Sunday, May 29, 2016

Finding meaning

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2003)

Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth isn’t as much fun as you’d want it to be, but it has a persistently anachronistic feel that’s at least semi-endearing. This is evident in the title itself – when did you last see a phone booth? Well, the film explains that we’re dealing with the last one in New York, the day before it’s slated to be replaced. Press agent Colin Farrell picks up the phone, and finds himself talking to someone who knows all about him (i.e. who knows he’s a liar, a cheat, etc.) The unseen voice is nearby, watching, and he says he has a rifle with a telescopic sight – a claim proved true when a nearby pimp suddenly takes a bullet. Now the cops are swarming around the booth, but Farrell can’t get out, because if he does, his antagonist will shoot him too.

Phone Booth

Phone Booth was written by Larry Cohen, who hasn’t directed a movie since 1996’s Original Gangstas. He used to be a prolific low-budget semi-genius, turning out movies with strong concepts, bracing wit and punchy visuals, but also with a fairly high quota of cardboard dialogue and mundane linking material. Phone Booth falls comfortably into the Cohen mould – a great premise that plays itself out in increasingly dull plotting. And, brevity being an essential B-picture attribute, the movie lasts less than 90 miuutes.

Without giving away everything about the sniper’s motivation, Phone Booth seems to be intended as something of a morality tale, about a sinner who gets severely tested and thereby at least partly redeemed. But from what we see of him, Farrell isn’t actually that bad – he’s well within the acceptable scuzziness parameters of Hollywood protagonists.  The movie fleetingly reminded me of the 1930s Hays Code, under which socially unacceptable behaviour had to be shown to earn its comeuppance. The aura of moral scorekeeping is accentuated by Kiefer Sutherland’s casting as the sniper’s voice – delivered in ultra-authoritative tones that never quite seem to be emanating from the world of the movie.

Gus Van Sant’s Gerry ought to be far more interested than Phone Booth in existential contemplation. This film has only two cast members (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) as traveling companions who park in the desert to go and look at some unidentified “thing,’ then quickly get hopelessly lost. Van Sant constructs the film in relatively few takes, many of them lasting several minutes.


Van Sant’s last film was Finding Forrester, just over two years ago. Here’s what I wrote about him at the time:

“Around the time of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant was regarded as a pretty cool director, but I doubt anyone’s too excited about him now. Good Will Hunting was effective enough, but a thoroughly mainstream picture, with sell-out alarms flashing all over it. Van Sant then decided to make an almost shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho – a project of considerable conceptual obscurity. One could certainly imagine how this could have yielded something interesting, and maybe it did, if you take the time to look carefully enough, but the world was otherwise occupied and probably always will be.

Finding Forrester is thematically similar enough to Good Will Hunting that you suspect it’s a variation on the impulse that drove the decision to remake Psycho – except here Van Sant’s remaking his own movie rather than Hitchcock’s, and making it slightly less obvious. Or maybe it’s a disguised commentary on that project, with Forrester playing Hitchcock and (the boy he mentors) representing Van Sant. Whatever. The sure thing is that trying to figure out Van Sant’s decisions is more intellectually rewarding than watching the films themselves.”

All of which still sounds right to me. And now we have Gerry. Van Sant has been positioning himself on the high art road, referring frequently in interviews to Hungarian director Bela Tarr, a master of the long-take approach to filmmaking. He says: “Tarr’s style takes a lot of things that you’ve learned for cinema and ignores them.” As Van Sant points out, long takes are more likely to “force the audience to consider what it is they’re watching, and it also allows time to put the audience into the same space as the characters.”

But that experiment’s been amply tried and tested by now. If the long take and stripped down narrative serve to reveal something of value, terrific; otherwise it’s just an affectation. For example, consider how different Phone Booth would have been, shot in one long take, with the camera never leaving Colin Farrell’s face, and all other characters (not just the sniper) only heard, never seen. The impact of the morality play might surely have been more profound that way. The movie would have been a more existential experience, perhaps more susceptible to multiple readings (as a fantasy, as pure abstraction). On balance, it would probably have been a more interesting film. But, with a little less clarity of purpose, it might also have been the dullest, most pretentious thing you ever saw.

Take me to the meaning

Gerry works along the same lines as that hypothetical alternative Phone Booth, but it’s never clear what Van Sant seeks to achieve through his technique. Those who rate Tarr as a genius (personally, I haven’t seen enough of his work to know) aren’t just yielding to a particular way of moving the camera – it’s about the way his technique reveals something, about ourselves, or the world, or art. When I saw Gerry, the audience seemed to find the movie intermittently comic (although this could have been the over-compensation of people starved for entertainment, as Letterman puts it), with at least two of Van Sant’s scene transitions serving as the cue for a ripple of laughter. In part, this is clearly deliberate: Affleck in particular has some silly monologues, about something he saw on Wheel of Fortune and about some computer game he’s been playing. For a while I thought the movie might be on to something – a knowing deconstruction of youth-speak. But I can’t extract a particularly coherent intellectual direction from what follows.

The film isn’t at all without interest. Visually, it’s often beautiful. The characters’ downward trajectory, enacted with very little overt emotion or recrimination, is inherently fascinating, and Van Sant populates the movie with enough idiosyncrasies to keep surprising the viewer. But when he talks about forcing the audience to consider what it’s watching, I want to throw the question back: did Van Sant truly know what he was making? Of course, inherent mystery, the accidental way meaning is created: these are central to the power of cinema. But a great director would do more to lead us there.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Big box-office

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2003)

If I continue at this pace, I’ll end up going to the movies less often this year than any since 1994, when I lived in Bermuda. Bermuda only had three movie theatres, so I was basically on a starvation diet. Not to mention that they generally stuck to bland, mainstream choices. Occasionally I flew to New York and binged, cramming in four or five movies a day (plus a play), but that wasn’t enough. So I came here. This year isn’t shaping up to be quite that parched – I’ve still been going once or twice a week on average, without counting my Cinematheque trips. But the point is, I’d usually be going two or three times a week.

Recently, I checked Variety’s top ten box office list for the week and realized I’d only seen one of the ten movies – and that was Chicago, which I saw back in December. That’s fairly shocking for someone who tries to keep his finger on the pulse. But movies like Bringing down the House, Old School, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days…these didn’t seem likely to me to have a pulse. Maybe, as the aging cops always say in movies, I’m getting too old for this stuff (they don’t usually say “stuff,” but you know what I mean). Except it’s surely that the movies are getting too young.

The Hunted

Anyway, I was perturbed enough at this situation that I then went to see The Hunted, which hadn’t initially made the cut for me. The main appeal was the fact that William Friedkin directed it. Friedkin won an Oscar for The French Connection, made it even bigger with The Exorcist, and flamed out with Sorceror. In the twenty-five years since then he’s made a stream of mostly forgettable movies (Jade, Blue Chips, Deal of the Century; the nadir was probably The Guardian, about a supernaturally possessed tree). But as you may have noticed by now, I’m overly nostalgic about directors who remind me of the 70s, when I was first getting into movies. Friedkin is pretty marginal to that project though, which is why the movie hadn’t grabbed me initially.

But in my sudden desire for a commercial fix, he seemed suddenly like a badge of class. And the movie has two Oscar-winning actors: Benicio del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones. Such a mix seems to suggest a deeper purpose. And that’s evident at times in the film. Del Toro plays an ex-soldier, a killing specialist, who’s gone off the rails and committed a string of murders. Jones is the man who trained him, now called back into action to track him down. When we first see Jones, he’s tracking an injured wolf; he catches up with the animal and it stands meekly as Jones tends to him. The point, instantly established, is that Jones is a man of elemental values and an inherent affinity with nature. Del Toro later expresses his own concerns about the treatment of animals; for instance, about the number of chickens killed on an average day.

The two, especially del Toro, have far less dialogue than you’d expect of roles requiring Oscar-winning actors, and their fights together have a fascinating ritualistic quality. Neither carries a gun – they rely on knives and makeshift weapons. Their ultimate confrontation has a thrilling air of unleashed savagery about it. You can see the subtext here – an evocation of primitivism. It definitely adds a layer of interest to the movie. The problem is that this theme doesn’t really yield anything specific, and ends up seeming like not too much more than an affectation. The linking material is highly mundane, and although the scenes between the two are stripped down, the movie still finds space elsewhere for conventional excesses.

Unappetizing behaviour

When I saw the film, I sat in front of a couple who talked pretty much through the whole thing. As far as I could make out, they were mocking it in a patronizing, college student kind of way, and since they started in this vein from the very first scene, I can only imagine they chose the movie with this pastime in mind. I suppose there may be a worse way of filling time while exercising one’s wits, but I don’t know what it is. Pointing out the contrivances, the simplifications of mainstream movies – this could be the very activity for which the phrase “taking candy from a baby” was invented. The only principled way of demonstrating one’s superiority is to stay away.

Still, The Hunted makes it easy for such unappetizing behaviour, through excessive grimness and occasional pomposity. This has always been a problem of Friedkin’s. He’s often pegged as arrogant, and little about his films suggests a sense of humour; indeed, the huge success of The Exorcist must have rested in part in the very idea, almost unprecedented at the time, of treating such material so solemnly. In the age of irony, stony seriousness generally seems like a sign that someone’s not seeing the big picture.

Even so, I enjoyed the movie enough that I decided to make it a box-office friendly weekend, and I went the next day to see The Core. This is an old-fashioned disaster movie in which the Earth’s core has stopped spinning, screwing up the electromagnetic field. People with pacemakers drop dead; birds go crazy in Trafalgar Square; freak atmospheric effects destroy Rome’s Coliseum, and then most of San Francisco gets razed. A disparate bunch of scientists and military people must tunnel to the centre of the Earth and, through a nuclear detonation, restart the stalled core; otherwise it’s curtains for us all.

The Core

For a movie with such a dire outlook, The Core is amazingly upbeat and jaunty. There’s no sense of horror, or pain, or of anything on the debit side of the emotional register. The premise is staggeringly implausible, and the movie doesn’t seem to care. After a while, the consistency of its attitude becomes highly engaging. It’s as if the movie had assumed a weird, but not entirely unworthy, task. A few years ago, we could all enjoy movies of mad destruction – Die Hard 2 or Armageddon could kill tens of thousands of unseen victims in bomb blasts or alien attacks and it was all part of the fun. Then we entered a phase where that seemed too real to be entertaining. The Core wheels it all out again, and even though the movie’s body count must be daunting, the movie feels as safe as a Disney cartoon.

I didn’t hear anyone laughing during The Core, although it wouldn’t have been hard to. I don’t know exactly what it is in us that seeks out such experiences, that allows us to be captivated despite our objective assessments. But whatever it is, I guess we’d be much worse off without it.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Real emotions

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2003)

A few weeks ago I wrote about Irreversible and Fat Girl, two movies that epitomize the concept of “not for all tastes.” In case you might think I spend all my time amid the perverse and the troubling, this week is all about nice movies.

The day before I saw Irreversible, I went to see Bend it like Beckham, the feel-good British hit about a soccer-crazed Indian girl who dreams only of the game despite her parents’ opposition. The movie happily embraces the genre formula – once the set-up is in place, I doubt whether it contains a single significantly new idea. I thought it was on the thin side, although immeasurably helped by its buoyant actors. It builds, of course, to an apparently hopeless dilemma – and then, out of nowhere, a happy resolution! The movie’s home stretch is a pure joy. I won’t deny it, I had tears in my eyes. The corniest of tears for sure, which is why I feel I’m going out on a limb even mentioning them.

Bend it like Beckham

After a century of cinema, the power of this kind of identification is undiminished. Professional filmmakers wield its elements like a military strike – the plot of frustrated desire suddenly vindicated, the yielding hero or heroine, the insinuating music. And maybe most of all – the editing. Is there a more powerful cinematic device than the simple cut from the hero’s face, as his eyes mist up and his mouth starts to tremble, to that of his beloved, looking back at him, reciprocating the emotions, sharing the symptoms? The mechanism is as simple as a trap – we find ourselves implicated so directly in their interlocking feelings that passive detachment is almost impossible.

It got me again a week after Beckham, when I watched last year’s film The Rookie on cable. This is about a high school teacher who never achieved his boyhood of making it in the major baseball leagues, but gets another chance. Baseball isn’t my cup of tea at all (although The Rookie intermittently conveys its essential appeal more skillfully than Beckham does for soccer) and this film, set mostly in Texas, has a homespun, laconic, small-town thing about it that set my teeth on edge. But at the end when he attains the dream, and the whole home town population’s there for him afterwards, cheering and milling around him as if he’d been to the moon, I gave in without much of a fight.

But the predictability of such responses makes them valueless. Although we generally disdain overt melodrama – there’s nothing very respectable about an unrequited weepie – a dose of notionally restrained tear jerking often seems like a mark of extra class. It’s as if we prize our tears so greatly, and part with them so sparingly, that we think a film could only coax them from us through rare skill and virtue. But I doubt that’s the case. Someone kicks you in the stomach – you double up in pain. The route to our tear ducts is almost as direct.

Satyajit Ray

Around the same time, I watched a series of films at the Cinematheque by the Indian director Satyajit Ray. Ray is regarded as one of the cinema’s great humanists – the Cinematheque’s brochure quotes Akira Kurosawa as follows: “Not to have seen the films of Ray would mean existing in a world without the sun or the moon.” And Pauline Kael as follows: “Ray’s films can give rise to a more complex feeling of happiness in me than the work of any other director.” That complexity, one expects, would have consisted of more than a blissfully goofy smile and misty eyed contentment.

A movie like The World of Apu, for example, leads the viewer through a remarkable range of emotional states, a map of the human condition. The film travels from youthful idealism, through stunned comedy as the hero marries a woman he doesn’t even know, through tenderness and delight as he actually falls in love with her, then tragedy when she suddenly dies in childbirth, through loss and aimlessness to a final form of renewal. All this in a 100-minute film that never seems rushed or contrived. But also one, I would think, that’s far less likely than The Rookie to get the tear ducts moving.

Which is to say that Ray never succumbs to simple shot-making or emotional situation building. Maybe it could be expressed as the difference between identification and empathy. Identification is an essentially simplistic process – a means of guiding and conditioning our responses. With a film of greater restraint and objectivity, we lose the very direct emotional affect of the Hollywood trap, but the overall experience gains in depth. In The World of Apu, for example, we’re better placed to assess the character’s basic self-indulgence, and to reflect on what he tells us of India. As a matter of personal taste, Ray’s films don’t resonate with me as much as those of some other directors, but they’re models of refined intelligence.

All the Real Girls

David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls aspires to a similar condition. It’s the story of a love affair between two young people in a small dingy town (similar to the town Green depicted with such elan in his first movie, George Washington). Green seeks here to capture the maximum feeling of unforced reality. In practice, this consists of directing the actors (Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel) to ensure that no line is ever delivered in a straightforward way; every moment is marked by an ultra “realistic” assemblage of tics and stammers and incoherent utterances. This all supports the basic theory – that these two people in love (perhaps like all people in love) create their own terms of reference, their own normality. But the movie quickly ends up seeming extremely forced and gauche.

The relationship remains unconsummated long beyond what initially seems possible, and this provides what seems to me Green’s most effective insight – how in such a tightly-wound relationship, sex can be an unpredictable, even tragic weapon. The movie’s later stages contain several conversations in which the two talk at each other, each unable to make the other understand, despite their underlying affinity: they can’t see each other for the words. At times it’s intoxicating, but most of the time it’s too stylized to connect.

Green shows genuine ambition in eschewing the predictable mechanisms I talked about. Actually, I think maybe he eschews them too much. For all his pains, his contemporary kids seem less familiar than the 1958 Apu, and less heartrending.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A new musical

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2003)

Since the subject today is musicals, it’s hard not to go into a reverie about The Band Wagon and Funny Face and Silk Stockings, to name some of my favourites. But that will have to wait for another day. I’ve already tipped you off to my preferences though – I’m more an Astaire than a Kelly man. Not that I haven’t watched The Pirate and An American in Paris five times apiece. And I could also rave about A Star is Born, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, etc. etc.

I love musical theatre too. In the early 90’s, there was a time when I’d seem just about every big musical then playing on Broadway. Before that, I’d stayed away from the theatre for years, after a bad experience in London with a production of Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending. It supposedly starred Vanessa Redgrave, but from where I was sitting it could as easily have been Dame Edna Everage. Between the distance, the heat and the uncomfortable seat (a hard bench actually), I was miserable.

On Broadway

But when I first visited New York a decade or so later, I had the resources to afford a better seat, and it seemed crazy not to experience Broadway theatre. So I went to see The Will Rogers Follies, which was a hot ticket at the time. I loved it. It had literally never occurred to me that theatre could be so vivid, so bright, so damn entertaining: I was hooked. I saw Grand Hotel and City of Angels and Kiss of the Spider Woman – I even saw the legendary flop Nick and Nora, in the narrow gap between the opening and the closing.

Eventually I stopped going to New York with the same frequency, but I still catch musicals whenever I can. On a recent trip to Chicago I saw 42nd Street and Sunday in the Park with George – a duo that sums up the breadth of musical theatre: the one brassy and exuberant and devoted to pure pleasure; the other fiendishly clever and intricate, but with moment after moment of pure beauty.

I didn’t actually see the musical Chicago on my trip to Chicago (it wasn’t playing), but then I’d seen it twice already. The first was on Broadway, and although we were once again stuck with bad seats, it stands out as one of the best things I ever saw there. The second time was in Oslo, in a Norwegian production – and no, I don’t speak Norwegian. It had the feeling of a somewhat faded facsimile, with some plainly inadequate casting (you don’t need to speak the language to know a note’s not being hit), but the sheer style and musicality were again irresistible.


With all of that, it’s obvious why I was looking forward to Rob Marshall’s new film of Chicago. This project has been in the works for years (it premiered on Broadway in 1975) – I remember reading about a proposed film in the mid-80’s, with Goldie Hawn and Liza Minnelli mentioned as possible stars. The subsequent return to Broadway and the tour circuit came in a phenomenally popular stripped-down production – there’s no set as such; everything takes place against a black backdrop with minimal props. As such, it’s highly and deliberately theatrical – not the most obvious candidate for translation to the screen.

That’s what I thought going into the film, and it’s pretty much what I thought coming out. The film is an able and effective transcription, but adds just about nothing to the experience of seeing the play. Some may read this and say: well, how could it? And maybe that’s the right response.

Except that it seems like such a passive use of the possibilities of cinema – more an archival function really than an artistic one. On the other hand, nothing kills a musical like too much cinema. Richard Attenborough, for instance, filmed A Chorus Line in 1985 in a style laden with fancy angles and edits and movements, and smothered whatever the heart of the material may be. Marshall avoids the worst excesses of this approach, but his camera is never as elegant and reflective as Vincente Minnelli’s in The Band Wagon, nor as piercing and engaged as Bob Fosse’s in Cabaret. Overall, in fact, his film has a rather cramped, dour look to it.

Fosse’s is the name most often associated with Chicago (he directed the original production) – to the point that you hardly hear a word about John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the music and lyrics. But he’s actually barely relevant here – Marshall rechoreographed the entire film, and in a far more generic style than I can imagine Fosse, a famously idiosyncratic perfectionist, ever being happy with. Kander and Ebb, on the other hand, wrote a terrific set of songs, most of which made it to the movie intact; the film wisely also preserves the Broadway orchestrations.

More musicals?

As for the performers – well, they struck me as a mixed bag. Richard Gere, as the conniving “razzle-dazzle’ lawyer Billy Flynn, seemed miscast to me. He has the self-regard, but not the flamboyance; someone like Kevin Kline might have been better. Renee Zellweger – much the same. She’s committed, but inescapably pallid; her casting would only have made any sense if the play were being reimagined in some direction I can’s envisage. Catherine Zeta-Jones seems more comfortable than the other two put together. She has the poise, the ability to strut and kick, the authentic hardness that Zellweger lacks. The fact that her role has been relatively reduced from the stage version, while Zellweger’s has been relatively expanded, is a distinct miscalculation.

A couple of reviewers pointed out that the movie’s theme of media manipulation and hunger for fame are even more timely now than ever, and while that’s true, I can’t see how the film does much to draw on that timeliness. Marshall keeps the songs separate from the action, filming them mostly in unadorned settings much like those of the stage production, and intertwining them with the narrative as a kind of surreal commentary on or counterpoint to the action. This ought to have provided a perfect opportunity to inject some Brechtian distance (think again of Cabaret with its use of the MC), but that’s far beyond Marshall’s ambition. Actually, the derided 1981 film of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, which dropped fantasy song and dance scenes into a gloomy Depression-era story, was more ambitious and intriguing.

Chicago has been a big hit, and of course won the Oscar, so I hope it inspires more movie musicals over the next few years. If so, then its main service will have been as the bridge out of the desert we’ve been in since, well, Oliver (which was the last musical to win the Oscar for best picture, in 1968). Actually, Chicago has much more in common with a spectacle like Oliver than with the films I mentioned at the start; it smacks more of coordination than of joy, more of perspiration than inspiration. I enjoyed watching it, but not as much as I would have enjoyed seeing the stage production again.

Monday, May 9, 2016


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2003)

Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible is the latest official atrocity from French cinema – infamous for a scene of a man being beaten to death with a fire extinguisher and for another, nine minutes long, of a rape in a subway. The movie premiered at Cannes last year, and people walked out in significant numbers. Since then it’s been a major talking point among critics. The issue, as always: is it art or exploitation.

Well, somewhat to my own surprise, I’d probably vote for art, although not without some reservations. The film’s first half, in particular, is a fairly miserable viewing experience, denying the viewer any of the pleasures conventionally associated with narrative cinema. It’s arranged in reverse chronological order, shot in an extremely vertiginous camera style that frequently adds to the confusion and would certainly provoke motion sickness in some viewers; even the credits, which here come at the start of the film, are hard to read. And then there are those two sequences – each masterfully executed, but painful to watch.


The second half of the film, moving back in time, takes us to the events before the rape, and Noe’s feeling for character may come as a considerable surprise. We see the two lovers (Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel) waking up in bed, enjoying the experience of each other – it’s a fresh, beguiling scene, almost joyous after the film’s dark first half, but of course utterly compromised by our knowledge of what’s to come. The final scene is a playful vignette with children playing around a water sprinkler; the camera tilts up to the sky, and then the image starts to oscillate and shimmer, as though the screen were under attack by some inner force. This arises to a crescendo, an experience that seems to have left cinema far behind. It suddenly ends, and there’s nothing else except a closing title that fills the screen: Time destroys all things.

This echoes the woman’s earlier statement that “the future is already written.” Noe’s film certainly makes the case for a fatalistic pessimism. But that’s not of particular artistic interest in itself, any more than the various ironies that flow out of the structure. I was most taken by it as a simultaneous embrace of cinema, and a repulsed coil from it. Even at its most grueling moments, the film exudes artistic engagement – the rape scene (a single take) is chilling in its precision and determination. But, as I said, it denies the spectator everything. I think the movie is too knowing and (in its own grim way) sincere to be exploitative. But it’s too nakedly experimental to be passionately admired.

Before Irreversible, the most recent cause celebre was Fat Girl, which actually got itself banned from Ontario for a while. The ban’s been lifted now, and the movie coincidentally found itself playing here at the same time as Noe’s work. I went to see the film again (my first viewing was at the festival a couple of years ago) and I think the verdict on this one is clearer – it’s a stunning artistic achievement; probably the best film by its director Catherine Breillat.

Fat Girl

Breillat is known as a feminist who uses explicit sexuality in her films. She has many defenders, and others who find her work pretentious, self-indulgent and unilluminating. Her best known work, Romance, chronicled the sexual hang-ups and encounters of a morose young woman: the film was so oppressive that even many well-wishers recoiled from it. Fat Girl (the French title would be more accurately and allusively translated as To my Sister) is more cunning and insinuating.

It revolves around two teenage sisters – Elena, lithe and attractive, and Anais, the fat girl of the title. Their relationship swings between hostility, with the attractive girl regularly belittling the other, and extreme closeness, at which times they acknowledge that their intermittent hostility only confirms the depth of their bond. On a summer vacation, Elena meets a boy who talks her into losing her virginity. His long artful manipulation of her, while Anais listens from the other side of the room, is the film’s centrepoint, perfectly fulfilling Breillat’s clinical interest in the mechanics of sexual politics.

But the film’s greatest impact comes at the very end (on the assumption few will go to see it for the story as such, I’m going to give away the ending here, so read on with caution). On the trip home, the two girls and their mother pull into a rest stop. Anais watches from the back seat as the others fall asleep. Out of the darkness, a man jumps on the hood of the car. Swinging an axe through the window, he kills Elena; then he strangles the mother. He drags Anais into the woods and rapes her. In the morning the police bring her out. “She says he didn’t rape her,” says one policeman to another. “Don’t believe me if you don’t want to,” she shoots out, and the film immediately ends on a freeze frame of her face.

Earlier in the film, Anais said several times she wanted her first sexual experience to be with someone meaningless. Now she has her wish, and in the process, her film has been wiped almost clean (the film allows a reading of the final incident as Anais’ fantasy, or as a fulfilment of her will). She insists on keeping for herself the truth of what happened; but on hearing the policeman tell her story, she instantly reacts, anticipating skepticism and trying to deflect it. The destruction of her family marks, in the crudest sense, her ascension as a woman, but that instantly brings compromise and evasion. It’s a moment gripped in ambiguity and contradiction, a microcosm of Breillat’s cinema.

Who decides

The theme of feminine self-determination turns up in Irreversible too: Bellucci says at one point, before her world collapses in on her, that it’s always the woman who decides. Rape is the ultimate violation of that point of view, but Irreversible isn’t really concerned with that – it’s violating the universe itself. Noe’s cinema is one of total pessimism, if not despair. Breillat in contrast seems almost lighthearted, although that’s a highly relative assessment. She maintains at least some of the pleasures of classical cinema (since Fat Girl she’s made another film, Sex is Comedy, that recreates the shooting of the sex scenes in Fat Girl and exhibits a general sense of goodwill toward the medium), which I think ultimately makes her indictments more powerful.

In both these cases, the elements underlying the controversy are central to the film’s artistic intent. I’m sometimes skeptical myself about the claims that attend extreme material, but not here. Both films, quite reasonably, may be beyond the bounds of what you generally want to look at and think about, but such a judgment of taste would involve a sacrifice of artistic experience.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Inner worlds

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2003)

I don’t really think of myself as a big David Cronenberg fan, but there must be something about him, because over the last year I’ve watched several of his movies for a second time. The most rewarding revisit was Crash, which I’d hated the first time, but which after a few years seemed utterly fascinating in how it constructs its own language of desire and engagement. In a way the movie’s impact is based on sheer persistence as much as on its specific achievements, and the emphasis on celebrity car crashes seems to me to be making a conventional point about star worship, but overall it’s still a stunning vision of tragic displacement. People often disparage sex films for not actually being erotic – but here’s a film that really merits the distinction: it’s hard to get aroused when the sexuality is so completely about negation. I don’t quite know how meaningful Crash may be as a metaphor for anything real, but at the very least, it’s one of the great gloomy fantasies of the age.

Rewatching Cronenberg

I also saw Naked Lunch, which has a surprisingly dour tone for such an outlandish piece of material. Again, the film’s structure, which has sickness seeped into its pores, is mesmerizing, but the theme of the relationship between writing and death doesn’t seem as productive as anything in Crash. The movie is a key submission for those who think Cronenberg is basically just weird.

The other film I rewatched recently is the 1977 Rabid. Cronenberg’s reputation is still heavily coloured – maybe excessively – by this and other early works like Scanners and The Brood; most accounts of him tend to turn pretty quickly to his supposed obsession with bodily ickiness (admittedly he does return time and time again to devices of basic repulsiveness, all the way up to his last film existenZ). Rabid is about a woman whose skin graft operation goes horribly wrong and turns her into a carrier for a vampire-like condition, visualized in a way laden with sexual metaphor. The movie isn’t much more than a low-grade zombie movie, and Cronenberg was still on a heavy learning curve when he made it. It presages one consistent aspect of his style though – a deliberate, cool approach toward uniquely transgressive subject elements. In interviews, Cronenberg seems very much like his films – a well turned out, low-key individual who could clearly go over the edge at any second.

His latest film Spider may be the best reviewed of his career. Respected critic Amy Taubin considers it one of the ten best films ever made. That may be the far point on the scale of enthusiasm, but it’s hard to find a bad review of Spider. Nick James in Sight and Sound called it “slow perfection and a true work of art”; Stephen Holden in The New York Times called it “as harrowing a portrait of one man’s tormented isolation as the commercial cinema has produced.” Ironically and bizarrely, although it qualifies as a Canadian film, it didn’t even get into the five Best Film nominees at this year’s Genies, despite Cronenberg himself winning the prize as best director.


Ralph Fiennes plays Spider, who’s released from a mental asylum after many years and goes to live in a halfway house in London. Initially the film chronicles the sparse rituals of his new life, then it changes into a memory of Spider’s childhood, with Gabriel Byrne as his father and Miranda Richardson playing both his mother and the cheap tart who disrupts the family. The film places the adult Spider into the middle of these childhood scenes as an unseen observer, compulsively watching events unfold, his lips occasionally muttering the “lines” along with his young self. This is intercut with frequent shots of Spider in his room, compulsively scribbling in a notebook in some secret code (or maybe it's pure scribbling). The film’s distinctiveness is in the ambiguity over whether we’re watching his memories, or a pure fiction written by Spider, or a mixture of both. Cronenberg maintains this ambiguity beautifully, almost until the last possible minute.

Cronenberg’s theme of bodily self-disgust manifests itself subtly here – in repeated shots of Spider’s nicotine-stained fingers for instance, but especially in what retrospectively seems like the film’s key scene: he goes into a pub looking for his father, and one of the local tarts flashes her breast at him. Beyond recording the kid’s obvious embarrassment, Cronenberg doesn’t linger on it at the time, but this moment seems to spark Spider’s escalating confusion. The use of Richardson in both parts, representing both poles of a crude good-evil opposition, is very subtle in that we’re never sure whether Spider actually sees them as the same woman, or whether this is a symbolic device for the benefit of us, the audience.

Similar points could be made about much else in the film: Spider moves through almost abandoned streets, seldom encountering anyone except the figures in his head – is this a representation of his objective surroundings, or of his mental landscape, or both or neither? I know of course that movies needn’t be analyzed so literally, but Spider seems to demand it – it foregrounds the process of image creation. The film’s most “normal” shot is the opening one, where the camera moves along a railway station platform as the passengers get off and walk to the gate – eventually they’ve all dispersed and then there’s Spider. It’s the only time in the film we look directly at so many people, and seems designed precisely to make that point – that we’re departing now from straightforwardness.

Puzzle Movie

Ultimately, Spider is a bit too much of a “puzzle” movie (something signaled by its shots of jigsaws, a broken window rearranged on a tabletop, and suchlike) – it reveals the “truth” and then it’s over. I think it’s possible to see the praise it’s received as actually a bit of a mixed compliment for Cronenberg: it tells him his more ambitious visions aren’t wholly successful, that he needs to rein himself in – in other words to deny much of what made his reputation. After a first viewing, I find the film distinctly easier to write about than I did his other films (I wouldn’t have had a clue what to say about Crash), and ironically that leaves less reason to see it again in the foreseeable future. It seems much more self-effacing than his other films (excepting perhaps his motor racing movie Fast Company, which I’ve never seen), and as such does perfect service to Spider’s inner world. I admire it immensely and yet, ironically, while watching it I missed those Cronenbergian extremes.