Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Movies on tap

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2008)

Andrew Wagner’s Starting out in the Evening is uncommonly satisfying for such a knowingly “small” film. It stars Frank Langella as Leonard Schiller, a recently-retired professor of English who published, years earlier, four mostly-forgotten novels and hopes to complete a fifth. He’s approached by Heather (Lauren Ambrose), some fifty years younger but a throwback, in love with literature, determined to write her master’s thesis on Schiller and in the process perhaps to redeem his reputation. After initial resistance he agrees to help her, and a friendship of sort, maybe more, develops. Meanwhile, Schiller’s 40-year-old daughter (Lili Taylor), unmarried and getting desperate for a child, rekindles a past relationship with a genial activist (Adrian Lester).

Starting out in the Evening

The movie sticks closely to these few characters and a handful of others, and to a few Manhattan blocks; Schiller has spent his whole life in this milieu, and whatever expansiveness his art may possess, he’s moved past almost all spontaneity. Langella is terrifically precise, but for me the revelation was Ambrose, who I never really registered on Six Feet Under. She’s radiant, you can’t look away from her, but she’s also somewhat gawky and overdone and just a little too much. It’s a brilliant portrayal of someone who for all her certainty is highly malleable and not all there yet; in ten years’ time, she might be entirely different. When you think about it, this is much rarer in movies than it should be – even teenagers dole out wise cracks and presence as if they came out of the womb that way (does the protagonist of Juno, for instance, suggest any real capacity for becoming anyone other than she already is?)

The central subtlety of Starting out in the Evening, and again it sounds like a small thing if I write it this way, is the notion that Heather, perhaps truly Schiller’s biggest admirer and even his biggest hope, nevertheless fundamentally fails to grasp his work or the nature of his personal and creative maturing. We never hear a word of anything he’s written, but we understand that his oeuvre breaks down between two emotionally highly-strung early novels drawn from his own experience, each with a strong female character inspired by his wife (who was killed in an accident after the second book) and two more sprawling, objective works. Heather can’t find a way into these latter two and views them as a sign of lost direction, but the more mature Lester character, with no pretentions as a literary critic, evaluates things the other way round. We’re clearly meant to take this as the fairer view I think. No matter how bright her gaze at him, Heather doesn’t seem truly to see Schiller as he is; she steals an old photograph of him from his office, seeming to think she can somehow conjure up that long-vanished figure.

But then Schiller is a dreamer too, still chasing his characters around the page, unable to conceive of a day that wouldn’t largely be spent before his typewriter. Their dreams don’t mesh, nothing about them ultimately meshes (the contrast between his big slow-moving body and her lithe one is visually very striking, not in a leering sense, just as a seemingly insurmountable demonstration of worlds that can’t possibly intersect, even if they both at various times – but never quite at the same time – dream otherwise). But we don’t see the literary world very often in movies – there are lots of filmic characters who are writers, but mostly as a plot convenience – and there’s something very touching about the milieu here. As the film deftly shows, and as we could all figure out, the tightness and claustrophobia of it generates some bitchiness and backbiting, but that’s just people looking for validation.

As you can tell, I was very captivated by the film’s craftsmanship, and I haven’t even mentioned all of the strands. There are several keenly observed moments of readjustment – see for example the wonderful moment where Heather unknowingly shatters a Schiller reverie by asking a waiter what he has on tap. And anyway is there a phrase more often heard in life, but correspondingly less on screen than “What do you have on tap?” Well, maybe that’s just my life…and hence just my kind of movie.


A big film masquerading as a small one, Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield depicts (again) the end of the world, or at least Manhattan, as we know it, this time via a Godzilla-like beast of astonishing destructive power. The conceit, and not a new one by now, is that we only see what’s captured on a particular handheld video camera, wielded (with great diligence in the circumstances) by one of a group of stylish friends whose partying is horribly interrupted. This generates a fairly gripping overall atmosphere, although the basic narrative is more contrived than it needed to be, even given that it’s about, well, a monster. More than in the recent I Am Legend, which couldn’t resist the adult playground potential of a post-disaster New York, there’s a real sense here of a lifestyle and attitude being comprehensively ripped up and buried. Of course, at the time we were told that had happened on 9/11 too. You could almost imagine Cloverfield was made by someone regretting our subsequent return to equanimity/complacency, deciding to raise the stakes, big-time.


Persepolis, directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, is based on Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name and tells of her childhood in Iran during the transition from the old imperial to the current militant fundamentalist regime, with a mid-teenage sojourn in Vienna. The film too is an animation, with very little colour; mostly it’s blocks of ungraduated black and white, with bodies indicated by blobs and faces by kindergarten-quality features. It actually works well, particularly because the style amplifies the shapeless anonymity that’s imposed on women by the regime. There’s a funny visual gag about Marjane in a still-life class, with herself and the other shrouded students drawing a female model of whom virtually nothing can be seen except a nose. “She looks the same from every angle,” bemoans the protagonist.

At other times Marjane is outspoken, flaunting the rules, not always realizing the full decrepitude of a woman’s place in such a culture; she’s a mild rebel but not a melodramatic one, and the movie itself communicates a similar balancing. It’s a loosely structured work, tracking her journey through sexual discovery, a failed marriage, and ultimately the threshold of freedom and maturity (but with the sadness that leaving her home country, for all its compromises, means the loss of belonging). The film is French, so comes with voices by Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux and others, providing a further layer of cultural oddity. It didn’t spark any huge reaction in me – once you’re clued into the basic nature of the project and the tone, you start to coast along with it after a while – but it’ll certainly be one of this year’s more accomplished curios.

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