Sunday, March 27, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part One

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2004)

This is the first of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.

When Will I Be Loved (James Toback)
Toback could have been one of the best American directors, but it didn’t quite turn out that way. Since his amazing, unprecedented early films Fingers and Exposed (another early work, Love And Money, seems to have effectively disappeared), he’s had a patchy career, often with long gaps between movies. Two Girls And A Guy won most acclaim (leaving aside his screenplay for Barry Levinson’s Bugsy), but it was a quickie project of modest ambition. His last film Harvard Man wasn’t released here, but it turned up on cable – it had all his manic energy, but made you wonder if his fixation on youth (he’s almost 60 now) wasn’t diluting his gifts for exploring extreme characters; among other things, it had so much sex and drug stuff that the director’s motives become questionable. Still, Toback’s swaggering, kinetic approach to filmmaking is pretty irresistible.

When Will I Be Loved, which has now opened commercially, is an interesting formal experiment – a first half of seemingly almost random collisions and allusions and meshings; a second half that closes in on one story illustrating the capacity of human endeavour and its ethically and psychologically murky underbelly. Neve Campbell plays a woman whose hustler boyfriend arranges for her to sleep with a communications mogul for $100,000 (he sells this to her as an application of “The fundamental existential question we all have to face – what am I capable of?”). She bargains up to $1 million, then turns the tables. Mike Tyson and Lori Singer turn up as themselves – both captured in some unexplained personal conflict (Singer’s boyfriend is black, and Toback himself appears as a professor of African-American studies – racial tension is a prominent but unresolved subtext of the film’s first section). While much of the film is knowingly chaotic, Campbell’s loft is an oasis of cool sophistication (she has rich parents) and the soundtrack is full of Glenn Gould and Beethoven strings – you get the feeling of a search for synthesis and assimilation, bolstered by the dialogue’s constant references to “finding out who I am” and “feeling connected” and suchlike.

Toback is unquestionably sincere, his allusiveness is fascinating, and his commitment and vitality are attractive, but When Will I Be Loved again seems to be exploring an increasingly abstract universe of connection for its own sake. Exposed, more than 20 years ago now, had real issues (politics, terrorism), a real sense of globalization, and a personal history expressed in more than passing arguments - it had ambition and melancholy. At least Toback seems able to make films more frequently now, but it seems more and more like productivity without purpose.

10 On Ten and Five (Abbas Kiarostami)
Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum regards Iranian Kiarostami as one of the two greatest working narrative filmmakers (the other is Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whose Café Lumiere also played at this year’s festival). Kiarostami’s earlier films can be watched largely as voyages of discovery, leavened with some relatively accessible musings on the nature of cinema. A Taste Of Cherry won the top prize at Cannes and took his reputation to a higher level. I wrote an awfully snippy putdown of it here at the time, failing to see how its ostensible subject of a man driving around, determined to commit suicide, is actually an exerting essay on self-definition in a time of philosophical and cultural confusion. The Wind Will Carry Us presents another, more mysterious quest which also reveals itself as the honing of a sense of self, and this may be the film that best illustrates the intricacy of Kiarostami’s approach; how absence and omission and repetition forge a distinct space that influences the characters as much as the ostensible narrative does. His dialogue, often consisting of repeated assertions and questions like a weird variation on David Mamet, frequently strikes me as funny, in the sense that one might choose to laugh into the void. His last film 10 consisted of ten scenes of a woman driving around Tehran with various passengers, and seemed to me to be partly about the possibility of female empowerment; clearly more minimal than the other films, it seemed to speak of a desire for new directions.

Kiarostami’s two new films confirm this desire. 10 on Ten is a series of commentaries on filmmaking, delivered in ten chapters by Kiarostami himself while he drives around the area in which Taste Of Cherry was filmed. He emphasizes several times that he had no formal training in filmmaking (he rather high-handedly suggests that the act of watching this film will preclude the audience from ever making the same claim) and his observations are non-technical and, dare I say, largely unsurprising. He gushes over the potential of digital cameras, regarding these as a deliverer of “undeniable truth” – a posture that seemed to me overly idealistic, although consistent with his increasing use of unfiltered images and avoidance of editing and narrative. He contrasts his own cinema – “a cinema of truth” – to that of Hollywood, asserting that “human beings and their souls” are the most important subject matter, torn between heaven and hell because of their “existential ambiguity.” Although some of this is interesting, I cannot say that it particularly aids in appreciating the director’s work, and the film is aesthetically negligible in itself.

Five, dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu, consists of five long takes, all close to the Caspian shoreline. The first follows a log being tossed by the waves; the second, people walking on the boardwalk; the third, dogs gathered at the water’s edge; the fourth, ducks walking in one direction and then the other. The fifth and longest take is also the most mysterious and compelling – shot at night, at various times it catches the moon both directly and reflected in the water, rainfall, waving leaves, cloud patterns, the break of day. Unlike the first four shots, this seems to evidence some modest manipulation of space or time, but its exact nature eludes us.

I assume the dedication to Ozu evokes the Japanese director’s serenity and composure, but I can’t imagine that Ozu – whose movies are more melodramatic, densely plotted and even comic than the legend often has it – would have been drawn to this métier. To remind us of cinema’s essential simplicity is enduringly worthy, but I’m not sure where the achievement now ranks in the relative hierarchy. In the program book Kiarostami says of Five: “It is as if I recited a poem which had already been written. Everything already exists…I simply observed it.” But does this speak of one of the greatest living filmmakers? It wouldn't take much to read 10 on Ten and Five, taken in combination, as symptoms of a director in crisis – first a little too stridently asserting his relevance, then seeking to deny it altogether.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

From Canada, with neurosis

When I checked just now, I was pleased to discover I’ve seen eighteen of the last twenty winners of the Genie for best Canadian motion picture: the exceptions are Bon Cop, Bad Cop and Passchendaele (which, ironically, were much more generally popular than some of the other eighteen). I mean, I like the idea of supporting Canadian film, even though my dislike for much of the work of Atom Egoyan and Denys Arcand (who account between them for five of the eighteen films) poses a bit of a handicap. But in practice, on any given day, the Canadian choice doesn’t often win out. Actually, I wish there were some influence in my life – an inner voice, or some form of peer pressure – to help it win out more often.


Against that backdrop, I’m not sure why I delayed getting to Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies for as long as I did: I only finally went in its sixth or seventh week of release. Of course, the most heartening thing about that sentence is that a Canadian film stayed in release for six or seven weeks (and is still going strong). The film was widely acclaimed – Peter Howell of The Star named it his favourite of the year, Canadian or otherwise – and it was one of the five nominees for the best foreign language film Oscar. And Villeneuve’s last film Polytechnique - a very potently chilly and yet deeply felt study of the 1989 Montreal massacre and its aftermath - was last year’s Genie winner. By its nature, that’s the kind of project where every aesthetic decision runs the risk of being perceived as an unwarranted imposition on tragedy, but Villeneuve ably avoided the pitfalls; the problem, perhaps, is that one remembers Polytechnique more for avoiding pitfalls than for what it actually achieved.

I think I suspected, in a similar vein, that Incendies might bear the strain of over-calculation, a suspicion which was borne out in some ways but not in others. Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, the film, in the words of one online summary tells “the powerful and moving tale of two young adults' voyage to the core of deep-rooted hatred, never-ending wars and enduring love.” The two are twins, living in Quebec; their mother Nawab relocated from the Middle East some two decades earlier. When she dies, her will confirms their father (who they previously also presumed dead) remains alive, and also informs them for the first time they have a brother; she leaves a sealed letter for each man (but no clues to their whereabouts), directing her grave not receive a stone with her name on it until these are delivered. Jeanne flies to her mother’s birthplace to track down these relatives, triggering a chain of discoveries; the film intercuts her journey (and later that of her brother Simon) with flashbacks to her mother’s experiences.

Extreme revelation

The summary I quoted perhaps makes the film sound more conventional than it actually is, because of course any number of movies dramatize humanity asserting itself against a grim and chaotic backdrop. Incendies distinguishes itself through the extremity of its final revelation; it pushes war’s dislocating and perverting effect to an almost cellular level, suggesting that understanding the turbulence of these events entails being willing to give up almost everything we assumed about ourselves, and that any sense of wartime atrocities as sealed off in the past comes only from choosing not to see their wounds in the present (or not knowing where to look). As if in deliberate contrast to Polytechnique, which appeared consistently wary of disrespecting people by rendering them as symbols, Incendies is knowingly evocative and expansive.

On the other hand, taken at face value, the ending is absurd, a grotesque contrivance that depends on several layers of coincidence – some layers at best unlikely and others outright outlandish – and that belongs more to the toolkit of dumb-ass thriller twists than serious engagement with complex subjects. One strongly suspects it might have been more effective on stage, at least in the more abstract, starkly theatrical production I’m envisaging. This is only the culmination of reservations that accumulate throughout the film. Jeanne’s investigation is one of those movie-friendly enterprises where the trail never goes cold for long; even after thirty-five years or so in a devastated country, someone always pops up to put her on the right track. I know these are to some extent necessary narrative conventions, hardly incompatible with deeper truth. But Villeneuve spends little time on that deeper truth – the film provides little specific perspective on broader complexities. I suppose the point would be that none is necessary or ultimately meaningful – events speak much louder than the supposed rationalizations or ideologies or doctrines behind them. But this creates a severe risk of creating a conventionally “absorbing” film in which we shake our heads at the plight of the world while coasting along on easy, over-determined identification with a few unrepresentative protagonists. One of the film’s signature images, of Nawab’s agonized face in the foreground while a bus full of Muslims burns behind her, exemplifies this problem – it’s a striking and wrenching composition, but very obviously composed.

Chronic insecurity

It often seems Canadian directors are operating under a chronic insecurity, afraid of losing their audiences somewhere between A and B; those eighteen Genie winners contain a disproportionate amount of time-shifting, fragmented structures, perverse motivation, tortured memory and other overcooked enhancements to mundane old stories of everyday life. I don’t know what in the country’s DNA encourages such neurosis, but Incendies fits comfortably into that strand, even if it applies this Canadian toolkit to foreign cultures and pains. If it had told its story chronologically for instance, would it have said any less about its apparent subject matter? I doubt it – if anything, it would only have said less about us and how we interact with the past. But the insistence on a contemporary platform can seem like merely a failure of courage. In this sense Incendies recalls Egoyan’s Ararat, which I recall as portraying a fantasy present-day Toronto where everyone walks around preoccupied by questions of the Armenian massacre (it won the Genie too).

Unfortunately, I doubt Incendies will be remembered in a few years any more passionately than Egoyan’s film. You might like it this much or that much, but its memory-driven structure will only dilute its presence in our own memories; like all puzzles, once the solution is established, there’s no reason not to put it back in the box, and thereafter no reason to solve it again. That may be a way to win a Canadian prize, but then, winning a Genie usually constitutes a particular form of being utterly forgotten.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Multiple Viewing

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2008)

I’ve written before about the mysteries of the daily poll on the Internet Movie Database website. Here’s an interesting one from a while ago: “How many times have you seen your all-time favourite film?” The top answer: “Between 11 and 25 times”, which scored 27.8%. “Between 1 and 10 times” scored 23.8%. 6.8 of the respondents went for “between 51 and 100 times” and 5.3% for “More than 100 times, if you can believe that.” The lowest vote getter of the offered categories was the opt-out: “I don’t have a favourite movie,” with 3.8%.

100 Times!

As always, a sample size of some 23,000 voters drawn from a population heavily weighted toward movie geekiness only tells us that every subculture has its own wacky contours. But I just can’t imagine any instinct, rationale or divine intervention that would make someone watch any movie more than 50 times, much less 100 times. I know the mark of a classic is you always notice something new, but any additional revelations at that viewing level would have to be incremental at best. Presumably the real object is simple reinforcement. Forget the range of choices at one’s digital fingerprints, the famous fragmenting of the audience between thousands of websites and channels and games and portability options, the demands of maintaining one’s Facebook profile and running up the cell phone bills and whatever social and sexual agenda you manage to hold in place around that, and the faint possibility of reading a book once in a while. Sometimes (or indeed pretty often, because I’m sure most of these 100-timers aren’t anywhere near as old as I am), it’s just better to go for the comfort food.

I don’t know my own stats on this front. I do record every film I see and I make notes on them. That’s been electronic for the past ten years or so but the older records are in ancient, handwritten, unorganized (other than by simple chronology), never-accessed files - which means to all intents and purposes I might as well burn them, although of course I never will. I have it in my mind that in the early 90’s I was up to having seen Martin Scorsese The King of Comedy (which came out in 1983) eight or nine times. In those days of course you had to make a real effort to see less mainstream movies even once, let alone multiple times, so that was quite a haul. Midnight Run was up there too, and Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. I’ve seen King of Comedy a couple of times in the last decade so it might be at 11 or 12 times now.

But I hope you’ll concede watching that kind of film multiple times is different from watching (say) Lord of the Rings over and over. As I wrote recently, Scorsese’s film was a psychological and thematic puzzle the likes of which I’d never quite seen at that time. I loved the showbiz contour of it, but was almost transfixed by the underlying dysfunction. The film was distinctly off-putting, and most people at the time were duly put off, but it seemed to me alluring in a distinctly adult way – if I could figure it out, I thought, I’d be in a different place at the end of it. As it is, I’m certainly in a different place than I was when I racked up those viewings, and needless to say other factors did more to bring that about than The King of Comedy, but maybe the film did something.

Film A Day

Nowadays I can’t imagine allocating that much time to a single film. I’m still maintaining a film-a-day pace on average, which sounds like a lot to most people, but is barely enough to keep up to speed. Leaving aside the crap, there are easily two or three new releases of some interest a week, on average. Then there’s the good stuff that goes straight to video or turns up on cable. And most challenging of all to me personally, the expanding body of film history. I’d love to possess encyclopedic knowledge of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, of Ozu’s, of Antonioni’s, and I could keep that list going for the rest of the article. But it can’t be done. So you skim the surface, stick a toe in here and there, try to visit Hitchcock at least once or twice a year (last year I only managed to fit in Torn Curtain, which I know sounds like an odd choice, but that’s another problem too – you want to get some depth, mull over the stuff that’s not much liked, not just stick to canonical masterpieces (which might be like eating too much rich food)).

For me, it’s the best balancing act I’m going to get. It would be easier if I developed a sudden disdain say for all of Japanese cinema, or for anything made before the 1950’s. I could just chop those limbs off the ungainly body and feel a little more graceful. But I’m basically interested in all of it! So I keep going, hoping at best to feel I got maybe 80% of what a film was able to give me, then leaving the 20% perhaps to another viewing in five or ten years’ time, more likely to the wastebasket of what might have been.

I can’t think of any movie from the last decade I’ve watched more than twice, and I doubt any of those will hit a third viewing within the next few years. I realize now that even if I live to a fine old age, there are some great, even cornerstone films I’ll probably never see again. But even more astonishing is that no one will do any better. Almost no one coming up behind me will ever be able to see as much, unless they sacrifice all else to it. They’ll have easier access, but the volume will kill them.

Game Over

Which is why I don’t think much of anyone will even try to play. Only the brave or the reckless set out to swim the English Channel – others lie on the beach and pray for the sun. Maybe people make billions by providing choice and access and possibility, but there’s a whole other market (less financially lucrative I expect) in people who just need help coping with it all. I believe the research indicates people are generally less happy when confronted with more choice, despite what they may claim to want; all those foregone possibilities get you down.

For now, I’m navigating through. But I may still decide, as my energy level wilts and the landscape becomes ever more cluttered, and as the chances of ever seeing The Magnificent Ambersons again become impossibly theoretical, to kick my databases into the archives, stop reading new releases, huddle up with King of Comedy and a few close friends of that ilk, and spend my remaining movie days attaining a new peak of devotion. 150 times, even 200, if you can believe that.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The book was better...

If I didn’t watch all these movies, I might read a book once in a while. People tend to assume I actually do read books, probably because I project an air of studious impracticality. It used to be true, but at some point, cinema comprehensively took over. I used to get through a few books at least on flights and vacation and suchlike, but now you can usually plug in your laptop on the plane, even that’s mostly died off. I’ve been working on the book I’m supposedly reading currently - Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat And Crowded - virtually for a year, at the rate of a couple of pages a week. In my own defense, I do get through The New Yorker in quite fine detail, as well as several newspapers and a lot of online reading. And, you know, I do everything else I have to do. It’s also true that if I didn’t spend all this time walking the dog, I might read a book once in a while.

Ignorance Of The Source

Maybe they’re faking it, but whenever a new movie is based on a notable novel, reviewers virtually all assert or at least suggest they’re familiar with the source. I’m always forced to admit that I’m not. The pros and cons of this are obvious – I gain a fresh perspective on the one hand (to the extent I can claim to bring a fresh perspective to anything in life), but at the cost of being able to compare and contrast, to draw on the original text to appreciate the subtlety or otherwise of the filmmakers’ decisions, and so forth. But of course, plenty of people find their love of a book gets in the way of engaging with the subsequent movie’s own merits.

In a strange way, I often find myself most regretting my ignorance of the original work when it’s obvious the film is deviating so far from it that it barely matters on what it’s notionally based. I’m thinking at the moment of American cinema of the classic period, which often drew on famous material, but without any possibility of being faithful to more than the bare bones of the plot. For example, I recently watched Josef von Sternberg’s 1935 version of Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment. Von Sternberg’s reputation, based mainly on his seven films with Marlene Dietrich, has held up well (Criterion also received much attention last year for a DVD release of three of his silent works), but his heyday was short-lived, and by the mid-30’s he was already starting his decline.

Crime And Punishment

Crime And Punishment is barely remembered now, and the director himself thought little of it, calling it “no more related to the true text of the novel than the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower is related to the Russian environment.” Maybe that quote reveals the extent to which von Sternberg was too much a creature of Hollywood to make the project work. Anyway, based on a superficial scanning of Wikipedia, the film retains the plot’s bare bones, but it’s highly condensed (lasting less than an hour and a half) and quite nuttily intense. Peter Lorre, as an acclaimed criminologist who rejects convention (and is cracking up under the strain of his actions), employs wildly reckless line readings, dispersing ideas and philosophical assertions as if being paid by volume.

Since Edward Arnold, as a police inspector engaging him in a game of cat and mouse, is a much more conventional (and seemingly amused) presence, it sometimes takes on the air of a battle for the soul of the film itself. Certainly that soul doesn’t seem to belong to von Sternberg; compared to his deliriously confident work with Dietrich (or the feverish Shanghai Gesture, which came later), Crime And Punishment often feels distinctly unsure of itself. Still, if it’s a failure, it’s my favourite kind of failure; a fascinating, largely inexplicable fusion of elements that should never have been allowed in the same town, let alone the same movie. Assessed purely as a depiction of the novel though, I imagine it’s a failure with no possible redemption. It actually would have been nice to know.

The Emperor Jones

Actually, the film that set me off on this line of thinking wasn’t based on a book at all, but rather on a play, but exactly the same calculations apply. The Emperor Jones was written by Eugene O’Neill (and by the way, I did once read Long Day’s Journey Into Night) and filmed in 1933, directed by Dudley Murphy (unlike von Sternberg, a mere footnote in film history) and starring Paul Robeson. I’d never seen it before this year, and again it’s pretty easy to diagnose how it fails; even so, it’s one of the most striking viewing experiences I’ve had in recent months.

The film is only about 75 minutes long, and it seems just 45 minutes of that relates more or less to the play; the filmmakers added another half an hour of back story. It all results in a crazy brew, starting out as a tale of Brutus Jones leaving his community to work on a Pullman car, sampling New York’s fashionable black society, accidentally killing a guy in a gambling den and ending up on a chain gang, escaping after he kills a guard, taking refuge in the boiler room of a ship and landing on an island where, a couple of years later, he takes power and declares himself Emperor. And that’s just the first half.

The film is still startlingly raw at times, in particular for its use of the N-word, and Jones’ conduct once he attains power might seem surprisingly prophetic, given so many grim post-colonial experiences. But overall, The Emperor Jones might almost represent a white man’s half-admiring/half-fearful attempt to dramatize the entire iconography of blackness (as perceived then); at times it’s a gritty social document, at others an overwrought, gloating fantasia. And at the middle of it, there’s the amazing, charismatic Robeson, whose work I hadn’t seen for years (the Criterion DVD of the film also contains a half-hour documentary about him, sketching the outlines of a brilliant but misshapen life). The Emperor Jones frequently seems unworthy of him, and yet it has something extremely rare for the classic period of American cinema – not just a black central character, but one ultimately beyond the film’s capacity to define and contain him.

Rightly or wrongly, after watching the film I feel I’ve profited enough (albeit indirectly) from O’Neill’s play as I ever would from actually reading it. But maybe that’s only a movie addict’s rationalization. Anyway, another day went by without cracking open the Thomas Friedman book…it would be so much easier if they’d just film the damn thing…

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Mighty Wind

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2007)

Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley is an achingly sad tale of 1920’s Ireland, centering on a young doctor who becomes radicalized by the brutality of the occupying British and joins an IRA column; the local leader is his own brother. The cause splits in two after the 1921 peace treaty: one brother accepts the terms, including the oath of allegiance to the British crown, as a pragmatic necessity; the other sees only the continuation of subjugation. Brother turns against brother, and the new “Free State” establishment becomes almost indistinguishable from its predecessor, setting up a tragic conclusion.

Loach doesn’t provide any opening or closing captions to set the scene, and many viewers will be confused by at least some of the details. But this is what’s almost endearing about the 70-year-old director – his infuriated, uncompromising simplicity. I don’t mean to imply that Loach’s films aren’t fully stimulating or that they’re narrowly propagandistic, only that his core purpose has seldom wavered: to make us angry.

Why Does This Man Loathe His Country?

It works both ways of course. The Globe and Mail cited the following British headline: “Why does this man loathe his country?” Another wrote: “Loach hates this country, yet leeches off it, using public funds to make his repulsive films.” I don’t know about hatred and loathing, but it’s obviously true that Loach seethes at the hypocrisy of the establishment, at the superficiality of the public discourse. Ireland is a cruel test for one’s patriotism, and I have got myself into trouble on that subject in the past. But I do know that when I was growing up in Britain in the 70’s and 80’s, the Irish situation was an escalating cause of my own restlessness. Like the Falklands later, and like Iraq now, it merely seemed to me an endless psychic drain, that might have been created expressly to distract and suppress the country’s better nature. And although I am no historian, I’m not sure there’s any way to look at it without damning the handiwork of a lumbering, self-absorbed British Empire and its trite judgments. Of course, it’s questionable to judge the actions of a century ago by modern standards. But I think Loach’s point is that even vague awareness and acknowledgment would be an improvement on the contemporary norm, and that the refusal of these are a continuing blight on the national ‘character”.

No surprise that such a project might be inflammatory. Loach drops us right into the doctor’s politicization, through a couple of sequences that show the British troops as downright scum of the earth. Subsequently there will be space for argument and dialectic – this film has a couple of Loach’s trademark scenes in which he allows for lengthy debate between the characters (fascinating in this instance for illuminating how the goal of a free Ireland was intertwined with a broader ideological debate about the distribution of wealth and the structure of the state apparatus). But nothing can overcome the initial punch to our sympathies. Sight And Sound put it this way: “Loach wants…to remind us that the IRA’s original cause was irrefutably just, whatever its subsequent behaviour. That he does so by employing the black-and-white simplicities of propaganda comes as small surprise.”

Bleed With Everyone Else

Loach’s films, however traumatic, usually have a fair amount of humour in them - he has a perfect ear for the profane tumbling feisty discourse of his characters, and realizing that their ability to mouth off is often all but their sole refuge, indulges it in spades. There’s less of that in The Wind That Shakes The Barley, and (as the title suggests) more lyricism and scenic beauty. I’ve often found Loach’s films potentially a little melodramatic (if memory allows, there are an undue number of swaggering small-time gangsters in his oeuvre, although maybe that only shows my own ignorance of the milieu). Here he stages the violence quite exquisitely, making you feel the savagery of each eruption. He’s typically at ease with his actors too. The film as a whole seems a little compressed at times, collapsing some wrenching psychological evolutions into just a few scenes and exchanges, but of all directors, Loach may be the most immune to such criticisms. The current Cinematheque brochure quotes him as follows: “We can’t reveal the human condition if we don’t bleed with everyone else, (if) we don’t get angry with everyone else.” And a bleeding, angry film would surely never be a perfect or pristine one. You suspect Loach wouldn’t think of shedding a single one of his flaws, even if he acknowledged them as such.

By the way, the Cinematheque quote relates to a retrospective of his work that runs to mid-May. I can no longer make it to the Cinematheque, but if I could, the chance to see the likes of The Navigators, Sweet Sixteen, Raining Stones and Riff Raff again would be a real thrill. And unlike many directors, you don’t need to read up in advance, or to plan on seeing a number of them; if you’ve never seen any Loach films, then just pick one, and let the breath be knocked out of you.


If one doubts the ethicism of Loach’s approach, for all his faults, to such matters, one need only look at Antoine Fuqua’s Shooter, a chronicle of political wrongdoing in modern times. Mark Wahlberg is a former army sharpshooter, now living out in the wilds, who’s summoned back to action to supposedly help thwart a suspected assassination attempt on the President. Turns out the real target is the Ethiopian ambassador, shot just before he could denounce the latest overseas American atrocity, and Wahlberg is the designated Lee Harvey Oswald, meant to be framed, caught in the act and shot dead by a local cop. He survives of course and sets out to clear his name, helped by a young FBI agent who smells a rat. In the course of all this they polish off probably as many flunkies as the British laid waste to in their most brutal Irish decade.

I could not concentrate on the film at all – Fuqua’s handling is efficient, in that impersonal glossy mainstream style, and the film happily taps the spectre of Dick Cheney (closely embodied here by Ned Beatty) and generalized paranoia about conniving, amoral political institutions. It finds plenty to condemn, but implicitly communicates that the individual right to bear arms, and to use them with abandon, stretches pretty darn far, as long as you didn’t make the first move. The film’s opportunism is pretty hateful; it comes from that hardworking Hollywood skunk unit that you imagine constantly scans the headlines, thinking solely of how idealism and complexity can be converted into cheap thrills. The better it’s done of course, the more contemptible it is. Someone should bleed in opposition to this film.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Towards the simple life

Coincidentally, a few days before seeing Xavier Beauvois’ new film Of Gods and Men, I watched one of the earliest films by the great Robert Bresson, Les anges du peche, made in 1943. It’s set in a convent, one where the nuns specialize in absorbing and rehabilitating women released from a local jail; an overly passionate new recruit, fixated in particular on the fate of one hardcore offender, throws off the equilibrium. For much of the time, if you look past what they’re wearing, the film could be about a secular community held together by common norms and purpose (perhaps its true subject is the resistance against the Nazi occupiers of the time); the ending draws on a notion of quasi-mystical transference, but a simpler and tidier one than the later Bresson would countenance. And I found myself wondering whether a narrative about monks or nuns could ever be primarily about God; notwithstanding the commitment inherent in the calling, doesn’t the sheer weight of existing for day after day, in however stripped down a fashion, entail that the greater space will always be filled by logistics, and that the act of labeling these as “religious” becomes as much ideological as transcendent?

Of Gods and Men

Of Gods and Men precisely extends this train of thought. It’s Algeria in 1996 (although the film only gives us the date at the very end, and never specifies the location); a group of eight French monks, none of them young, is long-established in a disadvantaged village, mixing easily with the locals and providing the only source of medical care. Unrest breaks out, putting them in danger; the authorities first ask the monks to accept military protection and then to leave the country, but they refuse, although not without internal debate. The conclusion is widely known, although I won’t specify it here; the film is more about the means than the end.

Beauvois’s film, which won the French equivalent of the best film Oscar, depicts the brotherhood in considerable detail, but his primary interest is social, and to a lesser extent political. The political aspect is in the suggestion that the long French occupation of Algeria sowed injustices and imbalances that ultimately bear the responsibility for later grievances and atrocities; the monks may be peacefully integrated into the community, but by their very existence they represent a relic of that imperial past (in this sense, the film gains additional resonance from ongoing events in the Middle East). But the film is primarily a study of a group forced to reevaluate its purpose and meaning, and God is a reference point primarily insofar as he manifests himself in their actions and contributions. Some of the most striking moments depict heightened states explicitly conditioned by earthly events: the men clutching together for support, chanting over the deafening noise of a military helicopter hovering above, or their complex reactions to a recording of Swan Lake. When one of the monks prays in anguish for guidance, it’s rather shockingly disruptive.

The Value of Life

In the end, chance dictates the fate of some of them, and the exact plan or strategy dictating the fate of the others remains unknown. 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 (all the more surprising because his previous film, Le Petit Lieutenant, was a contemporary police drama, although an unusually fluid and allusive one) 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.

Some of the monks base their decisions to stay, at least insofar as they can articulate them, on being too old, or too long removed from all else. Of Gods and Men emphasizes the possibility of expressing their cause in the words of the Koran as readily as those of the Bible, and implies the monastic life may carry an uncomfortable degree of kinship with that of terrorists (or with some of them anyway). But in the end, you feel, this may all belong to the category of the rationalizations we come out with when asked to convert instincts into words. The tragedy of the universe isn’t that we fail to understand God, but that we barely have any inkling of what we should do as men.

Of Men and Fish

For all its achievement, Beauvois’ film isn’t radically unfamiliar; it leads us through a well-structured narrative, and we’ve all seen “slow” and “contemplative” films before. In contrast, Alamar, directed by Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, feels like the product of an entirely different sensibility, if not a different world (like a number of recent releases, the film started running on SuperChannel within a week of opening at the Bell Lightbox, and is also out on DVD). It’s set in the Banco Chinchorro, a coral reef off the coast of Mexico, where a native fisherman spends some time with his young son, before the boy takes off to Italy with his mother. At least as shown in the film, life around the Banco is simple and largely unspoiled; the people live close to the water and the land. The protagonists are in some sense playing themselves, but much of what we see seems to fall in a zone between being too natural to be staged, and yet too beautiful and privileged to constitute merely what happened to wander before the camera.

The film is barely longer than an hour, as if it only reluctantly trusts us with its revelations, but it’s as graceful and uplifting an hour as you’ll ever spend. It doesn’t seem to me to plead for any indulgence toward the people – this isn’t an Avatar-like validation of noble primitivism, but rather the observation of a different innate rhythm and mode of interaction. But the prologue (presented in almost hallucinatory terms) and the boy’s very existence make clear their world and ours can productively meld, even if the last shot - where, reunited with his mother, he contents himself with blowing artificial bubbles – warns of the trivial commercial distractions that distort our sense of the miraculous. As I said, Alamar feels like the product of a different world, and I suppose in truth it’s a different world in which cinema wouldn’t have much of a place, just as it wouldn’t in the monastery of Of Gods and Men. It sometimes strikes me as ironic, that films are often most moving when refining our awareness of how we should aspire to move beyond, if not cinema itself, at least the culture that dominates most of its products.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Two Men

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2006)

And now we come to the most acclaimed of current films, and the almost certain Oscar winner, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain.

The film starts in 1963, when two young men take on a summer ranching job, tending sheep high up on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain. One (Heath Ledger) is bottled-up, often barely coherent in his mumbling; the other (Jake Gyllenhaal) more voluble. During a cold night, after much whisky, they share a tent, and make love. The next day they both stamp it as a one-shot thing, but then it happens again, and the pattern is set for the summer. They come down off the mountain, four years pass, and each gets married and has children. Then they meet again, and the explosiveness of that meeting confirms the lack of what they’ve been living in between. From then on they share years of snatched getaways, under the guise of fishing trips out in the wild, while one marriage collapses and the other becomes a self-parody.

Following The Hulk

Ang Lee is renowned for his versatility and sensitivity, the high point being the sublime Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. After that he made The Hulk, which didn’t please much of anyone. I was just looking back at my review of that film, and some of what I wrote now seems almost like a thesis for which Brokeback Mountain forms the necessary, cleansing rejoinder. Among other things: “Lee obviously understands the Hulk’s potential as metaphor – how could you not? – but seems to have no specific strategy for unlocking it, other than to have his camera stare somewhat plaintively at the characters.”

And: “The (action) scenes seem under-populated and stark – echoing the film’s lack of substantial people. It’s as if the film was a microscope, stripping away the usual action movie diversions to illuminate its central psychodrama.” I concluded: “He’s in the same spot now as Martin Scorsese after Gangs of New York – someone for whom going back to smaller movies wouldn’t be a limitation, but a liberation.”

Brokeback Mountain, his first film since then (based on a novella by Annie Proulx; screenplay co-written by Larry McMurtry), is that liberating smaller film. Again, the film has a plaintive, under-populated quality. It sticks close to the two men, barely sketching the social changes around them – although it clearly indicates that tolerance is a much sparser commodity in the rural West and mid-West than it may be elsewhere. It’s a film of minute observation and reflection, so much so that it might be considered rather parched. Certainly, Lee’s films seldom yield the great intuitive observations that one finds in Altman (who would have done a better job at filling in a sense of the communities) or many others.

Gay Cinema

I'm not the best-placed person to assess the movie’s relative courage as a contribution to gay cinema, or even to cinema about gays (which I don’t think is at all the same thing) but an essay by Adam Mars-Jones in the British Observer seemed persuasive to me in this regard. I'll quote from this at some length:

“The film has been acclaimed for shattering stereotypes. Men who have sex with men need not have a funny walk; they can form deep attachments; they can fix cars and ride steers. All this is news to Hollywood, and good to see on the screen.

“On the other hand, much of the fear of homosexuality is fear of the feminine. From this point of view there's something reassuring about men who hook up with each other without benefit of radical drag, gay pride marches…And perhaps just as important as the stereotypes shattered is the stereotype left unrevised: that gay men are isolated, trapped and doomed.

“Not that the men in the film are allowed any consciousness of themselves as gay. They clearly aren't 'queer', and have no difficulty marrying and fathering children. Again, mainstream culture prefers its homosexuals to be in the dark about their strange urges. It makes it easier to feel sorry for them…

“But then gay viewers have to close their eyes to a lot of things, and avoid asking awkward questions. Such as, what exactly is the gay input on Brokeback Mountain? …If there is anyone on the project, in front of the camera or behind it, for whom the subject matter is more than abstractly worthy, they're keeping quiet about it. And yes, it's time at last for the obligatory racial analogy - how would Jews or blacks feel about a film that addressed their historical sufferings but regarded their actual testimony as optional?”

Great Tragedy

I think it’s difficult wholly to reject anything Mars-Jones says there. On the other hand, his comments aren’t necessarily very useful as specific criticism of Brokeback Mountain; he could be saying that the film would be entirely acceptable and good, if it weren’t the only recent high-profile film about a gay relationship, if it were surrounded by other films cumulatively conveying more of the disapora of gay experience. In this regard, Lee’s film falters a little when (as if realizing the tightness of its physical and emotional parameters) it gingerly seeks to sketch a broader social context. Most of this attempt focuses on the Gyllenhaal character, more sure of himself and able to contemplate a measure of emancipation. The flip side is that, in the highly programmed Texas environs, this only leads to external signs of compromised masculinity, most explicitly depicted in a family dinner scene with his contemptuous father in law. But that scene feels rather forced to me.

The film’s greatest strength is Heath Ledger, embodying a simple man who nevertheless resists any easy dissection. At times it seems he’s buried so deep within himself that nothing can escape; at others he barely seems defined at all. He loses himself in the rancher’s life, in the rhythm of small pleasures snatched from a hard, unrelenting existence. By 1963 the lone horseman was already a cliché, and in the early scene where the two men meet, we see Gyllenhaal striking a knowing pose – already more campy than rugged – alongside his pick-up truck. Ledger, to whom such myth making is alien, just stands there.

The film suggests that a notion of gay identity – as opposed to just taking it as it comes – is as much cultural as personal, and although Ledger’s inability to pursue that course is his great tragedy, given his circumstances there’s a measure of nobility in it. In The Hulk, Lee jumped into the heart of the myth and found himself floundering, but here he functions as much by exclusion. In some ways, as Mars-Jones points out, this renders the film’s effect rather neutral, but at times it’s unique, unclassifiable, and utterly gripping. Overall, the film didn't quite make my top ten list for the year, but the Oscar will be far from undeserved.

(2011 postscript - ...but of course, Crash actually won)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Francois Truffaut

When I was getting into movies in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Francois Truffaut was one of the preeminent names of foreign-language cinema. He wasn’t typically regarded as a heavyweight to rank with Godard or Bergman – put simply, his films were just too easy to watch. But they were stimulating and elegant, embodying the notion of a more refined “French” sensibility, and his recurring use of quasi-autobiography (through a series of films about his alter ego Antoine Doinel) helped build a gentle personal myth. Jules and Jim became established as one of the great films of the French New Wave, he won an Oscar for Day for Night, and a bunch of French equivalents for The Last Metro. He died in 1983, at the age of only 52; it seems even more premature since two of his New Wave compatriots (Rohmer and Chabrol) kept working until quite recently, and the other two (Rivette and Godard) still haven’t stopped (at least officially).

The Story of Adele H

I don’t think about Truffaut half as much as I do about some of those others I mention, and it surprised me a bit to realize I’d watched four of his films in the last year or so, mostly as spontaneous digressions (if I’d happened to come across The Wild Child, The Woman Next Door, The Soft Skin and others on TCM or elsewhere, I’m sure it could have been eight or ten). I don’t think Truffaut set out to be radical or transgressive (he was increasingly accused of making the kind of films he’d damned as a young critic) but I’m often delighted - it’s not too strong a word - at the freshness of his artistic decisions. He certainly exemplifies a counter-Hollywood ease with moving from A to D while skipping over B and C, not for the sake of being difficult or obscure, but because it’s a nimbler and more stimulating route. The Story of Adele H, a 1975 tale of 19th century female obsession, might for example seem increasingly disconcerting as major events (a faked pregnancy; a major change of location) come and go almost subliminally, but the approach helps us appreciate the bravery and radicalism in her behavior, her rejection of prevailing structures. Of course, she’s still rather foolishly throwing her life away for a distorted romantic dream, but without being at all strident or idealistic about it, Truffaut coaxes us to contemplate whether there’s not greater lasting nobility and significance in this than in whatever else she might have done with her life during those times.

If nothing else, of course, her status almost a century later as the protagonist in a film asserts the significance in itself (without necessarily explaining it). This thought provides a natural segue to The Man Who Loved Women, which Truffaut made a couple of years later. It’s the story of a skirt-chaser – somewhat literally, in that he’s a man who might easily abandon all other plans in pursuit of a briefly-glimpsed pair of legs: he’s played by Charles Denner, who has the kind of face that might look plain ugly if it wasn’t attached to a Frenchman. The title refers not just to Denner’s character, Bertrand Morane, but also to the title of a book he writes about his experiences (his own original title actually is along the lines of The Skirt-Chaser, but his editor suggests the more-mythic sounding alternative, not long before he seduces her too.)

The Man Who Loved Women

For a long time, my sense of this film was influenced by Blake Edwards’ 1983 remake (an unloved flop), although I haven’t seen it for years now (has anyone?). It starred Burt Reynolds, just at the tail-end of his starring period, so it plainly followed a somewhat different take on the character. But in the wake of 10 and S.O.B., Edwards had a pretty good line on middle-aged anxiety, and I recall finding the movie a rather intriguing application of his deadpan methods. But it was also relentlessly glossy, and Edwards unproductively added a new major character, a female therapist (played by his wife Julie Andrews) to whom Reynolds spills out his self-doubts.

This might have been an inevitable adjustment at the time (it was also Woody Allen’s heyday) but it jettisons what’s most intriguing about Truffaut’s film: the sustained ambiguity about what it is we’re watching. There’s not much sex in the movie, and not even much explicit seduction; the focus is on opportunities glimpsed, considered, mulled-over, sometimes lost, more often won. The film looks deliberately drab; it’s set in the seemingly unprepossessing town of Montpellier. Many of the women are attractive of course, but it’s possible that even the conventionally sexiest of them is less sexy than the drabbest woman in Edwards’ film.

Morane may or may not, in some sense, love all the women with whom he crosses paths, but that’s only another way of saying that at any given moment, the most rational course available to him is to follow the trail that just opened up. The mixture of discipline and compulsion and instinct required to write his book isn’t so far removed from what he invests on his prospects and conquests, and in the end, the film rather straightforwardly holds out the book as a validation of the life he led. Of course, Truffaut didn’t believe that creating art (even if it’s not particularly good) somehow earned one an exemption from normal morality or ethics. But he’s at least implying the opposite here, that heavy-handed judgments about human interactions or choices probably go hand-in-hand with a rather crass aesthetic sensibility.

Jules and Jim

It’s always been tempting to read Morane as a projection of Truffaut himself, and to read The Man Who Loved Women as an attempt at self-justification, if not self-congratulation; as if hinting at this, the director makes a brief onscreen cameo in the opening few minutes. Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana’s biography of Truffaut draws out the parallels at some length, revealing among other things that he only realized at the editing stage how melancholic the film had turned out, considering changing the title to The Man Who Was Afraid of Women. Which actually might be much the same thing, depending again on what you think actually drives love in its more restless manifestations.

I’m concentrating on this film only because it happens to be the Truffaut picture I viewed most recently (yesterday, as I write). Jules and Jim might be the more conventional focal point for an article about him, especially because the popular memory of that picture as a lyrical tale of friendship drastically overlooks the extreme (to me almost apocalyptic) portrait of the woman they both love. I’ve always found it a bit forced, and yet it always surprises me in some way, no matter how often I see it. Scheduling a few Truffaut viewings a year, I think, remains entirely appropriate for a man or woman who loves movies.