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.