Monday, March 28, 2016

Vision of hell

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2003)

The favourite for this year’s Oscar for best foreign film must be the Brazilian City of God, directed by Fernando Meireilles. It helps its chances a lot that Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her is ineligible because its home country, Spain, didn’t submit it for consideration. Still, City of God would be a worthy winner of the award. It’s a film of enormous skill and scope, fusing serious purpose with canny entertainment values. And it marks yet another step forward in the amazing advance of South American cinema.

City of God

The “city of God” is a hellish slum in Rio de Janeiros, and the film intertwines several stories about the boys who grow up there, usually to become drug dealers or hoodlums. It’s a dirt-poor environment where parents are largely absent, and so is a sense of much of anything except the pragmatic appeal of lawlessness and anarchy. Meireilles is an award-winning director of commercials who leaps into this, his debut film, with the confidence of an established master. He turns the milieu into the world’s rattiest circus, marshalling the constant conflict and misery and danger into a ceaseless swirl of incident.

The film’s received some very high praise. Roger Ebert judged the picture the second best of last year, behind Spielberg’s Minority Report. He wrote: “In its actual level of violence, City of God is less extreme than Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, but the two films have certain parallels. In both films, there are really two cities: the city of the employed and secure, who are served by law and municipal services, and the city of the castaways, whose alliances are born of opportunity and desperation. Those who live beneath rarely have their stories told.”

City of God,” concluded Ebert, “does not exploit or condescend, does not pump up its stories for contrived effect, does not contain silly and reassuring romantic sidebars, but simply looks, with a passionately knowing eye, at what it knows.”

I like the film, but I doubt I’m alone in finding that a bit much. Those who live beneath rarely have their stories told? In fact, don’t movies contain a disproportionate percentage of assassins, drug dealers and all-purpose “sickos”? The new South American cinema (judging at least by the admittedly thin sample of it that’s been shown commercially here) barely seems able to tell any other stories.

And as for simply looking at what it knows – well, a two-hour movie necessarily involves a multitude of choices about it knows or doesn’t know. But in this case it’s undeniable that the movie’s points are pretty much made after the first hour. Up to that point we’re still gearing ourselves up to the film’s imaginative velocity. Beyond that it keeps on going, becoming more and more wrapped up in a single drugwar story that becomes increasingly mundane. The movie never loses its feeling for real pain and incident, for the intimate moment that drives home the cost of this machismo, but these moments increasingly seem like appendages to its central momentum.

What it knows

The comment about “simply looking” is off in another way too. City of God has a structure that travels back and forth through time; a voice over that refers to plot strands to be revealed later, or doubles back to clarify something that passed before. For all its immersion in the moment, it’s a technique that conveys a restlessness with what’s before it, a yearning to be somewhere else. In Alfonso Cuaron’s Y tu Mama tambien, the plot kept swerving off to explore the destinies of various secondary characters. City of God isn’t quite that volatile, but it foregoes the humanist patience of a movie that just looks.

On the whole, my own views are closer to David Edelstein in Slate. He writes: “The violence in City of God isn’t glorified, but it doesn’t get under your skin and haunt you, either – which is odd when you consider the movie’s sociopolitical trappings…and how many kids end up eating bullets on-screen. The only moment that rips the pulp fabric is when Lil’ Ze hands a gun to a boy known as Steak-and-Fries and commands him to choose which of two delinquent “runts” to shoot – one of whom looks 6 years old and suddenly begins to sob like the small child that he is. That infantile keening cuts through the camera’s wry objectivity. It’s the only time we ever think ‘Don’t shoot,’ instead of ‘Duck!’”

He’s right about the documentary-like tug of that scene (Katia Lund, who helped Meireilles in marshalling non-professional actors and navigating unfriendly terrain, is credited as co-director, which must indicate an unusually hefty contribution). And it’s not quite true the film never attains that level elsewhere – for instance, the Lil’ Ze character (he’s a child thug who grows up to be a drug dealer) has some moments of murderous rage that I found chilling.

But the sheer pace of the film, the relentlessness of its bad news, mitigates the effect of any particular incident. The emotional impact flattens out rather than accumulating. I sometimes worry, watching a film like this, that the sort of comment I just made reflects my own sheltered unfamiliarity with violence; that I wrongly assume it could only ever come, if at all, in small bursts, so that any kind of sustained violence must be by definition melodramatic. But I don’t worry about it for long, because such ignorance is far preferable to the alternative.

The Recruit

At the opposite end of the movie scale in just about every respect, Roger Donaldson’s The Recruit is a film of no social relevance and run-of-the-mill style. It’s about a young CIA recruit (Colin Farrell) led by his trainer (Al Pacino) into a complex plot where – as the movie keeps reminding us to the point of tedium – nothing is what it seems. Since we know from the start to mistrust everything the film seems to be telling us, there’s little practical option while watching it other than to put our brains on snooze.

The major compensation – and it is a major one – is Pacino, in an incredibly imaginative and charismatic performance. Virtually every line he speaks has a cadence or a shading that you can’t imagine coming from any other actor – and it’s not just eccentricity, for somehow it fuses into a compelling character. And for about the tenth time in his career, he has a rambling closing monologue so out of step with the pedestrian dialogue preceding it that he must have written it himself. Pacino almost convinces you you’re watching something profound – an achievement maybe only slightly less impressive than City of God.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A New York story

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2003)

Spike Lee may be one of the five most famous directors in the world, but his fame doesn’t mean he gets the respect that’s due to him. Actually it limits it. The antics at Knicks games, the commercials, the inflammatory statements and rabble-rousing – it’s more the profile of a poseur or provocateur than of a great artist. Of course, everyone acknowledges Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing, but after a string of flops we’re almost at the point where Lee might be widely regarded as someone who occasionally hits greatness despite himself.

Spike Lee

Lately he’s complained about budget restrictions (his failed ventures include a Jackie Robinson biopic), while yet becoming more prolific than ever. He has six directing credits in the last three years: documentaries on Huey Newton and Jim Brown, the concert film Original Kings of Comedy, a segment of the anthology film Ten Minutes Older, and two feature films – Bamboozled and his new 25th Hour. Bamboozled was a flop, failing to generate much support even in Lee’s usual cheering section. I thought it was an utter masterpiece – one of those rare movies in which artistic risks and happy accidents combine to almost mystical effect. But most viewers stumbled on the film’s grainy camera style, Damon Wayans’ accent, and their own assumptions that blackface could no longer serve as the vehicle for effective satire.

As if in reaction to these recurring criticisms, 25th Hour is one of Lee’s most handsome-looking films, with some of his most straightforward “good” acting. And, through its recurring references to September 11, it could hardly be more topical. He might be forgiven for thinking he can’t win, because 25th Hour has been criticized for opportunism, for grafting its layers of significance onto a plot that can’t really carry them.

Edward Norton plays a drug dealer who’s been busted for possession, and the movie takes place on the day before he turns himself in for a lengthy jail sentence. He’s basically just a soft kid who fell in with the wrong crowd and the lure of easy money; the prospect of jail – particularly of assault by the other inmates – is paralyzing him. On his last day he spends time with his two oldest friends – one now a schoolteacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who’s obsessed with a teenage pupil (Anna Paquin), the other a Wall Street trader (Barry Pepper); with his pub owner father (Brian Cox), and with the girlfriend he suspects of turning him in (Rosario Dawson). And in perhaps the film’s dominant image, he walks alone with the dog he found dying by the side of the road and then saved – an act he views as perhaps the one good thing he ever did.

Diverse circle

Lee paints a diverse circle here – whether measured by racial background or age or worldview. During his last day of freedom, Norton tests the contours of this group as if already caged and exploring his boundaries. About halfway through the movie, he goes to the washroom, and his reflection in the mirror delivers a long, profane rant (accompanied by a visual montage) against almost every definable (mainly by race) group in New York. It’s instantly reminiscent of the similar sequence in Do the Right Thing, but that echo illustrates what’s different, and unprecedented in Lee’s work, about 25th Hour. There’s no real anger to the dialogue here – it never seems like more than a rationalization of Norton’s predicament, an attempt to externalize his self-recrimination. This is confirmed at the end of the film, when some of the faces in the montage reappear outside the car as he’s driving away – but now they’re welcome, like the last thing he has left to grab on to.

It’s as if Lee was officially giving up the ghost on his angry young black man persona. Not least of all because the film has less “black” content than any he’s made before. But the feeling of resignation goes further than that. 25th Hour often feels as though September 11 had knocked Lee’s stuffing out of him. It’s a distinctly post-traumatic New York. The opening credits are built around the blue lights that for a while commemorated the two towers, and one of the film’s key scenes – a long exchange between Norton’s two best friends – takes place in an apartment overlooking Ground Zero. Touching on guilt and justice and recrimination, the conversation grapples with identity and stability, with a backdrop commemorating our most shocking reminder of those qualities’ fragility.

I mentioned that some critics find the 9/11 parallels overblown, and point out that Norton is an implausibly nice drug dealer. The latter opinion surely overlooks how Lee has always functioned as a satirist (Bamboozled even started out by defining the term “satire”.) His films have better surfaces than just about anyone else’s, but much as they radiate intense commitment and vibrancy, he never seems confined by his plots’ ostensible limits. He uses formal distancing devices (one of his favourites being close-ups with the background shifting behind them – as though the characters had fallen out of sync with their surroundings), fiery montages, dialogue delivered direct to camera. He filmed a big chunk of Crooklyn out of focus to reflect the protagonist’s disorientated state. His films have the feeling of vaudeville, of agit-prop, of performance art. He wants you to think.

Melancholy mood
But in 25th Hour it all turns melancholy. I think Lee succeeds in virtually all his ambitions here. The film’s world is unquestionably stylized; it’s a fascinating aesthetic construction like all Lee’s films, but it also sustains a remarkably comprehensive study of attitudes (aided by an excellent cast). And at its heart, it’s as simple as this: someone led a good life he didn’t deserve and now must pay the price. What good can that presage for New York? Except that the film’s final passage explores the possibility that it might still turn out differently, that the relative lack of accountability might yet be extended, perhaps indefinitely. It’s a dreamy, elegiac passage, but beautifully rendered, summing up the film’s equilibrium between resignation and escape.

I should note though that the ending has been criticized even more than the rest of the film: the Globe and Mail referred to a “final 15 minutes that surely ranks among the clumsiest endings an otherwise good movie has ever received.” I don’t agree (at the very least, “clumsy” seems unfair to Lee’s fluency), but maybe Lee would take this criticism better than he’s taken others. Post 9/11, a certain amount of well-meaning clumsiness might seem to him merely like the mark of a good man.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Polanski's return

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2003)

If we all sat down to think up our lists of the greatest living directors, I doubt whether Roman Polanski’s name would turn up too often any more. In exile from the US for almost thirty years now, since fleeing a likely conviction for statutory rape, he’s continued to make a film every four or five years on average, but with increasingly less conviction or visibility. It’s a shame, because his early work was so richly diverse. He was born in Poland, but in his early 30s was already capable of making Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion, two movies with an equally advanced understanding of, but very different responses to, the tensions and absurdities underlying Englishness.

His first American film, Rosemary’s Baby, is fairly straightforward material, with relatively little thematic complexity, but Polanski renders it unimaginably unsettling. When handed a magnificent contemporary script, as he was in Robert Towne’s Chinatown, he produced one of the masterpieces of the 70’s – one of those movies that seems to have undergone a strange alchemy, acquiring a resonance far beyond what its raw materials should have allowed for. And many consider his version of Macbeth to be one of the finest Shakespearean films.

The Pianist

Since he took flight, the best-received film has been Tess, a carefully composed Thomas Hardy adaptation that hasn’t maintained much of a reputation. The rest are mere odds and ends: Pirates, Frantic, Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden, The Ninth Gate. And now that he approaches 70, his career must be coming to an end.

All the more amazing that he won this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes for his film The Pianist. Not that many of the critics I read seemed to think the prize was deserved on merit. No matter – Polanski had returned. And with a possible Oscar nomination ahead, and his teenage victim now in her 40s and supposedly wishing for his rehabilitation, who can say that a return to Hollywood is necessarily out of the question?

I don’t mean to make The Pianist sound like a mere career calculation. Quite the opposite: it’s perhaps the most personal of all Polanski’s films. His parents were sent to concentration camps; his mother died at Auschwitz. The Pianist is his first film addressing the Holocaust. It recreates the war experience of a Polish Jew, Wladyslaw Szpilman, played by Adrian Brody, who avoids the camps only by the narrowest of margins, and then spends several years as a fugitive in Warsaw. The film is a superb recreation, slightly marred in places by the stateliness of script and casting that often characterizes European co-productions, but generally completely engrossing and moving.

Classic Polanski

One can’t help but probe the material for signs of “classic” Polanski, although it’s something you do with care. Even the most tasteless director would be somewhat self-effacing in dealing with a subject like this (I pass without comment over “Nazi-chic” films such as The Night Porter). Still, although I would never really have thought of Polanski as a natural choice for such material, his background notwithstanding, there’s much in his work to presage it.

David Thomson summed him up this way: “The violence in Polanski’s films is not especially prominent: it has seldom erupted with the force achieved by Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, Fuller or Losey. Much more characteristic is the underlying alienation and hostility: the feeling that people are cut off, unsupported by any shared view of life and society. From this solitariness, the move toward acts of violence is stealthy, remorseless, and even comic…What enlarges (Polanski’s world) is his sense of humour, the lack of self-pity, and the curiosity that he retains for human behaviour.”

If we take Thomson’s synopsis almost as a Polanski blueprint, it’s clear how such a filmmaker, regardless of personal history, might be fated for this most traumatic of subjects – attuned to the condition of both jailed and jailer, infusing the work with humanism without sentiment. The film’s violence is pointed, and precise, usually presented at a distance that emphasizes its clinical design. There’s a scene where, as Brody and his family watch, a group of Nazis pulls up below and enters an apartment across the street. They throw a wheelchair-bound elder out of the window; herd the others outside; order them to run; shoot them as they flee. The sequence has a terrible choreography that conveys the grotesquely “experimental” nature of Nazism – the feeling that a whole race debased itself in constructing some morbid laboratory.

Depicting the Holocaust

The second half of the movie consists almost entirely of watching and waiting. Brody grows a beard and looks increasingly like Jesus; he almost starves to death; and when the last of his safe houses literally collapses around him he can do no better than scrounge around in the ruins – apparently almost the last free man left in the city. The elegant aloofness of his profession decays into near-madness. There’s a magnificent (if somewhat contrived), enormously resonant sequence near the end when a Nazi officer, on learning his profession, forces him to play. He hasn’t touched a piano for years, but he discharges the task brilliantly, instantly regaining his suppressed identity. As you watch though, you don’t know if you’re watching a resurgence of life or a final affirmation before death.

Films about great collective events always run the risk that the travails of the protagonists will overshadow the broader importance of the events depicted. The obvious solution is to avoid protagonists, but few films even attempt this (Peter Watkins’ Culloden is a classic exception). The Pianist can’t sidestep this; indeed, Brody may spend more screen time alone than anyone since Tom Hanks in Cast Away. This makes his experience highly anomalous, but it travels the same tragic arc as his family in the camps: diminishing hope, physical decline, and ultimate total destruction. The only exception is that he avoids death itself, and the film avoids making any trite statement on how to value that difference. Polanski’s great achievement is to stay true to the story’s solitude while making that solitude speak to everything we don’t see.

Polanski’s film is a meaningful addition even to a subject as meticulously explored as this one (the year’s other Holocaust film, The Grey Zone, had equal thematic ambition but seemed to me substantially less well executed). The trifling quality of his recent work vanishes here; maybe for the first time, Polanski seems not just brilliant and intuitive, but wise. As though, in depicting the pianist’s long ordeal, he somehow drew not just on the ghosts of his childhood, but on the lessons of his own long exile.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

True stories?

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2003)

The common view – and I’ve pushed it as much as anyone – is that Hollywood doesn’t take on the same range of material it did thirty years ago, but it could be much much worse. This Christmas season, with About Schmidt and The Hours and Chicago and Gangs of New York, we certainly had diversity, and not a little quality. And on New Year’s Eve, they were joined by perhaps the most marginal project of all: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, adapted from the autobiography of Chuck Barris, who created TV shows like The Dating Game and The Gong Show.

Chuck Barris

If you think trash culture put the Western world on the slow road to hell, Barris must resemble the devil incarnate. As the movie presents it, his sole motive was to be rich and get laid – no thought for art or quality or taste. His talent was for coming up with easy-to-grasp gimmicks and then for socking them to the audience with a cotton-candy irresistibility that kept you watching, no matter how much you knew it was bad for you. His heyday was in the 60’s and 70’s – by the more ironic, savvy 80’s, he was basically a has-been.

He then wrote Confessions, in which he claimed that throughout his career as a TV producer, he’d also been working as an undercover CIA assassin, and had killed more than 30 people. I haven’t read the book, and don’t know how convincing it seemed to anyone, but presumably it was all just a fantasy, or an exercise in conceptual humour. The film version is directed – his first movie as such – by George Clooney, who also plays a supporting role as the CIA agent who recruits Barris. Barris is played by Sam Rockwell, who has an appropriately flaky quality. Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts play the key women on the official and unofficial side respectively of Barris’ life.

The film’s most appealing notion is that this double life makes a fiendish sense. It posits that the chaperoned trips taken by the winners on The Dating Game provided cover for Barris to travel on his murderous missions (there’s a nice shot of a contestant’s crestfallen expression as she learns of her prize – an all-expenses paid trip to…West Berlin). More fundamentally, it draws a link between the cultural impact of mass-audience TV and the CIA’s political “engineering.” Some Barris shows, with their prize washer dryers and refrigerators, fetishize the consumerist side of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; others, like The Gong Show, sacrifice self-respect and decorum for the sake of the shortest term buzz.

You can imagine it as a kind of two-pronged attack – a subtle calibration to herd the audience right where someone (Nixon?) wanted them. Their trashiness seemed even at the time to define new cultural territory; now – in an age where we’re accustomed to assuming that all trash might have a subtext – it seems in some ways prophetic. Barris might have been more significant than he knew (maybe his importance depended on him not knowing), and wouldn’t it round it all out  nicely, to have a hand in killing off designated enemies of the state?

Or maybe he’s just a buffoon and a liar.

Clooney’s career

Although Clooney’s appeared now in several big box office hits (The Perfect Storm, Ocean’s Eleven), I’m not sure he’s yet shaken off the sense of a TV actor who got lucky. He’s unquestionably charismatic, but extremely low-key about it – he speaks in a quiet, even tone; using his softly piercing eyes for modulation. Recently he’s seemed ambivalent about his career: he’s been quoted as saying he’s not that interested in the big multi-million paydays, and intends to make more of the films he likes. He’s working on his second Coen Brothers film after already making three with Steven Soderbergh. Along with Three Kings, these choices show a genuine adventurousness and artistic integrity, but it’s doubtful that those attributes have done much to shape his image yet.

Confessions, consequently, is a crazy piece of material, with a surprisingly even tone. Clooney surrounds the piece in shadow and discreet angles. He gets more flashy here and there, but stays far away from the constant pyrotechnics of something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (a direction in which this kind of material could easily have gone, I think). Overall, it’s an effective, insinuating style, deftly bringing out the material’s ambiguities and possibilities.

Everyone always says in interviews what a nice guy Clooney is, and accordingly he enticed half the cast of his last movie Ocean’s Eleven to help him out here. Roberts plays a minor supporting role and Matt Damon and Brad Pitt take on blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos as contestants on The Dating Game. The use of Damon and Pitt is interesting; they stand there as losers while the woman on the other side of the screen gets seduced by the silver tongue of the third contestant who, of course, isn’t in the same league as a looker. It’s a good visual joke, but depends entirely on us stepping outside the movie to acknowledge the presence of the two star actors. As a tip-off not to get too wrapped up in this, it confirms Clooney’s skepticism, and his confidence.

There’s no business…

Clooney also breaks up the action through brief interviews with Barris’ contemporaries – none of whom, of course, has anything to say on the central question of whether any of this stuff could possibly be true: they serve only to confirm the least contentious stuff about the man. I’m unsure whether this is an explicit parody of the “witnesses” in a movie like Reds.

There’s a hilarious scene where Robert John Burke, as an FCC guy, gives a group of contestants a pre-taping lecture on network standards and practices, identifying lasciviousness with un-Americanness and referring to “sick, subversive remarks.” It’s patently absurd, and yet not so far removed from some cultural debates that still recur nowadays. I think the movie could have profited from spending more time in that territory. As it is, it gets bogged down in the spy stuff, becoming increasingly repetitive and murky as it goes on (as though Clooney were aiming to evoke, of all things, the last passage of Apocalypse Now).

In the end though, he finishes on a recording of Rosemary Clooney (his aunt) in an unapologetically upbeat version of There’s No Business Like Show Business. I don’t think the implications of the choice run that deep, but they might. That uncertainty partly reflects the film’s own confusion, but also its genuine success in sowing ambiguity and dislocation. Which, for a movie about Chuck Barris, may be as great an artistic payoff as anyone could ever have expected.