Sunday, August 7, 2016

Strange places

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2003)

Four movies from four very different and (to varying degrees) odd places

Whale Rider

Whale Rider, a film from New Zealand directed by Niki Caro, won the audience-voted people’s choice award at last year’s Toronto film festival. The most recent preceding winners were Life is Beautiful, American Beauty, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Amelie. It’s an unquestionably prestigious lineage, and a revealing one as to what kind of movie strikes the “people” as special: three out of the four were foreign films that achieved unusual acclaim through the accessibility and “universal” quality of their storytelling. Whale Rider falls directly into that category too: it shows us a self-contained culture following unfamiliar rules, but uses narrative and visual strategies that are solidly familiar and comfortable.

It’s about a young Maori girl, being brought up by her grandparents in a remote village; her mother and twin brother died in childbirth and her father is largely absent. Preoccupied by the community’s spiritual decline, her grandfather instructs the local boys in Maori myths and cultural traditions – key among them the search for the contemporary equivalent of an ancestor who rode in on a whale, heralding the community’s rebirth. Although the girl has more affinity for these traditions than any of the boys do, the grandfather chauvinistically excludes her from the group.

The film reminded me at several points of the recent Inuit film Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner, but not in a way that’s really complimentary to Whale Rider. Atanarjuat is much more difficult to watch, and not as much “fun,” but the unfamiliarity of its approach to storytelling seems to reflect the cultural tradition that’s central to the film. Whale Rider talks a lot about the uniqueness of the community it depicts, and that’s evident in the sense that (for example) they dress a bit differently and follow unfamiliar rituals, but the film’s relationship to this activity often seems like that of the tourist or sightseer.

Still, it achieves real grandeur in its closing passages, where the whales come into view and events attain the mythical pay-off that’s been broadly obvious from the start. Unfortunately, budget constraints (or so I assume) leave much of the key imagery off screen, and anyway the feel-good factor outweighs everything else. In terms of emotional impact, it’s basically like watching Bend it Like Beckham again.

Hollywood Homicide

Ron Shelton’s Hollywood Homicide has Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett as two LA cops who, like just about everyone else in Hollywood, really want to be something else. Ford moonlights as a real estate agent and Hartnett as an actor. They’re also both being investigated by Internal Affairs, which makes the film a close relative to Shelton’s last film Dark Blue, which just came out a few months ago. But where Dark Blue was angry and chronic, Hollywood Homicide is a breeze. In Shelton’s hands though, that doesn’t seem like a complete capitulation to the demands of summer box-office and bigger stars; rather, it seems like his commentary on Hollywood, the place and the attitude, and how it barely accommodates seriousness.

To this end, he gets Ford to relax more than he has in years, and constructs the movie as meticulously as a work of major intellect, while devoting it almost entirely to diversion and subversion. It’s a shame he didn’t have a larger final thematic pay-off up his sleeve, but his picture achieves more than you’d think likely from the raw materials. The reviews were mostly mediocre though, and the poor box office results make this another installment in the dimming of Ford’s long run at the top. But if he’s in as genial a mood as the movie suggests, he shouldn’t care too much.

The Safety of Objects

In The Safety of Objects, Rose Troche takes on a place even stranger than than Hollywood – suburbia. The film tracks four families, all evoked in the opening credits as benumbed, almost faceless figures; like game pieces carved in some synthetic material with a marble-like glaze. All four have major-league traumas of course, and as the title suggests, they all cope with these problems via various forms of displacement. Maybe the most striking is the pre-teenager who has a love affair – emotional and, insofar as such a thing is possible, physical – with one of his sister’s dolls. The movie also has Glenn Close as a woman whose son is in a coma after a car accident; she tries to redeem her relationship with her traumatized daughter by trying to win the girl an SUV in an endurance contest.

The material is a bit overwrought at times, and Troche’s direction is pitched to match, and yet the movie is highly effective, and finally moving. The structure sounds somewhat conventional, and the ending – with its flashback revelations, epiphanies and points of resolution – isn’t particularly radical in concept. But the movie illuminates its characters without becoming servant to them; it maintains a pervasive strangeness and sense of perversity. So that in the final scene, where the families all sit in the garden together on a fine summer day, it feels less like closure than like a mildly demented bulletin from an only superficially familiar galaxy.

The Wild Dogs

Finally a Canadian movie, Thom Fitzgerald’s The Wild Dogs. In many ways, it’s the most self-indulgent and even amateurish of the four – a loose scrapbook of odds and ends set in Budapest where a Canadian pornographer (played by Fitzgerald himself) comes in search of new women, but instead finds a social conscience. He hangs out with a British embassy official on the one hand and with various beggars and lowlifes on the other; meanwhile, the city streets are overrun by (we’re told) over 200,000 wild dogs, who generate various other plotlines.

The Wild Dogs can be faulted in so many different ways I don’t know where to start, but the overwhelming problem is a willful, solipsistic obscurity and perversity which doesn’t consistently seem like artistry. Despite that, it may actually be my favourite of the four films mentioned here. 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.

It’s reminiscent at various times of Kusturica, Fellini, Egoyan, and often of Ken Loach, whose social conscience forms the movie’s last word. Actually, I would have preferred if the movie didn’t end on quite such a preachy note (with a montage of pictures of the disadvantaged kids Fitzgerald meets along the way) – it makes for a rather callow final note. Still, the bottom line: not a bad summer at the movies!

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