Monday, May 15, 2017

Too many games

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2001)

Just as The Last Castle retreats from theatres  (a clear box office failure), Robert Redford returns in Spy Game – clearly a shrewder commercial calculation if only because it only stars Brad Pitt. I wrote a couple of weeks ago of my bemusement at The Last Castle’s lack of much significance. In Spy Game, things are a little clearer – the movie is superficial, and doesn’t care who knows it.

It may not have helped me that just before going to Spy Game, I’d been watching The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, the 1975 German film about the interrogation and media hounding of a young woman who’s been having a relationship with a wanted anarchist. Katharina Blum isn’t perfect by a long shot – it’s very strong on the portrayal of the woman and the ambiguous implications of her interactions with the system, but has substantially less finesse in how it bangs the drum against the gutter press. In a case like this though, the flaws are no less integral to the film’s ability to provoke. It’s a film of unquestioned serious intent, with the overall facility to support that ambition.

Katharina Blum

Katharina Blum is a contemporary of the golden age of Redford’s career, when he made The Candidate and All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor and The Way we Were. One might forget how even that latter film, the memory of which tends to be shaped by its sappy title song, spends considerable time tracking the workings of the McCarthy era. It’s as if there was a brief period when entertainment could hardly avoid being challenging. Now flash forward. Katharina Blum was co-directed by Volker Schlondorff, who in 1979 would win an Oscar for The Tin Drum. In 1998 he made the Woody Harrelson potboiler Palmetto, at which time he seemed ready to renounce his former achievements. Schlondorff said: “I want to be more like my brothers who are doctors – just do the operation.” He said of Palmetto specifically: “It’s unabashed trash, and I’m fully conscious of that and it’s guaranteed to have no deeper meaning.”

Since then, Schlondorff has again made a more serious film, so maybe it was just a phase he was going through. But his case is just one of hundreds that would make the same point – that there’s been a pervasive loss of ambition in cinema. Mulholland Drive, which continues to get better and better the more I think about it, is one of the very few films this year that suggests a multiplicity of interests on the part of its maker.

I know I write about this subject too much – like a voyeur that keeps creeping back to the scene of the car wreck. I just can’t get away from it. If I hadn’t written about Spy Game this week, I probably would have taken on Novacaine, an utterly lackluster film that fancies itself to be a daring amalgam of film noir and black comedy. The film evidences no grasp at all of cinema past, present or future.

Spy Game

Anyway, Spy Game was directed by Tony Scott, whose last movie was Enemy of the People – a tremendously fast-moving and stylish piece of work that tapped very ably into our neuroses about being watched and manipulated and outwitted. Spy Game isn’t as fast moving (except for rather odd moments when the film suddenly seems to start running quicker through the projector) and doesn’t have as strong a structure. Redford is a CIA mission director, one day short of retirement, whose protégé (Pitt) is in a Chinese prison, one day short of execution. Realizing the Agency has written Pitt off, Redford puts together his own rescue plan, while the movie flashes back to the greatest hits of their time together in the field. It’s a rather oddly organized movie, suggesting a lack of both focus and confidence.

The action takes in Vietnam, Berlin, Beirut and China – without displaying an iota of specific interest in any of those locales. The film builds to an incident that has the potential to be immensely destabilizing to US-China relations, but then it ends before we know what comes of it. It’s one thing when a popcorn movie conjures up some cartoon version of a rogue state; Spy Game evidences enormous research and care for visual authenticity, but then has no use for it beyond the usual shootouts and set pieces. It’s actually rather unnerving. Other aspects of the film add to  the sense of a skin that doesn’t fit the beast. For example, the casting (Charlotte Rampling, David Hemmings, Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is superbly imaginative – far too much so given how little these actors actually have to do. The fact that virtually all of Pitt’s part takes place in flashback gives his entire role a feeling of dislocation.

But it’s Redford’s presence that most clearly drives this home. How could he have been content to deal so superficially with this material? For sure, this film is a better vehicle for his charisma than The Last Castle – he radiates ease and assurance. It looks like being on the set was barely any more effort for him than being at home – although with all his varied interests, maybe Redford’s days at home are pretty hectic. Unlike most of his media-shy contemporaries, who’ve gradually crept onto Leno and Letterman, Redford still keeps his distance from the media. It’s a shame, because we could use his help in figuring out what the hell he’s up to here.


I have no idea what the Oscar contenders will be this year, except perhaps that Amelie looks like a good shot for best foreign film. Some people might regard this film as exactly what’s needed to cure a movie grump like me – a surefire crowd pleaser with at least half a brain in its head. The title character is a shy witness who intervenes in various peoples’ lives, but has trouble going after the man she desires. The film is sometimes widely expansive (when Amelie wonders how many couples in Paris are reaching orgasm at that particular moment, we’re taken on a quick ride through fifteen heated couplings) and sometimes intimate and whimsical.

One has to admire the thought behind it all – the film gives the impression of hitting every target for which it aims. Whether they’re the right targets is another question. Lead actress Audrey Tautou is perfectly sweet, but might seem rather one-note in a less adept film. And sometimes it’s just too contrived to care about. Still, although there have easily been better foreign films this year, this is probably the one that American voters will feel takes them on best at their own game. But like Robert Redford, Amelie is a long way from the depths of Katharina Blum.

No comments:

Post a Comment