Monday, February 28, 2011

Knocking it Back

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2005

In writing about Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary about the wine industry, Mondovino, I have to start by setting out my own wine credentials. I drink a lot of it, almost entirely white. Alcohol-wise, I don’t drink anything else any more. On Friday nights, my wife and I go out, usually to the neighborhood pub The Jersey Giant. She gets a beer and I get a half litre of the house white (that’s just for starters). I’ve been drinking it for years and it’s never occurred to me to ask what it is. On one recent occasion, I took a mouthful and I realized it actually tasted pretty bad. But after a while it seemed to get better.

Ethical Commitment

At other times we go to a restaurant, and we might order a bottle from the respectable upper middle of the price list. I can tell it tastes better than the stuff I drink on Friday, but if you ask me to elaborate on that I’ll be lost. The tasting ritual is for me a waste of time – I can’t imagine on what basis I’d ever reject the bottle. We drink way too fast, frequently draining the bottle too early in the meal process. I like wine. But you can see that I say this in a pretty functional way. It’s not a special thing for me. It’s just what I like to drink. A few years ago we spent the New Year weekend at a country inn where the host instructed us in great detail on the characteristics of each wine. I couldn’t detect any of it. Likewise, on the rare occasion I go to a formal wine tasting, I daydream through the talk and just try not to knock it back too quickly.

Some readers must be shaking their heads over this, and I know by that some measure I’m missing out. But my philosophy is that we’re all missing out on something, so I don’t worry about it. At least I’ve glimpsed enough of the wine mystique to be able to take it on faith. Otherwise, some of the assertions in the opening section of Mondovino might seem purely nonsensical. We are told that wine reflects the “religious relationship between man and nature,” that it takes a poet to make a great wine, that it’s a matter of “ethical commitment.” There is a whole world, a whole way of looking at the world, in which wine is a central structuring principle, and Mondovino is devoted to illuminating that world.

And it turns out that the prevailing themes are the same as they are in every other documentary now – the struggle to preserve integrity and cultural identity in an age of globalization. Nossiter’s film, running two and a quarter hours, takes us through small vineyards, some fighting for survival, and through the huge multinational companies that increasingly dominate the industry (preeminently the Mondavis of California). He spends much time with a wine consultant who travels the world instructing his clients in what will sell (which generally seems to consist of ordering them to “micro-oxygenate”), and with wine guru Robert Parker. On the face of it, it appears like a pretty complete survey.

Democratic Way Of Tasting

Parker is the focal point of the debate that shapes the film. It seems he’s responsible for much of wine’s growing popularity – he’s demystified it, made it accessible to a wider audience. He brags about how he “leveled the playing field” and then casts this in specifically nationalistic terms, referring to an “American, candid, democratic way of tasting” (he says his personality in this regard was formed during the Watergate era). But critics say that Parker overvalues a certain type of overly accessible full-bodied wine, and that his influence ultimately serves to bland out the whole spectrum. You don’t need to be an expert on wine to grasp the nuances of the issue – they’re the same as you see with food or popular culture. There’s more of it than ever, affordable and brightly packaged, and it’s the same everywhere you go. Is this progress? In a superficial sense people have broader horizons than they used to, but then they’re still (if not more so) prisoners of ideology.

Another variation on the theme comes from the wife of a wealthy California producer who gives a self-congratulatory account of how well they treat their Mexican workers – she says they call the workers by their first names and make sure to give them each a copy of the annual company T-shirt or hat. The calculation of what’s good for the individual is glib and generalized, wholly formed by an all-consuming trickle-down view of the world. Interviewing the European nobles who govern the wine aristocracy, Nossiter shows a persistent interest in asking about their links to fascism; he questions one on whether selling wine to the Nazis was a form of collaboration (the answer is it wasn’t – it was a necessity of survival). But none of this is particularly barbed – Nossiter basically seems enthralled by the entire milieu, for all its problems.

Shaggy Dog Story?

Ironically, the thing I found most prominently missing from all this was the presumed delight to be found in wine itself. Even though Nossiter is a trained sommelier as well as a director (his earlier movies were the promising Sunday and the overwrought Signs And Wonders), we don’t actually see a lot of it being drunk, and unlike some of the great food movies that have you drooling in your seat, Mondovino (shot in a loose, off the cuff kind of way) doesn’t strive for a visceral impact (having said that, once it was over, I walked to Cabbagetown and had a couple of glasses). This leaves the film feeling rather abstract and self-contained, potentially rather trivial. Some of Nossiter’s decisions only reinforce this impression. He’s preoccupied with dogs – virtually everyone he talks to seems to have one, and Nossiter consistently moves in for the close-up; during his interview with Parker, he interrupts at one point to observe that the dog has broken wind. He even ends the film on a shot of a dog interfering with another one. What does it mean – that the wine industry has gone to the dogs? That this was just a shaggy dog story?

Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems to me in part that Nossiter was wary of being too stodgy on a subject that might have seemed elitist, and almost spooked himself into taking on a surfeit of lightness. Several people in the movie say that the wine is basically all the same now (or else so lacking in distinction that it might as well be); that consideration has been replaced by hype; uniqueness rooted in a specific sense of origin has been replaced by branding. Watching Mondovino, one might best conclude that if we drink wine at all, it’s pointless to do it with much more thought than someone like me puts into it. Nossiter can’t possibly believe that, but his film remains somewhat fuzzy, as if the whole thing had been put together in the wake of a few glasses too many.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Foreign Best

The Greek film Dogtooth received a lot of film festival attention over the last year or so, but was already available on DVD by the time it opened commercially here; even so, happily, it had a pretty good run. And then it got an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film; an astonishing development for that generally wretched category. I mean, you could credibly argue that Dogtooth is actually one of the best foreign-language films of the year. And in a flamboyantly “foreign” way too: perversity, explicit sex, weirdness galore, no ultimate closure. Obviously it never had a chance of winning.


The film (directed by Giorgos Lanthimos) depicts two sisters and a brother, all in their late teens or thereabouts, confined by their parents to their house and its grounds, kept in by a high wall and even more effectively by lurid stories of what lies outside. The parents shield them from media and much modern technology, compounding their ignorance by teaching them flagrantly wrong definitions for such common words as “sea” and “motorway.” In this rewriting of the world, Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon is a recording of their grandfather (with the father providing his own translation); planes passing overhead are mere toys which sometimes fall from the sky (and which the parents contrive to occasionally find in the garden); and a cat wandering into the yard is a vicious beast which the boy correctly butchers with garden shears.

But the siblings are becoming restless and sexually aware. The father caters to the boy’s urges by paying a local woman to sideline as a prostitute, but he ignores the psyche of the girls, an omission at the centre of the film’s narrative. So that’s enough information, I expect, to support my reference to Dogtooth being weird. The film never explains the parents’ motives for imprisoning their children in this way, and obviously it’s a story of oppression and abuse, but that’s not its primary interest; in certain ways, their proscribed boundaries even form a kind of twisted liberation, allowing them to retain a sense of wonder regarding things like fish and headbands.

Descent into Hell

The film is focused more, I think, on the hermetic structure itself, and on what this suggests about the insecurity of our broader social contract. It asks us to reflect on the strenuous arbitrariness of what we’ve created for ourselves, with our expectations and rituals and customs and hang-ups, and to acknowledge how easily it could all become grotesque and self-defeating (assuming, of course, this hasn’t happened already). This isn’t a function of “evil,” but simply of inherent human limitations and follies: the father is just an unexceptional, dumpy-looking man, his actions likely driven in large part by fear and confusion; the mother just seems to be swept along (the film’s critique seems specifically patriarchal, as it would have to be). I don’t know to what extent this would inherently mean more for being Greek, but of course, since the time Dogtooth was shot, the country’s descended into an economic near-hell, giving everything on screen guaranteed additional resonance. The film ultimately depicts a small-scale revolution, but whatever we might read into its magnificently ambiguous, withholding final shot, it’s certainly not going to be a Rocky-like closure and transcendence (Rocky, for more weirdness, provides a passing reference point within the movie).

Dogtooth is not for all tastes, as the phrase goes; it’s a necessarily cold and carefully sculpted work, sometimes deliberately repulsive and at other times bewildering…it is, as I said, very definitely foreign. But it conveys a sense, as few films do, of having fully achieved its intended vision. Now, I might also apply that same basic statement to another of this year’s foreign-language film nominees (and one with a far greater chance of actually winning – the outcome will be out there by the time you read this) – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Biutiful. The difference would be though that if a particular vision’s not ultimately worth achieving, then it’s not worth achieving well.

The film follows the travails of Uxbal, a middle-aged father of two, doing whatever it takes to survive in the underbelly of Barcelona, connecting Chinese knock-off manufacturers with African street vendors, supplying non-union construction workers, paying off police, even dabbling in mysticism; for all of this, still living in unprepossessing conditions. And then he’s diagnosed with cancer, allowing him only a couple of months. The film’s main selling point, no doubt, is Javier Bardem (also nominated, as best actor, after earlier winning at the Cannes festival), who fills its centre with great gravity and charisma.


There’s a distinct downside to this though, in that Biutiful increasingly conveys little reason for existing other than to tap this gravity and charisma, leading it into what I’d call ethically dubious territory (the rest of this paragraph comes with a spoiler alert). Late on in the film, more than twenty Chinese die in the basement where they’re locked in every night, suffocated by the cheap heaters Uxbal purchased to take the edge off the cold. The event is presented of course as horrifying and traumatic, but it’s still ultimately just a piece in the mosaic of his suffering. I don’t see much moral difference between such a device and the faceless villains who get blown away by the magnetic protagonist in a lamebrain action drama; I don’t think it would ever occur to a truly refined and thoughtful artist to traffic so glibly in this kind of event.

Inarritu is an expert of grim dazzle, and the film might seem instructive about the sad realities of the new global economy, except that the “instruction” doesn’t cover anything you wouldn’t glean from any of a hundred newspaper articles. Last year’s vaguely similar Un prophete (another Oscar nominee, which lost out to the vastly inferior The Secret in Their Eyes) explored somewhat similar territory with much more analytical complexity and power, and with a genuine sense of discovery. This isn’t to say the films have similar intentions though. Un prophete was as narratively meaty as The Godfather, whereas Biutiful, underneath all the sound and fury, belongs more to the category of domestic melodrama, even contriving to have Uxbal’s on-again off-again wife sleeping with his brother.

In some generalized way, I suppose Inarritu means to validate the sad environment he depicts, by showing how everything remains possible; the more he cranks things up to excess, the more we can be assured about the indomitable human capacity for transcendent expression. But in practice this means the film pays more attention to conventional spiritual blather and sentimental inventions than it does to tangible exploitation and suffering. Meaning it doesn’t feel particularly foreign at all.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Two People

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2004)

There’s something almost unbearably touching and joyous about Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset. It’s a sequel to his 1995 Before Sunrise, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy played two students spending the night together in Vienna. At the end of that film they agreed to meet in six months time. Now it’s nine years later, and he’s a writer, doing a signing at a Paris bookshop. He looks up, and there she is. With little more than an hour until he must leave for the airport, they take off for a coffee, and the camera follows them in real time.

Before Sunset

We soon learn she didn’t turn up for the appointment, and he did, but they both say they’ve moved on from it. He’s married; she’s in what she calls a good relationship. Their conversation crams in mundane updates and major revelations, dumb jokes and sharp tension...all set against stunning Parisian scenery, and underlay by the unavoidable question: will he make his plane?

The film’s concept and execution are inherently quite simple of course, and watching Before Sunset I increasingly felt that the detritus built up from years of imprecise viewing was being cleared away, allowing a return to something purer and elemental (I know that’s overdone – but it really is how I felt). The film makes you realize the mundanity of most people in movies now – we watch them as figures in a narrative, maybe we fear for or even cry for them, but the lights come up and they’re soon forgotten. It’s popular to point out that stars now don’t match up to those of the 30’s and 40’s, and it’s true, but in fairness nothing about the infrastructure gives the current contenders much of a chance. In Before Sunset the film slows down, their faces fill the screen, and they flood over us.

The film is being commended for the intelligence of its dialogue, but I don’t think that’s the point. A lot of what they say is superficial twaddle, just as in any conversation that might try to fit nine years into an hour. Neither is a great thinker – they contradict themselves, they strike attitudes, they make bland generalizations. You get a tangible sense of their limitations. Both actors are magnificent, in a way that might not readily strike you as such. Hawke is becoming especially interesting: looking worryingly gaunt, almost feral, at times, he fully conveys the brittleness of his character’s apparent success.

Reliance On Absence

The memory of the earlier event is of course central to what unfolds in Before Sunset, and this is yet another sense in which its impact seems to flow from the very heart of cinema. Linklater flashes back to the earlier film, but in a gorgeously subtle, almost subliminal way. As the characters turn over the event, the film becomes much more inextricably linked to the earlier movie than is the case for most sequels; the absence of the earlier event, the earlier film, their earlier selves, is as dominant in the structure as what’s present. Whether or not we think about it, cinema always relies on absence – on our knowledge of the unseen space that connects one shot to the next, of the resonances of earlier films and roles.

I’m not trying to argue Before Sunset is in some way the apex of cinema. Even on the same day I saw it, I watched Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 film Andrei Rublev, which is a much more ambitious, challenging and ultimately overwhelming work. Tarkovsky’s film is great cinema that overspills its boundaries – it’s a work of poetry, of politics, of historical scholarship, of philosophical reverie. By contrast, Before Sunset, if you want to put it this way, is “just” a film. Except for everything I’ve mentioned, and that in its pervading fear that (even in their early 30’s) their best times may already have slipped by, it taps into universal anxiety. I called it joyous, but it’s also consistently melancholy.

Richard Linklater is rapidly becoming a critical favourite, in particular after Waking Life. Most critics loved The School Of Rock too, although I couldn’t see more to it than genre clich├ęs and stock characters (I did smile at it a lot though). To this point I’ve been a mild dissenter; certainly I would have foregone several Linklater projects in exchange for a new film by Whit Stillman, who seems to have vanished after The Last Days Of Disco. But Before Sunset is a near-masterpiece. It seems like something that can’t be replicated, but Linklater and the actors are already talking about the possibility of a third film.

Oh, and did I mention Before Sunset may have the best ending of any film this year?

Facing Windows

The Italian film Facing Windows, directed by Ferzan Ozpetek, is a moderately interesting work, but it illustrates many of the points I made above about why Before Sunset is so refreshing. The film sets up a somewhat cumbersome parallel between an amnesiac concentration camp survivor preoccupied by a long-ago lost love, and an unhappy young woman in danger of cracking under the strain of her unsatisfying job and stagnant marriage. Her dream is to be a pastry chef – yes, this is another foreign film that lathers the screen in great-looking food – and it turns out that the old man used to be the best pastry chef in Rome. Hey, sounds like a mutually beneficial relationship.

Ozpetek’s best-known film remains The Turkish Bath; his most recent was Innocent Fairies, another tale of homosexuality as transgression. Facing Windows seems like an attempt to tap a broader agenda, but it’s conventional at times, contrived at others. At the end, we watch the woman alone as we hear in voice-over a letter she wrote to the old man. The letter asserts the connection between them in terms that seem excessive given what we’ve actually seen on the screen. Then she turns and looks directly into the camera, at us, the spectators. The camera moves in for a close-up of her eyes, looking out at us, and holds the close-up for the full length of the closing credits.

It’s a bold piece of cinema, bolder than anything in Before Sunset perhaps, but it feels utterly forced. The invisible wall between the characters and the viewers is one of cinema’s most hallowed conventions; thus breaking that convention can provide a director one hell of a weapon. The way that Ozpetek uses it seems to me rather gauche. It’s the kind of superficially clever but unanchored device that might seem appealing to the protagonists of Before Sunset, if they were filmmakers, but which their director – being a few years older and wiser than they are - knows to let pass.

Creative Expression

“The title should come with a sigh,” says The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane about Another Year: “The year that is covered by Mike Leigh’s film, divided into its four seasons, is, you instinctively sense, not so different from the preceding ones, and the years to come seem likely to bring more of the same.” And indeed, depending how broadly one makes the assessment, the film might not seem so different either from Leigh’s previous works; another two hours of suburban misery, enacted mostly by actors he’s worked with before. It would be possible to enjoy and admire his work while remaining unsure of its inherent value and purpose: in particular, do his distinct working methods – developing the material in close collaboration with the actors over a number of months – result in something real and socially probing, or rather in a self-indulgent stylization?

Mike Leigh

Happy-Go-Lucky, his last film, was a moderate departure. The relentlessly cheerful main character was definitely a love her or hate her kind of creation, but it made you reflect on the potentially transgressive, threatening nature of optimism in a way you likely hadn’t before. The movie has an extraordinary sequence where she follows a homeless man who swings between incoherent babbling and lucidity, one of many moments in Leigh’s work where you feel everything might topple over into existential hell. Another Year conveys the same thing more quietly, through a number of moments when characters stare off to the edge of the frame, as if sensing the possibility of great revelation or redemption, but then realizing it’s evaded them, and perhaps fearing it always will.

The film focuses on Tom and Gerri, a couple in their sixties, and various interactions over the course of the year: Mary, a colleague of Gerri, trying to convince herself – with declining success - she’s in a good place in life; Keith, an old friend of Tom’s, with perhaps no remaining agenda other than to eat and drink himself to death; their son, and the girlfriend he meets in the summer; Tom’s brother, driven over the decades into virtual silence. Mostly set in and around their house, it’s 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.

Mobility and Luck

The son’s new girlfriend, Katie, is a secondary character in terms of screen time, but lies at the heart of the film’s impact I think. She simply launches herself into the family, intuitively connecting with Tom and Gerri in a way the other characters, for all the years head start they have on her, can’t replicate. Part of this, although the film doesn’t push the point, is simply education and mobility: there’s a distinct divide between the characters who’ve seen other places and maintain a sense of possibilities, and those who haven’t and don’t. The sad story of Mary’s used car purchase, meant to embody a new chapter of freedom, but merely becoming a soul-destroying money pit, sums this up particularly well. But of course, no matter how we analyze our stories and find explanations for how we got to where we are, a lot depends on pure dumb luck and circumstance; nurtured, in the film’s particular formulation, by family and continuity. By her very presence, Katie makes it impossible for Mary to maintain her illusions, not just about her broader chances in life, but also – and Leigh’s quiet cruelty here illustrates why some find him mean-spirited and misanthropic – about her relative importance to Tom and Gerri.

The couple grows vegetables in a nearby land allotment, imposing a connection to the land and a continual obligation of time and effort, and it seems Leigh’s validating such imposed self-discipline as a component of sustainable happiness (in contrast with the unbridled kind depicted in Happy-Go-Lucky). Hardly a universal prescription I suppose, but that’s the ambiguity I mentioned: does Leigh possess an understanding and insight of the kind you hope for from a great artist, or has he just hit on a particularly productive, but ultimately abstract, form of creative expression? Another Year hits you hard enough to make a compelling case for the former.

The Town

Here are two more words that should come with a sigh: Ben Affleck. Actually, for many commentators, that’s not as true as it once was, now that Affleck has slipped the grip of the tabloids and reinvented himself as a serious director. Some Oscar gurus even thought his most recent film, The Town, might score a best film nomination, although it fell short in the end.

I caught up with the picture recently – it’s now on DVD – and…well, as I said, I sighed. If Affleck’s efforts on The Town were even remotely Oscar-worthy, then what kind of recognition should Michael Mann have had for his 1995 masterpiece Heat? Given, I mean, that virtually every significant element of Affleck’s film makes you think of Mann’s, and not once in a way that works to the advantage of the newer movie; truly, it’s as the earlier film was relocated from Los Angeles to Boston, cleaned up with sharper (but infinitely less nuanced) visuals, and run through an idiot box.

Affleck’s instincts as a director are woefully conventional; his people recite canned dialogue back and forth, creating inch-deep characters at best. As its title suggests, the film purports to be a sprawling depiction of a neighborhood running deep in criminality, but its sense of place is plastic and superficial (to pick another current counterpoint almost at random, I didn’t much care for David O. Russell’s The Fighter, but it’s infinitely more skillful in evoking a particular local milieu and texture). The plot unfolds in a leaden, obvious way, and has ideas well above its stature, ending on an entirely unearned note of romantic fatalism. And the movie is mostly miscast, led by Affleck’s own bland presence in the central role. As an aside, it has one of the last performances by the late Pete Postlethwaite (someone who feels like he should have had a long history in Mike Leigh films, but didn’t), incarnating a stunning, casual evil in one brief monologue; it’s one of the few moments when the movie hints at something more complex, but even then it would only be a trashy, melodramatic complexity.

Of course, such contrivances are almost always easy to watch, but this one generates an unusually low return on the investment. Other than to vividly remind you how good Heat was, which I suppose is actually a pretty good return, albeit accidentally.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Life and Death

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2009)

It’s commonplace now to call Clint Eastwood one of the great American directors. I don’t strongly disagree, although I’d be hard-pressed to nail down what that greatness actually consists of, aesthetically or thematically speaking. For me, and I suspect for many others, Eastwood’s presence and unique relationship to Hollywood reverberate enough to get you to two stars before the lights even go down. Having long smoothed off his persona’s rough edges, he seems supernaturally relaxed, and everything he does generates new reports about his speed and assurance. He had two new films last year, Changeling and Gran Torino, and this just two years after his World War Two double-header, Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima (which he made in Japanese, for crying out loud). These aren’t minor little movies, like one-set Gus Van Sant experiments – they’re logistically demanding, the kind of projects that occupy other major filmmakers for a year or two at a time. Oh, and he often writes the music for them too (he even sings on the Gran Torino soundtrack). And his wife’s reportedly pregnant.

Eastwood the Director

He won directing Oscars for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby; virtually every film he makes seems at least to contend for nominations. They’re usually riveting. And yet it’s usually easy to cite their limitations. Million Dollar Baby is a good yarn with a twist, but what else? Flags Of Our Fathers is remarkably intricate and fluent, but its central preoccupations are conventional and stately. Changeling is unwieldy and unfocused. And notwithstanding what I said about rough edges, there’s often a crude edge to his sensibility. Changeling, again, seems to gloat over the fate of the child murderer. Many of the films have violence as a putative subject, but it’s hard to distinguish studied analysis from smooth exploitation (not that Eastwood’s films are alone in this).

On the other hand, his aversion to over-embellishment, to over-lighting, over-acting, over-anything really counts for something. Despite presumably unlimited access to anything and anywhere he wants, Eastwood somehow manages to retain his maverick credentials. Over and over, his protagonists have to assert their rights and individuality against a corrupt or merely foolish governing machine. The movies aren’t morally complex or strident (Million Dollar Baby’s treatment of euthanasia might be the acid test here); they valorize self-determination, but despise those who fail to grasp their responsibilities (even if on occasion those responsibilities consist of little more than not being an a-hole). Eastwood’s fluid but terse style perfectly fits this instinct. Getting it close enough and moving on resembles an article of faith; dawdling perfectionists belong with the despised paper pushers of the Dirty Harry films.

Gran Torino apparently wasn’t written specifically for Eastwood, but it’s hard to imagine it existing in any other form. He plays Walt, a retired Ford autoworker, who just lost his wife, doesn’t get on with his sons, and increasingly resembles a one-man bulwark against changing times, embodied in particular in the neighborhood’s increasing diversity. He doesn’t want anything to do with the Asian family next door, but intervenes in a gang fracas – simply because the fight spilled over onto his lawn – and from then gets drawn more and more into the family’s well-being. But the stakes keep ramping up, until Eastwood’s character – as they always have – takes it on himself to do the right, and dramatic, thing.

Gran Torino

The movie sharply divided critics: some saw it as an autumnal masterpiece, others as silly and decrepit. It certainly belongs with the late films of Hawks and Ford and others, which elicited exactly the same split response (it reminds me in particular of a film like Red Line 7000, which applied something of the classic Hawksian tone and sensibility to a consciously modern setting and almost entirely unknown cast). Walt is an outrageously overdrawn character, whose dialogue for much of the film consists solely of taciturn zingers at everyone and everything around him. It’s not exactly elevated material, but I must admit I laughed – with genuine unironic pleasure - more through this film than at any other this year. What surrounds Walt though is often flaccid and superficial. The screenwriter raved in interviews about how Eastwood didn’t change a word of his script, but given the dialogue’s often-clunky quality, this seems to speak to undue rushing and making do, more than to canny fidelity.

As in Million Dollar Baby, the scheme includes a young Catholic priest, existing here largely to be pummeled by Walt for lack of world experience. Walt killed at least thirteen people in Korea, and says the memory never lets up for a day; he prides himself on his superior knowledge of death, while conceding he’s often known or cared less about life. Day to day, this only fuels his hard-man isolation. But the film is about redemption; not through the formalized mechanics of family or the church, but through a fearsome pragmatism encompassing the strategic use of one’s own mortality. In a way it’s an inversion of the ending of Million Dollar Baby, and immensely resonant when set against Eastwood’s massive screen body count.

Future Of America

The main change he did make to the script was to shift the action to Detroit, thus benefiting from the current backdrop of auto bailouts and primal fears about the industry’s survival; the title refers to Walt’s pristine 1972 auto, another symbol of better days. There’s a reactionary quality to this, to the degree that the new melting pot America seems to carry the symbolic can for eroding security and simplicity. But when Walt disparages selling as a profession, and urges the young neighbor to try construction instead, he’s speaking about an ideology of self-sufficiency and pride, not about economic opportunism. The old man’s care for his tools, and his solicitousness in transmitting that across an enormous generational and cultural divide, provide some of the most touching and optimistic moments.

Ultimately, the way that all shakes out, Gran Torino will be one of my cherished films of 2008, one of the few I’ll certainly want to see again. If it does end up as Eastwood’s final screen performance, it’ll be one of the most blisteringly appropriate final notes in history, brazenly glorifying in his persona’s classic strengths and limitations, paying due homage to better days, then gracefully and memorably moving on. I don’t know, returning to my beginning, that it helps materially in resolving whether he’s a great director. But you know, who needs more dutiful greatness anyway? Classic, muscular, flash-free star-driven cinema is going the way of the Gran Torino, and I dare say for much the same reasons (that’s another article). When there are no more Clint Eastwood films, it will be one more cause to fear the worst.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Michael Powell

I recently rewatched, after a long time, two of the great British films directed in the 1940’s by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death, and it reminded me that I saw Powell in the flesh once. This was around 1986, and he came back to Canterbury, where he was born, to talk to a class of film students. In his seventies, he was accompanied by his wife, Thelma Schoonmaker, whom he’d met through his friendship with Martin Scorsese (whose films she still edits). I’m ashamed to recall that the majority of questions he received were actually about Scorsese (I was too shy to speak up, and probably still would be today). But then at the time Scorsese was hotter than hot, whereas Powell, although certainly esteemed by many, was an old man, his best days not universally appreciated and in any event long behind him.

Powell’s Reputation

I’m fairly sure Powell, if he were still around (he died in 1990), would receive a more enthusiastic welcome nowadays, partly due to Scorsese’s efforts on his behalf – he cites The Red Shoes in particular as one of the five films that mean most to him, and slips surreptitious visual references to it into a number of his own movies. More generally, his films (and in this article I’ll refer to Powell alone as shorthand for him and Pressburger –that’s a bit unfair of course, but there’s no doubt he was the dominant of the two artistic personalities) have held up incredibly well, possibly surpassing the reputation of contemporaries like David Lean and Carol Reed, who had much more mainstream respectability, and far superior access to funding, during their careers. By the end of the 50’s, Powell’s working life was substantially over, particularly because of his 1959 Peeping Tom, about a voyeuristic murderer who kills women with a knife attached to the leg of his camera tripod. It’s now regarded as a groundbreaking psychological horror film, but at the time it repelled people. Powell directed only a few more minor pictures - the most notable, Age Of Consent, features a young Helen Mirren (1969!) swimming in the nude – and episodes of minor TV shows.

In A Biographical Dictionary Of Film, David Thomson notes that Powell was once “written off as an eccentric decorator of fantasies…(and) against persistent British attempts to dignify realism…must have seemed gaudy, distasteful and effete.” But then he notes how this has turned: “The work looks better and better, simpler yet more ambiguous. The great Powell and Pressburger films do not go stale; they never relinquish their wicked fun or that jaunty air of being poised on the brink.”

Of the two films I rewatched, this especially applies to A Matter of Life and Death (sometimes called Stairway to Heaven), which is literally poised on the brink of life itself. David Niven plays a WW2 pilot who, as the movie begins, is in his last minutes on earth, hopelessly stuck with no parachute in a busted plane headed for a crash landing. He has a final exchange with an American radio operator he’s never seen (Kim Hunter), and when he somehow survives, waking up on a beach near her home, he pursues her and they fall immediately in love. But Heaven has bungled – the collector of souls missed him in the fog, and turns up now to bring him back. Niven refuses to go, and ends up before a celestial court of appeal, arguing his new love for Hunter warrants an extension of his term on earth.

A Matter of Life and Death

As you can see then, the movie is plain weird, although there have been plenty of others, before and subsequently, dabbling in broadly similar material. But the film is a perfect exhibit for Powell’s iconoclasm. Niven’s case ultimately becomes intertwined with the case for England itself, for its quaint country villages and clipped speech patterns and odd formality – but also for its entitlement to supremacy in the post-war world. Heaven, unsurprisingly, feels very much like England of the time too, heavily defined by procedure and by class, but the film exhibits an utter belief in the system’s integrity, in its ability to weigh individual entitlements against the collective good. But in case this sounds like a rather grim and limited vision, the movie – which presents the real world in colour and the next one in black and white - is a gorgeous, glowing vision of heightened reality.

Thomson points out that The Red Shoes, in many respects a much more grounded tale, “underline(s) the search for respectability in his work” while also sharing the earlier film’s great truth “that creative dreams easily surpass reality.” This is the story of a young dancer who shoots to fame in a ballet of Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairytale (about the shoes that when she puts them on won’t stop dancing); when she alienates the impresario by falling in love with the young composer, she must choose between life and art, ultimately with tragic consequences. The film, I believe, still enchants young girls, but it has a sense of madness barely held at bay: even at her moment of triumph as she performs the ballet, the dancer suddenly has flashes of the men in her life intertwining with the fictional characters, presaging the price to be paid for this creative summit.

The Red Shoes

It’s probably not quite right to say that creative dreams “easily” surpass reality in Powell’s work, because any such sense of ease is merely transient: whether through the forces of our own world or the world beyond, there will have to be a reckoning, and you may stand a better chance with the negotiators from the other world than with those from our own (Powell doesn’t convey anything like the same faith with the hierarchy of the ballet world that he does with the legal processes of the afterworld).

These two films, although surely both among Powell’s best, nevertheless can’t adequately sum up the span of his work, which spans wartime action, intense eroticism, political satire and much intense psychological observation, and a restless confounding of expectations, sometimes through astonishing complexity, sometimes just through playfulness. Like many of the greatest filmmakers, it’s hard to imagine he would have flourished quite as much in any other time and place: he thrived on end-of-Empire England, validating its funny old ways even as he relentlessly probed what might lie beneath. He’s just about the only filmmaker who can actually make me nostalgic for those times; I wish I’d said that to him when I had the chance.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Remaking Dreamgirls

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2007)

An immediate spoiler alert – if you plan on seeing the new film of Dreamgirls and haven’t yet, don’t read this article until later. I’ve seldom had to give such a warning, but as you will see, it’s necessary here. Not that anything about the film is at all surprising or unexpected. It’s famous material of course, based on the 1981 Broadway musical directed by Michael Bennett (no one ever mentions the guys who actually wrote the thing – they were Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger), and coming to us now on film as part of the new post-Chicago interest in the musical genre. The smart and versatile Bill Condon (who directed Gods And Monsters and Kinsey and wrote the screenplay for Chicago) is the director and the film has an absolute dream cast.

Fame And Celebrity

Jamie Foxx plays a hustling car salesman and would-be musical impresario who latches on to a talented but going-nowhere trio of girl singers. He gets them a gig as back-up singers to a James Brown-like performer (played by Eddie Murphy), and subsequently vaults them to the next level of stardom. But only by shunting to the sidelines the lead singer Effie White, who has the strongest voice but also carries the most pounds (the luminous newcomer Jennifer Hudson), to elevate to the centre spot the milder-voiced but more photogenic Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles). The reshaped Dreams become major stars, cresting the wave up to the mid-70’s, but of course it’s not all good behind the scenes, and the Murphy and Hudson characters go through hard times on the downslide. As the tagline reads: “Fame comes and goes, stars rise and fall, but dreams live forever.”

Although Dreamgirls is sometimes pointed about fame and celebrity, it’s not the most challenging material in the world, and Condon mostly chooses to celebrate the material rather than to risk stretching it too far. This is summed up by what might be the most generous closing credits I’ve ever seen – extended montages of each of the main performers, followed by little snapshots (which might be read as post-it notes to the Academy) of the contributions of key behind-the-scenes players. The musical numbers are often dynamite, and the movie doesn’t stint on the big emotions and glitz. It’s probably at its most engaging for its opening half hour or so, when it’s immersed in the early struggle and has a sense of wide-eyed hustle about it, but the movie has virtually no dead space, and I can’t imagine many viewers will be bored.

I Am Telling You

I almost was though after a while, and I found myself doing something I seldom do – rewriting or reediting or reshooting it in my head, responding to what seemed to me an escalating volume of errors and suboptimal decisions. Most movies don’t facilitate this kind of reaction. For example, one might like Children Of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth this much or that much, and one might come out of them with this or that reservation, but they strike you as solid, impregnable artifacts – they’re tough and coherent and if you try to scrape at them you’ll only break your fingernails. Whereas with lesser movies, you merely shake your head at the wrong-headedness of the whole thing. But with Dreamgirls, Condon’s choices and compromises are unusually transparent – you can almost see the blueprint clinging to the underside of the celluloid – and it’s hard not to respond somewhat forensically.

A key example, and exhibit one for the prosecution, comes at the end of Hudson’s show-stopping solo “I Am Telling You,” a five minute agonized outpouring of alternating defiance and anger and raw hurt. It’s a fine performance, and no question it does its job (talking of the Academy, this is the clip that will inevitably mark Hudson’s forthcoming triumph as supporting actress). But the impact could have been even greater. During Hudson’s long final note, it seems clear to me that Condon need do no more than leave the camera on her face and soak the audience in the authenticity of her emotion. Instead he cuts I think three times during the note, catching her in a pincer movement of angles. Then, once she breaks off, it seems to me the film needed a few seconds of dead air, maybe even a black screen, just enough to reflect and sigh and let it sink in (the first act of the stage version ended at this point). But Condon executes a whooshing camera movement past her face, right into the next scene, of the other women performing a much frothier, dispensable routine.

Trying Too Hard

To me this all seems like trying too hard. Too many of the numbers feel like music videos, with overdone choreography, a surfeit of “technique,” and a general feeling of self-contained inconsequentiality. This magnifies the problems of the heavily unfocused screenplay. Simply put, there are too many protagonists here. Murphy is also being touted for an Oscar, but the scenes that might make his portrayal truly stimulating simply aren’t here. His character hits a wall, gets eclipsed by his former back-up group, and seems likely merely to fade from the movie; but then suddenly he’s back in the fold, having reinvented himself in a softer vein, before drug use and hubris leads him to a tragic end. But the meat of that story, and the depth of the character’s pain, is all off screen.

By contrast, Deena’s story becomes more prominent as the film progresses, but this is the blandest of narratives, and Knowles isn’t pushed even slightly out of her comfort zone. The character betrays her best friend and – although in early scenes Deena’s good girl qualities are emphasized – steals her man, without any sign of much moral anguish (yet again, the interesting scenes seem to be missing). It’s no doubt part of the point that Deena’s relative blankness better suits the cultural machinery than Effie’s earthier qualities, and one admires Knowles’ willingness to play a singer so clearly identified as being second rate (particularly since, as far as I can tell, she’s merely singing here the same way she always does), but Dreamgirls never evokes the outside world more than cursorily, so it’s unclear what social commentary is intended.

At various times the movie mentions Martin Luther King, and at one point (rather ludicrously) Effie storms out of an accident in the studio into the middle of a full-blown riot; costumes and musical styles change, but it’s all too compressed. Dreamgirls is one of those movies where the galaxy seems to contain only eight or so people of consequence, and they shuffle round each other for years. This no doubt worked fine in the theatre. But ultimately Condon’s respect for and celebration of the material results in a messy, tentative, at times almost incoherent film.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Stars and Zombies

Somewhere follows Johnny Marco, seemingly a major Hollywood star, temporarily living in the Los Angeles Chateau Marmont hotel. He drinks, has lots of sex, passes the time playing computer games and staring into space. Sometimes he gets a call to do some publicity thing for his new movie or some preparation thing for his next one; he goes dutifully along, but never suggesting much grasp of how the dots of his life join together. Sometimes his daughter spends the day with him; halfway through the movie, she comes for an extended stay after her mother suddenly takes off (this is as close as the film comes to a plot). Marco has all the access, privilege and adulation in the world – on a publicity trip to Milan he receives a police escort and the keys to the city, and stays in a suite the size of Versailles – but has no idea what to do with it. He never expresses an intelligent thought, and his curiosity seems limited to mild paranoia about whether he’s being followed.

A Better Life

The film is a deadpan counterpoint to the TV show Entourage, which places a somewhat similar character in the middle of a perpetual whirl of connection. Marco’s Blackberry seldom seems to buzz, and when it does, we see him receive only abusive texts from an unknown sender. In his public appearances, he’s affable, turning on a killer smile, but has so little to say as to seem almost catatonic. One of the film’s witty recurring motifs simply involves him falling asleep. When he goes to a special effects shop to have a mould made of his head, he’s left to sit there alone, covered in plaster, with just two breathing holes for his nostrils, a perfect evocation of inert, unfathomable presence. But then we see the end result of the process, when he’s made up to look like an old man, and the film momentarily feels like 2001, as if cosmic existential transformation were also within his grasp.

Because, of course, if someone like Johnny Marco isn’t living a better life than the average slacker, then what’s the point of it all; in particular, what’s the nature of the attention directed at him, the desire to be close to him? Coppola has been criticized for making the same movie over and over – Lost in Translation was also about a movie star in a hotel, and when she extended her range to make a picture about Marie Antoinette, it was just another take on opulent isolation. Indeed, if the point of the film was merely Johnny Marco, the film would surely be too marginal for any of us to care about. I do actually think it’s a little too marginal to entirely deserve the top prize it took at the Venice film festival. But Somewhere’s import is maximized if we take it primarily as a critique of the societal investment in someone like Marco, a plausible interpretation given the film’s quietly relentless gaze (of course, given Coppola’s own celebrity and the scrutiny she’s endured in the past, the possibility always exists that she’s driven largely by self-motivated special pleading).


Superficially, the character makes some progress. But I think Coppola intends that mainly as a tease; he goes from driving his Porsche in circles in the opening shot to an actual straight-line journey in the final scene, but seemingly without ending up anywhere in particular (the title of Somewhere has the inevitable implication of Nowhere). Sure, we can find meaning in such lives if we look for it, but why are we bothering? Coppola strokes our fascination through her attention to place and texture, often of a rather tatty nature; for instance, when he has two pole dancers in his room (they bring their own collapsible poles), their sliding against the metal is heavy on the soundtrack; along with the scene’s sheer repetitive length, it renders events so functional that I doubt any viewer could retain much erotic interest.

It might have worked out pretty well that I saw the film in the week after Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globe gig, where he set off endless chatter by supposedly bruising some celebrity egos. Even as commentators deride the story, they perpetuate it, just as I’m doing here, and to the extent it obscures and diverts mass attention from the real needs of the human project, it’s a genuine social evil (which I suppose was Gervais’ broader point). So Somewhere sets off a timely reverie, but as I mentioned, it just isn’t impactful enough for all tastes. If it were more impactful, of course, then that would probably only mark it as a product of the machine, rather than being a critique of it.

Survival of the Dead

Back in the day, it was possible to argue (and yes, I mean with a straight face) for George Romero’s zombie movies as serious social critiques too. In Dawn of the Dead, the second of the films (made in 1978), a group of fleeing humans holes up inside an abandoned shopping mall, allowing endless opportunities to poke at how our commitment to consumerism might not be so different from the brain-dead blood lust driving on the zombies. Romero completed the trilogy a few years later, then put the subject matter aside for twenty years, since when he’s made three more in short order; it’s no surprise, I’m sure, that a sense of diminishing returns attaches to the effort.

The most recent, Survival of the Dead, is now available on DVD and cable. The main setting this time is an island off the coast of Delaware, long the domain of two feuding Irish families, whose enmity continues into a disagreement about the strategy toward the zombie plague (shoot them all on sight, or keep enough of them around to facilitate the search for a cure). Throw in a bunch of soldiers, lured from the mainland by the possibility of crafting a zombie-free refuge, and it’s an obvious tinderbox.

Compared to its deliberately ragged predecessor, Diary of the Dead (which riffed to no great purpose on the pervasiveness of new technologies), Survival has a pristine, classical kind of quality. It’s propulsive and exciting to watch, no question, and although the stuff with the Irish clans seems mostly silly, there’s something endearing about Romero thinking such swaggering blarney to be a suitable vehicle for depicting, basically, the end of everything. It works its way to some homily about how war continues on long after we’ve forgotten the original purpose behind the conflict; this is no doubt true, but not something particularly well-illuminated by this movie. If there’s a next time, I think Romero needs to refocus on the zombies’ metaphorical potential, maybe by having them combine eating human flesh with producing one of those showbiz gossip shows.