Sunday, June 29, 2014

Images of war

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2007)

It was remarkably appropriate that Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima should open here in the same week that George W. Bush announced an additional 21,000 troops headed for Iraq. Bush may have had unwavering supporters for this move somewhere, but they were hard to find. Most Democrats, and many Republicans, thought the focus should be on winding down and pulling out. The dwindling band of hawks, in a grim application of the in for a penny in for a pound philosophy, mostly thought that any increase should be greater (Frank Rich pointed out that the total American military commitment, post increase, remained less than the manpower of the NYPD).

Letters from Iwo Jima

No one, of course, knows. These calibrations couldn’t be more spurious; Bush’s sense of the specific demands of the Baghdad insurgency, despite everything we hear about briefings and meetings and deliberations, never seems more than impressionistic, if not fantastic. But maybe it was always so. You look at our world in 2007 through one eye and it’s a temple of achievement – the gleaming payoff for centuries of slow progress. Then you look through the other eye and it’s the same primitive, ill-considered mess it’s always been. The main mark of our progress – one that’s destined by its nature to be short-lived – is perhaps merely the ability to keep these two dueling realities so clinically hidden from each other.

Eastwood’s other film from last year, Flags of our Fathers, focused on the creation of military heroes, dramatizing the vast ideological machine and its disregard for truth or the individual well being of the individuals who feed the beast. The film fell a little flat with most people, but watching the much starker, pained Letters from Iwo Jima, it hit me more clearly how Flags – for all its apparent respect toward American heartland values – exposes the machinations of a puffed-up, corrupt empire. The glory of dying for one’s country generally seems a function of rarity and positioning more than of inherent “achievement” or “meaning” – look at the news coverage of each Canadian military death in Afghanistan – which limits the impact of stories told from the perspective of the winners.

As if dissatisfied by the scope of Flags, Eastwood decided during its production to make this companion film about the other side. It’s certainly one of the bleakest examples of an increasingly bleak genre. Iwo Jima was a wretched island, considered strategically important in the final phase of WW2 for its position 650 miles from Tokyo. Facing a certain American invasion, the unraveling Japanese empire deployed some 21,000 men (now that number sounds familiar somehow…) to the island, with little or no air and sea support. The Americans sent in 110,000 marines in 880 ships. At the end of 36 days, one in three of the Americans were killed or wounded, but virtually all the Japanese perished. This, it seems, was essentially preordained – the Japanese strategy called for no survivors, asking of their soldiers only to maximize the slaughter of American troops before dying themselves. Letters from Iwo Jima focuses on the Japanese commander, Kuribayashi, on his deputies, and on some of the ordinary men, and I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say only one of these survives. The film is not about fighting, but about dying.

Honour and Accountability

Certainly it has its fill of stirring incident and spectacle, and moments of human identification. Eastwood’s approach here is more linear than in the sprawling Flags, but still accommodates occasional flashbacks to previous lives, and voice-overs reading from the letters of the title. Narratively, the film is accessible enough. But it’s deliberately taxing and draining. The colours are utterly desaturated, rendering most frames a grim yellowish gray, with only the occasional grimy infusion of blood to vary the scheme. The Japanese spend much of their time staking out the enemy in tunnels, which creates an immense claustrophobic weight. Initially, Kuribayashi has the buoyancy of the true believer, and the film allows this to shape its momentum for a while, but the hopelessness of the mission soon becomes clear, the commander can do no more than agonize in his bunker about the collapse of all around him, and the film becomes increasingly fragmented, along with what it portrays.

The film has its weaknesses. I was surprised afterwards to read the Japanese had even as many as 21,000 men, because the film seems to suggest it was much less, thus facilitating the sense of hopelessness, and allowing contrivances such as repeated meetings between the commander and the film’s main everyman character. But it’s a film of great eloquence and weight. As things go on, suicide comes increasingly to dominate its scheme (more than any war film I can remember), further deepening its reverie on death, on what’s a good death in wartime, on the nature of duty to country and empire. Which, reflecting the rigid Japanese culture of honour and accountability, provides another obvious parallel with the feckless oversight of the Iraq endeavour.

Flags of our Fathers ended on a memory of camaraderie among the American soldiers, playing around in the sea. Letters of Iwo Jima closes on the dark, accusatory silhouette of the wretched island. Those two images, on their face, merely embody the spectrum between winning and losing, but the two films together, along with the good fortune of their timing (although a filmmaker as fast moving and canny as Eastwood can truly be said to make his own luck) establish the corrupt arrogance of those very concepts in war. They’re a powerful collective letter indeed.
Alpha Dog

Meanwhile, in the most privileged enclaves of modern day America, cinematic evidence accumulates that the life of the average young adult is merely a dissipated whirl of drugs and violence and casual sex and random connection. No wonder George W. Bush doesn’t want to bring back the draft! Nick Cassavetes’ Alpha Dog is based on the story of real-life California drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood, who in 2000 was at the middle of a spontaneous kidnapping that went horribly astray. Emile Hirsch plays the fictionalized Johnny Truelove, and the film’s best performance, truly, comes from Justin Timberlake as the sweetest natured, most tragically misled of his posse.

It’s a very full film in the sense that it’s stuffed with secondary characters and connections – the many young women who hang ingratiatingly around the swaggering dudes seem especially anonymous and interchangeable – and it’s absolutely never boring. But this territory has been covered so many times that one can tick off the thematic threads before the lights even go down:  stunted maturity; ineffectual parenting; lax morality; too much easy money; latent homoeroticism; parakeet fetishism. Well, I made that last one up. I have no idea how many people out there are living the Alpha Dog life, but I think the subculture has been adequately charted by now. Ain’t freedom wonderful though?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jack Lemmon

Jack Lemmon is one of my favourite actors of all time. I know this is true, because I regularly rewatch movies I wouldn’t think of spending time on otherwise, solely because Jack Lemmon is in them, and there’s hardly anyone else I can say that for. A few months ago, I even watched Airport ’77 for Pete’s sake – that’s the one in which a failed hijack attempt sends the plane underneath the ocean. Lemmon plays the pilot, and it’s really not a role conducive to any kind of meaningful acting – the last third of the film plays mostly like an information film regarding the might of the US Navy – but his presence normalizes the melodrama at least a little. In the last few years I’ve also watched largely forgotten Lemmon films like The April Fools and Under the Yum Yum Tree, as well as many of the ones he’s actually remembered for.

Save the Tiger

Lemmon’s persona mixes intelligence, sincerity and anxiety, in a ratio that shifts from role to role; his characters are often swept along by a mixture of external mishaps and internal inadequacy, hopelessly pushing back against overwhelming circumstance, usually papered over by a veneer of jokiness or fast-talking. In the sixties, this made him the perfect embodiment of the young guy on the make, showing time and again how the business suit barely stays on for all the tics and pressures and excess booze; as he aged, accordingly, the suits may have got finer, but the man within them was more likely to crumble. He won his best actor Oscar in 1973 for Save the Tiger, where he plays Harry Stoner, owner of a faltering garment manufacturer who eventually resorts to arson to keep the business going. The film is a writerly artificiality, cramming years of escalating frustration into one day, stuffed with portents of loss and disaster (the plight of the endangered tiger being just one), but Lemmon is entirely fascinating, conveying both the agony and the perverse near-exhilaration of Harry’s looming personal and professional crack-up.

When he won the award, Lemmon beat out Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail, Al Pacino in Serpico and Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, which must have seemed like the triumph of the establishment over the new wave (even if his film career was younger than  Brando’s). He won the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award at the age of 63, the second youngest winner at that point (Orson Welles had received it at 59), getting it ahead of people like Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck who had a big head start on him. In other words, he rapidly became an institution, but one seemingly based as much on personal decency and affability as on the nature of his screen presence. It’s a little hard, even for Lemmon fans, to articulate exactly what it is that you’re responding to in his work.

Mannered regret?

David Thomson, not a particular Lemmon fan, wrote in his Biographical Dictionary of Film that the actor is “hugely skilled, meticulous, and yet- it seems to me – an abject, ingratiating parody of himself. Long ago, worry set in, the detail of his work turned fussy, nagging, and anal; his mannerisms are now like a miser’s coins…I can’t bear to see or hear that mannered regret any more.” Although I obviously don’t feel that way, I agree with Thomson in one respect: whereas most of Hollywood’s great stars never gave “bad” performances when cast in their comfort zones, Lemmon was fairly often over-indulged, becoming repetitive and even annoying. Blake Edwards directed him to one of his most raw, affecting performances in Days of Wine and Roses, but thereafter abused the actor’s faith in him. In The Great Race, Lemmon plays a comic villain, so broadly and monotonously that the film starts seeming as long as the race; later in the movie, he also plays a European crown prince who’s the villain’s double, and although the intention there is to convey idiocy rather than evil, the character behaves more or less the same, and just as annoyingly.

Even worse, twenty years later, Edwards cast Lemmon in That’s Life, which should have been a crowning achievement for both men: Edwards was coming off his most mature and strangely complex period (“10,” S.O.B.) and Lemmon had recently collected three more Oscar nominations (The China Syndrome, Tribute, Missing). But the movie ended up chronically self-absorbed and whiny, and at the same time off-puttingly opulent and smug, seeming like the sad product of too much time inside a self-indulgent bubble. The fault is no doubt Edwards’ more than Lemmon’s, but one feels an actor of his stature should have been able to push back more effectively against the complacency engulfing him (the film of Glengarry Glen Ross makes better, if still conventional, use of late Lemmon).

Lemmon’s vulnerability

If I also add that I’ve never much cared for Lemmon’s revered performance in Some Like it Hot either (writing about the film here a few years ago I said “his ‘Daphne’ is a gargoyle, tittering and screeching; to say the least, it’s an unsophisticated approach to the character”), it might raise the question of why I seem to be dwelling on his weaknesses as much as on his strengths. I think it’s because Lemmon’s magnificence, his uniqueness in American cinema, isn’t despite but is in large part because of his limitations and excesses – if his technique and control often falters, it’s a guarantee of his vulnerability, and therefore of his remarkable resonance in conveying the weight of modern problems. His trademark delivery style, which feels like he’s adding 50% of nervous digression to whatever was written on the page, seems to convey a deep-rooted fear of falling, all the more compelling for knowing that he sometimes did.

In several of his seventies films, Lemmon appears fully naked (from the back), and there’s nothing at all aspirational about what he shows – unexceptional musculature, thin arms, body hair and tan lines that just come as they come. Far from the general notion of Hollywood stars as physical and cultural ideals, Lemmon shows himself as a man who’ll have to get by on his wits, if at all, and who severely doubts how long that can last. It’s no surprise that his roles became less interesting in the 80’s, as pumped-up Reagan-era optimism became the dominant order of the day (Lemmon himself was a committed Democrat).

His great friend and co-star Walter Matthau was much less inclined to let his doubts show, more of the caustic gambler who figures he can bulldoze his way through anything. Their best film together is probably their first, The Fortune Cookie, where Lemmon’s pliable character gets manipulated this way and that by Matthau’s Whiplash Willie. Their old man buddy movies are just going through the motions, but even by their existence, they testified that despite the worries and stresses, Lemmon’s particular brand of everyman had somehow hung on.

Larger meaning

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2006)

Steven Spielberg’s Munich takes off from the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics, following five covert Israeli operatives, on a mission authorized by Golda Meir, to track down and assassinate eleven men identified as responsible. Eric Bana is the leader of the group and Geoffrey Rush is his field officer. The film feels designed to be important. That’s partly a result of its making – shot in relative secrecy and then released for Oscar season with minimal media stroking by Spielberg or his cast (except for an exclusive Time cover that seems to have alienated much of the rest of the press corps), as though the film – like its protagonists – were expected to achieve preeminence through inherent smarts and moral entitlement. As it is, it aroused pockets of strong support – Slate’s David Edelstein for one counts it as 2005’s best picture – but a more general apathy, and some considerable antipathy.

Idea of Evenhandedness

I think that’s an understandable reaction overall. It’s a long movie – some 160 minutes – although I was generally engaged by it. But this engagement primarily took place on the level of a familiar and at times somewhat mechanical thriller. The movie quickly settles into a groove whereby each target is tracked down in turn via a mysterious French middleman possessing omnipotent information but professing no moral or political affiliation (except the very act of disclaiming all governmental allegiance), each set-up involves some new kind of explosive device or other quirk, and each entails some hiccup on the way to completion. Spielberg’s execution of all this is generally impeccable, but there’s nothing at all remarkable about any of it – it’s like a retread of however many John Le Carre-type adaptations.

This would all be fine, if it were merely the genre skeleton on which Spielberg imposed something thematically bracing. But it’s in this area that Munich proves most keenly disappointing, and disappointing in exactly the way that one has sadly come to expect from him. The film simply displays little intellectual heft or political courage; to take only the most recent example, it seems thin and undernourished compared with Syriana, which displays less grasp of classical filmmaking, but is nevertheless far more compelling by virtue of its willingness to pick a thesis and stick to it, balance be damned. Munich is merely frustrating, and constantly causes you to wonder why Spielberg took on the subject in the first place.

A few samples of the commentary will get this point across better than I can. This is Leon Wieseltier from The New Republic. “The real surprise of Munich is how tedious it is. ... It is soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness. Palestinians murder, Israelis murder. Palestinians show evidence of a conscience, Israelis show evidence of a conscience…All these analogies begin to look ominously like the sin of equivalence, and so it is worth pointing out that the death of innocents was an Israeli mistake but a Palestinian objective. No doubt Munich will be admired for its mechanical symmetries, which will be called complexity. But this is not complexity, it is strategy. I mean of the marketing kind. … Munich is desperate not to be charged with a point of view. It is animated by a sense of tragedy and a dream of peace, which all good people share, but which in Hollywood is regarded as a dissent, and also as a point of view.”

Compromise and Dialogue

Here’s a more explicitly ideological expression of the same general reservation, from David Brooks in The New York Times.  “By choosing a story set in 1972, Spielberg allows himself to ignore the core poison that permeates the Middle East, Islamic radicalism. In Spielberg's Middle East, there is no Hamas or Islamic Jihad. There are no passionate anti-Semites, no Holocaust deniers like the current president of Iran, no zealots who want to exterminate Israelis.

“There is, above all, no evil. And that is the core of Spielberg's fable. In his depiction of reality there are no people so committed to a murderous ideology that they are impervious to the sort of compromise and dialogue Spielberg puts such great faith in.”

There’s much other available commentary along the same lines. And the basic point seems to me incontrovertible. Spielberg doesn’t help his case in a recent interview with Roger Ebert, where he seems to have little specific to say about his film’s thesis, but goes on vaguely about “larger meaning” and how “the dialogue needs to be louder than the weapons” and how discussion “is the highest good – it’s Talmudic.” Munich is duly filled with seemingly endless exchanges and meditations on how one act of vengeance may merely precipitate another. I cannot assess the claims for historical accuracy, but with a truly probing director that wouldn’t matter. Co-writer Tony Kushner wrote Angels in America, which generated great meaning and resonance, partly out of real people, without holding itself hostage to mundane pro- or con- accounting based on the mundane facts.

One of several weird paradoxes of Spielberg’s career is that he’s a master at creating fantasy worlds, bringing about our complete immersion in essentially outlandish premises, but then turns poky and pious in his “serious” projects. Munich ends with a shot of the World Trade Center, some twenty five years before 9/11, as a backdrop to the final conversation between Bana and Rush. The allusion is obvious, that what we’ve witnessed is in some way a foundation for the cycle of hatred and excess that culminated in that grave attack, and from there into the war in Iraq and God knows what lies beyond. But as insights go, this is not one iota more articulate or rational than George W. Bush’s aspirations for democracy in the Middle East.

Threat from within

Spielberg’s other 2005 movie, War of the Worlds, was inherently much easier to take, prompting some to wonder why at this late stage he spends his time on such material, and yet I actually found the film more politically provocative than Munich. That film also has 9/11 references in abundance, some of which might be considered merely opportunistic, but I thought the central metaphor of the overwhelming threat emerging from within, into the midst of a carefully evoked blue collar milieu, was a more intriguing commentary on middle-American complacency and vulnerability than anything in Munich. That film was justly criticized for its soft family-centric ending, and Munich again proves itself vulnerable on this score, as political calculations yield to the imperative of simply protecting one’s own.

The film does hint at some intriguing angles on the interplay of personal and political, through a recurring preoccupation with lost fathers, but this comes to seem more like a Spielbergian indulgence than a substantial contribution to the “larger meaning.” I don't want to overstate the case – Munich is full of intriguing sequences, and Spielberg’s calculating grimness is hardly more negligible than the achievements of many other serious films. But even as he explains it, his film’s lessons appear targeted mainly at unthinking zealots, and I don’t think I’m paying either myself or you the reader an unwarranted compliment when I say we may be a little beyond that.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Woman under the Influence

I’ve written in this space before about the great director John Cassavetes, but that was in 2005, so it wouldn’t seem like a sign of obsession to write about him again (you can find the previous article here). I recently rewatched his 1974 film A Woman under the Influence, for the first time in seven years, and it was as magnificent and overwhelming an experience as ever. There are plenty of directors whose work doesn’t feel like anyone else’s, but it often feels as if you make your way into their films by trekking down a very specific and often very long corridor, leaving behind the rooms and the furnishings you usually hang out among, just hoping the journey will be worth it and that the carpet isn’t toxic. Cassavetes, in comparison, seems to be waiting at the entrance to the corridor when you arrive, pulling you along, gabbing in your ear, stamping you with his infectious enthusiasm, and yet also being an almost instant pain in the ass, so that you can’t help thinking you might turn and run from him, if not that he’d catch you up and probably knock you down.

John Cassavetes

In that previous article, which I wrote not long after the release of the Criterion boxed set John Cassavetes: Five Films (still one of the most crucial items on my DVD shelves), I emphasized such matters as Cassavetes’ delight in behavior, in performance, in love as the driving force of human nature. It’s sometimes occurred to me that Cassavetes (who died in 1989) would likely have regarded my own largely peaceful, conflict-free relationship as a soulless surrender, a shutting-down of something elemental. Although I’m quite certain I wouldn’t be happy living my life in Cassavetes fashion, his view of the world, as you’re watching his films, is so persuasive that it’s hard to entirely bat the question away.

My own favourite is his late film Love Streams (not in the Criterion set, but apparently coming soon), but A Woman under the Influence (which is in the set) was his greatest success, at least as measured by popular interest and Oscar nominations; it was a key contribution to a time when debates about women’s equality and liberation were active and heated. It’s a portrait of Mabel Longhetti (played by Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ wife), who maintains a household and brings up three kids while her husband Nick (Peter Falk) works long hours in a blue-collar job. From the start of the film, it’s unclear whether Mabel is by some definition mentally ill, or just extremely quirky, and of course there’s no clear point where one merges into the other. Either way, her behavior becomes disruptive enough that the family sends her to a hospital for six months, but when she returns it’s unclear how much has actually changed (which thus reinforces the question of whether she was ever under the influence of anything that could be treated, other than perhaps life itself).

Essential impossibility

Writing a few years afterwards, James Monaco said: “it’s by far the best portrait we have of the essential impossibility of the housewife’s role, and it’s a logically harrowing narrative of the painful neurosis that is so often the only response to that dilemma.” The film wasn’t in any sense a feminist fantasy though: Monaco also cited Susan Schenker’s assessment that Cassavetes “has purposefully designed the film without giving Mabel the slightest chance to explain herself. She has no girlfriend, no sympathetic listener to talk to, and so the deck is neatly stacked against her.” Even this well-intentioned critique seems at heart though to be reaching a conclusion about Mabel’s condition, that it’s of a kind that could only benefit from sympathetic listening (which, written in the context of the 70’s, seems to herald a lifetime of analysis) and so must in some way need to be talked away. But this might merely be a twist on the age-old labeling of female expression as “hysteria,” or worse.

The film’s key scene, I think, comes shortly after Mabel arrives home, far more subdued at first than we’ve seen her before. Almost before she’s had any chance to settle, Nick drags her aside, and more or less pummels her back toward her old behavior, telling her “there’s nothing you can do wrong,” and “I just want you to be yourself,” and forcing her to drag up some of the weird sounds she used to make. It’s a deeply ambiguous moment. In some sense, it seems Nick realizes Mabel will never reach a workable equilibrium in this anaesthetized state, and for her own good pushes her toward fuller self-expression. But it’s also clear that for the most part, he likes her the way she is, and throughout the film he behaves in a way that seems calculated (knowingly or intuitively) to spark confrontations and outbursts, both with Mabel and with others. Perhaps he’s partly a liberating force, but he also insists oppressively on setting the terms of Mabel’s rehabilitation.

Everyday madness

But with the passage of time, it’s easier to see too how you might as well refer to the essential impossibility of Nick’s role – an ordinary if somewhat volatile man, eternally pushed and constrained by conflicting influences (in one of the extras on the disk, Rowlands and Falk recall how audiences booed his character, but that seems unlikely to happen now). The film ends on an extended scene of togetherness and marital syncopation, but it’s clear nothing has been resolved – the following day, Nick will go to work again, and the kids will go to school, and Mabel will have the same overwhelming question: how to make sense of her hours and days and years, to make them fully her own, while maintaining a functional interaction with the rest of the world.

Thirty years after it came out, the film seems startlingly radical and mysterious. Monaco’s comments about the essential impossibility of the housewife’s role, and Schenker’s about Mabel’s lack of opportunity to explain herself, would have to mean something very different in a world of revved-up distraction and connectivity, and the fact that there seems to be no chance of her looking for a job would surely have to be remarked on now. In some ways, we’re in an age that purports to prize personal expression (in matters of honesty about sexuality for instance), but in others – for example in the way we’re all meant to be consumed by electronic trivia and disposable media-fueled daily outrages – everything pushes us toward uniformity. Cassavetes might well have diagnosed such insularity as a form of collective madness, a systematic rejection of possibility, far more toxic to the soul than Mabel’s swooping into odd utterances and gestures and outbursts of wacky creativity and honesty.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Best of 2004

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2004)

This was a satisfying year – the first in a while where I find myself puzzling over what to leave off the top ten list rather than over what to put on it. Here’s where I ended up (in no particular order); apologies to any masterpieces released at the very end of the year.

Before Sunset

There’s something almost unbearably touching and joyous about Richard Linklater’s sequel to his 1995 Before Sunrise. The film’s concept (two people having an extended conversation in Paris) and execution are simple, but its impact seems to flow from the very heart of cinema, prompting endless reflections on memory and the power of the image. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are both magnificent, and it probably has the best ending of the year.

Uzak (Distant)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Turkish film had a brief run at the Cinematheque, where it evoked for me the transforming effect of watching Chantal Akerman’s Les rendezvous d’Anna at the age of 16 or 17; about an unemployed man who comes from the country to the city to stay with his more prosperous cousin, it’s visually ravishing and totally gripping from the outset as a thematic and psychological construction. The film’s beautiful choreography gracefully depicts the similarities in the two men’s solitary trajectories; it’s one of the best recent films on the classic arthouse theme of alienation.


I wouldn’t strenuously disagree with the common list of faults identified in Lars von Trier’s Dogville: pretentiousness, repetition, lazy point scoring. Even so, this film about a woman’s humiliation in a small Depression-era village is stylistically so fascinating (it was shot in its entirety inside a Swedish warehouse, with no sets) that a reasonably minded viewer should be able to stay with it through these challenges. And it’s clearly a major piece of political cinema, even if one’s assessment in that regard is inevitably going to be coloured by personal preconceptions.

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. 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 seems at times to reflect almost the entire span of creative endeavour, and it’s thrilling both to watch and to contemplate afterwards.

Vera Drake

Leigh’s amazing film shows an ordinary woman in 1920’s England who “helps out girls in trouble” – she performs abortions, and eventually is arrested and put through the justice system.  The film is a devastating sociological critique, based in an almost supernatural evocation of time and place – in particular, each character represents a slightly different perspective on sexuality, shown here as a commodity inherently conditioned by class. The film is less showy than some of Leigh’s work, but ultimately I think it ranks second only to Topsy-Turvy.  

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary on the making of Metallica’s last album delivers all the rock genre goods, but with a bizarre (until you’ve thought of it, that is) contemporary twist: the band members undergo relentless talk therapy as they try to hold it all together. It’s intermittently hilarious and always fascinating, and in a year of many fine documentaries stands out in the memory for its surprising thematic scope.


Olivier Assayas’ 2002 film finally played here at the Cinematheque after a long delay. It’s an amazing creation, straining what you’d think would be the edges of someone’s creative prowess. The first half is a precise, superbly executed drama of high finance (perhaps the best since Alan Pakula’s Rollover); the second half deliberately sheds all coherence, taking on the dream logic of a David Lynch film as alliances and understandings persistently redefine themselves. The film exhibits a cacophony of interests and influences, all spinning off the cultural, personal and sexual perils of high-tech globalization, opening up unimaginable wells of neurosis.

The Dreamers

When I saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s chronicle of sex and cinema in 1968 Paris, it didn’t seem likely to make this list. Certain parts of the film are utterly vibrant and compelling, but the emphasis on so much youthful beauty rather blurs its thematic possibilities, and the ending seemed far more visually arresting than meaningful. Even so, I find myself dwelling on the film far more than most others, perhaps because in making a film that draws so explicitly on his own origins, Bertolucci almost seems to be acknowledging his need for rejuvenation.

Son Frere

On the basis of my sole visit there so far, Atom Egoyan’s Camera (on 1020 Queen West) is an enticing addition to the city, especially since you can see a film there, walk a couple of blocks and then hang out at the Drake Hotel. It’s where I saw Patrice Chereau’s Son Frere, a hugely accomplished study of a man with a debilitating blood disease and his relationship with his brother. The film blends clinical precision of observation with an extraordinarily fluid perspective toward family versus sexual love, and the social implications of illness and its inherently marginalizing consequences; it’s emotionally wrenching, and thrilling in its thoroughness.

Million Dollar Baby

After the astonishing one-two punch of Mystic River and the new film, Clint Eastwood again seems close to the summit of American directors. The film shows no shame with boxing cliches; the characters are essentially stock figures, and much of the trajectory is familiar. But Million Dollar Baby seems to understand these mechanics more fully and fluently than almost any other film – it’s an eloquent study, minimally but beautifully styled, in how the sport’s strange mechanics and culture redefine the three main characters.

Other honourable mentions: The Triplets of Belleville, Broken Wings, Baadaaaas, The Mother, Zatoichi. That’s a lot of honourable mentions – it was a good year. As I mentioned, lots of good (or at least intriguing) documentaries too – My Architect, The Take, The Yes Men, The Corporation. Films like Sideways and Kinsey were terrific entertainments without quite convincing me as art. As always, I doubt that I saw the year’s worst films, but I was heavily in the dissenting camp on The Passion of Christ, and was lukewarm on Fahrenheit 911.  Also a great film festival year, lots of great DVD releases, and another wonderful year at the Cinematheque. Could I be happier? Sure, if they released Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind. See you in 2005!

Two by Samuel Fuller

The story behind Shark seems to be something like this: after a fifteen year run of getting financing for his punchy low-budget films, Samuel Fuller hit a rough patch in the mid-60’s and couldn’t get anything. Perhaps out of desperation, he swallowed some misgivings and decided to work with some inexperienced producers on an adventure film set in a Sudanese port city. The experience was a mess, but Fuller escaped intact and cut the film to his general satisfaction; however, the producers messed around with it, to the extent that he unsuccessfully tried to get his name removed. Subsequently, despite being one of American cinema’s great raconteurs, he could hardly bring himself to mention the picture. His career never regained its earlier pace, but a decade later he managed to make at least two other astounding pictures: The Big Red One and White Dog.


When I watched the film again recently, it was as if the elements were conspiring to prevent a viewer from gleaning any sense of what Fuller might have had in mind. I watched it on DVD, but in a terrible print with awful sound quality. It was released on the Troma label, which is usually associated with consciously ridiculous exploitation movies, and although Troma’s intentions seemed entirely respectable – the disc contains several extras attempting to argue for the film’s merits – the fit seemed inherently weird. It’s subsequently been released again in a Blu-ray version, so I’m sure that would help in some respects, but with Fuller long gone and no apparent hope of recreating his original cut, it’ll always be a bloodied carcass of a film.

The film stars Burt Reynolds (at the very dawn of his film career) as Caine, a gunrunner stranded with few resources, looking for a way out. The only other Westerners around are a pathetic drunk of a doctor (Arthur Kennedy) and a man and woman engaged in some mysterious underwater “research,” looking for a new helper after the local boy they engaged was killed by a (of course) shark. Reynolds takes the job and soon discovers there’s more to the project than they’ve let on. The set-up also includes a conniving police chief and a local kid who latches onto Reynolds: it’s the kind of sparse set-up that’s powered hundreds of Hollywood movies, with vague echoes of Casablanca and Howard Hawks and plenty of others. Caine is a relentlessly self-defined protagonist, not without a moral code (he cares about the kid) but generally happy to work every angle, because everyone else is doing the same. The primary points of interest include some diverting local colour, good underwater sequences and a moderately clever twist ending, but none of this is fundamental to what one usually enjoys about Fuller’s cinema. The film, at least in this version, doesn’t have much sign of the compelling characterizations, visual force and clear attitude-striking that marks his best work.

House of Bamboo

Still, I have a weakness for these bereft back alleys of cinema, and allowed myself to imagine it might even be better viewed in this sorrowful condition than in Fuller’s ideal version. The film in this form has an end-of-the-world feeling to it, a stripping down to the edge of oblivion, where everyone wants only to escape the present, whether by inviting death at the bottom of the sea, or at the bottom of a bottle, or by repeated recklessness that can’t beat the odds forever, with the decaying sound and image and craft conspiring in the self-obliteration. The casting supports the sense of a weird, bleak melting pot: Reynolds on the verge of stardom but with a long decline to follow; Kennedy with five Oscar nominations behind him but heading into twenty years of trashy pictures. The femme fatale is played by Silvia Pinal, who a few years earlier had starred in some of Luis Bunuel’s best films; it’s hard to look at her, in this displaced dubbed version, without thinking of the surrealist master’s rebukes to society.

A few days later, feeling a desire for a more conventional and canonical Fuller experience, I watched one of his most famous films, the 1954 House of Bamboo. It stars Robert Stack as Eddie, an undercover army cop who infiltrates himself into an American crime gang operating in Tokyo; Robert Ryan is Sandy, the man in charge. This time, the quality was gorgeous, showcasing Fuller’s wonderfully precise execution and the magnificent CinemaScope imagery. This is one of the Fuller films where you can feel the man behind the camera, wholly engaged and on top of his game, tolerating no slackness or wrong turns. Of course, it’s expressed through the conventions of the day – Stack’s hard-boiled manner is rather ridiculous by contemporary standards (which is probably why Ryan, working through more subtle shadings, has had the more lasting reputation) and although the film starts by emphasizing its use of real Japanese locations (and makes remarkable use of those at several points, particularly in its high-concept shoot-out finale), it’s still a highly stylized portrayal of the country and society.

World turning

But in Fuller’s peak period, this was one of the most effective cinematic vocabularies ever devised. Sandy’s gang is made up entirely of former GIs who went bad in one way or another during the war, now exiled in the strangest of societies, where they hide in plain sight, each man with a “kimono” to soothe his rough edges. The apparent exception is Sandy himself, whose affinity for Eddie has a classic unexpressed homoerotic element (forming a bridge to the anguished domestic melodramas of the time, some of which also starred Stack). Eddie falls for the Japanese widow of a former gang member; while investigating what happened to the dead man, he’s actually drawn largely into retracing his footsteps, acting out a psychological exile that intersects with the gang’s polished nihilism (they all wear nice suits and behave like businessmen, but Sandy dictates that any man injured on the job must be shot dead on the spot – the rule holds until he breaks it, to save Eddie).

The distance between the two films seems to evidence a multi-faceted decline in confidence and certainty: not just that in Fuller’s own circumstances, but in the industry surrounding him, and in the surrounding world (which, via an amusement park exhibit, ominously circles at the end of House of Bamboo). The first film reflects a post-WW2 clarity; beneath the cultural differences and psychological shakiness, there’s still a relative morality that powers crisp narrative, and lays a claim to razor-sharp imagery. A decade and a half later, the underlying trauma and fractures have caused that surface to degrade, demanding a new suitably conflicted breed of artist (as Fuller was eclipsed, Peckinpah rose). Modern American cinema draws on both strands I suppose, while seldom addressing how even the sharks are in danger now.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Throwing up

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2009)

We were in Israel recently, and we went to the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, where the work continues to identify and document each individual victim of the Holocaust. There’s such immense nobility to that effort, in the insistence that each of those histories not only should but will carry continuing weight, that the imperative of not forgetting demands a scrupulous harvesting, no matter how hard it may be, of each individual loss. And it suddenly seemed so sad to me, without implying at all that the Shoah should be appropriated as a metaphor, that there’s such a grim mismatching in the world; that the scrupulous not forgetting of those fallen, and – as a wretched but instructive contrast - the (if you ask me) deranged “over-remembering” of a select few (Michael Jackson), doesn’t teach us anything about our broader responsibility. During the Michael Jackson hoopla I had a moment of disconnection and went on Google to look for how many people probably died of hunger that day. It was something approaching 15,000. We lack the capacity to acknowledge them individually, but what a global shame that we don’t even do so collectively, except in the most sporadic and token of ways.

Fat and Sick

We don’t really respect those dying people. We might say we do, but our actions make liars of us. If we respected them, we’d never tolerate such a gulf of daily pain. I’m not even talking, today anyway, about the difference in our wealth and comfort generally – let’s just stipulate for this purpose that Western prosperity, if used correctly (smart trade, smart aid, etc.) forms part of the best-hope scenario for addressing the underdeveloped world’s pain. But I am talking about food. About the fact that gluttony, indulgence, waste and inefficiency are not just inherent in but actually necessary to our food system as it’s constituted. That many of us gorge daily on volumes two, three times or even more what we need, actually making ourselves fat and sick on it, which of course just further depletes our ability and motivation to do anything more than sit around and waddle back and forth from the nearest fast food depot. Even if we think we enjoy it, what kind of pleasure rests in perpetuity on something so repetitive, so artificial, so insidiously damaging? Oh I know, in the same way we enjoy all the lame TV we’re so superior about and yet such slaves to; the same cultural slop that fills up our brains and ensures our disconnection from our enormous deterioration and self-cannibalization, so that we keep consuming, keep the stale models going, although even in our blubbery haze, we know everything just keeps getting worse.

Do I really mean “we”? Actually no – I’m not particularly part of that mechanism. But I’m just a different kind of failure then – judge for yourself whether better or worse. I avoid fast food completely in its strip mall incarnation, and I’m good at eating fruit and vegetables and controlling portion size and that kind of thing; I walk a lot and I’m nowhere close to overweight. Good for me then. But all the worse for me, because I’m not otherwise scrupulous about sourcing what I buy, I still spend way too much money in other kinds of restaurants relative to my needs, and I lack any kind of activism. But then, that’s the big black hole of our age, how to effect change in a way that’s other than marginal, that isn’t primarily about quieting your conscience (I know every journey begins with a single step, but a bunch of disconnected single steps don’t amount to a journey, and that’s all we seem capable of now).

Food Inc.

So often currently, we hear that we can’t keep doing things the same way, that we have to change, become more conscientious, over and over. Then the policy wheels turn exactly in the same way, and anyone who seriously proposes even modestly suitable change is (successfully) pilloried as rapacious, unpatriotic, socialistic, etc. So, for example, eating better, and actual tangible steps to support that, couldn’t possibly be successfully sold at present as a fundamental plank of social reform, whereas a costly tax credit/spending spree to guard against some remote (but media-friendly) neurotic risk certainly could be. Just as obsessing about a dead pop star – the epitome of wasting time about nothing – gets positioned as the most globally significant task available (and, in a feat of brilliant disingenuousness, as something that somehow unites us in a common experience, as if, you know, collectively destroying the planet wasn’t already enough unity).

I didn’t go to see Robert Kenner’s documentary Food Inc. for a few weeks, because I expected it would just chime with my pre-existing views and make me mad, and so it did. Drawn partly from the same well as Fast Food Nation (author Eric Schlosser is one of the producers here), it moves meticulously through all the key pieces of the chain, focusing in particular how the fast food industry’s demands for predictable cost and quality spawned a huge industrialization and consolidation of production, aided by ridiculous government incentives and deregulation. The use of sample individuals to illustrate a broader point is often problematic in general, but Kenner really nails it here with one Latino family, endlessly filling up on dollar meals because they can’t afford anything else (substantiated through a visit to the local supermarket), with a family diabetes problem which eats up their money for medication and thus increases their reliance on crap. The proliferation of diabetes in younger people is one of the things I’d vaguely known about but not focused on too much before seeing the film; again, it just leaves you empty and miserable that it’s presumably impossible to have an appropriate policy debate on this. 

Utterly Lost

Although the movie should infuriate most progressive-minded viewers (try reading Roger Ebert’s review), Kenner doesn’t stoke the pot as much as he could, and his movie (at a tidy hour and a half or so) might be one of the few that could actually have been longer. Among other things, there’s very little material about foreign countries (beyond a brief acknowledgement of how grotesque American crop subsidization murders the small overseas producer), and although I’m not much of a Michael Moore admirer, I wouldn’t have minded seeing some Moore-type guerilla tactics against the enabling politicians. But of course, those kinds of caveats hardly matter here. The movie ends with an Inconvenient Truth-type rundown of small steps available to the viewer, but although I suppose the climate change issue is objectively even more difficult, Kenner’s list actually seemed to me more hopeless: the economic perversions he depicts will surely only take on strength in a recession. And while I suppose we might be forgiven for not initially being equal to ecosystem-wide issues, I don’t know what word or phrase to use for our lost relationship with our own food, with what should be the most basic element of living and self-respect. Pathetic? Degraded? Maybe just utterly lost.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Notes from the plague

Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart opened in New York in 1985, and although I didn’t know exactly what it contains until I saw Ryan Murphy’s new HBO film, it feels to me I’ve been aware of it almost as long as I’ve had any adult cultural awareness. I distinctly remember a period in the 1990’s when film magazines like Variety, virtually on a weekly basis, reported on Barbra Streisand’s progress toward filming the material, an effort which eventually petered out. More recently, the play was revived on Broadway, winning several Tony awards, and then Murphy finally managed to get it on screen, albeit not on the big screen, but it hardly matters now. Kramer’s late-in-life softening (he’s now 79, and has apparently had some serious health close-calls) was reportedly a major factor in this – he’s expressed complete satisfaction with the result.

The Normal Heart

Watching the HBO film, I couldn’t help wishing we had Streisand’s version to compare it to – if only because of the passage of time, the differences would surely be instructive and fascinating. The film revolves around Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a protagonist with much of the back story and many of the attributes of Kramer himself, active at the heart of the gay community at the time when the “gay cancer” is initially identified. Weeks is instrumental in organizing a response to the escalating crisis and in lobbying for public funding and attention, but his aggressive methods cause conflicts with his fellow activists. At the same time, he has the most meaningful relationship of his life with a New York Times journalist, who’s eventually infected with the disease.

It’s hard to watch the film without thinking back to the recent documentary How to Survive a Plague (I said the same thing when I was writing here about Dallas Buyers Club, so it’s clearly entirely reshaped my sense of that piece of history), not just because Kramer was one of the interviewees there. The focus is a little different though: where How to Survive focuses on the specific efforts toward finding a cure, The Normal Heart is anchored a little further back in the assimilation process, still overwhelmed by lack of comprehension that such a thing could be happening, struggling toward meaningful personal or collective coping strategies, with discussions of effective treatment anchored more in hope than in articulated research. Still, that aside,, although I certainly don’t hold any views on the inherent superiority of documentary films over the other kinds, in this case the comparison doesn’t particularly work to the benefit of Murphy’s film.

Opened out

I say this for mostly unsurprising reasons. The play has been “opened out” in the usual ways, adding exteriors, additional secondary characters, and so on, but the ways in which it adheres to the source material, including its focus on a small group of core people, still seem limiting; it contains numerous extended monologues that impede the sense of naturalism; the character of a wheelchair-bound doctor who’s one of the first to recognize what’s happening (played here, rather monotonously, by Julia Roberts) may have been an effective counterpoint on stage but seems like a leaden device here. Although the film is more physically frank than a 1990’s Streisand version would likely have been, and articulated without the Hollywood gloss one imagines she would have painted on it, its overriding purpose is no different - simply to record Kramer’s landmark work for posterity, even if every passing year can only possibly add distance, reducing the odds that the underlying anger can be transmitted intact.

Somewhat offsetting that though, Murphy’s film is a fascinating encapsulation of America’s changing conversation about being gay. The opening stretch of the film emphasizes how the community at that time, in Weeks’ assessment, is overly dependent on promiscuity and demonstrative exuberance to define itself; when the Roberts character counsels taking a break from sex until they know more about the disease, many see that merely as a route back into the closet. At the same time though, the gay community can barely interact openly with the big world around it, and political leaders still perceive no moral need to extend even trivial mercies toward homosexuals, let alone any practical advantage; if the political leaders themselves are closeted, one perceives, they’re only less likely to do anything that might undermine their own security.

                                                   Conquered territory                       

Looking back, it wouldn’t have been so surprising if the reaction to AIDS had broken in such a way – as many doubtless feared at the time that it would – as to fortify the disinterest or disgust of the rest of the world, and leave gay people in the ghetto forever. Instead, it’s possible to see its devastation as the start of the slow (but in recent years rapidly escalating) climb toward equality. The most thrilling parts of The Normal Heart now – and it has quite a lot of them – are the heated debates about fundamental identity and status; for example, Weeks’ insistence to his (straight) brother, the most important figure in his life, that he nevertheless won’t speak to him until he accepts Ned’s sexuality as being fully equal to his own, something the brother finds impossible. If the brother thereby seems like a symbol of expired attitudes, we should recall that it’s only been two years since President Obama was willing to support same-sex marriage, thus ending his own support of a fundamental institutionalized prejudice. Murphy’s film arrives at a time of astonishing realization of dreams: by no means fully achieved of course – maybe that’ll come when it ceases to be news that yet another second-level celebrity isn’t actually straight, or when a trashy website like TMZ can no longer get mileage out of pouncing on the homophobic slurs of the rich and unimportant (the ongoing interest in which seems to speak to a profound lingering insecurity, among other things).

In this light, one of the film’s most meaningful elements is the presence of Jim Parsons, playing the executive director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (a part he also played in the Broadway revival). Parsons seemingly slid easily into public acceptance as an openly gay man playing a nominally straight role; in The Normal Heart, he retains his familiar speech patterns and mannerisms, but as an increasingly exhausted mechanism of resistance. It’s not just that he gives the film’s most moving performance (from a strong line-up) but that by his very presence he embodies the ultimate triumph over potential decimation, and clarifies the film as a declaration of victory. Barbra Streisand’s mid-90’s version of the material would no doubt have tried to find some legitimate signals of long-term hope too, but it would surely have struggled to make them more than far-off aspirations.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Old man's movie

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2008)

Critics have had a field day with Jon Avnet’s 88 Minutes, which racked up a startling 11% approval rating on the bellwether Rotten Tomatoes site. You know, I don’t like to run with the crowd, but the film is really not very good. I wouldn’t have gone to it at all if not for Al Pacino - readers may be aware that I remain a true believer in the man and his magic. I don’t even mind that he makes easier choices now – it’s good to watch him seemingly comfortable in his own skin after those more preoccupied early decades.

88 Minutes

I’m being more generous than most critics even in positing that the movie could have avoided completely sucking. The premise (an outlandish one, but aren’t they all?) has Pacino’s forensic psychiatrist Jack Gramm being informed via a call on his cell phone that he has only 88 minutes to live. It seems to have something to do with a serial killer who was locked away nine years earlier, largely on the strength of Gramm’s testimony, and is scheduled for the electric chair that very day. Meanwhile, more killings are happening, using the killer’s distinctive M.O., and the evidence points to Gramm. Well, Gramm, as you would, assumes that 88 minutes should be enough to figure all of that out, and so he does.

The real villain of the piece is director Avnet, whose work here is seriously heavy-handed. One’s heart sinks right from the clumsy depiction of the murder that starts the film, and takes further blows as one poorly staged, indifferently acted scene follows another. The basic premise could have worked without the 88 minute gimmick, but since the gimmick is there, it’s pathetic how little rigour the film brings to it – virtually at every juncture, events take place that couldn’t possibly have taken the five minutes, or whatever, the movie claims. I sometimes find myself thinking this is a kind of well-meaning naiveté, that directors like Avnet are so engaged by the basic magic of the medium that the raw elements they work with start seeming infinitely pliable. But no, the weight of evidence points to pervasive disregard. Another example would be the threadbare nature of the disguise wrapped around the Vancouver locations, standing in here for Seattle. Basically it’s an old man’s film – the prominent presence of several attractive young women (a number of them bearing crushes on Gramm) just underlines that.

I’ll never grudge Pacino a few mistakes, but it’s unclear whether he learned from it, because he’s already made another film with the same director, re-teaming with Robert De Niro. A decade ago, in the wake of Heat, that would have still have been an event, now it’s barely a footnote (the trailer, available online, looks pretty dull – actually all I recall about it is how old and big De Niro looks). Even as I write this review, I wonder if I should just delete it and forget about 88 Minutes. With the even more thoroughly derided Gigli, a few years ago, I could think of a few plausible (to me at least) against the tide observations. Now I stare at the walls and wait for insight. None comes. 88 minutes pass. I still live.

Pacino on Letterman

At that point I leave this article aside for a day, and in the interim I watch Pacino’s appearance on Letterman. He’s 68 now, and I can’t exactly say he doesn’t look it, or maybe it’s more some parallel universe notion of 68. He doesn’t really seem to be concentrating. He brushes off Letterman’s questions about movies, preferring to talk about theater (his first anecdote is the same one he used on his last appearance). I thought it was mesmerizing, but I can’t help wondering what the average, say, 25-year-old would make of it. I still think of Letterman himself (another idol of mine) as young and at the centre of things, I really do, even though he just turned 61, and sometimes sounds like it.

88 Minutes barely gets a mention. I wonder if anyone cares. When I saw the movie, there was one other guy in the theater – based on the box office, it must have been the same story just about everywhere. I start to develop a perverse compulsion now to keep writing about it, because who else will? And you know, my relationship to movies has changed too. I used to think maybe this column would be a springboard, that I’d try to latch onto a bigger publication, or maybe expand onto the web. But now I think that would be unsatisfying, and just not very useful. The volume of online movie writing, even good stuff, grows exponentially. Every day I stumble across another blog. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately about established American critics getting laid off, bought out, and so forth – not too many of those stable pulpits left any more. Makes sense to me – who needs them? Why should anyone, seriously, be able to pay their mortgage by churning out 800 damning words on 88 Minutes, and let’s say two or three others a week. That’s not serious work. It’s a sideline.

So this is the limit of my ambition in that area. I hope to stay in this space for as long as the Outreach will have me, and after that I’ll be finished with movie writing. I don’t know if I’m talking about a month, or twenty years. I hope it’s a long time, but it’s like anything else, I’ll only become more set in my ways. Like, you know, every other Letterman show features a Regis Philbin joke. Even giving the time of day to an old man’s film like 88 Minutes, for any purpose other than to mock it, will be an act of creaky rebellion.

London to Brighton

But another thing you may not know about Letterman – the show regularly ends with terrific music. Hot bands, new discoveries – nothing complacent going on there. I feel it helps keep my own musical taste young (last thing I bought was the Black Keys, if that means anything to you). So let’s turn this thing round. Hear about London to Brighton? It’s a micro-budget, hard as nails British thriller, made by 35-year old Paul Anthony Williams. The movie is extremely scrupulous, without a hint of unearned glamour or polish. It’s also very hard to watch, functioning at times almost as a documentary on the reality of whoring, including the 12-year-old girl variety. It does have a gangster character who may owe a bit too much to movie conventions (or maybe not, I wouldn’t know), but it’s not at all complacent about the reality of guns, pain, and making money (or the fraught meaning of time). The movie’s implied economic analysis is devastating, its “happy” ending highly conditional. The only conventionally beautiful scene in there, a shot of a cottage in Devon, might as well be set in Oz. You think No Country for Old Men had anything profound to say about evil and morality? No country for old men? – really? Who has the money, the power, the talk shows? OK, usually not the best movies. But is that the game decider?

A visiting alien

In Jonathan Glazer’s riveting Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson plays – no, that’s not quite the right word – is an alien in human form, driving around Glasgow in a van and picking up guys, taking them to her place for sex but instead sending them to a strange other-dimensional fate (in the book on which the film is based, it’s apparently explicit that they’re sent to be consumed on her home planet, but the film doesn’t spell it out). She’s aided by a man on a motorcycle, who monitors her activity and sometimes steps in to help with clean up. All seems to proceed smoothly until she picks up a man with neurofibromatosis – the “elephant man disease” – who, whether because of unsuitability or a faltering on her part, is able to escape; after that, her focus is lost, and she wanders, tentatively testing the extent to which she can live as a human.

Under the Skin

Glazer clearly sets out with the film to create a modern myth, to add to the privileged catalogue of such works. The opening shots of the film evoke the cosmic abstraction of something like 2001; the man on the motorcycle and the victims’ descent into viscous oblivion links to Jean Cocteau; the alien’s real form and some aspects of her quest echo The Man who Fell to Earth; the notion of a woman transformed through sex into something destructive goes back to Cat People, and I’m sure the list of resonances could go on almost indefinitely. The film teems with bleakly stunning images, often showcasing the forbidding grandeur of the Scottish landscapes, against which thoughts of relative human powerlessness are standard existential fare. The music score sounds conceived and performed by an ensemble on the verge of cracking its head open. At some points, in particular in an extended scene involving the fate of a couple and their young child on a beach, Glazer seems to be testing how much cruelty we can stand to absorb.

I usually avoid spending extended portions of these reviews discussing the qualities or otherwise of its actors, but it’s impossible in this case not to reflect at some length on Scarlett Johansson. This isn’t just a case of casting an actor in a role – the film’s impact depends to a massive extent on having someone like Scarlett Johansson (having seen the film, it feels like it could only ever have been specifically her) at its centre. Many of the people in the film aren’t actors – Johansson actually drove around Glasgow and instigated the encounters, monitored by hidden cameras, with the film crew eventually emerging to make things clear and take care of paperwork. This sets up a complex spin on our customary engagement with glamorously famous Hollywood stars. On the one hand, it extends the usual pleasure of watching and implied desire to a near-ultimate place – she’s never made a film which is so much about looking at her, without the benefit of studio lighting, often semi- or completely naked. And at the same time, she’s audaciously, rampantly available; we’re watching men, however briefly, sensing the possibility of one of those stories you tell forever. And then it kills them, although in a way strangely evocative of what they came for, extending into infinity the disembodied emptiness of orgasm.

Scarlett Johansson

One could theoretically imagine the film with one of those countless California women who embody conventional aerobicized concepts of sexiness, looking potentially (and perhaps in some respects literally) constructed on a surgeon’s table. But Johansson doesn’t look like that at all – she’s much more traditionally voluptuous, with the kind of old-school physicality that might look sexier in a low-cut dress than out of it, and causing you to think about her body in a very direct, visceral way. I don’t mean that to sound prurient – the director and the actress clearly knew what they were up to here. Overall, Under the Skin is the first film in years that seems to warrant a place in the pantheon that indelibly fuse our sense of actress and character, creating something endlessly enveloping and transcendent: Marlene Dietrich’s pictures with Josef von Sternberg, Kim Novak in Vertigo, some of Catherine Deneuve’s early films, and so on (although not so on for very long – it’s not a real long list).

It’s probably clear from all this that Under the Skin is one of the emblematic films that’s “not for everyone.” Jeffrey Wells of the Hollywood Elsewhere website, for instance, said this: “I sat there and sat there, waiting for ‘it’ to happen, for any notion of what this film might be saying or even hinting at, for anything at all to come together in my head…and nothing happened. My eyes glazed over. My spirit sank into the swamp. Trust me, Under the Skin is pretty close to torture. Torture after dropping two Percocets. Profoundly alienating — dull, meandering, murkily photographed, incoherent, nothing.”

Aliens in disguise

Admittedly, even if you don’t share that assessment, it might be a little hard to articulate the film’s strengths. Stephen Holden ended his New York Times review by saying it “leaves us reflecting on the possibility that every being in the universe is an alien in disguise,” but I’m not sure how one could meaningfully “reflect” on such a pointless thing (at least, not without succumbing to paranoid delusions). It seems more relevant to me that in modern-day Scotland, the one thing you can be sure of is that things are no more special than they seem. The film sometimes feels like a documentary, watching people in shopping malls or on the street; at one point, it gives us a fairly extended look at one man’s life – his meagre purchases at the grocery store, later eating his dinner in front of the TV while watching a recording of long-dead British comedian Tommy Cooper. Fantasy films usually avoid dating themselves too specifically, but at one point here, a radio broadcast refers to the pending referendum on independence. It’s clearly Scotland in the here and now, crawling ahead with its daily struggles and small pleasures, which may or may not be aligned with some broader national direction.

Only in one way that we know of could the concept of “aliens in disguise” be relevant to this time and place, and that’s through the intervention of cinema: what’s more alien to normal life than Hollywood and all that it represents, and what wears more of a disguise, insisting on the necessity of its products to our lives while offering only bland forms of death? At the same time as Under the Skin was in theatres, after all, one could still catch Johansson as “Black Widow” in Captain America: the Winter Soldier. Such creations exist impossibly far from life; it’s remarkable that, however briefly, Under the Skin reached out and bridged the divide.