The girl barely knows how to function amid all this; she’s contrasted with another new employee, a 19-year-old guy who sees the whole thing much more cynically.

Still Life

Chang’s film is a great eye-opener if you’re not familiar with these matters, and a resonant reminder if you are. He and his distributors are self-releasing the film, and it deserves great support (they must be doing something right – I couldn’t believe how busy it was on the afternoon I went). I feel obliged to say though that Still Life, if you can find it, is by some distance the better of the two, because Jia is just a more refined and probing artist. Up the Yangtze is burdened with some clichéd “great documentary” trappings (such as the director’s voice-over reminiscences about his grandfather) and doesn’t always seem to focus on the right things (Jia, one feels, would have better communicated the geography and ambiance of the ship and the actual feeling of living there, which only comes across vaguely here). And Still Life is more beautiful – although it’s a terrible beauty - more ghostly. But this is only to say you should seek out both films.

Because, you know, it may be a different world, but it’s not a separate one. Economically, environmentally, existentially: our interdependency– currently still regarded mostly as an abstraction – bring us, perhaps, some short-term opportunities but massive long-term risks. After visiting China I have to admit I wondered how the planet could possibly bear all of us. For all the alerts, we are not thinking enough about this, for if we were, I’m not sure how we could ever think of anything else.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Young and artistic

Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis observes a young, virtually penniless singer (Oscar Isaac) as he moves around Greenwich Village in 1961, playing gigs in the same handful of locations, sleeping on couches or on floors, trying to get his record noticed and to catch some kind of break. Until recently, he was part of a duo, but his partner killed himself by jumping off a bridge; he slept with a woman (Carey Mulligan) who may be pregnant by him, although it may be by her husband (Justin Timberlake), one of his best friends – in case it’s the former, she has him organize an abortion, which is something he’s also been through in the past (in several scenes he gets berated as constituting a deadly sexual threat to women, although there’s little evidence that he’s living a life of Keith Richards-like excess). I’m not sure there’s a moment in the film where Davis is plainly happy, even when he’s performing – he can ably turn it on and off, and tells his sister that a regular job would amount only to existing rather than living, but it’s unclear whether he really feels the distinction or whether it’s a piece of received wisdom, the search to make sense of it being part of his burden.

Inside Llewyn Davis

The film has earned the Coens some of their all-time best reviews, and that’s obviously saying a lot – it’s won a number of the year-end critics’ awards (including that of the Toronto group, who also chose Isaac as the best actor). Despite all that, it’s not attracting much of an audience – those whose idea of the Coens is defined primarily by Fargo and The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men will probably find it rather muted and uneventful. The New York Times wrote a story on how the soundtrack album was failing to match the success of that for Oh Brother Where Art Thou, although it actually seems quite logical that if Llewyn isn’t setting the world on fire in the world of the film, then he’s not going to do it in our world either. Anyway, I’ve often had trouble understanding quite what’s so praiseworthy about some of their works, but I don’t have that problem here – it is indeed one of the year’s most quietly insinuating pleasures.

Of their previous work, it most made me think of their last film but one, A Serious Man, about a mid-western suburban math professor in the late 60’s suffering a multitude of misfortunes. That film seemed to mock the very notion of grand institutionalized meaning, and although it was full of incidental pleasures, the word it most brought to my mind was “cartoonish.” Writing about it here, I concluded: “I suppose the Coens have suffered (the new movie might suggest they didn’t think much of their teenage milieu anyway), but you can’t really feel it even in their tougher-minded works. But then they don’t ever communicate much joy either. Sometimes they seem to know the workings of almost everything, but not the value of it.”

Staying off the streets

Inside Llewyn Davis takes many of the same ideas and impressions, but is much gentler about it, resulting in a much more satisfying tapestry of mysteries. The film unwinds as a series of journeys, punctuated with crossroads at which the road not taken (whether by choice or because of blockages) usually turns out to be the superior one. Many of these are just the day to day hustles of trying to stay off the streets – subway rides, trudges through cold streets, scurrying to grasp at sudden money-making opportunities; others are more substantive, in particular the centerpiece of the film’s structure, an impulsive and bizarre trip to Chicago. There’s always a sense of an underlying logic beyond his or our grasp, partly embodied by the recurring motif of a ginger cat, a device which could have been dire, but isn’t at all. In the timespan of the film, Davis gains some clarity about the likely trajectory of his career, but then a miserable series of events prevents him from being able to act on it; in the end, he might almost be caught in one of those science-fiction time loops, unable to do much more than to keep going and to hope it’ll eventually turn out differently.

This all sounds like a bit of a downer, and maybe it is – it’s tempting to think a lot of critics respond so warmly to the film because it resonates against their own difficulties. But it’s also full of humour and impressive observation. The accessible highpoint, no question, is a recording of a novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy,” performed by Isaac and Timberlake and a sublimely strange Adam Driver. Other aspects, such as the character played by John Goodman, straddle a more complex line between absurdity and tragedy. A theme of displacement and reinvention winds through the film – the use of pseudonyms, performers reconfiguring themselves (someone with sway in the business tells Llewyn he can only see him as the second guy in a trio), cats that may or may not be the same cat; and more broadly and intimately, events that demand a reassessment of oneself as father or as son.

The value of things

The very title Inside Llewyn Davis is a bit of a conundrum in that it’s not clear how far inside him we really get, or how far inside we possibly could get. And that resonates against the music that populates the film – songs that sound naked and confessional (it opens with his performance of a number called “Hang me, oh hang me..”) but which can’t really be so when they’re performed night after night. By the end of the film, it feels like we’ve moved through a remarkably complex and subtle series of existential repositionings, all the more striking because assessed more literally, we haven’t gone anywhere at all.

Going back to those lines I wrote about A Serious Man and applying them to Inside Llewyn Davis, you may not fully feel the suffering or the joy this time either, but in this case that feels satisfyingly true to the limitations of its protagonist. As throughout their career, the Coens create a world that feels real and persuasive, even if experts can poke some holes in the details. But what’s most interesting to apply here is that line about them not knowing the value of things. Being young, an artist of some kind, living in times of growth and change – many of us might rewrite our lives to incorporate more of that and less of what we actually lived through. But who knows how accurately those who lived through such times report on them afterwards, given our helpless compulsions to make accessible narratives out of what was really chaos, and the flattening of joy and pain in our memories?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Heating Up

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2004)

After dealing in two out of the last three weeks with the horrors of the fast food industry and with the war in Iraq, I guess the subject of global warming will conclude what I might term my “happiness trilogy” of columns. The film, of course, is Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, the current blockbuster in which the world’s excesses finally catch up with it, sweeping aside downtown Los Angeles in a flurry (or whatever the collective noun may be) of tornados and all of Manhattan via a mammoth tidal wave, followed by a deadly ice storm. Apparently the rest of the world suffers as well (I think Canada must be completed wiped out), but except for some scattered scenes of helicopter crashes in Scotland and giant hailstones in Tokyo, we don’t really see much of that.

My jaunty tone should give you a sense of some of the film’s limitations, although these were amply foreseeable in a film from the director of Independence Day and Godzilla. The film’s centrepiece is a long trek by scientist Dennis Quaid from Washington to Manhattan, during the height of the catastrophe, to rescue his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) who’s holed up in New York Public Library. This plotline has received as much critical derision as anything I can recall in recent movies, and it hardly seems necessary to add to that here. So let’s take the problems as stipulated, and move on to other observations.

Aesthetic Event

It’s a handsomely realized movie, reminding me of the derided individuals who spoke of 9/11 as an aesthetic event. It makes a visual ballet out of vast, effortless urban destruction. At times, especially when the ice storm sweeps across the city, causing a massive instantaneous temperature drop to everything it touches, the weather is made seemingly tangible; as if conscious and knowing. At other times, the film translates the devastation into gorgeous abstraction, through a succession of weather charts, satellite images, computer simulations and other colourful devices. Of course, the use of computer-generated images, unless flawlessly executed, tends to evoke artificiality as well. The Day After Tomorrow starts with an unbroken traveling shot across the Antarctic landscape – initially dazzling, until it becomes too dazzling and you realize the artificiality. But it’s not much of a gap between registering flaws and registering that you can’t see any flaws.

In this regard, of course, the film grievously undermines whatever serious intent it might have. The scientific consensus on the movie seems to be that the theories it relies on are broadly valid, but lose plausibility when cranked up to such speed and scale. This reflects the conventionally perverse moral compass of the blockbuster – the death of a single foregrounded character is a tragedy, but that of the unpictured millons in the background is merely flavouring. I suppose that’s appropriate to the extent that in a disaster on the scale shown, we’d all have to jettison our ideas of grieving and quickly learn a new kind of pragmatism.  In this sense, if you’re straining, the movie’s cold bloodedness sort of works.

Ideological Choice

The concentration on the soap opera travails of a few individuals, also standard operating procedure, can be read as an ideological choice as well, parallel for instance to the Bush administration’s use of unrepresentative “middle class families” and other misleading poster children to sell an agenda with very different undertones. Talking of Bush, before the film opened, several commentators speculated – before they’d seen it, but based on advance reports of its content – that it might exercise some pro-Kerry campaign sway. The UK Guardian put it this way: "Here's the pitch: a dullish candidate, outflanked by his opponent's serious money, attacked for his liberal leanings, is swept to an unlikely victory thanks to a blockbuster movie that focuses on the effects of big business and the agro-industrial complex. Audiences throw their popcorn aside, pick up their ballot papers and realise that they too can make a difference."

Well, the movie doesn’t say too much about the effects of big business and the agro-industrial complex, although there are a couple of lines from the Cheney-like Vice President to the effect that short-term economic calculations must carry more weight than long term ecological ones. But if you go with the premise that the film could ever have exerted a positive influence, it’s in its ending that the potential is most flagrantly squandered.

As quickly as it began, the bad weather is over, and the surviving characters, shrugging off their travails with that new kind of pragmatism I mentioned, head off into a new future – a little wiser (even the Cheney character acknowledges past mistakes) but fundamentally unchanged. Ultimately, the film might seem ready to package the whole thing as a beneficial purging of excess population – a sharp but mercifully short healing shock. In reality, any ultimate reckoning will surely be much more agonizing and protracted.

The Ecology of Commerce

Given the lousy reviews, I might not have bothered seeing the film at all if I hadn’t been reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. First published in 1993, the book is a devastating analysis of how unchecked capitalism, amounting to a reckless fire sale of the earth’s resources, is killing off our future. It’s utterly convincing and thus utterly moving and depressing. Grimmest of all is the thought that in the eleven years since the book was published, every single indicator and trend he describes has likely gotten worse.

Hawken describes a case of an island in the Bering Sea where 29 reindeer were imported in 1944. Specialists had calculated that the island could support between 1,600 and 2,300 animals. With no controls or predators, the population hit 6,000 by 1963, and then fell back drastically as the lack of carrying capacity kicked in. Within three years only 42 reindeer remained – well below the original estimate. “The difference between ruminants and ourselves,” writes Hawken, “is that the resources used by the reindeer were grasses, trees and shrubs and that they eventually return, whereas many of the resources we are exploiting will not.”

The book returns to this theme again and again, foreseeing an inevitable gap between needs and availability as our reckless consumption of resources, even in the face of enormous increases in demand, continues. Although Hawken tries to invest his book with optimism, and to emphasize humanity’s adaptability and creativity, I doubt that many readers will close the book without feeling substantially morbid. If Hawken is only half right, and if preventative action remains beyond us (seemingly a likelihood), we should only pray to avoid having to live through the protracted downward spiral he seems to predict. Against this backdrop, for the characters that make it to the end of the movie, The Day After Tomorrow is actually an upbeat escape drama. But if you look at it a certain way, it’s when it’s at its most unrealistic that the film most effectively prompts some counter-thinking.

Excessive behaviour

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street provides a version of the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a real-life financial salesman who made a fortune in the 90’s by pushing penny stocks onto unwary investors and skimming off a 50% commission on each deal, spending the resulting fortune on both the “respectable” trappings of fame (a mansion, a yacht, a helicopter) and on its less respectable ones (vast quantities of drugs and hookers). It’s the longest movie Scorsese has ever made (lasting just under three hours), not because of the demands of the narrative – which could easily have been told at more conventional length – but because of its immersion in the details of Belfort’s experience, a tactic that has some dismissing the film as an unpleasant exercise in horrible people doing horrible things. For this group, David O. Russell’s current American Hustle often seems to constitute a more humane and digestible version of broadly similar material.

The Wolf of Wall Street

As I wrote here last week, Russell’s film seems to me little more than undistinguished, affectless chaos. Scorsese leaves him in the dust as a craftsman, displaying all the precision and energy you expect from him. This is his fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, and the first that fully taps contemporary themes and energy sources in the way of his classic films with Robert De Niro – it’s certainly one of DiCaprio’s most mesmerizing performances. Perhaps drawing on personal knowledge of temptation and personal capitulation, the actor and director lay out the scalding momentum of money and opportunity, alert to the truth that for a certain kind of creative spirit, transgression and excess (the sense of getting away with it) are vital components of success; try to play it straight, and you achieve only mediocrity, and so it follows that the ethical and moral considerations that signify playing it straight are of no more concern than nanny-state prohibitions on jaywalking.

It’s worth underlining too that the ethical lines here aren’t necessarily clear. Belfort makes his money by talking people into buying unsuitable stocks, by tapping into dreams and laying out enormous potential returns as if they were virtually guaranteed rather than comically unlikely. But, as he points out in the film, such activity is a close cousin to other practices that, far from being illegal, constitute the mainstream of the financial markets (increasingly little of which has anything to do with the specific real-world possibilities that underlie specific stocks). The film doesn’t point out, but could have, that state-sponsored gambling, regularly skimming off often poverty-level people by making the remote seem tangible, is an even more repulsive institution than anything invented by the financial markets. This isn’t to say Belfort’s an innocent: he jumps in with both eyes open and all claws bared, baked in contempt for the gullibility of the clients and the malleability of the system. But at the very least, it ought to be hard for anyone possessing any sort of power, or any measure of wealth, to chastise him without registering any sense of personal culpability.

Unreliable narrator

Put another way, the identification of the villain often comes down to who’s telling the story, and Scorsese foregrounds the unreliability of narrative right from the start, as Belfort’s voice over corrects one of the film’s early images by changing the colour of his Ferrari from red to white; later on, among other things, he’ll amend the tale of what happens to the car during one eventful night. The sense is that the vacuum at the centre of this vast moneymaking, its almost complete disconnection from any societal meaning other than the thing itself, corrodes whatever rationality or harmony might attach to anything in its orbit, powering a desperate compulsion to over-correct. So it’s not just that Belfort and his cohorts have a lot of sex and drugs; they mythologize the excess, creating fantastic situations involving dozens of hookers or ludicrous over-consumption, forcing themselves into ever-greater lies or absurdities of behaviour (sometimes to the extent that reality itself seems to bend).

As I mentioned, many have argued that there’s too much of this material in the movie, and it’s not hard to see what they mean, except that it’s the anthropological investigation of all this, if you will, that most fascinates Scorsese here. In a Hollywood Reporter interview, he drew a link to his earlier examinations of crime and mobsters, which Wolf of Wall Street resembles much more than it does most of his recent pictures: “In many cases -- not all -- the pursuit of reinventing yourself in America is just something that ‘a confidence man’ [like Wolf's Jordan Belfort] embraces. A confidence man takes your trust, takes your confidence and betrays you. And this is on all levels, whether it's low-level street crime, a white-collar crime and even a crime in religious organizations. This is something that's not going to go away if you don't talk about it…It's about human nature. Certain social structures facilitate it and some don't.”

Continuing relevance

Despite these many points of interest, I don’t find myself inclined to rave about the film as some have. A lot of it seems awfully familiar, if not from the echoes of Scorsese’s own previous work, then from those of just about every other film that ever ventured into vaguely similar territory. As its big budget necessitates, it looks and feels like a mainstream film for all its envelope pushing; even the debauchery is prettified and coded, in a way a truly fearless and uncompromised movie could have transcended (there’s also a fair amount of tedious thuggishness, which Scorsese seems to have a weakness for, and as so often, most of the women in the film barely register). Its engagement with the capital markets remains on a “stockbroking for dummies” level, which seems like a missed opportunity, however deliberate (at one point, Belfort starts to tell the audience what an initial public offering is, but then halts himself on the basis that no one will care). A recent European picture, Capital, by the veteran Costa-Gavras, at least tried to immerse itself more fully and distinctively into the mechanics of big money and its complex effects on those in its vicinity, although it’s a less accomplished film than Scorsese’s overall.

In the same interview, Scorsese – in his 70’s now - remarked on his awareness that he only has a finite number of films left to make, and went on: “Now there's not much time left, so you have to really feel strongly about the subject matter. That's the only way I can gauge it.” In recent years, this has often translated into putting himself in super-fan mode, making documentaries of George Harrison and Fran Lebowitz and others; his last film, Hugo, could be seen as taking this mode to a near-ultimate extent, as an expensive love letter to the dawn of the medium. Wolf of Wall Street passionately demonstrates his continuing relevance, but leaves intact most preexisting doubts about whether he’s truly one of the world’s very greatest filmmakers.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

December movies #1

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2006)

I absolutely hated Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and had just about decided never to see any of his films again. But because I’m more easygoing than he seems to be, and since I had some time available, I went to see his new Apocalypto regardless. A strange choice of follow-up (although in common with Christ it completely avoids the English language, which may be a wise choice given its director’s facility with vocabulary), it depicts the Mayan kingdom as decline sets in. A relatively harmonious jungle tribe is devastated by the vicious rulers, and the surviving adults are taken away to be either sold into slavery or sacrificed to the gods; one young warrior escapes and sets off to return to his hidden pregnant wife and young son.

The film is nowhere near as annoying as Passion of the Christ, because even though it may be equally as violent by some statistical measure, it’s all a cartoonish, dispersed kind of brutality that generally seems too overdone and abstracted to leave much visceral impact. In fact, whatever Gibson’s intentions may have been, he doesn’t deliver much more than a familiar action movie rush. The film is quite conventionally paced, and although it seems meticulously researched and recreated (no question it’s visually stunning at times), it has limited evocative power. It has ample hints of supernatural or spiritual significance, but these never seem like more than dressing. For all its pace and obvious merits, I found my mind constantly drifting off.

Blood Diamond

The first comment I found on the Internet Movie Database reads: “There is clearly a cultural message going on, regarding violence, war, and man’s inhumanity to man.” Well, clearly, I guess. But if so, as in its predecessor, this message only emerges through a sense of self-flagellation and extremity. Thankfully though, Apocalypto seldom exhibits the smug piety of Christ, entailing that my main emotion as I came away from the film was simple relief.

Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond is a very similar viewing experience, in that the specific time and place count for far less than sheer momentum and Hollywood values. It’s a weaker and sillier film overall though, largely because of the often wretched English dialogue, which just makes Mel Gibson seem even shrewder. It’s 1999 in conflict-ridden Sierra Leone, and a diamond smuggler played by Leonardo DiCaprio links up with a simple fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) who’s trying to find his displaced family – the price of DiCaprio’s help is a huge buried diamond, of which only Hounsou knows the location.

The movie purports to have something to say about conflict diamonds, and how Western consumer complicity indirectly feeds African turmoil and suffering. However, this is all presented heavy-handedly, largely via a reporter played by Jennifer Connelly, who’s just terrible here. Through all of this, DiCaprio and Hounsou dodge a volume of bullets and explosions that might seem excessive even in a Rambo film (it’s established that the DiCaprio character is an amoral pragmatist – that is before the requisite softening sets in on him – but the number of people he blows away is still rather bewildering). The film’s other sins include outrageous coincidences, confusing geography, and little or no visceral feeling for Africa itself. DiCaprio brings an effective rough-edged conviction to it all, and keeps things feeling somewhat coherent just by sheer willpower, but by the end you have the sense of a movie disintegrating before your eyes.

The Puffy Chair

The Puffy Chair, a very low budget movie directed by Jay Duplass (with many other members of the Duplass clan strewn throughout the credits) has less technique in its entire length than you’ll find in any random minute of the above films. I’d love to declare The Puffy Chair a clear artistic winner, but on this occasion, affection for shoestring talk-driven comedies can only stretch so far. The film, about a young couple on a road trip to pick up and deliver a birthday gift (a puffy chair, in fact) to the guy’s father, has some nice set-ups and is never less than pleasant, but it’s very thin on real insight. See the recent Mutual Appreciation and Old Joy for better examples of how young directors can truly soar on a budget no bigger than a middle-ranking Bay Street salary.

How much bigger was the budget of The Pursuit of Happyness, in which Will Smith plays a single father trying by day to get through a demanding (unpaid) broker intern program, and by night to keep off the streets and hold it all together? Certainly bigger than anything previously available to director Gabriele Muccino, who made his reputation with the Italian hit The Last Kiss (recently and forgettably remade with a Paul Haggis script). Muccino uses the same smooth style here, but it worked better for broader canvases of middle-class dysfunction and longing than it does for this kind of focused, forward-moving narrative.

The movie is oddly bland, with neither its highs nor lows carrying much force, and Will Smith’s performance isn’t very interesting either. It’s based on a well-documented true story, but isn’t very convincing in this particular telling – for example, it’s simply not believable, as presented here, that Smith manages to outshine his competitors’ sales figures while working at least three fewer hours per day. I enjoyed the story well enough, but not as much as I would have if someone had simply told it to me over a drink.

The Holiday

Which would be a much longer drink than any devoted to telling the plot of The Holiday, a glossy, shallow contrivance about two young women, both in a relationship trough, who swap houses over the Internet for two weeks over Christmas – this brings trailer editor Cameron Diaz to newspaper marriage columnist Kate Winslet’s picture-book cottage in England, and Winslet to Diaz’ much swankier pad in Hollywood. Diaz meets Jude Law and Winslet meets Jack Black, which to me would suggest one closed deal and one petrified woman hurling herself back to Blighty, but I’m sure you can figure it out for yourselves.

The film is conceived of course as a seasonal “package,” and avoids anything that might strain or stress the viewer (with the exception of a two and a quarter hour running time), which makes for a lot of misty smiles, quiet tears, “quirky” exchanges, and conspicuous consumption in reassuringly lit situations. The only real suspense is in waiting to see how director Nancy Meyers comes up with an ending adequately balancing the women’s desires with their professional self-respect, which she does well enough (although by cheating a bit). The presence of Eli Wallach as a veteran screenwriter, and many references to the like of Irene Dunne and Barbara Stanwyck, suggests that Meyers thinks she’s tapping into a venerable tradition here, which seems like a sign of a pretty puffy brain.

Big con

American Hustle is David O. Russell’s third movie in four years, and the third to bring him major critical praise and awards attention. I wish I could see what everyone’s talking about: I found The Fighter painful to watch at times, and I recall Silver Linings Playbook mainly as a series of shouting matches. For the most part, the reviews for American Hustle don’t much help me understand. Liam Lacey in The Globe and Mail, for instance, calls it “Martin Scorsese, the chronicler of New York sleaze and crime, meeting Preston Sturges, the antic 1940s screwball-comedy king,” before confusingly retracting the Scorsese aspects of the film as “pure parody” and seemingly negating the Sturges reference by concluding that Russell “barely earns our sympathy for this crew of hyperventilating chiselers and marks.” Lacey devotes his last paragraph mostly to a mini bio of Jennifer Lawrence, which seems like an acknowledgement of how the film  actually evokes little of substance to write about. And yet, this somehow gets summed up as a three and a half star recommendation. It’s like awarding a dancing prize to the competitor whose feet move the most, regardless that it makes your eyes hurt to watch him.

American Hustle

The film is based, with no great concern for historical accuracy (not that that matters) on the 70’s “Abscam” scandal: a minor-league conman, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), meets a former stripper, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and they become lovers and business partners. The FBI bust them, and to stay out of jail, they help construct a sting built around access to the fake wealth of a fake Arab investor, intended to reel in schools of mobsters, politicians and other crooked detritus. It’s all complicated by the lust of the FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) for Sydney; by Irving’s friendship with one of their main targets, a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner); and by Irving’s semi-estranged wife (Lawrence), who keeps getting pulled into events. And needless to say, everything doesn’t end up as it first appears.

In a recent New York Times interview, Russell talked about his creative resurgence, saying: “What’s interesting to me is that every day is a kind of narrative — every day is a belief of how you embrace and live and enjoy your life or suffer with your life. I believe that every movie in a way is about narrative: What narrative is the character telling himself?” In theory, the new film lends itself especially well to this project, in that virtually everyone is engaged in some form of deception, personally and/or professionally, and one might extend that to include the entire 70’s milieu, where the familiarly horrid fashions and hairstyles seem like a collective attempt to escape from something (the movie briefly references Vietnam and Watergate, but doesn’t generally cast a very wide political or social net). But the theory never gels into anything too interesting in practice, seeming indeed like a mishmash of narratives all jostling unsuccessfully for supremacy.

Skill with actors

The greatest component of Russell’s new standing is his supposed skill with actors, exemplified by Bale and Lawrence and Melissa Leo all winning recent Oscars for their work in his films. It’s certainly appealing – and Sturges-like – how he seems to be putting together a repertory company of sorts: almost everyone in American Hustle (excluding Renner, but including Robert de Niro, who turns up here in one scene) also appeared in one of         those last two films. You feel his desire to follow the actors in all directions, giving them overlapping voice overs, hitting them with ever more people and situations to bounce off against. But the underlying camaraderie (Russell says it’s “three-quarters known and one-quarter improvisation…a zone of looseness or immediacy”) seems to erode any sense of discipline, resulting mostly in chaotic, affectless performances. On this occasion, in particular, he can’t do anything with Bale’s odd coldness – for the most part, it’s hard to perceive a real person beneath the horrid hairstyle and the weight gain (both vulgarly highlighted in the opening scene). Actors like Adams and Lawrence are inherently more interesting to watch, but there’s little shape to what they do – there’s no sense of discovery, of people being explored or revealed.

But then the whole film’s like that – whether a particular scene is meant to represent a high or a low, conflict or togetherness, it all feels much the same. On his Some Came Running website, Glenn Kenny zoomed in on the film’s artistic poverty, saying: “It’s possible that Russell's movie is sloppy for arguably the best of reasons—he loves his actors, man!—but it’s still sloppy. In a movie that didn’t selectively hit their pleasure centers so squarely, the critics who are proclaiming this the best movie of the year would be deploring its incoherence.” Russell at this point seems like an excessive practitioner of the cliché that’s often bandied around, about ninety per cent of directing being in getting the right script and the right actors. Not that I think he actually had those things down as completely as he should have, but assuming he thinks he did, it feels as if little effort went into anything else (the main unifying ploy seems to have been to stick “American” into the title; here, as it usually is, a fairly transparent grab at unearned significance).

Everything’s a narrative

The effort certainly didn’t go into historical reconstruction: look beyond the surface trappings and the path-of-least-resistance soundtrack (Live and Let Die, Horse with No Name, etc.) and it doesn’t particularly feel like the 1970’s. And it certainly didn’t go into the fine points of filmic craft: everything generally looks garish and ugly, with seldom a moment where you’re struck by some delicacy of cinematic language. As Kenny did, it’s plausible to keep an open mind and to regard all this as deliberate, as stripping away any artifice or seductive prettiness, all the better for us to observe the naked mechanics of the goings-on. But if so, it’s impossible to coherently articulate what any of that actually does for us.

Although it may not sound like it from the above, I actually think the film is the best of the recent trilogy, if only because it’s seldom as actively annoying as the other two were at times. But it doesn’t suggest that Russell’s “every day is a kind of narrative” mindset provides much room for creative growth. It’s as if by attuning himself to the endless delights of actors and characters, he’s blunted his capacity to make any meaningful aesthetic or moral judgments. There are some interesting themes in the background of American Hustle, such as the ethics of entrapment, the relative morality of minor league corruption in the service of the public good and of making an example of such transgressions when the real evil gets away unhindered. But at this point anyway, Russell seems to think that just floating such themes is as much as is required; more than that and they might start to restrict his precious “zone of immediacy.” The film’s another hit, so I guess plenty of people see it his way, but then hustlers are also good at making that happen, at least for a while.