Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Jacques Rivette film

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2002)

Jacques Rivette is one of my favourite living directors, but of all my favourites he’s the one for whom I have the most work left to do. His new film Va savoir is the only one I’ve ever seen under a regular commercial release. I’ve seen seven others on video or DVD or at festivals, but that leaves many to go. Salvation may be near, for apparently there’s a Cinematheque Ontario retrospective coming up later in the year.

Rivette’s women

Given Rivette’s low profile in North America, he’s been quite well-served by DVD. It’s in this format that I recently saw his brilliant 1992 version of Joan of Arc – a film of great understatement, exactitude and care. It’s a fascinating exercise to compare the film to Luc Besson’s The Messenger – where Besson is bombastic and insistent, Rivette is sparse and matter-of-fact. At times he studies Joan as carefully as a psychoanalyst; at others, he recedes, allowing alternate interpretations to stand. It’s one of the great historical films of the last twenty years.

But he normally deals in contemporary subjects. Probably his best-known film is La belle noisseuse, a long exploration of the creative process, set around a model who poses nude for an aging artist. The film’s sensuality never obscures the rigour of its examination of gender relations and of the relationship of art and life. The theatre, where these intersect most directly and dynamically, turns up in many of his films. His films feel theatrical too – not in the sense of being stagy or uncinematic, but in that they have choreography and poise that walk an often-magical line between naturalism and artificiality.

By general consent, his masterpiece is Celine and Julie go Boating, a film I seriously need to see again. Two women slip into an imagined world that they summon up by sucking on strange candy. The film is as grainy, obscure and elongated as the most experimental cinema; it has a concept simultaneously goofy and brilliant, and it’s a complex text on femininity. Rivette has probably been more productively preoccupied by women than any other male director of his time, something exemplified by the Joan of Arc project, but also reaching back to his 1965 film The Nun, still a stunning depiction of a woman driven to the grave by societal pressure.

Gang of Four

These comments are more fragmented than I’d like them to be, but it just reflects how I’ve had to acquire my sense of Rivette. He seems to me a highly uninsistent artist – his films aren’t conventionally passionate or prescriptive; they reflect the open-mindedness of someone who has a generously expansive vision of both life and cinema. It follows that Rivette has shown limited regard for certain conventions – particularly normal movie length. His Out One, which I’ve never seen, ran for twelve hours and forty minutes (he later edited it down into a four hour and twenty-minute version). The films habitually run to three hours. David Thomson, calling Rivette the “most important filmmaker of the last thirty-five years,” cites “the uncompromising way that he has identified the future of film as something other than the two-hour work shown to paying audiences in special buildings, and telling tidy stories.”

But Rivette’s experimentalism shouldn’t obscure his humanism. Another film available on DVD, The Gang of Four, is one of his lesser-known works, but a sheer joy. It follows four young women, sharing a house while they study in the same exacting drama class. Like many Rivette films (right back to his first in 1961, Paris Belongs to Us), it introduces an odd conspiracy that tangles their lives into knots, but always returns regularly to the sanctuary of their endless rehearsals. The film makes countless points about the creation of reality and identity, but it’s also a captivating portrait of the four women (at times, watching Rivette doesn’t feel so very different from watching Eric Rohmer). The Gang of Four might be the film I’d recommend as the best introduction to Rivette – it shows his huge intellect at its most easeful. In general, Rivette seems to have been getting more benevolent as he gets older – one of his most recent films, Haut bas fragile, was a musical – and why not?

Which brings us to Va savoir. The film continues Rivette’s latter-day grace – it’s another story set around the theatre, with criss-crossing relationships and a focus on women. Jeanne Balibar plays an actress performing with an Italian troupe in Paris, sleeping with her director/co-star and perhaps rekindling a relationship with an old boyfriend. As the film progresses, the canvas widens to include other connections and coincidences. The film has twists and turns galore, and a bona fide happy ending.

Va savoir

Given everything I’ve said above, it’s obvious that I regard Va savoir as one of the best things you can currently do with your time, cinematically speaking. However, my immense desire to hype Rivette’s work must yield to honesty – good as the film is, I think it’s probably the least interesting of the Rivette films I’ve mentioned in this article. The film’s title translates as “Who knows,” which might indicate anything from a shrug to submission to ultimate mysteries.

But on this occasion, the film seemed more earthbound than I’m used to with him – the convolutions in the structure didn’t seem as philosophically or intellectually revealing. Of course, this may be the very reason that the film has found such popular acceptance. But even on that level, it’s probably not as engaging or as subtle as the recent The Taste of Others.

Still, it gives you a place to start. And I may change my mind about it, for as I sit here, I find myself thinking more and more about various moments in Va savoir. A young woman says to the director: “You are lucky to be someone else every night. And never really serious.” Thereafter, the two spend the film alternating between seeming to gravitate toward love and suddenly pushing each other away. In a way it’s the kind of device movies always use, but Rivette makes us feel the desperate exhilaration of this dynamic. And her reading of him as not being serious is of course an error – an error that Rivette himself might too easily attract.

The Gang of Four is dedicated to “the prisoners, to the one among them, to those who wait for them.” This supports several readings in the context of the film, but I like to think of the actresses, of those dedicated to their art, of Rivette himself as the prisoners he’s mainly thinking of. He’s captive to cinema, and yet far too great an artist to be limited by it. And following Rivette has necessarily involved far too much waiting, but it’s getting a little easier now.

(2017 comment – I still treasure Rivette as much as ever, but I’d write much of this article differently now)

Monday, March 13, 2017

Bad made good

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2001)

When I write about films, I suppose I tend to deal in absolute concepts of good or bad. I never feel very comfortable giving an opinion on whether something is “a good film of its kind,” although that’s basically the approach that, say, a reviewer for a daily paper has to take. The Outreach Connection allows me a little island of independence, and I’ve been lucky enough to occupy it on my own terms. I hope that after this long it’s an approach of interest to enough people to be worthwhile, but it wouldn’t cut it at the Toronto Star (fortunately, I have an actual paying job which doesn’t involve movies at all, unless you include watching the odd training video).

Crowe versus Penn

A comparison of two current films presents an interesting litmus test – A Beautiful Mind and I Am Sam. The first of these now seems to be the favourite to win the best picture Oscar. As I’ll write further next week, I like it well enough, although it seems to me far from the year’s best (I might place it around, say, no. 45). I Am Sam has basically received bad reviews – or rather, it’s received good reviews only from reviewers that nobody respects. I can’t see much at all to choose between the two. And I think that’s because I just don’t “get” that particular attribute that takes two films of broadly similar tone and content and thematic intent and makes one generally discernible as “sensible and intelligent” while the other is “manipulative and over-sentimental.”

That’s my first problem. My second problem, which is probably more my own idiosyncrasy, is that although I don’t have a basis for calling I Am Sam “better” than A Beautiful Mind, I definitely enjoyed it more. In part, it’s just because of the kind of quirks people argue pointlessly about over a few drinks – I find Sean Penn much more fascinating than Russell Crowe, that kind of thing. The second thing, which you can either buy into as a concept or don’t at all, is that it’s more interesting to me to think about I Am Sam than A Beautiful Mind, precisely because of its flaws. It’s not as deft, not as artful, not as sure of its tone; it doesn’t have things as well in place. But to me that’s a recipe for more provocative cinema.

There’s nothing profound about that – it comes from the same place as the old chestnut that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. I’ve tried to argue this general viewpoint numerous times with people, but seldom get anywhere with it. Most people can accept that you’d like a movie despite its weaknesses, but not because of them. Or else they reserve such compromised affection for stuff like American Pie 2 and Steven Seagal, allowing a genetic affinity for the genre to override their own tastes. I do that sometimes too, but the column on such guilty pleasures will have to wait for another day.

I Am Sam

I should probably get specific now about I Am Sam. Basically, the film works much better if you view it as an absurdist comedy. I don’t think that’s the filmmakers’ intention though. Penn plays a man with the mental age of a 7-year-old, who has a one-night stand leading to the birth of a daughter. When the mother bails out, Penn brings her up by himself, with the help of an agoraphobic neighbour and his group of similarly learning-challenged friends. When the girl herself turns seven, she comes to the attention of social services, which quickly takes her away from her father into care. To fight his case, Penn lucks into obtaining the services of a high-powered, ultra-neurotic lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer) with family problems of her own.

The thesis of all this is, more or less, that love is all you need (Sam is an obsessive Beatles fan who relates to much around him by applying Beatles lyrics or bits of folklore). As critics galore have pointed out, this is obvious nonsense, because Sam is objectively incapable of doing almost anything except providing a genuine but affectless love. It’s such nonsense that it’s better to treat the whole thing as a parody of liberal, heart-on-their-sleeve message movies. And that works, particularly since Pfeiffer does seem to be playing much of her part for laughs.

The movie has a light, caught-on-the-fly kind of shooting style, which rather contrasts with the somewhat deliberate writing style and the generally awful, gooey Beatles covers that drench the soundtrack. Whereas Penn is of course putting on a performance and looks like it, his friends appear to be played by men who are really learning-challenged – if they’re not, they’re certainly portraying that state more subtly and authentically than Penn does. Penn himself is the single most debatable thing in the film. He received a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best actor, so it must look pretty good to a lot of his peers.

Nightmare performance

But some find the performance unwatchable. This is Charles Taylor in Salon: “I don’t know the last time I’ve seen so disgraceful a display from a talented actor…Penn delves into mannerisms and vocal distortions with an appalling eagerness. He makes the classic mistake of playing the handicap instead of the person. An actor affecting this demeanor to make fun of a retarded man would be pilloried. Penn’s portrayal strikes me as equally insensitive. It’s the nightmare performance of 2001.”

I thought the performance was largely terrific, but I agree that it generally fails in creating a rounded character. But to me that helps neutralize the film’s sentimentality and turns it into something more abstract and stylized. At one point, Sam makes a surprisingly eloquent courtroom speech that’s soon revealed to be lifted from Kramer vs. Kramer, a movie he’s just seen. The odd thing is that the ending of I Am Sam relies on a sudden change of heart that also recalls Kramer. It seems that this must be connected in some way, as some kind of commentary on life vs. art, but it’s hard to see what sense that would make for such a film. But again, it works if you see it as a deliberate absurdity, as a narrative capitulation acknowledging how much Sam’s quest depends on impractical idealism.

The film’s title is the simplest assertion of an identity that if not asserted might be overlooked. And that sums up how the film works for me – there’s Sam with his quest, and the film seems to support it emotionally while demonstrating (inadvertently or not) its lack of merit. He’s embodied by an actor who (inadvertently or not) suggests how little “identity” the character has. And he moves through an incoherent world, following unanalyzable rules. Perhaps these are the characteristics of a bad film, but also of a rather fascinating one. And here’s one last confession: it may be the most transparently manipulative of weepies, but I Am Sam almost made me cry.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Interesting minds

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

A Beautiful Mind is one of the favourites for the Oscars, and probably deserves to win for best actor and best supporting actress at least. Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly are both extremely resourceful and moving in their roles – there’s hardly a scene where one or the other doesn’t contribute something more surprising, subtle or moving than you would have expected.

Intellectual stature

It’s a very watchable movie all around. Crowe plays John Forbes Nash, a math prodigy who made several important breakthroughs in the 40s and 50s before his talents were severely compromised by acute schizophrenia. Nash drifted in and out of functionality for years before reemerging – his crowning achievement was the receipt of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994. Connelly plays his wife, who put up with so many years of turmoil. The film is directed by Ron Howard, who sometimes takes the notion of smooth craftsman almost to a new height (Apollo 13) but generally doesn’t (The Grinch) – ED TV, one of his least controlled films, may be one of his most intriguing.

One of the film’s faults is highly predictable – it glosses over Nash’s work, giving little sense of his real contribution (based on what’s shown, “An Interesting Mind” would be a better title). There’s a good scene in which a friend’s flippant application of Adam Smith to a pick-up situation leads Nash to make a sudden breakthrough in bargaining theory, but that’s about it (except for numerous shots of blackboards filled with equations). And according to an article in Slate magazine, the scene I mentioned doesn’t actually convey Nash’s theories accurately.

And at the end, when Nash makes his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he says not a word about the work, devoting his (very brief) remarks entirely to love and the human spirit. I went on the Nobel website to see if Nash’s speech was on there; it wasn’t, but I feel confident the movie doesn’t quite capture the full scope of his remarks. Not that the movie leaves Nash’s intellectual stature in doubt (particularly given Crowe’s persuasiveness), but you feel a bit short-changed.

The film has also been criticized for whitewashing Nash’s sexual history, particularly his numerous affairs with men. The movie’s Nash might well be a virgin at the time he meets his wife (a relationship in which she makes almost all the running). This wasn’t really as bothersome to me here. It’s not like, say, The Hurricane, in which the historical distortions were central to the film’s effect. There may be a fine movie to be made of Nash’s sexual history alone, but it’s a peripheral matter here.

Inner Life

The focus of A Beautiful Mind is on Nash’s struggle with mental illness. As such, the biggest problem for me is inherent in the structure. Halfway through the film, we learn that some of what we’ve seen to that point (including some entire characters) was merely Nash’s delusion. It’s an effective dramatic revelation, and marks I think the turning point in the film. But it’s also somewhat manipulative, treating the “beautiful” mind as a variation on the reality-bending tricks that drive the likes of Vanilla Sky. The movie’s second half, once we know what we’re dealing with, certainly felt much more honest and potent to me.

I think the fact that Nash’s inner world looks just the same as the film’s depiction of the outer world points to Howard’s limitations as a director. The film should have provided a rare opportunity to visualize an extreme subjective state. Howard does do some neat little tricks that illustrate Nash’s ability as a code-breaker, through sheer will and brilliance coaxing hidden meanings and structures out of text and numbers. But since some of these hidden codes later turn out to be merely a product of Nash’s imagination, it’s not clear at the end whether this illustrates his brilliance or his madness (maybe the point is that the two can hardly be distinguished).

Taken together, these criticisms seem to indicate excessive caution on the part of the filmmakers. A Beautiful Mind is a superior mainstream movie, but I don’t think there’s anything in it that truly transcends that category. Still, it’s very moving in its latter stages, and the acting really is a sight to see.

In the Bedroom

Todd Field’s In the Bedroom is another best film Oscar nominee. A middle-aged couple struggle to come to terms with the murder of their son, by his lover’s ex-husband. The film’s raw materials are somewhat familiar, but it’s raised to another level by its sensitivity, intelligence and reticence. Liam Lacey’s comments in the Globe and Mail are fairly typical – he called it “an impressive achievement, first of all for the quality of real life, especially the force of grief, that it captures…there has probably not been a more adult American film made in the last year.” Slate’s David Edelstein went even further, calling it “the best movie of the last several years.”

Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson as the parents give generally quiet performances that occasionally erupt in anger and pain and frustration. The movie, similarly, starts in a gently paced depiction of a family and surrounding community, but becomes governed after the tragedy by shorter, more self-contained and pointed scenes. Although the film is in most senses slower and “smaller” than A Beautiful Mind, it creates a finer cinematic vocabulary. Field manages to support his actors fully (in general, the film seems driven by their needs more than A Beautiful Mind is driven by Crowe’s) without surrendering to them – you feel a deep-rooted fascination with the contours of their needs and secrets.

I don’t disagree with too much of the specific praise given to the film, but it seems I have a difference in how much value I place in its qualities. In the Bedroom seems to me inherently less interesting than say Chunhyang with its assured formal experimentation, or The Pledge with its metaphysical ambition, or Mulholland Drive with its overwhelming personal vision. And the last half hour of In the Bedroom, however well-executed, comes down to vigilantism. Not an old Charles Bronson cleansing shoot-em-up for sure – the ending here is ambiguous, seeped in uncertainty and self-delusion. Still, wouldn’t the most “adult American film” of the year work toward a more, well, adult resolution? See it and admire it, but retain a sense of proportion.