Thursday, July 29, 2010

Moments of Genius

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2004)

If you watch a lot of movies, you’re used to people asking you whether a particular film is any good; whether it’s worth seeing. I feel comfortable answering this for the latest Hollywood releases, one way or another, but as you move further along the spectrum of art cinema the question becomes more problematic. The movies I most love are great, but many of them might not be good. More and more, I find a certain kind of failure more stimulating than many successes. And then of course, there’s the entirely different aesthetic judgment you apply to your favourite directors, viewing individual films in the context of the whole oeuvre.

Fuller And Polanski

I’ll throw out a couple of (almost random) examples of this from my own recent viewing. Samuel Fuller’s White Dog has any number of problems, and perhaps my only downright bad viewing experience at the Cinematheque Ontario came a few years ago, seated in front of a boorish couple who laughed through the whole movie. The debits include a dated early-80’s look (mainly incarnated in lead actress Kristy McNichol), overly declamatory dialogue, excessive simplicity in the plotting and in the staging of the action scenes, and excessive anthropomorphism in depicting the title dog – an initially lovable German shepherd that turns out to have been trained by racists to attack black people on sight. But if you’re attuned to Fuller’s punchy mindset and his uncompromising approach to issues, the movie’s central dynamic is so potent that it overcomes all these problems. A black animal trainer called Keyes (played by Paul Winfield, who died recently) becomes obsessed with retraining the dog – the two face off each other for hours and weeks in a circular caged arena, like gladiators; the epic subject of prejudice distilled down to an elemental test of endurance. The film’s denouement suggests that racism, once instilled, cannot be destroyed, only deflected, which merely diverts its pernicious consequences. The film ultimately seems a touch naive (actually a rather endearing quality in a veteran filmmaker), but brilliant.

Roman Polanski’s What?, which I saw again at the Cinematheque as part of its Polanski series, seems like an odd digression from him (he made it between Macbeth and Chinatown) – a discursive, perverse variation on Alice In Wonderland where a young woman wanders into a big European estate to escape from would-be rapists and finds herself among a gallery of weird characters. The film was dumped in some cinemas as soft-core porn (lead actress Sydne Rome spends much of the time naked) and could easily seem like a grotesque self-indulgence. And yet, watched in the context of Polanski’s other films, it’s completely fascinating. All his themes are there: claustrophobia, looming darkness, the questioning of fundamental assumptions, kinky sexuality, exploited innocence. Virtually everything that happens in the movie is contradicted by something else, and when you think you’ve identified any kind of key to it all, it’s snatched away; the more you think about it, the more the film parallels the downward spiral of despair in his most recent film, The Pianist. It’s far more elegant and ornate than most of his other works, but the more you think about these differences, the more the film impresses through the consistency of Polanski’s sensibility. It’s ultimately rather silly, but brilliant.

Kill Bill, Vol. 2

Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is of course the sequel to Vol. 1, which opened last fall, and followed a character identified as The Bride, played by Uma Thurman, as she went on the trail of five ex-colleagues who mowed down her husband at the altar and left her to die. It didn’t do a whole lot for me – I wrote one of those reviews where, reading it now, I can tell my heart wasn’t in it. Here’s some of what I wrote:

an impressive piece of action choreography with a sometimes-flamboyant sensibility. Supposedly it’s full of references to genre movies – I only picked up a few of them, if any. The story is wafer thin, and the film seems extremely padded, with numerous digressive scenes that could have been lost with no sacrifice of entertainment or thematic value. Without these scenes though, the film would seem programmatic – its peculiarity is really the main point of interest. ..

Maybe, I wrote, rather plaintively, Vol. 2 will make everything clearer. Well, Vol. 2 achieves that on a narrative level at least – not that that was ever my primary concern. The back-story is now filled in, and Bill (who never appeared directly in the first film) is now a fully-fledged character. Where the first film was tight-lipped, the second is voluble, with numerous scenes of extended conversation, usually to no particular end. Thurman dispatches the two remaining assassins (Michael Madsen and Daryl Hannah) on her way to Bill, but there’s no action sequence to compare with how Lucy Liu got her comeuppance last time. Even the ending is relatively low-key by contemporary standards.

There’s little thematic payoff to all of this – except, unexpectedly, a closing paean to the redeeming power of motherhood (which both seems arbitrary in the context of Tarantino’s work, and rather reductive in that one of the first film’s main points of appeal was its refusal to stereotype or overly sexualize feminine power). And yet, Tarantino is perhaps the only present-day filmmaker who can score major box office while so studiously ignoring conventional commercial calculations. An anxious studio head could have chopped at least an hour out of the film (or combined the two volumes back into one) without affecting much of anything, and yet for now Tarantino manages to convince enough of us that his private whims are worth indulging.

Kill Quentin

His sympathy for old tropes and moods and references (most pleasingly evidenced by his wonderful use of overlooked actors, which continues here with the return of David Carradine, who’s pretty good) is a likable trait, and maybe the best hint to his most profitable road ahead. Compared to Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol. 2 seems rambling and uncontrolled, evidencing a slackening not unlike that of many great Hollywood directors in their later films. Of course, Tarantino isn’t at all old yet. But I can almost imagine him ending up like the Robert Altman of Cookie’s Fortune and Gosford Park, standing as the sole representative of certain lost values. If so, we may look back on Vol. 2, with the benefit of that hindsight, and see in it a great turning point, a significant signpost to multiple complexities ahead, or maybe an incompletely achieved work – a White Dog or a What? – which may seem great if you know the director. It’s not a sure thing by any means though – the film seems to contain several signs that Tarantino is straining for ideas. The next few movies, it seems to me, will either make him, or kill him.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Vanished Essence

Sight and Sound magazine spent a big chunk of its May issue on the Italian film I Am Love, including cover space for its star Tilda Swinton. Editor Nick James wrote about the reaction at last year’s Toronto festival: “Several people who saw the film there felt it had a certain quality they hadn’t experienced for some time – the impalpable flavor of some vanished cinematic essence…espousing a romanticism that has perhaps become unfashionable.” The designated reviewer, Catherine Wheatley, more or less acknowledged all of this, but found the film easier to admire than to love: “For all its overwhelming sensuality, it always keeps us at one remove, with the end effect being somehow rather bloodless…I Am Love is a bit too accomplished, too self-assured and, dare I say it, a little frigid…” The response elsewhere has been similar: mostly accolades, but with a fair number of shrugs.

I Am Love

I think that’s just about right. The film reminds you (if you were aware of it in the first place) of the thinness of so much modern cinema. It’s a random comparison, but the movie I happened to see just before it was Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, from last year. Lee is himself an acclaimed, even Oscar-winning director; some would say he’s one of the world’s best. And everyone is allowed an occasional misstep. But a truly great director would never make something so shallow and slack. The film, depicting the turmoil surrounding the classic rock festival, certainly has interesting things going on in the background. But there’s not an iota of personality or texture to it. It feels like an assembly, never like a piece of cinematic writing. Even with much better films than Taking Woodstock, you often find yourself responding mainly to a general fluidity and taste and facility with character, to the smooth invisibility of the cinematic apparatus. This is good to the extent it’s pleasant to lose yourself in the experience. But if great directing were marked only by its ability to become unnoticed, it’d be hard to maintain any hopes that film might be an art, not merely a craft.

I Am Love is full-bloodedly a piece of art. Its director, Luca Guadagnino, exhibits an immense sensitivity to surfaces and emotions and places and connections. From Taking Woodstock you get the sense (rightly or wrongly) that Ang Lee basically stands there in the middle of the big Hollywood infrastructure and tries to keep up, barely capable of sensing the possibilities of what’s around him. I Am Love, in extreme contrast, feels like the product of time and reflection and conviction: you feel it would be done this way, or not at all (and indeed, its director and star waited for a decade to make the film). It focuses on a wealthy Italian family; the dying grandfather passes control of his manufacturing business to his son and grandson. While they debate the direction to take, the grandson also helps a friend with his dream of opening an artisanal restaurant. His mother, played by Swinton, falls under the spell of the food, and then under the spell of the man.

The World Outside

The film evokes a grand European tradition of family dramas set in elegant settings, with the sensation of holding at bay the world beyond. There’s a passing reference to a possible murky past, and more extended ones to the changing face of commerce, but these aren’t central to the film’s preoccupations. Swinton’s character, Emma, is at first recessively elegant, keeping all the pieces together, but suppressing her inner life. Her son becomes engaged to a woman who’s clearly primed to continue this tradition (if more aggressively so); at around that same time, Emma’s daughter tells her she’s gay, something that seems to facilitate Emma’s own delirious liberation (the movie codes this, in one of numerous touches that would seem clunky if orchestrated with less conviction, by having them both dress down drastically).

It’s fascinating and impressive from beginning to end, overflowing with concepts and felicities, both grand and subtle. But despite all of that, I have to admit I’m in the group with reservations. I wouldn’t say I found it frigid, but ultimately it just isn’t important enough to be categorized at the highest level. The old masters overflowed with the “vanished cinematic essence” James talked about – hell, they invented it! – but their best films were about something more sociologically or thematically or psychologically important than I Am Love: however much Guadagnino electrifies the cinematic space, that space remains inherently rather narrow. Put it this way - your enjoyment of the film doesn’t depend that much on having any knowledge of, or opinion about, the world outside what it shows you.


You can also see Tilda Swinton, in a very different mode, in last year’s Julia; it was never released here, but it’s out on DVD and on cable. She plays a hopeless alcoholic and all-round mess who’s approached by a woman to help kidnap her son from the paternal grandfather’s rigid custody. Julia ends up going it alone, transporting the kid into Mexico and demanding a $2 million ransom.

The film is somewhat reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ Gloria, which also had a tough-talking woman on the run with a young boy, and at certain moments Swinton seems to be uncannily channeling Gena Rowlands. In the earlier film though, Gloria was the real thing, a tough lady who knew some of the ins and outs; she didn’t seek out the situation, but when it fell on top of her, she went with it. Julia appears to have little experience of anything except screwing up, and has to learn the basics of crime and self-preservation as she goes along; she does pretty well, but even at the point of greatest risk, drops the ball disastrously by spending the night with a casual pick-up.

If she grows during the course of the film, it’s through action, not self-reflection; whatever it is she doesn’t want to acknowledge in herself, violence and momentum turn out to be an effective way of suppressing it, at least temporarily. The movie, executed with vivid, wicked hard edges, is remarkably rounded and alert (it also has elements of extreme black comedy – a parable of a drunk’s messy attempts at opening up the big time) and Swinton provides as complete and complex a performance as you could possibly imagine. It’s co-written and directed by Erick Zonca, who made a great impression with The Dreamlife of Angels in 1998, but has been quiet for the last decade. It’s a surprise to see him back in this vein, but he doesn’t seem to have acquired any hint of rust or uncertainty. It’s very different from I Am Love, but it too – undeniably – is a piece of art.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reading The Reader

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2009)

I’m currently feeling disappointed in cinema. You look at where we are – in a best case, entering a period of difficult realignment; in a worst case, well, much grimmer than that – and you ask, why were the movies so little help to us? It’s a cliché to call cinema a mirror of society: but if it is, the mirror had two faces and we were all enchanted by the lying one. So many “serious” movies focused on the past, or on contrived emotional dilemmas purportedly illustrating the universal triumph of the human spirit, or something like that, or else on foolish, often violent melodramas only capable of being interpreted as serious-minded within a degraded set of cultural criteria (I’d say the last three Oscar winners, Crash and The Departed and No Country For Old Men, belong in that last group). But where were the movies exploring, or even acknowledging, the tensions at the heart of this complex edifice: unsustainable, depraved growth, the malevolent false promises of the debt industry, the hollowing-out of what passes for debate and analysis?

A Kind Of Forgetting

I’m not saying we should have expected a tidal wave – just anything. I mean, normal blue-collar economic problems so seldom turn up on screen – even in independent films – that even something like last year’s Frozen River (despite itself excessively relying on dubious plot developments) struck many people as a near-revelation. I’m trying to think of any recent movie that grappled at all on a macro level with the contemporary economy, but drawing a blank. For me, there’s something melancholy and puny about this year’s crop of awards contenders. Indian slum fairy tales; priests and nuns; dead ex-presidents; of course people should make the movies they want to and are allowed to make, but why doesn’t anyone make a movie about where and how and why we are what we are right now? Nowadays, more and more, I come out of films, even ones I generally liked, bewildered about how I’m any better off for having seen it, or about how the filmmakers ever thought anyone would be.

Stephen Daldry’s The Reader is a good current example of an almost entirely worthless film. I’m not saying it’s not entertaining, in a certain dumb-ass way. But when a big chunk of cinema’s history is so freely available on DVD, who needs another trinket in the jewelry box? This belongs to a particularly durable sub-group of backward-facing movies, those latching in some way onto the Holocaust. In the last few months alone, in various ways, Valkyrie, Adam Resurrected, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas and Defiance belong to the same category. Writing in The New York Times, A O Scott called this “a genre that has less to do with history than with the perceived expectations of moviegoers” and as such as much a kind of forgetting as of keeping the past alive in memory. For me, the most egregious item in the canon remains Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, a crass, self-regarding doodle that somehow got taken up as a profound expression of human endurance.

The Reader

Other reviewers also suggested in various ways it might be time for a moratorium on movies in this area. Certainly The Reader, however well meaning the motives of those involved (and I haven’t read the originating book by Bernhard Schlink) seems opportunistic. That’s not confined to its use of the Holocaust though – from start to end the movie grabs at themes and topics without indicating more than a lamely functional sensibility. It jumps back and forth between decades in the over-used style du jour, but the root is a summer affair in 1950’s Germany between Michael, a fifteen-year-old boy, and Hannah, a tram conductor in her 30’s. They have sex a lot, and the rest of the time he reads to her, everything from The Odyssey to Tin Tin, She disappears after a few months; some years later he’s a university law student attending the trial of six women accused of crimes at Auschwitz, and she’s one of them. The trial yields a revelation about her and resulting moral dilemma for him; her influence on him reverberates through the coming decades. Kate Winslet plays Hannah, and Ralph Fiennes the grown up Michael.

I don’t really know where to start on setting out the film’s problems. I suppose the over-arching one would be the lack of any real sense of time or place or character or spontaneity. It bursts with “only in the movies” situations and exchanges. Winslet and Fiennes are both capable of greatness of course, but flounder here in pretentious actorly dignity. You never get a sense of a director doing much more than merely keeping up. It’s a chilly, affectless creation from beginning to end.

Throughout, there’s a sense of dots not being joined. The trial shows Hannah to be almost frighteningly lacking in introspection; a limited woman who followed orders and even years later doesn’t seem to have engaged in much self-interrogation; the stain of complicity in war crimes sits more easily with her than other far more defensible embarrassments. I found this the film’s most intriguing component, capable in more rigorous hands of a devastating emotional impact and metaphorical implication. But here it’s little more than a gimmick. The frankly almost moronic woman on show at the courtroom doesn’t mesh at all with the voracious consumer of highbrow literature viewed earlier. But then, the list in Michael’s journal of the books they experienced together, at the rate of an hour or two a day at the most, would have taken years to compile, rather than a single summer. The film is full of things like this.

Cinema Of Donkeys

Early on, it almost drowns in an overdose of stilted nude scenes, of the kind that makes you wonder whether anyone involved has ever actually had sex; towards the end, it starts feeling like the zombie refusing to die, adding on an interminable string of twists and postscripts. At the end of it, a chilly man has become somewhat humanized. The enduring power of a first love, no matter how much tarnished subsequently, has been demonstrated. A few other good causes have been duly boosted. We’ve sat through some wantonly lame conversations about morality, legality and the whole damn thing. About the Holocaust, we’ve been fed a few interesting one-off lines, but otherwise learned nothing (nor should we need to). What does any of this have to do with life as we live it now? Nothing at all.

The Reader is a comprehensive failure on any terms. But even if it had succeeded on its own terms, the value we’re collectively prepared to place on such an achievement ought to be severely limited. This is a cinema of donkeys, dutifully trudging along in the farmyard with what respectable movies have always meant, deaf and blind to the atrocities on the other side of the wall.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

This Is Our Family

Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right is the everyday story of a family’s response to an external threat – not, in this case, an alien invasion or a psycho who moves in next door, but rather the reemergence of the sperm donor who long ago facilitated the birth of the family’s two children. This doesn’t go back to fertility problems or other buried complexities, but rather the pragmatic necessity arising out of a partnership of two women, one that’s endured for some twenty years. When the oldest of the kids turns eighteen, she exercises her legal rights to track down the donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who’s still unmarried, and rapidly warms to the idea of making up for lost bonding time.

The Kids Are All Right

If you read the “life” section of any newspaper (so-named I guess because the rest of the paper merely tracks the slow march toward death), you’ll never have to go more than a month or two without encountering an article about modern untraditional families, where past couplings and uncouplings and sexual reassignments and traumas arrange themselves into some kind of workable dynamic. From the summary I just gave, Cholodenko’s film might sound like a contribution to that project, and her previous works – High Art and Laurel Canyon – would likely have supported that expectation. But it turns out she has something simpler in mind – to show how a family built around a gay relationship might not work that way at all. This isn’t a politically driven project, it seems, but one rooted in a particular sense of its characters and the balance between them – it feels like a movie that with slightly different casting and resulting chemistry might potentially have evolved differently.

In other words, the film mostly belongs to Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, a compelling pairing from beginning to end and often very funny. The slightly older Nic (Bening) is the breadwinner and effective head of the household, the one who lays down laws and gets things done; she’s also potentially overbearing, socially awkward, and prone to drink too much. Jules has filled the bulk of the traditional homemaker role; she’s never really got a career going, and has a flightier, more impressionistic take on life. The movie provides some quirky insights into their sex life and lots of needling: it’s probably most enjoyable when nothing in particular is happening and you just soak up the character dynamics (just as an aside though, good as the two stars are, I couldn’t help musing over whether the film might have seemed even more resonant if it had been cast more against type, with their roles reversed).

Hell And High Water

The dynamics get more complicated, of course, as the kids get to like Paul and start spending time with him, disrupting the familiar way of things and introducing a whole new source of parenting conflicts. Then Jules gets to like him too, in a whole different way. Moore and Ruffalo put this across pretty well, but it feels like a bit of a stretch. Susan G Cole in Now offered this take on it: “I might accept this narrative if it were about younger lesbians who didn’t go through the same struggle as those of who had children over 20 years ago. But long-time lesbian mothers who went through hell and high water to have kids? Hot for the donor? Not likely.”

There’s an apparent note of regret there that the film isn’t more political – it doesn’t convey much sense of that past “hell and high water.” Still, objectively speaking, the Paul/Jules development indeed doesn’t seem likely. But the convenience of it suits Cholodenko’s purpose, to show how this particular family can’t take any further radicalization – once the initial shine wears off, Paul just doesn’t really embody anything anyone needs. Some might see the way he’s ultimately treated as amounting to a loose end, but it could also be seen as quite bravely cruel, very starkly setting out the price of a family’s stability and well-being.

The best joke is in the film’s title, best spoken with the emphasis on the kids – except for a minor flutter near the end, the two kids are indeed consistently well balanced (even though the boy is saddled with the name Laser), even if the mothers aren’t. Cholodenko perhaps overstates this point a bit by making Joni’s best-friend dumbly sex-obsessed, and Laser’s best friend a stunning moron who, when they encounter an old dog in an alley, immediately unzips his fly to take a leak on its head. Maybe this aspect is mildly political; playfully suggesting that gay parenting might be the best hope for a well balanced next generation. Anyway, I guess I wouldn’t go as far as Slate’s Dana Stevens, who called The Kids Are All Right “the movie we’ve been waiting for all year,” but it’s very skillful, and a consistent pleasure.

This Is It

If you wanted a movie about truly unconventional parenting, I guess you could dramatize the life of Michael Jackson, except that after he died, the twisted history was mostly sent into the trash compactor, to be replaced by tedious assertions of his qualities as a father and a humanitarian. I still find his musical legacy a bit hard to assess – the albums have a pristine shimmer to them, and of course they’ve overflowing with terrific hooks, but listening to them is always pretty much the same experience, where the greatest records (like the greatest films) never stop offering up new mysteries and subtleties and discoveries.

I hardly cared enough to go and see This Is It, released last fall and rapidly assembled from rehearsal footage for what was to be a massive series of London comeback concerts. Watching it now on cable, it’s a bit unclear whether the show would have been assessed as a personal triumph for Jackson (other than financially). It looks like a dazzler, but because the movie concentrates so intensely on what Jackson himself is doing, you suspect it’s understating how much all the dancers and back-up singers and special effects would have compensated for the star’s frailties (understandably so, given his age and imperfect health). His singing often seems lackluster, but then again, he explicitly says he’s holding back in rehearsal to protect his throat, so you can’t assess his full capabilities.

That aside though, This Is It is surprisingly effective overall, minimizing digressions to focus on what you’d hope it was all about, musicianship and performing skill (apart from what it shows - or doesn’t - about Jackson himself, it’s quite absorbing as a generic behind-the-scenes examination of putting together a contemporary mega-production, although you suspect the process usually involves much more conflict, profanity etc. than we see here). It almost lost me altogether in allowing this all-time symbol of reckless consumption to spout on about our responsibility to heal the world, but I guess his contradictions are part of his legend now.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The King Of Comedy

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2008)

So what’s your favourite Martin Scorsese movie? If you’re reading this column at all, you probably just had four or five memorable experiences go off in your head. I expect there’s a lot of support for Taxi Driver, and for Raging Bull, and some for Good Fellas. A few who’ve jumped on board more recently may go for Gangs Of New York and The Departed (if so, you need to rent some DVD’s, and fast). I myself have a liking for the wintry, meticulous The Color Of Money, although that’s generally regarded merely as a commercially minded tactic to get himself back on track in the mid-80’s. I could list five others that likely figure in the voting. But I suspect The King Of Comedy won’t be among them.

My Name Is Rupert Pupkin

When I bring that film up at work, even with people who are generally knowledgeable about movies and who express enthusiasm about Scorsese, it generally receives no more than a squint of vague recognition. The King Of Comedy has always had its passionate supporters. But too much cinema history is written by the box office, and the film was a fast and expensive failure when it came out in 1983. It’s so tonally different from Scorsese’s previous film – the instant classic Raging Bull – and so strange on its own terms that many people simply didn’t know how to react to it. Scorsese describes the period surrounding it as personally difficult, and took a few years afterwards before making After Hours, a consciously small and fast film apparently conceived as an exercise in regeneration, and then Color Of Money. Compared to the Scorsese we’re used to – the one with the dazzling kinetic camera movements – the film might feel flat and deadened. And Robert De Niro’s character Rupert Pupkin offers none of the outsized, profane pleasures of his roles in other Scorsese films.

I must have seen the movie ten or twelve times over the years – the first five of them within barely more than a year of its release. It’s probably the movie for which I can most easily reel off blocks of dialogue, more or less verbatim. And yet even now, I can’t articulate exactly what it is that touches me so effectively. It’s not as if the film’s basic premise and setting would have meant much to me in the mid-80’s. De Niro’s Pupkin is an aspiring comedian who one night manoeuvres himself into a brief conversation with his hero, the Carson-like Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis. Misinterpreting Langford’s brush-off as a genuine act of friendship, Pupkin quickly loses all grasp on reality, pestering the comedian’s offices and even turning up uninvited at his country house. When he finally gets the drop-dead message, he kidnaps Langford (in collaboration with another besotted fan, played by Sandra Bernhard), demanding as ransom only that he get to perform his act on the show. This he gets, and once he emerges from prison he seems to be a genuine celebrity.

Redemption Through Comedy

De Niro gives an amazing rendition of a man whose utterances, gestures, clothes and thoughts are entirely based on a back-slapping, borderline-corny concept of comedy that peaked in the age of the Dean Martin TV specials (and may survive now only on Lewis’ own annual telethons). I can hardly think of a character in any movie that so comprehensively evades the normal range of analysis or identification. Certainly he’s grotesquely delusional, and a pathological liar. The character’s background is barely explained. We (hilariously) hear his mother’s voice yelling at him to be quiet while he playacts in his basement, but we never see the woman herself. He tells Bernhard he lives in a hovel, but it seems far from it. In his monologue he says his mother is dead.

That monologue is almost entirely built around anecdotes of a miserable childhood – how his parents were so regularly drunk that he thought vomiting was a sign of maturity; how he was so often beaten up that the school worked it into the curriculum, and so on – culminating in his on-air confession to kidnapping Langford and the rationale: “Better king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.” In one of his fantasies, where he’s a guest on Langford’s show, Pupkin’s former high school principal shows up to publicly apologize for all the wrongs he suffered at school, before instigating an on-air wedding ceremony for Rupert and his dream woman. But this isn’t merely a matter of a loser reaching out for self-definition. Another bizarrely stylized fantasy has Langford pushing Pupkin around even as he praises his comic prowess, and then again there’s the masochism of that final monologue, perhaps none of it more than loosely based on the facts of Rupert’s life. In the very last scene Pupkin at last seems to have achieved his dream, but he looks stranger than ever, and we don’t hear him speak – the ultimate validation is barely a step removed from self-nullification. And even this may merely be a fantasy too.

Identity And Self-Delusion

As proof of this, Langford appears to have no meaningful private life at all. Lewis’ brilliant performance makes his status as comedy icon wholly believable while also pushing the character as close as possible to active unpleasantness (while also suggesting the real pressures that might make this a necessary self-protection). We don’t see much of Langford as a performer – Scorsese shot a monologue but decided not to use it (it’s included as an extra on the DVD – fascinating if not exactly funny). Langford is established, a monolith – a point amusingly echoed in the way his kidnappers envelope him in a small mountain of tape. I’m not sure there are any moments in the film where someone laughs freely and spontaneously. Comedy is merely an object of exchange, something transactional, standardized, like dollar bills in The Color Of Money. Which renders the film disturbingly displaced and desperate.

I love Taxi Driver and Raging Bull too but I have to admit that in the light of my love for The King Of Comedy they seem rather crude. Certainly they are too easy to take as localized case histories – I’ve never taken much personal illumination away from Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta. But The King Of Comedy seems increasingly relevant to me. That’s true enough just as a cautionary tale on celebrity worship, but that alone wouldn’t be so exciting. It’s more that in a time of increasing apathy, separation from real issues, puerile fixation on incidentals, and induced mass delusion, the film seems remarkably resonant as an essay in the fragility of identity and self-delusion, as an evocation of how one can be utterly plugged into the cultural centre (either as participant or spectator) and yet be utterly lost. It’s surely Scorsese’s most rigorously analytical film, and crammed with incidental pleasures as well.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

On The Beach

Of all the directors who’ve spent time on the Hollywood A-list, few are as little valued now as Stanley Kramer. He was nominated three times for a best director Oscar, for The Defiant Ones, Judgment At Nuremberg and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, although he never won. In addition to racism and the Nuremberg trials, he addressed subjects like evolution and nuclear war, usually in lengthy, star-laden epics. His approach to comedy, with the three hour It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, applied a similar game plan. In his Biographical Dictionary Of The Cinema, David Thomson summed it all up like this: “his own films are never better than middlebrow and over-emphatic; at worst, they are among the most tedious and dispiriting productions the American cinema has to offer. Commercialism, of the most crass and confusing kind, has devitalized all his projects, just as his deliberate enlightenment seems to have wearied notable actors…Kramer is a hollow, pretentious man, too dull for art, too cautious for politics.”

Stanley Kramer

If anyone’s seriously tried to reclaim Kramer’s reputation, I haven’t come across it. That’s not my intention here either. However, for whatever random reason, I did recently rewatch his 1959 post-nuclear drama On The Beach, which in its day won the British Academy’s “UN Award” and received a Golden Globe nomination for “Best Film Promoting International Understanding.” Thomson says: “There are few films as deeply depressing as On The Beach and Judgment At Nuremberg because their visions of apocalypse are as numbstruck as a rabbit in headlights.” Which is a fair description of the former film, but one we can regard now in a different headlight perhaps.

Based on Nevil Shute’s novel, it’s set in the immediate wake of a nuclear war that’s wiped out (it appears) the entire northern hemisphere. Australia for now remains intact, but with the knowledge of radiation creeping up and facing certain death in some five months. Gregory Peck plays the captain of a surviving US submarine; Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins play various Australians. There’s no social breakdown, no anarchy; people still do their jobs (there’s just the merest hint near the end that a military man and his female assistant might throw it all away and go for some end-of-the-world nookie). The Gardner and Astaire characters are lushes, but it seems they might have been that way anyway (a common 50’s manifestation of unhappy love lives). In the movie’s most prominent example of edge-of-darkness liberation, Astaire restores a vintage Ferrari and entering it in the somewhat depleted Australian Grand Prix (which he wins). Even near the very end, people line up in a calm and orderly manner to collect their government-issued suicide pills.

Nothing Permanent

The Australians pick up a radio signal from California, and the submarine travels back to investigate (it turns out to be generated by a Coke bottle caught in a window blind). The scenes of a deserted San Francisco are impressively rendered, even though we’ve seen similar concepts executed many times since then. What’s most striking though is the absence of bodies, or abandoned cars, or debris. The neatness is no doubt a sign of 50’s limitations, but functions now as a bizarre last gasp of Eisenhower-era conformity; even on the edge of death, it seems, people tended to that last blade of grass.

I don’t know if the movie is as resonant now as a specific nuclear parable; although there’s no doubt a continuing risk of nuclear proliferation into the hands of terrorists, I doubt that consumes the average citizen relatively as much as it does our leaders and budget allocations. And in any event, it wouldn’t lead to the particular scenario depicted here, where an entire hemisphere has been wiped out. The general sense of helpless, desperate anticipation still seems contemporary though, but rather as a metaphor for our real pending apocalypse – the fiscal one. The developed world seems poised in exactly this kind of frozen spectatorship, unable to deny any longer our debt-ridden balance sheet’s unsustainability, nor that every indicator of population and demography and infrastructure only points downward, and yet consumed by short-termism, if not total irrelevance. I know I sometimes experience a dissociation when I look around my neighborhood, at the restaurants and furniture stores and other stores selling nothing in particular. It’s beautiful and utterly solid, and yet built on nothing permanent. We seem to know this on some level, that things have to change, but we don’t demand it and don’t vote for it. We’ll deal with the deadly radiation when it gets here I guess.

There’s Still Time

Kramer’s approach is most dispiriting in the very last shot: he returns to the site of a large banner bearing the message “There Is Still Time Brother,” where we previously saw rallies being held in ever-decreasing numbers; now the location is deserted, except for the blowing garbage (post-apocalypse Australia is less neat than the US it seems), and Kramer closes in on that banner, ominous music swelling, sending its somewhat thudding message directly out to the audience. Even that’s easier to take now though, given the overwhelming signs that we’re incapable of learning from anything. The fact that everything’s so sleek and fully-developed and connected, that we’re so wired to information and interaction, ought to make us better informed than ever, but as people often point out, we mostly use these facilities for reinforcement rather than enlightenment. When you add in the endless distractions of popular culture and toxic politics, we collectively end up just about as dumb as we could possibly be. Kramer’s filmic equivalent of picking us out of our cribs and giving us a shake sure isn’t subtle, and if used in a present-day film would no doubt be patronized, but it’s not so different from a lot of the parallelism James Cameron dropped into Avatar.

At various times while watching On The Beach, even as it reaches its conclusion, you could assume you’re watching any old melodrama, focused purely on the baroque emotional hang-ups of overdone semi-icons. Even if you’ve seen it before, it always seems plausible some miracle might somehow open up, and even near the end, a highly posed shot of a windswept Gardner seems to carry as much weight as the pending end of the world. Maybe it’s the height of artistic constipation, to create a bunch of characters that behave so much like they’re in the movies, even at a time like that. Or maybe it’s the film’s unwitting truth, even more so now than then, that although we know things can’t last as they are, we can only deal with that knowledge by shutting our eyes to it, and creating ever-more idealized and implausible versions of ourselves and our so-called society.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Tough Life

Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik, is a gripping drama, and even if it’s less accurate as anthropology than it seems, it’s still an eye-opener. Jennifer Lawrence plays 17-year-old Ree Dolly, living in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains and a primary caregiver to her younger brother and sister; her mother is virtually catatonic. Her father - a local drug-dealer and –manufacturer (this seemingly being the primary local industry) has disappeared; faced with losing the house to the bonding company unless she gets him to make his next court appearance, she sets out to look for him. It’s not exactly an amateur detective story – it’s not that his whereabouts are inherently mysterious, just that people won’t tell her.

Winter’s Bone

The movie is most fascinating simply when following Ree around the neighborhood – a topography of wrecked cars, piled-up tires and general drabness, with dogs chained or sniffing round in every yard (I lost count of how many animals seem attached to Ree’s household at various points); guns are commonplace, and Ree herself is a crack shot who’s already starting to teach her siblings. She’s at least vaguely related to just about everyone in the neighborhood, but those ties only take her so far – the people here have narrow but (to them anyway) clearly defined interests, and they hang on to them self-righteously and tenaciously. Symbols of authority, or any kind of outsiders, attract almost comically exaggerated suspicion: the biggest local crime, of course, is talking to the law (it’s possible Granik overstates the community’s isolation – this is one of the few present-day movies lacking any signs of telephones, the Internet, video games, or even television). What we see of Ree’s school is limited to a baby care class and to military recruitment drives and drilling exercises, both embodying limited choices and unthinking continuity: no one in the movie ever says anything vaguely aspirational or abstract. Like the recent The Lucky Ones, the movie gets across the troubling allure of the army’s $40,000 signing bonus, an avenue constituting Ree’s only half-formed plan of escape, if escape were possible at all.

Sexual attitudes are predictably troubling – the women are outspoken and gritty, but the men still push them around. Ree herself though never betrays a sexual thought or expectation, again almost unprecedented for a character of her age in recent movies. Lawrence is terrific in the lead role, as steely-eyed and sure of herself as a noir hero, but with sufficient vulnerability to form a rounded character. To say the least though, she seems like a quirk of evolution, much more beautiful than the lived-in faces around her, and less constrained by received attitudes. This adds an additional poignancy to the way she’s accepted, for now at least, the inevitability of her caregiver role, but also gives the film an air of canny calculation. In the same vein, it has a couple of surefire squirm moments involving dead bodies of different species, which can’t help but feel partially calculated to shake up any sense of excessive asceticism. And near the very end, Ree demonstrates a coolness about money that seems unlikely in someone so desperately in need of it.

Squirm Moments

Which is only to say, I suppose, it’s fiction, not a documentary. But at the same time, Granik retains a sure sense of how things might become melodramatic, and manages to retain her composure. Movies often over-indulge the violent swagger of local big shots, but it’s held in check here. Her previous film was Down To The Bone, another gritty small-scale drama praised in particular for Vera Farmiga’s performance. I haven’t seen it, but among the ever-growing band of women working in a tougher vein, Granik seems like a sharper operator than (say) Frozen River’s Courtney Hunt, while being less original, and cinematically fluent than Wendy and Lucy’s quietly thrilling Kelly Reichhardt (I realize this grouping is arbitrary and perhaps a little demeaning, but if you can remember the time when the only high-profile female American directors were Penny Marshall and Barbra Streisand, it’s also a celebration).

At the end, Ree sits there with her brother and sister, and with two chicks their uncle gave them (a symbol of renewal of sorts) telling them she’d be lost without the weight of them on her back, an expression of love that also acknowledges the burden of it, and looks off into the middle distance, where you suspect she doesn’t see that much. I couldn’t help thinking how alien Washington and much of the things that consume the national conversation must seem from such standpoints, a distance that might provide strength of purpose at times, but only by increasingly severing the chances of ever closing the gap.

New York, I Love You

Well, back to fluffland then. Paris je t’aime, a compilation of twenty short films filmed in the City of Love a few years ago, was no big deal, but at least it had some tonal variety – if you got tired of one strand, there was always something else just around the corner. The next film in an intended series, set in New York (now on DVD), doesn’t have that advantage – it has fewer segments, and they all feel pretty much the same: wistful, bittersweet, reflective, ironic…you know the deal. It has a great cast – Julie Christie, Natalie Portman, James Caan, and many others – but they all feel like they had a gun at their heads, with their lives depending on being cute. New York doesn’t even seem loved here, except in the sense that the people must be grateful for an environment where they can behave like such boobs. The end credits promise yet another installment, set in Shanghai, but I doubt that even the Chinese dragon can slay this particular deficit.

I also caught up with last year’s The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee, with Robin Wright (who’s also in New York, I Love You) as the quiet, supportive wife of a much older man (Alan Arkin), questioning her life a bit more after they move to a retirement community. It’s written by Rebecca Miller, who made the intriguing Personal Velocity, and sets itself an interesting premise – a woman so self-effacing and undemanding (as an over-reaction to problems in her earlier years) she almost disappears, even from herself, with her lack of an inner life starting to manifest itself through sleepwalking. Unfortunately, Miller doesn’t bring much inspiration to any of it, and things play out in a predictable, unenlightening way. You know, I’m pretty tolerant of people doing the best they can with the cards they’re dealt, but it’s hard not to dismiss most of the characters in these latter two movies as self-absorbed whiners, who could learn a lot from an unadorned two-week stint in the Ozarks.