Friday, August 26, 2011

Growing in New York

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2005)

Chris Terrio’s Heights is a minor film – nothing about it could ever have merited any particular attention. But it’s surprising how much pleasure one can sometimes extract from such quarters. The film focuses on a group of mostly privileged New Yorkers through a single day, during which (of course) some of their lives radically change. Elizabeth Banks is a struggling photographer a month away from getting married to her lawyer boyfriend (James Marsden). Her mother is a famous actor-director (Glenn Close) with major diva tendencies and problems in her own marriage. Meanwhile, a Vanity Fair writer works on a profile of a famous, and famously unpleasant, photographer, and a young actor auditions for Close while seeming to have something on his mind.

Lack Of Definition

The general theme is the difficulty of finding contentment and meaningful self-definition in contemporary society, which is the theme of many middlebrow movies, and not handled here with any great panache. The film has a generally cool, sculptured quality that sometimes seems to indicate a lack of intuition on Terrio’s part. For example, it becomes clear that Banks is meant to embody a particularly self-interested, closed-off kind of New York woman, someone so self-absorbed that she habitually can’t be bothered to ask for people’s names, but this has to be gleaned merely from what other people say about her, since Banks comes over simply as a nice if understandably preoccupied woman. The plotting is odd too. Of course, it’s contrived and coincidence-laden in the way these things often are, but even allowing for that, it’s peculiar how the secret life of Banks’ fiancée is exposed almost simultaneously from two different directions. And then the very nature of that secret life, which I won’t reveal here, may strike people as hokey, old-fashioned stuff.

The film expresses its theme through such devices as Close’s frequent recourse to Shakespearean and other quotation, expressing her basic emotional inadequacy and lack of empathy, and through Banks’ photography, viewed here as a means of putting up a barrier between herself and real life. This finds an echo in the unseen but much mentioned megastar photographer who sleeps with all his models and seems to use the lens as a means of control and wanton self-gratification (but then the portrayal of two problematic photographers seems like another odd duplication). The movie has an amusing sideline in somewhat bemused supporting characters quirkily grappling with their circumstances. Prime among these is George Segal as a rabbi who meets with the engaged couple, using a series of banal props and questions to steer through the issue of inter-faith marriage.

An aside - at a party at her mother’s house, Banks meets a man with a bizarre accent that he eventually identifies as being Welsh. I know something about Welsh accents and this came as a big surprise to me – I thought he was Scandinavian. It appears though that the actor Andrew Howard may indeed be Welsh, so I’m not sure what says about my own radar. Anyway, this man comes to embody all the spirit and daring and creativity that’s missing from Banks’ life. I guess it’s a Dylan Thomas allusion, although it’s true – just about any Welsh guy will do that for you.

Merchant Ivory

Heights is a Merchant Ivory production, and there’s some poignancy in the fact that Ismail Merchant died a few weeks ago. The partnership lost a bit of its luster since the heyday of A Room With A View and Howards End, but continued to be a byword for refinement and taste. I have seen just about all the films, but I’m not sure there’s a single one I’ve seen twice; the films are easy pleasures, never suggesting mysteries or complexities demanding further investigation. Consequently, I prefer the relative failures like A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, in which structural and thematic oddities allow a somewhat more interactive (albeit rather perplexed) viewing experience.

In a recent appreciation of Merchant, actor Simon Callow referred to the early Merchant Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah as “perfectly (exemplifying) the territory they made their own: the negotiation between cultures. It would be only a small overstatement to say that every film they have ever made could have as its epigraph E. M. Forster’s great phrase ‘Only Connect’.” But this connection all too often seemed like a matter of basic juxtaposition rather than meaningful investigation. Their last film Le Divorce, was certainly pleasant, but took its cultural analysis no further than swooning over French women’s love of scarves.

Merchant Ivory tried to delve into New York before, with the failed adaptation of Tama Janowicz’s Slaves Of New York. It’s probably useful that they contracted out the job to Terrio this time, but it’s also rather odd that they returned to the same territory. Except that New York, of course, continues to exert a magical pull. Close posits at one point that whereas it’s six degrees of separation everywhere else, it’s only two degrees in New York. This is a bit rich in a movie confined to such a narrow social spectrum, not to mention that the two degrees reflect narrative contrivance rather than any inherent miracle of accessibility. But still, the myth persists, and Heights plunges head first into it, depicting art galleries, the Vanity Fair offices, swanky parties, spectacular views from apartment roofs, and so on.

Still, this all seems rooted in a genuine sense of human curiosity. And the movie has no shortage of amusing small touches and lines. Not the least of these is the appearance by Segal, who I think might be the least appreciated of veteran actors. His work in Blume And Love, California Split, Loving and other 70’s films remains a marvel of regular-guy complexity, and even though he’s long slipped into minor roles, he pulls them off with a uniquely quirky, shambling kind of timing. His appearance in Heights struck me as a considerable treat.

Saving Face

Alice Wu’s Saving Face is another small film centered on contemporary New York relationships. Set in the Asian American community, it shows a successful young doctor beset by marriage pressure from her widowed mother, who doesn’t realize the daughter is gay. And then the mother gets pregnant by a man she refuses to name. Scandal and complication ensue. This is a much more vibrant, zippy creation than Heights, in a more consistently comic vein, and the characters jump warmly off the screen. It reaches an inevitably liberal, inclusive outcome, but only at the cost (again) of huge contrivance, and huge changes of attitude by numerous characters. Unlike Heights, this doesn’t seem to evidence any serious investigative intent – it’s just bulldozing to a happy ending. The film earns much goodwill just through its existence, and the actors are most beguiling, but it’s just too darn small to really care.

Conquered by the apes

When I was a kid, Planet of the Apes loomed pretty large. The five films were on TV frequently, and there was also a series. It only lasted a single season, but I remember it quite well; I think for a while it was a staple of British daytime TV. Everyone always recalls Charlton Heston and the final shot of the first film, where it’s revealed that the alien planet ruled by talking apes is actually Earth in the future, but that doesn’t represent the totality of the Apes concept. The movies form a narrative loop – the end of the first sequel sends two of the apes back in time to the present day, and subsequent movies show how they provide the origin for an evolutionary wave that will first challenge and then topple mankind. It’s a grandly epic concept, but in practice meant a lot of murky skirmishing and of having to listen to Roddy McDowall in an ape mask (and if memory serves, the quality of the make-up effects fell off a lot as the series went on). Anyway, you didn’t need to be a major league Darwinologist to conclude the whole thing was nuts, and after Jaws and Star Wars changed things a few years later, the Apes films were about as exciting as faded old board games, apparently confirmed by Tim Burton’s failed attempt at kick-starting the concept ten years ago.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

It’s interesting that the new version of the story, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, opened a few weeks after Project Nim, the documentary about the 1970’s attempt to educate a chimpanzee in human sign language. As I wrote here a few weeks ago, Nim remains a potent symbol because he embodies the continuing duality of our views on animals: identifiable enough to be subjected to such a project, but different enough to be discarded when it didn’t work out. The early stages of the new Apes film could almost be a fictional version of Nim’s story – James Franco plays a research scientist for a bottom-line driven corporation, using chimpanzees in clinical trials for anti-Alzheimer’s and related applications; when the axe suddenly falls on the whole program, he takes home a baby from a treatment-enhanced mother. Caesar, as they name him, progresses along a learning curve far exceeding that of any human baby, but just like Nim, the cuteness falls away as he gets older, and he eventually gets into trouble, finding himself locked up in a hellish ape facility. Unlike the other downtrodden inmates of course, he has the resources to fight back.

Although all of this is obviously highly simplified and condensed, it’s probably as sane an origin story for the Planet of the Apes myth as one could ever devise (obviously that’s not the same as saying it actually is sane). The movie moves along cleanly and sympathetically, building in a satisfying dose of spectacle and scope for visceral identification, always feeling like a bit more than a calculated action machine. It cleverly explains not only why the apes gain strength, but also why the humans almost simultaneously succumb to catastrophic weakness; the path to more films is triumphantly well-lit at the end.

Limitations of the apes

At times it’s easy to say the digital work looks a bit artificial (I generally found the baby Caesar more fake-looking than the adult), but if you can remind yourself there was a time when you were impressed merely by Roddy McDowall in a mask, then you get past it. Some found Franco a low-key protagonist, but then he’s not really the protagonist at all, but rather a privileged witness to momentous events. It’s not particularly brutal or bloody, which might be viewed as limiting the impact, but on the other hand allows it a somewhat more cerebral tone than it might have had. In many ways, you might respond to it less as a film than as a logistical project, where you can admire the design and execution even if it’s hardly relevant to your own life.

That’s the limitation of the picture I suppose – that even with the head start Project Nim provides it, it doesn’t carry any great moral or thematic charge. The film’s reflection on scientific ethics doesn’t go much beyond the notion that, well, mistreating apes is bad, particularly when that’s propelled by a particularly unashamed focus on bottom-line profits. It doesn’t construct a very deep or complex universe – until the home stretch, it really only has a handful of significant characters and locations. As I mentioned, it neatly plants the seeds that’ll grow to choke off humanity’s major head start, but this means it limits its capacity for broader metaphorical impact. I mean, global finances, debt crises, unemployment burdens and un-faced environmental wretchedness provide a plausible basis for predicting the tottering of our species (if not quite its surrender to any other species, except perhaps for the ants), but there’s no hint of that in Wyatt’s film: the rise of the planet of the apes takes place very specifically in middle-class San Francisco, and frankly, it appears they can largely take the blame for it (particularly the British guy in their midst). It’s surprising because, you know, it’s not really Republican territory.

Just a movie

In the end, there’s something broadly comforting about the film; however enveloping the narrative might be for as long as it lasts, it’s very plainly just a movie. Since I imagine a large percentage of viewers will ultimately find themselves rooting for the apes rather than the humans, it may provide the sense of moral cleansing, of allowing us the illusion of carrying a rounded perspective on our excesses (there was a similar reversal at the heart of Avatar, popularly regarded not just as a big movie but also an important one). But again, this only makes it easy not to think about more imminent threats. Like the viral-based experiments it depicts, it pumps its audience with a manageable dose of malignancy, thus inoculating them from more violent infestations. That is, fantasizing about the threat of the apes is much easier than fully tuning into the stuff that’s actually happening (including, with dark irony, their severely endangered status).

The film isn’t particularly sensitive to spoilers – there’s not much chance I guess that a movie called Rise of the Planet of the Apes would fail to deliver any actual rising. The final scenes suggest the possibility of what we might call a two-state solution – for now at least, the apes’ interest is in attaining freedom and dignity, not world domination (based on what’s depicted in the film, it’s unlikely they could even process that concept). But obviously the sequel won’t have them stopping there – there’s not much chance a franchise built around the “Planet of the Apes” concept will have them settling for less than, well, the planet. It’s hard to predict whether that’ll evoke horror or resignation.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fighting Back

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2009)

I completely agree with the praise for Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler. I can’t remember a film that so consistently and fully conveyed an actor’s heavy, weary topography; by its end you start to ache and shiver in sympathy. He plays Randy “the Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler some twenty years past his best days, but still grinding, in sparsely attended makeshift arenas and promotional events, supplementing his income at a local grocery store. With his marriage long evaporated and virtually estranged from his daughter, his only vaguely meaningful relationship is with a stripper (Marisa Tomei), herself still going long after it made sense (if it ever did), but she strains to see him as much more than a customer.

Mickey Rourke

Rourke, of course, brings to this a back story easily capable of being seen as paralleling the character’s (whether or not it really does is another matter – down-and-out in Hollwood terms is only relative penury after all). He was one of the 80’s hottest actors, if not in box office terms, at least in his ability to capture the imagination of the more provocative directors. He worked for Coppola, Nicolas Roeg, Michael Cimino, Barbet Schroeder. This petered out in the early 90’s (Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man seems to have been the main point of no return), and Rourke’s visibility became increasingly confined to tabloid reports of brawls and failed relationships and eccentric attachments to ugly little dogs. In recent years he’s had a few decent supporting parts (Domino, Sin City) and now finally found a director (Darren Aronofsky) willing to roll the dice big on him, although reportedly for little or no salary.

It’s only in its scale, perhaps, that Rourke’s narrative of feast and famine differs from hundreds of thousands of lives lived. It’s impossible to visit a small town without unearthing at least one whatever-happened-to narrative of the high school sports star and stud who never got much going after that. The financial bust may throw countless others into this narrative – fat times evaporating, never to be quite reclaimed in the same way. Aronofsky generally manages to evoke this universality while avoiding overt symbolism. One exception, contrasting Rourke’s humiliated but stoic walk to his new deli counter job with the past glories of his entrance into the ring, is witty enough to pass muster.

In scenes like this Rourke shows off a surprising nimbleness (even in his heyday, his dominant mode was dour/belligerent, with a hint of wounded). But his primary lot here is to suffer. Aronofsky stages several wrestling matches, and if that’s not Rourke himself being pounded and smacked and jumped on and torn open and pierced with a staple gun, then it’s real hard to tell. The authenticity of his suffering is really the film’s biggest single idea, and it makes sense when Tomei’s character mentions The Passion Of The Christ, another drama that beat up its protagonist for the best part of two hours. I was not a fan of Mel Gibson’s horrid film, seeing it mainly as a neurotic expression of its creator’s self-loathing. No such thoughts occur in The Wrestler, which somehow manages to map virtually every inch of Rourke’s flesh without seeming homoerotic or gloating.

Darren Aronofsky

That’s partly, again, because it’s all so plainly just a job. The film contributes some honorable anthropological insight in matter-of-factly showing the wrestlers’ pre-match negotiations on who’s going to do what to whom (thoughts arise that it could only possibly be a job for someone with a definite masochistic streak, but the film doesn’t go there). Aronofsky moves breezily through this – the film might not sound overtly commercial, but its pacing and packaging certainly owe more to a mainstream sensibility than to, say, self-defined cultural examinations such as The Secret Of The Grain. It’s still a canny move for the young filmmaker. He came to prominence with the super-smart low-budget Pi, and then made the traumatic Requiem For A Dream and the muddled, mostly derided The Fountain. He’s been mentioned, as most young directors are now, as a candidate to direct a superhero movie, maybe Robocop. Taken on its own terms, it’s a career many would kill for, but still, not very substantial in the overall cinematic scheme of things, and certainly not suggesting much artistic progression. The Wrestler is the kind of house extension that returns 100% on the investment.

Some of its elements are conventional, such as the overall relationship with Tomei and that with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), but not off-puttingly so. Tomei’s character, as I mentioned, is a parallel example of competing with the youngsters. The film has several scenes of her nightly humiliation, sometimes openly derided as an old woman, at others just rejected. Tomei has undergone her own travails, her Oscar for My Cousin Vinny often held up as one of the all-time silliest outcomes. But she plugged away and got a second nomination for In The Bedroom; after Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, she may now be cornering the market on middle-aged nudity. She’s great in the role, but Aronofsky doesn’t seem much interested in the character beyond the comparison with, and what she represents for, Randy. Wood’s character has even less independent life, beyond a mild suggestion that she may be a lesbian.

Ongoing Possibilities

The bull-headedly fatalistic ending shares something with Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino - in each, an old man embraces a point of no return. Gran Torino is more cartoonish in some ways, and certainly more conventional in its use of an established star image, but ultimately more audacious I think. One wishes The Wrestler resonated a little more, that it was about more than the man himself. The downside of Aronofsky’s respect for Rourke is that he almost squeezes all the fun out of the exercise (which, again, is why it’s so delightful when the actor gets to loosen up in that deli sequence). Quentin Tarantino’s revival of overlooked icons has been hit and miss (Travolta and to a lesser degree Robert Forster owe him a ton, but he couldn’t do much for David Carradine) and you wonder whether The Wrestler will really suggest to other filmmakers the ongoing possibilities in Rourke, more than it confirms the squandering of the old ones.

You can perhaps tell that my enthusiasm for the film, although genuine, is a little more respectful than I’d like; I don’t think it’s the kind of work that gets reactions tumbling out of you. But maybe this too is appropriate: if we reacted more robustly to Randy’s story, maybe that could only be at the cost of betraying his story’s very narrow, if unusually gaudy, parameters.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir was one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. He was born in 1894, the son of painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, and started making films in the silent era, blossoming in the 1930’s with a remarkable series of eloquent, socially conscious works. La grande illusion, made in 1937, still stands as one of the finest pictures about war, and La regle du jeu, from 1939, has occasionally jostled with Citizen Kane for the crown of best film ever made. In the 1940’s, Renoir worked in the US for a decade or so, before a glorious return to Europe in the 1950’s. He made his last film in 1970, and died in 1979.

Renoir in America

Compared to some other great directors, it’s more difficult to convey anything of Renoir’s achievements in just a few sentences (even while allowing how such attempts are always hopelessly reductive). He’s often cited for the following observation in La regle du jeu: “There's one thing, do you see, that's terrifying in this world, and this is that every man has his reasons.” Actually, people often just cite those last five words, emphasizing Renoir’s good humour and empathy; the full quotation, of course, is much darker, acknowledging how society is a network of threats as well as of possibilities (one of his last pictures was a variation on the Jekyll and Hyde story). Renoir’s films often overflow with character and incident and interconnection, with a sense of delight and engagement that never becomes merely pictorial or indulgent. There’s nothing shrill or over-emphatic in his work; he coaxes out meaning rather than imposing it. The depth of his work, I find, tends to grow on you over time - again, even more than for any great director.

Renoir’s five American films, if not his very best, may form an obvious starting point for the uninitiated, and I recently rewatched two of these. The Southerner (for which Renoir received his only directing Oscar nomination, losing to Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend) was made in 1945. It’s the story of Tucker, a poor farmer and his family, breaking away from the big local employer to make it on his own on an abandoned patch of land, keeping on going despite heartbreaking setbacks. Where La regle du jeu took place within an intricately established set of social and moral codes, The Southerner examines a country still being formed; when the aristocrats hunt in the former film, it’s mere ritual, but in the latter it’s for their basic survival. Already though, the sparse community has accumulated a store of myths and ideologies; the old grandmother constantly recalls how things were even tougher in her own younger days, and Tucker is constantly tempted by his best friend to join him on the factory floor, where he’d earn the unimaginable sum of $7 a day. Most instructive is the character of Devers, a prospering farmer on the adjacent plot of land; he despises Tucker on sight, deriding him as someone with ideas above his station, even though Devers fought his way up in much the same way. Later on it comes out that Devers wanted the land for himself, and Tucker’s intervention is blocking his dreams of greater capitalist achievement. Looked at now, you see an omen there of how profoundly America’s vision of itself as the land of achievement would be poisoned by vested interests and a calcified sense of entitlement.

Renoir in America

For now though, the film is primarily optimistic, allowing a truce between the two antagonists on the basis of a shared interest in catching a local catfish, and finding unambiguous nobility in the belief of the next season being better than the last. At the same time, the ending acknowledges the farmer’s dependence on those confining factories for the plough and the rifle and much else that fuels the dream. Every man has his reasons, and in such a time and place, they’re rendered particularly stark.

A couple of years later, Renoir made the lesser-known The Woman on the Beach, a very strange and rather lonely piece. It’s essentially a triangle of desire, constructed around a troubled coast guard (Robert Ryan), a great artist who’s now blinded (Charles Bickford) and the artist’s wife, a self-described “tramp” who severed her husband’s optic nerve with a bottle during a drunken fight. In The Southerner, Renoir immersed himself brilliantly into a culture far removed from his own, but The Woman on the Beach starts with a weird, turbulent dream sequence and plays out in a largely deserted, almost abstract environment, owing relatively little to naturalism. The closing stretch feels as much like a dramatized psychology manual as a cinematic narrative, but up to then it’s remarkably spare and haunting, a film noir carved out of sand and loss.

The River

The River, made in 1951, forms a bridge of sorts between the American-set films and the subsequent return to Europe. It’s also in English, but set in India, and it was Renoir’s first film in colour. It’s a simple story of an English family; the father owns a factory and the mother essentially has one child after another; the oldest girl develops a crush on a military officer who comes to stay next door. India’s majestic complexity and serenity (at least as depicted here; the film doesn’t claim to be sociologically all-inclusive) interacts with the girl’s growing uncertainty about her place in the world to form a gorgeously rich meditation on the journey toward self-understanding and acceptance. As I mentioned, The Woman on the Beach deploys dreams to dramatize inner fractures; when The River uses fantasy, it’s an illustration of the multiplicity of possibility and the capacity for self-invention.

At other times, the film is surprisingly raw: a father muses out loud – not unkindly – that maybe it would be better if his Anglo-Indian daughter had never been born (she matter-of-factly observes simply that she was born) and later – when a young boy is killed by a snake – opines that maybe it’s not so bad if the occasional child escapes submitting to the restrictions of adulthood. Such statements, of course, would conventionally be viewed as “incorrect” if not reprehensible, but in The River we understand them as being rooted in a deep humanity, expressing itself by searching the boundaries of things.

Freedom is vital to Renoir’s cinema. La grande illusion is about escape from confinement, and in one of his last films he revisited the prison camp through a protagonist who won’t stop escaping. The closing scenes of his final film, Le petit theatre de Jean Renoir, have a town coming together to celebrate an unconventional domestic arrangement. But he’s always aware of the inherent limits of such freedom, and of those of the frail humans who seek to attain it. If you look to cinema to inform and enrich your ideas on how to live and love and think, Renoir’s films are a necessary destination.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Learning and laughing

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2009)

It sometimes seems every other movie has some kind of alternative reality take – parallel universes, perceived realities that turn out to be dreams, people revealed as ghosts. But that well is becoming very shallow I think, whereas our more mundane alternative realities – the ones we invent through our misunderstandings and limitations – are infinitely fascinating. That’s in part a gloomy statement – the sad misapprehension of what’s a reasonably attainable and “good” lifestyle, and what’s a reasonable way of structuring the finances on that, just keeps knocking the ground from under people, with no end in sight. But there’s obvious comedy, even if often dark, in how we’re able to convince ourselves of all kinds of dubious notions – on what to wear, how to love, how to express ourselves – that vast category of bumbling human quasi-progress that ends in the bewildered question: What was I thinking?

What Was I Thinking?

As a bit of a space cadet, I’ve racked up plenty of those. For years I complained about my collars being too tight, never thinking of changing up a size until someone pointed it out to me. I’ve spent weeks and months on personal projects of various kinds, which now seem (if I stumble across them at the bottom of the closet or suchlike) as deranged episodes of prolonged possession by some god of banality. Just about every day, since I’m not that smooth or generally talkative, something comes out of my mouth sub optimally, but mostly now I just move on from it. I’ve avoided the bigger traps – like getting married to someone flagrantly unsuitable – but we all know such achievements involve more luck than skill. Actually, what doesn’t? We all have our favourite gurus or role models, people whose upward progress through life seems to us to prove something about our own untapped capacity, but I figure that’s merely focusing on the high end of a chaotic bell curve. A whole bunch of people start the race, many doing much the same thing initially; increments of skill and luck dictate the few who penetrate the winners circle, but if we could run the race all over again, it’d probably all turn out differently. I’m not saying we can’t make a difference in our lives; on the contrary, the harder it gets to engineer our desired outcomes, all the more reason for trying to diagnose what we can influence, for figuring out our own form of sustainable contentment, and then doing it.


That’s a rather roundabout way into Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, but I think the film is really about the joys and perils of the human (especially the male) capacity for talking oneself into just about anything. It’s about two college buddies, suddenly reunited when one of them returns from foreign travels; the other, now married, is more of a white picket fence type (much as he resists that characterization). During a drunken evening, the local amateur art-porn festival - “Humpfest” – comes up in conversation, leading to the notion that no porn could be more artistic than two straight guys having sex for the first time on camera. Once the concept’s out there, it won’t go away, and the film’s marketing doesn’t hide the fact the two buddies make it to a hotel room. What happens then, of course, cannot be revealed here.

It is, no question, a small movie, shot in around ten days on a very low budget, with only a few locations and speaking parts, and an improvisatory style. But it’s also as big a movie as you should possibly need, because it taps one of cinema’s happiest miracles; how there’s always something new to be said about the human comedy. The obvious question in this case is what’s really driving them. Are all straight men secretly bisexual, however deeply hidden? Once committed, do they just keep going mainly out of sheer stubbornness and competitiveness (as a modern variation on bull-headed male power games)? Is this very ambiguity maybe the main thing, providing to otherwise stupid decisions the status of boundary-breaking performance art? When they talk about all of this, are they saying what they mean, or tapping into easy clichés and received notions? Is it even possible for anyone to navigate the difference? Would guys who were less superficially intelligent, less facile in supposedly explaining their motivations and perspectives, ever tie themselves into such a knot?

That last point connects the film with the brilliant Eric Rohmer, who for over forty years has been chronicling the pitfalls and limitations of articulacy, although of course the basic premise isn’t so very Rohmer-like. Humpday is a funny movie too, just in the unforced way in which spirited guys are funny when they flail around, and hey, isn’t it all just a big comedy anyway when you think about it? You roll easily with the premise, and while some elements seem more questionable, the very fact that you engage with it on such a forensic level – without simply saying, well, that would never happen - seals its overall success. And the ending, while appropriately wrapping up the immediate situation, leaves plenty of broader loose ends, because, you know, that’s just the way most things are.

Funny People

Judd Apatow’s Funny People, by contrast, is a big movie, with big stars and all the trimmings. Adam Sandler plays (very well) a big star comedian, not unlike himself except (one supposes) nastier and lonelier, which has him poised for self-reassessment when he’s diagnosed as potentially terminally ill. Seth Rogen plays his assistant, and a motley group stretching from Eminem to James Taylor show up as themselves. So needless to say it’s another inside showbiz movie, as if that wasn’t already the most over-examined milieu in American cinema (Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened, from last year, is an example of a film that’s impeccably made and seemingly quite true to its subject, but which to you and me is basically beyond pointless).

But Apatow demonstrates surprising scope and seriousness of purpose: the film is generally funny because they are, indeed, funny people, but as the old cliché puts it, comedy is hard (it’s dying that’s easy), and there’s a lot of that in the mix. Since I’m throwing out high-flying praise today, it somewhat reminds me of Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy – perhaps the best-ever examination of the discipline’s mechanics. Of course, that’s a very generous comparison for many reasons, not least because Funny People flirts with darker overtones without really embracing them – Scorsese broadened his film into a broader (and quite far-sighted) critique of media-dominated social discourse, whereas there’s no sign Apatow ever reads anything more than the entertainment section. But at least his movie suggests he can learn, maybe big-time.

Last Tango in Paris

The cover of my DVD copy of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris calls the film “as scandalous as it is scintillating” and goes on like this: “He (Brando) is a 45-year-old American living in Paris, haunted by his wife’s suicide. She (Maria Schneider) is a 20-year-old Parisian beauty engaged to a young filmmaker. Though nameless to each other, these tortured souls come together to satisfy their sexual cravings in an apartment as bare as their dark, tragic lives.” Which I think is pretty much how people usually sum up Last Tango. But watching the film again recently after a seven-year gap, it struck me how unequal that is to the thrilling experience it provides.

Maria Schneider

If nothing else, that description seems to promise a much more straightforward creation than Bertolucci actually delivers. The two certainly have sex (some of it famously provocative in conception, although somewhat less so in what’s actually shown on screen), but not as much as they talk, and seldom in what you could call normal conversations; often they exchange sheer streams of consciousness, not even always in the same language, at one point abandoning language altogether and exulting in a stream of nonsense sounds. Her engagement to the young filmmaker, although she seems to be planning to go through with it, arises on a whim, and it’s barely clear whether their relationship would exist in the absence of a camera. It’s not precise I think to say he’s haunted by his wife’s suicide – it’s too recent to belong to the past in the way that term implies: it’s rather that her suicide is the redefining event on which all his short-term actions are necessarily based, whether as ways of assimilating it or of denying it.

Maria Schneider died recently, and the obituaries reported she had a difficult life, deeply regretting her participation in Bertolucci’s film and the director’s treatment of her: she called him “more of a gangster than a movie director” and said he and Brando “completely manipulated” her. You can see this on the screen I think, and the sense of bearing witness to an abuse may cause the viewer something of an ethical dilemma. Her presence in the film (“performance” doesn’t quite seem like the right word) has often been patronized, if not ridiculed, but I don’t know how the film could be any more effective with anyone else in the role: unwittingly or not, she provides the compelling spectacle of a woman whose personal instincts are simply overwhelmed, forcing her to grab at points of coherence even as they melt away before her.

Marlon Brando

Still, Last Tango in Paris isn’t primarily her film of course, not by a long way. It’s astonishing that Brando made the picture in the year after The Godfather (but before it revitalized his legend with its huge success). He’s great in that film of course, but still relies on an accent and make-up and actorly tricks: it lays the groundwork for the undemanding cartoonish contributions he made to most of his later movies. In Last Tango he plays a man slightly younger than himself, conscious of aging and of gaining weight, but still ravishingly handsome and charismatic. Bits of his past history evoke Brando’s own life and films, but for the last five years he’s been living with his wife in the rundown hotel she owned. This sense of exile and stagnation suggests he might as plausibly be liberated as haunted by her loss, even if it’s a necessarily bumpy and non-linear liberation. And it’s the sense of the liberation as that of Marlon Brando himself, undergoing his own last artistic tango, which primarily shapes the film’s impact now.

He’s simply astonishing in the film, demonstrating an almost unimaginable resourcefulness and unpredictability. I doubt the character is entirely coherent in psychological terms, but he’s coherent as Brando, as an actor, as a somewhat discredited force grasping at a trauma as a means of reorientation. Many of the scenes feel rather like acting class exercises; I don’t mean at all that they feel contrived or stilted, but rather that they carry a sense of surrendering to an abstraction as a way of better finding oneself. And for all the film’s earthiness, it feels plugged into higher powers. When we first see Brando, bellowing with agony in the street, the camera swoops down on him from above, as if God were deciding to invest all his creative force in this one vessel; his initial connection with the girl has the distinct sense of supernatural predestination about it

Bernardo Bertolucci

The miracle of the film is that it’s nevertheless as enveloping as a story, with a beginning, middle and end (an ending that plays effectively into the psychological mystery, even if it’s primarily another improvisational flourish). The more one knows of Bertolucci, of course, the richer it seems. He was just 32 when he made Last Tango, after a series of remarkable early films. He tried something not dissimilar a few years after it, with La Luna, starring Jill Clayburgh as an opera singer drawn after her husband’s death into an incestuous relationship with her drug-addicted teenage son. In many ways, La Luna is even more dazzlingly executed than Last Tango – I don’t think it contains a single scene not marked by some near-miracle of composition or framing – and Bertolucci goes even further in rendering every step immaculately strange, crafting astonishing relationships and behavior, exploring the impossible grandness of a life lived as though it were art.

But the film was mostly viewed as a failure – it was too easy to see it as merely excessive and rather sordid, and Clayburgh couldn’t possibly ventilate its centre in the way of a Brando. After Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man – another fascinating but perhaps overly fragmented work – the director was quiet for six years before reemerging with The Last Emperor. He won an Oscar for it, but his subsequent films, although always immaculate and surprising in at least some sense, have mostly been assessed as disappointments. My favourite is his 1998 Besieged, another story of “tortured souls” and “sexual cravings,” with Bertolucci’s mastery of the camera and his sensitivity to design and human movement and the connections between things creating something constantly alluring. When I saw his 2003 film The Dreamers, I made a note that it could almost be interpreted as a sad parable on the perils of loving film too much; whether or not that’s right, he hasn’t made a picture since.

Still, Bertolucci’s body of work is one of the most valuable in modern cinema, and Last Tango in Paris is one of the great fusions of actor and director; scintillating beyond doubt, and sure, perhaps even scandalous, if it’s scandalous to have left such a challenging mark on film history.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2006)

Warren Beatty has acted in only 22 films, and in only 8 in the last 30 years. Arguably half the list consists of mostly forgotten oddities; he’s had an abidingly odd affinity for fluffy comedies. He’s done nothing since the flop Town & Country in 2001, and apart from a dalliance with the David Carradine role in Kill Bill, there’s barely been any suggestion that he might do anything, except for the implausible but persistent rumours of political ambition. His box office power is certainly gone now, but despite all the evidence to the contrary, it’s hard to give up on the prospect that even at 70, he might pull off something remarkable almost out of nowhere, just as he unleashed the feisty Bulworth in 1998. It’s because the handful of films that endure – Bonnie And Clyde, Shampoo, The Parallax View and a few others – are so abidingly resonant, and although Beatty’s official role in those differs, he’s clearly always more than an actor for hire, always densely woven into the fabric.

Rundown On Reds

Today though I thought I'd write about Reds, which seems to be getting some attention lately. This is Beatty’s 1981 epic about journalist John Reed, who witnessed the Russian revolution first-hand and wrote Ten Days That Shook The World. Reds chronicles these events, as well as Reed’s romance with fellow journalist Louise Bryant, played by Diane Keaton. Jack Nicholson plays Eugene O’Neill, who had an affair with Bryant, and Maureen Stapleton won an Oscar for playing Emma Goldman. Beatty won four nominations – acting, directing, writing, producing – for it; this was the second film in a row on which he’d done that (the first was Heaven Can Wait), an achievement no one has ever replicated. Reds won him an Oscar for directing, although I think it was generally regarded as one of those Oscars based in a sense of obligation rather than passion.

Reds is primarily remembered as an achievement in audacity and business savvy rather than artistic virtue – it’s the movie where Beatty convinced Paramount to put up $40 million to make a movie about Communists. It didn’t do particularly well financially, and its epic length (200 minutes) may continue to limit the likelihood of people sitting through it on cable. I did watch it again recently though. And then a recent issue of Vanity Fair had a long article about the film, extracted from a forthcoming book on Beatty by Peter Biskind. Beatty is the subject of a disproportionate number of books by reputable critics – David Thomson wrote one too.

Biskind says that Reds today “still seems as fresh as the moment it was released – this despite the fact that the lure of the idealism it dramatizes seems even more alien today than it did in 1981, given the current cynicism about politics.” The lure of the actors is central to this magnetism: “The intensity between Beatty and Keaton is tangible on-screen and gives the film its heart.” Roger Ebert called the film a Dr Zhivago for the thinking man, and that’s apt, although the man in question needn’t be that deep a thinker. Beatty and Keaton are dripping with old style glamour, and many of their scenes are shaded with Beatty’s penchant for light comedy. In one scene for example, Keaton stands outside the kitchen door passing on important information, and he’s on the other side messing up the kitchen with his inept attempts to make a meal. Beatty is regularly accused of narcissism, and Reds would have to be a prime exhibit for that allegation.

Willingness To Gamble

The film’s most interesting formal device is the use of the so-called witnesses – real-life interviews with elderly contemporaries of Reed and Bryant interspersed with the action – they include Adela Rogers St. John, Henry Miller, George Jessel and many more. Beatty doesn’t really use the witnesses to support his depiction of events, but rather to illustrate its limitations – their recollections falter, they contradict each other, they go off on tangents, forming a tumble of human frailty. Without seeing the interview footage that wasn’t used, it’s difficult to know how exploitative Beatty’s use of the veterans might be. What’s interesting to me is how the witnesses’ apparent purpose doesn’t seem to have influenced Beatty’s approach to the narrative itself, which he tells in a linear old-Hollywood fashion, devoid of any chaos or intimations of authorial uncertainty.

In the Vanity Fair article, Beatty says: “Reds marked the end of something, in the subject matter and the willingness to gamble…Reds is a political movie. It begins with politics and it ends with politics.” But actually, literally, it begins with Diane Keaton and ends with her, after Reed’s death. It constantly mixes personal and political travails to an extent that leaves it quite unclear what Beatty regards as the greatest tragedy. In the latter stretches, Reed is trapped inside Russia and Bryant embarks on a long and hazardous journey to find him. The troubles of these two little people shouldn’t amount to a hill of beans against the bigger picture, but as in so many movies, the final confirmation of their bond almost seems to mitigate the crumbling of the greater vision. The film is fairly good at dramatizing the squabbling that consumes the emergent American left, and the crushing bureaucracy that instantly takes hold in Russia, but again presents these primarily as matters of frustrated ambition and wounded pride and petty self-preservation and so forth.

Work Of A Marxist

Thomson says, “Reds is still a fascinating picture with passages of greatness – but it never seems the work of a Marxist.” That might be considered a facetious criticism under the circumstances. Except that we've just had Syriana and Good Night, And Good Luck and other movies that if not actually seeming Marxist, are certainly more consistently ideological than Reds ever contemplates. It seems to me actually that Beatty’s comment about Reds marking the end of something makes most sense in purely personal terms, in that he never marshaled his talents on such a scale again. And it’s not so inconceivable that he might confuse a self-diagnosis as a national prescription – he’s been a celebrity longer than many of us have been alive, and even now, his name regularly comes up as a semi-plausible Presidential candidate, despite a total absence of credentials other than, of course, the vague appeal of a counterbalance to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

None of this diminishes the film’s uniqueness, or the remarkableness of its existence. But I recently wrote about how I came out of V For Vendetta – a much less interesting film – seething with anger against our current state of things. Reds surely ought to provoke something similar, but settles for poignancy and regret. Presumably this is a true gauge of Beatty’s view of things, which probably only confirms the limits of his potential as a politician.

Not Us

At a concert in Warsaw recently, singer Morrissey said: "We all live in a murderous world, as the events in Norway have shown... Though that is nothing compared to what happens in McDonald's and Kentucky Fried S**t every day." This didn’t go down so well, and he subsequently tried to flesh out the thought in a statement: “If you quite rightly feel horrified at the Norway killings, then it surely naturally follows that you feel horror at the murder of ANY innocent being. You cannot ignore animal suffering simply because animals 'are not us'."

Animal rights

Well, it’s seldom wise to use specific tragedies as a conduit for broader ethical points. As a matter of empirical observation, most people didn’t find any thoughts about the treatment of animals “naturally following” from what happened in Norway. Still, much of the conversation about “animal rights” does reflect some kind of parallelism, an assumption that animal suffering and human suffering are the same kind of moral evil. Of course, human morality – to the extent there’s any consensus on what that is - is a complex creation, based on our sentient capacities, our religious beliefs, the tangled history that brought us to where we are, and continually evolving over time as our culture shifts. On the face of it, none of those factors apply to animals in quite the same way, and of course the ecosystem is full of examples where animals exploit each other’s suffering (that is, by eating each other) rather than tending to it.

I actually agree though with Morrissey’s basic premise that the treatment of animals which underlies the fast food industry is an institutional evil which degrades us all. So that’s how my cards look. But I can’t bring myself to agree that all meat automatically constitutes murder, because it doesn’t seem consistent with the organization of the world. One might argue that because of our higher capacities, we ought to be capable of moving beyond the instincts that drive carnivorous behaviour in a more natural state. But the great majority of people, to varying degrees, are just struggling to survive, and remain prisoners of instinct and circumstance.

While we ignore the pain that hundreds of thousands of cows and pigs and chickens are suffering at this moment, every other week brings us some random animal selected for fifteen minutes of fame, whether it be a penguin who’s wandered alone onto a beach, or a cat who gets thrown into the trash, or a dog who somehow travels from one end of the country to the other. The plight of the surviving Toronto zoo elephants was a big story a while ago, culminating in their being moved to a sanctuary. But I’m not sure why these were the only creatures whose lives were judged suboptimal; it’s surely an abomination that any animal should be torn from its natural space and pushed into such limitations and repetition. Unless, perhaps, the zoo has a wider purpose in promoting love of the wild, conservation and so forth; that is, the animals within it must give up their freedom for the greater good of their species (I’m not sure there’s any evidence that kids who go to the zoo end up doing any more for the planet than those who don’t, but it would be nice if there was).

Project Nim

The new documentary by James Marsh, Project Nim, isn’t explicitly about anything I’ve said so far – the film isn’t explicitly about anything other than the specific case history it relates. But its power comes from how it inherently reflects these ambiguities and others. Nim was a chimpanzee, born in the early 70’s, removed from his mother while still nursing, to be the centre of a grand scientific experiment – to determine whether he could learn to communicate in sign language. The project proceeded with a randomness which must have reflected looser times – the presiding professor, Herb Terrace, simply deposited Nim with his research assistant and her family, within which they raised him substantially as they would a human child (she even breast fed him for a few months). Nim did indeed learn an impressive number of signs, which brought him some fame for a while (the movie includes a clip from an old David Suzuki show). But he also became increasingly unruly and even dangerous, and after five years or so Terrace terminated the experiment, moving Nim to a chimpanzee facility and then mostly forgetting about him. Poor Nim went through a lot of suffering, loneliness, fear and pain from there, as well as some episodes of human tenderness and kindness.

Marsh (who won an Oscar for his previous documentary, Man on Wire) located a considerable amount of archive footage, filling in some of the gaps with mostly unobtrusive recreations, and also interviewed just about everyone who played a major role in the story. Terrace ultimately concluded that Nim never really learned language at all, that he was merely a brilliant “beggar,” and that’s as much of an overview as we ever get on all this. Otherwise we must interpret Nim’s story for ourselves.

The Meaning of Nim

My own interpretation is that the project was inherently wrong-headed in assuming that teaching a chimpanzee to use human sign language would somehow be informative or beneficial. Nim’s a potent symbol because he embodies the continuing duality of our views on animals. On the one hand, because chimpanzees look somewhat like humans and exhibit various kinds of behaviour that we can understand in terms of our own, he was treated for a while as “one of us,” indeed subject to a degree of comfort and privilege exceeding that of many human children. But once the novelty wore off (which of course, as with the polar bear Knut and countless abandoned pets, often accompanies their attaining adulthood), he was, after all, only an animal. I don’t suppose Nim’s story would unfold in quite as bleak a way today, if only because of heightened institutional neurosis about media scrutiny. But the same crazy clashes of principle and so-called ethics permeate every aspect of our relationship with animals. It’s mitigated only by the fact that our relative valuation of human tragedy across the globe is just as incoherent.

My favourite part of the film shows Nim and the man who turned out to be his most reliable friend, simply out in the fields playing, without any weight of “scientific” expectation or notion that Nim should be judged according to his success at appropriating aspects of human behaviour. It encapsulates what ought to be one of the prized treasures of our place in this world; the possibility of building a fulfilling and sustainable life for our own species, while becoming enhanced through our interactions with other kinds of life, respecting and delighting in the very fact that they’re not us.