Monday, November 6, 2017

Modern musical

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2001)

There’s a new musical to write about – Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. It’s a frantically paced story of love and loss in 1900 Paris, with Nicole Kidman as the cabaret star and Ewan McGregor as the starving artist who falls for her, even though she’s in the grip of a jealous baron who can break the show.

I get to write about musicals so seldom – a reference point seems even more necessary than usual. A few months ago, I was watching Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, which is probably my favourite of all movie musicals. When I’d finished, I was so exhilarated (this on a ninth or tenth viewing) that I rewound the tape to show my wife two things that sum up my love for the movie. First – Fred Astaire’s rendition of “By Myself,” filmed in one smooth unbroken take as he ambles along a railway platform. Second, his more energetic “Shine on your Shoes” number, in which he taps and leaps around a vast varied set of props. This too is shot in very few takes, and provides a sense of unbroken movement, but I was struck by one point at the end where Minnelli does make a cut, coinciding with a key transition point in the score, setting up a new camera angle and rhythm that electrify the routine’s final section. I doubt there’s anything technically that hot about this edit, but if anything about the framing or the timing weren’t exactly that, it would jar. Its greatness lies in invisibility.

The Band Wagon

For me, The Band Wagon is one of Hollywood’s happiest accidents – not that I don’t think Minnelli and the crew knew what they were doing, but I always think the end result has a sublimity that transcends anything they could specifically have had in mind. It’s just a simple fable about a fading song and dance man who comes back to Broadway to star in a pretentious “modern version of Faust” that’s an instant flop, then saves the day by retooling the show into an old-fashioned vaudeville revue. One of the things that intrigues me is that the reversal into simpler and happier showbiz values is so comprehensive that it comes to represent some kind of world view – Astaire and Cyd Charisse get together at the end, but never talk about love, only about showbiz (in a Howard Hawks movie this could be a randy metaphor but in The Band Wagon it seems like a vaguely traumatic displacement). Around the time he made the film, Minnelli was starting to digress from musicals to make intense psychological dramas like The Cobweb and Lust for Life, and it’s not stretching things too much to see The Band Wagon as a study in various kinds of derangement, made delicious by the fact that it’s simultaneously as poised and alluring as anything could be.

The Band Wagon is just one example of what movie musicals never do anymore; it exhibits complete mastery over a genre, and then goes further. Every time we get a musical now it’s an event in itself, just by virtue of being a musical, and there’s no possibility of just playing it straight. Lars Von Trier in last year’s Dancer in the Dark deconstructed the genre – it was an interesting film, but surely the project was too inherently marginal to engender real excitement. Evita was just too much of everything all over. For me, Woody Allen got surprisingly close in Everyone Says I Love You, Maybe it helped there that Allen didn’t seem to have taken that much more care over the film than he does over his normal efforts – at least it didn’t seem paralyzed and squeezed by the technical demands.

Your Song

Moulin Rouge seems to aspire at times to avoid cutting altogether – through computer-aided swoops across space and time, the film creates one continuum of experience after another. At other times Luhrmann hardly lets a single image hold the frame for a second, throwing together breathless montages of incident and rushing color; the early scenes in the club really do evoke Impressionist paintings come to life. When it’s firing on all cylinders, the film seems madly in love with the process of image making, with the evocation of panache and emotion and excitement. Although notionally set in 1900 Paris, the film is hardly tied to that period in its sensibility – most prominently in the music, which encompasses a selection of pop standards from Bowie to Nirvana. Catherine Tunnacliffe in Eye suggested that the  film’s meaning – as a kaleidoscope of imagery and music from the past 100 years – might have been clearer if it had been released, as originally planned, in the final days of the year 2000: “Luhrmann accurately identifies the 20th century’s main obsession – glamour – and Moulin Rouge elevates superficiality to high art.”

This is maybe most striking in how the film constantly hammers on the supposed transcendent beauty of Elton John’s “Your Song” – for purposes of the movie the lyrics are written by McGregor’s character, and they’re constantly referred to by the characters as a beautiful evocation of a purer sensibility. This is so overdone and self-evidently suspect that the film indeed seems to be laying its superficiality bare. But what kind of achievement is that really? And so goes my reaction to the whole film – nothing in it seems intended to be taken at face value, and yet no other value is proffered. Take the casting for instance. Nicole Kidman’s rather neutrally pretty features and alabaster reticence hardly serve to create a specific presence – she serves as a Lulu-kind of concoction. And Ewan McGregor goes through the movie looking much too pleased with himself. The supporting players are more vibrant, but whoever heard of a musical without stars?

A thousand words

It was long ago established that a picture is worth a thousand words, and Moulin Rouge now confirms that a picture may also be worth a thousand pictures. Current technology and expertise allow the flow of Luhrmann’s imagination to be presented on screen virtually unimpeded. If your imagination happens to fall within the exact same contours as his, then I imagine Moulin Rouge may seem a perfect film. Otherwise you may just wonder what you’re supposed to do with the thing. In its second half especially, I thought the film frequently committed the cardinal sin of being profoundly repetitive. Everything in it seems profoundly necessary in that you feel the weight of Luhrmann’s commitment and ambition to every moment, but this entails, of course, that the whole thing seems entirely dispensable. I hate to sound like the kind of traditionalist old fogy that the bright new vision of Moulin Rouge might have hoped to sweep aside, but Minnelli and Astaire achieved much more with less. There’s real joy and sadness in The Band Wagon, sometimes simultaneously, and I still long for a new musical that can come close to that.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Best of 2001

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2002)

These are the ten films (listed here in the order of their commercial release) that most stayed with me once the lights came up. Apologies to any masterpieces released at the very end of the year. See you in 2002!

The Pledge (Sean Penn)

Penn’s film lacks the constant rigor and assurance that could have made it a masterpiece, but it’s often extraordinary – one of the great detective movies in which the case at hand is the least of what’s being investigated. Jack Nicholson plays a cop who promises a dead girl’s mother to bring the perpetrator to justice – the film’s greatest strength is its accumulating ambiguity over what havoc his commitment has wreaked on his soul. Nicholson gives one of his greatest performances in years – a stripped-down portrayal of a decent, polite man of modest resources. Unfortunately, this imaginative, deeply skeptical film was poorly marketed as a straightforward thriller and quickly disappeared.

YiYi (Edward Yang)

Yang’s three-hour Taiwanese epic is probably the very best film of the year – completely successful both as entertainment and as art – an intricately calculated film with such poise and grace that it often appears to have been dreamt rather than constructed. Providing a very specific portrait of contemporary Taiwan and of its few main characters (built around a family in which all the members are in some form of transition), it’s visually and thematically dense while always seeming pragmatic. It’s “positive” enough that it can be advertised as uplifting and life-affirming, and yet holds back from offering any false buoyancy. I saw YiYi twice and could easily have gone again.

The Wind will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami)

I first saw this at the 1999 film festival: watching it again on its commercial release, it seemed less striking as an uplifting conclusion on the value of being alive (as I first wrote), and more so as a depiction of the perpetual struggle that constitutes life. The protagonist is an “engineer” who’s come to a small town for a purpose that’s never quite defined – much of the action is offscreen, and the character is frequently climbing or descending, searching, or realigning himself in some way. The dialogue keeps circling back to repeated questions or assertions like a weird variation on David Mamet. It’s eerie and mysterious, rich and powerful.

George Washington (David Gordon Green)

For a while, Green’s film about a group of kids hanging out in a derelict corner of North Carolina seems a bit limited and repetitive. But as the film’s narrative becomes stranger (and it gets quite strange), everything else about it becomes richer, culminating in a series of images that’s almost hallucinatory. In part it’s about the tentative way people attempt to anchor themselves in their environments and in their own skins; but it’s also a pure creation of the imagination – it could have been documentary or teen movie or much else, but found a muse that makes it all of these, and none of them.

The Man who Cried (Sally Potter)

Potter’s epic of sorts, with international settings and a big name cast, is directed at times as though she were dutifully keeping the financiers’ interests in mind. But at other times it’s bracingly experimental (even if slightly naively so). With Christina Ricci’s cool reserve working well as a dancer in Paris during World War Two – probing her own mysterious past while negotiating the confusion of the times – the film transforms itself at the end into a joyously melodramatic concoction. The film seems designed to be susceptible to analysis in the same way that film theorists mull over Bette Davis’ 1940’s films, and it comes pretty close.

Apocalypse Now Redux (Francis Coppola)

The re-release of Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam odyssey, with fifty minutes of added material, was one of the year’s great events in cinema. The new sequences make Redux less of a pure war film and more an abstract meditation on political, cultural and psychological confusion (with Vietnam being one of the all-time great media for such a project); more effectively leading the way now to the famously murky finale where Martin Sheen finds the missing Marlon Brando. It’s no great shakes as politics or analysis, and its energy sometimes seems touched by naivete, but no “new” movie had even half as much going on.

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)

Lynch’s movie seems to be one thing for the first ninety minutes (a pseudo-detective story with a young actress and a femme fatale, with hints of various conspiracies around the edges), then changes direction entirely. In broad terms, it seems to me mainly about the narcissism and self-absorption at the heart of Hollywood. It’s stayed in my mind – not so much because of its narrative mysteries, but because of the sense that Lynch has captured the complexities of something real and significant while still indulging his considerable idiosyncrasies to the hilt.

Chunhyang (Im Kwon-Taek)

An old man on a stage sings the story of a nobleman’s son who falls in love with a courtesan’s daughter. The film melts into the past, where the story is sumptuously recreated. The film works as a record of a stage performance, as a historical recreation of immense poise and visual imagination, and in its combination of the two as an artistic construct. The plot turns on an act of female defiance that’s presented here for maximum impact and political clout, making the film equally effective as dialectic.

The Taste of Others (Agnes Jaoui)

Wonderfully structured French comedy of relationships, built around a businessman who falls in love with a sad actress and for the first time develops an artistic sensibility. Everything in the film is counterbalanced and proportioned, and it’s often very funny. “Can’t you see?” says one character in desperation, “Some things go together, others don’t.” The fun of the movie is in keeping us guessing about what falls into what category. Its great insight is in its full and mature depiction of the fluidity of the categories themselves.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Chris Columbus)

My favourite big-budget release of the year. Some said it was overly literal-minded, but I don’t know the book. I found the film remarkably engaging, even enchanting, yielding one revelation after another. Certainly, the more intimate concepts often come off better than the more obvious spectacles (which sometimes have too much of that distancing computer-generated look about them), but there’s enough magical stuff here to sweep aside all reservations, and the cast is excellent. Now if someone would just explain Quidditch to me…Harry New Year!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Robot child

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2001)

Steven Spielberg’s first film in four years, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, takes place in a depleted future world where mankind is physically and emotionally dependent on robotic technology; they cook, they clean, they even have sex with us. It’s about a robotic child (Haley Joel Osment) so perfectly engineered that he’s virtually indistinguishable from a real boy. When he’s rejected by his human family, he wanders for some time on the fringes of society, accompanied by another android (Jude Law) and a robotic bear called Teddy, obsessed with the idea that the story of Pinocchio – particularly the Blue Fairy that transformed that wooden boy into flesh and blood – can be made real, allowing him to become human and attain the bond he craves with his owner/mother. The movie’s final section, following this quest as far as it can go, entails a huge change in his and the film’s frames of reference.

Stanley Kubrick (again!)

As everyone knows by now, A.I. was largely developed by the late Stanley Kubrick, who passed it on to Spielberg with his blessing, apparently judging it more fitting to the other man’s sensibility than his own. Maybe it’s a mistake to dwell too much on the Kubrick connection. A. O. Scott in his New York Times review mentioned Kubrick only in a single paragraph, noting the differences in the two men’s sensibilities but not dwelling much on how the finished film might reflect these. Maybe it’s not coincidental that Scott gave the film one of its most enthusiastic write-ups, considering it “the best fairy tale – the most disturbing, complex and intellectually challenging boy’s adventure story – Mr. Spielberg has made.” But most of the reviews I read concentrated much more, sometimes to an almost forensic extent, on doing a Kubrick-centered autopsy of the movie, generally to A.I.’s detriment in one way or another.

It’s certainly not hard to draw parallels between A.I. and Kubrick’s work – in particular, the middle section has a resemblance to A Clockwork Orange and some aspects of the ending evoke that of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I can’t imagine the film would have been very similar in Kubrick’s hands. Whether or not you view it in terms of the difference between Kubrick’s analytical instincts and Spielberg’s supposedly greater sentimentality, Kubrick’s version would surely have avoided the over-determination and intellectual timidity that drags down Spielberg’s.

Cold and warm

Kubrick’s films deliberately resist easy identification with the characters: Spielberg invites it, but not always effectively. No actor has ever won an Oscar in a Spielberg film – relatively few have been nominated. His films are so structurally and technically seamless that the actors seem almost like afterthoughts. Kubrick was famous for filming dozens of takes of a scene and then selecting a version that showed the actors at their least naturalistic. But at least this evidenced a fascination with human mystery and with how that behaviour would be intercepted by the viewer.

Films like The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut certainly elide some of the narrative that we might have expected from other directors, and they’re problematic for numerous reasons, but they also contain utterly distinctive characters that resist easy (if not any sort of) summary. There’s certainly nothing of Kubrick left in this aspect of A.I. I’m hard-pressed to name a single surprising or intriguing moment by any of its actors. This isn’t to say they’re not adept: Osment and Law in particular are both note-perfect, but it’s a boring perfection of a boring note.

Still, this in itself wouldn’t have ruled out A.I. from comparison with 2001. The greater disappointment for me is how linear Spielberg’s film turns out to be. Maybe there’s some mild innovation in the way it splits into three quite distinct sections. But Kubrick’s films do much more than that – they play with our sense of time (both our own and the characters’), they offer apparent closure that isn’t really so, bizarrely extend certain scenes while omitting others that ought to have been there, they double back on themselves, they start right in the middle of something and end just as abruptly. The thrill of his films is often in something as basic as figuring out what they’re really about.

Spielberg’s film is full of memorable compositions or moments of emotional underlining. But when it starts off with a voice over explaining the state of the planet, followed by a long scene in which professor William Hurt portentously sets out for his students the key questions in robot ethics, you immediately realize how little genuine mystery the film will be allowed to contain.

Definition of the human

A.I. is like this throughout, but especially at the end, where some of the stuff that’s put before us (for example, about the rules of the “space time continuum”) is ridiculously contrived. Even if the film’s ideas seemed profound, I doubt that they’d be best communicated in such a way (which I think borders on the condescending). But what are those ideas anyway? The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, in a surprisingly positive review, said: “It’s hard to think of a more important theme than the definition and survival (or nonsurvival) of the human.” Sure, but the film seems to me more like a statement of that theme than a consideration of it. Obviously, if robots are so much like people that no one can tell the difference, then it poses a question over what it means to be human. But I just told you that much in one sentence, and A.I. can take it no further. Time and time again, it reminded me not of Kubrick but of Chris Columbus’ sappy Bicentennial Man, which also dealt with an emotionally precocious robot aspiring to the condition of humanity.

To sum it up then, I was intrigued but  not particularly excited by the delicate handling of the opening domestic section, I was disappointed by Spielberg’s failure to punch home the middle big bad world section, and I found the final chapter by far the weakest of the three. The film works best as a pure fairy tale, but even on that level it’s diminished by the over-explicit evocation of Pinocchio. As a creation that might be satisfying to adults, it’s severely compromised. Some of the potentially darkest strands (there’s something more than a little creepy about the robot kid’s growing obsession with his mother) are treated so lackadaisically that it’s hard to know if Spielberg’s even aware of them. We can’t know where Kubrick’s version would have ended up, but for good or bad, it’s inconceivable it would have left us so little to think about afterwards.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2001)

This is the sixth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

Sex and Lucia (Julio Medem)

Yet another movie that traffics in vaguely mystical coincidences and connections and overlapping fates, designed for audiences who believe both in crossword puzzles and in angels. This time round there’s more sex than usual in the air, but to me this only made the movie seem even more calculated. The protagonist is a young woman who falls madly in love with a novelist; the film cuts between the story of their relationship (first the sex, then the mooning around) and a few years later, when she flees to a remote island after she believes he’s been killed. Events are complicated further by the writer’s discovery of a 4-year-old daughter, fathered during a fling on that same remote island; while he gets to know the kid, he also writes a novel about it (you can probably see how this could get tangled). The movie is certainly accomplished, but it lacks the wide-eyed charm of Medem’s earlier Lovers of the Arctic Circle, and seems too much like a reworking of the earlier film rather than a project with its own distinct hear. The actors generally seem rather distant (maybe that’s meant to be wistful and seductive) and even though the film constantly generates possible subtexts, themes and so forth, you generally feel it’s too smart-alecky a project to deserve them.

The Sun behind the Moon (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

With its scene of young boys being taught Kalashnikovs along with the Koran, this film was an especially unsettling viewing experience for the Saturday following September 11. It’s built around an expatriate Afghani journalist trying to travel to the town of her birthplace to her maimed sister (who’s written a letter describing her intention of killing herself during the next eclipse). With only days to go, the journalist tries everything to complete the journey. The film contains many startling scenes and images: a Red Cross outpost where two young female doctors deal with dozens of local men, all on crutches after land-mine accidents and squabbling over scarce pairs of artificial limbs; the bright colors of a veiled wedding party trekking through the desert, seeming as much a threat as a celebration; an African-American doctor who to observe local custom can view his female patients only through a tiny peephole. Otherwise the landscape  (captured here in what often seems like geographically precise detail) is largely bleak except for bandits, soldiers and land mines. The film’s voice over emphasizes particularly the plight of women in such an environment, but there’s no one in the film who’s not a prisoner of poverty, landscape and custom. The film’s ending is startlingly grim and abrupt; a quality that in the circumstances provides further cause for troubled contemplation.

Lan Yu (Stanley Kwan)

Kwan’s film is mainly interesting just for the fact that it exists – an unabashed gay love story, Chinese style, encompassing full-frontal nudity (although I could say that much about every second movie I saw at this year’s festival) and relatively little angst. True, the story has one of the lovers putting the affair on hold while he enters into a brief marriage, and the film chronicles numerous encounters in hotel rooms and out-of-the-way locations. But the tone is deliberately calm and straightforward – it’s plainly a melodrama, but doesn’t aim to pull at handkerchiefs, and the characters develop just through common-sense aging rather than through great events or traumas. The film’s elliptical style, often skipping over big blocks of time, also keeps easy emotions and identifications at arm’s length. It may seem odd, after all this, to say the film seems a bit minor – yet it carries off its chosen project so successfully that you feel it could have accommodated greater ambition. Indeed, the long closing shot, taking an urban setting and rendering it into a flickering abstract shadow, an embodiment of memory, goes on for so long that you sense a reluctance to leave it at that.

Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuaron)

After a couple of Hollywood movies, Cuaron goes home to Mexico in style with this raunchy, good-time account of two sex-obsessed male teenagers on the road with an attractive (and older) female cousin. Cuaron doesn’t so much give in as dive into the fantasy aspects of this scenario for most of the way (I assume the reader needs no further hint of what those aspects might be). But he also uses a voice-over (the equivalent of the photo inserts in Run Lola Run) that alerts us to alternative possibilities, to secrets kept by the friends from each other, and to disappointment lurking around the corner. When this extends to telling us the fortune of a herd of pigs that the heroes run into on the beach, you suspect it may be going a little far. The movie’s final stretch is surprisingly explicit both in making plain the homoerotic subtext to much of their adventures, and in putting the brakes of real life on the good times. The film is also a knowing hymn to Mexico in all its sprawling inequity, corruption and lurking dangers. Although the elements I’ve described are the heart of the film’s artistic case for itself, it’s much more a romp than anything else – if you’re not a 17-year-old boy with a perpetual boner, you may find it a little wearying..

Training Day (Antoine Fuqua)

A rookie cop spends his first day on the narcotics division with a scarily charismatic veteran who challenges (to say the least) his sense of the compromise between effectively enforcing the law and adhering to it. The movie is always too dependent on Denzel Washington as the veteran – the first hour is entertaining and well done, but never seems like more than a one-man show with some half-hearted Serpico-type moralizing thrown in. In the second half, the problems with Washington’s approach become so extreme that any serious purpose flies out the window – and even by the standards of the genre, the film falls subject to absurd coincidence, compression and general tackiness. This is yet another movie, along with Hearts in Atlantis, that makes you wonder whether the film festival shouldn’t abandon any pretense that the gala section embodies quality cinema (albeit of a more populist variety). The sloppy plotting, cynical manipulation and general lightweight approach to serious issues is the exact antithesis of what you’d hope the festival might seek to promote.

Monday, October 2, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part five

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2001)

This is the fifth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

Warrior of Light (Monika Treut)

A documentary about Yvonne de Mello, a well-to-do middle-aged woman who found her calling as a social activist, working with kids in the slums of Rio. The film functions mainly through observation: the children are all in terrible shape in one way or another – sick and malnourished, but also prematurely morally weary and locked into a wretchedly narrow frame of reference. You’re always aware too that her efforts can only address the tip of the iceberg. De Mello works through patient one-on-one nurturing, taking illiterate “savages of the asphalt” and slowly expanding their resources and possibilities through techniques as simple as listening to them (in the slums, she says, no one ever listens). She organizes classes and group events and for some provides medicine and housing and other fundamentals. The film sometimes verges on hagiographic – it lets de Mello use grandiose phrases like “you build mechanisms to survive” even in describing what she did to fit in at school. And by concentrating so closely on the kids, the film provides only a limited sense of the institutional battles and personal unpopularity that de Mello speaks to the camera about. It’s generally unremarkable in its technique. But moments like the 11-year-old girl, living in a home that can’t even afford a table, saying with deep conviction that “it’s bad to have children,” are always moving.

The Son’s Room (Nanni Moretti)

Moretti’s films are as understated and modest as the man himself seems to be – they prod gently and quizzically at their subjects, but you don’t feel that any major possibilities have been sold short. His new movie (a surprise winner at Cannes) deals with the reaction of a psychiatrist (played by the director) and his family to the death of a son. As is his custom, Moretti avoids many of the most obviously dramatic moments (such as the death itself) and finds an alternative route around the story, rooted in the quiet moments that illuminate the inner pain. The comic touches are muted on this occasion, confined mainly to scenes of Moretti’s patients and his ever-decreasing interest in them. Detractors might claim, not without validity, that Moretti takes this approach because he’s not up to creating scenes that lie outside his prevailing modest register. The film is pretty conventional in many respects, and I think the Cannes award was much too kind. And yet, it has an exquisite final passage, in which a passing incident from the son’s short life provides a way to closure, and the grieving family finally starts to rediscover its lost spontaneity and capacity for reinvention.

Hearts in Atlantis (Scott Hicks)

How many movies end with the hero recalling in voice-over how that long-ago summer marked the end of his childhood, gave him a new sense of the world, etc.? The key event in this particular chronicle is an encounter with an aging psychic, on the run from mysterious pursuers, who holes up in the kid’s small town. Such material would need extraordinary handling to avoid redundancy and ridiculousness, but director Hicks films Stephen King’s book as though it were the Dead Sea Scrolls. Every moment is probed and prodded for spiritual revelation – the overkill expended on such silly stuff strikes me as a real insult to the audience. Still, I thought the same thing about the similar King-based movie The Green Mile, and lots of people loved that – so they may buy into this one too. The psychic is played by Anthony Hopkins, who’s all but wearing a “Slumming” sign on his chest; the boy’s mother is Hope Davis, whose perpetual suspicion of Hopkins’ proclivity for hanging around kids is one of the film’s few points of psychological interest. At various points the movie has the potential for interesting social history, but that would require a clearer focus than Hearts in Atlantis ever summons. The only bright point for Hicks is that the general idiocy renders this film less boring than his last adaptation, Snow Falling on Cedars.

Enigma (Michael Apted)

A World War Two drama built around the breaking of a vital secret Nazi code, with a mathematician hero and a femme fatale lurking in the background of the action. The film is an odd amalgamation of elegant, unconventional plotting and shopworn stiff upper lip stuff, and it’s often hard to know whether its frequent confusion and lackluster pace are deliberate or not. The heart of the subject matter involves numbers on a page, endlessly scrutinized for their hidden meaning, and the film at its most intriguing finds a style that echoes this insular, obsessive heart. One example might be how it seems almost to neutralize much of its own drama: at both points when the hero makes his greatest deductive leaps, the cops are already there ahead of him. Or perhaps that too is just an example of poor design. At least the movie is intelligent enough that you can’t tell for sure (maybe one cuts it too much slack for being written by Tom Stoppard). The action is all extremely modest and old-fashioned – seldom going much beyond stealing secret files from cabinets, although near the end a U-boat surfaces in a Scottish loch. The definite oddity of the project is reinforced by a once in a lifetime producing credit: Produced by Lorne Michaels and Mick Jagger.

Warm Water under a Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura)

This Japanese film is an utterly distinctive chronicle of a newly unemployed man who travels to a small town in search of hidden treasure. He takes a job as a fisherman and falls in with a local woman who has an unusual condition: when she orgasms, she gushes out vast amounts of water (which, when it trickles down to the river, energizes the fish). It’s immediately clear from this synopsis that the film has a mythic or fantastic quality to it – the wonder is that it also feels utterly contemporary and relevant. The film sketches a multiplicity of private worlds – an old woman lost in memories of a lost lover, an African runner who’s chosen this bizarre setting for marathon training – and crafts its characters and incidents with great delicacy, but no sentimentality or smugness. Imamura’s beautiful widescreen compositions bring a classical framing and balance to things as mundane as supermarket shelves and piles of garbage. His thematic scheme is wide enough to make room for local stories, a detour into quantum physics, and a certain amount of raunchy sex. Unpredictability itself may be a large part of the design (even at the end, it’s introducing new subplots as quickly as it wraps up others) but it all holds together – this really illustrates what the idea of a filmic “master” is all about.

Monday, September 25, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part four

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2001)

This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

La chambre des officiers (Francois Dupeyron)

After half his face is blown off near the start of World War One, a French officer spends the rest of the war in an officer’s medical ward, where he and those around him gradually learn to live with their disfigurements while undergoing apparently endless surgery. Although it’s a viable anti-war piece, the heart of the movie is in the meticulous process by which the men conquer their suicidal urges, their fears of mirrors and of the gazes of others, ultimately even acquiring the inner resources to make fun of themselves. A disfigured woman, spurned by her own family but beautiful to the men, provides another frame of reference. Sometimes the film seems strained and over-calculated (for example, in making us wait half an hour to see what the officer’s face looks like after the accident) but at its best it’s extremely relevant and yet somewhat other-worldly. Episodes like the mens’ trip to a bordello are faintly surreal as well as moving, and when the armistice is signed, the men celebrate as fervently as the crowds – but it’s a celebration taking place in a sealed-off corridor, high above the masses. The film’s life-affirming themes are all the more convincing for its lack of sentiment – it conveys an emotional theme with clinical precision.

Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair)

A certain crowd-pleaser (and the winner at the Venice film festival) about events surrounding an affluent Indian family wedding. The bride and groom barely know each other and she’s still carrying a torch for her ex-boyfriend, the father (the movie’s beleaguered centre) has money problems, the wedding planner is unreliable and distracted, and (in a surprisingly dark turn), one of the elders is revealed as a child molester. Things go on, of course. The movie has been compared to one of Robert Altman’s sprawling canvases (Altman must be evoked how often his name is evoked nowadays), but that only indicates its limitations. There’s an inevitability to the direction it takes, and the film never gets that deeply under the skin of its characters or of the social segment they embody. Instead, it throws out references and concepts like wedding confetti, presumably reasoning that if enough of them stick, the film will amount to an emotional epic. The juxtaposition of modern and traditional attitudes and outlooks is generally interesting, but on the whole I learned less about contemporary India from the film than by watching Satyajit Ray’s 30-year-old Days and Nights in the Forest a few months ago. And less about the human condition than in fifteen or twenty other festival films.

Hotel (Mike Figgis)

Figgis’ film again uses his split-screen technique from Time Code, but this time it’s mixed in with various other experiments – the film plays throughout with image speed, size, quality and placement on the screen. The film’s plot is much more elusive and sprawling than the earlier film too, involving the filming of a Dogme-style version of a classic play, a mysterious conspiracy among hotel staff, and various other stuff (some of which I couldn’t follow). The film is not conventionally entertaining, and in its willful obscurity and unanchored feeling may remind people of this year’s other weird hotel movie – Wim Wenders’ Million Dollar Hotel. Being just about the only person who liked Wenders’ film, I’ll admit to some admiration too for Figgis’ latest effort. I don’t think it has the overall coherence of Time Code (which to me fused form and content very effectively) but then it’s not meant to – it’s allusive and deliberately eccentric. You always suspect it’s going to end with some kind of metaphorical comment on cinema, but it’s still a surprise how Figgis gets there. He makes the tyrannical, edgy director into a truly supernatural figure, and simultaneously evokes both da Vinci’s Last Supper and B-horror movies, which should indicate the film’s variety if nothing else. For star-spotters, the film includes a brief and pointless appearance by Burt Reynolds, a slightly longer one by Lucy Liu, and perhaps the best performance ever by my old schoolmate Rhys Ifans.

Birthday Girl (Jez Butterworth)

Butterworth’s second feature is much more professional and smooth than his messy, barely coherent debut Mojo, although what minor ambition the earlier film possessed seems to have vanished along with the rough edges. Birthday Girl is a conventional, predictable film about a mild-mannered, unfulfilled bank clerk who searches for a Russian wife on the Internet. He ends up with a real hot babe who may not live up to all his specifications (she can’t speak English) but makes up for it in other ways (primarily by fully indulging his bondage fantasies). Things get sticky when two friends of hers suddenly turn up unexpectedly – will our hero ever find true happiness? This is the kind of movie that hardly needs a festival spot – there’s nothing about it to get critics even modestly excited, and since Nicole Kidman plays the girl, the film is already guaranteed all the publicity it needs. The movie moves along nicely, but it’s completely predictable, and it has nothing at all in the way of nuance, theme, artistic embellishment etc.

Eloge de l’amour (Jean-Luc Godard)

Godard’s new film, widely regarded as his most successful in years, still failed to quite overcome my 15-year mental block on his work – I was engaged in flashes, but the overall shape of it eluded me. Those flashes may be adequate reward though. A meditation on love, cinema, memory and art, the film’s most prominent narrative element involves a project to make a film out of an aging couple’s memories of the Resistance; the first half is shot in pristine black and white, the second in more impressionistic digital video color. Godard works in densely allusive fragments; every scene is striking for the vividness of his compositions; the soundtrack is dense in philosophical and intellectual propositions. In a film that takes numerous potshots at Hollywood (particularly Spielberg), Godard continues to believe in the fallacy of straightforward, self-contained representation – affirming that “you can only think about something if you think of something else.” While this seems as modernist a position as ever, his attention to cultural and political history and lack of frivolity give the film a timeless romantic quality: the music score is certainly as elegiac as the title demands. A character quotes “The measure of love is to love without measure,” and Godard’s feeling for cinema is indeed immeasurable; the film is moving even as it rejects the means by which other films move us.

Monday, September 18, 2017


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

If this year’s Oscars had to be held next week (and I don’t mean to suggest I can’t wait until March) it looks to me like the best actress race would be between Renee Zellweger, Thora Birch, Kirsten Dunst and Piper Perabo. The combined age of whom might just about amount to a Judi Dench. Hollywood’s always criticized for giving the younger women all the breaks, but this is something new. Especially as none of the four had to pretend to be in love with Michael Douglas, or with any other contemporary of their grandfathers (well, Birch in Ghost World hooks up with Steve Buscemi, but that’s hardly the same thing).

Piper Perabo

Perabo is in the current Lost and Delirious, a Canadian film about a doomed affair between two teenage boarding-school girls. In their top floor dormitory, she and Jessica Pare share an idyllic rapport, and a bed, until they’re discovered together. Pare quickly turns stridently heterosexual to safeguard her reputation. Perabo, whose character is stamped from the first scene as a potentially out of control self-dramatizer, quickly goes over the edge – accosting Pare with Shakespearean monologues in the library, challenging her new boyfriend to a duel with real swords, and yelling abuse in all directions.

If I had an impressionable teenage daughter with a touch of the turbulent poet about her, I definitely wouldn’t want her going near this film until she’d made it safely into her twenties. Resembling a slightly softer Angelina Jolie (who did win an Oscar for burning through a very similar role in Girl Interrupted) and radiating as much misplaced self-assurance. Perabo makes breakdown look like the only way to go. The movie devotes itself to her at the cost of almost anything else – she’s allowed to rant and pose long after the teachers should have sought serious help, and her special relationship with a hawk in the forest is too easy a symbol of the primal force she embodies. She’s quite excellent, and she’s certainly charismatic, but in an abstract kind of way. Still, give her a few years, and Piper Perabo may be the next Julia Roberts.

Apocalypse Now Redux

I don’t suppose Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux will be eligible for any Oscars this year (on its first release, in 1979, it lost to Kramer vs. Kramer – how dumb does that seem now?) Coppola and editor Walter Murch have gone back to the Vietnam epic, brushing up the image and sound quality and adding some fifty minutes of new scenes, bringing the total running time to three and a half hours. I haven’t watched the original for many years, so I’m not well-equipped to carry out a before-and-after comparison (critical opinion seems generally in favour of the new material, although with some strong dissenters too). But I do agree with the pack that Redux is the most impressive American movie to be released this year.

It's an engrossing spectacle, of course – especially in the early part of the film where Coppola feverishly orchestrates helicopters and explosions and people into an evocation of war that’s too beautiful and vivid to be quite real. In his famous performance, Robert Duvall is almost excessively charismatic as the brutally effective Colonel Kilgore, razing villages as if as an afterthought while indulging his passion for surfing: an absurdist approach that might have worn thin if pursued for the entire movie. As it continues, the film tones down its potentially cartoonish edge, but hones in on the intense incongruity and confusion that are rather brashly contained in the Duvall scenes.

Martin Sheen plays Captain Willard, sent to travel up-river with a small group, in search of an army colonel who’s deserted and now leads a strange community in the depths of the jungle. In one of the newly-added sequences, they encounter two Playboy bunnies, stranded after their promotion tour helicopter ran out of fuel. Later, they find a French family holding out on a plantation long after all others have left, still dressing formally for dinner and engaging in conversation as though caught in a time warp. These sequences make Redux less of a pure war film and more an abstract meditation on political, cultural and psychological confusion (with Vietnam being one of the all-time great media for such a project); leading more inevitably now to the famously murky finale where Sheen finds the missing Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando.

Kurtz is viewed by his followers as a great man, but the main mouthpiece for this is Dennis Hopper’s character – a standard-issue 60’s hippie photographer – suggesting that Kurtz’ power lies mainly in the very idea of transcendence (or dropping out). Brando’s most famous line from the movie is his final apparent indictment of war “the horror…the horror…,” but if Kurtz is mad, it seems attributable as much to excessive introspection as to his experiences in themselves. “It’s judgment that defeats us,” he says in one of his monologues, and at another point: “You have the right to kill me, but not to judge me.” The movie damns judgment, and makes it almost impossible to render. Just when Sheen should deliver some closure to himself and to us, he becomes incomprehensible.

The film uses fades and slow dissolves and mist to hide the basic linearity of its structure (they encounter one incident, then travel on up the river for a few minutes and encounter another): it ultimately generates the sense of a world turned on its head. It’s no great shakes as politics or analysis, and its energy sometimes seems touched by naivete, but no other current film has even half as much going on.

The Others

I suppose my list of Oscar contenders should also have included Nicole Kidman – especially since Moulin Rouge and her new film The Others constitute two separate chances (if the Oscars are as sentimental as some say, then the break-up with Tom Cruise may constitute a third). But I thought she was swallowed up amid the technical cartwheels of Moulin Rouge, and she’s quite cold and unemotive in The Others. Not that this isn’t what the film, a well-crafted haunted house story, needs. But despite the effective mood and pacing and the nicely sprung surprise ending, it’s hard to get really excited about a movie with so little emotional depth. And Kidman never does anything at all unexpected in it. I’d like to see her carry off a role in which “delirious” was a major concept, but I can’t imagine it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part three

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

This is the third of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke)

Haneke’s drama about a piano teacher’s gradual capitulation to her sexual and psychological hang-ups is so raw and intense that it skirts the outer edges of watchability. “What is this foolish desire driving me into the wilderness?” sings a student in one scene, and the film draws on lead actress Isabelle Huppert’s vast resources to create a horrifying portrayal of that very journey. A severe teacher, she barely seems to take any joy from the music, and we gradually see that her psychological universe is just as barren, encompassing self-mutilation, voyeurism, debasement, substantial personal risk. It often seems that she barely has feeling, only desires, and orgasm seems abhorrent to her, as though even momentary fulfilment and rest would be more than she could endure. The film’s scheme includes a highly problematic relationship with her mother, and a finally devastating one with a young student who sees through some of her layers, but not enough of them. Haneke’s films are often set on the perimeter of psychological viability, and The Piano Teacher is a superb depiction of that place; it’s also a hermetic work though, so intense that even its greatest admirers may want afterwards only to forget it as quickly as possible.

Eden (Amos Gitai)

Gitai’s latest film is set in 1940, a confusing and not generally well-understood point in Israeli history. The movie does sadly little to illuminate it – it’s often so subtle in its telling that one might miss entire events. The film follows a small group of characters, embodying different perspectives and relationships to the Israeli ideal, and their fates broadly point to the way forward (in the final shot, the scene around the heroine shifts to the present day). It’s based on a short story by Arthur Miller, who plays the father of one of the characters – his presence is problematic, not just because he recites his lines so badly but because his presence skews the film too much toward comfortable Western intellectualism. For that matter though, the film’s casting is unsuccessful in a number of key roles. Gitai uses traditional distancing techniques to prevent easy absorption into the story and to focus the viewer on the broader historicism; however, it often seems fuzzy in its approach, and for all the variety of events and characters it’s very boring. One obtains flashes of insight, usually when the movie is most straightforward in reconstructing specific scenes or events, but no more than that. Overall, it seems like a major missed opportunity.

Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis)

Every year there’s at least one festival film that puts me to sleep, and here’s the one for this year. I was awake for the whole last hour though, all the better to observe people walking out around me. Denis’ movie is basically horror-film material – a couple of the characters have a vampire-like condition, a doctor is carrying out weird experiments, and his wife is locked up in the house – and it’s filmed in a moody, meditative style (the music score is quite beguiling). The movie links violence with sex, and the screams of the victims are as vivid as you’ll ever hear; together with the weary familiarity suggested by the title, the approach suggests that Denis is aiming not for mythology but for something more quotidian and immediate. It’s often impressionistic, one event following another through nuance rather than straightforward plotting (indeed, the movie is surely deliberately refusing to provide explanations, to tie up loose ends, or any of that normal stuff); it also has some striking set-pieces, and not just the violent ones – for example, it watches the mundane rituals of a young chambermaid who’s oddly drawn to one of the afflicted characters. But it’s very hard to concentrate on, and never delivers anything commensurate with the effort. I’ll concede though that a second viewing might cause this assessment to move sharply upward. (2017 afterword – it did).

The Man from Elysian Fields (George Hickenlooper)

When the festival has so much material that will seldom if ever be seen again, I guess there’s not really that much logic to spending even two hours of that precious time watching a smooth little movie that’ll fit just fine onto cable. But the vicissitudes of scheduling took me into this undemandingly delightful little fable about a career-imperiled writer who agrees out of desperation to go and work for an escort service. His first client is the wife of a fading literary giant who later enlists him to help write a final novel. This is lightly perverse material with lots of potential themes about whoring, integrity, self-deception, and the relationships between them all. Unfortunately, the movie’s heart lies mostly in what it all does to the writer’s relationship with his wife – not that this isn’t interesting too, but it’s far more conventional. The thing would seem more soft-centered if not for its terrific cast, including Andy Garcia (more appealing than he’s been in years), Mick Jagger (remarkably supple and idiosyncratic as the head of the escort service) and James Coburn (almost at the level of his Oscar-winning work in Affliction as the older writer). And the movie has terrific dialogue; it has the kind of one-liners and retort that used to flow from Woody Allen’s movies at their best (albeit in a somewhat different register).

Lovely and Amazing (Nicole Holofcener)

Holofcener’s film looks like a glossy contemporary comedy, but the movie may demand a psychotherapist as much as a critic – it’s virtually an encyclopedia on female angst and insecurities, spanning self-respect, body image, fear of aging, racial insecurity, stagnant relationships, and much else besides. By the end you feel properly entertained, but also educated and shaken – the scope is astonishing for such a small-scale movie. Catherine Keener (whose self-loathing and barely repressed anger is scary here) plays an unsuccessful would-be artist; her sister is an actress, convinced that her sputtering career is a result of her perceived physical defects. Their mother is going into hospital for liposuction, leaving her adopted black child in the care of the two sisters. The kid is a compulsive overeater and clearly disturbed – you worry about the child actress as much as about the character; Holofcener exploits a similar ambiguity in a scene in which the actress’ physical appearance is minutely criticized by her lover. The film has more of a stopping point than an ending, and various scenes and characters and developments are questionable too in one way or another, but overall it’s an excellent use of provocative material in an accessible package.

Monday, September 4, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part two

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

This is the second of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

What time is it there? (Tsai Ming-Liang)

Tsai’s film confirms him as a major poet of contemporary despair. A young watchseller has a brief contact with a customer who tells him she’s going to Paris. She gives him a cake, and it seems that this act of minor kindness shakes the structure of his drab, circumscribed life. He becomes obsessed with changing every timepiece he sees by seven hours, to conform to Paris time. The film is suffused in alienation, longing and futile endeavors. His mother, grieving for her late husband, devotes herself to rituals and superstitions that may tempt his spirit to return (at one point she mistakes what he’s done to the living room clock as a supernatural manifestation). Meanwhile, the girl’s stay in Paris is presented as one lonely, mechanical scene after another. All three plot strands culminate in desolate sexual encounters, but the film’s ending finds transcendence in some truly inspired and deeply beautiful images. The film was often virtually hypnotic to me. There’s no question that it’s slow and deliberate and narrow in its preoccupations, but its central idea works perfectly: dour lives demand grand gestures, whether physical or metaphysical, and even if these don’t succeed as intended, it’s beyond us to assess the full scope of their consequences.

The Pornographer (Bertrand Bonello)

A curious account of a veteran director of pornographic movies who’s way past his personal and professional peaks and can barely keep going. The pornographer started in the business in 1968, when making porn was plausible as a political act, and he can still conceive of himself as a former revolutionary, but that self-image no longer holds. In the film’s saddest scene, the producer spontaneously takes over the direction of a scene, disregarding the director’s fragile aesthetic scheme to inject louder moaning and more money shots. The casting of Jean-Pierre Leaud, archetypal 60’s French actor, as the pornographer, confirms that the film is as much about the decline of cinema (not just of the porno kind) as anything else. The pornographer’s story is generally presented in a classical drawing-room kind of style, but it’s contrasted with a vaguely Godardian treatment of his son, a student who joins an activist movement the main weapon of which is silence, the thesis being that muteness is “the ultimate opposition.” The juxtaposition makes for something genuinely weird and oddly nostalgic, and at least halfway stimulating. Certainly at the end you’re left with a convincing sense of decay and intellectual futility; given the film’s esoteric preoccupations though, it’s hard to know how much value to place on this. I think the film might be all but meaningless to someone not acquainted with the heyday of New Wave French cinema (a declining breed, obviously).

The Navigators (Ken Loach)

Loach’s film shows the readjustment of a group of Northern English railway workers after the deregulation of the mid-90’s. The British public’s contempt for the state of its railways makes this movie a pretty safe bet on its home turf, and Loach punches home the easy targets, having great fun with the new customer-friendly terminology and training video culture that suddenly gets dumped on the men. As usual, he makes an efficient argument against capitalist excesses while paying mere lip service to the other side; also as usual, he simplifies the real economics of the case and grossly caricatures the corporate bosses. Largely backed by a laconic jazz score, the movie is pretty easygoing compared to some of Loach’s earlier works – it’s far more assured than last year’s uneasy Bread and Roses. Ultimately, his protagonists seem like babes in the new market-friendly woods, and in the melodramatic but affecting finale they sell their souls to keep on going; the camaraderie of the opening stretch is replaced by a resigned, neutered obedience. The movie is tremendously entertaining and covers a lot of ground in an hour and a half – pound for pound, Loach is one of the prime storytellers in the game.

A ma soeur (Catherine Breillat)

This typically provocative film from Breillat is a further variation on her ongoing investigation of female sexuality, this time contrasting two teenage sisters – one a confident looker, the other clumsy and overweight. The “fat girl” (the film’s title for English release purposes) variously gets both abuse and affection from her sister; they’re fascinated and disgusted by each other. “Hating you,” she says, “is like hating part of myself – that’s why I loathe you so violently.” In the film’s key scenes, the fat girl pretends to be asleep while her sister on the other side of the room has sex with her boyfriend – his ruthless manipulation (you know what you’d do if you really loved me…) sets up a continuum of exploitation and victimhood. The latter part of the film, as their mother drives the sisters home from vacation, reduces them both back to being just kids, and Breillat seems for a long while to be vastly overdoing the shots of the car journey – time and again you anticipate an accident that never comes. But then the film takes a turn that is truly shocking, and can be read as sick fantasy, morbid come-uppance, terrible turn of fate, or as a realignment of the sexual politics. It’s probably all four, and leaves a potent after-impression. The movie will probably neither expand nor contract Breillat’s circle of admirers – I found it more subtle than Romance, but not as rich as her earlier Une vrai jeune fille, although its peaks may reach higher than that film’s.

Heist (David Mamet)

Mamet’s stripped-down crime drama doesn’t make much of an impact; as with Robert de Niro in the similar The Score, you wonder whether Mamet is overly interested in sacrificing his talent to the demands of genre. The movie’s terse plotting, snappy conversation and emotional minimalism come from the “less is more” school, but set against the other films I saw on the same day, it’s plainly just less. Lines like “he’s so cool, when he goes to bed the sheep count him” try too hard for classic status, and they read better than they sound. The film has some good twists and turns but that’s all they are – the movie doesn’t have the philosophical and emotional richness of Mamet’s last film State and Main, and the frequent confusion over who’s doing what to whom gets harder to take one you realize it’ll never really matter. Actors like Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito keep it interesting, but they’re just fleshing out ciphers in an arbitrary universe.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part one

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

This is the first of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

Last Wedding (Bruce Sweeney)

Sweeney’s gala opener (a brave choice for such a spotlight) tracks the downward spiral of a young couple’s relationship after their overly impulsive wedding; his two best friends’ lives are simultaneously on more or less the same track. Although the details of the three plot strands may differ, there’s not much tonal or thematic variation to any of it, and the film seems much less rich and provocative than Sweeney’s Dirty. He has a taste for actors with low-key styles and just a dash of quirkiness (Molly Parker is the best-known face, but she’s less interesting than her lesser-known co-stars, most of whom are excellent) and a penchant for occasional shock tactics (usually involving sex of course). Sometimes, the combination of the two creates something quite unpredictable and unsettling. The arc of the main relationship, from infatuation to open contempt, is thrilling in some ways (the open contempt, by the way, never seems to completely exclude the possibility of having sex) but it’s undermined by what seemed to me a patronizing portrayal of the woman; she’s an aspiring country-rock singer dropped into a movie populated by white-collar professionals like architects and librarians. On that subject – there’s something about the line “I’m not a dinosaur, I’m a librarian” that may stay with me for a while. The film’s weakest point of all is its ending – a simple period/exclamation mark to cap off events, where you might have hoped at least for a question mark of some kind.

Animal Love (Ulrich Seidl)

The festival devoted its “spotlight” section this year to Austrian director Seidl. Of the four films shown, I caught only this 1995 semi-documentary about a succession of emotionally, economically or sexually marginal people and their close (and that’s generally a euphemism) relationship with their pets. The animals – mostly dogs (some rabbits, no cats) – put up reasonably well for the most part with their owners’ tactile excesses, which include one scene of man/dog French kissing and lots of dubious romping on beds. Much of the film is set in drab, confined settings, with no good-looking people in sight, and most of it is self-consciously posed, consisting of sad little snapshots of grim lives, or monologues or confrontations that the camera obviously couldn’t just have “happened” upon. Some of it though is all too obviously real – like a painful scene of a dog sinking its teeth into another’s neck and refusing to let go. One of the subjects says that animals have a higher moral code than humans do (in another scene, we see this same guy and his wife advertising for sex partners) but most of these people seem way too needy to afford morals. You watch it with equal parts empathy and disgust, which is probably exactly the intent. On the whole though, it’s too narrow an artistic thesis to be of enormous interest; the film’s exploitative form certainly conveys effectively the exploitative behaviour of its human subjects, but repetition sets in awfully early. The movie, thankfully, left me feeling relatively secure about my relationship with my own dog – although not entirely so.

Ignorant fairies (Ferzan Ozpetek)

A middle-class doctor finds out that her suddenly-deceased husband had a seven-year love affair – with another man. Numerous films, like The Daytrippers, have made entertaining diversions out of similar ideas – Ozpetek belabors it for an entire movie. The woman makes contact with the lover and gradually gets drawn into his circle – a slice of gay society that’s portrayed as a colorful cavalcade of conviviality, with people always dropping in for lunch (there’s also someone with AIDS, a transsexual…everyone you’d expect). Her immersion in all this doesn’t make much sense except on the vaguest level of self-discovery, healing and assimilation; the developing suggestion that she and the lover might themselves get together struck me as the lamest plotting imaginable. Equally simplistic are the contrast between the lover’s warm, colorful apartment and her sterile white-walled home, and the extension of the “liberation” theme to include a much younger man who sets his sights on her. The lead actress is unusually frosty and glum, and her heavy touch seemed to me to embalm much of the film. Ozpetek’s The Turkish Bath had danger signs of melodramatic excess; that adverse promise is sadly realized here. The film’s self-regard is confirmed by not one but two loving pans along the faces of the group within the last five minutes, and by the outtakes and on-set footage included with the closing credits.

Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Kurosawa’s film initially seems like a fantasy on the false promise of technology, with the idea of connectivity turned on its head – ghostly websites start to appear on computer screens, pulling the users into suicidal depression. Later on, the film becomes broader and more apocalyptic – and also more explicitly supernatural, which to me meant a lessening of its insinuating power (how many films by now have created a mythology of portals to the spirit world?) Overall though it’s the best of the five films reviewed in this article. Concentrating almost entirely on students and people in their 20s, the film draws excellently on youthful angst and uncertainty, and its apparent centre keeps shifting: these are skillful genre mechanics, aided by a brilliantly sustained washed-out color scheme and a design that locates the fearsome empty spaces even in the best-lit and most ergonomically friendly environments. At its bleakest, Pulse posits that “ghosts and people are the same, whether you’re dead or alive,” that there’s no real connection between any of us, and the film’s heart certainly lies in desolation and capitulation, regardless that it closes on a plaintive assertion of happiness.

The Business of Strangers (Patrick Stettner)

It’s definitely fair to summarize this one as a female In the Company of Men, although it’s more straightforward and the dialogue doesn’t crackle nearly as much. Stockard Channing is a hard-driving businesswoman who hooks up on a stopover with Julia Stiles, a low-level assistant that she fired earlier in the day. The two sort of bond, get drunk, then join together to humiliate a headhunter who may once have raped a friend of Stiles’. The movie is dark and moderately potent in contrasting economic and sexual concerns and neuroses, finding affinities and enmities between the two women in equal measure. For example, Channing’s economic upper-hand is overturned when she identifies Stiles as “privileged little brat” who’s never had to work for anything, and whose attitude is rooted in complacency; her own modest origins still rankle. By the end the landscape is so confused and fractured that conclusions are hard to draw; the movie may be overstating the inherent interest and novelty value of the premise that women can be as multi-layered as men. It’s dramatically pretty satisfying though on the whole, and at 84 minutes it's nicely concise. Channing and Stiles are both excellent.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Terrible art

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2001)

In the wake of September 11, as a consensus settled in, a few people took heavy criticism for straying off-message. Bill Maher and Susan Sontag – both questioning the prevailing notion of “cowardice” – were the most prominent examples. A lesser-known but more truly subversive statement came from the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. At a press conference for a series of concerts in Hamburg, he said: “That characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for 10 years, completely fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos. Against that, we composers are nothing.”

Crafted by Lucifer

This produced a storm of protest, against which Stockhausen tried to back off, explaining that the “work of art” in question was crafted by Lucifer, and thus loathsome. But it was too late, and scheduled concerts of his music were cancelled both in London and in New York. I suppose Stockhausen’s subsequent explanation of what he meant is plausible if you interpret “greatest work of art for the whole cosmos” as a value-neutral term. But who would have read it that way?

Among the movies that were canceled or postponed around that time, some raised concern because of a similarity of subject-matter (plots featuring terrorists or aircraft hijackings); others because of a more general nervousness about abrasive material. For example, Training Day, which has no discernible connection, was pushed back a few weeks. But no one, to my knowledge, ever had much concern over releasing John Dahl’s Joy Ride. To be sure, there’s nothing in this film either that explicitly evokes September 11. But starting from Stockhausen’s weird take on events and the antipathy it aroused, it seemed to me that if there’s been a case for holding back any film at all, then Joy Ride should maybe have been the one.

The film depicts two easy-going brothers and a female sidekick on a cross-country road trip, who use a CB radio to play a trick on a trucker who strikes them as having a dumb handle (Rusty Nail) and a dumb voice. Things backfire, horrendously, when the prank results in Rusty Nail beating a man to within an inch of his life. They scoot out of town, but the trucker has discovered their identity and is out for revenge. From then it’s an extended game of cat and mouse, as the huge truck perpetually bears down on them.

Pure sadism

But if the cat is driven mainly, as cats are, just by the instinct to kill the mouse, he also seems to have some major advantages. We, like the characters, never see the trucker. But he sure sees them. He unobtrusively spies on them and gathers information, yet at key moments always contrives to be safely behind the wheel of his far-from-unobtrusive megaton vehicle. He takes steps that would have required a vastly implausible degree of foresight. Numerous reviews pointed this out, normally with some amused affection – the film received decidedly positive reviews overall. The New York Times for example: “The sight of his vehicle slicing through the night and the sound of his phlegmy growl on the radio are sufficiently chilling to keep some nagging questions at bay. How does he learn so much about Lewis, Fuller and Venna, and how is he able to be both in front of them, leaving messages and setting traps, and hot on their tails? Precisely because he’s an invisible, inexplicably malignant presence, with no motive other than pure sadism, those questions seem irrelevant. All you need to know is that those kids need to get away from him, and fast.”

The Times didn’t make any reference in this review to September 11, although it’s been doing so regularly for movies that seem problematic in one way or another. But think about that second to last line – the notion of inexplicable malignancy. Joy Ride has most often been compared to Steven Spielberg’s Duel. But we’ve all seen any number of movies in which the villains are implausibly well-equipped, or unfeasibly quick in staying ahead of the hero, or have an absurdly grandiose motive, or make too many escapes from the edge of death. The trucker hero is merely an extension of so many gravity-defying supervillains. And it’s always been a given that anonymous people perish along the way.

Time to end

But this abstracted attitude, more than brutal events in themselves, is at the heart of the movies’ troublesome romanticizing of violence. It’s a way of evading the real implications of such acts; creativity crowds out culpability. Right after September 11, commentators predicted the end of irony, the end of filmed violence, the end of reality TV – reality had become so real that nothing short of extreme scrupulousness could ever measure up. But they were wrong – for now there’s still a place for hard-edged escapism. But really, if you think about it for a second, should it be fun to watch “pure sadism”? After all, that’s how most of us have chosen to label the terrorists. We know they have motives and a worldview, but the consequences for the West are so horrific that we can barely accept them as such. So, effectively, as far as we’re concerned, they’re pure sadists. And there’s nothing that’s “fun” about them, or what they might yet do, or what the pursuit of them might do to us.

In the thirty years since Duel, dozens of films functioned by positing such sadism – in our homes, our institutions, our trains and planes and buses. But now we know it exists, and what the consequences are. Surely it’s time for such gleeful choreographing of violence to end. Joy Ride is negligible as a character piece, or as something meaningful, so it’s the style and pace and orchestration that critics are responding to. But Rusty Nail is actually exactly the kind of “artist” that Stockhausen was pilloried for evoking.

The irony is that we’ve been awed by stunts and special effects for so long, they’ve become routine. Even if you pursued Stockhausen’s line of thinking, I doubt the terrorists would qualify as great artists – they’re not original enough for that. They’d merely be echoing the cold-minded commerce that underlies such movies. Stockhausen’s statement was almost as barren as a commentary on art as on politics. But the antipathy he aroused ought to be the death knell for a certain type of cinema.