Sunday, October 30, 2011

De Niro's Project

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2005)

So I’ll admit it, I’m unnaturally obsessed with Robert De Niro. I think I’ve written at least five times over the years about his career, most recently just a few months ago when I briefly reviewed Meet the Fockers. My thoughts at that time were perhaps excessively coloured by his then-recent Saturday Night Live appearance, which was pretty dire. But now Hide and Seek has me thinking about him all over again.

Why Do It?

Most reviews of Hide and Seek ponder on the same question: Why did De Niro do it? Bizarrely, he said in a recent interview that he wanted to work with director John Polson because he liked the performances in Polson’s previous film, Swimfan. But he’s never been particularly articulate in explaining himself. And I found myself thinking about Peter Sellers, and how by all accounts he stunned the makers of the 1967 would-be Bond spoof Casino Royale by deciding to play it straight. Tired of funny accents and make-up, he wanted to be like Cary Grant (or the simplified popular conception of Grant), to dazzle by being his suave self. But there was nothing Grant-like there – there was only a dull void (which, years later, Sellers finally understood and tapped into with Being There). The recent HBO movie The Life and Death of Peter Sellers depicts this episode fairly successfully, although that film as a whole is far too choppy and hyperactive to be particularly illuminating.

It seems more and more that De Niro is drawn to a similar project, to rely on an inner essence, to function through nuanced but understated old-fashioned presence, rather than to make the great nervy leaps of earlier in his career. Note that he’s also recently sold himself to an American Express ad campaign, which is all about him as craggy New York icon. If you think about it a certain way, it’s as grand an experiment as anything he’s ever carried out. And since it’s brought him by far the greatest commercial success of his entire career, it can’t be counted a total failure. But it does feel that the experiment has gone on far too long, and that the run of easy entertainments could be alternated with more idiosyncratic work (a pattern evident in Al Pacino’s recent career). Maybe it’s for that reason that he recently accepted a small role in the independent film The Bridge of San Luis Rey, although early reviews suggest that project didn’t amount to very much.

Hide and Seek

If many critics are as preoccupied as I am by this, it’s only because of the magnitude of what De Niro accomplished early on. It’s hard to overestimate the accomplishment of his great run with Martin Scorsese. Not that the work didn’t have a distinctly mannered quality – the legend of his immersion in his characters was always a bit overstated. Whatever people may have thought they were responding to, it looks distinctly stylized now, but it’s a stylization rooted in a real understanding of neurosis and suppressed violence and intertwining light and dark, and apparently in some authentic personal demons. Of course, now we see the mechanism more clearly because everyone impersonates it (not least of all the man himself in the Analyze This movies). De Niro’s performances stand up nevertheless. But maybe he simply couldn’t absorb the demands of such extreme work indefinitely. The King of Comedy was his fifth film with Scorsese within ten years, and now we see with hindsight that it never got any better than that for him.

This year he’s directing for only the second time. Maybe that will prove itself a productive avenue for him. As for Hide and Seek, well, it could be worse. De Niro plays a psychologist who moves his young daughter from Manhattan to upstate New York after his wife kills herself. It’s meant to help the girl get over the trauma, but instead she acquires an “imaginary friend” called Charlie and gets rapidly creepier, parading around like Wednesday Addams. This is yet another of those “meta” movies, like Identity and Open Your Eyes and The Machinist and countless others, where you’re eventually forced to reinterpret much of what’s gone before as having been a dream or a parallel world or a fantasy in a damaged brain. God. I’m tired of that genre. I will admit that I didn’t foresee the revelation here, although that tells you more about how dumb I am than about the movie’s skill. When it comes, it’s revealed in an unusually maladroit fashion, and from then on it’s all standard stuff.

The set-up has distinct similarities to The Shining, which of course doesn’t work to Hide and Seek’s advantage one bit. The movie’s main quality is a low-key rustic contemplativeness, although maybe there I’m being too kind to what in fact is merely an overwhelming lack of rigour. But De Niro is quietly effective as the withdrawn, low-key father. At one point he accepts a bag of preserves from a neighbour and comments on the contents. It’s as normal a thing as he’s ever done, and for that reason struck me as utterly surreal.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Given what I said about The King of Comedy, it’s interesting how Sean Penn’s performance in Niels Mueller’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon carries echoes of De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin. Penn’s character, set in 1974, initially seems like a tragi-comic misfit - he tries to make it as an office furniture salesman and to reunite with his estranged wife, and his ineffectiveness is mostly amusing, but always with an ominous edge. Some scenes – like his ill-fated attempt to get a business development loan – could seem almost like direct transcriptions of De Niro’s oblivious hounding of Jerry Lewis. As events turn against him, he becomes unhinged, leading to his cooking up the scheme of the film’s title.

The film has some interesting elements – Penn’s sense of social justice, focusing on a mixed bag of issues from racial prejudice to excessive retail mark-ups, is fascinatingly original - but it always feels rather insular and distant, failing to imbue its precision with much passion. It’s much more intelligent and ambitious than Hide and Seek, but the sad truth is that even though it’s ten minutes shorter than that film, it feels considerably longer. The main attraction, of course, is Penn, who is as resourceful as ever. But the role is inherently a minor one for him. And then recently I’ve seen him in the trailer for Sydney Pollack’s forthcoming film The Interpreter, in which he plays a cop protecting Nicole Kidman as a UN employee caught up in some kind of peril. In the trailer Penn looks solid and dependable, but it’s clearly not a project of the kind he usually does. He’s the closest thing we have now to what De Niro used to be, he’s in his mid-40’s, and he has his Oscar. Should we fear for his artistic future?

James Bond

I don’t remember a time when I hadn’t heard of James Bond. I was born in the UK in the mid-60’s, when access to movies was of course constrained. Christmas was a big thing on TV there (that’s right, on all three channels) and there was always a Bond film at the centre of the schedule. I don’t think I was allowed to see them for a while though, and I recall being confused about who, or maybe what, this “James Bond” actually was. I think I knew he’d been played by different actors – at that point Sean Connery and Roger Moore swirled just about equally in the public consciousness - but I may have intuited from this that a James Bond was a generic job title, like a Lumber Jack, albeit probably more exciting (I don’t know though, lumberjacks would probably have seemed pretty cool too, if I’d ever heard of them). I vaguely remember seeing promos for some of the movies and not really understanding them – they bore so little resemblance to the drab, juvenile things I was used to watching.

Bond through the years

In the early 80’s, I remember going to a double bill of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker in a fleapit cinema. I think I enjoyed the former a lot, but was a bit bored by the latter, and I didn’t think much of Roger Moore (you can see this isn’t one of those articles where I venture out on a narrow limb). But Bond movies were unquestioned events – this was post Star Wars, but still before the age of the blockbuster as we now suffer through it – and from then on I went to them all, without thinking too much about it. I liked the short-lived Timothy Dalton era more than most people did, but I found several of the Pierce Brosnan entries unspeakably boring. And of course I caught up on the earlier Connery movies along the way. I know people regard those as the gold standard, but I’ve often thought that if they’re less dumb than what came subsequently, it’s mainly because they hadn’t had time to get there yet.

I suppose the most telling thing is that it’s been years since I had any desire to revisit a Bond film (the only one I’ve occasionally thought of watching again is George Lazenby’s one failed shot at it, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which I remember relatively fondly, probably because of that very failure). I’ve written here before about the wonderful moment on the DVD of Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, where the old master praises For Your Eyes Only for its “cinematic writing,” an assessment seemingly only explicable by assuming Bresson had hardly ever seen a mainstream action movie, and was able to view it with a purity of spirit denied the rest of us. Lacking that purity myself, even this rarest of blurbs didn’t tempt me back to Bond.

The only exception is that in 2008 I watched Never Say Never Again, Connery’s 1983 return to the role, which was made outside the mainstream series. I’d remembered it as a grittier, more character-driven exercise, but it didn’t seem that way now; it was hokey and horribly dated, radiating a low expectation of its audience. Maybe the disappointment was all the greater because, again like most people, I did admire the 2006 Casino Royale reboot. In my review here, I said Daniel Craig’s Bond was “scarily intense, physical, and complex,” noting “there’s surely never been a Bond movie where the protagonist is so notably scratched, bloodied, belittled, horribly tortured and brutalized.”

Indifferent returns

“So of all things,” I said, “I occasionally found myself thinking of The Passion of The Christ, in that the committed sadism almost seems to be leaking someone’s underlying neurosis. Maybe it’s just expiation for so many decades of bad Bond movies. Either way, the film is unusually literate…grounded in plausible motivations, and anchored by underlying emotion.” Reading that again now, it sounds like I was a sure thing to return for the follow-up, Quantum of Solace. But actually, Casino Royale broke my streak of seeing Bond in the cinema. Maybe re-watching Never Say Never Again recast its achievements in a more mediocre light, reminding me it still represented a poor cumulative return on the time invested.

I mean, who cares about those qualities I listed? Maybe at some point, if you were there, Bond embodied something about Englishness, about the contradictions of the Empire with its mixture of external pomp and inner rot. Maybe the films – with their M and Q and Moneypenny and Pussy Galore and Blofeld and the rest – allowed the pleasures of contemporary mythology in an era before every other film was based on a Marvel comic. And once upon a time, I guess action sequences with boats and planes and spaceships were actually special events, no matter how thick the blue lines around the actors. And respectable titillation wasn’t as easy to come by either (or quasi-respectable; many of the Bond actresses found it an easy springboard into a subsequent career in cheap exploitation work). And since there was a time when even the performer of the theme song was a news-making choice, and the closing credits ended by telling you James Bond would return in (insert title), the sense of a unique event touched every part of the artifice. Even the producer’s name – Albert R Broccoli – sounded like something you had to be in on (it’s good for you!). But that was then!

Quantum of Solace

I didn’t end up seeing Quantum of Solace until the other week, on TV. And I was right the first time. As if acquiring ideas above its station after Casino Royale, the series engaged a director not primarily known for action, Marc Forster of Monster’s Ball. It was a disastrous choice: Forster proved incapable of or unwilling to deliver clarity of plot or action, rendering the movie incomprehensible at times and pretentious at others. Craig barely registers in the role this time, submerged by a grim revenge plot and an utter lack of humour. The movie basically trashes most of what might have made the Bond formula worthwhile, inserting nothing in its place. Ironically, despite everything I just said, it came as close as anything could have done to making me fleetingly nostalgic to revisit the real deal again.

But it soon passed. They’re now gearing up for Bond 23, as it’s currently labeled, doubling down on the great director stakes by hiring Oscar-winner Sam Mendes, with Javier Bardem reportedly playing the villain. Those collaborators seem smart enough to avoid a Forster-fashion screw-up, but perhaps too smart not to over think some aspect or other of it. Actually, now I think of it, it’s also true that as long as I’ve been aware of Bond movies, people have been complaining about them; they’re as persistent and enduring a disappointment as the weather. If they were always pristinely perfect, they couldn’t possibly have lasted this long.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fashion Piece

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2009)

For the last ten years at least, except when professional requirements or extremes of heat demand otherwise, I’ve almost invariably worn the same thing: a long-sleeved black T-shirt, jeans, and a black jacket. I feel comfortable in this outfit, and the repetition eliminates any possibility of my making a bad clothing purchase. People sometimes tease me a bit on the lack of variation, but the way I look isn’t particularly striking in a big city like this. It gets more attention when I go home to Wales though - my young cousin recently said I looked like Dr. Who. This literally isn’t true, but suggests that once you break out of the sweater/open-necked shirt paradigm, one eccentric’s pretty much the same as another.

The September Issue

I suppose that even by thinking consciously about what I wear, even if the nature of the thought never changes, I do in some sense apply a fashion consciousness to myself; it’s obvious enough that many men simply don’t. But I’ve never had any interest in fashion or style beyond that. A Wikipedia article cites the opinion that “fashion is a group of people bouncing ideas off of one another, like any other form of art,” and there’s no doubt those ideas sometimes coalesce into aesthetic greatness, aligned with major societal or other change: the swinging sixties revolution is one I often wish I’d experienced (for numerous reasons). But whatever “ideas” drive the industry now are surely incremental at best. The fashion documentary I best remember is Wim Wenders’ Notebook on Cities and Clothes from twenty years ago, which focused on the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto: it caught the relentless pace of the business pretty well, and Wenders was on to something in his musing about the parallels between the then-new digital technology and Yamamoto’s work, but didn’t take it anywhere too challenging.

The new documentary The September Issue, a behind the scenes look at the workings of Vogue magazine (focusing on the September 2007 edition, the biggest in its history), doesn’t spend much time musing on what it’s all about: by its very existence, it assumes our buy-in. I liked the movie more than I thought I would, simply because it does a pretty good job at evoking the sense of a workplace - something not that common in documentaries (reality-show distortions aside). It may be Vogue, but it’s still just a few floors in a high-rise building, and it functions on repetition and gruntwork more than abstract glamour. As in many environments, you get the sense of endless meetings, usually involving more people than strictly necessary, most of whom change their minds on a dime based on the views of who’s in charge. Contrary to what one might expect from The Devil Wears Prada and suchlike, it doesn’t even seem that stylish – most of the female staff seem to wear just any old thing.


As most reviewers have pointed out, the film’s primary entertainment comes from the dynamic between legendary editor Anna Wintour – who seems to be focusing mainly on making it through the movie unscathed, and certainly succeeds – and senior creative director Grace Coddington, a former model, now a veteran who’s seen it all and still has the best ideas. Several people in the film, including Coddington, recount how Wintour, earlier than anyone else, saw how celebrity and fashion would cross-pollinate; she put actresses on the cover before her competitors thought of it. But surely this is mixed progress at best, pulling fashion further in the direction of sheer disposability. Near the end of the film, Wintour says “fashion’s not about looking back, it’s always about looking forward,” and it shows in her constant insistence on something new, on avoiding repetition, but beyond that there’s never a sense of what aesthetic principles she’s applying.

With more time for reflection, she’d surely amend that statement anyway, because even I can see how fashion consistently revisits and renews past ideas and trends (this was explicit in the Wenders film, which showed Yamamoto consistently scouring old photographs for inspiration). Coddington seems more aware of this, spawning most of the magazine’s more elaborately staged and posed and accessorized – and objectively beautiful – photo shoots. The September issue’s cover girl is actress Sienna Miller, who no one involved frankly seems that excited about, and whose Rome photo shoot appears to leave everyone underwhelmed. The smartly laconic Coddington keeps her distance there, while doggedly delivering most of the issue’s actual high points (despite Wintour persistently scrapping some of her best work). The women have been working together for decades, and seem to have their mutual territory pretty well staked out, but it’s not clear whether they’re even lukewarm friends.

The Point Of It All

At the end, this leaves you with considerable affection for the institution and its ways. As with all documentaries, you keep thinking of other things it might profitably have covered, but hey, gotta look forward, no point looking back. I enjoyed the glimpses of Wintour’s strategic get-together with a group of retailers, at which one of the group asks if she can’t help with them with their supply chain problems. Nonplussed by the question’s sheer practicality, she deflects it into an abstraction on designers spreading themselves too thin, ending with a cryptic “less is more.” It’s one of the few moments that speaks to the consumer, the great unknown in all this; it’s virtually apocryphal that no normal people buy anything you see in the fashion magazines, and why would they, when an actress will be pilloried for being seen twice in the same outfit? It’s all fluffy fun of course as long as one’s just taking shots at over-exposed actresses, but one has to question an industry whose basic operating principles are so in conflict with notions of conservation, sustainability and rectitude.

I know the images in Vogue in a sense provide an escape from everyday calculations, but the problem is there’s increasingly nothing that isn’t an escape – the news is trashier, people’s grasp on their own finances and entitlements is frothier, political discourse is increasingly disconnected. If fashion were really useful, it would provide a form of counterpoint to all of this, and I know there are individual designers who work more ethically and provocatively, but on the whole, the industry just seems like an airheaded cheerleader for everything that’s gone wrong. And for all her immense focus and staying power, Wintour’s surely been a contributor to this slow decline. Through my own approach to this of course, I figured out the new paradigm some time know, I might even throw my hat in the ring for her job when she finally moves on.

Levels of reality

Writing about Christopher Nolan’s Inception last year, I said this: “… the fact of it being about dreams, ultimately, is arbitrary. With a few tweaks to the set-up, it could have been about parallel worlds, or a computer-generated matrix, or a fantasy taking place in the mind of a madman.” This came to mind recently as I watched, for the first time, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 World on a Wire, which has strong thematic similarities with Nolan’s film, and just about no other similarities with it whatsoever.

World on a Wire

Fassbinder’s film is set around a corporate “Simulacron” project, a computer-generated environment based closely on our own, but susceptible to manipulation of all kinds; it’s primarily intended as a purely scientific exercise for the common good, but rapidly becomes subject to potential misuse by a steel corporation seeking to improve its forecasts of future demand. The technology’s chief developer dies in mysterious circumstances; his unenthusiastic successor, Stiller, is plagued by odd events, such as a security chief who vanishes into thin air in front of his eyes, and who no one else then claims to remember. Even from the little I’ve said so far, genre fans could probably guess the direction of things: what if this is all a creation within another Simulacron, directed by a further level of reality up above?

World on a Wire was made for TV, and largely disappeared from view for a long time (the 1999 Hollywood flop The 13th Floor was based on the same material); it resurfaced last year, and is now on DVD. It received an enthusiastic welcome back, based in particular on being so clearly, as The New York Times put it: “an artifact of its moment. The clothes, the cars and the furniture are richly, even extravagantly, redolent of the Euro-’70s, as is the anxious tremor of political and sexual unease that vibrates (along with a sinister, Muzak-y score) underneath the opulent surface.” Even the most visionary science fiction, of course, betrays the aesthetic limitations of when it was created – try counting the number of movies in which the pilots of galaxy-spanning spaceships stare at poky little LED computer screens. As if anticipating this, Fassbinder as noted makes little attempt to disguise that this is 70’s Germany; the main indicia of “futurism” consist of items we’d now call (and maybe even then would have called) tacky – dig those orange telephones!

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

You might think this would limit the film’s impact, but actually it’s the opposite – the specificity is a guarantee of emotional investment; whereas Inception exists on generalized paranoia having little to do with real dreams, let alone one’s real waking life, World on a Wire is firmly rooted in the grim grind of trying to hack your way through a drab adulthood. Many of the characters are basically awful, smarmy hacks, trapped in their ugly niches. The Simulacron is an awesome game-changing technology, but also a largely redundant duplicate of what’s already known. In one scene, Stiller programs a duplicate of his boss into there, except that he has him at the centre of a goofy song-and-dance routine. It’s very cute, but obviously hardly indicative of top-flight scientific focus. In a couple of scenes, the film shows us a bar where the performer vamps and mimes to old Dietrich songs – a more low-grade application of the Simulacron concept, but also summing up how the country remains trapped in ancient ideology and iconography.

I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned Fassbinder in this space, but if so, it’s not because of lack of familiarity with him. When I was first seriously exploring movies in the UK in the early 80’s, he was one of the most easily accessible European directors, both in cinemas and on TV. A lot of this was due to sheer productivity – his career lasted only some sixteen years, from 1966 to 1982 (he died of a drug overdose, aged just 37), but in that time he generated over forty titles. I saw a good chunk of them back then (the most famous include The Marriage of Maria Braun, The Merchant of Four Seasons and Fear Eats The Soul), but I confess I’ve rarely gone back to them since. Fassbinder was a prodigious chronicler of his time and place, excavating multiple strands of hypocrisy, corruption and predatory behaviour, but also enormously tender at times; he loved and sometimes reveled in melodrama and kitsch, but could also be piercingly analytical and abstract. Whereas watching, say, Eric Rohmer (someone else I discovered around the same time, who’s been a much more consistent presence in my viewing since then) requires an acquired technique, watching Fassbinder feels more like an exercise in jumping on and not falling off, despite the beast’s constant efforts to throw you. Anyway, I think I encountered most of his films before I had the capacity to hold on to much of anything, and was consequently a bit overwhelmed.

Call to action

I might do better with Fassbinder now though. I’d also recently watched, more or less through random selection, his 1981 film Lola; it’s probably not generally ranked among his best, but I found it quite stunning. Largely set in the unpromising-sounding milieu of post-war building permits and reconstruction projects, it depicts the worlds of official deal-making and propriety and of underground vice merging and then intertwining, not so much anticipating a new Germany as one that learns how to lie more effectively about itself. The film has a remarkable dream-like quality at times, suggesting the country’s difficulty in pulling itself into some kind of modernity, or even reality.

A scene in Lola depicts an official buying a television in a stab at being more tuned-in, to be confronted with the reality of having just one channel, which doesn’t even start up until 8 pm. The Simulacron sounds like the other end of the technological spectrum, and yet in Fassbinder’s vision of it, it feels constricted in much the same way, like crumbs falling from a table you can sense or dream about, but were born too soon to access. One of the most surprising things about World on a Wire is its relatively optimistic ending, although it’s an optimism that depends on keeping us in the dark about a lot of things. Fassbinder was no denier of progress; anyone who worked that feverishly would have to have been an optimist of some kind. But comparing World on a Wire to Inception (or any of its high-concept big-budget cousins) underlines the vapidity of what passes today as visionary. Even if we were programmed from up above, we couldn’t be much more passive and ineffectual in the face of our escalating problems. If being aware of that possibility is good for anything, it ought to be as a call to action, not as a further excuse for veg-out fantasy. But maybe all we ever really wanted to achieve within our level of reality was to put those wretched 70’s fashions behind us.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Major League

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2009)

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about professional sports. I’ve been to a few games, mostly just for the experience. Hockey to me is just a monotone blur. I can grasp basketball marginally better (I guess it’s easier to follow a ball than a puck), but my appreciation remains entirely superficial. Sorry for succumbing to a cliché, but the two baseball games I attended remain the longest two weeks I ever daydreamed through. I was never a sports fan as a child in the UK either, but soccer’s relative flow, simplicity and integration chime more with me than (as I see it) the fragmented, weirdly arbitrary rhythms of North American team sports.

Sports Machine

Still, to each his own. The more objectively interesting question is whether the huge sports machine is at this point a net benefit. I mean, it’s a rallying point, a focus for conversation and camaraderie, a generator of economic activity (although I don’t know to what extent it actually generates new wealth rather than drastically reallocating it). But even true believers seem to think something got lost under the enormous weight of money, corporatization, mediatization, standardization. Really, if the whole major league infrastructure vanished into thin air, and had to be replaced with something more organic and simple and community-based, would anyone miss the old machine after a year or two?

More and more, I see celebrity gossip and scandal-of-the-day reporting and, yes, sports as potentially insidious, soaking up our (mostly limited) capacities for engagement, diluting our inclination for action, blunting our capacity of how the whole sorry ship is drifting off course. My purpose here isn’t to argue for a drab and joyless world; indeed, I wonder how much genuine pleasure we take from much of what preoccupies us. I mean, from what I’m told, being a big-time sports fan is time-consuming, potentially very expensive, and if you subscribe to the whole accompanying beer/chips/burgers culture, not much good for your health. The keepers of the faith might say, well, it’s no worse than sitting round watching movies, but to me that depends on the movies, and why you watch them. I’ll come back to that.


Whatever one thinks of all this, major-league sports deserves some grudging, logistical admiration for the immense dynasties and structures and secular cathedrals built upon essentially banal activity. The new film Sugar begins in the Dominican Republic, within a local feeder organization for the Kansas City Knights (which I understand to be fictional, but you’d never know it). There’s little work or opportunity otherwise; these scouting centres create local heroes, with the possibility of huge wealth at the end of the road. At the same time, they’re ruthless, littering the landscape with any number of men who got a step or two up the ladder, but no further.

Miguel Santos, nicknamed Sugar, makes it onto the first step, into training in Arizona, and then onto the next, to a minor league team in Iowa, where he’s billeted on a farm with an elderly couple. Sugar speaks no English; he’s a strange representative for “America’s pastime,” even more so for supposed heartland centres like Iowa or Kansas. But that’s what it takes to feed the beast. The film expertly milks the situation’s inherent comedy: Sugar and his equally bemused fellow recruits eat French toast every day, because that’s the only thing they know how to order in English, and then he complains on the phone home that American food is really sweet. Gradually he finds his feet, picks up more English, makes moves on local girls, starts sensing the possibility of triumph. Meanwhile, other prospects lose their game and get sent home, sealing off the dream forever.

I won’t go further, but this is an engaging film. The co-writers and directors, Anna Fleck and Ryan Boden, previously made Half Nelson, about the relationship between a drug-addicted teacher and one of his pupils. It was less compelling to me than to many reviewers, but still had many virtues, such as Ryan Gosling’s resourceful performance (for which he won an Oscar nomination), and the intriguing attempt to portray his malaise as a response to thwarted liberal idealism. Sugar follows that film’s low-key, observational approach, but the geographic and thematic canvas is quite a bit wider. It’s more conventional in some ways: there’s not much that strikes you as distinctive about its technique or the perspective on the material. The virtues belong more to what I think of as cinema’s anthropological aspect: even if the view it portrays isn’t entirely accurate or balanced, the window is still valuable and provocative, and leaves your engagement with the world a little fuller when you go out than when you went in. This, I submit, could not be said for parking yourself before whatever’s on TSN tonight.

False Promise

The film can’t possibly resolve the overhanging question – is all of this for better or for worse? The system flows money into a poor country (although based on some numbers floated in the movie, it sounds like the Dominicans might do well to receive 10% of what a homegrown college prospect gets), and it does create possibilities. But most of it turns out a false promise, leaving a trail of disruption – people end up somewhere they wouldn’t be, away from the people they’d be with, carrying the weight of squandered possibilities. But then, better to have loved and lost…

Fleck and Boden don’t overstate the point, but the film evokes debates about whether foreign aid, no matter how well intentioned, tends to create structures of dependency, pushing away any possibility of self-sufficiency: Sugar’s sending money home to his family is a recurring image here. But these debates can’t help seeming theoretical when you look at the gaping needs. I know a man who says he supports 31 people back home in Zimbabwe. 31! And I’m not talking about someone who makes bank-chief money; I’m not even sure it’s bank-teller money.

Zimbabwe may be an extreme example, but when you focus on that kind of thing, the global economy is less about the mythical melting pot than about strange and inherently sad displacements. Sugar provides snapshots of how it’s possible to live, very basically and functionally, in the US shadow economy, barely ever needing a word of English, as long as you don’t hit anyone’s official radar. And ultimately, those shadow economies do more to support the frail communities back home than the unreliable dreams of the big time. If you ask me, major-league doesn’t do a whole lot for them, and I’m not sure it ultimately does a whole lot for any of us.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Downward assessments

I was writing last week about my satisfying recent run of movies, and then right after sending off that article I went to see George Clooney’s The Ides of March, which broke the streak. And not even in a close-run decision. The Ides of March is so deficient it might make you reassess everything you’ve previously believed (albeit not very deeply) about Clooney’s supposed taste and intelligence – it’s the work of a shallow, artistically lazy thinker and filmmaker.

The Ides of March

It’s a drama about modern-day American politics, depicting the climactic stages of the Democratic primary season, with two remaining candidates going right to the wire. Clooney plays Governor Mike Morris, the great progressive hope. His opponent, the colourless Senator Pullman, holds some tactical advantages in the remaining states, but also seems like a weaker candidate against the Republicans in the long run. Ryan Gosling plays Morris’ hotshot young press agent, Stephen Myers; Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are the opposing campaign managers. The plot turns on Myers’ naiveté and susceptibility to manipulation, and also on something he finds out about Morris; depending on his motivations, he might either do everything possible to bury the information, or use it to his advantage.

The film is largely based on a play, and feels like it – it’s mostly a series of men talking in rooms, without any sense of pace and atmosphere and context. The communications and social media revolution barely seems to have registered on Clooney: the candidates receive a ridiculously low volume of calls and messages, one key plot turn depends on the hokey device of a character accidentally answering someone else’s phone, and the climax asks you to believe Morris would respond to a call at the climactic point of a pivotal choreographed media event. Of course, just about every movie relies to some extent on such conventions and short-cuts, but because The Ides of March exudes such belief in its own importance and topicality, these kids TV-level devices are particularly grating.

Defects Galore

The defects in the raw material are compounded by dramatic ineptitude. For instance, much depends on a heated showdown between the Hoffman and Gosling characters. The film depicts some of this before cutting to the next scene, leading you to assume the conversation is essentially over; later on though, we discover it took a further twist, and that Myers’ motivations have completely changed as a result. Since we never see the exchanges that signify this turnaround, his subsequent actions feel abstract as a result, carrying none of the intended dramatic weight. One assumes, correctly or not, either that Clooney and his collaborators couldn’t adequately dramatize the scene, or that Gosling couldn’t play it effectively; it has the sense of trying to mask a problem (Gosling’s sky-high reputation has to take a hit after the financial disappointment of both this film and of Drive, a much smarter use of his recessive qualities).

Even if the film worked as a narrative, it would be useless as political commentary. It never grapples with ideas, beyond the sound-bites we hear in Morris’ speeches. The gap between the idealism and glitz on the surface of politics and the venal manipulations and compromises beneath isn’t a trivial issue of course; indeed, the preeminence of process over substance, the embedded intellectual vacuity, is one of the greatest impediments to crafting a global conversation equal to our challenges. But The Ides of March seems to assume we don’t yet know this, that we’re all as idealistic as Myers supposedly starts out as being. That’s irritating enough, but the film then compounds it by making the secret about Morris as clunky and unimaginative as it possibly could have been. Such scandals are part of the scene, no question, but they’re not central to the diagnosis of why politics is failing so wretchedly. The film contains nothing that you could usefully apply in interpreting Obama’s current plight, for instance.

I also agree with Anthony Lane in The New Yorker that the movie is “full of great actors, but not enough people.” He contrasts it with Michael Ritchie’s 1972 film The Candidate, a film which remains much more informative than Clooney’s dead-on-arrival epistle, and infinitely classier, but also more “scruffy (and) alive.” The Ides of March truly feels as if the notably productive Clooney had only a certain amount of money, time and personal engagement to invest in it, limiting his demands on himself and others accordingly. This works – more often than not - for a filmmaker like Clint Eastwood, where the style reflects a recurring pragmatic worldview. But it means Clooney’s film carries about as much lasting impact as a cable channel filler segment.

George Harrison

I’ve written before about the oddity of Martin Scorsese, often regarded as one of the greatest American directors, being happy to spend so much time and effort constructing tributes to his musical and filmic heroes (not to mention Fran Lebowitz!). It’s an endearing trait of course, but the more he does it, and the less interesting his own films become, you can’t help reassessing his overall stature too. Still, his Bob Dylan documentary of a few years back was completely engrossing, the Lebowitz portrait was more than pleasant, and his examinations of American and Italian cinema were very evocative at times.

His latest work in this vein is George Harrison: Living in the Material World – a three and a half hour telling of the “quiet Beatle’s” life and influence, currently playing on HBO Canada. As the title suggests, the film places much emphasis on the interplay of Harrison’s spirituality – his interest in meditation, in chanting, in his garden, in preparing to die a good death once the time came – and his huge fame and stature, with the accompanying material advantages, enormous connections and entanglements, and frequent temptations. Scorsese takes a largely impressionistic approach, providing enough basic biographical data to keep us on track, but otherwise coaxing us to feel Harrison rather than necessarily learn about him. The strategy works well for the much-covered Beatles period, but less so for the subsequent years; even allowing for the choice of approach and the time constraint, there’s an awful lot missing - for instance, an uneducated viewer might come away thinking Harrison hardly recorded anything again after his All Things Must Pass album, excepting his Traveling Wilburys side project.

Still, it can’t be all bad if you perceive three and a half hours as being a time constraint. And obviously, Scorsese didn’t conceive his film as one-stop shopping: it’s a point of entry into an enormous multi-faceted myth. It’s a valuable contribution, and even if you tend to wish Scorsese would pull his gaze away from other people’s windows, there’s no doubt he’s among the best at explaining what he sees inside the room. In contrast, I wouldn’t trust the director of The Ides of March to describe my own living room to me in a way I could recognize.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

More Summer Movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2004)

Mopping up some summer movies I haven’t covered already.

The Village

M. Night Shyamalan’s wonder boy reputation took a big hit with his latest film, widely derided as the occasion when the magic deserted him. It’s about an isolated village, apparently in the 19th century, where unseen creatures, lurking in the surrounding woods, threaten the bucolic lifestyle. The village elders have negotiated an uneasy truce with these creatures, but there are signs that it’s breaking down. And what to do when people start getting sick, and the only medicine is in the much feared ‘towns” on the far side of the woods? William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver are among the elders; Joaquin Phoenix and a new actress Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter, and the best thing in the movie) are among the youths.

I thought Shyamalan’s last film Signs was absolutely horrible – pretentious, arrogant, self-regarding. So The Village, by being merely slow and silly, actually represents something of an upturn in my view. The all-important “twist” is predictable in general if not specific terms, and isn’t very effectively dramatized in any event (the final scenes made me think in a certain way of Blazing Saddles, which can’t have been the intention). But Shyamalan’s portrayal of the town, with its genial but spartan philosophy, is at least fairly cohesive, and the movie does have the odd point of aesthetic interest – displaced evocations of fairy tales, the oddly evasive way in which Hurt is shot throughout. Basically, it’s the same thing you’ve seen a million times – one day a guy’s over praised, the next it swings too far the other way. Average it all out, and Shyamalan is a talented filmmaker with too big an ego and too few worthwhile ideas.

Festival Express

Previously unseen footage of Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and The Band makes this documentary a fun viewing experience; when I saw it, several members of the audience were having too much fun, whistling and shouting out encouragement at Joplin in particular. The footage comes from a series of 1970 rock festivals that played Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary, traveling between destinations on a chartered CN train. The musicians partied it up big time, at one point running out of booze and forcing an unplanned stop in Saskatoon to restock. It was evident early on that the whole affair would be a financial disaster, and this seems to have liberated everyone involved, pushing everyone into cheerfully fatalistic excess. This is one of the rare films that’s actually too short – at 90 minutes (including a lot of contemporary talking head stuff) you don’t see that much of the performers, but the technical quality is surprisingly good, and it’s an instant entry in the must-see annals of rock cinema (maybe just behind Woodstock and The Last Waltz).

Maria Full of Grace

Joshua Marston’s scrupulous account of a young Colombian woman pulled into the drug trade as a mule (carrying cocaine-filled pellets inside her stomach on a flight to New York) is sociologically fascinating, rivetingly depicting the details of how such things happen. The film presents these events cleanly, in a bright, confident lighting style that largely avoids genre clichés, and the main actress is compelling. Aesthetically it’s a bit less interesting, with the slogan “It’s what’s inside that counts,” prominently displayed on a wall in the closing scene, capping off a series of connections on internalizing: she swallows drugs; she’s carrying a baby; she’s full of grace; ultimately her personal strength and sense of purpose allows her to transcend the limits of her situation. It’s a bit too idealistic and well, American, in how it gravitates toward individual boosterism.

The Manchurian Candidate

Jonathan Demme’s return to form (you could say he’s been drifting ever since The Silence of the Lambs in 1991) stamps a sense of directorial authority from the very start, and never lets go. His remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic about a plot to subvert the US presidency through mind control is sometimes knowingly anachronistic (it’s been a long time since we saw a political convention where the vice presidential nominee was in any doubt), and the details of the conspiracy sometimes bog down a bit, but the mood is perfectly sustained and Demme weaves in a mesmerizing collection of asides on disintegrating society and the escalating cynicism of politics. With a perfect cast (led by Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep), the movie is unquestionably a gleeful contrivance, but with unusual resonance and attention to detail.

A Home At The End Of The World

Michael Mayer’s adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel tracks a couple of boyhood friends who follow each other from suburban Cleveland to New York and beyond; one is promiscuously gay, the other isn’t, and their relationship keeps evolving and shifting, avoiding easy categories. The film is exceptionally genial, with enjoyable if soft-centered performances from Colin Farrell, Robin Wright Penn and Sissy Spacek, but the longer it goes on, the more its liberalism and fluid view of motivation start seeming like its sole raison d’etre; and while the life styles and structures on view may be unconventional, the dialogue and film craft certainly aren’t. I was surprised how much it got to me at times though.


Michael Mann’s thriller is a little disappointing because, well, it’s Michael Mann. Heat and The Insider were two of the best American films of the 90’s, but Collateral is clearly a genre piece, albeit polished until it dazzles. The best is at the very start, as LA cab driver Jamie Foxx talks to passenger Jada Pinkett Smith – the frame gleams, and there’s an early hint of the kind of synthesis (simultaneously perfectly grounded and yet consciously mythic) that sustained the other films. Then Tom Cruise enters the scene, as a hitman who commandeers Foxx’s cab to drive him between a series of hits. Both actors are excellent, the interplay between them strikes fascinating cadences, and the film is consistently creative in plotting and presentation. But its efficiency as a thriller ultimately works against its effectiveness as anything else.

Garden State

Zach Braff, from TV’s Scrubs, wrote and directed this innocuous comedy, and stars in it as an actor who comes back home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral; he meets up with old pals, falls in love, all on the way to the usual life lessons. The film’ received much praise, but I found it completely tedious. The potentially funny bits are almost all reminiscent of funnier bits in the recent Napoleon Dynamite; the characters all speak either in non-sequiturs or clichés; and it doesn’t even have much of a sense of place. At this point in film history, such stuff is so very very familiar.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Inner Adjustments

For most of the time I’ve been writing this column, I was averaging two or three trips a week to the movie theater, sometimes even more, driven by the notion that if a new film had any virtue at all, then I needed to scoop it up now. This affliction – and that’s really the word for it – mysteriously cleared up last year, and now I only go once a week at the most (it’s only a relative cleansing – I still average a film a day at home). If a movie’s merely entertaining, or proficient, or “good of its type,” then it can wait for next year’s cable (assuming it retains any residual appeal by then). Sure, it’s probably superior to see a film on the big screen, but then it’s also probably superior to eat all your meals at Canoe. In a life that demands compromise, it’s not hard to sacrifice the purist viewing experience for the sake of avoiding the demands of getting there and back, and possibly of up with annoying people, and of course of spending a lot more money.

Movie of the week

In simple terms, the test for the weekly movie selection is two-fold: will it give my wife and me something interesting to discuss over dinner afterwards, and does it stimulate me enough that I can write 1,100 words or so about it. More broadly, will it give me something I can use in life – an insight, a perspective, an understanding, a sense of joy? Bad movies sometimes meet this test as effectively as good ones – it can be very informative and constructive to mull over why something ambitious and intelligent didn’t work – and in the past I carried low expectations into many movies, but now I feel I was mostly a tool of the marketing machine there. I don’t want to be giving any more just-about-what-I-expected shrugs on the way out. From here on, if it’s a disappointment, it’s going to hurt a little.

The last three weeks, I saw Contagion and Drive and Moneyball, all of which easily met the test. Drive is the most provocative as an aesthetic object; Contagion provides the best rocket fuel for riffing on aspects of the real world. Moneyball is the least of them – it’s the one where I was straining the most to fill up the space here (without resorting to the obvious fillers of reviewing Brad Pitt’s career and suchlike) – but it doesn’t have a dull or overly dumb moment, so no problem there either. This past week, I saw Poetry, which makes me realize that in going to see the likes of Contagion and Drive and Moneyball, I’ve merely redefined the nature of my submissiveness rather than eradicating it. Maybe, in saying that, I’m exhibiting a propensity to undervalue the familiar and privilege the relatively exotic, for Poetry (playing at the Bell Lightbox) is a film from South Korea: it would be easy to buy into some unformed notion of Asian refinement and mysticism, contrasted with inherent American crassness. That wouldn’t be well-founded, but the three movies – however respectful of creative sensibilities – are big investments, with big stars and big expectations; the circumstances of their production demand that they conquer a big chunk of the public’s awareness (Drive seems to have failed at this).


But our lives are generally small, for lack of a better word; the difference between happiness and misery, or virtue and depravity, or whatever set of oppositions you want to use, often lies in the faintest of nuances, in adjustments you might not register even as they act to change your course. Illuminating these is awfully difficult – perhaps the height of achievement in the cinema – because the attempt can so easily become crass or reductive, as in the endless contrivances about the “triumph of the human spirit.” And besides, there’s no law that dictates the best practitioners of cinematic technique are the smartest commentators about the human condition (Contagion’s Steven Soderbergh seems unusually frank about acknowledging this in interviews). But then, the audiences don’t care anyway. Nothing about our society encourages reflecting on such things, or indeed on anything at all. Our economy, or what’s left of it, depends on collective dumbness (in fulfilling our role as “confident” debt-ridden consumers, for instance), and on a fearful, chronic lack of empathy and of feeling for complexity (it will always be to the shame of our city that Rob Ford was able to get elected).

Poetry, directed by Chang-dong Lee, is entirely aware of the limitations – and occasional outright repulsiveness - of normal life, and without being at all idealistic or fanciful, it reflects on the practicalities of one old woman’s transcendence. At its centre is the brave and challenging idea that escalating Alzheimer’s, although undoubtedly a sentence, may contain some element of liberation, a final opportunity for clarity. The woman, Mija, raises her teenage grandson, managing to appear perpetually “chic” on a low budget. After her doctor detects her condition, she impulsively registers in a poetry class, but she struggles to fulfill her assignment to write a poem. Then she discovers that her grandson and his friends collectively raped, repeatedly, a girl in their school, and the girl killed herself because of it. The school collaborates with the other boys’ parents in suppressing this, trying to buy the silence of the girl’s family. Mija’s horror at the boy’s actions coupled with his apparent complete lack of remorse for or even acknowledgment of their consequences, and her initially barren attempts to feel her way into the poetic truth of things, eventually coalesce into personally meaningful action, although the film doesn’t tell us everything about the form it takes, or where it leaves her afterwards.

Practical beauty

Notwithstanding the title, the film is told in prose, not poetry – it’s a careful, attentive character study. Despite Mija’s frequent comments about her love of flowers and suchlike, the film is pretty tough-minded, depicting a great deal of naked self-interest, particularly in the way the reaction to the crime becomes entirely a matter of defensive logistics. Mija initially seems largely incapable of engaging with the world as it is (much about her suggests a profound lifelong desire to differentiate herself from her surroundings, but without ever figuring out how to implement that), at one point chiding a man whose bawdy humour she considers a form of crime against the essence of poetry, but she ultimately learns beauty and redemption must be practical commodities, with a traceable impact.

Or at least, for her they must be – the film doesn’t moralize or generalize. No two of us follow the same path; we all seek a slightly different synthesis of our inner and outer worlds. Assuming, that is, we realize such a synthesis is even attainable (or that we even perceive we have an inner world). Through its brilliant attentiveness to possibilities, Poetry surely holds the capacity of changing lives.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Miserable failure

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2008)

Is there any easier way to fill space, time, arguments, nightmares, than to get onto the presidency of George W. Bush? “Failure” hardly seems like the right word, carrying as it does the implication that some form of “success” might at least have been possible. Has there ever been anyone in such high office who so begged the question of why he wanted the job in the first place? He doesn’t seem to relish the pure process and possibility, like Clinton did. He’s never seemed guided by any unshakeable Reagan-ish principles or qualities. It’s not that he sought the job after decades of gradually ascending public service, like his father. I don’t think there’s a better explanation than the clichéd one, that he was born in a milieu where the presidency presented itself in much the same way as you and I might set our sights on an office promotion.

Bush Doesn’t Care

Bush’s view of America is forged in contradiction. He obviously believes (albeit that it’s a complacent, unexamined belief) in the country’s essential endurability and flexibility; he believes that good government generally stays out of the way (remember all that mush at the beginning of his first term about the “CEO President”?) But then after 9/11, rather than choosing to cast Al Qaeda as sordid criminals, he extrapolated a single wretched event into an epoch-defining “War on Terror,” on the premise that radical Islam posed a more substantive and immediate threat to the life of the average American (and there are 300 million or so of them, remember) than anything else. Accept that starting point (and it’s easy to forget how many did, for a year or two), and everything else follows – a foolish war based on willfully joining vaguely connected dots and on grandiose theories neurotically forged in meeting rooms; wanton disregard for basic values and rights; an utter lack of focus on all other wants and needs (New Orleans being only the most visible example).

Kanye West had it half right when he said Bush doesn’t care about black people. I don’t think he cares about anyone, not in any way that matters. I don’t think he’s smart enough to care; I don’t think his concept of the job presents that as a flaw or an absence. There’s never been any sense that he view himself as the ultimate custodian of, to say it again, 300 million people. He knows only process, politics. He must surely be the most reactive President in history – I can’t remember the last time he proposed anything even mildly interesting or diagnostic and then followed through on it (by contrast the list of claims and supposed ambitions – from his straight-faced labeling of himself as a “good steward” of the environment, to announcing a target date for a manned mission to Mars – is endless, like a kid’s musings on what he might be when he grows up). There’s little inherent dignity to the man.


No doubt he’s sincere in his religious faith, but I’ve never really believed, despite his rote appointment of right-wing zealots to every available position, that he’s fired up by the right wing agenda. I’m pro choice, but I understand the repugnance of pro-lifers: of course if life begins at conception, then nothing could be more offensive than abortion to God’s plan, and to the spiritual health of the country forged within it. But to feel that anger you need, again, to care. Whether it’s Supreme Court appointments or tax cuts, Bush doles it out with weary resignation, as if some small part of him yearned to cut loose and find his inner liberal. It’s certainly possible, if you screen out all else, to view him in sorrow rather than anger. But then you remember the consequences of his fecklessness. I don’t believe all the ills of our time are directly his fault, but it’s controvertible that virtually every decision he’s ever made might as well have been designed to undermine our collective fragile balance.

I wrote the other week about how Bill Maher’s Religulous, a scatter-shot expose of why all religious believers are nuts, just didn’t seem to me very relevant to what should be on our minds right now. It’s satisfying, in a way, to say much the same thing about Oliver Stone’s W. The film is careful and quite accomplished in its way, but remarkably lacking in impact. This is good, if it’s an advance notice of how easy it’ll be to forget about the man, but then we would have found that out in a few months anyway. But isn’t Bush’s presidency a phenomenon from which an artist should extract something potent? If we merely forget, how will we learn?

By mentioning Bush’s father only in passing, I may have omitted a key piece of this puzzle, that his political career, and his grotesque handling of endeavours such as the Iraq war, needs to be read in the context of an Oedipal narrative with the first President Bush – that his parents always expected more of his younger brother Jeb, and that he feels driven to avenge his father’s loss to Clinton at the end of his first term (a loss attributed in this theory to failing to take out Saddam Hussein at the end of early 90’s Gulf War). Well, I just don’t know. Stone’s movie certainly sees that as The Key, contriving numerous (mostly dull and repetitive) encounters marked by the older Bush’s disappointment and reserve. At times, it’s easy to forget we’re watching a movie about the Presidency – it could be any narrative of a guy fighting for self-actualization, and discovering nothing’s ever enough.

Sorrow Over Anger

Coupled with Stone’s own loss of fire (as with his last film World Trade Center, this only intermittently feels like the work of the man who made JFK and Natural Born Killers), the chosen approach conveys a consistent melancholy. The film inter-cuts highlights of Bush’s halting progress from silver-spoon idiot to ultimate power, with scenes from the Presidency itself, mostly focusing on the discussions leading to the decision to invade Iraq, and on the initial realization that it wasn’t going to work out as they hoped. Stone weaves in various classic Bush misspeakings along the way. Josh Brolin is a pretty good (but again, not very interesting) Bush; the other actors span the gamut from near savage (Thandie Newton’s evisceration of Condoleezza Rice) to barely being there at all (Scott Glenn’s weirdly affectless Donald Rumsfeld). James Cromwell as a blandly authoritative Bush senior is the most disappointingly knee-jerk casting.

I think the film should have been way more colourful, messy, contradictory, and flagrantly offensive, But then maybe it wouldn’t matter: you’d always end up reviewing the man more than the movie. Except that the movie, at worst, would only represent a couple of squandered hours. The man embodies a much greater loss than that.

Working out the numbers

Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is a highly enjoyable movie, and a sure crowd-pleaser (as long as the crowd can process a creation with lots of talk, no violence, no sex, and barely any profanity). It portrays the real-life story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beame, trying to put together a competitive 2002 season against teams outspending him on payroll by four to one; unable to entice the best players, he starts reexamining that whole notion of “the best,” concluding he can build a winning team out of players rejected or at least undervalued by all the other teams. This generates a lousy start to the season, followed by a remarkable turnaround, although – and this is hardly a spoiler – not the kind of fairy tale level of remarkable that would have them winning the World Series. In fact, the ending is influenced much more by a sense of compromise and personal limits than of triumph.

Insiders vs. outsiders

The film is based on Michael Lewis’ influential 2003 book. I didn’t read it, but Wikipedia summarizes some of the themes like this: “insiders vs. outsiders (established traditionalists vs. upstart proponents of sabermetrics (that is, a statistical driven approach), the democratization of information causing a flattening of hierarchies, and the ruthless drive for efficiency that capitalism demands.” Only the first of these is particularly evident in the film, played largely for comic effect as Beame dismisses the conventional wisdom of his ancient-looking scouting team – for example, they write off one prospect in part because he has an ugly girlfriend, thus denoting a lack of confidence – in favour of cold hard facts: who cares if a particular player has a funny stance, or fades in the second half of the game, as long as he reliably delivers a proportionate share of what it takes to win the necessary percentage of games?

This tells you, of course, that Moneyball is really about underdogs, one of those emblematic sports movies where it doesn’t matter if you like or even understand the game: I can testify to this because I wouldn’t watch baseball if it was the last distraction remaining on earth (now there’s an idea for a horror flick). It’s a particularly admirable achievement in this case because the movie necessarily focuses so much on the specific nuts and bolts. You suspect a lot of the credit goes to co-writer Aaron Sorkin, who won an Oscar for a similar feat last year with The Social Network: I wrote here that “I don’t know if any film has ever conjured up as much excitement from reams of incomprehensible programming talk.” Moneyball is aiming to be pleasant more than exciting, but otherwise it’s a comparable achievement, as far as that aspect of it goes.

Demands of capitalism

As I mentioned though, this means the film doesn’t spend much time on the “democratization of information causing a flattening of hierarchies” (often, I suspect, something that’s written about more than it’s actually evidenced), and the “ruthless drive for efficiency that capitalism demands.” Admittedly, you can’t blame a Hollywood picture for turning its back on such heavy themes. Still, it means it’s pretty easy to forget the film as soon as it’s over. The breakdown of the old industrial model might be one of the most significant themes of our time – business just doesn’t seem to need as many people as it once did to generate growth and profits (worse, the profitability is largely based on not having them), and since consumers and governments are tapped out, no one knows how to create enough of those well-paying non-geeky geographically-dispersed jobs.

Moneyball isn’t inherently about that issue of course, but it does embody something of the tension between advancing knowledge and its human cost. As the movie depicts him, Beame is highly ambivalent about baseball: he’s devoted much of his life to it, but he doesn’t actually watch the games, and is obviously unsentimental about its traditions. This makes him a perfect person to lead the revolution, but at the same time, you could view him as an unwitting tool of owners trying to get a job done at bargain basement prices. Even if his methods worked perfectly – which they don’t; he’s remained with the team for the subsequent decade without topping the achievements of 2002 – where would it ultimately lead? If there’s no more romance and sense of individual greatness, then how does anything ever really get better?

Money Never Sleeps

The movie’s original director was Steven Soderbergh, who reportedly had something more analytical in mind: for instance, his version would have featured interviews with real-life people (it’s a bit of a shame to think we might have missed out on a sports movie with the ambiance of Soderbergh’s current film Contagion). Bennett Miller, whose only previous film was Capote, doesn’t seem like such an ambitious thinker, but having settled on his strategy, he sees it through more than smoothly. I may have left it late in the review to address the most salient fact for many viewers, that Brad Pitt plays Billy Beame, and well enough that they’re saying he might even get an Oscar for it. It’s classic old-time movie acting, of the kind that seems easy but undoubtedly isn’t; Pitt creates a rounded character without any of the mannerisms, emotional props or narrative contrivances that often seem to signal award-worthy performances. One scene, where he places a series of rapid-fire calls to other general managers, trying to move multiple pieces so that a player he wants becomes available, is a free-wheeling classic, even evoking Cary Grant and Howard Hawks.

Jonah Hill plays the economics graduate who originally turns Beame onto this new way of things, and then becomes his assistant. He doesn’t have to do much more than follow Pitt around and respond to him in a small voice, but it’s enough. The film really doesn’t have a dull moment, and given that the topic is baseball, I suppose that must be even higher praise than it sounds like.

Another money movie: a few days before watching Moneyball, I caught up with Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel from last year, Money Never Sleeps. This is an odd creation for sure, trying to tap the old magic of Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko character (as the movie begins, getting out of jail after eight years) while grappling with new paradigms and uncertainties; it’s a glitzy but lumpy amalgam, sometimes shrewdly illustrating how complicated things actually work, at other times succumbing to absurd melodrama. It’s not so much that it bites off more than it can chew; it chews a bit, swallows a bit, leaves you confused about how much it bit off in the first place. But for a film grappling with something as imperfect and frightening as the capital markets, maybe that’s how it should be.