Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mysterious movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

I keep a database of notes on every movie I see, new or old. Sometimes I start out describing a film as being difficult or obscure or hard to assimilate, but then in the process of writing about it I arrange things in my mind and end up identifying it almost as a masterpiece. Likewise, I sometimes start these articles thinking I’m going to write a thumbs-down, and find to my own surprise and pleasure that it ends up the opposite. In such cases, I think I subsequently remember that sense of discovery more than I remember the specifics of the movies themselves. This may entail that they become even more elevated in my subsequent memory. Sometimes a second viewing supports this reassessment; sometimes not.


Some films almost seem designed to be played with in this fashion – to be even more of an optical illusion than all movies are already. I especially love movies that seem in command of their own mysteries. I’m not thinking of conscious jigsaw puzzles like Memento – that’s too deliberate and hermetic a challenge for my taste – and I’m not thinking about rootless quirkiness. I’m thinking of films that are unprecedented in their specific wisdom as well as their structure.

I started thinking about this after watching Bob Rafelson’s King of Marvin Gardens again the other day – for a while I was thinking it seemed more fragmented and offputting than I remembered, then it all came together for me. After that I went to see Jon Favreau’s new film Made, about a couple of guys who think they’re going to make it in the world of Big Crime when they get sent on a job. Made concentrates closely  on its main characters, and it’s much more interested in behaviour and interplay than in narrative. Some people have compared the texture to a John Cassavetes film.

That’s very high praise in my book – for me, Cassavetes films like Husbands and (especially) Love Streams are saturated in the qualities I was talking about. Made, unfortunately, is not. One of the main characters, played by Vince Vaughn – basically a stupid, self-regarding weight around the other’s neck – is allowed to be ingratiating, even cute, and never has to answer for anything. That’s not much like Cassavetes. The film cares far too much about keeping the laughs coming. Even the short running time of around 95 minutes testifies to its strained audience-friendliness – Cassavetes usually had trouble keeping his films at manageable length.

Its ending, though, has stuck in my mind, and almost serves to place the whole thing on a higher level (potential spoiler ahead here). When the Favreau character returns from the job, thinking he can start a new chapter with his lap-dancer girlfriend, she rebuffs him instead; when he expresses concern for her daughter, she tells him just to take the kid. Which he does, and in the epilogue some months later he and Vaughn seem to be sustaining an unconventional family.

George Washington

It’s rather hard to relate this development to the rest of the film, but the mother’s abandonment is genuinely cruel and shocking, and the two men’s reaction to it seems like much more fruitful territory than the earlier stuff about setting up a drop point and whether or not they should carry a gun. It’s almost as though Favreau realized what a parched movie he’d ended up making, and couldn’t resist a crazy attempt to do something that might thrust the whole thing into greater profundity – a grungy equivalent of the revelation at the end of The Sixth Sense.

That’s a small thing though compared to David Gordon Green’s George Washington – one of the best films of the year so far. Set in a derelict corner of North Carolina, it follows some kids, mostly black kids, as they hang out and see what happens. Some of the kids are precocious – like the 12-year-old that dumps her boyfriend for someone more mature; others just do the best they can. The film has a languid pace, and it’s full of lightly poignant dialogue like this exchange: “It’s too bad you can’t see the stars on account of the smoke”/”My room ain’t got no windows anyway.”

This is all fine, but a little of it goes a long way, and the film drags for a while. Then a tragedy strikes one of the kids. The scene itself is beautifully conceived and executed, but when the other kids try to cover it up, the film threatens to enter familiar melodramatic territory. The sense of contrivance deepens as one of the kids saves another from drowning, becoming a local hero. He responds to the praise by starting to run around town in a makeshift superhero costume, convinced he may have the power to save more lives.

Of the imagination

As the film’s narrative becomes stranger, everything else about it becomes richer, culminating in a series of images that’s almost hallucinatory. The 12-year-old girl I mentioned seems to be directed as a knowing scene-stealer in the early scenes, but in her last appearance in the film she delivers a disconnected strand of conversation; we’re losing our sense of her – she’s threatening to dissolve into pure poetry. It becomes clear that the movie isn’t about poverty, or racial issues, or about anything much in the concretely here and now. There’s an unusual lack of pop culture in the film; there’s not much of anything to anchor it in time or place except a photo of George Bush Sr. on one of the bedroom walls. It barely distinguishes between children and adults for much of the time. In part it’s about the tentative way people attempt to anchor themselves in their environments and in their own skins. But as much as that, it appears to be a pure creation of the imagination – it could have been documentary or teen movie or much else, but found a strange muse that makes it all of these, and none of them.

I suspect that there’s something in the film to mystify or annoy just about everyone. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum got hung up over why the film only once flashes a caption to identify the date, and it does this at a point that doesn’t seem very relevant to the bigger picture. I liked that touch, but I thought that an uncle’s speech about his fear of dogs – apparently designed as a revelation – was rather silly and stilted. But I don’t want to overemphasize the film’s challenges. Really, it’s not difficult at all. Mainly you just need an open mind and a belief that relatively simple things can work to thrill in very complex ways.

No comments:

Post a Comment