Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Not The Matrix

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2003)

In most theatres it’s currently all The Matrix Reloaded all the time. But here are three worthy alternatives, by three new (or newish) directors.

People I Know

People I Know is more like a notebook of ideas and impressions than a finished, fully though out film, although I’m not necessarily saying that as a criticism. The film depicts a veteran New York publicist who’s on his last legs both professionally and personally, pulling together a benefit for an obscure cause. He hopes to unite the three pillars of media and cultural influence: an Al Sharpton-like minister and rabble-rouser, a powerful businessman from the Jewish establishment, and a tanned member of Hollywood royalty. By the time he pulls it off, it’s revealed as a hollow ambition, an empty flexing of muscles that don’t really exist (the people come not for him or his cause, but because of their own calculations). Intertwined with all this, and emphasizing the movie’s theme of paranoid impotence, is a murder that’s revealed as a conspiracy, perhaps involving some of these same pillars. A poster for Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View, plainly visible behind Pacino in several scenes, signals part of the film’s intent at least.

It also signals the film’s weakness, for People I Know has none of the control and assurance of Pakula’s film. Director Dan Algrant (whose only previous film was Naked in New York) lets scenes run on too long; his visual style is pretty mundane; he doesn’t really pull it all together; and he doesn’t seem able to rein in the full-flight Pacino (as a hardcore Pacino fan, this doesn’t bother me too much, but objectively it’s probably not ideal). And yet, as I write this, it’s the first film this year that I’m seriously contemplating paying to see for a second time. It’s one of those movies where chaos proves more stimulating than coherence could ever be; where meaning seems to exist in the gaps. The theme of idealism reduced to mere hustle isn’t new, but Pacino (whose fatigue in some scenes is truly chilling) makes it poignant. The idea of mysterious cabals and circles (exemplified here by an opium den located in the bland surroundings of a Wall Street high rise) is even more familiar, but when will that ever be old hat?

People I Know was shot a couple of years ago, and sat on the shelf for a while (reportedly, it was the inflight movie last year on an Italian airline). It originally contained a shot of the World Trade Center, now removed. For a movie that aims to have its finger on some kind of contemporary pulse, I think the delay is noticeable. The movie already seems warmed over, desolate in a way that far exceeds any possible intention. But that’s a rather unusual quality for a movie now; enough so to amount to a recognizable political statement.

City of Ghosts

Conspiracy theories also lurk in the background of City of Ghosts, Matt Dillon’s directorial and writing debut. He stars in it as a scam artist who flees from the FBI after the collapse of the insurance fraud he’s been fronting, and turns up in Cambodia in search of his mentor (James Caan). In a way seemingly meant to evoke a Casablanca-like mélange of colourful characters, the film throws in a love interest (Natascha McElhone), an eccentric bar owner (Gerard Depardieu) and a shady operator (Stellan Skarsgard), among others. Actually, it all seems pretty random after a while.

The movie is apparently the first to have been shot in Cambodia for decades, but I can’t truly say it feels significantly more imposing than the usual combination of studio backlot and location footage. This is partly because Dillon doesn’t seem to have much of an eye, and partly because no matter how real it looks, it doesn’t feel real, what with all the Westerners, and the lack of much of a sense of local culture, politics etc. The underlying theory seem to be that if you set a movie in Cambodia, meaning and nuance will just flow from the screen – which struck me as a bit patronizing.

For all of that, the movie did grow on me. It’s very much like People I Know, and John Malkovich’s The Dancer Upstairs too, in how a languid pacing (which may well be a sign of directorial timidity) ends up creating its own quirky reality (Dillon’s intention was probably pretty close to Robert Duvall’s in the recent Assassination Tango – to play at making a run-of-the-mill exotic thriller while simultaneously subverting it). City of Ghosts ends up being another intricate subterfuge – one with far less inherent resonance than People I Know – but it doesn’t seem imprisoned by genre momentum. And Dillon saves the best until last – after the movie’s essentially over, he allows himself a lengthy digression, following the local cyclo driver who’s helped his character along the way. For a while, the movie seems to have broken free of any commercial calculation, and to be merely existing and observing – and it’s so guileless that it’s actually exciting.

Blue Car

Karen Moncrieff’s directorial debut, Blue Car, stars the wonderful young actress Agnes Bruckner as a troubled teenager who finds escape in writing poetry, and in particular in her relationship with the poetry teacher, played by David Strathairn. One day he comforts her after the death of her sister and she tries to turn it into a romantic embrace; he recoils, and after that is wary around her, as he must be. But when they’re both in Florida for a poetry competition, he’s far less reticent.

The most unnerving aspect of Strathairn’s character is his complacent belief in his own virtue. When he makes his move on her he keeps asking over and over if she’s OK, and although she’s obviously lying when she says yes, his asking the question fulfils in his own mind any duty of care he might have. Even more than his physical violation of her, it’s the revelation of shallowness that’s so striking. Part of his mystique in her eyes has been the file he carries everywhere with him, supposedly containing his novel in progress, but this too turns out to be a sham. This is all obviously a bit of a contrivance – a contemporary story that relies this much on poetry would have to be a contrivance – but it works.

At times, Blue Car is a bit clichéd and predictable, and it’s resolutely a “small” movie, dealing with intimate concerns and changes. Moncrieff’s film isn’t as ambitious as either Algrant’s or Dillon’s, but it’s the most controlled, and probably the most successful overall in attaining its chosen mandate.

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