Sunday, October 31, 2010

Socially Challenged

Maybe the stuff I’m reading isn’t representative, but it seems to me the prevailing economic conversation has shifted lately. For a while, I was seeing a lot of commentary on the inevitability of a recovery, even though the commentators couldn’t articulate exactly where that would come from (clean energy seemed to be the most common guess). Actually, this lack of visibility was part of the point – the more mysterious the next big thing might seem to us, the greater the guarantee of true bigness when it ultimately arrives. But I’m not reading much about that now. Instead, most of our collective hopes seem to lie with the housing market, or the exchange rate – in other words in reinvigorating what we already have.

The Technological Revolution

I guess we’ll need more historical distance before we can fully evaluate the gains and losses of the technological revolution. Not so long ago, the powers and capacities now at our fingertips would have seemed godlike; they’ve completely transformed our relationship to knowledge and culture and commerce. But we also know many of the assumptions underlying the last century – in particular perhaps about the availability and value of what used to be called blue collar work - are in peril, at least partly as a direct result. For now, we’re struggling even to define the new world, let alone understand it.

One of the most interesting things about David Fincher’s hot new movie The Social Network (although there’s almost nothing about the film that isn’t interesting) is that even though it’s just about as contemporary as a serious-minded picture could be, built around a real-life protagonist who even now is only 26 years old, it feels somehow elegiac, even nostalgic. The film gets under way at Harvard, where undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg carves out a campus reputation for technological wizardry. Preoccupied by gaining acceptance within the arcane social order, he agrees to help a pair of ultra-established twin brothers develop a Harvard-oriented social network site; instead he takes elements of the idea and develops it himself, as “The Facebook.” It grows beyond anyone’s imagining, and so of course, lawsuits eventually follow.

World Domination

One of these comes from the brothers, and the other from Eduardo Saverin, the company’s original “CFO” and Zuckerberg’s best (perhaps only) friend, who received a 30% stake in exchange for putting in the original $1,000 capitalization. He’s the film’s most poignant character I think, because his instincts are utterly conventional – grow carefully and methodically, “monetize” the site early on by taking on advertising. Zuckerberg senses they’ve created something that can blow through these traditional rules, an instinct reinforced when he meets Sean Parker, already famous for founding Napster but nevertheless barely with a dollar to his name. Energized by a new San Francisco location and lots of venture capital money, Facebook accelerates smoothly toward world domination, and Eduardo gets left out in the cold.

The film thrillingly captures the giddy myth of the new economy, where as someone says “inventing a job is better than finding a job,” and if you’re basically a geek, then it’s easier to make your first million than to get a date. I don’t know if any film has ever conjured up as much excitement from reams of incomprehensible programming talk. Zuckerberg is living proof that one can throw the rulebook out of the window and still have it all. Except that, actually, as presented in the film he doesn’t know the rulebook; his sense for social interactions and proprieties is utterly screwed up. It’s a supreme irony of sorts that someone so dysfunctional, so ill-attuned to the normal rhythms of interaction and seduction, should have made such a contribution to the social concept of friendship. Except that, of course, maybe his main legacy so far has been to disseminate his own restrictions, pushing more and more us into spending time alone in our rooms, endlessly updating and checking for updates, supremely informed and occupied and connected, but not necessarily, you know, with anyone.

Fincher gets this across very subtly, by making a film that’s surprisingly tonally narrow and claustrophobic. It mostly takes place inside, and presents the one major shift of location – to an English rowing meeting where the brothers realize Facebook has spread overseas, and finally resolve to sue –with deliberate artificiality, suggesting how the rituals of the past are becoming laughably incidental to the prevailing social forces. Harvard, by contrast, is shot respectfully, even lovingly; the film’s dominant colour palette is a late-summer golden-brown. But again, the film suggests the myth now counts for more than the substantive contribution: there’s little sense that any of the new enterprise and wealth generation owes much to whatever it is that actually happens in class. To Zuckerberg, Harvard is primarily a gorgeous pool of data, a perfect incubation site for online experimentation. It’s one of the film’s more predictable devices, I suppose, that the iconoclasm that powers him to a sort of greatness also prevents him from fully enjoying, or even understanding, the fruits of his success.

Fincher’s Progress

The film’s screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin, best known for The West Wing, and it has that same hyper-articulate, stylized dialogue and pacing; it’s his great gift to glamorize inherently dull events and environments with enough intelligence that you happily succumb to the artificiality. And director Fincher is completely in tune with the project. His first big hit Se7en had one of the best structural conceits of the last twenty years, but would just have been another gimmick without his feel for the characters’ bewilderment and fragility. For my taste, Fight Club was less successful in counterbalancing the gimmickry, and his recent The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button seemed to me largely hollow and lifeless. But Zodiac, although I liked it less than many did, was an interesting exercise in working against the conventional grain of a narrative. The Social Network, utterly devoid of killers or reality bending, might seem like an odd choice of material, but it’s a completely logical evolution, demanding as much clarity and nuance as any of his more baroque creations, but far more relevant to the world we live in (at least in the West), where the greatest potential upheaval to the established order flows from largely clueless kids sitting at a desk.

At the same time, Fincher has the good taste not to over-elaborate the material – no giddy montages of teenagers across the globe having their lives transformed – and one could take the film as something of a curio, only incidentally happening to be about a man who changed the world. That’s what’s so damn difficult about knowing where we go from here, when our future probably lies less in the hands of traditional power brokers than in the crazy imaginings of some guy tapping at his laptop in the coffee shop.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Clockwork Orange

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2010)

I recently watched Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange again for the first time in six years. I don’t remember when I initially saw it, but it was relatively late in my cinema education, because the film wasn’t available in the UK when I was growing up; Kubrick kept it out of distribution for years, reportedly afraid he’d gone too far. When I did eventually see it (by virtue of crossing the Atlantic) I remember being shocked and rather repelled…so naturally, I went back a few more times after that. I think I’ve appreciated it more each time, and I now think I’d ungrudgingly call it a masterpiece. It’s not my favourite kind of masterpiece – I’m more your Eric Rohmer sort, which is just about the other end of the spectrum. But as I get more depressed about things, I wonder if we collectively even deserve a cinema as pure and lightly cerebral as Rohmer’s. Kubrick’s film is enormously prophetic, and provokes utter despair: it’s a tidal wave of breakdown, drowning many, converting others into sharks, or into plankton.

Lust For Stylishness

Based on Anthony Burgess’ novel, the film follows Alex, a vicious young delinquent, initially the leader of a gang of equally violent thugs (or droogs as he calls them), later a prisoner, and then a willing participant in a brain-altering rehabilitation experiment. The film seems to be set more or less in the 1970’s, based on how most things look (I think the only specific date reference is to a 1960 bottle of wine); it’s the recognizably brain-dead Britain of Lindsay Anderson’s films of the period (an unavoidable resonance if only because of Malcolm McDowell), with all its plummy accents and knee-jerk attitudes. But some of it –the fashionable bars and record stores where Alex hangs out, and the high-toned houses of some of his victims – exhibit a deranged futuristic design, reflecting a highly warped sexuality (he kills one woman by striking her with a sculpture of a giant penis). It’s impossible to t2001: A Space Odysseyell from the film how these two worlds reconcile. It was possible to see , for all its cautionary notes (the malfunctioning computer) as “the ultimate trip”: the world of A Clockwork Orange is just as trippy, but incoherently so, extending Britain’s inherent fragmentation to a crazy degree. As they always have, the upper-class imagine they can preserve their historical entitlements while mastering all that’s new and fashionable, but the only one who ultimately really straddles the two worlds is Alex, through his relentless violence and amorality.

I think my initial views of A Clockwork Orange, as of many other things, were overly influenced by David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary Of The Cinema. No Kubrick fan, Thomson called the film “grindingly tedious, uncertain of how to develop narrative and pusillanimous in its attitude to violence,” criticizing its exacting art direction and photography as embodying “the erroneous lust for stylishness that besets so many contemporary arts.” The criticism seems less biting with the passage of time – “erroneous lust for stylishness” remains a perfect term for the inane digital firestorms of current mainstream cinema, but those films reek of disposability and interchangeability. A Clockwork Orange feels as if Kubrick wanted to preclude any possibility of imitation, homage, or even vague thematic linkage; and he did – the film is as extreme, astonishing and scary now (to me anyway) as it ever was. It doesn’t feel quite human – for example, its use of Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ In The Rain” is so brutally callous, somehow such an unfair stunt, that it would make you viscerally hate many films, and their makers.

Terrifying Relevance

If that doesn’t happen with Kubrick, it’s because the film remains terrifyingly relevant. I’ve written numerous times (because, frankly, all roads seem to lead me back there) about how the deranged state of our popular culture and discourse and politics increasingly (well, maybe it’s not increasing, maybe it just matters more as our problems get worse, I don’t know) precludes our mature engagement with real issues and problems: we’re not able to talk rationally about how to live. A Clockwork Orange seems eerily relevant to this unraveling. No one in the film tries to understand Alex: he first hits the media as a symbol of youth violence and tool of the government’s law and order efforts, then later as a cause célèbre and malleable symbol of whatever different factions might desire him to be. None of this is remotely adequate: the first position is narrowly reactive, the second deluded. The prison chaplain worries about his soul, but in McDowell’s terrifying performance, it’s entirely plausible he lacks one altogether, while retaining a quicksilver manipulative empathy.

Alex esteems Beethoven, whose music he listens to after his violent outings: it’s the perfect symbol of sociopathic displacement – his respect appears real and deeply felt, but he places his aesthetic experience in a context that makes a mockery of our hopes for art and expression. When he loses his ability to listen to that music, because of associations introduced by the treatment, his dejection seems truer than at any other point; and at this point Kubrick achieves the unimaginable reversal of making Alex’s use of Beethoven seem more sympathetic and valid than that of the scientists. In the end, the government essentially endorses his viewpoint, culture becoming merely a pawn of political self-interest and Alex’s ravenous desire for self-gratification. And as I said, the film itself then extends the devastation by playing Gene Kelly over the closing titles.

In-Out In-Out

Extending the breakdown, the film withholds any fixed points or stable structuring elements. When Alex comes out of prison, his parents have a lodger who appears to function as a substitute son. Two of his former droogs later turn up as policemen (seemingly with minimal adjustment to their social philosophy). A former victim of Alex’s becomes, briefly anyway, an ally. Alex talks in a highly expressive slang, shot through with a sense of alienation: referring to his own actions as “the old ultra-violence” and to sex as “the in-out in-out,” but as I mentioned, the voice of the establishment is that of Britain at the time. And this film is the most extreme example of Kubrick’s non-natural use of actors, twisting them into bizarre facial expressions and line readings, rendering any normal psychological readings of behavior even more inadequate than usual. McDowell, again, is frighteningly well suited to this project; it’s one of the most chilling performances in all of cinema.

It’s amazing to have access to A Clockwork Orange, and yet a film like this shouldn’t live blandly among one’s other DVDs. Selecting it from the others always takes an effort, as if embarking on a pilgrimage without water. In a way, I’d be happy never to see it again. It would be so much easier to look at something else.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Movies I Haven't Seen

Once again recoiling from the cloying obviousness of writing about movies one has actually seen, I present another installment of reviews of movies I haven’t bothered to see.

The Town

By most accounts, this is a meaty, atmospheric, but largely familiar sprawling crime drama, involving a bank robber who falls in love with a girl he previously took hostage (and who doesn’t know his real identity). Obviously, it sounds a bit silly, if your definition of “silly” is spending screen time on something that would only ever happen to about one in a hundred million people, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – films find meaning in a multitude of mysterious ways. Assuming, that is, the director (and I’m an old-fashioned true believer in the director as auteur) actually has something to impart. Now, I don’t want to get into the snide celebrity-bashing thing, because that really isn’t my bag, but The Town is directed by Ben Affleck. Since the record will show I wrote one of the few positive reviews of Gigli, it should be taken on faith I’m not a reflexive Affleck basher. His first film as a director, Gone Baby Gone, was also strikingly atmospheric. But it also ultimately turned silly, and nothing about it suggested Affleck to be any more eccentric or incisive than he seems as an actor (these being just two of the qualities that might make for an interesting director). In other words, he might move the filmmaking pieces around ably enough, and help a few hours go by, but you know what, I just don’t need to pay money to see Ben Affleck do that, and I don’t think you do either.

Never Let Me Go

This is based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, set I believe in some kind of alternate universe, about a group of children raised with something other than a long and healthy life in mind for them. This one really lost me at the trailer, which I seemed to see every time I went to the movies this summer. It just looked like a laboriously meaningful fable where the very proper English accents play off against the underlying cruelty; and the beauty of youth is constantly accented by poignant foreshadowing. To be honest with you, I don’t like the title either. I suppose it depends in what tone of voice you deliver it, but it plays in my head as a big whine. I don’t know whether or not the movie actually does result in letting go though.

Score: A Hockey Musical

It actually would be great if a Canadian movie became a major hit at home, because if we’re going to keep going as a G8 country, shouldn’t we have enough going on to be able to say to the others, at least once in a while, that we don’t need their damn cultural imports? And what’s a major Canadian hit going to be about if not hockey? I mean, do you feel right unless you have a game to watch? The beers just don’t go down the same way otherwise. And no one’s influenced my style more than Don Cherry (you should see what I’m wearing right now). Well, having tried all that on for size, I can tell you it doesn’t fit too well. I don’t know anything about hockey. I did go to a game once; my wife and I were given some big-shot executive seats right down by the ice. But it was all just a blur to me. I saw Slap Shot once…can’t remember a thing about it. Anyway, I just don’t think there’s much point my seeing Score: A Hockey Musical to be honest with you, especially since some reviewers thought it was among the worst movies ever to open the Toronto film festival. But I think it’d be great if a lot of other people went. That’s just the kind of altruistic guy I am.

Waiting For Superman

This is a documentary, directed by Davis Guggenheim, about the problems in the US education system. I spend quite a lot of time reading about US politics, but I wish I didn’t, because all it does is make me mad. I usually think information is superior to ignorance, whatever the context, but I don’t know if the daily flood of crap about US politics even vaguely falls under the category of information. It’s just data maybe, lacking any overall coherence or direction, except of course for being headed right toward hell. Now I don’t need any persuading that the US education system has major problems, but just look at everything in the US: the degraded quality of public discourse; the sneering attacks at “elites;” the inability to develop a complex idea in the public sphere; the supremacy of raw, self-interested politics over all else; the sheer idiocy of an increasingly big chunk of the population (and, more charitably, the real financial problems and deprivations at almost every level of society). If you accept, as they say in business circles, that everything starts with the tone at the top, then how could such a situation not lead to a decline in the quality of learning? So I don’t know why we’d need to see a whole movie to elaborate on that. Maybe I’d go to see a Canadian equivalent (Waiting For Gretzky…), I don’t know…

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

There’s no question Oliver Stone was really on fire for almost a decade, starting in the mid-80’s. Even if you have misgivings about the movies, you have to admire the sustained energy that generated Platoon, Salvador, Wall Street, The Doors, JFK, Born On The Fourth Of July, and that’s not even the whole list. But then it all ran out, and much as I hate to peddle cheap psychological theories, Natural Born Killers – which I’d cite as the downward turning point - really did look like the work of someone who’d fallen for the hype and was just full of himself. The latter-day Stone is nice and modest by comparison, but that only gets you a toothless movie like W. The idea of a Wall Street sequel obviously has some interest, but after such a gap feels mostly like a man trying whatever it takes to keep the party going. So it captures something fundamental about the Wall Street mentality in that respect at least.

And that’s it for this installment of Movies I Haven’t Seen. I admit to you I’m changing – a year or two ago I would almost certainly have gone to all of these. So coming up next, my review of the roads I didn’t take!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wim Wenders

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2007)

In the 1980 edition of his Biographical Dictionary Of The Cinema, David Thomson said: “Of all the new German directors, none has Wim Wenders; rhapsodic sense of America.” Wenders was 35 at the time, with only a handful of films behind him, but he already seemed likely to be a key figure in the transition to a new global cinema – a European, with a sure sense of himself and a distinct moodiness, with (conflicting) aspirations toward Hollywood and yet what Thomson called “his journey of the soul.” At the time, Wenders was working with Francis Coppola, embarking on what would be a troubled, largely pointless film about Dashiell Hammett, the failure of which was widely foreseen. “No matter,” said Thomson, “his America is an imagined place, and it flowers more freely away from the real thing.”

Career Decline

By the 1994 edition, Thomson had modified that opening line into the past tense, and the subsequent fourteen years of work were swept into a terse single paragraph, from which I extract the following: “naïve and pretentious” (The State Of Things), “disastrous” (Hammett), “I walked out” (Wings Of Desire) and “as awful a film as a good director has made” (Until The End Of The World). It would only get worse from there to the next edition. Thomson did salvage Paris, Texas, and that 1984 film probably remains Wenders’ most admired overall. When I was seriously getting into movies in the mid-80’s, Paris, Texas was the acknowledged benchmark of class – authentically both European and American, sexy and mythic, familiar and unprecedented. Yet I must say I’ve never had a desire to watch the film again.

A few years ago I wrote an article on who might have won a Nobel Prize for cinema if one existed, and my biggest blunder by far was imagining that Wenders might have received the award in the early 90’s. Plainly any Swedish committee would have decided back then the kid should wait a while longer, and by the time Wenders finally had enough grey hair, his reputation had fatally sunk. But in a strange way I’ve always liked his failures more than his more achieved works. In recent years I’m one of very few people who gave a general thumbs up to both The Million Dollar Hotel, and to his last film Don’t Come Knocking (a movie by the way for which I was utterly alone in the theater, despite the trailer having played for months). That one was overwritten in some parts, utterly vague in others, but ultimately intriguingly plotted and stumbling toward a giddy affirmation. I did write that “Wenders’ head is buried deep up the ass of his past glories, and nothing here provides optimism for his next step.” But it was still just about the most positive review you could find of Don’t Come Knocking.

Lightning Over Water

Wenders intersperses his fiction films with documentaries, of which the most famous is Buena Vista Social Club (which apart from the inherent worthiness of its service to the long overlooked musicians, didn’t excite me much). A recent DVD boxed set draws together eight of his works (which can be individually rented), drawing equally from both disciplines – three fiction, three docu, and two hybrids. One of these is the semi-legendary Lightning Over Water, Wenders’ 1980 film built around the death of director Nicholas Ray. Ray’s declining state is painful to watch at times, and much of the movie is mainly a deathwatch, something that Wenders agonizes about constantly in voice over. The movie is forged both in collaboration and conflict, with the veteran still believing himself capable of major work; at times Wenders is properly respectful and submissive, but then in the final analysis turns in a movie knowingly weird and deliberately unreadable. He devotes five minutes or more to a long clip from Ray’s The Lusty Men, a tribute touching in its simplicity, but leaves the distinct overall impression that he would only go so far to facilitate Ray’s vision at the cost of his own.

Despite reservations, I like Lightning Over Water because it captures the essence that Thomson was talking about – the thrill of an authentic connection to American mythmaking filtered through a prickly, strenuously contemporary sensibility, The most straightforward triumph in the set, and perhaps Wenders’ most enduring film overall, is the 1977 The American Friend, his version of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game. It’s effective enough as a thriller (although Liliana Caviani’s subsequent version was finer on that particular score) but most memorable as a loose meditation on Americanism – especially as embodied in the business and mythology of movies – and its infiltration into contemporary German life (embodied in the contrast between a naturalistic Bruno Ganz and – as Ripley – a highly stylized Dennis Hopper, in a cowboy hat!).

Trick Of The Light

The set has two other early Wenders fiction films. His version of The Scarlet Letter, apparently not a favourite of the director’s, is oddly perfunctory, authentic-seeming in some ways, at the mercy of glamour and garishness in others (albeit never sinking to the depths of the infamous Demi Moore version). The movie does evidence some confused fascination with the theme of transgression and possibility, perhaps thus vaguely pointing to one of the roots of Wenders’ preoccupation with America. Wrong Move is quite a bit more achieved, although I must admit it defeated me a little at a first viewing. A consciously difficult, highly abstracted journey through Germany, the film just drips alienation and self-doubt, but it has a sure-handed fusion of form and content, in a way the director has subsequently found elusive.

The other hybrid I mentioned is A Trick Of The Light, which I don’t think was ever released over here. This is partly a whimsical evocation of a family of little-known cinematic pioneers, and partly an interview with a surviving daughter. Some of Wenders’ ideas are banal, but the film communicates a rampant love of cinema, particularly in the crazily extended closing credits. Then there are three documentaries. Room 666 is a collection of interviews with directors from 1982, including Godard, Antonioni and a very young Spielberg: it’s too slight to be particularly bracing, but is still an appealing time capsule. Tokyo-Ga is a tribute to Yasujiro Ozu, not very analytical but with some touching glimpses of surviving cast and crew. And then Notebook on Cities and Clothes, about a Japanese designer, struck me as the slightest of all, with Wenders’ musings on the similarities between fashion and cinema seeming particularly strained.

So hardly a wholly satisfying set, and yet just look at that variety. Individual Wenders films of the last twenty years have almost inevitably been disappointing, if not actively off-putting, but he remains restless and probing, pushing at new ground even while he obsessively stalks recurring territory. He seems increasingly captive to his weaknesses, but the possibility of major work from him is not quite dead. If he can discover again that sense of rhapsody.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

What Works With Woody

I don’t mean to be morbid, but since Woody Allen is in his mid-70’s now, it’s tempting to carry out a thought experiment: how would his new film You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger seem if it had turned out to be his last? If you’ve followed a filmmaker over several decades, as many of us have with Allen, it’s impossible not to perceive each new work in relation to what preceded it, as an addition to an endlessly refined (not necessarily for the better) lifelong sculpture. I was a little too young to see Annie Hall when it first came out, but I joined the party with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy in 1981, and I don’t believe I’ve missed a single one since then. It’s therefore inevitable that my take on Allen is the same many others have: he started small, hit a major cultural zeitgeist, staked out a plausible claim to greatness, and then hit a creative wall around the same time his personal problems erupted. Since then, it would take a major feat of memory to recall all the forgettable annual installments - Hollywood Ending, The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, Anything Else, and so forth, although it’s hard not to admire the industriousness that keeps them coming.

International Woody

In recent years, Allen has largely reinvented himself as an international filmmaker, something that ironically would have seemed impossible for the younger, more energetic director. He’s filmed several times in the UK and also in Spain, and he’s already made another movie in Paris. At times, with Match Point in particular, you could really believe someone else was behind the camera, but this only sparks limited excitement – shouldn’t Allen be developing a fuller and deeper version of himself, rather than trying to be someone else? At least, that’s what I think when I compare him to Bunuel and Rivette and Rohmer and others who kept going into their seventies or beyond. But it’s become increasingly clear that Allen, for all his literary references and veneer of bookishness, isn’t truly occupied by the kinds of big ideas that keep an artist going until he drops. His main motivation, it seems, is to avoid ever having to spend a quiet night at home with nothing to do (once he’s got his sports fix and practiced his clarinet). As soon as he finishes a movie, by all accounts, he starts on another one, never looking back, churning through projects the way other old men work through jigsaw puzzles.

His latest release, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, is again set in London. Anthony Hopkins’ character leaves his wife after 40 years, marrying a manifestly unsuitable young “actress” (read hooker). The wife (Gemma Jones) falls under the sway of a so-called psychic, gradually devoting virtually all her waking energies to the world beyond. Their daughter (Naomi Watts) and her husband (Josh Brolin) have career and money problems; she dreams of hooking up with her wealthy boss (Antonio Banderas) and he lusts after a young woman living in an adjacent apartment (Frieda Pinto). The movie might be broadly classified as a comedy, but no one cracks one-liners; the laughs (if indeed they exist at all) come out of embarrassment, absurdity, and desperation.

Signifying Nothing

As with much of Allen’s later work, the film often seems under-developed and even lazy. The relationship between Hopkins and the prostitute, even allowing that lust can lead men down some irrational paths, is too sketchily presented to be remotely convincing. The Watts and Brolin characters make their living through art and writing respectively, but it certainly doesn’t sound like it in their conversations. In his heyday, as I mentioned, Allen was everyone’s favourite representative of a certain (narrow) strand of high brow behaviour, but that now looks at best like a phase he’s left behind. Near the beginning of Tall Dark Stranger, its voice-over narrator promises a tale of “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” which as one of the most over-cited lines in all of Shakespeare doesn’t promise anything too intellectual or distinctive ahead.

That’s especially true since the notion of “signifying nothing” has become increasingly dominant in Allen’s work: it’s implicit for example in the title of Whatever Works, and he frequently makes the kind of film where A meets B who knows C who’s married to D who works for A etc. His characters frequently undergo dramatic reawakenings: in Whatever Works, Patricia Clarkson transforms from a religious Southern mother to a New York artist living in a ménage a trois, and her husband comes out as gay. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the sexual triangle involves two women. In several recent films, things turn to murder. But if there’s any particular perspective in there on the human psyche or on society, it’s only that it’s not worth having a perspective: you never know what’s around the corner, and whatever it is, it’s questionable whether it means anything.

What's Possible

Tall Dark Stranger, I should warn you, leaves most of its plot strands hanging, although with things looking mostly grim; the main exception, and where it chooses to close, is in the happiness (although likely fragile) it grants a character who may actually have become unhinged and surrendered almost completely to fantasy. Returning to where I started, if it were Allen’s last film, it would lend itself very easily to a farewell essay. Obviously one would try avoiding the obvious line about Allen now meeting his own tall dark stranger, but it would be impossible not to see the Hopkins and Brolin characters as commentaries on Allen himself, as embodiments of the mixed payoff from insufficient personal discipline (in one of the film’s more unexpected turns, the Banderas character stands as a relative example of sound judgment and shrewd personal life strategy).

But then, this farewell essay might say, the last few minutes of Allen’s last ever film (with a vintage version of When You Wish Upon A Star playing on the soundtrack) looked kindly on dreamers and modes of escape. Although his own work was mostly earthbound, he’d often acknowledged (for example in Purple Rose Of Cairo) the power of cinema to transform reality. It’s unlikely, you might write, that he ever fully realized all his aspirations for his work or for himself. But he stuck with whatever worked, and the longer he survived, the more he confirmed through his very presence what’s actually possible, if you focus on the conditions to make it so.

Happily though, it’s not his last film. But whatever he’s got going on in his Paris movie, I’m sure that too will work fine as a springboard for summing up his entire career. Maybe this means he’s a consistent artist after all. But maybe it just means that whenever you’re looking for a way into writing about latter-day Woody Allen, you’ve just got to go with whatever works.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Altered States

In 2006, I wrote this about Syndromes And A Century, by the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose work I’d never seen before): “It’s not the easiest work to assimilate on a single viewing (I have some trepidation that I’ve misunderstood the thing completely), but my initial impression was that Apichatpong’s cinema might indeed be one of awesome possibilities.” Since then I’ve gone back and seen the two key films he made before that, Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours, and I realize he’d already moved way past the stage of possibilities. Tropical Malady was so alluring to me - and yet I was again so uncertain of my grasp of it – that I watched it a second time within days, which helped a lot in appreciating its vision of fragile earthly lust careening into an altered state. Blissfully Yours is more earthbound, but no less propelled by its own muse (the opening credits, for instance, show up some 45 minutes into the movie).

Uncle Boonmee’s Past Lives

Although he’s only 40 years old, these films have put Apichatpong at the forefront of world cinema, which sadly doesn’t mean much mainstream awareness comes his way. This year he’s taken a major step toward greater fame, winning the top prize at Cannes for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The film was one of the opening attractions at the very pleasant new Bell Lightbox facility and it’s playing at the Varsity as I write; it’s likely to remain much more accessible than the director’s earlier works.

The Star’s less-than-visionary Peter Howell earned himself some attention for taking down the film after it won at Cannes. He called it “one of the most political and cynical moves ever from a Cannes jury,” alleging the president Tim Burton and the other members, “acting on his cue, wanted to show how cool and cutting-edge they were.” “As a cinema experience,” said Howell, “Uncle Boonmee is about as gripping as watching a variety store security video” (weirdly though, he then went on to suggest Burton should make more movies in the same vein, or at least spend some of his money promoting them). Just to show his own cynicism, when the film subsequently opened here at the Lightbox, Howell dutifully allocated it a TIFF-friendly three stars, neither acknowledging his earlier rant nor describing how the film might have grown on him with time.

Stirring Up The Next World

This tells you a lot about the degraded state of mass-market writing about film, which expects us to care about a lot of transient shiny toys (and to spend a lot of money on seeing them), while seldom putting together a coherent conversation from one week to the next. Uncle Boonmee is an especially interesting focal point for this, because the film’s importance lies I think in setting out an alternate vision for our interaction with the universe, not just for the sake of our own spiritual health, but that of our political and social infrastructure. Boonmee is dying of kidney disease, and his long-dead wife’s sister and her son come to see him on his farm; at the first night’s dinner, the dead wife materializes at the table, and then his dead son arrives too, in the guise of a red-eyed “monkey ghost” (the generalized notion is that Boonmee’s weakening grasp on this world is stirring up the next). The film follows his last days, while also digressing to other scenes that we can only understand as glimpses of his past lives: an ox escaping from its tether, a princess’ erotic encounter with a talking catfish.

Howell’s “security video” crack does reinforce the point that Apichatpong seldom reaches for flamboyant or splashy beauty; instead he suggests the poverty of our usual rushed or circumscribed perception of things. His approach to the other world is extremely plastic; the depiction of the monkey ghost (a man in an ape suit, basically) bravely invites derision. But many of the movie’s most striking images belong entirely to this world, such as the gorgeous night-time view of the ox, its actions suggesting a purpose we can’t fathom, but maybe largely because we so seldom spend time watching oxen, or any other animals.

It would be inattentive though to think the film’s concerns are entirely ethereal. Early on, the visiting sister expresses her paranoia about illegal immigrants from Laos, and Boonmee fears his illness may be a result of bad karma for having killed too many Communists in the past (and also too many bugs). As he nears his end, the film makes a startling change of direction, into a photomontage suggesting (to me anyway) the extreme danger that man would only abuse any greater access to the spirit world. The film’s coda extends this theme, following the aftermath of Boonmee’s funeral via a monk who hardly conforms to our idealistic concepts of orange-robed Buddhist acolytes, and a new category of out-of-body mysteries (carrying an implied critique of how our better natures are torn between the world’s everyday ills on the one hand, and all-suffusing cultural pap on the other).

The Value Of Cinema

All in all, Uncle Boomee Who Can Recall His Past Lives seems to me one of the year’s most graceful and rewarding films, and one of the most deserving Cannes prizewinners in a long time; it belongs to the privileged circle of cinema that extends and deepens the conversation about why some of us care so much about the art in the first place. I mean, if our concern is with finding good stories, an easy way to pass two hours, then cinema isn’t a particularly cost-effective or reliable way of doing that. But I still believe in its inherent capacity for illumination and enhanced awareness. As with anything, the main drive of cinema is toward more technology, more size, faster pace, which may make for better spectacle in a certain abstract way, but can’t possibly yield a better understanding of anything that should matter to us.

And when you look at the state of things, it’s not as if we don’t need some help in understanding where we should go from here. There’s a lot of anger in the public discourse now, especially in the US, but it’s surely inadequately rooted either in an appreciation for the complexity of how we got to where we are, or a true commitment to what it’ll take to forge a sustainable renewal. Apichatpong doesn’t have an answer to all of that, of course, but with great equanimity and patience, his film puts all those strident assertions about values and entitlements in perspective, illustrating how little we value the complexity within ourselves.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

John Cassavetes

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2005)

The release of the DVD boxed set John Cassavetes: Five Films was clearly one of last year’s main events for home viewing. The set includes Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under The Influence, two versions of The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, and a fascinating three and a half hour documentary, A Constant Forge, as well as a highly informative booklet and all the usual extras. The set actually excludes my own two favourite Cassavetes films, Husbands and Love Streams, both still unavailable on DVD (although Gloria is fairly readily available), but this only tells you that the set could have been even more stunning.

Left Me Reeling

I watched all five films and the documentary in quick succession, with few other movies in between (except new releases) and I’m barely exaggerating to say they left me reeling. Since then I’ve discovered a plethora of Cassavetes material on the web (see for example at and via the link from and it provides the feeling of a thriving subculture, a loosely but coherently linked group of global Cassavetes enthusiasts, outwardly (I hope for their sakes) normal but inwardly in an emotional and intellectual fever, their view of art and love and the world transformed by the director’s thrilling sensibility.

That sounds over the top, but my sole intention here is to persuade you, if you’ve never seen a Cassavetes film, to buy or borrow one of the movies (the five films in the set can all be purchased separately – they rarely show up on TV). I cannot promise that the initial experience will be easy. The films have often been called self-indulgent – the plotlines are generally either minimal or obscure, and the characters’ behaviour strikes many as weird and unrealistic. The films look roughly shot and edited. They don’t necessarily get any easier on a second viewing either. And that’s because the films work counter-intuitively – they look as though they should benefit from a more microscopic attention, and I’m not saying they don’t, but it’s as important to abstract your senses and to absorb their rhythms and jagged edges as you would a jazz recital.

At this point, for the completely uninitiated, I should insert a brief biographical note. John Cassavetes achieved a relatively high profile as an actor, playing Mia Farrow’s husband in Rosemary’s Baby and getting an Oscar nomination as one of The Dirty Dozen; he played the villain in The Fury and, much earlier, the lead in the TV show Johnny Staccato. He directed his first film Shadows in 1959, directed a couple of relatively conventional Hollywood features, then made the groundbreaking Faces in 1968. Seven more features followed (plus one more director-for-hire project, Big Trouble). Like Orson Welles, he often financed his films himself through the money he earned from acting. In A Constant Forge, he mentions how he bought his house in the 1950’s after the success of Johnny Staccato and thirty years later had as big a mortgage on it as when he started.

World Being Remade

An anecdote that speaks to Cassavetes’ view of things: on several occasions he showed his films to preview audiences and received good, even excellent reactions. Instead of being happy, he interpreted this enthusiasm as proof of his failure, the mark of an insufficiently challenging film. He then returned to the editing room, taking out the scenes that got the easiest reactions, obscuring narrative flow, basically rendering the films more difficult. And it worked – his final versions were never as well received as those preview versions.

It’s common now to regard the release version of a film merely as one of multiple possible versions, other iterations of which might show up on DVD or in subsequent reissues. But Cassavetes almost pioneered this view of things – hence the two versions of Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (one of them 45 minutes shorter than the other – contrary to the norm, the shorter version is his post-release reedit). This all potentially makes him sound merely perverse and temperamental. But his ease with renewing and shifting the boundaries of his films reflects the passion for discovery that permeates the work in other ways.

In one of the articles on the Senses of Cinema site (“The Cinematic Life of Emotions”) critic George Kouvaros talks about performance as a central concept in Cassavetes’ films, on both a formal and thematic level. He says: “In Cassavetes’ films there is a sense of a cinematic world continually being remade. Human figures, situations and emotions in his films are continually undergoing a kind of transformation.” At first sight this can seem chaotic, like an endless improvisation, forced into some rough shape only through the director’s hopeless subjectivity. No matter how many times you see the films, you can only rationalize their contents up to a point (Cassavetes loved talking about his characters and what they embodied, but I think his statements are best taken as counterpoints to the films than as genuine illuminations of them).

The Wonder Of Her

But this is the source of their wonderment. Kent Jones writes in an essay in the Criterion booklet: “When you look at a close-up in a film by almost anyone else, you’re looking at a representation of the idea of an emotion, no matter how detailed the acting. In Cassavetes, every blink, every shrug, every hesitation counts and drives the story forward...Human activity is to Cassavetes what color is to Vincent Minnelli and space is to Hitchcock. It’s at once his aesthetic and moral center of gravity, his canvas, and his most reliable tool.”

The documentary A Constant Forge is valuable in helping us understand the deliberation of Cassavetes’ approach to this. The interviewees talk of his immense vivacity on the set, of the way he immersed himself into every task, and also of his underappreciated technical skill – self-operating a handheld camera and maintaining focus through complicated scenes, or knowing exactly when and where to put the camera to capture a moment of spontaneous ecstasy. Peter Falk talks about how a modest direction from Cassavetes during Woman Under The Influence, simply that Falk should take a breath at a particular point, totally changed the actor’s engagement with the scene. Asked which directors he admired, Cassavetes once said he admired anyone who could make a film, and Kouvaros remarks that his “antipathy to Hollywood narrative may have been overplayed” (in his acting assignments though, Cassavetes was notoriously difficult to direct, yielding a string of anecdotes about unruly behaviour).

I must also mention how much Cassavetes’ accounts of his work talk about love as the driving force of human nature. His films have a consistent tenderness, and an alertness to the dreams and complexities of women. In a wonderful tumble of words, he criticizes Hollywood films for having “nothing to do with the dreams of women, or of woman as the dream, nothing to do with the quirky part of her, the wonder of her.” Even when Cassavetes’ characters remain obscure, we can see, if we’re generous, that they’re tapping some internal dream, and if you can engage with the films to the point that their dream becomes yours, it’s one of the most thrilling experiences in the cinema.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Fanny and Alexander

When I was first getting into movies, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini were certainly the heavyweights among foreign directors. Each had a string of critical and popular successes going back to the 50s (Bergman actually started in the 40s), each had won Oscars, had colourful personal histories in various ways, and they’d both been appropriated by Woody Allen, which stood for a lot at the time. Their reputations were mutually enforcing I think – Bergman’s famous austerity and advanced intellectualism seemed all the more glamorous for the counterpoint of Fellini’s flamboyance, and vice versa. Of course, I’m grossly simplifying an incredibly rich cinematic landscape, but that’s how it seemed at the time.

Fellini versus Bergman

Fellini is a director who’s never clicked for me. I’ve come to like La Dolce Vita progressively more over the years, but I’ve never found a meaningful way of engaging with 8 1/2, and frankly many of the films just seem rather trivial to me, however well orchestrated. I don’t get the impression there’s much in the zeitgeist that pushes people to discover his work now. Bergman is a more complex case for me: his work doesn’t feel remotely trivial, and yet in all honesty it often doesn’t feel that relevant either. When he died a few years ago, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote a piece in The New York Times that attracted some attention for being less dutifully complimentary than one expects on such occasions.

“Mr. Bergman’s star has faded,” he said, “maybe because we’ve all grown up a little, as filmgoers and as socially aware adults.” He went on: “Bergman simply used film (and later, video) to translate shadow-plays staged in his mind — relatively private psychodramas about his own relationships with his cast members, and metaphysical speculations that at best condensed the thoughts of a few philosophers rather than expanded them. Riddled with wounds inflicted by Mr. Bergman’s strict Lutheran upbringing and diverse spiritual doubts, these films are at times too self-absorbed to say much about the larger world, limiting the relevance that his champions often claim for them.”

What this misses, perhaps, is that the self-absorption in itself speaks about the larger world, or at least about a certain privileged (and perhaps now dwindling) subset of it: it’s no accident that Bergman’s greatest fame coincided with the era of tuning in and dropping out. Still, it’s probably true that watching his films often feels like taking a trip to a remote and rather weird island.

Fanny and Alexander

There are clear exceptions though, and I got huge enjoyment the other week out of rewatching Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. He made this in 1982, and at the time called it his last film; this was technically true, but he subsequently made several other works for TV, released in theatres outside Sweden. I watched the three-hour version originally released, for which Bergman won his third foreign film Oscar, available here through Criterion (Criterion also releases a fuller five-hour version, which I haven’t seen).

It’s a glowing, tumbling, multi-faceted turn-of-the-century family drama, autobiographical in some respects, but going beyond that into magic realism, at first gentle, but ultimately almost brutal. The first hour or so is devoted almost entirely to a Christmas celebration – a classic set piece stuffed with sumptuous food and merriment, with loneliness, cruelty and adultery. Soon afterwards, ten-year-old Alexander and his younger sister Fanny lose their father, and before they know it their mother remarries to the cold, self-righteous bishop; their lives descend into misery. Even from that reductive a summary, it’s clear the narrative has its conventional aspects. But Bergman treats it with immense empathy and care, and virtually every scene yields some surprising interaction, whether between people or dimensions.

When you know the film’s last words, quoting Strindberg, are that “the imagination spins, weaving new patterns,” then it sounds almost more like Fellini’s orchestrated chaos. And indeed even in its final minutes, Bergman’s film is spinning out new subplots, directions, and even metaphysical challenges: hardly the approach of someone winding up his artistic affairs.

Bergman and Desplechin

On this viewing, the film made me think quite a lot of Arnaud Desplechin’s recent A Christmas Tale, another multi-faceted family drama that’s warm and wise without being sappy and preachy, and with elements that strain earthly interpretation. It’s not a connection that would ever have occurred to me from Bergman’s other films – Desplechin is much more the showman, more Felliniesque (if I force myself to keep going with this admittedly strained contrast) and to return to Rosenbaum, perpetually relevant (a more direct comparison might be with the recent Everlasting Moments, if only because it’s also Swedish and set around the same period, but this comparison only shows up the newer film’s conventionality).

A Christmas Tale deals in part with aging and mortality, allowing the grandparents to be frisky and spiky and mysterious as they seldom are in films. The older generation in Fanny and Alexander is hardly embalmed either; it harks back at times to Bergman’s classic Smiles Of The Summer Night in its evocation of past indiscretions. But it’s a different age, constrained by tradition and propriety (albeit sometimes a flexible application of it) and by the limitations of the milieu. For most people, life doesn’t allow too expansive a set of horizons – near the end, one of the family delivers an address on the importance of living a narrowly focused life (the focus in his own case being compulsively sexual). With just a small shift of perspective though, a small world becomes huge. In one scene, Alexander thinks he’s encountering God; it turns out to be a rather fearsome puppet, except that maybe it’s God after all. All earthly things become possible, and as I mentioned, when the film closes the narrative seems to be gearing up to assume a higher momentum, as if anticipating the more fraught demands of the era just ahead.

The film is best seen, naturally, in the context of some familiarity with Bergman’s career, but it’s still immensely rich and rewarding if viewed in isolation. I don’t think a novice viewer would be too surprised to be told the director also made a picture containing a chess match against the grim reaper, but he might be surprised not to sense greater merriment across his work as a whole. Looked at this way, Fanny and Alexander could be an apology of sorts – if we equate Alexander with Bergman, we see there might have been a lighter path available, but we also see the formative glimpses of the earthly pressures that drove him to follow a darker one.