Saturday, May 29, 2010

Standards of Value

Jim Emerson’s Scanners website recently addressed the question of whether superhero movies can be works of art, concluding “they should be subjected to the same standards of critical judgment you'd apply to any other kind of movie.” He expands: “Short-sighted people used to argue about whether genres as disreputable as horror or science-fiction could contain art -- even though F.W. Murnau made Nosferatu in 1922 and Fritz Lang made Metropolis in 1927. I don't believe in ghettoizing movies by genre, in pretending that a summer science-fiction release has to be judged on a different scale than a fall Oscar-bait biopic or a Romanian experimental theater drama. Any of them is capable of being a great film, worthy of active appreciation, or a dull and forgettable few hours of wasted time. It's not my place to speculate about how deep or superficial the filmmakers' "intentions" were and how well they may have met whatever standards I imagine they may have set for themselves. All I care about is what's on the screen -- and it's either exciting and engaging or it isn't.”

Looking for Greatness

It’s obviously a logical and decent view, and one that minimizes the likelihood of being labeled a stuck-up old fart. But I’ve increasingly come to think such liberalism is self-defeating. As the rest of his article makes clear, Emerson hasn’t been particularly impressed by most superhero movies, and indeed doesn’t seem to see that many of them. Although he holds out hope the genre may produce a great picture, you sense it’s not really an aspiration he feels is worth spending much time on. After all, greatness in his sense of “worthy of close scrutiny and in-depth study” isn’t necessary to Hollywood’s purpose in turning out these pictures. What is necessary is that audiences be bamboozled by the sense of the week’s big new spectacle as a cultural event, that they feel somehow excluded if they don’t see these movies (the mainstream media happily plays along with this, by giving more news coverage to box office scores than to a thousand other more important things), and that the movies are sufficiently bright and glib to meet consensus notions of success. Sure, once in a while someone might find a way of navigating all that in a way that generates greatness, but then some people saw greatness in The Dark Knight, which I found as meaningless as all the rest. They’re just opinions, sure, but at some point don’t you just have to say: life is already too short, you’ll never see everything that might be elevating and enhancing, and if you’re capable of learning anything at all, it should be that this all-consuming mainstream isn’t for you, it’s for them. So can superhero movies be art? The right answer is (a) probably not, but anyway (b) who cares?

On the way to or back from Iron Man 2 (or both) you may no doubt stop off at the fast food joint, just for something else that tastes good and is an inevitable aspect of living conventionally in the world we’re in, regardless that it represents pure evil. Without the resources and/or awareness to make better choices, people make themselves fat and sick on this stuff, constraining their capacity to eat anything more nutritious than the same old crap. The industry itself pays peanuts and generates mass pollution. And our willingness to accept factory farming – mass torture of sentient beings that we know to be capable of pain and distress – grievously undermines us as a race. I personally think until we have a collective conversation about what we’ve done to our food – which we surely ought to care more about than just about anything else – we’ll never get anywhere on addressing our bigger problems. Because it’s all connected. The moronic momentum that keeps us heading to Macdonald’s is intertwined with our debt-ridden consumerism and the ridiculous expectations we apply to our governments and our culture. There's no virtue in any of this, and only the hollowest form of unsustainable contentment.


Is there a current mainstream movie out there, against this wretched backdrop, which deserves our greater indulgence? I’d make the case for the film Oceans, directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud (it has the same French origins as Winged Migration, and is released here under the Disney banner). This wasn’t covered at all by Emerson or by any “serious” critics as far as I’m aware, and you can see why – it seems to cater to something different than one’s primary interest in cinema. Filmed over four years in all five oceans, it’s a compendium of stunning footage from beaches and glaciers and from all depths of the water, ranging from the serene bulk of the blue whales to the scrappy interactions of the bottom-dwelling crabs and shrimp.

It’s easy to patronize this kind of thing – to say, well of course it’s amazing, but it’s still just for kids (Pierce Brosnan’s rather over-earnest narration for the English version doesn’t particularly help). That’s because, of course, fish and otters are inherently less culturally provocative than men in flying metal suits. But I can’t imagine anyone (or only the most far-gone of the culturally indoctrinated) not coming away from this with some kind of heightened awareness and sense of generosity. Time and time again, the movie depicts things no one would invent – I guess they’re the messy outcomes of evolution - but which (absent our egregious intervention) maintain a mystical balance. For example, we observe newly-hatched turtles emerging from under the sand and heading for the water, picked off as they go by the birds swirling overhead – the narration says only one in a thousand will make it, but that’s enough to maintain the species. This is the most vicious irony for mankind I think: the more we ratchet up the noble rhetoric about every life being precious, about saving every one of us turtles, we forget what it was all for in the first place.

Something Better

There’s a great deal of emotion in the film – it goes easy on ascribing human emotions to the creatures, but at various points their pleasure and fear and anxiety are self-evident. It’s also generally restrained about the environmental crisis that threatens to render large chunks of the ocean effectively dead within our lifetimes. It’s truly a positive film: it basically presents something beautiful and worthy and collectively enhancing, and then implicitly asks why we don’t value it more, but leaving it to us to connect all the dots. Obviously, my enthusiasm for the film comes from a somewhat different place than my enthusiasm for Howard Hawks or Eric Rohmer, but then if cinema doesn’t in some sense make better people of us, then what’s the point of any of it? And, you know, by that measure, cinema must be failing – most of us, frankly, are becoming worse. Through its simple appeal to our humility and whatever degraded sense we may maintain of our place in the ecosystem, Oceans is the one current film that evokes the possibility (albeit faint) of redemption.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Everything In Balance

The title of Nicole Holofcener’s new film, Please Give, perfectly sums up its preoccupations. A functional society depends (perhaps more than it should) on the charity of its better-off participants. Productive relationships and interactions demand we give of ourselves emotionally and intellectually. But more coldly and mundanely, just about everything depends on our continued willingness to spend, to carry out our moral duty as consumers – if this stops, everything stops. And if we simply ignore our own needs, and fail to feed our dreams and desires (however ill-founded they are), we’ll never carry out that consumerist duty as fully as we should. Self-indulgence and altruism, in other words, are hopelessly intermingled. If you find a workable place on the spectrum, so you’re warm at night and don’t cry yourself to sleep, then that might be the best you can hope for.

Please Give

Holofcener explores all this, and more, through an unusual and highly productive structure. A middle-aged couple (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) make a good living by scooping up furniture bargains from families of the recently deceased; they’ve also bought the apartment next door, but can’t proceed with their expansion plans while the cranky 91-year-old tenant keeps trucking along. Keener’s character becomes increasingly guilt-laden at this life, trying in part to compensate by small acts of charity (and not particularly focused ones) and then by stepping up to more committed volunteerism, at which she’s ineffective because of her excessive empathy with the problems of those she might help.

The old woman relies heavily on her two granddaughters – one of them sympathetic and tentative (Rebecca Hall), the other colder and seemingly more in control, but (of course) screwed up underneath (Amanda Peet). The set-up allows for almost boundless productive interaction, and it’s amazing how much Holofcener packs into a mere hour and a half. It’s not much of a spoiler to say the climactic scene turns on feeling happy about buying an expensive pair of jeans, which could easily be seen as a mere moral surrender, but in this context actually feels like a step forward. If we’re going to fall short of our higher ideals, as we probably are, at least we can tend to our family and localized happiness while we’re going about it.

This may not be the most challenging line of investigation ever launched, but compared to the pure drivel of most commentary on modern-day lifestyles, the film is the proverbial breath of fresh air. It lacks a certain spontaneity, carrying a calculated air about it, but it’s intelligently and organically funny throughout. It’s also very plainly a film about how all of this affects women, not men (Platt gives a good performance, but playing an essentially weak and opportunistic character), and Holofcener mischievously broadens the net by opening her film with a montage of breasts undergoing mammograms, and subsequently devoting considerable time to acne anxiety, dating woes and the like. Peter Howell in the Star, consequently, calls the film “thoroughly nasty,” adding it “could almost be a horror movie, given its emphasis on death and decay” – he records spending much of the time wondering who in the movie “wasn’t either thoroughly appalling or pathetic.” Which of those adjectives, I wonder, best applies to a grown man who’d counsel fellow adults to spend their money instead on Iron Man 2?

Nicole Holofcener

Please Give is Holofcener’s fourth film – they arrive at four or five year intervals. I can’t actually remember a thing about her first, Walking And Talking, except that I really liked it (there’s a review for you!) Lovely And Amazing, however, was a remarkably comprehensive chronicle of feminine issues and hang-ups, with an already legendary scene in which Emily Mortimer’s character stands naked to be critiqued by the Dermot Mulroney character. There’s a cringe-inducing melding there of actress and role – something even more pronounced in another key character: an overweight young black girl whose behavioural problems feel uncomfortably embedded. Lovely And Amazing often seems to be catering to psychotherapists more than to movie critics, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting edge-of-mainstream films about women.

Friends With Money was another structure of multiple female viewpoints, most prominently involving Jennifer Aniston, playing a woman who quit her teaching job to work as a maid. This opened up an important new investigative avenue for Holofcener – how poverty defines and limits the place of women. But overall, she seemed content to observe and very lightly parody, rather than to engage in any kind of diagnosis: the movie was a series of softballs, contriving a happy ending for Aniston that will be denied to 99.999% of the maid population.

Please Give is a much greater success I think. But I also think there’s a ceiling to how successful it could ever ultimately be. I may have over-praised Sunshine Cleaning last year, simply for being an honest portrayal of getting by in hard times of limited opportunity. It stood out because American movies seldom show domestic poverty, except as a breeding ground for drugs and murder, or as a springboard to some kind of turnaround narrative. Relative affluence, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be analyzed or explained: it’s the assumed default state, against which you can explore deeper preoccupations. It’s a bit of a tired paradigm – even if you’ve never set foot in an enormous New York apartment, you sometimes feel via the movies as if you’ve lived half your life in one. I’m not saying Holofcener should try to be someone she’s not – that would never work – but, even allowing for what’s fresh and distinctive in her work, her creative personality is in many ways overly conventional.

Drag Me To Hell

I also watched Sam Raimi’s horror thriller Drag Me To Hell, which came out last year. Here you have a young bank loan officer, focused on looking tough for her boss, who turns down a weird old woman’s pleas for more time on her mortgage. As moral transgressions go, this is even milder than what Keener’s character agonizes about in Please Give – it’s just a matter of contract, and the old crone already had two extensions – but the lesson is that even third-rate sins sometimes attract first-rate retribution. In no time at all, the poor girl is being terrorized by what Howell would call “thoroughly nasty” afflictions. It’s an enjoyable creation for sure, played at such lightning speed that the mythological claptrap doesn’t have an opportunity to get too portentous. It’s bad news for elderly ladies though. Even more decisively than Please Give, the movie can only be interpreted one way: have someone else deal with them, and if that doesn’t work, get the hell away from there.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Easing The Pain

When our dog Paso had cancer last year, the doctor said to us at one point that they never actually allow a dog to die from the disease – it’s just too painful an ending. It made sense to us. But talking afterwards, it turned out we’d both had the same thought: if we allow dogs that kindness, why not humans? At the very least, we don’t suffer pain any less than dogs do. We have free will. We have more rights than animals. So why are we denied that final element of dignity and control?

The End

I’m a believer in voluntary euthanasia. I might agree it somewhat undermines our higher ideals for human existence, by rendering life a commodity, susceptible to cold cost-benefit calculation. But that objection would carry more weight if we didn’t undermine those ideals much more grievously through our daily indifference to involuntary death and deprivation elsewhere. Once in a while you get one of these assisted suicide stories, and people trot out their think pieces, and we get to exercise our moral or utilitarian rhetoric, then the carnival moves on to the latest celebrity adultery, and life just keeps on getting worse for all but a lucky few.

Personally, I think voluntary euthanasia will pass the tipping point of mass acceptance in my lifetime. I think there’ll be too many people who don’t want to live a life heading any further downhill, and who have the will and resources to do something about it, and I think society will have too many and more urgent health-funding problems to fight against it. Sometimes, to be honest with you, I take comfort from thinking I’ll always have that choice, even if most of the other choices end up being extinguished.

Still, that view never quite translated into unambiguous support for Jack Kevorkian, the so-called Dr. Death, who was all over the media for a few years for assisting in a large number of suicides and consistently thwarting any attempts to shut him down. Inevitably, someone who becomes a quasi-celebrity in such a field can’t escape some queasiness about his motives. Kevorkian miscalculated in 1998 when, desiring to take the debate to the next level, he gave 60 Minutes a tape of himself directly administering (rather than facilitating) a lethal injection to a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He ended up convicted of second-degree murder, and served eight years.

Since then he’s refrained from any direct interaction with patients, although he still speaks publicly from time to time. Most recently, he was photographed with Al Pacino at the premiere of You Don’t Know Jack, the new HBO film about his life. It’s directed by Barry Levinson, who won an Oscar for Rain Man, and it’s generally absorbing, even though it doesn’t add much to what one already knew, or could glean from the Internet.

Al Pacino

Pacino is my favourite actor. It’s easy to focus on his excesses, and to reduce him to parody, but the body of work is stunning. When I think of him, my mind overflows with moments of astonishing impact – many of them based in his immense facility with dramatic dialogue, others simply silent. His transformation across the span of the Godfather films remains a milestone, but he constantly elevates much plainer films through his unique alchemy of precision and grand intuition. For sure, he has an affinity for a certain kind of singsong monologue, and I’ve often wondered whether he doesn’t write a lot of his own material – it seems so much richer than anything else in the movies around him. Time and again, he suggests brilliant abstraction tempered with meticulous personal detail. And he’s retained much more of his creative energy than many of his peers, frequently returning to the stage or working on various little-seen personal projects (The Local Stigmatic, available on DVD, is one of the stranger passion projects of any major star).

You Don’t Know Jack has one of Pacino’s most low-key performances, and it’s very effective, tempering Kevorkian’s undeniable conviction and persistence with a sense of his wayward whimsicality (he has any number of personal eccentricities, and turned up at one trial in 18th century costume). Kevorkian, during many of the events depicted in the film, was about the same age as Pacino is now, but given the doctor’s unprepossessing personal style, it’s a major exercise in deglamorization.

Kevorkian is also a painter, and the movie allows some extended looks at his work, all of it grotesque and suggesting some strange preoccupations. But it leaves little room to doubt the essential integrity of his devotion to his cause. We see him counsel patients away from suicide, on grounds that they’re clinically depressed or not sufficiently beyond all hope (he says he rejects 97 or 98% of those who come to him); all the patients who make the cut are plainly in unbearable pain with no hope of recovery, and are exercising their free will with the support of their families. Time and time again he speaks plainly but forcefully about the indignity of suffering and the barbarity of being denied this fundamental choice. The arguments of his antagonists, on the other hand, are an unformed mixture of religious dogma and knee-jerk revulsion. Kevorkian’s angriest moment in the film comes when a prosecuting attorney compares his actions to the Holocaust, simply equating all forms of accelerated death without regard to the underlying motives.

Lake Of Fire

As I said, it’s all interesting, but Levinson doesn’t seem to aspire to do much more than tell the story clearly. I thought at one point of Tony Kaye’s documentary about abortion in America, Lake Of Fire, which also seemed (if you had to guess) generally sympathetic toward abortion rights, but allocated plenty of time to illuminating the other side (and without any Michael Moore-type belittlement mechanisms). Kaye’s film tapped into why committed opponents of abortion can’t possibly see the issue in terms of choice: if abortion represents selective murder of society’s weakest citizens, then how could this ever be justified by notions of temporary domain over one’s own body (looked at that way, as someone points out, exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest are morally illogical). The problem though, as Noam Chomsky says in the film, is that many of those who obsess about abortion spend little time on children who die from poverty or homelessness: why should one form of preventable, officially tolerated death arouse so much more passion than the other, if not that the moral calculation is being enflamed by religious and visceral preoccupations?

Which precisely echoes my earlier point on You Don’t Know Jack. But if you view celebrity as the currency of Hollywood, it’s surely meaningful that Kevorkian’s friends and colleagues are played by Susan Sarandon and John Goodman, whereas the other side is made up of stuffy non-entities. Anyway, the movie may be a limited achievement, but at least it gets you thinking about something more important than whether some guy in a computer-generated super-body can save the world. Assuming, that is, the pain of those you love didn’t already have you thinking about it every day.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bresson In Germany

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2005)

One of my favourite recent film-related moments came in watching the DVD of Robert Bresson’s L’Argent; specifically from an interview with Bresson included as an extra. At the very end, the interviewer asks Bresson about a rumour that he’d recently enjoyed a James Bond film, and the aging, massively distinguished director almost leaps to confirm this, saying that he took his two nieces to see For Your Eyes Only because they asked him to. “It filled me with wonder,” he says, “because of its cinematographic writing...if I could have seen it twice in a row and again the next day, I would have done.”

Bresson And Bond

Since L’Argent and For Your Eyes Only stand far apart at the opposing poles of filmmaking, this would seem bizarre, if not for Bresson’s earlier admission that he seldom goes to the cinema and his obvious childlike delight in the modern spectacle. He comments (this was in 1982) that he thinks the cinema has reached its limit in terms of technology but still has much to reveal artistically. The first part of that turned out to be significantly wrong of course – Bresson couldn’t have imagined the impact of digital technology, and I expect For Your Eyes Only looks primitive now by comparison. But for a director brought up in the silent era, who perhaps took himself less seriously than the legend suggests, it’s beguiling to think that even a humdrum action film might be divorced from its formulaic plotting (the sense of which of course is primarily rooted in our having seen too many of them) and superficial characterization and dubious moral underpinnings, and regarded solely as a show of light and movement and possibility.

I was especially receptive to this train of thinking because I watched L’Argent on my laptop in a hotel in Cottbus, Germany. Although I would claim not to be so film-obsessed that I need doses to get me through vacation, the laptop is a nice facility to have on long plane rides (where I replaced the drab airline fare with Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen) and in the occasional hotel interlude. Whenever we go to a new foreign city, we usually go to the cinema there once, just to sample the different nuances of the experience (which, like everything else, seem to become more conformed across countries with time), and in this way we’ve assembled a pleasantly bizarre collection of memories such as Arlington Road in Zurich, Liam in Madrid, Gaudi Afternoon in Oslo and Ripley’s Game in Amsterdam. But this streak ended in Berlin, because we couldn’t find anything worthwhile to see. The cinemas were full of Batman Begins and Star Wars and Monster In Law, and ads for War Of The Worlds. Just the same as home. Virtually no German films, except for something that seemed to be a crowd-pleasing comedy. There were only a few distinctive movies showing in the city, and it didn’t seem those would be playing in English, so that was that.

Cottbus Cinema

When we moved out of Berlin we traveled through a few smaller towns such as Cottbus, and it surprised us that each of these had its own movie theater. These were all showing, of course, Batman Begins and Star Wars and Monster In Law. But when you’re in a sleepy town square, at least superficially seeming to retain an idea of pace and balance that hasn’t completely succumbed to American consumerism, and you come across a poster for The Interpreter outside an old building that looks more like a town hall than a multiplex, you can dream that the locals might be better equipped than we are to take the movie on their own terms rather than Hollywood’s.

Best of all, we were walking down one of Cottbus’ dingier streets and we suddenly came across a faded poster for Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46. This turned out to be outside an art cinema – Kinsey had recently been on the schedule, among many European films. The establishment frankly looked slated for demolition, but I instantly loved the idea of some idealistic artisan, plugging away at bringing the citizens of Cottbus something more stimulating. I hope it works for him.

Still, in a certain strange way, I would rather be fighting the cause of cinema in Cottbus than in Berlin itself. Berlin is a city of such immense themes and resonances that you imagine a life there might be lived almost entirely as a vigil, and we were often taken by the city’s absence of a governing personality, by the sense of people stranded in too much space, trying quietly to go about their business. It’s a feast of development, with astonishing new buildings often surrounded on several sides by derelict or unused space – it’s too much to imagine what metropolis might result if and when these gaps are all filled in. Intertwined with all this, of course, is a history of staggering consequence. We visited the new Holocaust memorial, the Checkpoint Charlie museum and the Jewish museum, each one opening our minds to further complexity or emotional awareness. I’m sure it’s possible (and indeed standard) to live in the city while seldom thinking of the past, but it seemed to us that the prominence of these references would assign one’s life a greater weight, less dispensability.

Film In Berlin

Which of course could be too much to bear, and might render a Batman Begins necessary in the classic mode of escapism that Hollywood always talks about. But flattering myself to be on a more intellectual plane than usual, I found L’Argent to be the perfect film, and not merely for its extras. The film is about the chain of events that follows when a boy passes a counterfeit note, focusing on a workingman who is wrongly accused of passing the note and who gradually loses his life as a result. Everyone now seems to agree the film is a masterpiece, but why? On the DVD cover, Time’s Richard Corliss says: “Walking into a Robert Bresson film can be waking up on top of Mount Everest…the view is spectacularly disconcerting.” But this implies (if anything) some kind of lofty removal that seems at odds with the film’s clear interest (unusual for a 80-year old director) in youth and the fabric of contemporary life, as well as with what we know of his working methods.

Inside the box, Olivier Assayas sees the film as a depiction of “a cold material world, a desolate land where humanity wanders in bondage to diabolical evil.” It seems to me though that the world of the film is not completely desolate – it’s an intensely transactional environment that condemns many to blankness and others to self-destruction, but also allows possibilities for negotiation. Admittedly these possibilities appear grim and perhaps psychotic, but Bresson seems to me to speak in part to the prospects for small miracles and incremental transcendence. Which, if the viewer is suitably equipped (in this instance a matter primarily of discarding our usual attitudes) might even be found in a James Bond film.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Last Game

I spent ten minutes or so of my life watching His Last Game, made in 1909, without a credited director. It’s the story of a native American, a star baseball player, wrongly sentenced to death for murder (“Western justice” says the caption), but allowed a reprieve to win one more for the team; afterwards, he faithfully delivers himself back to the firing squad, which finishes him off just moments before a pardon arrives from the judge. You couldn’t find a simpler piece of cinema. Scenes are framed simply, and play out in a single take, without editing or camera movement. The extremely condensed narrative gives it a melancholy matter-of-fact quality; at the end, when the reprieve arrives, they sadly acknowledge their error for a few seconds, and then walk away. It’s an exciting viewing experience because of the percolating ambition; at this point, the technical execution remains primitive (presumably audiences were sufficiently astonished though) but it’s already telling real stories. In less than a decade, the medium would already be generating epics, and everything else flowed from there.


A few days later I watched Watchmen, which I didn’t see when it came out. Although not what I usually call “my kind of movie,” it’s rather fascinating. Set in an alternative future wherein Richard Nixon remains President into the 1980’s, it examines a group of costumed crime-fighters, forcibly retired now, but perhaps more necessary than ever, especially as the world pushes itself to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. Running around three hours, it’s an extraordinarily ambitious creation, cramming in multiple plot lines, flashbacks, shifts of tone and visual changes of tone. It’s often wantonly eccentric, following single characters for long periods of time, often in what might seem like disposable situations; it frequently succumbs to a dreamy romanticism or to open melancholy. It’s obsessed with its own genealogy, introducing survivors from a previous generation of crime-fighters, fussing over the details of how things got to where they are, often threatening virtually to disappear inside itself.

It might sound from that as if Arnaud Desplechin decided to make a genre movie. But the film also has a very high cheesiness quotient, lamely parodying such easy targets as the McLaughlin Group, and tiresomely conventional in its cartoon violence. Numerous actors look ridiculous in their costumes, even if that’s largely deliberate, to reflect the poignancy of the Watchmen’s diminished status. The rather obvious sense of reaching for pop culture melting pot greatness (playing Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’ under the opening titles for instance) is intermittently off-putting. I don’t know at all what to make of some of it. Billy Crudup plays the so-called Dr. Manhattan, a former nuclear scientist rendered by a freak accident into a being of almost God-like powers- he’s also bright blue. The character is rendered in endlessly pious and stuffy terms, and seems to belong way outside the internal rules governing the rest of the film. On the other hand, it certainly increases the headiness of the mix.

Watchmen shimmers with care and craft and enthusiasm. It wasn’t a great success though. It was based on a pre-existing comic book, and I’m sure for those who were familiar with and cared about that, it was an entirely different kind of viewing experience. Beyond that though, lots of people didn’t get it. It’s certainly a more intricate piece of story telling than Avatar – which has its own cheesiness problems galore – but it doesn’t offer such straightforward, enveloping pleasures. On the other hand, withholding those pleasures doesn’t lead to any intellectual or other pay-off; for me at least, Watchmen doesn’t seem to be about anything much, beyond its self-absorbed self. It’s as if the director Zach Snyder implicitly said, give me your three hours and your ticket price, and I’ll just give you back whatever I feel like.

Never Been To Vegas

Recently I was saying to someone I’ve never been to Las Vegas and never intend to, and he said even if I might not expect to like the glitz and the excess, it’s something everyone should see at least once. I asked why I should prioritize seeing Vegas – the pinnacle of a cultural strand I’m obviously familiar enough with (neon and glitz and excess, OK, I got it) - over somewhere that would actually be new and informative, like going to India for example. He didn’t really have an answer. But we’re not living in an age where knowledge and experimentation are particularly prized. If we’re talking about travel, at least you have to acknowledge financial constraints: Vegas is a more practical destination than India. But then, so are any number of natural and historic wonders that attract only a pittance of tourists by comparison.

I know a lot of intelligent people who profess an interest in seeing good movies, and they ask me for recommendations, but virtually never end up acting on them. Everyone’s time is carved up a hundred different ways: if they end up with two hours to watch a movie, they’re going to play it safe. I don’t mean the movie has to be good: actually, maybe it’s easier if it isn’t – it might be easier to invest the time on something of accessible and familiar badness. There’s something deeply corrosive about how even mainstream news shows assume we’re meant to know and care about the travails of disposable pop culture figures like the Gosselins. It’s deeply linked in my mind to the media’s excessive focus on disposable scandals, remote but easily understood risks, and political point scoring. We’re like laboratory mice, pushed this way and that by cunning stimuli, merely experiencing the illusion of progress and growth. Meanwhile, every meaningful indicator on the planet just gets worse.

The Last Game

Escapism is understandable, but subject to subtle rules. The failure of Watchmen speaks to the reluctance merely to be seen escaping – because that’s what geeks do. The movie is too much about itself and not enough about us. Avatar is ingratiating – it’s bright and bouncy and has lots of easy points of reference. Reality TV, to a lot of people it seems, is worthwhile by definition – it’s real, like terrorists and swine flu, so it validates you…however, happily, it’s not too real, in the way that makes your head hurt. Sports are real of course. Things that give the illusion of actual activity and accomplishment, like rock band games, are real. If you ever momentarily doubt any of this, the prevailing discourse rapidly puts you back in place.

I like to go back sometimes to the dawn of popular culture as we know it, and to watch something like His Last Game. It’s refreshing. It’s like, I’m told, when you hold your newborn baby, and you’re overwhelmed by the miracle of life and the specialness of the moment. If one could hold that thrill and live your life in its aura, things might turn out so much purer. But then you leave the hospital, and the logistics kick in, and your story again becomes like everyone else’s.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Political Statements

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2004)

I must admit that despite my clear sympathies with the film’s politics, I have only a half-hearted desire to write about Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. My general mixed feelings about it are shared, it seems, by the great majority of critics; like The Passion Of The Christ a few months ago, this is one example where it might be more interesting to review the press coverage than the film itself. But if you’re going to do a movie column, this is clearly a film you have to write about, so here it is.

Fahrenheit 9/11

I saw the film at 3:50 on the opening Saturday afternoon in one of the Paramount’s bigger theatres, and it was virtually sold out. The audience, apparently consisting mainly of people in their twenties or early thirties, had a film festival feel about it. Moore deserves huge credit for having raised the status of political documentary to such a commercial level; even if he’s lucky in his timing, you can’t fault him for taking his chances. Some see this a different way; Mark Kermode in The Guardian wrote: “in the area of shameless self-publicity, Moore remains unsurpassed, finding a way to turn every situation to his egotistical advantage.”

Bottom line: I don’t think the film has any insights as intriguing as Bowling For Columbine’s dissection of America’s self-fuelling culture of fear. It takes on an even larger subject, but even though Moore is more disciplined in limiting his trademark stunts (he’s seen on screen only a few times in the film), he barely seems in control of the material as a whole. His anger is so all-consuming that he can hardly let any target go, regardless of the consequences for overall coherence.

The film’s opening third, concentrating on Bush’s idiocy and his web of connections (in particular those between the Bush family and the Saudis) is a peppy feast of montage, operating on a “no smoke without fire” kind of basis (as Gwen Ifill pointed out on Meet The Press, Moore builds his case on much the same basis as the Bush administration pieced together the case for Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and links with Al-Qaeda). The closing third concentrates on the blue collar soldiers who carry out the orders, and in particular on a grieving mother from Michigan, whose dead son deplored the war’s uselessness in his last letter home. The contrast between the two doesn’t break new ground but it effectively reinforces old notions of complacent, ignorant generals who barely spare a thought for the men they treat as cannon fodder.

In between he recounts how the Bushites seized on 9/11 to push through regressive, ill-considered anti-civil rights legislation. Moore seems to imply that this was a piece of rank opportunism, representing the realization of a long-held right-wing dream, but he doesn’t pursue the point – another potentially fascinating line of investigation that gets away from him.

Rallying Cry

Moore isn’t a simple pacifist – for example he seems to attack Bush for waiting as long as he did to go after bin Laden in Afghanistan. Although that position obviously doesn’t necessarily contradict his opposition to the aggressive stance on Iraq, it seems here more than a bit opportunistic and hindsight-driven. One could make similar comments about much else in the film. How much one cares about these things will probably depend on one’s preconceptions. But I doubt that a great documentary (such as the work of Frederick Wiseman or Marcel Ophuls) ought to lean so heavily on the indulgence of its audience.

A few writers have hypothesized that just as The Passion Of Christ was red meat for the right wing fundamental base, Fahrenheit 9/11 will be a rallying cry for the left. The movie is a staggering success, so in a close race Moore may well achieve his ambition of helping to kick Bush out of office. That’s fine with me, but there’s not much to be said for a society where a glib film might have such an impact. Even a cursory awareness of the media over the term of the Bush presidency renders the film’s information content minimal.

As for the film’s top award at Cannes, every juror stated specifically that they cast their vote because of the film’s artistic merit, not from political sympathy. Well, I flat out don’t believe them.


In another kind of political statement, Mario van Peebles’ new film depicts the making of the 1971 black cinema classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Assss Song. The film, featuring the provocative adventures of an emblematic black protagonist sticking it to the Man, was written and directed by Mario’s father Melvin, who also starred in it after he couldn’t find anyone better, and it was a huge success. I haven’t seen the film for a while, but it’s probably more interesting now as a political statement than as a viewing experience. Many commentators on the Internet Movie Database (which, by the way, I find an increasingly useful source for taking the current cultural temperature on movies) dismiss it as poorly made soft porn. But as Baadasssss makes clear, Melvin van Peebles astutely realized that true black cinema had to reject all conventions of the well-made Hollywood film, including aesthetic standards as well as norms of standards and taste.

There’s nothing as radical about the new film, but it’s a very effective telling of the tale, starting out generally as broad comedy as Melvin scrounges around for money and assembles a wackily diverse crew, and gradually becoming more morose as his problems become profound and the whole thing nearly collapses on him. In a much-debated scene, Melvin used 12-year-old Mario for the scene where young Sweetback loses his virginity. Now grown up, Mario recreates the arguments surrounding that scene in much detail, but ultimately presents it as the springboard for a better relationship between the father and son. In this and other ways, Baadasssss could almost be intended as a love letter to the old man.

Sweetback broke the barrier – it’s said that Shaft, originally meant for a white actor, was only rewritten for a black man after Melvin Van Peebles’ success, and then everything else went on from there. But he wasn’t able to build much of a film career from it, and he now seems like a marginal, catalytic figure. Mario’s recent filmography (like that of Wesley Snipes, Eddie Murphy and most other black leading men you can think of) also consists of acres of crap, in which the new film stands as a lonely island of quality. I find this rather poignant, as though the original exclusion or belittlement of black culture, rather than being transformed, had now been replaced by another form of stereotyping and nullification, and the only way out was to grab again at past glories, in the hope that they might have more staying power the second time around.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Top Of The Heap

It’s time for my annual moan about the Oscar for best foreign film, an award almost mystically unaligned with the substantive achievements of world cinema. None of the films on the Cinematheque Ontario’s recent “best of the decade” list won the Oscar (unless I’m missing something, none of them was even nominated), although one of them, Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her, did win for its screenplay. Almodovar is perhaps the only foreign-language director who occupies an old time Fellini/Truffaut mode, respected by critics while consistently reaching a fairly broad audience. Beyond that, a comically wide gulf exists between the directors who matter, creating bodies of original, challenging work (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jia Zhang-ke, Arnaud Desplechin) and the random non-entities who’ve waltzed away with the award.

Lousy Award

In recent years, procedural changes have generated a somewhat more respectable list of nominees. Last year, they included the Cannes winner The Class and the Israeli Waltz With Bashir. But the winner was the Japanese film Departures, which everyone had effectively assumed was only on the list to make up the numbers. Departures had a refreshing clarity and focus, and I won’t deny I was in tears for a good half hour of it, but it shamelessly embraced clich├ęs and soft choices. This year, people really thought things were going to change. Michael Haneke was nominated for The White Ribbon, another Cannes winner, which took the Golden Globe’s foreign film award (much as people mock the Globes, and not unjustly, they have a much better track record in this particular respect) and Jacques Audiard was up for Un prophete, the unofficial Cannes silver medalist. Virtually every fortuneteller went for one or the other, except the few who’d seen Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret In Their Eyes, and knew Hollywood voters would see in it a kindred spirit. And so it went.

It’s surely revealing that a good chunk of those random non-entities I mentioned have subsequently ended up working in a more mainstream vein, with little distinction: Gavin Hood, who won for Tsotsi, directed X-Men Origins: Wolverine (I hope he has the Oscar turned so its eyes face the wall). No such migration is necessary for this year’s winner, because Campanella is already a king of prime-time TV, directing episodes of House, Law and Order: SVU, and the like. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I guess no one would expect such an accomplished craftsman to go home to Argentina and turn into Jacques Rivette. And indeed he didn’t. Dana Stevens in Slate basically summed up the movie as a really long episode of Law and Order. But also a highly accomplished one: “It's a cracking good murder mystery that, by the time the final twist kicks in, transforms into an moving meditation on memory and justice.” The movie received generally good reviews elsewhere too, in contrast to poor Departures, which was kicked from one end of the critical locker room to the other.

The Secret In Their Eyes

It says a lot that a cracking good episode of Law and Order would have no chance nowadays of competing for the Emmy, but apparently is considered just fine as a standard-bearer for world cinema. Sure, The Secret In Their Eyes is good viewing, but it’s also completely undistinguished and mostly undemanding. Set more or less in the present day but flashing back to twenty-five years earlier, it follows a federal agent (the Argentinean system being different from ours, he occupies a peculiar zone between district attorney and desk clerk) who puzzles for years over a particularly brutal murder, while all the time mooning over his direct superior, an attractive judge rendered unattainable by class and structure and his own reticence.

The details of the investigation are mostly contrived – for example, he makes a key leap by looking at old group photographs of the victim and noticing how frequently they contain another man who’s always looking at her. It’s a nice device, but if you or I were being lusted over by a potentially murderous admirer, how often would we find ourselves helpfully encapsulating the dynamic for a waiting camera? At another point they make a big leap when they realize (after long bafflement) that various mysterious names referred to in the suspect’s letters to his mother are all past players for the local soccer team, and therefore deduce he’s a diehard fan – as if such a compulsive fan wouldn’t ever refer to his passion more directly.

Of course, nowadays an investigator would simply type all the names into Google and discover the connection within seconds: the film’s evocation of a simpler age is certainly one of its charms. It also has some disturbing glimpses into institutional corruption, although they’re not central to the film’s purpose. But I’d like to know what Slate’s Stevens thinks the “meditation on memory and justice” actually amounts to. I’d sum it up as: wow, some people remember things for a really long time, and wow, justice takes strange turns sometimes.” None of which gives one much to meditate over.

What Might Have Been

Virtually all reviews of the film refer to its central set piece, a chase sequence where the camera travels from an aerial view of the soccer stadium right up to the protagonists, seemingly in a single shot. Whatever…it’s nicely done, but to no particular thematic or dramatic end – the scene itself is unconvincing and seems out of place with everything around it. At the end of the movie, we get a Hollywood-worthy degree of closure, and off we go. Stevens says it’s “substantial enough to go out to dinner after and discuss all the way through dessert.” Well, that’s not entirely wrong – we did go out to dinner after and talked about it a lot. But mostly just in the way I’m telling you about it now.

In contrast, Un prophete, although also full of conventional pleasures, constantly knocks you around with its startling choices and overflows with all kinds of implications for the new Europe. The White Ribbon brilliantly evokes the tangle of perspectives, from certainty (even if hypocritical and manufactured) to despairing, that underlie war, or indeed any national purpose. I think what annoys me about the Oscars is the whole idea of claiming to recognize the diversity and scope of foreign-language cinema and then screwing it up so badly: if they just dropped the award and acknowledged the whole thing’s just a big Hollywood party, it’d at least be honest. But ironically, the list of recent best director winners (the Coens, Scorsese, Bigelow, Polanski, Eastwood) is actually pretty respectable, even from an arthouse perspective. So it looks like the Academy really reserves the major shaft for the foreigners. No need to look too closely into those self-absorbed eyes to figure out that secret.