(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2007)
Ten Canoes is the first film made in an Australian indigenous language, set thousands of years in the past. A group of men goes on a hunting trip into a swamp, and on the way the elder tells his younger brother a story, which we also see enacted. It’s a chronicle of social and sexual frustration and of strife between neighbouring tribes, weaving in sorcery and mysticism. The quirky moral of the story struck me as being “careful what you wish for” – Stephen Holden in The New York Times pegs it as “All in good time.”
The film, directed by Rolf de Heer, is inherently interesting and admirable, but I had more reservations than I’d hoped for. Although the evocation of these ancient events seems diligent enough, the film always feels much more like a product of our own filmmaking culture than something born of a distant one (see Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat The Fast Runner for an example of the converse). The dual structure, switching metronomically back and forth between stories, and between black and white and colour, becomes a ponderous reminder of cinema making at work, and within that it resorts to too many familiar devices (for example, the men discuss various possibilities of action, and we see each one visualized on the screen, just as you might in a standard heist movie). There’s also an insistent narration, spoken by David Gulpilil (of Walkabout) that soon gets to be like listening to: “This is Dick. Dick is thinking of running. Do you see now how Dick runs?” And on and on.
No doubt there I’m disrespecting the rhythms and cadences of an important oral tradition. But that’s the impact of the film’s finicky calculations. The sometimes-bawdy dialogue also seems calculated for maximum ease of assimilation. Overall I doubt that the film challenges us enough to realize its enormous potential, or to rank with Kunuk’s film in the ultimate pantheon.
Grabbing on to that dawn-of-history bawdy dialogue and shooting forward to the modern day, we arrive at Judd Apatow’s hit comedy Knocked Up. The film has definitely caught a wave, with a big respectful profile of the director in the New York Times magazine, and enthusiastic reviews all over. The intrigue, perhaps, is summed up in the NYT’s observation that Apatow’s films “offer up the kind of conservative morals the Family Research Council might embrace – if the humour weren’t so filthy.”
Knocked Up depicts a slobby, non-achieving guy (Seth Rogen) who scores a one night stand with a way-out-of-his-league woman (Katherine Heigl) – when she wakes up sober, she can’t get rid of him fast enough, Eight weeks later, she calls him up: she’s pregnant and she’s keeping it, so in some sense at least they’re stuck with each other for the long term. The only question is - what’s that relationship going to be?
I have to say I found the film’s answer to this question distinctly unconvincing – in particular, the choices made by Heigl’s character just didn’t make any sense to me, given what we’re told about her (some of the film’s supporters acknowledge this too; maybe it helps if you view it as self-confessed former dweeb Apatow’s goofy self-aggrandizing fantasy). The movie does have some emotional bite at times, mostly from the bumpy marriage of the secondary characters played by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd. But for the most part it’s merely an easygoing laugh machine (although Apatow’s filthy one-liners don’t have the demented excess of Kevin Smith’s), particularly at ease with the slacker male bonding thing and with the pop culture that suffuses the guys’ lives (I don’t know though how they wouldn’t have heard by now of MrSkin.com).
Rogen and Heigl are pleasant but bland actors, and the movie as a whole made me pine for the days when comedies could be popular and funny and meaningful – meaningful that is as complex, specifically meaningful creations, rather than as perfect exemplars of an inherently second-rate culture. And yes, I’m throwing the alignment with Family Research Council morals into that pot of criticism.
There was a time when Kevin Costner must have stood higher with that group than just about anyone – just after the homespun Field Of Dreams and the soft Dances with Wolves. The Family Research Council probably lapped up the paranoia of JFK as well. No doubt the FRC would note approvingly that Costner’s momentum snapped around the time his picture book marriage broke up, and since then his movies have been an odd, mostly second rate bunch. His two famous flops – Waterworld and (especially) The Postman might actually reward viewing again at this point, and Open Range was his best directorial effort yet, but most of the rest was forgotten as soon as it appeared. Recently he’s shown potential as a charming character actor in The Upside of Anger and Rumor Has It, and is becoming more adventurous about financing his own work.
Whatever one thinks of Costner, his twenty years of ups and downs provide a busy old-fashioned backdrop of star-image allusions for any project he takes on now. Which brings us to Mr. Brooks, in which he plays a respectable and successful businessman who also has a compulsive hunger to kill. As the film begins he’s kept it under wraps for two years, but his inner voice (embodied by William Hurt) won’t leave him alone any more. So he kills again, but the curtains aren’t drawn, and he’s spotted by a voyeuristic photographer (played oddly and not very successfully by Dane Cook). Meanwhile, his daughter is back from college, and under the sweet exterior, he’s wondering how many of his less desirable genes she might have picked up.
Demi Moore is in there too, as the investigating cop, who happens herself to be a multi-millionaire. You can probably sense the excess of all this, and since director Bruce A. Evans (returning after a fifteen year gap since directing Kuffs!) isn’t much of a stylist, the movie often feels merely glossy and mechanical. But back to where I started. Costner’s character is a genuinely evil, self-serving individual who makes a mockery of the classic American success story. The movie’s notion of taking care of family is completely perverse. The movie quotes the so-called Serenity Prayer (Serenity blah blah Courage blah blah and the Wisdom to know the difference) in utterly degraded circumstances. And given the power of star identification, even Family Research Council stalwarts may find themselves rooting for the serial killer. None of this makes Mr. Brooks into a work of art, but it sure is interesting, in that uniquely Hollywood kind of way.