Sunday, June 4, 2017

Castles and dreams

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2001)

Robert Redford’s new film The Last Castle was apparently going to be called The Castle, but the title was changed to avoid confusion with an innocuous Australian comedy from a couple of years ago. Surely the concern ought to have been about confusion with Kafka’s novel. But it’s revealing that it wasn’t. For this is a film of amazingly limited thematic or metaphorical intent – so limited that the very absence of subtext becomes the movie’s most intriguing, almost gripping, element.

Redford plays an almost legendary army general who disobeyed orders on his last mission in Burundi, and gets sent to a military prison (known as the Castle). It’s run by James Gandolfini, an effective but brutal and unethical disciplinarian. Slowly becoming appalled by Gandolfini’s methods, Redford decides he’s not fit for the job, organizes the rabble of inmates into an effective machine, and launches a coup. The film culminates, of course, in a fight for control of the Castle.

Stars and Stripes

The climax focuses on the Stars and Stripes, and the movie is obviously about various notions of honor, justice, duty and integrity. It’s awfully hard though to nail down exactly how it’s about these things. It’s not very explicit about matters, except in occasional snatches of dialogue that’s too sentimental and hackneyed to be listened to. It has a pervasive lack of humour, lightness, or irony. It takes place entirely in the Castle, which ought to lend itself to an intriguing abstraction. Yet the movie seems uninterested in crafting more than a strictly functional portrayal of that environment. In some of the dialogue, and especially in the tactics used by the prisoners, the film draws a parallel with the Middle Ages – but it’s hard to see why.

The casting adds to the sense of something missing. Redford is an interesting presence here, but seems too reflective to be the awesome battlefield mastermind and hard-ass that everyone keeps talking about. I don’t think that’s a miscasting though – the film seems to be using Redford’s star image in an old-fashioned way, letting him be essentially himself, but using our knowledge of his liberal credentials to deepen the character’s resonances. Much the same goes for Gandolfini, whose performance here is a much more effective confounding of his Tony Soprano persona than his more stunt-like casting as a gay hitman in The Mexican. They’re both fascinating. But what does the casting actually mean? Why do we need the particular resonances that Redford brings to the role, rather than (say) the more traditional bull-headedness that Clint Eastwood would have embodied? It’s impossible to know. Both characters are given only very limited back story – we have to take them pretty much as we find them: again an apparent strategy of abstraction that counts for very little here.

Waking Life

The Last Castle was directed by Rob Lurie, whose last film was The Contender. I thought that was an awful movie, but it was certainly brimming with ambition and at least a bit of life. It’s very hard to know how this makes sense as a follow-up. The new film is entertaining and well-handled, and seems intelligent enough within the parameters of a big-budget Hollywood movie. But it seems to be dallying with a vision that never comes to fruition.

As a contrast, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life is all vision, all fruition (no real story, but how often can you have everything?) The loosely structured film follows a slacker-type young man drifting from one conversation to another – people talking at (rather than to) him about their theories of life, the universe and everything. The film is in love with the sound and contour of unabashed “deep” conversation, although the approach is often somewhat precious, like listening to a parade of college students on an oral exam. As it progresses, the theme of wakingness versus dreaming comes to the fore, and the protagonist comes to perceive this entire string of encounters as an extended dream, one from which he can’t seem to wake up. He wonders whether this is what death is.

If that were the whole film, it would be intriguing, but not a great advance on Linklater’s earlier films (which include the wonderfully entertaining Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise). But Linklater did something unique – after filming the movie on digital video, he had a team of computer-assisted animators overlay every frame. At its simplest it’s a tracing and coloring exercise, but the style varies hugely from scene to scene. It’s sometimes impressionistic (so when a character talks about our bodies being composed mainly of water, we fleetingly see him as pure liquid), sometimes weird and ghostly, sometimes making broad caricatures of people, sometimes almost resembling a child’s doodling. If that sounds like a gimmick, it’s remarkable how the technique preserves – or sometimes even enhances – the subtlety of the actors’ expressions and gestures.

Or whatever

It’s a consistently strange film to look at – at once familiar and unprecedented. And this of course enhances and extends the central theme – the character’s uncertainty over his state of being is echoed in our own uncertainty over what it is we’re watching. The approach suggests a world that’s struggling to make sense of itself, continually in danger of losing its basic identity, stretched and prodded in line with its characters’ ideas. This definitely makes even the film’s most dubious patches of conversation seem more worthy of reflection.

I can’t quite agree though with the sizeable body of opinion that Waking Life is one of the year’s best films. The flow of probing talk and painstaking technique never lets up, meaning that for all its free flowing structure, the film feels a bit didactic and oppressive. Another problem for me is that the subjects being discussed often aren’t actually all that interesting. This is, I admit, a wholly subjective reservation, and may only tip off the reader to my own superficiality. But I would rather watch films dealing with sex, or identity, or politics – things in other words that we might be able to do something about (and maybe even use the ideas we get from movies as a springboard to do it better). Waking Life, for all its excellence, may not forge much of a connection with people who, once the movie’s over, have a life to be getting on with. Regardless that we may just be a dream in God’s brain. Or whatever.

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