Thursday, December 29, 2016

Trailers and ghosts

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

It’s a common complaint that trailers nowadays give away too much. I haven’t seen America’s Sweethearts, but on the basis of the trailer, I feel like I have. Of course, depending on how you look at it, this might mean that the trailer functions just perfectly, allowing the viewer to save the ten bucks without even minor regret. I was also sure that the Planet of the Apes trailer had given me all I needed, but since the film’s directed by Tim Burton I went anyway. The film was just as dull as the trailer – and, of course, about sixty times as long. Probably the main advantage of seeing Planet of the Apes was that the five or six trailers preceding it gave me lots of additional insights into movies I can avoid over the coming while. Of course, the trailers are all on the Internet nowadays anyway, so there probably wasn’t even that much real advantage.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

If it’s the job of a trailer to make the film look as good as possible without yielding up all its secrets, then the one for Hedwig and the Angry Inch must be the recent best. On the basis of those three minutes, the film is a Rocky Horror Picture Show-like cornucopia of outrageous gender-bending tableaux, including lyrics up on the screen for audience participation, cartoon inserts, and general unpredictability all over the place. It looks like a matter of taste, sure, but you imagine the film’s going to be consistently wacky and diverting. Well, I now know that the trailer was concocted only by meticulously pruning the film’s most eccentric and colourful moments. The rest is oddly dour, even depressing.

The film is written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who also stars in it (quite impressively). Hedwig is born a boy behind the Berlin Wall, but undergoes transgender surgery to marry an American GI. That gets her to freedom in the States, but the GI soon walks out on him, and then the Wall comes down anyway. Hedwig now tours through a series of dismal concert venues with her inexplicably faithful band, capitalizing on her sexually ambiguous persona. Much of the film consists of musical performance (the songs generally aren’t at all bad, both on their own terms and as knowing parody of the glamrock idiom); in between, Hedwig bemoans its past and present problems.

Hedwig’s surgery was botched (as one of the songs puts it, “Six inches forward and five inches back; I’ve got an angry inch”) and the character occasionally marshals this trauma as performance art. At other times, Hedwig’s seemingly on the edge of a breakdown. The film constructs a surprisingly comprehensive study of the character, and there’s something grandly imaginative about the notion of sexual confusion served up as a legacy for political transgression. It’s a rather hermetic metaphor though, and the film never manages to override an air of “So what?” Through sheer force of will I guess, Rocky Horror still manages to make a lot of people buy into its worldview – if only for 90 midnight minutes every now and then. Hedwig is just too reticent: ultimately, it seems like little more than another sob story. Except for those few scattered moments (about a trailer’s worth) of eccentricity.

Ghost World

I haven’t seen the trailer for Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, but I feel confident in asserting that it couldn’t possibly have succeeded in giving away the whole movie. This is about two young women – apparently congenitally ironic and apathetic and distanced from most of their peers – in the weeks after high-school graduation, hanging out around their boring neighborhood and wondering vaguely what to do. One eventually goes to work in a Starbucks clone and gradually seems to be inching toward normality. The other holds on longer, but she’s clearly under siege. She’s played by Thora Birch, who’s just about perfect – as opaque as a truly alienated teenager should be, but no more than that.

The movie has lots of funny lines, generally rooted in sarcasm or in the sheer consistency of Birch’s resistance to much of what surrounds her. But the film’s real strength is in how it defines and maintains a rather unique mood of creeping dread – rooted in Birch’s pervasive antipathy, her secret nervousness about the course she’s on, and her reluctance to change. During the course of the film she tries out a vast array of clothing, from a tacky dinosaur T-shirt to the almost elegant (her friend at one point refers to her former “old lady period”). She’s trying identities on for size, but not realizing how her experimentation has to go deeper (her helmet-like black hair and heavy-framed glasses seem like a perpetual armor). In one scene she rants against “extroverted” types; in the next scene, she’s enjoying a radio DJ (extroverted, of course) that her companion yells at for being unbearably shrill. In school you can maintain arbitrary self-definitions because it’s sheltered and your little subgroup’s in it together; step out into more open territory and things quickly start to break down.

Psychic territory

Birch meets a dorky middle-aged old-record enthusiast (played by Steve Buscemi, in a performance that should conclusively dispel his ratbag image) who grows on her. He impresses her by virtue of his difference, even if the way in which he’s different doesn’t have much in common with the way in which she is. Their relationship is very sweetly portrayed; neither fully understands whether the territory they share is superficial or deep, and by the time they think to ask, it’s probably too late. When they sleep together, it carries absolutely no Lolita-type subtext – itself a sign of how well the film avoids the norm. Sometimes, as in the scenes involving a pretentious art teacher played by Ileanna Douglas, Ghost World does take easier paths, but since those scenes are consistently among the film’s funniest, it doesn’t seem to matter too much.

The film has a fanciful ending, in that it manages to avoid compromise and to allow Birch to retain most of her psychic territory. It’s also the only time that the film seems to take the supernatural undertones of its title too literally. But that hardly matters either. Ghost World lasts 111 minutes, and yields at least 109 minutes of satisfying movie watching – a ratio directly opposite to the other pictures I mentioned.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Too much heaven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

In What Dreams May Come, Robin Williams dies in a car crash and ascends to heaven, while his grieving wife kills herself and gets sent to hell (mandatory for suicides – them’s the rules). Williams bravely sets out across the divide, to find her and bring her to join him in Paradise (rules aside, getting into heaven’s apparently largely a matter of who you know). As I often like to say, place your bets now on whether he makes it or not. But I was well-primed to identify with Williams’ quest, because I recently had to search for my own wife, on a Saturday afternoon in the Eaton Centre. Oh God, the crush, the airless horror of it all. I was sure I was condemned. But I found her, and somehow we escaped, maybe not with our souls intact, but with most of our money.

My lost soul

A facetious response to a crucial spiritual concept, you say? Perhaps that’s right. I am, quite certainly, a bit of a spiritual wasteland. I’m happy to admit ignorance of all the big questions, but also to admit a blithe disregard for them. Whenever I go to the zoo, I’m struck by the inadequacy of evolution as an explanation for such strange, weird beauty, but I lack the faith to believe in a single Creator. So I just amble along, presuming I know nothing.

In much the same way, I tend to shy away from any talk of “vision” or “soul” or any of that intangible inspirational stuff. My ideal image of myself, I suppose, would be as an easygoing pragmatist. I just like to get things done, in my own way, with the minimum bother to myself or to others. I’m amiable, I think, but not at all touchy-feely – actually I don’t much like to touch anyone at all except my wife (who must apparently have been on good form this week to deserve all these mentions), and I’d rather reserve all sentiment for the same recipient. As you can see, I don’t mind talking about myself to some extent, but the more superficial the better.

I’ve set all this out as a comprehensive acknowledgement that I’m not the ideal viewer for What Dreams May Come. It’s not that I couldn’t warm to the setting of heaven and hell, if there were some point to it – surrealism, or allegory, or whatever. In fact, one of my favourite films, Jean Cocteau’s Orphee, moves deliciously between this world and the next. In Orphee, it’s really the weird specificity that’s so compelling – the juxtaposition of outlandish mythology (mysterious messages received on a car radio; mirrors that act as portals to hell) with moments of rustic comedy or mundane potboiler. The spirit world’s emissaries zoom around on motorcycles; the angel Heurtebise hangs around the house in an open-necked shirt. Orphee consistently evokes the strangeness of the creative muse in a way that’s still fresh and alluring.


In What Dreams May Come the only point seems to be size (it’s the Godzilla of sappy couple movies). With all the kindness I can muster, I can’t see the relationship between Williams (in one of his distinctly dull modes here) and his wife (played, sort of, by Annabella Sciorra) as more than a self-important, patently fake Hollywood invention. It’s all puffed-up talk, ponderous looks and confessions, enacted in one dreary flashback after another. Despite all the wet dialogue about their rare status as true boundary-crossing “soulmates,” the film conspicuously fails to evoke mutual delight, scintillating rapport, or any of the qualities that might send a man more than, oh, a few blocks in search of a missing spouse. It’s rather grotesque to elevate the attempted reunification of this mediocre pair to the level of Most Momentous Love Story in the History of Creation. If it were Bogart laconically trekking through a maelstrom of evil in search of Bacall, I might have considered it.

Be warned too that Williams’ journey, after all the build-up, isn’t actually that onerous. One might have thought that penetrating Satan’s empire would entail enough resistance to require, at the very least, the assistance of a Bruce Willis, but it turns out to be primarily a matter of achieving a state of mind that transcends all obstacles. This is convenient for the filmmakers, of course, because if there are no objective rules or limitations on their chosen universe, they can make any narrative leaps they like, at any point, without worrying about the normal stumbling blocks of causation and plausibility. The strange result is that it’s apparently far easier to engineer the meeting of lovers across heaven and hell than to pull off the same thing in, say, Boston (the setting of the current Next Stop Wonderland).

Chicken Soup for the Vegetarian

I should acknowledge that the film has another selling point – its computer-generated depictions of the next life. When Williams wakes up in heaven, his surroundings have the consistency of paint; they threaten to melt away as he touches them. It’s a beautiful depiction of his fantasies and dreams made real, still fragile in their newness. The film’s concept of hell is a bit more generic, but still undoubtedly unappealing (although a film less concerned about the family audience might have turned up the evidence of pain and suffering a bit, or might at least have trotted out a few more lawyers and accountants). Some critics think the movie’s visual qualities compensate for any weaknesses in the storytelling. My own view on that: if a story’s not worth telling, it’s not worth telling beautifully.

What Dreams May Come is one of the year’s most pretentious movies, somewhat laughable in its hunger for grandeur. But as I said, I’m not the spiritual type. The only one of those inspirational “Chicken Soup” books I might consider buying would be “Chicken Soup for the Chicken” (in the hope of bleak cannibalistic irony). Still, despite my distinctly earthbound soul, I’m lucky enough to know a little bit about love (there’s that woman again) and this film failed that basic test of recognition. I would have forgiven it all its missteps in depicting the big celestial canvas, if it were only truer in capturing the small intimate one.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

2003 Toronto Film Festival Report, part six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2003)

L’histoire de Marie et Julien (Jacques Rivette)
77-year-old Rivette is one of my all-time favourite directors. His films have a choreography and poise that walk an often-magical line between naturalism and artificiality. He seems to me a highly uninsistent artist – his films aren’t conventionally passionate or prescriptive; they reflect the open-mindedness of someone who has a generously expansive vision of both life and cinema. The new film, once again, is uniquely his. It commences as a (to be honest, not overly engaging) study of a relationship, focusing on Julien as he tries to rekindle a past relationship with the enigmatic Marie. It slowly transforms itself into a supernatural reverie.

Julien is a repairer of old clocks, living alone with his cat; he’s also a blackmailer – an exploiter of secrets – and while I detected a certain fairy-tale-like element early on, I thought the model might be one of those stories where the princess ends up imprisoned in the tower. But Rivette starts to invest the movie with sex scenes that (although mild by contemporary standards) are more vivid than we’re used to from him, and as they make love, the two create fantastic narratives, redefining their relationship. Around this time, the film’s logic becomes gradually more dream-like, with Marie holding the key – at one point, she admits that she doesn’t know how the (highly arbitrary-seeming) rules actually work – she only knows what they are. And later there’s a secret sign that utterly transforms reality.

This is highly reminiscent of the magic candy that triggers the other world in Celine and Julie Go Boating, and there’s no doubt that Marie et Julien will be most rewarding for a Rivette fan. If you’ve accustomed yourself to his particular kind of enigmatic elegance, you could watch it forever. It’s almost as if he’s working through the genres in late career – Secret Defense was a thriller, Haut bas fragile was a musical – and the films all possess an elemental joy at the explorations he’s undertaken. Like Celine and Julie, the new film seems like a pure creation of cinema – someone refers to Marie, in her past, as a “prisoner of the image she cast for others,” and Rivette’s films, with their labyrinthine implications, always provide the sense of a creative process that’s invested to an unusual extent in the viewer. And the film demonstrates his profound affinity for femininity. It has chapter headings that explicitly identify the shift from the real to the supernatural with a shifting focus from the man to the woman. Emmanuelle Beart (who starred in his La belle noisseuse) is the perfect Rivette heroine – beautiful, not glacial like Catherine Deneuve, but leaving no doubt that our understanding of her stretches only so far.

This is obviously a review written by a fan, so I hesitate to say that Histoire de Marie et Julien is the best film I saw at the festival. I guess I should just say it’s my favourite.

The Event (Thom Fitzgerald)
Fitzgerald burst on the scene with the acclaimed Hanging Garden in 1997, since when his reputation has stagnated. This year’s The Wild Dogs, a scrapbook of odds and ends about a Canadian pornographer in Budapest, received virtually no attention at all, but it was the first of his films to persuade me he might have staying power. Reminiscent at various times of Kusturica, Fellini, Egoyan and Loach, it can be faulted in so many different ways I don’t know where to start. But the raw elements are fascinating, and the movie ultimately comes to resemble a troubled, rough-edged sculpture where the personal and the political fuse into a semi-recognizable dream landscape.

The Event, which has already opened commercially, seems like an equally personal project, about a man who’s died of AIDS, and the assistant DA who suspects it was an assisted suicide; her investigation focuses on the blow-out party that occupied his last evening. The film was reportedly meant to shoot in Toronto, and then moved to New York after the funding fell through – maybe this accounts for a cast that bizarrely combines Canadian stalwarts like Don McKellar and Sarah Polley with Olympia Dukakis (as McKellar and Polley’s mother!) and Parker Posey. This somehow sums up the film’s oddly dislocated quality. Compared to The Wild Dogs, it’s a fairly concentrated story, and it runs nearly two hours, yet everything about it seems to be given short shrift: characters, locations, themes all fail to register, with much time spent on barely meaningful vignettes and digressions. And sadly, the film (set in 2001, although it feels like earlier) doesn’t provide much valuable perspective on AIDS and its consequences either. If The Wild Dogs gave you the sense of a director running himself ragged, The Event seems like its exhausted aftermath.

Out of Time (Carl Franklin)
Franklin’s thriller, with Denzel Washington making another festival appearance, has also already opened commercially. The program book sells the movie valiantly, referring to “refreshingly rich characterizations,” “emotional investment from the audience,” and “phenomenal flair.” Well, it just looked like a serviceable suspense piece to me. Washington plays a small-town police chief who bends the rules to help his girlfriend, and then finds himself framed for murder; he works frantically from within to impede the official investigation, while tracking the real crooks on the side. For added refreshing richness: the detective in charge of the investigation is his estranged wife! The movie opens in lush, languid mode, and then cranks up the pace; Washington’s manipulations are highly entertaining, but then the film resorts to a hackneyed and fake-looking struggle on a rapidly collapsing balcony, and after that it goes through the motions.

I spent much of the movie musing on Washington’s star image. He’s regarded both as a bona fide sex symbol and a great actor, but his filmography contains a disproportionate amount of low-wattage action filler (The Siege, The Bone Collector, Fallen, Virtuosity, now Out of Time), as though he feared his vaunted coolness left him with something to prove. And yet, he doesn’t invest the roles with the relish that might help make the case. Too me, he walks through these movies, seldom seeming engaged or perturbed; in Out of Time, even at the height of the crisis, he barely breaks a sweat. But he seems immune to conventional assessment. The two women he romances in the new film (Eva Mendes and Sanaa Lathan) are 20 and 17 years his junior respectively, but no one’s been making the conventional observations about how Hollywood privileges the older male – it just seems like the natural order, Denzel-wise. As Out of Time becomes increasingly abstract and detached from plausibility, as virtually all thrillers do. Washington’s remove takes on the contours of a philosophical challenge. Albeit a challenge considerably less bracing than that of the Rivette film.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Missing persons

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2004)

In 1980, the revised edition of David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema had an entry for Henrik Galeen, co-director of the 1914 version of Der Golem, that made a strange impression on me as a kid and sticks in my mind even now. It starts out:

  • As this is written, Galeen must be ninety-one – if he lives. Apparently in 1933, Galeen left Germany for America, though his last recorded film Salon Dora Green has German actors and a German title. No other information is available.
At the time I was just getting into movies, and into life in general, and I think it struck me as remarkable, stuck as I was in my mundane circumstances, that someone could simply vanish, while yet leaving enough of a footprint to earn a place in the reference books. In a certain way it seemed to encapsulate the romance of the movies themselves – ethereal, yet indelible. I certainly imagined, as Thomson seemed to, that Galeen was still alive, lurking in some benevolent shadow, frail but still plotting his comeback, no doubt chuckling at the mystery he’d left behind.

Finding Henrik

The Galeen entry vanished from the next edition of Thomson’s book. Perhaps the memory of him had finally become too frail. But when I thought of this again the other day, I looked him up on the Internet Movie Database. And there I found, rather to my amazement, the following:

  • Date of death (details) 30 July 1949 Randolph, Orange County, Vermont, U.S.A. (cancer)
There’s no more information (except the tantalizing bit that his spouse for the last two years of his life was called Comptess Ilse von Schenk), but there’s no reason to disbelieve it. Other than, that is, simple refusal to accept such a lame substitute for the myth woven by Thomson. I think it’s the parenthesis around “cancer” that really kills the magic, like something lifted from a drab medical report. Which may of course have been the source of the information.

Intrigued by this, I searched for Galeen on Google and came across, which gave Galeen’s year of death as 1940, and provided a link with the intriguing prospect: “Search his grave.” This supposedly led to a site called, which hasn’t worked for me the several times I’ve tried it. Another site, The Missing Link, gave the 1949 date, as did the German film institute site and a few others. But who’s to tell that all these apparently corroborating sites aren’t merely picking data off each other, spinning out the same piece of misinformation.

That’s about as far as Google took me, but I almost wish I were fascinated enough to launch my own investigation, which I like to imagine would spiral off as things do in movies into an unimaginable web of secrets and skeletons. I’m not quite that intrigued though, no doubt in part because I’ve never actually seen any of Galeen’s movies. Of course, it may be that never was much of a mystery, and that Thomson, writing in the pre-Internet age, simply didn’t have the resources (or the application) to track down a piece of not-particularly-obscure information. But if so, it’s easy to see why he didn’t search for as long as he could have: if the romance fits, who needs the facts?

Other mysteries

Cinema, generally a prohibitively expensive art form where deal making counts for at least as much as artistic vision, seems particularly suited to such missing person stories. A few strokes of bad luck and you might never get up there again. A recent Variety article pointed out “dozens of…examples over the past 20 years of Sundance award-winning films that never find distribution and hot new directors who never make another film.” Matty Rich won a prize in 1991 for his debut Straight out of Brooklyn, made one more (flop) film, and hasn’t directed another movie. Leslie Harris won an award in 1993 for Just Another Girl on the IRT and hasn’t been heard from since. And so on.

It’s not just directors. Just to take a few random examples from hundreds available. Andy and Dave Lewis wrote the fine script for Klute in 1971 and won an Oscar nomination. The Internet Movie Database lists one more credit for each in the following few years – since then nothing. Kitty Winn won the best actress prize at Cannes in 1971 for Panic in Needle Park, then appeared in The Exorcist and its first sequel. Since 1978, nothing. In part I wonder about the economics. The movies pay well, but I don’t see how someone retires on the back of the Klute screenplay. Could someone go from Sundance stardom to McDonalds? Absolutely. But you just plain wonder how they can stand it.

But maybe I’m letting my taste for the magic of cinema get the better of me there. Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” dictum is cited often enough that it obviously makes some sense to most of us. People can win a dream vacation, enjoy the hell out of it, then go back to their lives without any adverse effort. Why should making a movie be any different? Sure, some child stars never adjust to adulthood and to the loss of the spotlight, but it seems that the greater number just get on with things.

Comptess Ilse

Which might have made for a happy last decade for Henrik Galeen, out there in Vermont. But there’s a major problem with any attempt to convince oneself he opened a corner store or became a mail carrier – namely Comptess Ilse von Schenk. According to the IMDB he married her in 1948. It doesn’t seem likely that Galeen met someone with that kind of moniker just hanging out around Randolph, Vermont, although of course it’s possible. Maybe she was another refugee from fame (or from the Nazis), who followed the same random currents to New England, one day their eyes met at the corner store, they each recognized a kindred spirit, and that was that. Maybe she was a childhood friend, or an old flame from the wild parties in his film-making heyday. Maybe her real name was something like Adelaide Frump, and she changed it because she sensed the history books (or history websites) would demand her husband pair off with someone more exotic. She must be well over a hundred, if she lives. But no other information is available.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Ozu to Oz

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2004)

Reasons why we love the Cinematheque Ontario, Number 2,456: the recent Yasujiro Ozu retrospective. Only a few of Ozu’s films are generally available (only two are on DVD), but the Cinematheque had around forty, many of them revelations. Some of them are pure genre pieces, melodramas made under considerable constraints, but even the simplest has a poise and sophistication that’s startlingly modern (one of the series’ great revelations is that 1930’s Japan, at least as depicted in those movies, seems more westernized than the country does now).

William O’Meara

Some of the Ozu movies were silent, with live piano accompaniment by a man called William O’Meara. I’ve seen O’Meara at the Cinematheque many times over the years, and I’ve always been amazed by him. He always generates a wonderfully well-judged score, always perfectly attuned and synchronized to what’s on screen. I don’t know how much preparation he does for each film, if any, but you could have imagined each one was a major undertaking.

He doesn’t overdo it though. Silent movies aren’t necessarily corny, of course, but at the very least they use a slightly heightened mode of expression (sometimes much more than slightly heightened). O’Meara makes his scores a little more melodically obvious than a contemporary movie would ever allow, and as such echoes the visual idiom quite perfectly. According to a biography I found on the internet, he’s an accomplished classical musician who’s performed all over North America, in Brazil, Poland, Italy and elsewhere, as well as frequently on CBC Radio and NPR. We’re immensely lucky that he makes himself available to the Cinematheque.

At the same time as the Ozu season, the Cinematheque had a season of films by Vincente Minnelli. I love Minnelli’s movies, particularly The Band Wagon, which I’ve written about here in the past. I couldn’t make it to the Cinematheque to any of those films, and especially regretted missing the rare chance to see The Cobweb again – it’s an intense drama, set in a mental hospital, of which I retain the most fascinating (now 20 year old) memories.

Anyway, I partly compensated by watching Singin’ in the Rain again on TV. It’s a classic film of course, containing the iconic image of Gene Kelly performing the title song, Donald O’Connor knocking himself out on “Make ‘em Laugh,” and at least five other knock-out musical numbers. Unlike popular classics such as Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain (co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen) is a bona fide critical classic as well, placing tenth in the most recent Sight and Sound critics’ poll of the best movies ever made.

I’m Happy Again

In addition to everything else, it’s one of the most memorable depictions of how sound rocked Hollywood, going in a few months from a gimmick that no one thought would last to a revelation that made some careers but killed off many more. In Singin’ in the Rain, this is indelibly embodied in the character played by Jean Hagen, who looks like Jean Harlow but sounds more like Fran Drescher. The Debbie Reynolds character, sublimating her own career, provides Hagen with a more suitable voice, until the truth is revealed at the end, with an insouciance that my wife, watching the movie with me, found rather nasty.

Actually, Gene Kelly seems to me an inherently cold personality all round, with an expression that too often creeps a little too close to a sneer, and a way with the romantic bantering that verges on bullying. It’s odd that although Kelly and Fred Astaire are the two screen legends of dance, they share a distinct frostiness; Astaire’s way with his female co-stars often just drips disdain. It’s as if their mastery of the form, over their own feet and more subtly of their comportment within the frame, imposed a distance that could only be mitigated, never conquered.

That said, Singin’ in the Rain has amazing joie de vivre, and there’s something almost eerie about so much iconic exuberance coming at you in scene after scene. The theme about the transition from silent to sound, in particular the way they patch over the aesthetic deficiencies of a doomed film by turning it into a musical, seems somehow to embody the very essence of the genre. There’s no other kind of film that strikes such a relationship between the vividly emotional and the wantonly abstract, and perhaps no musical that exploits that odd displacement with such wicked charm.

Sometimes the songs in Singin’ in the Rain are part of the action; sometimes they belong to the “real” world of the film; sometimes, as in the “Moses Supposes” number, they seem to deconstruct the “real” world, to eat away at it until it disintegrates into gibberish – but gibberish you can dance to. It’s a dizzying fantasy of imagining and living out, from Kelly’s monologue at the start where he lies about his “dignified” past history while we see the much less rarified truth on the screen, to the end where a star’s voice turns out to belong to someone else.

Off to see the wizard

A few days after that, with my appetite for classic musicals now whetted again, I watched The Wizard of Oz (it played at 1 am on Bravo, which seems in some way like a sign of a pretty cool station). Unlike Donen and Kelly’s film, this doesn’t actually seem very well-directed to me. Much of the action is staged any old way and it has a herky-jerky quality throughout. But you can certainly see why the movie’s sometimes interpreted as a big acid trip – the intensity of Dorothy’s reimagining of normal life seems way beyond mere childish dreams.

Still, it’s one of the happiest of movie accidents. Everything about it – Judy Garland’s odd girl-woman performance (it struck me at several points that Dorothy could be read as being a bit stunted), the peculiarly elemental nature of her friends’ deficiencies, the vividness of its mythology (the yellow brick road, the ruby slippers) – somehow coheres. Although by now it’s impossible to know what one reacts to in the film itself and what you’re absorbing from the popular culture.

The title of this article, of course, is a gimmick – there’s no reason why Ozu and The Wizard of Oz would be in the same article. Except that I did indeed see both in the same week. I watch such a mixed bag of movies that I end up with these wacky juxtapositions all the time (in the last few days, as I write, I watched Exorcist II: The Heretic, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon). But no matter how often, it always strikes me as a small miracle.

Monday, November 28, 2016

More big movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2004)

Notes on three of the better recent films

The Triplets of Belleville

Already a contender for the best of 2004 list – and, as Letterman used to exclaim, it’s a cartoon! Sylvain Chomet’s film has a plot, but it would sound dumb if I tried to summarize it, and that’s one of the things I loved about the movie. Like Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (which quickly comes to my mind only because it’s the last animated film I saw in a theatre), it has a unique sensibility – one pitched at a previously uncharted angle to the world. It’s not quite as far-out as Miyazaki’s film though – another thing I loved about the film is that despite its brief 80-minute running time, and despite a trailer that makes the thing look like a blur of activity, it’s actually surprisingly languid (especially for a cartoon!) Perhaps half the running time is taken up merely with wonderfully precise observation – of a fat old dog’s routine while waiting for his owners to get home; of the bizarre mealtime rituals of a trio of old-time singers. In this respect and others, the closing dedication to the memory of Jacques Tati doesn’t seem at all gratuitous.

I also loved (someone stop me here before I gush) the distinct queasiness at the film’s centre. One of the notional protagonists is a Tour de France cyclist whose non-stop training has driven him to physical grotesquerie and apparent near catatonia – registering neither highs nor lows, he goes through the movie like a dazed war survivor. His mother – who sets out with the dog to find him after he’s kidnapped – is essentially a tyrant operating on a blinkered view of the world. And so on. The movie has an elongated, angular visual style that’s far more realistic than Miyazaki’s work, and it’s constantly diverting and dramatic, but it also skirts the fringes of nightmare, as if the elements of our world had been stretched slightly too far and might at any moment collapse. Sometimes, it goes in for Hanna-Barbera-type ideas (at one point the dog is used as a spare tire) but usually it’s closer to plausibility than that. Like I said, there’s no way to pass on the coordinates: you have to go there for yourself.

Spirited Away was the surprise winner of last year’s Oscar for best animated film, I don’t think Belleville can beat this year’s favourite, Finding Nemo, but it deserves to. Finding Nemo is a fine movie too, but when you compare it to Chomet’s film you see how calculated it is. Nemo has no downtime – it sweeps across you like a fresh cold wave, wearing the brightest colours you’ve ever seen. Sure, it’s not just for kids, but if it’s for adults, it’s for adults on definite downtime. The Triplets of Belleville is the real deal – a cartoon that most kids probably wouldn’t get. To me, that’s the kind of thing that could become a cult movie.

The Cooler

In Wayne Kramer’s debut film, William H Macy plays a Vegas loser whose luck is so bad that he can kill your winning streak just by standing next to you; he’s consequently hired by casino boss Alec Baldwin to move around the tables and keep down expenses. One day he falls in love with waitress Maria Bello and his luck turns round – now people are winning jackpots all around him. It’s a big problem for Baldwin, a Vegas traditionalist trying to keep away the modern theme park family-friendly glitz. This nostalgia is one of the film’s dominant qualities, and you could almost miss the fact that old Vegas – world capital of gangsters, hookers, etc. – wasn’t all wonderful (although Baldwin’s unashamed, utterly amoral use of violence is unflinchingly presented). Otherwise it’s all about the love story, which is presented with a lot of wistful sentimentality, introspection, and a sexual specificity that – given the musty nature of the surroundings – almost seems out of place. Nothing about The Cooler is very surprising, but most of the individual scenes play pretty well, aided by committed acting. The overall arc though seems unsophisticated. Underneath it all, it’s a transplanted fairy tale with an inevitable happy-ever-after trajectory, and fundamentally you’re never doing much more than waiting until it runs its course.

The Fog of War

Errol Morris’ Oscar-nominated documentary reviews the life and times of Vietnam-era US secretary of defense Robert McNamara, anchored around a series of interviews with the man himself, now 87. Filmed in vivid close-up, staring directly into the camera, McNamara remains a commanding presence. It’s an amazing life story – he was at the heart of the bombing strategy against Japan during WW2; he rose to the top of the Ford motor company, and later ran the World Bank. He brought to all of these roles a piercing analytical mind – a meticulous focus on objectives and processes. But such rationality might seem to verge on inhumanity, and some have seen McNamara almost as the embodiment of the devil – he admits himself that if the US had lost WW2, he might have been prosecuted as a war criminal.

Of course, Vietnam was the ultimate moral meltdown – an endeavor entered into without clarity or, it seems here, real conviction. McNamara attributes some of that now to basic misunderstandings: the Americans believed it was about global positioning; the Vietnamese thought it was about Vietnam itself. He thinks JFK would have found a way to get out before the casualties mounted, but the sobering point is that Kennedy had already let things go too far. The film has numerous extracts from the White House tapes of conversations between McNamara and Lyndon Johnson, chilling for their superficiality and sense of hopelessness. Eventually McNamara submitted a memo arguing for a fundamental change in direction, but even if he could turn back, Johnson couldn’t, and McNamara was gone a few weeks later.

Morris has a flashy visual style, including repeated use of things like dominoes falling on a map of Vietnam, and the film has an immaculate score by Philip Glass. It seems to me a bit overdone, and yet in a certain way this approach helps make the point – Morris’ towering cinematic edifice underlines McNamara’s hollow intellectualism, and the film’s over-craftedness serves as a metaphor for his tragic limitations. Ultimately, the film is a close cousin to Morris’ last documentary about Fred Leuchter, an expert in execution technology, and Holocaust denier. But Leuchter is merely a small-time buffoon next to McNamara, and you sometimes feel The Fog of War slightly unequal to its subject, yielding as if acknowledging that it will take a higher court than cinema to make him accountable. “Is it the feeling?” asks Morris, in response to another question dodged, “that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t?” “Yeah, that’s right,” McNamara responds. “And I’d rather be damned if I don’t.”

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Return of the King

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2004)

I spent the Christmas season in Edmonton, where any discussion of movies began and ended with one film: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It might be the film that has it all, especially once the New York film critics named it the best picture of the year. A sixteen-year-old boy of my acquaintance pronounced it the best movie he’d ever seen. Normally this would be easily dismissed – the historical perspective, movie-wise, of the average sixteen-year-old stretches back maybe as far as Gladiator – but this kid is a fervent movie fan, already possessing encyclopedic knowledge, and so reminds me of myself at that age. At which point I recall that at the age of fourteen, I would have solemnly sworn on a stack of Bibles (or on a stack of Starlog magazines) that Star Trek: the Motion Picture was the finest film ever made.

Christmas in Edmonton

But I soon grew out of that. When I was sixteen, I started keeping a record of movies I was watching, and the record shows that early on I was watching Luis Bunuel and Orson Welles on BBC2, and if I wasn’t watching Jean-Luc Godard it’s only because I had no way of getting to see the movies. That was in pre-video North Wales, as inhospitable a climate for movies back then as one could imagine in the English-speaking world. Present-day Edmonton seems like much more fertile ground. So we asked the kid if he’s getting into foreign films at all. And here’s his answer: “If I want to read, I’ll buy a book.”

OK – it’s an easy laugh line. But the actions speak louder than the words, and the fact is he doesn’t watch foreign films (he did allow, by way of meagre compensation, that he’d seen Amelie). In itself, how one kid draws the line doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. But the thing is, I’ve had conversations like this many times now. Take the couple sitting next to us at a wedding reception – we stumbled through a series of failed conversation-starters, until I mentioned movies and he came to life. He was a student, a real enthusiast. His choice for best movie ever made: Star Wars. At least he seemed contrite about not having seen any Antonioni.

I’ve written in this vein before, and I’m going to keep on doing it periodically because classic cinema is in trouble and if I can just drum into one person that there’s something else going on there, it’ll be worth it. We have the Cinematheque Ontario, and it’s a marvel, but even if the Cinematheque sells out (which happens only in a distinct minority of cases) that represents by my count something like 0.01% of the population of Toronto. In other words, extinction-level territory. And those crowds are usually pretty gray-haired too. So every convert counts. Otherwise I’m worried I’m going to end up like one of those guys in Fahrenheit 451 who embodies the only memory of a lost masterpiece. True, the analogy doesn’t hold because the works will mostly still exist in archives, or on DVD. But no one will ever watch them, except crazy academics.

The Return of the King

It’s a tough sell, because it’s not hard to understand the measuring system by which The Return of the King represents everything one could wish for. The movie is truly a mammoth piece of filmmaking. Jackson’s vision has been minutely imagined, and almost flawlessly executed. The film blends intimate struggle with sweeping conflict; it has ample room for introspection and suffering. Unlike many epics, it actually seems to be about something meaningful; about a literate, complex society torn apart by a fundamental struggle about its identity and direction. The varied races and tribes and creatures don’t seem like mere window dressing (like another wacky made-up creation thrown into the Star Wars cantina) but like substantive manifestations. The film has real physical presence. Maybe once in a while there’s something that looks a bit too fake (Orlando Bloom bringing down the giant elephant; Ian McKellen riding the eagle), but these are minor cavils against such a consistent realization of a fantastic world.

The reader may detect though a somewhat rote quality to this praise, and I can’t deny that fact. Truth is, I don’t know how to summon true enthusiasm for the film. In a few weeks, I’ll write about the filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who represents an entirely separate conception of what cinema might be about. For now, let me say that my response to Jackson’s film is more like the response I have to a new office tower. You admire the engineering and the coordination and the massive human effort required to anticipate it all and hold it all together (I am not being flippant at all about this). But unless you’re an engineering student,  none of that can provoke a truly emotional response. Unlike the way something about the building’s line against the sky strikes you from a distance, or the way it reflects the early morning light: a purely aesthetic effect of course reflecting the sum total of those detailed efforts, but transcending them, carving out its own existence.

Significant connection

Although The Return of the King certainly evidences human and political dynamics that have some relevance to our own circumstances, it remains essentially a depiction of a self-contained world. I didn’t like the first film in the trilogy very much at all – it lost me right at the start with all the malarkey setting up the rings and the kingdoms and whatever. The second film seemed essentially like a grand-scale battle picture, and I enjoyed it on that level. The final picture has clear narrative lines and greater spectacle than ever (although less of the vivid sense of New Zealand landscapes which served as such a compensation in the first film). But whenever it drifted off into the ethereal musings or the quasi-religious parallels or the paeans to the brave hobbits, I lost patience. The last twenty minutes or so, which drone on about what becomes of the hobbits after the big adventure is over, seemed to me a complete waste of time.

Because, for all its might, the film doesn’t carve for me a significant connection with our own world. I mentioned points of identification, but they’re a matter of mere recognition, of easy parallels and allegories. Nothing about the film’s world seriously illuminates anything about ours. But for most viewers, that’s not a concern. One could take the view that we’re past the point where we need small-scale movies about intimate issues, except that you look around you and realize that the raw material of human interaction continues to confound us. One could conclude that we’re past needing to ask basic questions about cinema, or past any susceptibility to being impressed by simplicity and purity, except that we haven’t exhausted the potential of poetry, or painting, or any other of the art forms that have been around fifty times as long. Of course, the appeal of the epic isn’t new – D W Griffith and Cecil B DeMille were there at the start. But now we’ve been gasping in awe for the better part of a century.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

More big movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2004)

Some more odds and ends from this year’s holiday season.

Cold Mountain

Anthony Minghella’s long-awaited adaptation of the Charles Frazier novel (which I haven’t read) seems to have struck most people as a relative disappointment. Like Minghella’s The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, it’s immaculately composed, and like those two films, you occasionally feel the weight of its craftsmanship might crush you. In 1860s North Carolina, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman experience the briefest of romances before he’s sent off to the Civil War and she’s left to fend for herself on her late father’s farm. Law suffers through hell and ends up at a military hospital, from which he eventually deserts, and sets out to walk back to her; she gradually gets herself in order with the help of a feisty lost soul played by Renee Zellweger.

As Law passes through a series of brief encounters and Kidman builds up her self-reliance, the film sometimes seems to lack any thematic coherence other than a vague notion of the disruptive horror of war crossed with a familiar gospel of personal renewal rooted in love’s reforming powers. Still, I did find it reasonable effective. The film barely acknowledges slavery as an underpinning for the war or a key component of the South’s culture, but in a way this reinforces its impact as a depiction of a world gone mad: the men at the front suffer meaningless indignities and the people left behind succumb to pointless despair or corruption. Unfortunately, Minghella isn’t very good at depicting chaos – with the exception of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays a warped preacher with a style worthy of a Peckinpah film, everyone seems prettified, daintily inserted (rather than dropped) into the landscape. And the film has one of those silly endings that make America resemble one big communal kibbutz. Nothing about it feels intuitive. But the weight of Minghella’s deliberation does result in a properly somber meditation about humanity in a time of war, even if you feel that a more rigorous handling of the material might have delivered something better.


The latest adaptation of a Philip K Dick story (which I haven’t read either) has clear similarities to the last one, Minority Report. Ben Affleck plays a science whiz whose memory is erased after he executes a big technology project, and using clues he left for himself, he races against time to find out what he’s done, and why people want to kill him. The premise is pretty interesting, but the handling is remarkably undistinguished, with little attention paid to anything except sustaining a shallow momentum.

The biggest disappointment is that John Woo directed this. I’m not among his biggest admirers, but even the largely ignored Windtalkers evidenced far more passion than this pallid effort. Woo executes the obligatory car chase in a startlingly cursory fashion, and when a dove flies through a door toward the end, it seems like a pathetic last-ditch attempt to assert his signature. Affleck is indifferently handled, and Uma Thurman, after her iconic performance in Kill Bill, just drifts through the movie – although I admit I find a drifting Thurman more interesting than most other actresses. For all the film’s obvious faults, I must admit I was engaged by it – the way it shies away from virtually every challenge put to it is almost resonant.

House of Sand and Fog

Vadim Perelman makes his directorial debut with this adaptation of Andre Dubus III’s book (yeah, you guessed it) about a troubled young woman who’s evicted from her house for not paying a trivial tax amount. While she flounders around, the house is auctioned off, at a rock bottom price, to an Iranian immigrant who plans to flip it as the first step to building a better life. With the deputy sheriff who’s fallen in love with her, she tries everything possible to get the house back, with horrible consequences. This is one of the most intensely sad (one could say depressing) films of the year, with the tersely evocative dialogue, the precise and highly sympathetic acting and the sandy/foggy photography creating a bleakly fascinating environment. Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley are quite perfect in the lead roles.

It's one of the year’s most accomplished movies in certain ways, but ultimately seems to lack the weight to equal its grasp of atmosphere and emotion. Without the house, she almost loses whatever centre she has; he regards it primarily as an asset in a business transaction, but his regret at his place in life, and his dreams of renewal, parallel her own longing. Eventually, they find a shared space that’s almost romantic in its idealism, despite the extreme tragedy of the circumstances. The movie’s composure is periodically broken by eruptions of violence that perfectly convey the underlying tensions. But in the end, the message isn’t much more than that a house is not a home, which doesn’t feel like quite enough. Still, it’s an excellent mood piece.

Finding Nemo

Two years ago my nephew Michael’s prize possession was his DVD of the Jim Carrey Grinch movie. Giving in to relentless urging, I sat down over Christmas and started watching it with him, except I was really watching Mike, who repeated every other line, howled with laughter, and kept prodding me to make sure I was getting all the good stuff. Problem is, that movie didn’t actually have too much good stuff. This year he’d moved on to Finding Nemo (which I don’t think is based on a book). After much cajoling, my wife and I sat down with him to watch it on Christmas Day evening (the other adults were in another room watching the DVD set of The Mary Tyler Moore Show).

We had slight misgivings due not just to Mike’s questionable taste, but to the weight of food and alcohol and the definite prospect of falling asleep. But we stayed awake, and joined the shoals of adults who’ve counted this animated fish saga as one of the year’s best. There’s the obvious visual panache and the sly adult appeal of the Albert Brooks-Ellen DeGeneres double act (much gentler than the Eddie Murphy-Mike Myers stuff in Shrek, which I found a little too strenuous). But the film’s wondrousness lies primarily in how it takes an apparently scrupulous sense of the ocean and reimagines it as a meticulous subculture, with an attention to detail that goes way beyond the anthropomorphism of the old Disney films like The Aristocats or The Jungle Book. The portrayal of the seagulls moronically chanting “Mine,” is one of those things that could forever change the way you look at a piece of the world. Together with his thumbs-down for The Cat in the Hat, it looks like Mike’s skills as a movie pundit are definitely improving.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Despair and control

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2004)

An entertaining rant recently from the eloquent Rick Salutin in his Globe and Mail column, where he called film “surely the most over-hyped, self-congratulatory cultural form ever.” He threw his sharpest arrows at the whole notion of a “communal experience” of movie-watching, calling it “a pathetic substitute for community (compared to) the real community that can develop in live theatre or music, where the performers react to the reactions of the audience.” He went on: “Movie watching…isolates people, de-communalizes them, like the guy on the plane guffawing bizarrely at the in-flight plane you aren’t watching…That is why films are essentially a demobilizing, anti-political force, no matter how earnestly they take ‘political’ positions. In their experiental effect, they separate people, make them feel passive and acted on, or acted at, and subject to despair, control and manipulation.:

A certain community

I’m quoting this at too much length, but it’s so delightfully giddy. Salutin ultimately pays a tribute to watching films on video, valorizing “the chance to talk about what you see (which) thus creates a certain community. You can also review the tape dozens or hundreds of times, focusing on its details and nuance, as one did in the oral tradition, where the epics were retold, often in tune with the seasons, so that cultural sensitivities got built up not by adding to the quantity of products but by gaining depth in a limited few.”

Gee, so I guess those extended versions of Alien might not be such a waste of money after all (especially if watched in tune with the seasons). OK, enough from me already. I didn’t quote Salutin to take a shot at him, but because I was genuinely taken by the passion of his antipathy. And I could come up with material to help his case. The recent documentary Cinemania featured five New Yorkers whose brains have been comprehensively addled by too much time at the movies. I’ve often written myself about my mixed feelings about spending so much time on this stuff. It’s an experience too close for comfort to voyeurism; it’s passive and uninvolved.

But that much would be true of anything, taken beyond civilized bounds. I doubt very much whether someone who went to the theatre fifteen or twenty times a week would be in much better shape than the Cinemania geeks, real community or not. And while some of my favourite artistic experiences have come in the theatre, I’ve almost as often had the sense of being surrounded by a brain-dead throng who would applaud the phone book if it helped to justify the ticket price.

Actually, that’s the straw man in Salutin’s argument – he contrasts a lowbrow conception of cinema with a highbrow one of the theatre. He’s largely right about the likes of S.W.A.T. and Lara Croft – the movies are such seamless constructions, so coldly devoid of any of the loose ends of real life, that their supposed mastery as entertainment machines edges depression. The new digital technology, with its cold metallic feel, only accentuates this looming alienation. And it does seem to me that even people who primarily watch that kind of film, citing the need to escape and unwind, often don’t really seem convinced by their own arguments, as if realizing how this embrace of passivity imperils as much as it liberates.

Talking during movies

But that has nothing to do with Bresson or Rivette or Renoir or Welles or Godard or a hundred other directors I could mention. Only by not even trying could a viewer of those films feel “passive and acted on.” And frankly, whether a “certain community” attends one’s viewing of them is neither here nor there. Like anything else, your experience of the film deepens in discussing it afterwards, in reading informed community on it, and viewing it again with those counterpoints in mind. But it’s a little weird how Salutin almost seems spooked by the idea of a spectator sitting alone, engrossed in the screen. It’s as if his commendable distrust of authoritarianism, of political high-handedness, of creeping imperialism, had led him to challenge art’s basic premise – to conclude that identifiable creators are inherently suspect, and that only something formed through a collective process can be trusted. It’s an interesting argument, but I guess my experience doesn’t lead me there. I don’t see anything wrong with giving yourself to a good film – with a questioning mind, of course, but not necessarily a rebellious one.

Salutin’s rant leads him to some weird positions – he approvingly cites a semi-retired teacher from Jamaica who “tells how surprised she was that Canadian audiences don’t talk to each other during movies.” Well, I haven’t seen any movies in Jamaica, but I’ve seen hundreds of them in Bermuda, and very few people would seriously defend the hubbub that accompanies the average film there as any sort of positive community experience. But as long as it just affects dumb movies (which is mostly what got screened in Bermuda when I lived there) it doesn’t really matter. So here’s the basic wrong-headedness of Salutin’s article. He brandishes his sword against the cinema, but he should have been making a much simpler and more useful argument – that people should go to see better films.

Werner Herzog

When Werner Herzog’s latest film Invincible here a year and a half ago, I wrote an article about Herzog in which I mentioned how, somewhat to my own surprise, I found I’ve often cited him in my notes on other directors’ films. I went on: “But I find it much easier to recognize something as ‘Herzog-like’ than to actually summarize the man’s career. At his most superficial, he’s an adventurer – making films all over the world, insisting on a feeling of authenticity. He’s drawn to characters on the edge of society, whether because of mad ambition (like the conqueror in Aguirre: Wrath of God) or inherent “difference.” For example, in the 70s he cast former mental patient Bruno S in several films, and his movies feature a disproportionate number of dwarfs and eccentrics.

Herzog’s in my mind again because of reading the extended interview book Herzog on Herzog. It reveals the director as a one-of-a-kind iconoclast who disclaims any aesthetic theories about himself, thinks the circus is a greater art than the cinema, denies the perpetual rumours that he’s insane while providing one anecdote after another that comes as close as dammit to proving the point, and at every turn comes out with weird and wonderful stuff. A pretty much random example – his anti-chickenism (to coin a noun): “Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in this world.”

In a strange way, the book diminishes Herzog’s films as art, but it elevates them hugely as events. I recommend the films (many of which are available on DVD) and the book. You may watch, and read, with no thought of despair.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Christmas chick flicks

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2004)

An odd pre-Christmas line-up of movies this year. For sure, we had the traditional blockbuster, with The Lord of the Rings opening on December 17th and steam-rolling all in its path. I left that manly enterprise aside until the crowds died down, with the odd consequence that I ended up seeing four successive pictures falling within the broad parameters of “chick flick.” Of course, I go to this kind of film all the time – the only way I know what’s a chick flick is via the feedback I get from the guys in the office. And as I use the term here, it’s a wide category. But as you read on, I think you’ll see where I’m coming from.

I know release schedules are partly accidents of circumstance, and partly the result of decisions taken months or even years ago. But just being fanciful, it’s tempting to think of all this box-office sensitivity as the counterpoint to Iraq and Israel and the December 22 “orange”-level terror alert and to Time magazine choosing the American soldier as person of the year (OK – I know Time’s credibility ran out years ago) and to Tom DeLay on the December 21 Meet the Press (OK  - that last one’s especially subjective). However much the world might make your blood churn in the closing days of 2003, you could count on Hollywood this year to apply something soothing.

Something’s Gotta Give

A glossy middle-aged soap opera, directed by What Women Want’s Nancy Meyers, in which Jack Nicholson plays a Jack Nicholson-type who’s never dated a woman over 30, and Diane Keaton plays a Diane Keaton-type who finally gets him to change his ways. The movie has a few easy laughs and situations early on, including a brief nude scene by Keaton that – from this usually demure actress – strikes me as one of the movie season’s most radical acts. Later on it dawdles endlessly as it pointlessly postpones the inevitable, and it outlived its welcome for me by at least half an hour. The writing is mostly shallow and glib, and it has none of the visual mastery or sheer depth of feeling that made Blake Edwards’ 10, a film with a somewhat similar premise and ambiance, into a near-masterpiece.

Even so, I find the film lingering in my mind more than I thought it would, mainly as an exercise in star images. Keaton comes close to deconstructing her own persona, to illustrating how her neurotic mannerisms, artful evasiveness and understated intelligence have generally shielded her from real onscreen intimacy (with the interesting, problematic exception of Looking for Mr. Goodbar). And although Nicholson seems for much of the way to be phoning it in, ultimately he allows the film the film to suggest that his laconic coolness might long have been a cover for looming despair (I doubt it’s true in Nicholson’s case, but it’s an interesting possibility).

Calendar Girls

A British comedy, in the vein of The Full Monty and Saving Grace (which had the same director, Nigel Cole) about a group of 50-plus Yorkshire women who posed nude for a charity calendar to raise money for leukemia. The calendar became a smash hit, raising over a million dollars to date, and the women briefly became transatlantic celebrities, including an appearance on Jay Leno. The original inspiration was the death from cancer of one of the husbands, and that’s depicted here with surprisingly honest sentiment. From there, the movie turns for a while into another plucky story about a group of outsiders fighting against the odds, before dwindling off with the coming-to-America stuff. The spectacle of respectable British actresses taking off their clothes is the most interesting thing about the movie, although it’s still very restrained, and in the overall scheme of things has been rendered entirely obsolete by the Diane Keaton scene described above. Still, it mostly refrains from condescending to the women, managing to celebrate the affirmative and liberating quality of the enterprise without being too strident about it.

Mona Lisa Smile

Julia Roberts plays a young teacher who turns up from California at New England’s women-only Wellesley College, teaching art history. This is 1953, and the syllabus is so rigid it might as well be chiseled into stone, but she shakes things up by introducing her enthusiasm for modern art. At the same time, she challenges the prevailing assumption that there can be nothing better to follow this than marriage, motherhood, and a life spent in support of one’s husband. Of course, she makes some progress on shaking up the group, but not as much as you might think. The film seems to have reasonable respect for historicity in a number of ways, sketching a surprisingly varied selection of portraits from the axis of oppression. But it often feels like an odd piece of science fiction, like a 50’s variation on The Stepford Wives, in which Roberts turns up as an emissary from the future to teach enlightenment. Maybe we should be glad she doesn’t destroy the school walls with a ray gun and lead the girls to freedom through a time portal.

The closing credits roll over a series of 50’s advertising and other images that speak to that age’s confined view of a woman’s place – it’s rather like the stinging blackface montage from Bamboozled, but without anger or real sadness. The premise seems to be that harsh emotion is no longer required – women have come a long way since then, and we can watch now with wistfulness and a warm superiority. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a contemporary Hollywood movie fretting in such a strenuous but ineffectual way about the obligations of masculinity. Anyway, Mona Lisa Smile does contain numerous pleasures, such as Maggie Gyllenhaal’s unabashedly promiscuous student, and Kirsten Dunst’s surprisingly hard-edged bitch.

The Housekeeper

Also opening the weekend before Christmas was Claude Berri’s La femme du menage, about a middle-aged man who employs a nubile young woman to clean his house, has an affair with her, and then sees the relationship develop beyond his control. Maybe this isn’t really a woman’s film in the sense of the other three (if only because of the amount of time spent watching Emilie Dequenne hanging round in skimpy outfits), or maybe it’s that our prototypical notion of a French film is inherently more feminine than masculine, or maybe that’s our prototypical notion of the French themselves. How did I get into this? Anyway, at the risk of propagating a stereotype, The Housekeeper exhibits all the greater complexity, subtlety, unpredictability, finesse and elegance that we associate with a French film. Nothing about it is a huge surprise in the bigger scheme of things, but it’s all in the seasoning of course. If not for Chirac’s questionable strike for secularism, I might have said the holiday season belonged to the French.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Old timers

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2004)

If you read enough about film, especially the kind of writing that’s driven by a concept of the director as author, you tend to come across a fair bit of divided commentary on the value of a particular filmmaker’s later work. Both pro and con camps frequently share some common observations: as a director ages, the pace gets slower; the narrative less tightly controlled; echoes of earlier works abound; the camera and editing technique are often simpler, less ambitious. The differences come in the value you choose to place on these developments. The pro argument: nearing the end of his career, all youthful impulsiveness expunged, the director strips things down to their essence, allowing his essential themes to emerge with greater clarity than ever. The con: he’s run out of juice and just can’t hack it any more.

Among the directors who’ve been debated in this light: Alfred Hitchcock (everything after Psycho), John Ford (everything after The Searchers), Billy Wilder (Fedora), Howard Hawks (everything after Rio Bravo). There are foreign examples too, but the poles of the argument don’t seem as divergent there.

More recently, aging directors simply seem to fade away, or at best to go and work for HBO. Norman Jewison, who’s 77 now and still going strong, almost stands alone. His new film The Statement is his first since The Hurricane in 1999. It’s not the most successful film by conventional measures, and plainly looks like the work of an old man. So can the case be made here for Jewison as an aging auteur?

Norman Jewison

By virtue of his fame and longevity in Hollywood, supplemented with having founded the Canadian Film Centre and maintaining a presence close to home, Jewison is now generally regarded as one of Canada’s greatest directors. His film In the Heat of the Night won the Oscar (although he didn’t win for directing), and he came close again with Moonstruck and A Soldier’s Story. His varied career also takes in musicals (Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar), violent science fiction (Rollerball), comedy (Best Friends, and his early work with the likes of Tony Curtis and Doris Day) and contemporary satire of various kinds (And Justice for All, Other People’s Money).

It’s a body of work almost as perplexing as it is eclectic, with little artistic personality beyond a consistent sense that Jewison means well. He was reportedly upset when The Hurricane failed to gain any Oscar nominations bar for Denzel Washington’s performance, but it was a hackneyed, almost insultingly simplistic effort, which looked sadly anachronistic next to that year’s Being John Malkovich, Three Kings and Fight Club. The film was lucky to get the respect it did.

But The Statement again arrived with Oscar-related ambitions. And again with no small dose of anachronism. It certainly has some characteristics of an aging auteur’s work. War criminal Michael Caine has spent forty years evading justice, hidden by the Catholic Church. In some ways he’s been deadened by this life, but in others he remains defiant, revealing the same cold-bloodedness that made him a willing collaborator. Now he’s in danger of discovery. The film is essentially a chase thriller, but Caine easily runs out of breath when chased; he looks bigger than usual here, and rather doughy, exactly like a man who’s lived primarily in the shadows.

The Statement

The film has an inordinate amount of talking, particularly among the group that’s looking for Caine. There’s a sense of compulsive contemplation about it, which matches the plot’s claustrophobic qualities. On the other hand, it doesn’t convey any particular brooding qualities. It’s the work of a resigned man, apparently accepting events as the inevitability of time eventually running out. The film barely has any real suspense, and when the end finally comes, it’s surprisingly sudden and low-key. In the classic style of the aging auteur, Jewison visibly pares down the film.

But whereas Hawks and Wilder and others in parallel circumstances filled the resulting space with their own ruminations and shadings, Jewison flails around like a confused fisherman. He fills scenes with pointless exchanges and gimmicks, presumably meant to add colour but instead resembling the brainwaves of a village hall dramatist. He never finds a coherent angle on the Caine character, making it difficult to determine whether he’s perpetually cold-blooded or merely frightened or reactive (Jewison’s summary in a recent TV interview that the character “isn’t a very nice man” seems fairly reflective of his take on him).

The Statement’s various “aged” qualities make it way more interesting than The Hurricane, but they wind through the film, rather than providing it with artistic definition. In a way, Jewison’s too spry for his own artistic good. The film needed to be more fatigued; it needed to be more fully seized by the desperation of time running out.

Big Fish

Tim Burton’s latest film feels too like the product of an older man. Burton is known for a zesty visual panache crossed with a wistful affinity for outcasts and dreamers. He was a near-ideal director to revive the Batman franchise, although his indulging of Jack Nicholson in the first film showed his passivity with actors. Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood are probably his high-water mark. Most recently, Mars Attacks was a mere doodle, Sleepy Hollow little more than that (substantially redeemed, as are so many films, by Johnny Depp) and Planet of the Apes a comprehensive bore. With that last film, Burton threatened to become entirely ordinary, a mere calculating technician.

But Big Fish is a much more personal work – indeed, that’s almost its undoing. It’s an ambling narrative built around father-son reconciliation. Billy Crudup is the buttoned-down writer who has long been ashamed by his overbearing parent’s tall tales; Albert Finney is the dying patriarch and Ewan McGregor plays him in flashback as a younger man. Finney’s stories include giants and circuses and witches with eyes that see into the future and magic towns hidden in the woods. They’re tall tales, but not so absurd that they might not have some glimmer of truth to them, Crudup longs to get past all this, to understand the man behind the myths (and thereby himself), but of course, he gradually realizes Finney isn’t just a blowhard, that his storytelling might just be a more compelling life strategy than mere reality.

The movie meanders along, never provoking more than a passing smile from all its contrivances, often skirting boredom. Burton has been talking in interviews about the experience of being a first-time father (with Helena Bonham-Carter, who plays the witch here) and how that’s prompted him to reflect on his own paternal relationship. Maybe this then is his first grown-up movie, and we all know about Hollywood’s screwed-up, sententious sense of what being grown up means. Still, it would be dishonest of me not to admit that I found the film’s final stretches remarkably moving, regardless of how far away you see it all coming.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Best of 2003

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2004)

Not a bad year at all, and one that finds an unprecedented degree of overlap between my own best ten list and the mainstream consensus. The year was short on unheralded discoveries, but maybe that just means everyone did a better job than usual of finding the good stuff. Here they are, in no particular order.

25th Hour (Spike Lee)
Lee’s film studies a convicted drug dealer (Edward Norton) on the day before he turns himself in for a lengthy prison sentence, spending time with his oldest friends, the girlfriend he suspects turned him in and – in perhaps the film’s dominant image – the dog he found dying at the side of the road and then saved. It’s a distinctly post-traumatic New York; the film often refers to September 11, and frequently feels as though that event had knocked Lee’s stuffing out of him. But it’s a fascinating aesthetic construction, like all Lee’s films, and sustains a remarkably comprehensive study of attitudes (aided by an excellent cast). The film’s final passage was much criticized, but I thought it was beautifully rendered, dreamily summing up the film’s equilibrium between resignation and escape.

A ma soeur (Catherine Breillat)
Breillat’s controversial film (also known as Fat Girl) finally opened here this year after being banned in Ontario for over a year. More cunning and insinuating than her best known film Romance, it revolves around two teenage sisters (one lithe and attractive, the other not) whose relationship regularly swings between hostility and extreme closeness. The film has several sequences that perfectly fulfil Breillat’s clinical interest in the mechanics of sexual politics, but its major impact comes in the startling finale. The destruction of a family marks, in the crudest sense, the fat girl’s ascension as a woman, but that instantly brings compromise and evasion. It’s a moment brilliantly gripped in ambiguity and contradiction, a microcosm of Breillat’s cinema.

Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki)
Jarecki’s film, my favourite of several heralded documentaries this year, chronicles a family’s tortured history (the father and youngest son were both imprisoned for child sex abuse), using videotapes taken by another family member. The director was incredibly lucky to stumble on this material, and to some extent you might find yourself admiring his work more as assemblage and research than as art. But that would be unfair, for Capturing the Friedmans is extremely subtle and ambiguous, raising issues about truth, fairness, sexuality, social norms, and the nature of cinema, among many others. And it’s one film in which you categorically feel relief for the happy ending (or as happy an ending as the circumstances make possible).

Mystic River (Clint Eastwood)
Whether or not this is a great film (I think it’s at least pretty close), it’s certainly fascinating viewed in the context of Eastwood’s oeuvre. The cold moral certainty of his classic persona is translated here into a complex examination of guilt and innocence, which the film presents as relative rather than absolute states. Sean Penn is memorable as a grieving father whose search for his daughter’s killer coexists uneasily with the police investigation led by his childhood friend; a plot summary would sound schematic, but the film has an intensity and sense of purpose that are at times transcendent.

American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini)
I’m putting this in my top ten even though I think it was a little overrated in some quarters. It’s the chronicle of blue-collar cartoonist Harvey Pekar, who appears as himself in some scenes and is played by Paul Giamatti in others. It has all the allusiveness of something like Adaptation while seeming much more laid back and crafty – the fact that it leaves you feeling slightly underwhelmed is actually a mark of its success in that it elevates normal life without romanticizing it.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Jonathan Mostow)
No, I don’t really think this is one of the year’s best ten. But as I look back over 2003, it stands out as almost the only blockbuster that wasn’t a severe disappointment. Admittedly I didn’t see most of them, but most of those I did see were either offputtingly pretentious (The Hulk, Matrix Reloaded) or else dumb even by the genre’s normal standards (Charlie’s Angels). This one was concentrated and focused, with straight-down-the-line action, leading to a remarkable ending, and generally avoided the fake digital look that proliferated elsewhere. I might even watch it again, eventually.

Spider (David Cronenberg)
A chronicle of a man who’s released from a mental asylum after many years – we first follow the sparse rituals of his new life, then a memory of his childhood, although we’re never quite sure until the end exactly what we’re watching: the film troublingly foregrounds the process of image creation. It’s more self-effacing than most other Cronenberg films and as such does perfect service to Spider’s inner world, although I rather missed those Cronenbergian extremes (which manifest themselves very subtly here).

9-11-01 (Youssef Chahine, Amos Gitai, Sean Penn, Mira Nair, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Shohei Imamura, Danis Tanovic, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Samira Makhmalbaf)
This somewhat controversial film was finally released here in November after showing at last year’s festival. It’s eleven short films by eleven directors from eleven countries, taking vastly different approaches towards the basic mandate of commemorating/commenting on September 11. Under the circumstances, it’s remarkable how subtly balanced it feels as a whole. Among the highlights: Loach cogently contrasts 9-11-01 with 9-11-73, on which the Chilean army (with American backing) rose against the elected Allende government. All in all, the film places 9-11 in context without diminishing it; only the most supremely self-righteous could seriously object.

21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
The title of Inarritu’s English-language debut refers to the body weight that’s supposedly lost at the moment of death, and the film – intertwining three separate stories that gradually come together – is largely a meditation on how normal life, placed in proximity to death, breaks down. It’s told in a highly fragmented style, switching rapidly (but artfully) between plot lines and points in time. It’s a big film with big gestures, and with acting (by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro) of transformational power that’s central to the film’s fabric. 21 Grams is easy to criticize in various ways, but few films this year matched it for sheer power.

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson hang out together in Tokyo – creating, for a few days, a private world where they share a mysterious, unspoken agreement about the rules. The much-noted opening shot, of Johansson’s behind lounging on the bed in a pair of pink panties, is a symbol of sorts for what follows. It evokes an oblique kind of eroticism, a highly evocative sense of colour and texture and composition, and most significantly, an evasive sense of character and motivation (is Johansson being objectified here, or is the shot in some sense defining the film as hers?) This film too was overrated in some quarters, but has strengths galore.