Sunday, February 20, 2011

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.

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