Saturday, December 31, 2011

Four current movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2007)

Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering is only a partial success, but it’s good to see the director of The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain working in an ambitious contemporary mode. Jude Law plays an architect, with a bright new office in a seedy part of London that he hopes to redevelop; in the meantime, the firm is a constant target for break-ins. After one incident he follows the perpetrator, a young Bosnian immigrant, to his house, and later makes contact with his mother, played by Juliette Binoche. They begin an affair, made easier by the architect’s strained relationship with his long-time partner (Robin Wright Penn). Emotional and familial challenges crash into economic and legal ones, bound together by a common need, as the title suggests, to break one’s current state, and find a way to re-enter.

I liked the film’s portrayal of the modern British melting pot, and Minghella’s carefully calibrated cauldron of traumas. There’s a real melancholy to this film, and it’s my favourite Law performance to date – the character is so hemmed in by professional and personal woes that the actor barely has a moment when he can merely rely on charm (in contrast, for example, to the recent The Holiday). On the other hand, the film is exceptionally contrived; it often succumbs to excessive glossiness; it’s full of standard “sensitive” dialogue; and there are several dubiously conceived characters (such as the hooker, played by Vera Farmiga, who starts hanging out with Law on his night-time building stakeouts). With a little more spontaneity, or perhaps just serendipity, this all might have coalesced into a fuller overall experience.


Some of the same caveats could apply to Billy Ray’s Breach. This tells of the capture of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, perhaps the most damaging intelligence traitor of all time, responsible for leaking untold secrets to the Soviet Union. He was also a sharer of Internet pornography (although the raciest thing we see him do in the movie is watching a Catherine Zeta-Jones DVD in his office), a strict doctrinaire Catholic, committed family man and definite right-winger. Such a character certainly seems worthy of a movie, and Chris Cooper is compelling as Hanssen, conveying both the intellect and will that allowed him to rise in the Bureau, and the dark complexity that might have led him astray. Ultimately though the film only tries to connect so many of the dots, leaving much of the mystery intact (the best guess is that it was mainly a matter of ego).

The heart of the film instead is a young operative, played by Ryan Philippe, who’s installed as Hanssen’s assistant with the secret brief of getting the goods on him. As the film presents it, it strains credibility that the Philippe character gets away with so many lucky escapes, increasingly relying on a superficial appeal to the older man’s religious faith to get out of a hole. This is particularly distracting because director Ray’s approach is low-key and functional, eschewing any kind of flash. Ultimately, although the film is more engaging overall than Robert De Niro’s recent The Good Shepherd, it’s less successful in evoking the compromises of a spy’s existence. Overall it’s not at all clear what effect Breach is aiming for.

Days of Glory

“At the 2006 Cannes Film Festival,” says the poster to Days of Glory (Indigenes), “one film was so powerful it changed the course of history.” It’s a reference to French president Jacques Chirac, who saw the film and then authorized the release of long-frozen military pensions to soldiers from France’s former African colonies. The film follows a group of these soldiers in the last year of World War II, doing much of the dirty work in the liberation of France, their official home country but also a foreign and only partly welcoming one. They suffer racism both explicit and subtle, manifested in unequal access to rations and leaves and promotions, to official disregard and cultural insensitivity (in one of the film’s few moments of relative dark humour, they’re herded together to watch a (lousy) ballet performance, which they quickly desert in disgust). Through the film they grasp at strands of hope of attaining fairness, always dashed, in a way that’s ultimately very chilling.

The film, directed by Rachid Bouchareb, was nominated this year for best foreign language film, and its main actors shared the male acting prize at Cannes last year. At times it’s rather too episodic and conventional, but then its point isn’t to remake our view of war, but rather modestly to excavate some of the stories that lie hidden in its folds. As such it’s almost a counterpoint to Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers. That film illustrated the military and political machinery’s hunger for heroes, and the institutional carelessness with which they’re created; Indigenes shows the callous disregard for heroes who don’t fit the prevailing ideology. Even when it seems the war genre has explored every possible nuance and byway of history, Bouchareb’s film is a meaningful further contribution

The Astronaut Farmer

Mark Polish’s The Astronaut Farmer has been widely criticized for wanton implausibility and hokiness, and no surprise. Former Air Force pilot Billy Bob Thornton, living the quiet family life on a Midwest ranch, is increasingly obsessed with space flight, and since the official channels are closed off to him, he sets out to build a rocket in his barn. The FAA, CIA and military all observe him with suspicion, and the locals mostly think he’s crazy, but the support of his wife (Virginia Madsen) and kids never wavers, or rather only enough to facilitate the big climax where he comes back from his lowest ebb to finally triumph (I doubt I really gave anything away there). So it’s implausible for sure, but isn’t the fixation on that point mainly a function of genre convention? When has a conflation of events like that in Babel ever “actually happened”; in what world do people “really behave” like those in The Departed? The issue rather is that an amiable family drama like The Astronaut Farmer is meant to follow different artificialities and clichés. The film seems to me a fairly witty challenge to convention, and rather subtly ambiguous (to me anyway) in its use of familiar mechanics; if you skew your mind just slightly to the left, the film seems at least radical if not anarchist; if the prototypical story of the ordinary guy who won’t give up can be so straight facedly marshaled to such an end, what are we to make of a country that bases much of its political rhetoric on this stuff? Thornton plays along perfectly with the joke, and the great Bruce Dern is in there as well.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dumb Guys

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2008)

David Ayer’s Street Kings is another LAPD saga, meaning that even though your protagonist is violent and unethical, with a flagrant disregard for what you might quaintly call “the law,” he might still be a better man than the corrupt sleazeballs around him. I say “a better man” because on the evidence of this film the LAPD remains pretty much a male enclave, not that I wish the film had tapped the cliché of the grimly attractive female sidekick. Keanu Reeves is the outrageous central figure, not giving a very rounded performance, but doing well enough at the Dirty Harry thing; he’s surrounded by a colourful but mostly indifferently used cast (including Forest Whitaker, already in heavy post-Oscar slumming, and Hugh Laurie playing Dr. House’s less eloquent cop brother). Ayer’s first film Harsh Times was also familiar stuff, but with a distinctive take on the pain and arrested development underlying sleazy male behaviour. Street Kings is much coarser, and doesn’t have much tonal variation: it’s one of those films where even modest reflection (and one might forget that the original Dirty Harry was quite piercing, but that was the 70’s for you) is squeezed out by brassy momentum. The screenplay (co-written by James Ellroy) is quite ingenious, but as you know, ingenuity is nowadays usually just one step removed from ridiculousness. The movie is definitely entertaining, and I know that counts for a lot.


Kind of like I wrote the other week about the Argentinean The Year my Parents went on Vacation, Nadine Labaki’s Caramel is a smooth but straightforward creation that earns significant extra points for anthropological interest. It’s a warm-hearted, colourful chronicle of the lives, loves, ups and downs of four women who work and hang out around a big-city hair salon, the difference being that the salon is in Beirut. If the film is anything to go by (and I wish it was a little more persuasive that it is anything to go by), the foreground of such lives doesn’t look so much different from parallel lives in the West – they dress stylishly, have affairs with married men, worry about getting old, and so on. One of the women appears to be a lesbian, but it’s not probed very much; although there’s much camaraderie between the four, they’re conspicuously less open with each other than they’d likely be in the West (it’s sort of like watching one of those cleaned up Sex and the City episodes, except the cleaner came back for a second pass).

But more intriguing is what we see in the background. There are small compromises, such as frequent power blackouts, baked into the way of life. It’s a place where you can get questioned by the military during a late night talk with your fiancée, and where an unwise reference to Allah might send you to jail; or where a woman can’t book a hotel room for herself and a companion without producing proof of marriage. This is all fascinating, but because the film is so sunnily contrived in obvious ways, you never know whether these elements are being accurately portrayed. In the end, it remains a chick flick, ending on a woman’s overflowing delight in her new stylishly short hairstyle. Never undervalue the power of small steps, it seems to be saying.

Smart People

Street Kings and Caramel, in their different ways, can be (and especially in the first case, should be) criticized for lack of ambition, but it feels like their makers probably brought home most of what they were aiming for. Smart People, directed by Noam Murro, doesn’t meet that test. Sold as a literate comedy, it has Dennis Quaid as a grouchy literature professor, and widower, in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, and Ellen Page as his precocious 17-year-old daughter. Bookish and socially awkward, the two of them live in a self-satisfied bubble, which gets sullied when Quaid’s lay about brother (Thomas Haden Church) moves in for a while. Meanwhile, the professor tries dating again, with a doctor/former student (Sarah Jessica Parker).

The key part of that brief synopsis is the bit about the rarified relationship between the Quaid and Page characters, but it only dawned on me eventually that this was the intention, by virtue of some strenuous labeling dialogue (for example, a drunken Page actually goes up to a random woman in a bar and asks her what it’s like being stupid). The point is that the characters don’t seem, feel or sound smart. Oh, Quaid uses lots of long words in his lectures (the scriptwriter obviously raided a whole shelf of textbooks) and Page wears the worst clothes of any character in any movie since Battlefield Earth, but they never give off an iota of real intellectual energy; most of what they say is grimly and heavy-handedly functional. It’s tough to write and play smart people, but to take some recent examples – The Squid And The Whale and The Savages never left any doubt that its characters were real intellectuals, although of course foible-ridden. The Savages is particularly impressive for not trying to get laughs based on pretentiousness.

Because the central concept of Smart People so clearly fails, the movie ends up like a glue-deprived craft project using tape and spit and anything in sight to hold things tenuously together. The relationships swing from one pole to the other, leaving out entire fields of connective tissue. It communicates its “smartness” through grotesque excesses that aren’t then followed through. Page makes a Christmas dinner from an obscure recipe that she “translated from ancient French” – (1) nothing else about her character suggests she’d take on such a project; (2) if she had, she sure would have mentioned it earlier than the halfway point in the meal; (3) again, if she had, she sure wouldn’t have made it look like school canteen leftovers.

Maybe that sounds like carping, but details matter. I didn’t like Juno as much as most people did, but it flourished in large part because of painstaking attention to detail and character. Page in Smart People is meant to be (presumably in a desperate grasp at idiosyncrasy) a young Republican – the concept goes no further than a superficial reference to Dick Cheney before being dropped for the film’s last hour. If Juno had been a Republican, it would have amounted to something. Anyway, if you watch the film merely as a series of meaningless scenes, it goes by OK.

AMC Watch

Here I’m inaugurating a new and hopefully short-lived feature: Yonge-Dundas AMC Watch. I’ve been going there a fair bit because it works well for where I live, and it’s pretty good technology- and comfort-wise, but I’m finding the audiences there unusually annoying (maybe something about the acoustics causes the chatter, the rustling etc. to carry), and for a new place it feels remarkably drab, with obvious design problems. And I’ve encountered washroom issues on two separate visits so far. Isn’t this meant to be a destination venue, a showcase at the new heart of our modern city? Make it great, AMC! Or else be singled out here again!

(December 2011 update - the AMC never really changed, but I got used to it)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Total refreshment

Writing unenthusiastically a couple of years ago about Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, I reported how “I started to think there’s something rather insecure about how he casts himself as an eternal superfan, devoting himself to preservation, making documentaries on American and Italian cinema (with British cinema to come) and on Bob Dylan (with George Harrison to come)…it’s getting tiresome how he raves in interviews about B-grade old-timers, people whose influence he ought to have outgrown years ago.” And that was before he made an entertaining but completely inessential documentary about Fran Lebowitz.


Well, Scorsese’s new film Hugo – his best in decades - represents the best possible response to this line of criticism. It’s as dazzling a deployment of cutting edge cinematic resources as you’ll ever see; in particular, it’s Scorsese’s first in 3-D. And it uses this to reach all the way back into the history of the medium, to celebrate the pioneer Georges Melies, insisting on his continuing relevance, as a creator in himself and more broadly as one of the first to understand the possibilities of cinema for nurturing dreams and visions. It takes Scorsese’s “superfan” project to an almost perverse extreme perhaps, but it’s as generous and joyous as any film could be. And it’s wonderfully mysterious how such a “big” picture can feel so sweetly intimate, conveying sudden and total refreshment.

Hugo Cabret is an orphaned boy, living inside a Paris train station in the 1930s, under constant threat of detection by the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), especially because of his petty pilfering from the store of an old toy vendor known as Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley). He makes friends with the old man’s granddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), showing her a mechanical automaton his father saved from a museum, and which Hugo is trying to repair (hence the stolen parts). I don’t want to give away more than that (although the movie’s plot is hardly its most important aspect), but it’s impossible to write about it (and I don’t think anyone has) without noting that Papa Georges turns out to be Melies, virtually penniless and forgotten by almost everyone, too bitter to remember his past glories; as the children learn about these achievements, Scorsese embeds some of Melies’ work into his own film, as well as recreating in flashback the dream factory of his heyday (made of glass to maximize the light).

Georges Melies

Melies made over 500 short films, from around 1896 to 1913: the best-known is Le voyage dans la lune, with its famous image of a rocket flying into the eye of a moon-face. I watched a few of them about a year ago, and it didn’t take long for a feeling of repetition to set in – his taste was for potted adventure spectacles, with mythical quests, monsters and dancing girls. He was a pioneer of what we now call special effects, for example in snipping out frames to create the illusion of someone suddenly disappearing, and in several of the films I watched, he focused on the glories of industrial production. But Melies wasn’t interested in the camera as a medium for exploring real life and people: he saw cinema as a variation on his past theatrical magic acts. Hugo (very kindly, I thought) suggests his luck changed because of the harder attitudes spawned by World War One, but he would surely have petered out regardless, overtaken by more advanced sensibilities (such as Louis Feuillade, also briefly referenced in the film, who was already making his multipart Fantomas epics as Melies wound down).

The rather poignant futility of Melies’ imaginings makes Scorsese’s elevation of him all the more moving. Hugo has an unusually tactile feeling for a digital epic – the texture is defined by clocks and moving pieces and the process of fixing broken things. Hugo refers to the world as a machine; a comforting analogy because machines don’t come with excess parts, and so we must all fit in there somewhere. But the loss of his father means Hugo doesn’t “work” any more, and of course Melies doesn’t either. Hugo is a grand fantasy, but at its centre it sees life and creativity in practical terms – certainly we must dream, but we also have to diagnose and repair. Scorsese extends the theme with the activity around the station – the inspector ineptly tries to court a flower vendor, paralleling an older man’s constant failure to approach his object of desire (she likes him; her little dog doesn’t). In the end, he suggests, cinema isn’t just about escaping; it contributes, even transforms, these faltering attempts at forging a community.

Artistic refreshment

Scorsese’s goodwill even extends to a tacit endorsement of home viewing (sometimes viewed rather disdainfully by cinephiles): a scene where a film professor sets up a projector to show Le voyage dans la lune in Melies’ living room seems like a precursor of television! And the film made me think of 3-D in a rather different way than I had before. I’m rather skeptical of the technology; at best it’s another set of tools, a different visual convention, rather than any kind of heightened reality. Hugo has the inevitable moments when the foreground seems pointlessly and jarringly pronounced or the background weirdly flat and drained. But overall it works to anchor us within the spaces and the relationships, heightening our sense of the world as components and layers and connections, deepening the texture of Hugo’s quest to define himself within it all.

As I mentioned, from a commercial perspective the film seems almost perverse, or at least a huge leap of faith. We’re a long way from the era when – as it depicts in one scene – two children could be enraptured by a silent Harold Lloyd classic. Moving images are ubiquitous, and frankly, in the form most kids experience them, they’re not special – they’re just pacifiers, junk food. There’s a pedagogic aspect to Hugo for sure – there would have to be, or modern audiences might be largely mystified by it (they might still be). But it’s not pedantic and it’s never merely fuzzily nostalgic. It’s boundlessly optimistic that all of this still matters, can still change lives, or even save them.

In that review of Shutter Island, I said: “I don’t think (Scorsese) has any great insight into people or the world. He’s just really good with the tools of cinema. In his heyday…a mixture of preoccupied times, internal trauma, amazing collaborators and who knows what else led him to some unprecedented achievements. So that’s all over now – well, who doesn’t burn out eventually?” But with Hugo, it’s possible to look back at a film like Shutter Island as Scorsese’s own period of exile in the artistic toy store, now triumphantly at an end.

Favourites of 2011

I didn’t cover the year’s releases comprehensively enough to be able to comment on what were the “best” films: I spent most of my movie-watching time tracking down European semi-obscurities I’d never seen before (I’m telling you, that Internet contraption is some kind of miracle). But even if I’d seen everything, I’m sure these ten would be high on the list. Happy holidays - see you in 2012!

Another Year (Mike Leigh)
Focusing on a married couple in their sixties and mostly set in and around their house, this is a quietly devastating work I think, perhaps one of the finest validations of Leigh’s worldview and approach. Many scenes unfold as an investigation of sorts, with the grounded central couple tolerating, indulging or motivating their weaker friends and relatives, the psychological balance ever shifting as the conversations zig and zag. It’s not so different from what Leigh’s done before perhaps, but more maturely dynamic than you get from almost anyone else.

Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese’s new film – his best in decades - is as dazzling a deployment of cutting edge cinematic resources as any movie could be (in particular, it’s his first in 3-D), and uses this to reach all the way back into the history of the medium, to celebrate the pioneer Georges Melies. Unusually tactile-feeling for a digital epic, at its centre it sees life and creativity in practical terms – certainly we must dream, but we also have to diagnose and repair. In the process, Scorsese comprehensively fixes the feeling of drift attaching to his recent work, conveying sudden and total refreshment.

Le quattro volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)
Frammartino’s film resolutely refuses the narrative and cinematic conventions that place man at the centre of things. It has no identifiable dialogue – it requires no subtitles – and only one character who receives a close-up. The true star might be a dog, reacting to his master’s absence and to an Easter passion parade by barking at everyone in sight, and then engineering a way to free the goats from their pen – all in one take! By its very existence, the film speaks to the spiritual paucity of hyped-up mainstream cinema.

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
Set in the 1860’s, this depicts a small group of pioneers heading west, wandering off the main trail after their guide, Stephen Meek, leads them astray. Reichardt’s film is entirely satisfying as a follow-on to and extension of her Wendy and Lucy, confirming her as one of America’s most important filmmakers. There’s not a strained or ill-considered moment in the film; everything conveys a superbly considered weight, all the more remarkable for its extreme economy of means. It carries the most satisfying kind of complexity, flowing from a gloriously intuitive artistic personality, serious and reflective while avoiding strain and pretentiousness in a way that’s simply beyond most directors, even the good ones.

Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
The audacity of Melancholia isn’t so much that it imagines the end of the world, but that it almost seems to be longing for it. The film’s first half lays out the emptiness of our structures and devices and rituals; the second suggests we’re so eroded by them, even the pending end of the world can’t galvanize us to reclaim our inner selves. Von Trier bakes his revulsion into the marrow of his film, shooting most events in a radically unsteady hand-held style; at other times, the film is flamboyantly beautiful, illustrating heightened states as if the world had been polished and prettified until its inner energy started to ooze out.

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz)
A gorgeous climax to Ruiz’s career – he died this year – this is a visually magnificent four hour odyssey, starting when a supposedly orphaned boy sees a woman he takes to be his mother, and tumbling from there through twisting fates and shifting identities, where one story perpetually triggers another. The film feels capable of perpetuating and reinventing itself forever; I’ve seldom felt so completely happy and occupied by a work of fiction. Ruiz’ sense of ease and wry observation here is a delight: his essential serenity doesn’t blunt his inquisitiveness, and the film gradually evokes the formation of a nation and a culture.

Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois)
A group of eight French monks in 1996 Algeria, none of them young, long-established in a disadvantaged village, must decide whether to leave the country after unrest breaks out. The film is certainly suspenseful, in the Hitchcockian sense that we watch much of it with anticipatory dread. But its strength is in Beauvois’ meticulous, gloriously intuitive observation of their lives and his exploration of the seemingly fundamental and yet largely absent question - not just absent from cinema, from the entire public sphere - of what a life, not even an overtly virtuous one, should amount to.

Poetry (Chang-dong Lee)
This Korean film studies an old woman, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, raising a teenage grandson who’s involved in a terrible crime. Its centre holds the brave and challenging idea that escalating Alzheimer’s, although undoubtedly a sentence, may contain some element of liberation, a final opportunity for clarity. Notwithstanding the title, the film is told in prose, not poetry – it’s a careful, attentive character study, and despite the protagonist’s frequent comments about her love of flowers and suchlike, a pretty tough-minded one, depicting a great deal of naked self-interest, particularly in the way the reaction to the crime becomes entirely a matter of defensive logistics.

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar)
Almodóvar’s new film probably isn’t his best but it’s spectacularly Almodóvarian, while occupying somewhat novel territory for him. By any normal measure, the plot (a fairly extreme parable on what constitutes one’s core identity, built around a mad scientist and his creepy experiments) is nuts. But Almodóvar plays it very straight, with such sumptuous conviction that you just about buy it; the very idea of making such a sober movie around this topic, and then pulling it off, is rather stunning in itself. It’s very easy to criticize, on any number of fronts, but I just loved watching the thing.

Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)
This deadpan counterpoint to the TV show Entourage follows a major Hollywood star, temporarily living in a Los Angeles hotel. He drinks, has lots of sex, passes the time playing computer games and staring into space. The film critiques the societal investment in someone like this: sure, we can find meaning in such a life if we look for it, but why are we bothering? It likely isn’t impactful enough for all tastes, but then if it were more impactful, that would probably only mark it as a product of the machine, rather than being a critique of it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Nobel prize!

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2009)

Back in 2000 I wrote an article called “Nobel Prize!” and I still think about it more than anything else I wrote that year (sad, no?) so I thought it was time to revisit the concept. I’d been thinking about how there’s no Nobel Prize for cinema, and about how there ought to be, and then I started thinking about who would have won the prize if there were one, and I ended up making up an entire fantasy list of winners.

The exercise needed some ground rules of course. I assumed the first prize was given out in 1970 (of course, the further back you go, the more geniuses you could corral, but it seemed to me that 1970, with art-house cinema at its peak, would have been a good time for the Swedish Academy to come to its senses), and tried as best as I could to think my way back through history, avoid hindsight and consider who would have seemed most deserving at the time (given that I was only 4 in 1970, my sense of this may not be completely accurate).

Since 2000, I’ve added a new recipient to the list every year, on the same day that the real-life prize for literature gets announced. Here’s the complete list.

1970 Jean Renoir
1971 Charles Chaplin
1972 Luis Bunuel
1973 Roberto Rossellini
1974 Alfred Hitchcock
1975 Ingmar Bergman
1976 Akira Kurosawa
1977 Howard Hawks
1978 Federico Fellini
1979 Robert Bresson
1980 Orson Welles
1981 Jean-Luc Godard
1982 Michelangelo Antonioni
1983 Michael Powell
1984 Billy Wilder
1985 Satyajit Ray
1986 Alain Resnais
1987 Andrezj Wajda
1988 Frank Capra
1989 Eric Rohmer
1990 Ousmane Sembene
1991 Wim Wenders
1992 Robert Altman
1993 Theo Angelopoulos
1994 Jacques Rivette
1995 Martin Scorsese
1996 Zhang Yimou
1997 Abbas Kiarostami
1998 Bernardo Bertolucci
1999 Shohei Imamura
2000 Stan Brakhage
2001 Hou Hsiao-hsien
2002 Manoel de Oliveira
2003 Claude Chabrol
2004 Chris Marker
2005 Mike Leigh
2006 Wong Kar-Wai
2007 Raul Ruiz
2008 Agnes Varda

Given the inevitable constraints of such an exercise, the list still looks pretty good to me overall. You’ll note how in the award’s early days, my fictional committee marches one step ahead of the grim reaper, scooping up as many of cinema’s fading giants as possible. Some, like John Ford and Fritz Lang, expire just a year or so before they might have got the nod (Howard Hawks, who died in 1977, made it by the skin of his poor old teeth). American auteurs alternate with art-house masters for the first twenty years (Frank Capra is probably the least profound director on the list, but I feel sentiment would have got the better of the voters on that one), but since then American winners have been much more sparse. The absence of Elia Kazan isn’t due to righteous anger but rather to the fact that I forgot about him until it was too late (if there were actually a committee, I’m sure someone would have reminded me).

There’s a shortage of potential American recipients in the pipeline too, with the prize swinging heavily toward Europe in recent years (a fact precisely mirroring the evolution of the literature award). The last US winner was Stan Brakhage, an experimental filmmaker who worked entirely outside the system: I was rather pleased with how my imaginary Nobelists stirred it up a bit with that one. Cassavetes and Kubrick died too soon. I doubt a consensus will ever form around Spielberg or Eastwood. Woody Allen and Francis Coppola have trailed off too much in recent years. The strongest contenders to come to mind may be David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Charles Burnett (all of which to some degree might be regarded as a snubbing of Hollywood). I think Spike Lee is worth thinking about. Others might advocate more strongly for the Coen Brothers. And there’s always Jerry Lewis!

Like the judges of the literature prize, the film committee occasionally makes a choice that might be as much a nod to a region than an individual endorsement – Africa’s Sembene and China’s Zhang for instance. Given how Zhang’s work has lately consisted mostly of pretty but inconsequential digitally powered extravaganzas, it’s clear now the committee moved too quickly on that one. I see Wim Wenders as another mistake – he got the prize too young, and on the brink, it’s now clear, of a calamitous decline in his reputation. The award a few years back to Claude Chabrol might seem generous, but he was the only one of the Nouvelle Vague pioneers still on the outside looking in, and it just felt heartless!

There is of course no shortage of potential recipients, but again in common with the literature prize, it’s likely that future winners will continue the recent trend of being better known to specialists than to the even moderately cultured masses – the days of Fellini and Bergman are no more. Japan’s Nagisa Oshima stands as something of an unrecognized elder statesman, although if the committee wanted to be daring again, they might choose to recognize animation via his countryman Hayao Miyazaki. Werner Herzog and Roman Polanski have both made some Nobel-worthy work, along with a lot of stuff that’s anything but, but the judges are paid to step back and assess the overall contribution. Pedro Almodovar will have to be carefully considered at some point.

Canada has a genuine contender in David Cronenberg, whose reputation is coming on strong now; advocates of Atom Egoyan and Denys Arcand have their money firmly on the wrong horse. And there plainly ought to have been a woman up there long before this year. Apart from the victorious Varda, I’d considered Claire Denis, New Zealand’s Jane Campion, and a less-known French director, Chantal Akerman. But in general we must be wary of being so rarified as to be irrelevant, so the judges must constantly scan the landscape of the last twenty or thirty years, diligently reflecting on the arguments for John Boorman and Peter Weir, building future submissions for Tsai Ming-Liang and Olivier Assayas, scouring the backwaters for monumental artists you and I haven’t even heard of, and just generally hoping it all works out for the greater good.

Of course there’d be little point in instituting a real world Nobel Prize for cinema now. It’s just too late. But if anyone wants to put funding into my little enterprise, allowing the construction of a retroactive bricks and mortar hall of fame and a generous annual cash prize from here on (as well as a modest stipend for the hardworking committee), then I’m easy to get hold of. Otherwise, I’ll plan on letting you know again how it’s going, in 2016 or so.

(Postscript on subsequent additions: 2009 - Francis Coppola; 2010 - Claire Denis; 2011 - Nagisa Oshima)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Complex fermentation

This is some of what I said about Alexander Payne’s last film, Sideways: “The movie is always thoughtful, but I found it rather too easy to take, bearing aromas not so much of the maturing oak barrel as of the sitcom-office water cooler. OK, I know that was lame, but the film so over-ferments its wine analogies that The Grapes of Wrath plays on TV in one scene. Anyway, for all its articulacy and introspection, I did not come away from the film with many new ideas about this complex fermentation we call life. Payne’s best film still seems to me, by a mile, to be the scintillating Election, a construction of such graceful metaphorical and allusive complexity I can’t imagine anyone taking cheap shots at it.”

The Descendants

Sounds like I was enjoying myself. Amazingly, that was seven years ago; in interviews, Payne himself seems astonished so much time could have gone by. He’s now back though with The Descendants, a favourite for Oscar nominations. The movie is always thoughtful, but I found it rather too easy to take…for all its articulacy and introspection, I did not come away from the film with many new ideas about this complex fermentation we call life. Yep, I’m afraid so. However, the new film doesn’t have any wine analogies, so that’s one kind of progress. I don’t mean to be flippant – the film actually is an advance on Sideways. But measured against the year’s strongest pictures (tune in next week for that), it’s rather too simple. It feels actually like the work of someone who’s far more prolific, and therefore content to coax out modest variations on established territory.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian lawyer, and trustee for a long-established arrangement through which he and several dozen extended family members jointly own a huge parcel of gorgeous, undeveloped land. They’re now working to unlock the trust and sell out to a developer, becoming mega-rich in the process, but then Matt’s wife has a boating accident, becoming comatose. His youngest daughter Scottie (aged ten) responds by becoming imaginatively disruptive; his oldest Alexandra (aged seventeen) by threatening to unleash the whole arsenal of possibilities available to a seventeen-year-old. One of these missiles entails telling Matt his wife was having an affair, throwing a bewildered bolt of resentment into his vigil, and prompting him to go in search of the guy (without fully knowing why he wants to).

Making choices

The film’s opening stretch draws heavily on Clooney’s voice over to set up the situation, and I was worried it would feel like an illustrated audio book more than an actual film. But as it settles into its stride, The Descendants is certainly engrossing and beguiling. I was most taken by its subtle exploration of the parameters and responsibilities of family. Some of this is broadly conventional of course – a father finding a way to reconnect with his daughters. But Matt’s so embedded in the island that he can hardly turn a corner without bumping into a cousin; they commiserate about his wife with one breath, lobby for their business interests with the next. In an inspired, perfectly executed concept, Payne throws a friend of Alex’s into the mix – a weirdly serene, lumbering type who ends up accompanying them everywhere (and in one of the film’s best moments, reveals his own recent catastrophic loss). The wife’s affair, of course, throws everything up for reexamination.

A O Scott in The New York Times put it like this: “In most movies the characters are locked into the machinery of narrative like theme park customers strapped into a roller coaster. Their ups and downs are as predetermined as their shrieks of terror and sighs of relief, and the audience goes along for the ride. But the people in this movie seem to move freely within it, making choices and mistakes and aware, at every turn, that things could be different.” It’s a reasonable evocation of the film’s key strength, but I ultimately find myself grading it less highly than Scott does, mainly because that sense of free movement doesn’t ultimately bring the characters, or us the viewers, to a very different destination than might have resulted from a more “predetermined”-feeling film.

Still, there’s a lot to like about it. Payne is certainly capable of inspiration far transcending normal dull craftsmanship; for example, in retrospect, you realize the only moment of unambiguous joy comes in the opening shot, of the wife before her accident. I also found the movie fairly revelatory about Hawaii, which I’ve never been to. Actually, on balance, it’s now probably slightly less likely I’ll ever go there. I’m not sure if Payne would consider that a reasonable response.

Catching up

I also spent some time catching up on some recent movies on cable. It’s pretty easy to set out the strengths and flaws on all these. Tony Scott’s Unstoppable, a drama about a runaway train, has a terrific sense of physicality: it’s very satisfying to immerse oneself in all that tonnage and momentum and friction, and the movie even has more social awareness than most Hollywood product (you can just feel the Occupy Railroad movement waiting to burst out). But at the end of the day, it’s still just a drama about a runaway train; once they catch the thing (hardly a spoiler, I imagine) you’re just standing on the platform with an empty suitcase.

Neil Burger’s Limitless depicts a struggling author stumbling onto a wonder drug which stunningly enhances his mental capacity, taking him virtually overnight from penniless bum to potential Master of the Universe. The film plays entertainingly with the possibilities of the premise; when it hits its articulate, hyper-aware stride, it just pops. But ultimately it fails to articulate the benefits of such powers other than through the traditional trappings of sex, fast cars, pristine apartments (you know, all the stuff the people who made the movie probably build their lives around, even without a wonder drug): the inner life goes almost entirely unexamined.

And then John Carpenter returned, after an even longer absence than Alexander Payne, with The Ward, a period-piece about a group of institutionalized young women locked up in a hyper-creepy hospital wing. It draws effectively on the long iconography of women oppressed by medicine, their self-expression classified as hysteria, but renders it all for nothing with the lamest and most clichéd kind of “surprise” ending (basically the same trick as the current season of Dexter pulled, to cite just one of the recent applications). Ultimately, I did not come away from any of these films with many new ideas about…well, I guess you get the rest…

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dog movie!

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2006)

Taking my task here as seriously as I do, as I write these articles I regularly question my own reactions to movies, sometimes suppressing the truth of my experience if I feel it reflects my own quirks or neuroses more than the film’s inherent effect. In this, as in all things, I am of course fallible and inconsistent (and it’s an impossible and perhaps wrongheaded goal anyway). But in one respect at least I have been quite diligent. To offer merely the most recent piece of evidence, I soberly reviewed the Harrison Ford film Firewall, ensuring that any viewer bearing more than the most modest of expectations would be waved away. And the mark of my dedication is this: I said not a word about Rusty the dog, who livens up a fair sprinkling of scenes, and then seals his star status by playing a pivotal role in how Ford comes out on top. You see, as a dog movie, Firewall is eminently recommendable!

Pasolini (not that one)!

Yes, I have become an irrational aficionado of dogs in films. And for the mushiest of reasons – the effect of my own dog Pasolini, a now seven and a half year old yellow Labrador. Paso was my wife’s idea – I had never owned a dog, and had some misgivings about the prospect, all of which seemed to be borne out in the first few months as our energetic, headstrong puppy terrorized our home and demolished our schedules. But at some point it all fell into place, and it is now difficult to know whether the inviolable routine is primarily his or my own. Certainly I can’t imagine why I would want to spend a day without him –I guess I would gain a couple of extra hours, but then when would I listen to my ipod, and what about the exercise I’d lose, and the threat to my waistline if Paso were not here to claim twenty per cent or so of everything I eat?

Paso is hugely expressive – gentle-spirited and empathetic but also militant about his daily expectations and capable of exerting enormous moral pressure (it’s mainly in the eyes). I expect that on the average day my wife and I come out with at least ten or twelve observations on what he’s up to – how he’s hogging the bed, how peaceful he looks while sleeping, how miserable he looks as we leave the house, and so on. Of course, most of these observations barely change from one day to the next, and if we exhibited such repetitive banality in other areas of our life, we would have driven each other nuts years ago. This, of course, is the essence of being a dog person. And once you have immersed yourself into the dog-owning life to such an extent, you inevitably become susceptible to the entire global network of dogdom, to a potentially destabilizing degree.

Eight Below

All of which is to say that the new Disney movie Eight Below is completely terrific, and that you may comprehensively dismiss that assessment if the above self-portrait means nothing to you. The movie, apparently based (presumably quite loosely) on a true story, is about eight huskies in a remote Antarctica research outpost, who are accidentally left behind for the winter to fend for themselves. While their dedicated handler (played by Paul Walker, a limited actor who’s far more affecting here than he ever will be interacting with humans) torments himself and plots a way back to the camp, the dogs forage for food and nurture each other, exhibiting great intelligence and team spirit without being excessively anthropomorphized.

The film has great scenery, and although it’s quite long for a children’s film (yes, it’s notionally aimed at the kids!) it doesn’t dawdle at all – actually seeming to me overly condensed in certain respects (well, specifically, I would have cut out about twenty minutes of the human stuff and invested that extra time in the dogs). The main thing is this. Through Brokeback Mountain, for instance, although I was completely engaged and not unmoved in a certain sense, I can’t say I ever came close to crying. What can I say; I’m a low-key kind of person. But through Eight Below I spent at least half the movie in a state of looming teariness, breaking down completely in the end. Was this the scenario’s inherent evocative power, or was it all in my constant mental parallels with how Pasolini would possibly fend for himself, should he ever be abandoned in St James’ Park?

Non-Dog Movies

Maybe I should get back now to suppressing my quirks…

Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story tackles Laurence Sterne’s famously unfilmable novel Tristram Shandy in the same way that Karel Reisz and Harold Pinter dealt with the authorial voice in The French Lieutenant’s Woman – it depicts a film crew making a movie of Sterne’s book, using their intrigues and eccentricities to approximate Sterne’s tumbling authorial voice. I haven’t read the book (in common with virtually everyone on the fictional film crew) but it sure feels as if you’re getting some flavour of the experience here. Sterne’s personality though is less relevant than that of star Steve Coogan, who’s much better known in the UK than he is here – the film happily points this out, just as it anticipates just about every observation you might have on any aspect of it. Winterbottom’s amazing versatility has not often left me truly excited, but I can certainly admire the considerable resourcefulness and imagination at work in A Cock and Bull Story – it lasts a mere 91 minutes but crams in enough for a much longer film, without ever feeling merely frenetic. It’s often pretty funny, even if a lot of the comedy comes from straightforward sitcom stuff that – all the meta-intentions aside – just doesn’t feel very elevated.

A Good Woman is a mechanical version of Lady Windermere’s Fan, transposed to 1930’s Amalfi – Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson are both miscast, and the film doesn’t even achieve the basics of delivering Oscar Wilde’s surefire epigrams effectively. Only somewhat better is Freedomland, an adaptation of Richard Price’s novel - interesting racially charged material that never takes on much shape.

Heart of Gold, directed by Jonathan Demme, is a recording of a Nashville concert by Neil Young and his highly seasoned band, initially focusing on his new album Prairie Wind before serving up some of the old classics. Young has never seemed so comfortable in his own skin; the music is all great, and the movie is a mellow delight. I’m sure I had a smile on my face through at least half of it, which is better than being in tears. I could go on at greater length, but if you don’t like Neil Young nothing I say will matter a damn, and if you do like him you’ve probably seen the movie already. You know, it’s pretty much the same thing as with the dogs…

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Mysteries of power

Clint Eastwood’s last film Hereafter was perhaps his most underrated, and one of the most meaningful illustrations of his worldview. For decades now, he’s been known for his film-making pragmatism, for getting close enough and moving on: Hereafter implicitly proposed this as a way of coping with the existential questions that tie many of us up in knots. It’s a tale of the supernatural, and by its nature presents some aspect of belief in the beyond as being “real,” but you’ll never see a movie so unenthused by such discoveries. It plants itself in earthly dilemmas and machinations, to an extent you might regard as dawdling, or more constructively as deliberately immersing us in the often arbitrary but inescapable detail of the earthly structures we’ve built for ourselves.

J. Edgar

Eastwood’s new picture J. Edgar continues his remarkable late-career survey of those earthly structures – two films about World War Two, one on Mandela, and now the career of J. Edgar Hoover, legendary leader of the FBI for almost half a century. The outlines of Hoover’s legacy are fairly well-known – he modernized the bureau, achieving a personal degree of (carefully crafted) fame from skirmishes against John Dillinger and other glamorous law-breakers, but became increasingly controversial over the decades, out of step with changing times, but safe in his position if only because of the dirt he’d accumulated on everyone else in power. He never married, but maintained an exceedingly close relationship with his right hand man Clyde Tolson; the two ate virtually all their meals together, took joint vacations and suchlike, but the extent of the physicality in their relationship, if any, remains unknown.

J. Edgar encompasses these key points and others in some two and a quarter hours, alternating between Hoover’s final years, as he dictates his memoirs to a succession of young agents, and some of the key building blocks of his legend, in particular the 1930’s kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son. Some reviewers have found it a bit of a slog, for example Rick Groen in The Globe and Mail: “Usually the tautest of directors, Clint Eastwood has gone all slack here, allowing his subject to get completely away from him…despite (Leonardo) DiCaprio’s best efforts, the character never comes alive enough to elicit our sympathy or our disdain. Without that investment, the so-called emotional scenes play out like a dry well.” Groen concludes: “The script tries to make a virtue out of not judging Hoover, asking us to do the job instead. That might be fine, but only if we’re given a reason to care. We aren’t.”

Constructing America

Leaving aside the dubious claim about Eastwood’s customary “tautness,” I think you could pretty much take these comments as a description of the film’s success, rather than an indictment of its failure. The picture, indeed, has a sealed-off, brooding quality, often a sense of incomprehension: it starts by deliberately disorienting us, plunging us into the heart of a narrative as if we’d missed the start of a story already in progress, and regularly skipping connective material that might have been considered crucial. It’s never clear whether Hoover’s major innovations – such as his enthusiasm for finger-printing and other forms of scientific analysis – are driven by unusual insight or by geekiness that happened to get lucky. Likewise, his insistence on sharp suits and a clean-cut appearance make for good PR, but are probably based in neurosis as much as strategy. In part, of course, such uncertainty is just a function of the inherent unreliability of history and reportage, a theme Eastwood explored in Flags of our Fathers and underlines (maybe a bit too emphatically) at the end of J. Edgar.

But his Hoover isn’t just a pawn in another game of distorting mirrors: for better or worse, he’s one of the pivotal figures in the construction of present-day America. As he gets older, he increasingly rails against the threat of a “condition of immorality that surpasses the imagination,” but again, it’s impossible to determine how much coherence underlies this diagnosis. Certainly some of its manifestations – like his obsessive hatred of Martin Luther King – seem unrooted in any rational analysis (the film leaves it open how much it’s based in simple racism). Eastwood doesn’t push the comparison, but this murkiness about the rationality of authority resonates heavily against more recent events, for example the way a barely articulated “war on terror” could have grown to smother all other policy concerns, regardless of the real relative threat: his Hoover isn’t so much a historical anomaly as a grim transitional figure.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

You can even extend that analysis to his personal arrangements with Tolson. As depicted, their life constitutes an application of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” even in private. In his initial job interview, Tolson appears on the edge of flirting, and the movie seems to be suggesting he would have been capable of a more open structure. But Hoover certainly wasn’t. As a young man, the film shows him to be earnest and emotionally unsophisticated, proposing to a co-worker (played by Naomi Watts) after just a handful of dates; when she refuses, he just as happily offers her a position as his personal secretary (where she remains for his entire career). Except for a weird flirtation of sorts with Dorothy Lamour, that might almost constitute the sum of his interest in women. The film suggests his arrangement with Tolson constituted his ungainly, intermittently agonized attempt to reconcile the impossible, and it's quite touching in its portrayal of the two as old men, certainly allowing us to read this as a story of sad lifelong denial (or to adapt the old Woody Allen joke, as a story of Hoover doing to the nation what he couldn’t let himself do to Tolson). But it’s also a precursor of our greater contemporary flexibility in how we think about relationships, or define sexuality, or love, or normality.

DiCaprio, often looking rather like Orson Welles as the older Citizen Kane, conveys Hoover’s heavy soul with great control and restraint; if, as Groen says, he never comes completely alive, well, who knows if he completely was alive. Early on we see him watching FDR’s inauguration parade from his office window, suddenly waving effusively as if insisting on his own place in this event, even imagining himself at its centre. Years later, he watches Nixon’s motorcade from the same spot, but desolately, without any such illusions. Again, it’s an old idea, that one can be much lonelier near (but not near enough) to the centre of power than outside it. But Eastwood takes the notion to an almost cosmic extent, causing us to question whether we know anything at all about the control and direction of the nation, or the morals on which it’s supposedly built. Being Eastwood, he’s very quiet and matter-of-fact about it, but after this and Hereafter, there’s not a whole lot of importance he’s left untouched.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Back to the 50's

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2009)

If we judge only by what we see in movies (not a sound approach towards understanding much of anything, but let’s go with the concept for now), it’s easier to sum up the essence of the 1950’s than of any decade since. The rise of corporate culture; suburbanization; men in grey flannel suits. The substantial dissipation of what independence women gained during WW2, in return for bigger kitchens, Tupperware and modern gadgets. The baby boom. The Cold War and McCarthyism; paranoia; conformity. Sexual repression. Cheating. All waiting to be blown open in the 1960’s.

Revolutionary Road

It’s not solely a backward projection: some of the best movies of that era all but burst under the tension. I’m thinking for example of Douglas Sirk’s films (Written On The Wind, All That Heaven Allows) and the non-musicals of Vincent Minnelli (The Cobweb, Some Came Running). Currently, it’s difficult to find any representation of the 50’s not filtered through this prism. Mad Men is the gorilla, by all accounts sparsely watched, but much cited (and, on at least two shows I’ve seen, easily parodied). It’s almost as difficult to find any review of Sam Mendes’ new film Revolutionary Road that doesn’t mention Mad Men.

Revolutionary Road is based on a novel by Richard Yates, which most reviewers seem to have read (or maybe they’re just good at faking it); I must admit I haven’t. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, married in the early 1950’s, with dreams of being special (for him, living in Paris and finding himself; for her, becoming an actress). A few years later, they’re in the suburbs, where she raises their two children and he treks off to a job he can barely explain, let alone stand. She rekindles the Paris idea: sell up, cross the ocean, she’ll support him while he becomes the man he should be. He goes for it, if more cautiously, and they consume themselves in planning, all the more invigorated by the incomprehension of everyone around them. No question they’ve appropriately diagnosed their malaise, but hasn’t Paris too often represented the abstract, unattainable ideal?

The film is accomplished and engrossing, but limited. Director Sam Mendes is much acclaimed (and won an Oscar for American Beauty) but his approach to cinema seldom seems to me very inspired or intuitive. Revolutionary Road too often feels removed, somewhat academic. The two stars, both often superb elsewhere, here conform to a theatre director’s idea of great cinematic acting. The film’s heart is quite claustrophobic and even repetitive – a great deal of it takes place between the couple, in and around their home – and Mendes can’t find much of a way to vary this material. The film’s last five minutes, which should be tragic and stunning, feel like a collection of accessories trying to hide the blandness of the main outfit.

Unrepresentative character

The movie often feels oddly empty: key settings like their home or Frank’s office don’t possess the layering we’re used to from, again, Mad Men. But at this point the film starts to get interesting despite itself. After all, our fascination with the 50’s isn’t (or shouldn’t be) purely nostalgic. The decade actually was a time of general growth and economic prosperity. Lifeplans and ambitions were better balanced against actual resources. Small things meant more; technology and popular culture hadn’t yet gone crazy and started us all eating at ourselves. Yes, there was repression and misery. Attitudes are better informed now. But then, we’ve bought ourselves an even bigger bag of troubles instead. Is it any surprise if we start fetishizing the era?

Revolutionary Road withholds this easy pleasure. Mendes is nowhere near as accomplished a stylist as Todd Haynes, who produced a much richer take on the period in Far From Heaven (and who perfectly depicted another kind of sterile living in Safe), but he does maintain an effective eerie chill. At least on film, the outlook of Winslet’s April is the easier to understand: without even as much daily diversion as Frank has, and more a prisoner of her biological role, she can’t stand it. But Frank’s relationship to all this is perhaps more complex and intriguing. Todd McCarthy in Variety noted the character “has no latent artistic ambition, despite his wife's belief that he does or should, nor even any sense of careerism.” This, he said, “makes Frank Wheeler a rather equivocal, unrepresentative character.”

As best as I can tell, McCarthy’s bases his acid test for finding Frank “unrepresentative” largely in the more engaged protagonists of Mad Men and in the (very good) 1960 Strangers When We Meet (which starred Kirk Douglas as a frustrated architect). He later labels the 50’s as the “best time to be alive in the United States for the greatest number of people – not for minorities, obviously” and cites a “lifelong hipster friend” who’s assured him “it was all happening in the ‘50’s.” Well, no doubt for some. But I doubt the lives of the silent majority were marked by much “hipster” activity, nor seriously undermined by unfulfilled latent artistic ambition. Frank and April are a relatively affluent couple, with space and money and choices. Poor, hand-to-mouth people couldn’t afford to have Frank and April’s problems. They had their own of course. But maybe those would be unrepresentative.

Our Move to Paris

In the last decade or two, people who had the resources followed through on their equivalent of April’s move to Paris – except they did it by staying put and building monster homes, by loading themselves up with possessions, by changing their lives into a complex series of rituals within which they could get happily fat and complacent. But now we’re finding it doesn’t collectively work out if we all move to Paris that way, and it didn’t make us generally any happier anyway. Most of us know, on some level, we have to learn making do with less. But how do you maintain the equanimity to go back to Nowhereville, day after day, when you’ve become addicted to your idea of the bright lights?

Frank may not be representative of what we hope for, or what we delude ourselves we actually are, but he’s surely more representative of how we survived to this point: by doing our duty, making compromises, and anyway not being that individually special in the first place. The horrible prospect before us is that we were never really meant to be this active, this liberated, to possess this many options, and that economically, environmentally, it’s a slow (until it started to seem frighteningly quick) group suicide. If there’s a current answer for us in movies, it might not lie with the heroes, but with the ones we’ve always dismissed as losers, representing nothing except the fact of being there, somehow quietly getting by.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Three Comedies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2005)

A few notes on three recent films, all broadly belonging to the comedy category:

Dear Frankie

Dear Frankie, directed by Shona Auerbach, is about a Scottish single mother of a deaf nine-year-old; his father was a louse they left behind somewhere, but the boy thinks he’s at sea, and writes letters to a post office box from which he receives responses penned by the mother. Eventually, events dictate either that she breaks the pretense or that the father somehow appears, so she enlists a stranger to play the part for the day. Of course, all three find their fictionalized structure utterly beguiling, although the film doesn’t resolve itself quite as neatly as you initially expect. It’s also not as sentimental as it might be, it’s not at all funny (although it’s apparently intended to be so in a wistful kind of way) and the basic storyline doesn’t amount to much incident when stretched over the course of a full-length film, so it seems at times that this is the epitome of a movie about next to nothing. It has a couple of saving virtues though. The first is the scrupulous depiction of life in a dead-end milieu at the wrong end of the economic spectrum – a place with such limited horizons that a character can sit on the hill overlooking the dismal looking port and say it’s her favourite sight in the whole world. Second is the performance by Emily Mortimer as the mother – it’s very delicate work, full of small details, and evidencing a superb emotional mobility that contrasts nicely with her slightly gawky features; the film allows her some personal development, but not enough that it becomes mawkish, and this restraint shows up in other ways as well. So the film is fine to watch, but it lacks that streak of wildness or daring that sometimes lifts modest material into the realms of the transcendental.

Melinda and Melinda

Woody Allen’s latest film is his best in a while, and it’s truly disappointing how little that amounts to. It starts with two playwrights bickering over dinner about the relative merits of comedy and tragedy; when a dining companion throws in a sample plotline, each takes it in a different direction to illustrate his thesis, and the film depicts these two directions in parallel plotlines that wrap around each other. In each case, a distraught woman named Melinda, played by Radha Mitchell, unexpectedly turns up at a dinner party, and things go on from there. The tragic story co-stars Chloe Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller; the comic tale has Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet. As usual, Allen’s ability to attract a fine cast provides his film a major boost.

The problems with Melinda and Melinda are easy enough to set out. The initial thesis is trite – the opposition between the two extremes is unsophisticated, sounding like something Allen might have mulled over at the dawn of his career. In any event, the comic story is only very marginally funnier than the tragic one. Nowadays Allen’s notion of funny is characterized merely by a generalized whininess, and the dialogue has become horrendously lazy – Ferrell, playing an actor, is allowed to repeat four times a lame bit about how his innovative approach to a particular character involved affecting a limp. Conversely, the approach to tragedy is heavily dependent on grim, extended monologues, delivered while staring off into the middle distance.

The movie is entertaining enough scene by scene, and it avoids the sheer clunkiness of several recent Allen movies. It looks handsome too, although Allen’s home territory seems to be shrinking further, down to just a few Manhattan blocks; and of course the characters’ primary occupations and preoccupations never change either. Nowadays Allen seems to set merely incremental challenges for himself, perhaps still thinking of how Ingmar Bergman and his other heroes worked consistently within a superficially narrow aesthetic. But it is hard to deny that his films feel rushed and under-considered. Still, if all others move away, I will be there to the end. And his next film was shot in the UK, which at least gives us the prospect of something fresh (if only because it will be amusing to see how he pulls off his customary trick of making the British actors sound like Allen himself).

Up And Down

Part of the problem with Allen is that he shows no interest in politics, or in the environment, or in social evolution (after 35 years, it struck many critics as notable that a key role in Melinda and Melinda is played by black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor). Not that he ever was, but when he seemed to be alone in mining a particular and relevant emotional territory, it didn’t matter. Nowadays you might wonder why we should care about a director who seems to care so little about us.

The utter decline of the US is lampooned effectively enough by the likes of Jon Stewart and in any amount of online commentary, but we have not seen much effective satire from American cinema lately. For that we must go to other countries, where contemporary fault lines are perhaps debated with less sanctimonious hypocrisy. For an example, see the new Czech film Up And Down, directed by Jan Hrebek, which concentrates in particular on the stresses of the country’s transition to a multicultural society. In the primary plotline, a slightly dim witted security guard tries to cast off his history as a militant soccer hooligan; his wife longs unsuccessfully for a baby, eventually buying a dark-skinned child accidentally acquired by a couple of refugee smugglers. The guard overcomes his initial revulsion and bonds with the child, even standing up to his racist peers, but in the end bad luck, or perhaps inevitable societal gravity, pulls him back down.

The film has several other plotlines exploring related themes – the fragility of progressive liberal intentions when faced with eruptions of violence; the reluctance of the older generation to accept the changing attitudes of the younger; the intertwining of the personal and the political; the visceral appeal of mass brutishness; the way a volatile society generates winners and losers (it also has a cameo appearance by Vaclav Havel, which may be too clear a signal of its ambition). None of this is completely resolved, and the film is not as subtle as it might be, but it doesn’t overplay its cynicism and doesn’t let sheer structure and narrative overwhelm its sensitivity to character; compared to something like, say, Mexico’s Amores Perros, it’s clear that the tone here is more in sorrow than in anger. By virtue of its origins, it has by far the lowest profile of the three films dealt with here, but by any conceivable measure it’s worth twice the other two put together. Not least of all – it’s the funniest.

Wishing for the end

The audacity of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia isn’t so much that it imagines the end of the world, but that it almost seems to be longing for it. As such it’s perhaps the von Trier movie that helps make sense of many of the others – his work is a stream of eccentrically dark visions and aggressively quirky distractions, often seeming held together more by what we know of the director (depressive, neurotic, obsessed with America despite never having been there) than what we glean from the films themselves. The category of what we (think we) know about von Trier expanded handily earlier this year, at the Cannes film festival. Melancholia was mostly well-received there, and its star Kirsten Dunst won the award for best actress. But this was all overshadowed by a press conference where von Trier went off on an extreme tangent, as follows: “What can I say? I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely. ... He's not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I'm not for the Second World War, and I'm not against Jews.”

Humanity and generosity

The Cannes directors described these remarks as “unacceptable, intolerable and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the festival” and declared von Trier persona non grata. The director apologized, but later said “I can't be sorry for what I said—it's against my nature.” And then he sailed on toward his next controversy (due perhaps to erupt as soon as he releases his next project, reportedly an epic work of pornography). Contrary to the ideals of humanity? Well, in a way of course. But coming from the man whose last film depicted genital self-mutilation, you could as easily interpret it as exemplifying (in all its sloppiness) some kind of ideal, or at least a kind of necessity: how we compensate for whatever’s lacking within us by reaching out, playing games, putting ourselves on display.

Melancholia depicts this through Dunst’s character, Justine, newly-married (Alexander Skarsgard plays her husband) and two hours late to her own reception, an excessive affair held at a golf club owned by her brother in law John (Kiefer Sutherland). She only intermittently connects with the proceedings, at other times wandering off alone, or curling up asleep on her nephew’s bed; she’s affectionate toward her new husband, but lacks any real affinity with him. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling) is cold and cutting; her father (John Hurt) a genial buffoon who’s all but left reality behind. The event limps its way to a failed ending, squandering the attempts of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) at holding it all together. And yet there’s a fragile beauty to its culmination, where the guests launch fragile, illuminated balloons into the air, floating upward like requests for redemption.

The Earth is evil

The film’s second part, set a day or two later, answers this request by sending the giant planet Melancholia, earlier glimpsed only as a distant star, into our own orbit, possibly fatally. Justine has become virtually catatonically depressed in the wake of the wedding, but as the threat approaches, she becomes eerily calm. “The Earth is evil,” she tells Claire, “we don’t need to grieve for it.” Claire’s rationalism, in contrast, leaves her vulnerable and increasingly ineffective, and her husband’s self-righteous, bottom-line-driven bluster ultimately gives way to astonishing cowardice. Discussing the appropriate mode of behaviour at the end of the world, Claire envisages a glass of wine on the terrace. Justine reacts to the idea with scorn, shooting back why not on the toilet?

The point is fairly clear of course: if the first part of the film didn’t convince us of the emptiness of our structures and devices and rituals (a critique which I suppose might extend to the utility of press conferences as well as of wedding receptions), the second suggests we’re so eroded by them, even the pending end of the world can’t galvanize us to reclaim our inner selves. Von Trier bakes his revulsion into the marrow of his film, shooting most events in a radically unsteady hand-held style: the Varsity, where I saw the movie, explicitly warned patrons of possible motion sickness, which my wife’s experience unfortunately confirms.

But Melancholia is also flamboyantly beautiful at times, opening with a series of intense, slow-motion tableaux (all drawing in various ways on later events), illustrating heightened states as if the world had been polished and prettified until its inner energy started to ooze out. And its attention to its actors goes far beyond mere dyspepsia. I already mentioned Dunst’s performance: I doubt whether anyone again will use her rather blank, crunched-up prettiness to such productive ends (von Trier is oddly successful at directing actresses; Charlotte Gainsbourg and – no joking – Bjork previously won the Cannes award in films of his). But I’m not sure Kiefer Sutherland has ever been better either!

Heightened knowledge

Towards the end, Justine reveals – almost as an aside – that she has a heightened knowledge of things, some of them superficial (instinctively knowing how many beans are in a jar), others awe-inspiring (the absence of any other life in the universe). In the world as we know it, this seems mostly to contribute to her dysfunction; such capacity could only find peace at the end of time and searching. This might be a humane and generous (to coin a phrase) invention by von Trier, casting the self-lacerating darkness of depression as a cruel symptom of being stranded out of time and place…except that the right time and place only occurs at the end of everything.

Which is why I called Melancholia a kind of wish for the end of the world. The film doesn’t aim at realism of course: most obviously, the intruding planet turns up and parks itself on our doorstep, astronomically speaking, with barely an impact on our climate. Except for a few glimpses of Internet searches and throwaway references to what the “scientists” are saying, there’s no sense of the world beyond the house and grounds. The retreat is the most rarified of settings in which to lose oneself, lush and elegant and boundless, reminiscent of numerous other past epics of splendid high art isolation. And although you probably wouldn’t have gleaned this so far, the film’s at least half-way to being the blackest of comedies; there’s an air of Blake Edwards in how Justine systematically grinds down the illusions of her beaming new husband. Surely the whole idea of calling a movie Melancholia is meant to be at least a little funny?

I can’t recommend everyone see the movie (I’m sure many readers will have resolved from the above that it’s the last thing they’d ever see). And yet, I could imagine a person responding to it with tears of gratitude, feeling deeper affinity to it than to almost anything they’d ever seen before.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Canadian versions

My wife watches the TV drama Covert Affairs, Sundays on Showcase, starring Piper Perabo as (it appears) the only CIA agent who gets any actual assignments. It’s set largely in Washington and sometimes in exotic global locations, but it’s mostly shot here in Toronto, often in my downtown neighbourhood. One episode was set in Paris, and from the look of the exteriors they actually went there too, but then all of a sudden they were close to the Flatiron building. Sometimes they barely seem to try to hide the fact it’s really Toronto, although of course I’m only capable of saying that because I know the city. Filmmakers obviously don’t sign any kind of cartography integrity pledge - New Yorkers for instance have been complaining for years about how movies set in the city make a mockery of the city’s geography. It would no doubt hurt a show like Treme if you suspected its immersion in New Orleans culture were being periodically supplemented by exteriors from anonymous-looking Canadian streets. But for a mostly breezy romp like Covert Affairs, it doesn’t matter at all. The show has a kind of upbeat can-do attitude, like a spy version of The Little Engine that Could. Real places (or for that matter real anything) are just confining, don’t you think? The ability not to care is liberating!

Toronto movies

Watching Covert Affairs in Toronto evokes theatre, the use of cues and signifiers and the power of the imagination to create an illusion of physical space. Living here, you get used to it; you forget many people might be excited to see their home town mentioned just once on the local news, let along having their surroundings endlessly chewed up and reconfigured. When film production was at its peak here, it was hard to be surprised by anything (including on a personal level: one evening I was taking my dog for a walk, trying not to step on the movie cables; I happened to look through a window, and there was Sylvester Stallone). If Chicago suddenly turns out to encompass BCE Place; if future society has modeled itself in part on the Eaton Centre; well, of course. One might have wished for the city to play itself in mainstream movies more often, but on the other hand, how liberating would that have been?

That activity’s died down now, which is why Covert Affairs is so engaging. Actually, if you see the city on the screen nowadays, it probably is playing itself. Rookie Blue and Flashpoint also film in my neighbourhood periodically. I’ve never seen the latter; the former, although set in Toronto, seems too preoccupied with abs and cleavage to know where it is. I’m sure there are other shows too. On the big screen, unfortunately, setting a big movie in Toronto seems only to guarantee a flop. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was meant to be the cult hit to end them all, and it certainly had a somewhat interesting technique, energy and worldview. However, once you’d gleaned this – after the first ten minutes or so – the movie might have been crafted specifically to illustrate the concept of “diminishing returns.” I actually think Michael Cera might make a good protagonist for a film called Diminishing Returns; he sums up something about the void at the centre of contemporary culture, some notion of how the more connected you are, the more you cancel yourself out. The movie name-checked lots of specific Toronto locations (mostly in the West End) but since the movie was primarily set inside a video game, it didn’t carry much weight.

This Movie is Broken

And then you have the staggeringly lamentable case of Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, an erotic psychological thriller of sorts, but with no feeling for human behaviour and interaction, revealing the latter-day Egoyan as a hack who can only think in terms of structures and poses. The film thuddingly worked in Toronto landmarks of various kinds, but since nothing in it felt remotely real, you might have imagined it was mostly shot somewhere else (like maybe in a sensory deprivation tank).

My favourite recent Toronto picture of the ones I’ve seen is a much smaller thing, Bruce McDonald’s This Movie is Broken. About half of the film consists of Broken Social Scene playing a free concert at the Harbourfront; McDonald weaves a light but engaging relationship narrative around it. The ending, with its broadening of the apparent canvas, suggests the city as a site of infinite possibilities, embodied by the band through its multiplicity and superb musicianship. McDonald certainly seems here like a Toronto romantic, but since he sets the film against the garbage crisis, he’s not goofy about it.

If there were more Toronto movies like This Movie is Broken – or at least, if I knew about them – maybe I’d go all the time. I’d like to watch more Canadian films, but they always get such lousy reviews, or they get good reviews that feel written almost under duress. The latter applied to last year’s Barney’s Version, which the Star in particular shamelessly gushed over for months. Audiences stayed away with equal enthusiasm. I watched it on cable the other week, and almost found myself wishing for Chloe (no, I’m joking, that could only ever be a joke).

Barney’s Version

You know the problem with it? There’s no “version.” There’s no flavour, no worldview. There’s just this character called Barney. Sometimes he’s abrasive; sometimes he’s impulsive; sometimes this; sometimes that. He gets married to this woman, then that one, then this one. He may have killed someone once; the movie intermittently suggests we’re meant to view this as a big structuring mystery of his life. Eventually he gets old and sick. No doubt in Mordecai Richler’s book, which I haven’t read, this all coalesced into a classic character and a memorable evocation of time and place. But the film is bland and monotonous. It looks ugly. It evokes Montreal so indifferently that it might as well have been shot in Toronto. Paul Giamatti just does his irascible “great actor” thing, showing no sign of being meaningfully directed. As I said, from what’s on the screen, there’s no reason it would have that title. There’s no sense of personal storytelling, of conflicting perceptions (except in the most literal-minded way). There’s no version.

It’s probably a good thing I haven’t read the book – I’m sure the film would seem an even greater abomination if I had. Especially if I lived in Montreal. Anyway, I was about to write that I’m sure we’ll get a great contemporary Toronto film one day, but I’m actually not sure. But we’re way ahead of most cities, if only because the next time someone says in a film “We’ll always have Paris,” he might actually be thinking of us.

Chick movie

One of the most surreptitiously meaningful moments in the hit comedy Bridesmaids (now out on DVD) comes during a tennis match sequence; it’s a doubles game, and the focus is on the competition between two of the film’s stars, played by Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne. The other two actresses have no dialogue; they’re just space-fillers. But Wiig’s partner, notable only for her grotesque facial expressions, is played by Melanie Hutsell, who was a regular on Saturday Night Live for several years in the early 90’s. Since then, as far as I can tell, she’s had little meaningful film or TV work. Of course, many males must also look back on their SNL years as a never-replicated highpoint, but I don’t think you ever see their subsequent estrangement from the spotlight summed up so starkly and unsentimentally.

Jill Clayburgh

And then the late Jill Clayburgh makes her last screen appearance in the film, as the mother of Wiig’s character. Clayburgh at least has an actual speaking part, but it’s one of those weirdo old person roles, as a fuss-bucket who obsessively attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings even though she’s never taken a drink. Clayburgh enjoyed a brief vogue as a leading star, with best actress Oscar nominations in both 1978 and 1979 (for An Unmarried Woman and Starting Over), but it petered out after a few years; in the context of her last two decades, the Bridesmaids role actually seems like a relative highlight. Again, it’s not that men don’t suffer similar reversals – just look at her Starting Over co-star Burt Reynolds – but if nothing else, it usually takes longer.

These twin reference points help you to appreciate the fragility at the centre of the movie. Wiig’s character Annie is on a downward slide - she lost all her money in a failed bakery venture, can’t pay her rent, her relationships are going nowhere. Her best friend, played by Maya Rudolph, gets engaged, enlisting Annie as matron of honour; she has the enthusiasm for it, but not the skill, and more seriously not the money. In contrast, another member of the wedding party, Helen, a best-friend-come-lately played by Byrne, virtually lives for such events, and has a bottomless supply of money. This can only lead to friction, embarrassment, gross-out screw-ups, and so forth.

Highs and lows

The movie, co-written by Wiig and directed by Paul Feig, ably blends contrasting comic styles and techniques into a pretty sturdy concoction. At times it’s pleasantly distinctive and naturalistic; a flirtation between Annie and a traffic cop doesn’t feel at all like off-the-shelf cuteness. At other times it’s about the high-concept set-pieces – my favourite was the ludicrously excessive wedding shower, where guests ride up to the house on white horses and then receive a Labrador puppy (in a pink beret) as a party favour. Melissa McCarthy, playing the groom’s sister, hangs out in her own surreal universe and wrestles everything within it into submission. Wiig seldom breaks out the scene-hogging qualities she sometimes displays on SNL, meaning that when she does, it makes sense as an expression of a largely stifled inner life momentarily busting loose.

Bridesmaids is good enough, scene to scene, to remind you how much you miss the mature, meaningful, expansive comedies of past decades. It doesn’t get there though, mainly because it doesn’t want to. A comedic classic like The Apartment might be considered almost laughless by contemporary standards, which intertwines with its effectiveness in evoking mood and character. Bridesmaids can’t take the chance of going more than a few minutes without tweaking the audience, and willingly pays the price for that. So for example, it leaves us in no doubt about Annie’s dire financial situation, but doesn’t bother to explain how she scrounges together the money for a trip to Vegas (albeit that she’s the only one of the group sitting in coach). She hits a bottom, and then a worse bottom, and no doubt you feel sorry for her, but you don’t feel her pain. This is probably the right calculation from a commercial perspective, but the movie’s highs might have been much more resonant if it hadn’t sugar-coated its lows. (I also can’t help wishing her passion was something other than baking. Not that there’s anything wrong with baking. But there’s nothing wrong with software development or engineering either.)

Relevance of feminism

It’s remarkable that a comedy built around women is still viewed as something of a novelty, if not a major commercial risk. The movie pounces on the opportunity as if it might never come again, setting out a dire gallery of maleness. The men on view – excepting of course the Irish cop who embodies all hope - are either mind-numbingly bland or ineffective, such as the fiancée, or nastily self-serving. Helen’s marriage is seemingly an emotional wasteland, with a husband who’s always away and two step-kids who ignore her; another of the bridesmaids paints a verbal picture of unbroken grinding misery, verging on abuse really; yet another, a newly-wed, eventually admits the aridity of her supposedly dream relationship. One might have surmised there’s little or nothing here for the male viewer, but the indictment doesn’t really bite very deeply; despite all the bumps, the closing sense of things is to keep persevering and holding on, because as Woody Allen put it, we need the eggs. The movie’s final scene, a coda running under the end credits, depicts McCarthy’s character and her new boyfriend preparing for an erotic experience; the specific details will be a turn-on to virtually no viewer (I assume so anyway), but somehow the scene manages to seem celebratory rather than (or maybe I should say as well as) squirm-inducing. See, there’s a perfect partner for all of us.

The day after seeing the film, I happened to see snippets of a recent interview with Gloria Steinem, touching on such issues as whether feminism is still a relevant concept. Even if that issue were in any sense settled, I suppose we’d keep resurrecting it periodically; sexual difference is probably too alluring and charged a commodity ever to be left alone. Sometimes a movie like Bridesmaids seems astonished anything might ever go right for a modern woman who isn’t a complete sell-out. One’s life experience seems to say this pessimism is overdone, which is partly why the movie can be categorized mostly as a fantasy. But then you think of Hutsell and Clayburgh. Maybe the broader story of their lives is that they put other things above their careers, I don’t know. But that would only take us to other familiar territory, about the difficulty of balancing legitimate professional ambitions and biological determinism.