Saturday, June 26, 2010

Peter Greenaway

Ever since I became interested in serious cinema in the early 80’s, Peter Greenaway has been a major presence in my view of things. I’ve seldom mentioned him here because he’s – as we intellectuals like to say – sui generis: I can’t think of any other filmmaker for whom Greenaway provides a useful reference point. And as for reviewing Greenaway's own films – well, that’s barely been possible. His last, Nightwatching, did play here briefly last year, but didn’t garner much attention. Before that, he devoted several years to The Tulse Luper Suitcases, a multimedia project comprising three films, books, a website and other multimedia material. I saw the first two parts at the film festival, but as far as I know, it was never shown here after that (the third film didn’t even make the cut for the festival), and it’s not available here on DVD.

Short Films

The Tulse Luper Suitcases isn’t just a silly-sounding title – it’s the extension of a myth Greenaway’s been developing for over thirty years. He says: “Creation, to me, is to try to orchestrate the universe to understand what surrounds us. Even if, to accomplish that, we use all sorts of stratagems which in the end prove completely incapable of staving off chaos.” It follows, perhaps, that narrative – in the sense of a good plot - matters much less to Greenaway than structure and texture, and just as scientific understanding doesn’t start at zero with each new experiment, his work builds explicitly on what came before it.

Born in 1942, he started as a painter, then began to make short films in the 60’s and 70’s. Some of these are available on DVD, and I recently watched a number of them. Seldom using actors, they’re all conscious puzzles, built on limited means and often visually quite straightforward, but still laden with complicated if not impenetrable narratives, delivered in an earnestly serious voice-over. Water Wrackets consists solely of shots of rivers and streams and the like, but the story we’re told on top of this is a complicated, Lord Of The Rings-type myth (and Greenaway actually evokes Tolkein in his commentary). It doesn’t make any obvious sense, and doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s a rather brilliantly sustained oddity.

It’s rather thrilling to work through the shorts and see Greenaway gradually growing in resources and ambition. Dear Phone, made a few years later, consists of a series of absurdist anecdotes involving public telephones. As the narrator reads the stories, we see on the screen the script he’s supposedly reading from, thick with edits and additions and scribbles. In between, we stare at images of red British phone boxes, listen to dial tones and suchlike. The stories are unrelated, but with enough general similarity to suggest some connective tissue. Again, it’s a film made from almost nothing, but bursting with a sense of possibility.

The Falls

This phase of Greenaway’s career culminated in 1980 with the magnificent, indescribable The Falls. The film is set in the aftermath of a widespread “Violent Unnamed Event,” somehow related to birds, as a result of which thousands of people acquired strange powers or abnormalities, in some cases including flight; it also spawned multiple new languages. Greenaway structures the film, which runs over three hours, as an illustrative cross-section of 92 victims, notionally lifted from a much larger cataloguing project, all of whom have “Fall-“ in their surname (by the way, there are also 92 Tulse Luper suitcases, and the number recurs throughout Greenaway’s work). The film takes on the look of a cinematic scrapbook, constructed from archive footage, landscapes, diagrams, interviews, and whatever else an archivist might have at hand. Their case histories incorporate musings on the event’s origin (at one point citing Hitchcock’s film The Birds as a possible progenitor), glimpses of a whole alternate universe of organizations, key figures (including Tulse Luper), codes and signs, and a lot of deadpan wit. I suppose it could be termed science fiction, but that’s hardly the point – whether or not you actively enjoy the film at every point, you sit there and think: how could anyone have this much creative capacity and discipline?

The Falls, like many Greenaway movies, owes a lot to the shimmering, propulsive score by composer Michael Nyman. The film doesn’t owe a lot though to people – there’s very little in there that speaks to an interest in human spontaneity or emotional complexity. Greenaway made the leap to working with actors in his next major project, The Draughtsman’s Contract. I haven’t seen that one since it came out (planning to get to it soon) but it gave him a broader audience for the first time, and allowed him significant freedom for the next fifteen years. His best known films include The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, which I recall most clearly for doing more than any other film to obliterate the gap between human flesh and uncooked meat, and the ravishing The Pillow Book. His most controversial is The Baby Of Macon, a medieval reconstruction culminating in an extended gang-rape sequence (once he started working on a larger canvas, nudity became a prominent element of Greenaway’s repertoire, sometimes to the extent of overshadowing almost all else about the films).

Tulse Luper

I’ve seen all the films made during that period, but not usually more than once, and until I happened on those short films, I was no more thinking of Greenaway than of a hundred other filmmakers. Since then though I’ve been mulling over him as a symbol of how little we expect of or accept from our artists. You get exhausted and overwhelmed even trying to crack the surface of everything he’s created (just try spending some time on the Tulse Luper website). Sure, the suspicion remains that Greenaway, who has a liking for grand pronouncements like “cinema is dead,” holds his audience in contempt. But his personal commentaries on the DVD of short films have a spiky humanity to them, and here and there he lets his softer side show. He describes Luper’s origins this way: “for me he was a character who, I suppose, was like an alter ego. I was a very shy young man in those days and I found it very, very difficult to say Peter Greenaway said, so I blamed all my extravagances, obsessions and fascinations on this man called Tulse Luper." And it all went on from there.

In an age where popular culture constantly invites us to get our entertainment from the mundane foibles and interactions of others, Greenaway represents a challenge indeed – a forty-year project in projection and extrapolation, deeply personal and involved, even if it sometimes seems designed largely to chase us away. It’s not necessary, I think, for anyone to try to absorb all his work – we have to put our own lives first! But I’d certainly urge anyone to seek out some of it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cat People

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2007)

I’ve mentioned once or twice that Paul Schrader’s Cat People, made in 1982, is one of my prime “guilty pleasure” films. Not that I feel that guilty about it – I just use the term to acknowledge that my affection for the movie goes way beyond any objective claims I can try to make for it. For sure, it’s not very highly regarded overall, pulling in a mediocre 5.8 average rating on the Internet Movie Database, and taking up the least space of any of the director’s films in the Schrader On Schrader interview book. But I watched it again lately, after many years, and although I found it brasher than I’d remembered, it was still scintillatingly intense and perverse. In its own way, it’s the kind of film they just don’t make any more.

Brother And Sister

It is of course a remake of Jacques Tourneur’s famous 1942 picture, although the first point is that Schrader (in one of the excellent materials included on the DVD) says he wishes he’d called his film something else, because the original never meant much to him and he could have lived without the comparisons. I don’t recall Tourneur’s film well enough to say much about it, but it’s primarily remembered for masterly use of shadows and light, as well as for that indelible central premise: a virginal young woman whose desires, if fulfilled, will cause her to turn into a cat.

For the famously conflicted, neurotic Schrader, who was raised in a repressive religious community and spent much of his life overcompensating, this premise must have been a perverse gift, and his film has a luscious, kid-in-the-candy-store (very bad kid, severely spiked candy) quality about it. He cast Nastassia Kinski, at the height of her visibility and sensuality, as the girl, and Malcolm McDowell as her brother (a character not in the original movie) – an unlikely pairing perhaps, but they’re both wide-eyed, hungry, and almost more than the film can bear. She comes to him in New Orleans after many years apart; he eyes her up like no man should his sister, almost immediately goes missing, and a majestic black leopard strangely turns up in a crummy hotel room. The police bring in the local zoo, and the leopard ends up confined under the eye of curator John Heard, who rapidly falls in love with Kinski after she starts hanging out at the cat’s cage. The leopard vanishes; McDowell returns; he and Kinski, he tells her, must sleep together as brother and sister, just as their parents did – only this way can they avoid their terrible curse.

As Kinski slowly wakes up to her true nature, the film fills up with nudity and eroticism. Schrader says he hit on a strategy of delivering sex when the audience would expect violence, and vice versa. So the film’s kinky climax involves no confrontation or anger or triumph – merely Kinski’s acknowledgment of her fate, and Heard’s capitulation to what he must do to deliver her to relative tranquility, even though he therefore loses the woman he loves.

Obsessed With Kinski

On its own terms, the film is at its weakest when paying homage to the original: in a scene where Kinski is approached in a restaurant by a mysterious woman who greets her as a sister, and a longer one where a woman she regards as her rival for Heard’s affections (played by Annette O’Toole) thinks she’s being stalked by a big cat as she takes a solitary swim. Neither makes narrative sense (the first because there’s been no previous hint that the condition is at all widespread; the second because Kinski hasn’t fully awoken to her own nature at that point). But perhaps it’s best to take these scenes as signs of whirling malaise in the atmosphere, as a generalized implication of possibility and subtext.

That approach helps because otherwise, for all its inherent craziness, Cat People actually feels excessively controlled and linear to me. It’s an extremely conscious work of design: at one point Schrader wanted the film to go out as “Paul Schrader and Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s Cat People” (Scarfiotti being the production designer), and in Schrader On Schrader he emphasizes the film’s colour coordination. It’s a stunning creation of blood and flesh and eyes and windows and bars and New Orleans locations, all set to a Giorgio Moroder score that wraps around them like decadent clinging leather.

But it’s nevertheless questionable whether this was the best overall approach to the material, and maybe Schrader reveals why when he talks of the Heard character as his main point of identification with the material: “as we developed the character he evolved more and more along the lines of myself.” On screen this results in a rather stolid, morose focal point, whose obsession with Kinski must be gleaned from actions and dialogue rather then viscerally felt. The interesting thing is that Schrader actually developed an obsession with Kinski during the filming, but who knows how exactly this worked itself out into details of shot selection, lighting and so forth? It feels to me that the movie should be wilder, less conventionally paced, more discursive – in other words that the sense of mad, transgressive desire should more fully occupy its DNA.

Sex For Violence

As I mentioned, the film’s primary electricity is in the crazy relationship between Kinski and McDowell, and in Kinski’s performance when she lets loose: at various points she has the look of someone who knows more about sex than any woman alive (although her character is still a virgin at that point). When I saw the film I was maybe sixteen, and I remember being astonished at the implications of her character. Not that I assigned much likelihood to the cat people scenario I suppose, but the vision of someone simultaneously so unschooled and yet so knowing and determined seemed immensely empowering to me. I think it may have been one of the first films where I was genuinely able to view an actress’s nudity as a matter of self-expression and exploration rather than as merely decorative. This was na├»ve of course, for the film is patently exploitative and trashy. But if you haven’t seen that many movies, Schrader’s sex-for-violence strategy is highly bracing, and confirms his description of a film more closely rooted in intimate preoccupations, however outlandish the context.

Regular readers may remember that I already wrote a little bit about Schrader a year or so ago (in a flourish that entertained me if no one else, I worked him into an article on Jerry Lewis’ The Day The Clown Cried), so I’m obviously fascinated by his ups and downs. Cat People didn’t repeat the success of his previous film American Gigolo, and from then on his career became less visible (including periods when it hardly seemed to exist at all). His next film, tantalizingly (although I know it could turn out horribly) will apparently be a take on an older version of the American Gigolo (sounds good so far), starring Woody Harrelson (not so much). But Cat People is really the one he should take a second shot at. He came so close to a genre masterpiece, and might yet nail it.

(2010 afterword - indeed, The Walker didn't turn out to be much. And I regret the shot at Woody Harrelson)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Gods and Monsters

Well, the morality we apply to life itself is certainly full of ironies, although maybe that’s a wishy-washy word for what I ought to call sicknesses, or worse. In so many aspects of things, outrage or public concern flares up at one thing, while ignoring much greater dangers or moral transgressions right next door. The most obvious example is the morbid fixation on individual deaths attributable to extreme circumstances (murders, accidents, once-in-a-lifetime ailments, etc.) while effectively ignoring much more prevalent (but mundane) pain and suffering. The treatment of animals at the humane society becomes a front-page outrage, but how many of those protestors went home and had a meat dinner grown from greater torture? We get outraged at any hint of drug taking in sports, as if there was anything pure and natural about the super-charged diet, training and equipment applied to every other aspect of professional sports.

Genetic Tampering

One we haven’t heard too much lately (I’m sure it’ll be back!) is the fear of genetically modified crops, as if those pristine fruit and vegetables shining into the aisles of your local grocery store were ever the natural harvest of low-tech family farms. It’s hard to remember too that before 9/11, George W Bush spent several weeks occupied in high profile musing over stem cell restrictions. The notion, I guess, is that originating life, as a fundamental process, is the province of God, leased to humankind only to the extent that we keep our hands off that central red button. Once life is established, I guess all restrictions are off – if those precious new elements of the global headcount get dumped into starvation or war, well, the covenant doesn’t extend to taking care of people once they can (notionally) take care of themselves. Quite the opposite, given for example how a strident opposition to abortion seems often to be accompanied by a distrust of government as a force for good. And yet, at the same time, we’re collectively obsessed with health care, to the extent that it threatens to crush every other public good, and we also make a scandal out of every occasion where a Canadian is denied some esoteric and expensive treatment. Will we have the fortitude and discipline ever to deny ourselves access to the latest life-extending (maybe not –enhancing) technological advance, if that’s the only way to avoid trampling on a big chunk of our other values and priorities?

Vincenzo Natali’s new film Splice touches on some of these issues, although almost never as fully or as provocatively as you’d like. Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play genetic researchers, Clive and Elsa, also a couple, who’ve developed a form of synthetic life, highly promising as a source of new proteins and commercial applications. They intend to go to the next level, bringing human DNA into the mix, but their corporate masters – needing to start the profits rolling and uninterested in tackling the moral issues associated with these ambitions – shut them down; they press ahead anyway, generating a new hybrid embryo that suddenly yields a functioning new organism, and then something close to a human girl. Of course, as movies galore have illustrated for us, being close to human is usually the same as being freaky as hell.


The movie is set in Toronto – at one point, Elsa refers to wanting a condo in the Distillery district – but it’s mostly confined to interiors until the closing act switches to a farm and its environs; it’s extremely focused on the protagonists, with only a handful of other significant speaking parts. This is no doubt intended to intensify our focus on the central relationship and on the issues implicit in their actions, but instead leaves the film feeling rather sparse and empty. We get the sense of the corporate machinations, but they’re rather absurdly filtered through just one high-ranking woman (as if matters of such prominence wouldn’t involve armies of lawyers and other intermediaries). It makes sense in classic genre terms, allowing a contrast of the intrepid (if not entirely well-oriented) heroes against the impervious embodiment of self-interest, but the mechanics are inherently cartoonish now.

I thought with regret of how Michael Mann might have handled similar core issues, deploying his mastery of logistics and layers to convey a sense of endless inter-connection and institutional complexity. One imagines too that Mann would have given everyone meatier things to say – Clive and Elsa consistently seem to be distilling weeks of potential debate and argument into a few pithy back and forths. Of course, that’s how movies work, but you consistently feel Natali put too much emphasis on speed and accessibility.

That’s especially true as the story advances, and their creation evolves into something they could never have imagined; at a certain point, the elaborations basically get absurd, and you just wait for things to play themselves out. The movie closes on a nice note, allowing the competing interests a temporary sense of reconciliation, and bringing a final twist to the film’s parallel between Elsa’s complicated feelings toward her creation and her unresolved memories of her apparently wretched mother. But overall, this too only confirms Splice as being second-rate – twisted mother-daughter psychology has much more to do with horror movies than with “real” science.

Vincenzo Natali

Well, it doesn’t seem Natali’s ever claimed to be more than a genre director. He made an impact over ten years ago with Cube, which I found about as interesting as you could ever expect of a movie set entirely within a giant cube, but not much more than that. His two feature length films since then, Cypher and Nothing, were under-exposed, and I’ve never run across them (although I guess I haven’t really tried to). Splice might have gone the same way, but ultimately managed to score a wide summer release; it didn’t catch on at the box office though. The Star’s Peter Howell attributes this to a marketing campaign that gave too much away, failing to “hide the monster,” but it seems to me this overlooks the bigger problem, of having squandered such potential on a mere monster movie in the first place.

Brody and Polley don’t seem remotely like brilliant scientists – the movie just isn’t that good at conveying the life of the mind: he gives the same dazed non-performance he’s delivered in every role since winning an Oscar for The Pianist, and the impact of Polley’s role would likely be similar no matter who played it. No matter – it’s a reasonable entertainment. If we want more than that, we can look away from the monster on the screen, toward the one we’re collectively creating at the heart of our world.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Jean-Pierre Melville

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2006)

Two of my favourite recent DVD purchases came about rather by surprise. Very occasionally, I get it in my mind to buy a movie without having anything specific in mind (always a rather surprising impulse given the lengthy wish list I maintain on the computer, strategically located where my wife can stumble across it in the run-up to Christmas and birthdays), and thus browsing Bay Street Video one day I saw Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai on the shelf and thought: Well, there it is. I had seen the film a long time ago, but remembered nothing of it except the image of Alain Delon in his trench coat. Among other things, I thought it was in black and white, and was quite astonished when the movie started up in colour. It’s possible I saw it even longer ago than I think, at a time when I could only catch late night movies on a small black and white TV in my bedroom, which between the poor picture quality and having to keep the sound down low (in case my parents got wise to this illicit activity) would have made even The Wizard Of Oz seem ghostly and noirish.

A Delon Trilogy

Anyway, I thought Le Samourai (made in 1967) was terrific, and the next time I was in the store I made a beeline for Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, the movie he made right afterwards. I first saw this a bit more recently than Le Samourai, during a Melville season at the Cinematheque, maybe eight years ago or so. I was there with my wife, and I recall we both spent the better part of the movie asleep and absorbed nothing of it. I think maybe we were jet-lagged from a recent trip – clearly we shouldn’t have bothered. It certainly can’t have been a reflection of Le Cercle Rouge, which is almost as mesmerizing as Le Samourai, and even more intriguing in some ways.

As I write I clearly need to take the next step and buy Un Flic, the film Melville made afterwards, which completed his unofficial Alain Delon trilogy. At that point I will already be done, for Melville died soon afterwards. He had made nine films prior to Le Samourai, although only one, Bob Le Flambeur, seems to be currently available on DVD (it was remade a few years ago by Neil Jordan as The Good Thief). Melville was born in 1917 in Paris, served in the French Resistance, and made his first feature film in 1947. His real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach, but he renamed himself after Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick. One of the extras on the Cercle Rouge disk, a 1970 documentary, shows him turning up in his big American car (fitted with all the modern conveniences, points out the voice over, such as a cassette player), with a Stetson and dark glasses (although no cigar). It portrays him as being as much businessman as artist; he founded his own studio early on, and then built it up again after it burned down.

I have not seen as many of his early films as I should have done – as I said, I think I was away during that Cinematheque season. David Thomson, for one, would say that I have therefore not seen the director’s best: the late thrillers, he says, “are virtually interchangeable, for the environment and legend are important above everything else. It was an independent path, very entertaining, but not as demanding of Melville himself.”

Always False

Indeed, the films generally feel sublimely calm, both utterly in control of their genre mechanics and yet composed to the point of abstraction. In Le Samourai, Delon is a lone contract killer who has both the police and his employers on his trail after there’s an eye witness to one of his assignments; the film has an almost unequaled sense of cool, distanced fatalism. Le Cercle Rouge widens the parameters to include Gian Maria Volonte and Yves Montand, teaming up with Delon to carry out a big jewel robbery, again with the law closing in. Not quite as coolly insinuating as its predecessor, and not quite tapping the same philosophical dimensions, the film is nevertheless a fascinating creation of considerable scope, striking me at various points as being the Heat of its day.

In reading the material accompanying the DVD’s, and reading a little bit elsewhere on Melville (as for many other things, I highly recommend, he starts to strike me as one of those directors whose claims (or disclaims) for his own films should not be taken entirely seriously, and may as well have been delivered while winking at the interviewer from behind those dark glasses (Le Samourai opens with a quote from the Japanese Book of Bushido, which turned out to have been made up by the director). This isn’t so uncommon among old-time filmmakers – Howard Hawks, whose avoidance of sentiment and affinity for depicting men defined by what they do came to mind several times while watching these films, is the all-time great example. But what about this line of Melville’s for a head-spinner: “I am careful never to be realistic…What I do is false. Always.”

Depending how narrowly or broadly one chooses to read that statement, it might mean something, or might merely be a mundane acknowledgment of something basic about cinema. And I think that’s at the heart of the films’ mystique: they’re simultaneously highly precise and considered, depicting events such as police interrogations (in Le Samourai) and the heist in Le Cercle Rouge with virtually real-time fastidiousness, but they never seem tethered to their particular time or place (for a while I thought that Le Samourai – particularly regarding the nightclub where much of the action takes place – had qualities of an iconic 60’s film, but later I decided it was barely identifiable as belonging to the decade at all). Regardless of those modern conveniences in his new car, Melville seems repelled by the bric-a-brac of gesture and expression that we recognize with hindsight as belonging to a certain fashion.

Impossibility Of Love

Critic Tom Milne wrote that the key themes of Melville’s work are the “impossibility of love, of friendship, of communication, of self-respect, of life itself.” I watched Le Samourai the day after rewatching Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, and the contrast was fascinating – an intently regimented, analyzed physical and moral space in Bresson’s film followed by something much cooler and resigned and more linear (although both films have in common that the protagonist’s striving is somehow psychically incomplete in the absence of the law as an intervening force). I think it’s likely that one could watch Melville’s films in proximity to those of many other directors, and glean something new from them every time. I hope I work my way through his other works, but if it turns out that I stop at these two, I will still feel thrilled by the encounter.

(2010 Postscript - several more Melville titles have become available in the years since then, and they're all great too!)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Movies I Haven't Seen

Once again, blowing past the tired conventions of sitting through movies and then writing about them, I present to you – with confidence and pride – my comments on a bunch of current movies I haven’t seen.

Shrek Forever After

There was a time, dating back I think to Robin Williams’ genie in Aladdin, where you’d constantly be told this or that animated movie was equally good entertainment for adults, by virtue of the pop culture references and other, uh, sophisticated trappings. And I’d always say to myself, that’s for adults! - well who is Ingmar Bergman for then, gods? I’m not saying such movies don’t have their rewards, but then so does staring at the ceiling and thinking of puppies. Anyway, I think that cycle’s past its peak now, because the latest Shrek movie doesn’t seem to be generating much adult excitement. Of course, that may only be because all the adults are now at home watching their Marvel studio blu-rays. I guess it just proves adulthood is a social construct rather than a verifiable state.

Sex And The City 2

I never watched the TV show, but it would be on in the room from time to time, and I used to have the impression it was powered by racy debates about how far to go on a first date, and about strategy on the relationship frontlines. But then at some point, that became secondary to the shoes and the outfits and a more billowy notion of fabulousness. Canada AM’s movie critic Richard Crouse gave the movie, essentially, four stars for fans and one star for everyone else…gee, thanks for the guidance. More useful was the critic who said: “Nothing says putrefying, rotten and vile quite like this sequel,” fleetingly making me think the foursome might be spending two hours being tortured and degraded in the manner of Pasolini’s Salo. I’d certainly pay to see that. But I guess the biggest torture in their world would be to go through two successive scenes wearing the same costumes. Anyway, it sounds like the movie would at least inspire a happy “decline of Western civilization” diatribe, but then, so does staring at the ceiling and thinking of what life has in store for half those puppies.


This is a documentary about four babies growing up in disparate parts of the world. I saw the trailer and it made me want to stick my head into the toilet. True, my paternal instincts may be grievously underdeveloped. Or maybe they’re just distorted, because I can’t say with certainty that I’d be so dismissive of a related project called Puppies.


Well, you know, Saturday Night Live did seem generally funnier this year, although when it bombed, as in the January Jones episode, it really bombed. But Blake Lively, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who knew? Of course I didn’t go to this spin-off though. No one would have gone to see this. If you went to see this, you probably found yourself spiritually blown to smithereens within thirty seconds, and yet somehow kept going, and then over and over, in ever-fading simulacra of yourself.

Robin Hood

I’m obviously getting old, because before this came out I would have said Kevin Costner just recently covered this territory. And then you look it up and it turns out it was almost twenty years ago. Strangely though, something about the idea of Russell Crowe in the role makes the new movie feel instantly older than the predecessor. I guess there’s this notion now that every generation needs its own Sherlock Holmes flick, or its own Alice In Wonderland, or whatever, but I thought the idea was to make the material seem younger and more modern, not heavier and stodgier. There was a time when Ridley Scott embodied a certain glossy classiness (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise), but now that he churns out a movie a year and affects this battlefield supremo shtick, it’s obvious he barely cares about the stuff himself. We’d have to be idiots, truly, not to take his pictures in the spirit in which they’re offered, thereby confidently ignoring them.

Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time

We actually used to own this game, way back at the dawn of the home computer age. At the time I thought it was very pretty to look at and conceptually appealing, but I have no gaming skills, so never got beyond the first few levels. I don’t know how long ago that was, but basing a movie on it now seems only slightly less topical than trying to capitalize on the hula-hoop craze. And the very fact of being associated with this material instantly makes Jake Gyllenhaal feel almost as outdated as Russell Crowe.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Possibly I would have seen this if I’d been in a different mood. The material is obviously in the spotlight right now, and the movie got reasonable reviews, but they mostly sounded like the kind of lazily positive review you give something when you suspect you should be writing more critically, but it feels like too much work, with little glory attached (not like the visibility you can attract by going medieval on Sex And The City 2), so you just run with the pack. I know I should be an advocate for seeing films on the big screen, but the bigger part of me says we’re nearly all in debt and need to save more money for our futures, so losing the cinematic purism is as good a place as any to begin. In other words, this is the emblematic wait-for-cable movie.

Harry Brown

Well, actually I did see this. I wouldn’t have, but my parents were visiting and it was just about the only thing we could agree on. Michael Caine plays an ex-Marine who can’t take his squalid London surroundings anymore and starts killing off the scummy local drug dealers. The movie goes out of its way to establish just how scummy these individuals are, and at various points I was squirming on my parents’ behalf, worrying it was all causing them physical pain. See, you just never get past that kind of thing. As it turned out, they minded much less than I did: the gritty patina and Caine’s undoubted dignity made it all seem socially meaningful and instructive, and they enjoyed it. I was so relieved by this, I barely cared about my own opinion of the film. But now they’ve gone home, I can admit I found it trashy and silly, with no social value whatsoever. So to preserve my credibility, I think I’ll categorize this too as something I didn’t see.

Coming in the future, my reviews of a bunch of movies that haven’t even been made yet! And I’ll tell you now, it’s not a pretty selection…

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Spielberg's War

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2005)

Steven Spielberg’s new film War Of The Worlds is exceptionally gripping and surprisingly thought provoking. It starts with Tom Cruise, a divorced dad and New York docker, leaving work and picking up his kids for the weekend, and the film’s first surprise is Spielberg’s meticulous evocation of the blue-collar milieu (to get the Cruise stuff out of the way, he’s surprisingly belligerent through most of the film, and not notably loopy). He naps and goes outside, and the sky is filled by what seems to be a freak electrical storm that knocks out the power and kills the vehicles; soon after this dies down, the ground at a nearby crossroads starts trembling, cracks emerge in the concrete, and there emerges a vast three-legged machine, towering over the assembled crowds, and then attacking them with vaporizing beams. Cruise steals the only car in the neighborhood that works (a local mechanic experimented with the solenoids), grabs the kids and heads off toward his ex-wife in Boston. It’s a journey that – as he realizes the same experience and destruction is happening throughout America and perhaps the world - seems increasingly likely to witness the end of mankind.

Echoes Of 9/11

Spielberg is of course the continuing master of dazzling sequences, and unlike many other directors, he never allows technology or logistics to swamp a sense of human involvement. War Of The Worlds has as high a body count as any film ever made, but it never feels cold-blooded in offering up carnage for our pleasure. It takes a common strategy, forcing us into the viewpoint of a single semi-everyman protagonist, but there’s nothing idealized about the character or what he’s trying to protect. The graver the implications for the world and the more questionable the very value of survival, the more single-mindedly (even blindly) he focuses on his family. It’s not unlike last year’s The Day After Tomorrow, where Dennis Quaid trekked across several states, fighting the new Ice Age, in search of his daughter. But that film, more superficial in every way, aspired to God-like omnipotence – taking us throughout the world and to the inner corridors of power – rendering the focus on Quaid’s personal crisis banal and arbitrary. Spielberg never shows us anything more than Cruise sees for himself – he catches a few scattered TV images, but otherwise only has contradictory rumours and much first-hand trauma to inform his momentum. It’s an essentially intimate story that just happens to take place against the possible end of the world.

Which leads naturally to its echoes of 9/11, both in the broad depiction of urban routines suddenly shattered, and more specifically through shots of hastily assembled missing person posters, a close-up of Cruise covered in dust, and so forth. In this regard it seems meaningful that the machines emerge from under the ground, presumably having been buried thousands or millions of years earlier, lying latent until their alien masters arrive to activate them. In an America so neurotically fixated on a vaguely defined and shifting alien threat, and so correspondingly complacent about its own structural problems, it seems to me rather witty to depict the ultimate apocalypse as emerging from within, from the figurative bedrock of the homeland. Spielberg doesn’t particularly push the metaphor, but it’s there if you want to take it. Elsewhere, the film shows a hopelessly overmatched military, no sign whatsoever of effective organization or leadership, and as I mentioned, a set of “values” that seems highly likely to disintegrate under pressure.

Mocked Ending

It’s difficult to comment on the film without giving away the ending (already amply leaked elsewhere), so readers who would regard that as a spoiler should stop here. Cruise and his daughter make it to Boston, finding a city seeming surprisingly intact and populated after all we’ve seen. The huge “tripod” machines are teetering and breaking down of their own accord (the voice over tells us the aliens inside them were brought down by simple air-borne germ microbes, to which they had no immunity), He delivers the girl to the house, and there’s the family all waiting, including – most improbably – the son who broke away earlier and seemed dead for sure.

This ending has been widely mocked as an example of Spielberg giving in (once again) to sentimental instincts. But the finale features a shot of Cruise standing prominently alone (rather John Wayne-like, I thought), and it’s over so rapidly that if easy uplift were the only intention, it would seem botched. Whatever Spielberg’s true intentions, I think it’s possible to see this as an ironic undercutting of myths of continuity, or as a merely disillusioned capitulation to them. But if so, as with much of the film’s possible resonance, it’s probably easier to overlook than it should be. The film has spawned a lot of commentary on how Spielberg isn’t the director he used to be – Rick Groen in The Globe And Mail, for example, opined that “Catch Me If You Can was slight; The Terminal proved DOA; and War Of The Worlds is no more than a K-tel collection of his greatest hits, a technically skilled yet emotionally barren reminder of what he used to be when he was forging those indelible images.”

Spielberg’s Future

I've written in this vein myself in the past. Reviewing The Terminal last year, I said: “With the greatest directors, I’d suggest, you feel a measure of respectful striving in every frame. Spielberg’s films feel like they come too easy. Despite his often-extraterrestrial themes, his films remain earthbound; knowing no constraints on his resources, it’s as if he had never had to undergo the sweat and self-examination that might have molded his facility into art.” When you read that Spielberg is just starting a new film on the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist incident, and plans to have it out by Christmas, this line of thinking seems to be confirmed. War Of The Worlds was made quickly too, by blockbuster standards. But maybe speed can be his artistic liberation. I think Catch Me If You Can shows the most promising direction for Spielberg; a beguiling, light-footed film of subtle meaning, hinting at deeper philosophical preoccupations.

For sure, War Of The Worlds breaks no major new ground for the director. But it seems to demonstrate an increasing restlessness with easy formulae, and how many “iconic images” can we reasonably expect of one man anyway? The very choice of War Of The Worlds as a project indicates how he’s to some extent a prisoner of the system, and the terrorist film to come seems like a means of expiation. We’ve seen this before from him , when Schindler’s List and Amistad followed Jurassic Park and The Lost World in quick succession respectively. But War Of The Worlds seems much tetchier than the dinosaur films. How big a war is Spielberg fighting within himself, and will the right side win?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Chantal Akerman

The first Chantal Akerman film I ever saw was Les rendez-vous d’Anna. I think that was in 1983, give or take a year; I was just getting into serious movies, and I’m not sure I’d ever seen anything to that point that so plainly embodied film as contemporary art. A female film director travels round Europe, endlessly promoting her latest film. She sleeps with strangers, has a largely meaningless relationship with an older businessman, another with a woman. She’s often filmed naked. The film has very long takes and isn’t realistic – characters enter into long philosophical or self-searching monologues, while their interlocutors stare and listen. Several characters are changing countries, or bothered that they’re stuck in the wrong one; with memories of the war still fairly prominent (it’s 1978) and Europe not yet carved up by dirt-cheap flights, arduousness and alienation lie heavy in the air. In the end, back in the home she hardly ever occupies, she lies on the bed, listening to her messages on the clunky answering machine, each of them in some way testifying to her displaced existence.

Jeanne Dielman

For a perhaps pretentious and certainly remote teenager, this could hardly have been more stimulating. Fortunately having taped it from late night TV, I rewatched it several times and if memory serves even wrote a screenplay that stole heavily from it (I think it was called I Can’t Feel At Home Here, which presumably gets the point across). After that I never ran across the film then. Naturally I tried to see as much of Akerman’s other work as I could, but that’s never been easy. In the 80’s she made a couple of musicals and I loved them, but I’ve never seen them since. I’ve seen a few others at the film festival over the last decade, but they didn’t feel like her strongest work, I did however view her most famous film Jeanne Dielman, made a few years before Anna. Running over three hours, it studies a widowed middle-aged mother though her life’s repetitive rituals – getting up, shopping, preparing meals, going to bed and, in her case, raising some additional income by prostituting herself. The film is like the 2001: A Space Odyssey of domesticity; incongruities and lapses start creeping into the structure, and the quiet, conventional bravery of Jeanne’s perseverance takes on an almost impossible suspense.

Jeanne Dielman came out on DVD two years ago, joined last year by a new boxed set on the Eclipse label, Chantal Akerman In The Seventies. It’s an extremely satisfying item, comprising five films for just over $30, among them Les rendez-vous d’Anna. Seeing it after such a long gap, it was perhaps a mild disappointment, but then I’m not that same teenager any more. The film feels a little strained and schematic now; Akerman’s ideas are still fascinating, but the texture doesn’t seem to breathe. On the other hand, to some extent that’s the point. Reflecting on how little we learn of Anna’s identity and accomplishments as a filmmaker, it’s tempting to think Akerman was in a temporary cul-de-sac, her sense of underlying emptiness too heavy to be turned into fluent art.

The New York Trilogy

The other four films were new to me. She made three of them in New York, where she spent a formative year and a half, and you couldn’t have a more fascinating illustration of a filmmaker’s ideas coalescing and taking on complexity. The first, La chambre, is a single camera movement around the interior of a rather dingy apartment, frequently alighting on Akerman herself lying on the bed. There’s nothing even remotely resembling a plot, but just by varying the scheme as we think we understand it, Akerman imports a remarkable degree of intrigue, both drawing on and subverting a long aesthetic tradition of staring at women. Hotel Monterey silently observes the interior of an equally dingy hotel, concentrating primarily on dark elevators and corridors and corners, until we escape out onto the roof and into daylight, almost carrying the sense of being liberated from a brooding David Lynch-like landscape of the unconscious.

The strongest of the New York trilogy (actually made a few years later, on a return visit) is certainly News From Home. This time Akerman takes her camera out on the streets, in the subway, on the ferry. There’s again no sound within the frame, but periodically on the soundtrack a female voice (Akerman’s own) reads letters written by a Belgian mother to her daughter, who’s living in New York. The daughter, it’s clear, doesn’t write often enough, doesn’t provide enough information; the mother tries not to hector her, but can’t always help it. Again, the theme of alienation is unmistakable, emerging here against an enormously rounded emotional landscape; the varying time that elapses between the reading of each letter and their relationship to the background are remarkably effective in suggesting the daughter’s conflicted, inconsistent perspective on the relationship. It’s a melancholy film: you feel the mother’s longing for the lost connection, but also the daughter’s inclination to lose herself in the folds of the city. Akerman couldn’t have planned it, but the prominence of the World Trade towers in the last shot imports all kinds of suitably turbulent associations.

Je, tu, il, elle

The other film in the collection, Je, tu, il, elle, is equally strong, but very different. The title implies a wrestling with the building blocks of identity, and with just three characters and very little dialogue, Akerman again creates an astonishing network of implication. The human body is in the forefront now, beginning with a woman (Akerman again) who spends days and weeks along in her room, like some kind of outcast unable to kick-start herself into action. Eventually she goes outside, allowing herself to be picked up by a truck driver; she sexually services him, listens to his long self-justifying monologues about his barren life; when he’s last seen, she’s standing in a washroom corner as he shaves and then urinates, taking passivity to a point where it almost becomes strangely dominant. In the third episode she visits an ex-girlfriend, and she’s much more the pace-setter now, leading the other woman into love-making depicted in virtually real time, over just a few long takes; the next day, she gets dressed and leaves.

Usually looking deliberately drab, the film conveys a lot about societal and psychological pressure, but it also portends almost endless possibilities for productive collision. The Eclipse collection is incredibly rewarding, as exciting to this now middle-aged viewer as that first film was to the younger one; the only letdown is that one can’t immediately follow Akerman’s amazing creative personality through to the 80’s and beyond.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Among The Dogs

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2004)

I can’t think of a recent movie that divided critics as cleanly as Lars Von Trier’s Dogville; it’s either a triumph or an abomination, with almost no one standing in the middle. Locally, Now magazine gave it one and a half stars; Eye gave it four. Here’s J. Hoberman in The Village Voice: “For passion, originality, and sustained chutzpah, this austere allegory of failed Christian charity and Old Testament payback is von Trier's strongest movie—a masterpiece, in fact.” Contrast that with David Edelstein in Slate:

I'm sure Lars von Trier would regard me the way Col. Jessup regards the lieutenant in A Few Good Men—I can't handle the truth. But it's more like I can't handle selective half-truths by a preening, misanthropic bully who wouldn't recognize an act of decency if it bit him on the ass. On the other hand, maybe von Trier is right that we Americans are dogs: His movies seem to call to me like fire hydrants.

Missive From Hell

I first saw the film on a plane, flying home from Australia. This was on one of the tiny Qantas screens, with tinny headphone sound. Under these conditions, in the darkened cabin, it was like staring into the bottom of a bucket – an effect intensified by the film’s stark minimalism. But it was mesmerizing, like a light beam from hell. I went to see it again when it opened locally (at three hours long, having gained thirty minutes over the version that played on the airplane) and that second viewing confirmed that I’m firmly in the masterpiece camp.

This wasn’t entirely predictable. I loved von Trier’s The Kingdom, and saw some great things in both The Idiots and Dancing In The Dark – still, he’s not a filmmaker who’s key to my view of things. And I wouldn’t strenuously disagree with the common list of faults identified in Dogville: pretentiousness, repetition, lazy point scoring. Even so, the film is stylistically so fascinating that a reasonably minded viewer should be able to stay with it through these challenges. And it’s clearly a major piece of political cinema, even if one’s assessment in that regard is inevitably going to be coloured by personal preconceptions.

The film is set during the Depression in a remote, dirt-poor town, with twenty or so inhabitants squeezing out a borderline existence. One day a beautiful woman (Nicole Kidman, in a nicely restrained, allusive mode) arrives in Dogville, on the run from gangsters for unexplained reasons, and one of the townspeople (Paul Bettany), who fancies himself the local philosopher, convinces the others to give her shelter. Earning her keep by performing odd jobs for the town, Grace becomes popular and seemingly almost indispensable, but then the pendulum swings and their treatment of her coarsens, then becomes cruel. In the end the gangsters (led by James Caan) arrive in town, and the film builds to a wrath-filled conclusion.

Imaginary Dog

The film has no sets, and was shot in its entirety inside a large warehouse in Sweden. The action plays out against a variously black or white background. The town’s buildings and landmarks are denoted by white markings on the studio floor; props and furniture are minimal. Von Trier even denotes the town dog by a drawing and a label reading “Dog” (and by a disembodied barking). Von Trier moves around the set with his customary jerky, hard-held camera style. In the aggregate, this all clearly eschews any normal notion of realism and works against any easy mechanism of identification. In addition to the actors noted, the cast includes Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Chloe Sevigny, Patricia Clarkson and Jeremy Davies – like a cross-section of American culture torn out and put in the dock.

The film’s anti-Americanism, if it is such, lies in the deliberately reductive presentation of the country’s complexities; in the wretched behaviour and motives of the Dogville citizens toward Grace, and in the price they pay for it. Their pious self-congratulation on their initial treatment of her, and the speed of its erosion into exploitation and corruption, incisively captures the special pleadings of an America that swings from a fortress, anti-“nation building” rhetoric to a reckless exercise of its global resources. Von Trier suggests that the heart of America is venal and delusional, so superficial in its constructions and positions that it barely deserves to be represented by real bricks and mortar. Whatever might be going on in the frame’s foreground, we literally “see through” it to what lies beyond (in this case, something as untrustworthy as what we’re seeing through).

Of course, set out in those terms, it seems obvious and heavy-handed, and it’s true that von Trier’s lack of humour works against him. Actually, that’s not quite right – the recent documentary The Five Obstructions, in which he sets a fellow filmmaker a series of challenges, subject to escalating constraints, showed that he has a certain puckish demeanour and sensibility, but also that he’s a bit of a weasel. One of Dogville’s most-discussed ploys is the closing credit sequence, which runs a long sequence of photographs of America’s underbelly (as well as one of Richard Nixon) under David Bowie’s Young Americans. After the film’s quasi-Brechtian artifice it’s a jolt simultaneously of specificity and incoherence. But then, von Trier never purports to be presenting a clinical thesis. Near the end, despite everything that’s happened, Grace insists on seeing the best in the people, then a mere shift of the light changes her mind and sets her on a different path. So much for America’s vaunted values and identity, the film seems to say.

Onto Its Shores

Its small town premise evokes the likes of Thornton Wilder, and the film’s pseudo-archaic trappings – it’s divided into nine portentously titled chapters, with a plummily written narration by John Hurt – bolster its fire-and-brimstone preacher qualities. The casting throws off echoes in all directions. Of course, the film is a deliberate provocation – von Trier has never even been to America. Todd McCarthy in Variety, normally a levelheaded analyst, is another critic who took the bait, culminating his review with the following much-quoted passage:

Through his contrived tale of one mistreated woman, who is devious herself, von Trier indicts as being unfit to inhabit the earth a country that has surely attracted, and given opportunity to, more people onto its shores than any other in the history of the world. Go figure.

I imagine von Trier must have loved that, for it shows the exact inflated self-perception that his film mocks. Of course, for every person “given opportunity” on America’s shores nowadays, you can find multiple stories of exploitation and poverty, if you know where to look. But only the derided liberals concentrate on stuff like that. For now the American dream still holds in place, but with increasing neurosis. If there’s a reckoning ahead, Dogville will have got there first.