Sunday, September 21, 2014

Mostly music

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2008)

I remember someone referring to John Sayles as a determinedly independent filmmaker who then strangely makes movies with many of the faults of mainstream ones, a judgment you might aptly apply to his new one Honeydripper. It’s satisfying overall, but incredibly clunky and clich├ęd at times. Set in 1950’s Alabama, it revolves around Danny Glover as the owner of a rickety watering hole (the Honeydripper) who hopes to give business a boost by kicking the live music from old-time blues to new-style guitar; he books a big time singer, but then has to improvise when the guy doesn’t show up.

Around this are a dizzying number of subplots, not always welded together with much finesse, and the script is full of redundancies and repetitions. For all of that activity, it often feels strangely flat and lacking in energy. It’s a fascinating period, both for the social attitudes (especially re those of the local whites, it’s often hard to believe it’s even as recent as 1950) and the cultural evolution embodied by the Honeydripper’s musical transition. Sadly, the film just isn’t strong enough to be trustworthy as a window on history. But it generally ambles along pleasantly enough, the music is good, and there are some eloquent moments.  

Joe Strummer

Julien Temple’s Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, a documentary about the Clash’s lead singer, covers another musical turning point. They were one of the pioneering punk bands, perhaps the best; after they split up in the mid-80’s, Strummer spent much time in search of a new direction, ultimately successfully via a new band and new relationship, before suddenly dying in 2002. Temple is, as usual, a master of assemblage, piecing together an often-impressionistic splatter of images, but there’s always a hit and miss feeling to how he navigates through the material.

The movie isn’t that effective at conveying basic information, nor even at showcasing the music, although that’s all readily elsewhere I guess, and it certainly overuses clips from 1984 and Animal Farm and suchlike, lest we lose for a second the taste of rebellion. Most of the interviewees (seemingly including almost everyone who ever knew the man, and a few celebs who didn’t) are caught during a series of campfire get-togethers, recreating one of Strummer’s favourite pastimes and generating a nice sense of conviviality. For Clash fans, it’s a solid, moderately idiosyncratic tribute. 

Bono’s in there too, and he’s also in U2 3D, capturing the band in performance in Buenos Aires – it’s in 3D and it’s on the giant Imax screen. U2 are a great band, no question, and seem on blistering form here – it’s a fine record of outstanding rock musicianship. The 3D aspect itself is certainly a net positive – there are times when you’re studying Bono more closely than anyone other than his wife should be allowed to, and I can hardly remember a film that conveyed such a detailed sense of a complex physical space. Very fluidly edited, it’s a terrific aesthetic experience. But it’s also rather weird – there are many times when the extreme presence of the foreground makes the background seem flatter than you’d register otherwise – and the technical virtuosity sometimes mutes the gritty sense of occasion you get from other rock movies. It gave me a hyper-awareness of being isolated from what I was watching, which isn’t really what you go to the movies for.

Still Life

By contrast, Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life completely enveloped me. The film contains two related stories of people coming to Fengjie, on the banks of China’s Yangtze River, in search of a missing spouse. The city is slowly being demolished as part of the massive Three Gorges dam project, and the region’s spectacular natural beauty recedes behind the atmospheric haze and the immense physical and social upheaval. While some do well, most don’t, kicked from their homes to make do as best they can, scrambling for money and space and identity; there are hints of both de facto slavery and widespread violence and corruption. Jia observes his people closely and sympathetically and produces a powerful human document; you can’t help your mind wandering to how advanced (indulgent?) by comparison are our notions of self-actualization and minimum entitlements.

The film’s not all bleak by any means – people find ways to get by; there are elevating moments of bonding, shared meals, Chow Yun Fat impersonations. Jia has a taste for rather glaring visual metaphors – such as the building that uproots itself and blasts off like a space shuttle in the background of one shot – but perhaps his point is the impossibility of monumental transformation for this region of China, whatever one may hear of its economic miracle (although even the apparently least advantaged of citizens seem to carry cell phones).

After the more urban and aesthetically crafted The World, a fine study of alienation among some of the more privileged of China’s new generation, and a couple of fascinating documentaries that largely continue the project of Still Life, Jia is generating an important body of work now, even if it’s hard to think of a potentially great director whose films are so necessarily pessimistic. In the past, the most important filmmakers could afford to dwell on us, on matters of self-definition and the human condition, but what if we’re entering a phase that can’t afford to venerate these as key virtues, because matters of survival assert themselves and make existential fine-tuning appear frivolous? What can we ask or expect of cinema then?

Lars and the Real Girl

I suppose there will always be some place – although we can only hope it’s a diminishing one – for fables such as Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl. I was put off by the premise and avoided this one for months, while noting its amazing longevity at the Carlton, but then it got an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay, so I cracked. Ryan Gosling plays Lars, a small-town sad sack character who suddenly produces a glamorous girlfriend, Bianca. The only trouble is, she’s an anatomically correct sex doll who came through the mail. But to Lars she’s real – either that or he’s carrying on the charade well beyond normal endurance (including in their private moments together) – and incidentally, it’s a chaste relationship too.

Conveniently, prompted by doctor’s advice and what we’re told is a form of love for Lars, everyone in town goes along with this, to the extent that Bianca soon has a more active social schedule than he does. Gosling is once again magnificent, like a gentle young De Niro in the detail he brings to his neurotic protagonist. And Gillespie handles the tone very well – it’s not too outrageous, not too preachy: it’s gentle and quirky, thus allowing the conclusion (presumably reached by a good number of Oscar voters) that we’re watching something touching and insightful and viable. But for all the finesse, this is ultimately the kind of codswallop that only exists in movies – a social and psychological nonsense, with no good music, whether literally or (re Jia Zhang-ke) figuratively.

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