Monday, October 19, 2015

Cinema bites

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2002)

The wonder of cinema is that it’s still a wonder to us. Virtually as long as the medium’s existed, directors have tested the limits of its storytelling conventions, but the conventions remain intact, and so the limits continue to be tested. Of course, like everything else, it’s more knowing now. For all his huge intellect, Jean-Luc Godard’s 60’s and 70’s experiments and meditations seem to carry a rush of pure puckish joy that’s missing from, say, Mike Figgis’ Time Code. One could organize quite a debating session on the proposition of whether or not cinema should be taken seriously. Maybe, to bend a movie title, we should view it as hopeless but not serious.

Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh, I mentioned the other week, works at a startling pace. In the last five years he’s released Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic (for which he won an Oscar) and Ocean’s Eleven. That’s an impressive line-up in such a short time, although it’s not easy to determine Soderbergh’s creative personality from it. He makes vivid, lively films, full of incident, attuned to their settings, and ably showcasing their actors. That may seem like superficial praise, but maybe not, for Soderbergh’s interest in surfaces may be worth just about any other director’s interest in depth.

Erin Brockovich is one of the most skillful star vehicles in memory, and looks as though everything else in it was calibrated for the sole purpose of showcasing Julia Roberts. Ocean’s Eleven had no discernible purpose other than bringing together an eclectic bunch of big name actors (the scene at the end, where the camera pans across most of the cast standing contentedly in a row looking over Vegas, seems to me to sum it up). The film clearly does not “work” as satisfying rounded entertainment, but the project has a sense of itself that almost fuels you.

His new film Full Frontal is intended as a quick, low-budget diversion from this run of success (and it precedes his big-budget science fiction film Solaris, due out in November). It has another amazing cast. Roberts plays a magazine writer carrying out an extended interview with up-and-coming actor Blair Underwood. Or rather, that’s what happens in a film within the film; they actually play actors. He’s having an affair with a frustrated executive (Catherine Keener) whose marriage to magazine journalist David Hyde-Pierce is breaking down. Keener’s sister is a massage therapist (Mary McCormack) who has an unsatisfying encounter with a film producer (David Duchovny) while pursuing a cyber-romance with a theater director (Enrico Colantoni) who’s directing a bizarre production about young Hitler starring an egotistical actor (Nicky Katt).

Attempts to connect

Soderbergh says his movies aren’t about surfaces, but rather about our attempts to connect (I have a feeling that lots of directors give something like this as a standard answer). You can see this for sure in his debut, Sex, Lies and Videotape, but since then the theme is only evident in glimpses. Full Frontal embraces it more fully – almost every scene depicts some kind of failure to engage; whether intellectual, emotional, spiritual or artistic. But this seems like an inevitable result of a movie that thrives on chaos, that feels as though it set its characters in almost random motion and then sat back to see what would happen.

That lackadaisical quality is central to Soderbergh’s intent here. He says: “You look at that Godard period of ’59 to ’67, and you admire his ability to sketch. And I think you can get too caught up in this idea that every movie you make has to be a mural. And I really felt like I’d been doing that, and I felt like I needed to afford myself the opportunity to sketch – where things aren’t, you know, so weighted by expectation or budget. It’s not that I view the movie as incidental. It’s just I liked the idea of having the freedom to write with the camera, in a way. And in an environment that seems safe, because of the scale of the project and the way it would be made. It’s a fun way to work; it’s an interesting way to work. It’s sort of an irresponsible way to work if you’re doing a movie on any other scale than this.”

Maureen Dowd in The New York Times dismissed the movie this way: “Just because something is grainy doesn’t mean it’s cooler. Just because it’s shot in 18 days with a hand-held camera that cost $4,000 doesn’t mean it’s more creative. Just because it’s a neo-Godardian deconstruction of cinematic reality doesn’t mean it’s more interesting. And just because it has an erotic title doesn’t mean it’s sexy.” All of which is self-evident (and to digress slightly, just because Dowd’s column has a hot reputation and a Pulitzer Price doesn’t mean it’s always good either). But there’s little evidence that Soderbergh believes any of these straw-man assertions. His faith seems more elemental than that. He believes in the inherent fascination of cinema – that raw ingredients need be subject only to the simplest of recipes to produce something sustaining. Depending how you look at it, this may either be a low or a high expectation of the audience.

Cinematic meaning

Most critics find Full Frontal confusing and arid. But the film is stuffed with intriguing scenes of conflicting expectations, self-delusion, lifestyle corrections and compromises. Sometimes it attempts to tap genuine emotion and frustration; sometimes it just plays at it. In general, the moments when it’s explicitly about filmmaking seem to me its least successful in that they only allow narrow readings. The rest of the movie is wildly discursive and evasive – the absurdity of the Hitler play rehearsals; some low comedy involving a dog overdosing on hash brownies; one-liners galore.

On a couple of occasions, Terence Stamp’s character from The Limey wanders through the movie – the intention being apparently to suggest that the action in both films takes place side by side. Which succeeds in suggesting the immense fluidity of cinema; how it takes only a brief allusion or connection to open up a whole new world of cinematic meaning. The problem is that this can easily become a process of mere recognition – you make the connection, and where does that leave you? It’s as if we’re expected to be excited by the fact that a guy can form sentences, regardless that they don’t tell us anything interesting. We’ve all seen so many films that we think we’re way beyond that. And yet those who know cinema best – Soderbergh, Godard, Figgis – are often the most fascinated by the raw material. Personally, I don’t think the rest of us know as much as we think. Could Full Frontal possibly be ahead of its time?

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