Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Desert island

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2001)

Cast Away is one of the more intriguing recent Hollywood films. If nothing else, it exhibits some mild audacity in the face of commercial expectations, primarily by devoting the greater part of its length to largely silent sequences, featuring a single actor, alone on a desert island. The castaway, Chuck Noland, is played by Tom Hanks, the only survivor from the crash of a Federal Express cargo plane. He spends four years alone, before setting out to sea on a raft. The film’s trailer, and just about all reviews of the movie, are pretty open about the fact that he makes it back to civilization – this isn’t a story of what, but of how.

Hanks’ third Oscar?

Hanks’ commitment to the role pays off in a physical transformation that’s quite moving at times. At the start, he effectively suppresses his mannerisms, sketching a driven, comfortably plump businessman who preaches the gospel of timeliness and tears himself away from Christmas dinner to do the company’s bidding. I’ve always thought that Al Pacino’s performance in The Godfather, from fresh-faced outsider at the start to dead-eyed Don at the end, marked one of the most chilling transformations in any film; Hanks almost matches that standard here. After the action leaps four years, Zemeckis provides a long close-up of Hanks eating a fish that he’s speared – his eyes don’t blink; they’re held steady by faded resignation, just staying alive, keeping on breathing, waiting. As I write, I don’t know whether Hanks won a third Oscar for this – but if he did, he deserved it more than the previous two.

I like the film, but I don’t think it’s as adventurous as some commentators have claimed. It’s around two and a half hours long, but it goes by in a flash. In an age when so many mundane offerings (like Hanks’ The Green Mile) plod on beyond the three-hour mark, I started wondering whether the film mightn’t have been even better if it were longer. I started thinking how stillness, repetition and silence paid off for Chantal Akerman in Jeanne Dielman (a 200-minute study of a housewife), for Andy Warhol, for Jacques Rivette in several films.

What Lies Beneath

Of course, when I say paid off, I’m speaking artistically rather than commercially. American films don’t show loneliness, boredom, repetition – that’s as good a reason as any why they generally don’t tell us much about the way we live. They communicate those states of being – if they’re necessary for the plot – through montages, or snatches of dialogue, or close-ups. Cast Away is no different in this regard. It doesn’t particularly make us feel the weight of Hanks’ four-year isolation. It telegraphs that state as American films always do. The scenes on the island are hardly lacking in incident – actually Zemeckis speeds along quite zippily from one pivotal incident (learning how to open a coconut, extracting a diseased tooth) to the next (learning how to make fire, catching a fish). We see Hanks talking about building a raft – the next thing we see, it’s all ready to go.

Bear in mind that the filming of Cast Away closed down for a year to accommodate Hanks’ physical transformation, and in the interim Zemeckis completed an entire separate movie – What Lies Beneath, released last summer. What Lies Beneath was hardly as ambitious a project as Cast Away, but it shares an unusually deliberate pace for a mainstream film, a certain structural adventurousness (most of the first half of What Lies Beneath is devoted to a plot that turns out to be a tease, and irrelevant to the film’s ultimate direction) and it’s unusually restrained and contemplative for a thriller. Consider the long sequence in which Michelle Pfeiffer lies paralyzed in her bathtub as the water level slowly rises – staged without background music, building considerable suspense from the fact of her stillness and inability to act.

For me, the comparison with What Lies Beneath is instructive regarding Cast Away’s limits. I don’t think the film is a radical departure from storytelling norms and techniques; it’s a variation on them, but positioned safely within accessible limits. For example, Zemeckis’ use of space and silence is unusually striking for a mainstream film, but it doesn’t have the transcendental quality of Antonioni, or even of David Lynch in The Straight Story. At times it comes close. It seemed to me that the film contained an intriguing recurring use of circular motifs – an overhead shot of the life raft, the fading light from Hanks’ flashlight as he falls asleep in a dark cave, followed by the sun streaming in through the entrance; girlfriend Helen Hunt’s picture inside an antique pocket watch; his friend Wilson (see below). But when Hanks is on a plane coming home after the rescue, we see a view of hundreds of fields below, the landscape divided into countless geometrically precise parcels – instantly and subtly conveying the disorientation that accompanies Hanks’ return to order. At the very end, Zemeckis simply allows the character to bask in the vastness of the American landscape and its attendant possibilities.

Return to the world

Many critics have found the material on either side of the desert island sequence lacking – too suffused in mainstream values and attitudes to do justice to the modest radicalism of the film’s centre. Personally though, I thought the closing stretch was well-judged in conveying Noland’s sense of the world to which he returns – sterile spaces, strange artificial noises and (in a scene no less acute for being an easy mark) a buffet table piled with barely appreciated food. When he’s reunited with Hunt, and neither has any reference point for how to behave, the scene convincingly charts the odd topography of their conversation. And Zemeckis’ elliptical approach to the storytelling (for example leaving out the rescue itself, or most of the detail about how Hanks reintegrates into the world) is always intriguing.

I also mentioned the film’s famous “co-star” – the volleyball that’s washed up on the island in a FedEx package, on which Hanks draws a face using his own blood and to whom he converses at increasing length as his exile lengthens. Called “Wilson,” the idea never becomes comic, largely because the face looks more ghoulish than cute. Zemeckis gets perilously close to anthropomorphism here though, through such devices as the wind or the waves nudging Wilson into a nod or shake. But like most everything else in the film, it holds together.

Ultimately, Cast Away succeeds substantially. It never seems like a mere stunt. Numerous aspects that might seem strained on paper (the character’s presumably symbolic surname of “Noland”; the irony of an efficiency-obsessed clockwatcher ending up with nothing but time on his hands) are dispatched deftly. I’ve argued above that the film could have been better, but the likes of Rivette and Antonioni would never have come even vaguely to mind if it weren’t as good as it is.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Canadian horror

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2001)

I’ve cut down in the past few years on my movie-related reading, but I still get through enough that it’s hard for me to be truly surprised by a film. Even at the Toronto film festival, I’ve generally already read reviews from Cannes or elsewhere for most of the things I see – although admittedly I’m not as adventurous as I might be in my selections. But the other day, I was reading the latest issue of the British movie magazine Sight and Sound (which by the way, like everything, used to be better in the old days) and I was amazed to see that the film’s lead review, its “main attraction” for the month, went to Ginger Snaps, a recent Canadian film just opening in the UK.

Overlooked movie

I certainly knew about Ginger Snaps, and I knew it had received generally positive reviews, but somehow it had never occurred to me I might actually go and see it. It’s hard to say why. I don’t think it’s much of a title, and the trailer made it look like Carrie 3 under a different name. But perhaps it’s also that since Ginger Snaps hasn’t opened in the US yet, I was missing the background whirr of publicity and discussion that almost subliminally generates a sense of a film in one’s mind. Maybe if the Canadian cultural mainstream had got behind the film as it does with, say, an Atom Egoyan project, it wouldn’t have mattered as much. I’m sure I’ve read more about Egoyan’s next film Ararat in the Canadian press than about Ginger Snaps, and the thing doesn’t even come out until next year.

Sight and Sound described Ginger Snaps as a “sparky, sharp film marked by intelligent dialogue and a complex view of that moment when girls hover on the brink of womanhood but would rather not take the next step.” This endorsement succeeded for me where Eye and Now had failed, and I went to see the film – fortunately still playing at the Carlton – the next day. And the thing that occurred to me quite early on is now seldom I see horror movies nowadays (there’s no point pretending Ginger Snaps isn’t squarely within the horror genre), and if I see them at all, they belong either to the world of low-budget digital video or to that of high-concept special effects.

Ginger Snaps reminded me of the experience of watching something like Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark in 1987 (I’m not sure I have a much more recent example) – it loves the fact that it’s a horror film, but doesn’t allow that to usurp the considerations of theme and character, and it has an authentically gritty, intimate feeling to it. It feels like a real movie. And the fact that it’s Canadian, of course, is all the better. Egoyan and Cronenberg and Lepage are all great – well, half-great at least – but Canadian cinema will never achieve critical mass without a solid base of viable genre movies.

Horror movies

Ginger Snaps is about two outcast teenage sisters, living in an unidentified, bland Canadian suburb – they do the gothic thing, take faked snuff photos of each other, and have a suicide pact that’s supposed to kick in when they’re sixteen. Ginger, the older of the two, is bitten one night by an unidentified beast that’s been slaughtering the local dogs. Her scars heal mysteriously quickly, but then they start to sprout thick hairs. Ginger develops some powerful instincts she’s never had before. She grows a tail. And, on the night all this starts, she gets her first period, causing some ambiguity over what’s a symptom of what. The second sister hooks up with a local drug dealer who’s into mythology and tries to help her figure out a cure, but meanwhile Ginger is mutating out of control, and infecting the neighborhood as she goes.

A few weeks ago, for reasons that are rather obscure, I received a DVD of the Stephen King film Cujo as a gift. I’d never seen it, and it turns out to be entertaining enough, but it seems very much like an adaptation of a novel in that it’s full of unresolved, disconnected plot strands that surely wouldn’t have existed in a screenplay created more autonomously. I haven’t read King’s book, but I’m guessing that the encounter with the rabid Cujo must have served there in part as a metaphor, as a mode of resolution for the various traumas set up earlier. The movie comes over as forty-five minutes of stilted personal travails resembling outtakes from a daytime soap opera, followed by forty-five minutes of a crazy dog. The second half at least is well staged and quite suspenseful, but the overall shape of the film didn’t make much sense to me.

Positive images

I’m just mentioning Cujo because it’s the last example I saw, but this messiness seems to be pretty typical of the genre. Ginger Snaps is unusually integrated and cohesive, whether measured by its preoccupations or its plot. I thought the movie was at its best when at its most energetically allusive – juxtaposing menstrual blood with that of Ginger’s victims; or dramatizing how she swings between fear and revulsion at what’s happening to her, and fully sexualized divadom where she harnesses the beast and struts her stuff. Her sister  - starting off even less well-adjusted than Ginger – subtly matures through the demands of coping the crisis, setting up a neat counterpoint in rites of passage. And their mildly deranged (in the sense that yours probably is too) mother, played by Mimi Rogers, trying hopelessly to embody a positive image for the kids, contributes a witty portrait of the future that’s at stake.

Katharine Isabelle makes a terrific centre for the film as Ginger – she really commands the screen. Ginger Snaps isn’t perfect though. Too much perhaps is made of the anonymity of the Ontario suburbs – things have a rather under-populated, unspecific feeling that at times takes events too far toward abstraction. And it seems to me that the film ultimately turns into too much of a pure monster movie, leaving several interesting strands unresolved, although not to the extent of Cujo. Maybe this is something no horror movie can avoid, however smart it might be.

Which leaves me with the mild guilt of having discovered the year’s most enjoyable Canadian film only by virtue of a British magazine. Well, I’m viewing that as a learning experience. But maybe I should resubscribe to some of that other stuff I canceled.

Monday, July 3, 2017

From the book

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2001)

I recently ended up in hospital for nine days, which will bring anyone’s movie-watching plans (and many other kinds besides) to a crashing halt. Of course (switching right to the silver lining), it’s great for catching up on books. I read Harold Evans’ enormous The American Century, biographies of directors John Cassavetes and Lindsay Anderson, and even got through the 700-page J P Morgan biography I’d purchased and immediately forgotten a year and a half ago. Lots of newspapers and magazines too. And although I had a TV by the bed and all that time on my hands, my only real concession was to watch Seinfeld twice a day, which I considered pretty restrained under the circumstances.

Sickbed movies

Trying to perk me up with movie humour, a friend sent word that he was prescribing Dude, Where’s My Car as a tonic, but I think that might only have prolonged the stay. Actually, when I was admitted (rather out of the blue) to hospital, I’d been in the middle of rewatching Luis Bunuel’s Tristana on video, which constituted a major unfinished piece of business. So on being released, with at least a week’s convalescence at home ahead before going back to work, Tristana came first, and then I watched my Barry Lyndon DVD. But the new movies were calling as well. So on my second day back, I pulled my slightly battered body into a cab and went to the theater.

I might have chosen StartUp.Com or a second viewing of YiYi, and the official destination movie for the week was supposedly Pearl Harbor, but I ended up at James Ivory’s The Golden Bowl, which is Merchant Ivory’s latest adaptation of a Henry James novel. I haven’t read the novel, although the Morgan biography, in meticulously documenting the social calendar of its subject, had the milieu seeming prominent in my mind. But I suppose the choice of this film, under the circumstances, tells you something about my expectations – that it would cater sufficiently to my ambitions for movies, and substantial movies.

It opens with a melodramatically staged scene of medieval intrigue, which turns out to be a flashback of an old incident from his family history told by a rather impoverished Italian prince (Jeremy Northam) to his American lover (Uma Thurman). Events soon settle down. The prince is engaged to marry the daughter (Kate Beckinsale) of America’s first billionaire (Nick Nolte) -an event that seems to leave the devoted father worryingly adrift until he then woos Thurman for himself. Some years later, the two couples are in place, but the natural affinities cut across them – between the father and daughter; and between the former lovers. The indiscretions of the latter pair become increasingly obvious, earlier to social acquaintances than to their spouses, but eventually to all.

A soldier’s daughter

The golden bowl of the title is an artifact that comes to symbolize the flawed structure in which the characters find themselves (it has a crack in it), and going solely from how the film treats the object, it’s an apt symbol that nevertheless elucidates nothing. James Ivory and his producing partner Ismail Merchant have been subject for years to charges of negating the complexities of their subject-matter by middle-brow tastefulness and lack of imagination – whether historical/biographical (Surviving Picasso, Jefferson in Paris) or literary adaptations (A Room with a View, Howard’s End). Ivory’s last film, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, was hardly noticed at all, but I thought it quite a departure, bearing an intuitive free-form quality that made something quite mysterious out of the material. In one scene, Ivory even seemed to be aping the kind of devices usually employed by Spike Lee. The film left considerable uncertainty over its intentions, but it was a satisfyingly adult kind of uncertainty.

A Soldier’s Daughter appears to have been an isolated experiment, for The Golden Bowl reverts solidly to meticulous portraiture and storytelling. Everything about the film is solid and well judged (it essentially seems like a study in a fragile and illusionary harmony undermined by the inevitabilities of money, propriety and human limitation) – nothing about it is remarkable. The events and relationships depicted here are intriguing, but no more so than any competent dramatist might devise. The film’s best moments are isolated, to the extent that they often seem disconnected from the rest. For example, near the end, Thurman leads a tour of Nolte’s art exhibits. The camera travels down a Holbein portrait of Henry VIII as she describes it. Her description is perfectly apt, and apposite to the film’s themes in more subtle a manner than the eponymous bowl. When the frame cut back from the texture of the painting to the scene as a whole , I felt a distinct jolt of disappointment. There are perhaps seven or eight moments that make such an impact. Certain moments with minor characters have a ripeness, or frissons of surprise, that seems lacking in the central story (which Nolte aside, is hampered by uninteresting casting).

Barry Lyndon

I don’t want to regurgitate the article on Stanley Kubrick I wrote a few months ago, but Barry Lyndon may have provided an unfortunate counterpoint in how it fuses form and content into a whole that’s almost too rich and allusive to be assimilated. Kubrick’s film is famous for some of the most painstaking period reconstruction ever attempted, but in virtually every other respect it resists easy viewing – often through devices and choices which assessed in isolation might have been said to make “no sense.” Whether or not the film would be any more satisfying for knowledge of Thackeray’s source novel, it’s certainly more satisfying for a knowledge of Kubrick’s other films. Which I think is a good way for cinema to work.

Just about everything in The Golden Bowl “makes sense” of sorts, but in a hermetic manner that smacks of limited ambition – limited, at least, in any sense that’s not defined with reference to the source novel. I see no plausible course here other than to cite Ivory’s film as an occasion on which one should indeed stick with the book. Some may want to extrapolate this into a broader comment on the whole business of adapting literature into cinema, but as a non-reader of novels, I’ve never thought that restriction necessary. It’s just that after nine days spent staring at the ceiling, and having made a conscious effort to see a film rather than read a book, it would have been nice to be better and more specifically rewarded for it.