Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Movie glut

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2007)

“Fall movies wither at the box office,” pronounced a recent headline in Variety, noting a series of recent high-profile disappointments. Elizabeth: The Golden Age, In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom, Things we Lost in the Fire, Rendition, Reservation Road – they’re all financial duds. Even the Brad Pitt Jesse James movie didn’t do anything. It all looked so promising when the local press was drooling over half of these movies in their Festival gala spots. And these are all serious-minded movies, the kind of thing people always claim to want more of. Makes it rather depressing that the fall’s biggest hit was The Game Plan, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (I missed that one).

Fall Failures

There were certain weekends this fall when four or more heavyweight movies opened on the same day, and then the next weekend you’d get three more, and on it went. How could Rendition, Things we Lost in the Fire and Gone Baby Gone all possibly occupy the spotlight at the same time? Doesn’t Hollywood know about the escalating fragmentation and shrinking attention span of the mass audience? Maybe not, for it’s amazing how cinema manages to preserve its privileged place within the cultural infrastructure.

Even an unheralded film playing on one small screen at the Carlton can count on being reviewed in all the papers that matter here. TV, by contrast, is treated with the broadest of strokes – we get pages of barely comprehensible (and yet incomplete) program grids, along with some (usually banal and arbitrary) “Critic’s Choices.” This even though the most obscure TV show gets a bigger audience than the Carlton-dwelling movie.

If things were starting from scratch, it would not be this way. Maybe we would be more laidback about celebrating the new because it’s new, and more respectful of the old (I’d argue that the availability in recent weeks of films like Viaggio in Italia and The Red Desert on late night cable - Silver Screen (channel 320) – was more culturally significant than any of these new movies, but you really had to go out of your way to find out about that). And without preexisting assumptions and vested interests, cinematic distribution (a pretty arbitrary mechanism, certainly driven as much by commerce as culture) would lose its significance as a trigger for elevated media coverage. So Hollywood’s tumble of “product,” although perhaps based in part on some brand of naïve optimism, starts to seem arrogant– why should new movies occupy that much space in our lives?

Among all this high-ambition debris, it’s almost quaint when a film like Sleuth turns up. It’s hard to imagine anyone thought the 1972 Laurence Olivier-Michael Caine film needed remaking. I guess it occurred to someone, like the way my dog sometimes fixates on eating a dirty napkin he finds in the park, with the difference being of course that the dog only needs to bamboozle me rather than dozens of financiers and artists (he has a better success ratio than I should admit to). Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. They got Nobel-prize winning author Harold Pinter to write the script, esteemed multi-hyphenate (although, even his greatest fan will have to concede, less esteemed than he was, now that the young genius thing has worn off) Kenneth Branagh to direct it, and Michael Caine to return to the material, 35 years on.

The New Sleuth

Caine now plays the prosperous older man, with Jude Law in there as his younger rival. The premise, you recall, is that the younger man is having an affair with the other’s wife, and comes to his sumptuous country house to talk about it. The husband, a writer of thrillers, sets the conversation into game-playing mode, leading to a battle of attempts to scare the bejesus out of each other. The suspense, if any, lies in how serious they are about all this.

I can’t remember the original very well – I think I liked it well enough at the time, but as I say, the material has served its historic purpose and need not be bothered again. Unless, that is, you have something really smart in mind. Pinter, the master of acerbic ambiguity, shakes up the script a fair bit, in particular by making Caine’s house into a technological marvel of surveillance and computer-control, which might theoretically enhance the vein of alienated self-loathing implicit in the original. Maybe that could have been a springboard for something half-interesting.

But as executed, the new Sleuth is an utter waste of celluloid and the audience’s time. From start to finish, there’s not the slightest clue about why any of this matters. The first movie, directed by veteran Joseph L. Mankiewicz, at least offered the pleasure of watching two heavyweights play off against each other. Branagh consistently chooses terrible, ugly camera angles that distance you from what’s going on without any compensating payoff. The absurdly over designed set, suggesting the values of a 70’s pimp (with better electronics) more than a latter-day country gentleman, likewise seems to interest the director more than his actors.

Which is the saddest aspect of it: Branagh surely likes and sympathizes with actors, yet you never pick up any sense of a director alive and engaged behind the camera, collaborating with his performers to produce something vibrant and distinctive. The movie is too full of itself simply to be fun, and too vacuous to yield anything else. It’s a bad film, and should never have been made.

 But it was made – it was even a gala at the Film Festival. I know they need to keep that red carpet stocked with celebrities for a week, but if there was ever a limit, this should have been well beyond it. Sleuth would only possibly work if star power was still what it was (assuming Caine and Law are even really stars, which I’m not sure has been proven); if people went to the movies just to go, because they wouldn’t think of doing anything else. But in the challenging real-world environment, the industry can’t afford to put out work as complacently wretched as this. Truly, it will only hasten the end.

Gone Baby Gone

 Ben Affleck has made his directing debut with Gone Baby Gone, an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel about a child abducted from a blue-collar Boston neighborhood. Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris are the investigating cops, and Casey Affleck is a local small-time detective called in by the family to help out. The early scenes, soaking in the sleazy local colour, are quite gripping, and the film ultimately works its way to a highly intriguing moral quandary and closing scene. To get there though, you pass through long stretches of increasingly confusing and unconvincing plot complications. Overall, you come out ahead, but it’s far from the intensity and sense of purpose of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, from the same author’s story. Of course, that wasn’t exactly Eastwood’s first directing job. But at least there’s no doubt here that Affleck was thinking and trying and giving a damn.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Christmas movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2009)

David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, up for thirteen Oscars, is a meticulous, golden-glowing fable about a boy who arrives into the world in 1914 as a wizened old man, and ages in reverse. Brad Pitt plays Benjamin, growing up in an old folks’ home, serving in WW2 as a long-in-the-tooth cook and deckhand, and attaining his full youthful glow in the 60’s and 70’s.  Cate Blanchett plays the love of his life, only a little younger measured by time on earth, but physically compatible for only a few meeting-in-the-middle years.

Benjamin Button

It’s a very well made film, arguably one of the greatest deployments yet of digital technology. Despite its length, pushing three hours, this isn’t really an epic. Benjamin doesn’t do too much with his life once the war ends (living in the rest home, for example, much longer than he’d need to), and isn’t given to grand statements (actually it’s hard to think of a recent protagonist who says so little of interest). He’s not surrounded by quirky characters or a stream of incidents. The character’s recessive quality reflects the central conundrum; Benjamin’s reverse aging renders him even more a prisoner of biology, providing him with a fixed end point (i.e. where most of us begin), and a victim of enforced loneliness. The film provides no explanation, linking his condition to such phenomena as a man being struck seven times by lightning in his life, or (in one of its few explicit clasps on reality) to Hurricane Katrina. You never know, goes the repeated mantra, what’s comin’ for ya.

The film has lots of supporters, but I can’t for the life of me grasp what exactly it is they’re praising. “Watching Benjamin age in reverse,” said Peter Howell in the Star, “has the curious effect of making you appreciate how your own life runs forward…” Uh, right, quite the discovery. The always entertaining Rex Reed labeled it “not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the greatest films ever made,” summing up the “point” as follows: “everything in life and death is predetermined, and even if you turn the clock backward, you might be able to reverse the order but you can’t change the outcome.” Uh, right, and so how will that help me out at the office? The film seems to me artfully and beautifully vacuous, yet another example of my recent theme about how the so-called best films continuously fail to address the issues that most matter to us. Unless you spend days hung up about what direction your life runs in, or what would happen if it started running the other way, or whatever it was Rex said.


Belonging much more to your nuts and bolts school of entertainment, Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie is a mostly staid if not monotonous drama set in Hitler’s Germany…and given how often the Nazis still crop up in movies, you could believe time actually is running backwards. Tom Cruise plays an army colonel who’s come to believe the best chance for Germany’s future is to knock off the fuhrer; he and like-minded others evolve a plan not just to blow up Adolf, but at the same time to avoid a mere transfer of power to his lieutenants. There’s a historical basis to all this, but it’s hard to care very much now, and the film increasingly just seemed to me like a bunch of uniforms being shuttled from A to B and back again.

Actually, I was most diverted when allowing myself to think the movie might allow itself to fly off into some alternate history where they actually did kill Hitler, leaping from there to who knows where? It’s not that kind of movie though. Actors like Terence Stamp and Tom Wilkinson are old pros at injecting colour into mostly functional dialogue, but Cruise doesn’t do much to bolster his flagging reputation. Still, spinning your wheels at this movie for two hours may have the curious effect of making you appreciate how your life usually runs forward.


Ron Howard’s version of Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon is another Oscar contender, just as it earlier gathered major stage awards in both London and New York. I was lucky enough to see it in London, and enjoyed it there, as I did again on the screen. Still, I can’t help being a little puzzled that it’s been quite so acclaimed. It’s a great anecdote, rich with both comic and serious subtext, but I struggle to see it as much more than that. This is probably even truer for the film, deprived of the play’s striking design (which made prominent use of live close-ups of the actors, projected giant-size behind them).

In 1976 Richard Nixon had retreated to California, hurting for both cash and credibility, after resigning the Presidency in disgrace. TV personality David Frost, best known at the time for interviewing the likes of the Bee Gees, offered Nixon a then even more mind-boggling $600,000 for a series of exclusive interviews; unable to interest the networks, he ended up financing and syndicating the project personally. Frost/Nixon casts this as a grand confrontation. Nixon wanted above all to regain his stature, perhaps even to find his way back into the circles of power. Frost needed meat and revelation, above all a confession of wrongdoing.

Howard handles the material very fluidly and seamlessly here, even if, as I mentioned, he can’t find a way to replicate the impact it had on stage - consequently, when a character remarks near the end about the revelation of having Nixon’s loneliness exposed in close-up, it can’t possibly carry the same weight here (in a medium where close-ups are the standard meat and potatoes). In general it often seemed a bit glibber to me than it did as a play (although I may be misremembering, or may be missing the initial pleasure of discovery). Still, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are wonderful as the protagonists, and there’s a smooth ensemble in place around them. Langella is particularly skillful at capturing Nixon’s ungainly approach to social interaction, while leaving appropriate ambiguity about how much of this might have been a ploy.

The film’s main impact may be in what it doesn’t say, simply in the inherent contrast between its time and ours. Squalid as Nixon’s actions may have been, his brooding over-calculations now seem almost virtuous next to the torrent of knee-jerk regression that marked the Bush years. And we might all wish for a time when a serious extended conversation could constitute a TV event. And, as an aside, for a time when airplanes had spacious upstairs bars (well, I guess that was only ever in first class). I surrender - take me back.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

What a carry-on

Abroad. Doctor. Cleo. Dick. Henry. Screaming. Regardless. Emmannuelle. Cabby. Teacher. Nurse. Matron. Behind. At Your Convenience. Again Doctor. By now, most readers must be suspecting a production error, but a minority (whether a lucky one I don’t know) will be nodding in recognition – every item in that list appeared in the title of a long-running series of British comedy films, preceded by the words “Carry on…” There were 29 of them in all (all produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas), made between 1958 and 1978, and when I was growing up in Britain during their heyday, I doubt you ever had to wait more than a few weeks for one of them to pop up on TV (and I’m talking about the time of three channels). I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them all at some point, some of them multiple times. If you were a kid in that era, how could you not have?

Have you had it yet?

The series is best summed up, I guess, as proud British smut, in which a phrase like “Have you had it yet?” will always be misinterpreted as a query about whether you’re in a post-coital state. As you can see from that partial list, they sometimes parody other genres and films, sometimes run riot with familiar institutions. By my count, four of the films were set in hospitals, which sums up the affinity for easy pickings – leering male patients, randy young doctors, repressed old doctors, overbearing (but secretly sex-starved) matrons and, of course, nubile young nurses in short uniforms which may not always stay on.

The early films, starting with Carry on Sergeant, were fairly innocent (those were my parents’ favourites as I recall) but the formula started to crystallize in the mid-60’s, driven by the sort-of genius of writer Talbot Rothwell. “Formula” almost understates it – Kenneth Williams appeared in 26 of the films, Joan Sims in 24, Charles Hawtrey in 23, and so on, all of them basically doing the same thing from one film to the next, as if the whole span of British experience amounted merely to changing the backdrop on the same dirty postcard. By the early 70’s they included glimpses of bare breasts, which must have briefly seemed like a dizzying height, but everyone (and everything) involved was creaking, if not falling off, if not dying off. Still, the series just about survived into the era of Jaws and Star Wars, which is more than you can say for some of the other pillars of post-war Britain.

Writing a few years ago in The Guardian newspaper, Peter Bradshaw said it’s “long been compulsory to say you adore Carry On films, just to show you're not stuffy or priggish or politically correct. But when we say Carry On films, we mean the clips played on TV…When was the last time you actually sat down and watched a Carry On film all the way through? It isn't possible without a great cloud of irritability, restlessness and depression descending on you.” He went on to refer to “the milieu of sadness and second-rateness that pervaded these films.” Well, on the rhetorical question, it had indeed been years, maybe twenty or so, since I last saw any of them. So I recently put on Carry on Loving, the twentieth in the series, made in 1970 (this was a random choice – the consensus peak is 1969’s Carry on…up the Khyber, which once even made it to 99th place on a British Film Institute list of the top 100 British films, just above The Killing Fields).

Carry on Loving

I found myself agreeing with Bradshaw about the sadness and second-rateness, but without the great cloud descending on me. Set in the town of “Much-Snogging-on-the-Green,” it has the perfect set-up for the Carry On bag of tricks – a dating agency, or in other words a magnet for an endless fount of sex-starved men and women. In a plot strand that sums up a lot about the series, Williams plays Percival Snooper, a marriage guidance counsellor who gives consistently lousy advice because the idea of sex repels him (he’s a “confirmed bachelor,” if you know what they mean). When his boss orders him either to get married to boost his direct knowledge, or else be fired, he signs up, rapidly becoming a target for the agency’s female co-owner (her male partner and long-time boyfriend, of course, is occupied chasing the female clients).

Characters like Snooper pervade the series: authority figures who insist on their dignity despite their complete ineptitude; repressing their true natures to the point of becoming grotesque human gargoyles, but still oddly appealing to predatory (usually much larger) women, the prospect of which fills them with fear and disgust. Their plight (although maybe it’s only in our more enlightened times that we can recognize it as a plight) is all the greater for having to move within a world defined by one thing only: Carry on Loving might be the apex of this vision, presenting an environment where you can’t take the bus or enter a phone booth without tripping over a couple “doing it”. It’s hardly idealized – the women, even the ones presented as prime objects of desire, seldom have the looks or dimensions of models (even the models of that era, let alone of ours), and the men are a uniformly ghastly lot. And it’s all too obvious what would drive this obsession: people live and work in authentically ugly settings, with all the prospects of laboratory mice (the cast members themselves were famously badly paid). If I didn’t find the film as depressing as Bradshaw describes, it’s perhaps mainly because it’s so grimly analyzable.

Carry on England

I also watched Carry on England, made in 1975, the second last of the films. The premise here is a gender-mixed WW2 military unit; the recruits are too busy sneaking into each other’s barracks to absorb any discipline, driving their new commanding officer to near-madness. Anyone who doubts Talbot Rothwell’s facility (he’d retired by then) should suffer through the truly tired dialogue of this film; the crazy relish of Loving has evaporated, leaving a sense of dazed zombies who keep going through sex-obsessed motions long after their erotic drives have rotted away. The film was a big flop, withdrawn from some locations after just three days. And after a final futile attempt to become more, uh, mature (Carry on Emmannuelle), that was it, except for a one-off revival (Carry on Columbus) in 1992. And a whole array of books, websites, TV compilations and so on.

It would be crazy to make excessive claims for the films, but the most full-blooded Carry Ons provide a better portal for investigating the horrendously screwed-up British psyche of the time than the country’s more obviously ambassadorial creations. As you watch them, try to keep in mind, this was the time when they still talked of a British Empire.

Burdens of capitalism

David Cronenberg usually takes several years between films, so it’s very unusual for his Cosmopolis to come along less than six months after A Dangerous Method. This partly reflects different release strategies – A Dangerous Method was at last year’s Toronto and Venice film festivals in the early fall, and by the time of its commercial release almost half a year later, just about every serious film journal already seemed to have published a detailed interview with Cronenberg on the subject. In contrast, Cosmopolis was first seen near the end of the Cannes festival, and then suddenly arrived in Canadian theatres a couple of weeks later.


Further, Cronenberg says he wrote the first draft of the screenplay in just six days, largely by staying faithful to the original novel (by Don DeLillo), and his comments on the film – at least the ones I’ve seen as I write this article – appear focused mainly on technical and process matters, seeming disinclined to talk too much about the substance of the film (of course, this may partly reflect every interviewer’s insistence on quizzing him about his casting of Robert Pattinson in the lead role). Even before seeing the new film then, it seemed to occupy vastly dissimilar territory from A Dangerous Method – as if one of them, reflecting its historical seriousness, cogitates and prepares the ground; the second, driven by something more pressing and immediate, almost disorientates us with its arrival.

And with its presence. Cosmopolis had some passionate admirers, but even a lot of Cronenberg’s usual admirers were clearly puzzled and rather bored by it (the Globe and Mail pulled off a familiar Canadian kiss-ass move, giving the movie three stars while straining to find anything good to say about it). I certainly didn’t like the film remotely as much as I liked A Dangerous Method (one of my very favourites of the year so far). But then, it seems to me that’s the artistic strategy behind Cosmopolis – alienation and disorientation. If the film were “involving” or “gripping” in the way of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence or Eastern Promises, it would only mean something inherently unknowable and chaotic had been diluted into simple tensions and oppositions. Taking that to an extreme, the film’s unlikability and frequent incoherence is the measure of the unity of its vision. Of course, from any quasi-conventional perspective, this only tells you the picture has no commercial prospects whatsoever, Robert Pattinson or not.

Financial wizard

He plays Eric Packer, 28 years old, a phenomenally rich financial wizard, who decides to have himself driven across Manhattan for a haircut. With the city’s traffic exacerbated by a Presidential visit among other things, the journey takes all day, during which a shift in the market wipes out much of his fortune. A stream of people visit him in the back of his white stretch limo – employees and advisers, a lover, a doctor (he gets a daily medical) – and he occasionally gets out, sometimes to meet up with his wife, who it seems he married as an arranged liaison between two billionaire families, but barely really knows. Interspersed with all this, he receives escalating reports of a credible threat to his safety, resonating against a sense of broader global disturbance (encapsulated in a brief but vivid scene of the IMF Chair getting knifed in the eye during an interview on Korean TV).

Most of these visitors, and Packer himself, talk endlessly, often expressing their incomprehension or uncertainty about the workings of the markets or the reliability of the company’s models, or else spilling out long-winded densely worded reflections on capital and technology, present and future. These exchanges seldom aspire to the rhythms of natural conversation; for example, it feels like no one in the film ever says “yes” – it’s always “this is true,” as if the people needed to keep testing their grasp of the most basic building blocks of things. It doesn’t really matter whether any of this makes sense: indeed, that seems to me the whole point, that a particular “insight” might be either quasi-profound or else complete nonsense, depending on the context – in the same way say that some whizzkid’s derivative strategy might build an empire one day and destroy it the next.

In on the action

The film’s unsettlingly ungraspable structure intensifies this unknowability. The shape of Packer’s journey makes no sense – it’s often unclear where this person came from or where that one disappeared to, or whether some of these meetings are happening by coincidence or design. Many of the scenes could be eliminated, or moved around, and to downtown Toronto eyes at least, it’s obvious this isn’t taking place in Manhattan (in this sense the film reminded me of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, another displaced, knowingly strange tale of a wealthy New York protagonist) – maybe that wouldn’t be as apparent to most viewers, I don’t know.  Packer does seem to undergo some kind of evolution – in broad terms, becoming more primitive and dangerous – but we only know this because of his actions, not because we ever gain any sense of his “character.” The film ends with a long encounter between him and his pursuer, which functions to emphasize the murkiness of things rather than provide any clarity.

The film opened here in the same weekend that Spain received a $125 billion aid package; if it had opened a few weeks earlier, it might have coincided with the reports of JPMorgan’s massive loss on derivatives trading, or with various other gloomy markers in the endless economic slump. Whether or not you perceive a pernicious cause and effect between the two things, it’s clear that the average Western life experience is stagnating or worsening, but also that the rewards of transcending this have become unimaginably vast. In one of his few comments on the substance of the film, Cronenberg said: “There are no anti-capitalist characters in the movie, even though you might think it is an anti-capitalist creed on some’s really more pro-capitalist with people just wishing they were in on the action.” Fair enough – despite a growing sense of agitation, the prevailing capitalist narrative isn’t close to cracking. But maybe this points to the reason why Cosmopolis ultimately yields much less than it should – the study of people (especially of mostly bewildered, rather sad people) wishing they were in on the action just isn’t very novel or important, compared to examining the broader reality of people who aren’t in on the action, and never will be. I know, obviously, that Cronenberg isn’t going to turn into a Canadian Ken Loach at this late stage, but for all its provocations and aspects of artistic bravery, Cosmopolis feels like an establishment movie, a staid vision of anarchy dreamed up from a position of comfort. It really feels as if Cronenberg didn’t think enough about what he was doing with the film, or what he could possibly hope to achieve.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

This is Spinal Tap

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2007)

A few months ago I was giving a presentation, to an audience made up mainly of people I knew. I said I would talk for about ten minutes, and then something struck me and I said very deliberately, “Actually for about eleven minutes. This – one –goes – to – eleven – minutes.” And thereby, for a handful of listeners at least, I was king for a day, because I had achieved the much-discussed but seldom-achieved gold standard, to incorporate a verbatim reference to This Is Spinal Tap into an official proceeding.

This One Goes To Eleven

Actually my memory of the film was vague at best, and on viewing it again recently I see that I was slightly misinformed, for the line is actually “These go to eleven.” No matter, I was close enough. And certainly the scene in question, in which a dopey rock guitarist rhapsodizes about amplifiers on which the dial reaches one higher than the normal ten, deserves some commemoration once in a while. Although maybe I would have been even better advised to reference the scene in which the rockers’ intended epic staging of their number “Stonehenge” is undermined by a monument that’s only 18 inches high, considerably shorter than the dwarves that are meant to jig around in its shadow. Or else any number of deadpan non-sequiturs.

Some readers will already be lost, so I should rewind. This Is Spinal Tap, made in 1982, is a fake documentary about a British heavy metal band on a tour of America. Once modestly successful, they’ve now fallen on harder times – concerts are being canceled due to poor sales, other venues are patently unsuitable (one of several nadirs being the gig where they take second billing to a puppet show). Meanwhile their new album Smell The Glove is caught up in fights about the provocative cover art. Despite all this, the band retains an almost serene faith in their own artistry and the glory of the rock life. This is helped of course by the fact that they’re all pretty dumb.

Rob Reiner

The three main members of the group are David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls, played respectively by Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. Those three actors wrote the script for the film, along with Rob Reiner, who also appears as the director of the film within the film. This was Reiner’s directing debut, and it’s interesting to consider how much of the film’s success is his – after all, Guest has honed this style over several subsequent movies (up to last year’s For Your Consideration) without catching quite such a wave again. Spinal Tap was honed down (like all of Guest’s subsequent movies) from many hours of footage, and my guess is that Reiner’s more traditional comic instincts steered this culling process in a somewhat more conventional direction than the increasingly esoteric Guest has generally followed.

Analyzing career trajectories is a hopeless endeavour, but it’s interesting to see a symbiosis here, for Reiner’s next few movies, although never exactly challenging, put him on top of the mainstream pile for a while: The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, A Few Good Men. I doubt I’ll ever have any desire to watch any of those films again, but you have to admit that’s a mighty safe pair of hands, and someone other than just a button-pusher. I think being immersed in Spinal Tap for a year or two may have juiced Reiner up pretty well. But it wore off, or maybe all the talk about his political prospects got to him, for his most recent three films were Rumor Has It…, Alex & Emma, and The Story Of Us. I haven’t seen two of those, and neither have you I imagine, or at least if you have, you probably don’t remember. But it’s the kind of inoffensive, incremental, irrelevant slate of work a US senator would produce!

Evoking The Life

I enjoyed watching This Is Spinal Tap again, but I do have difficulty understanding quite why it occupies such cult status. According to Wikipedia it’s number 64 on Bravo’s “100 Funniest Movies” and was selected for preservation in the US Library of Congress. In common with many test-of-time films, it didn’t do particularly well when it first appeared – suffering from, says Wikipedia, “the failure of many viewers to understand that it was not a real documentary.” Well, who knows – makes for a good story anyway. But I think the key here is the choice of milieu. Guest subsequently got some good laughs out of amateur theatrics and dog shows (and somewhat less from parodying Hollywood itself) but even people who actually do amateur theatrics and dog shows know you can only take it so seriously (unless they really need their balloon pricked) so I don’t know how resonant that can ever really be. Whereas heavy metal, whatever you and I might think of it, is an indelible institution. It is, to more than enough people to create a cult, perhaps the prototypical cool existence.

The appeal of Spinal Tap I think is as much in evoking the life as in parodying it. The band may be going through a rougher patch, but you think they’re still not following a better deal than ninety five per cent of the audience? They have the thing we might all wish for and which consciousness denies us, obliviousness. And daily validation. Last Christmas I was at my brother’s house, where the main attraction was the “Guitar Hero” Playstation game – you assume the stance, strut along on the guitar in sync with cues on the screen and if you don’t screw up too much the virtual crowd goes wild. My brother and his friend “practice” Guitar Hero all the time, although I suspect this is less about the game’s technicality than about mastering the stance and flourish (he’s got it down pretty well). Metal may be overdone, sexist, boorish, pretentious, and a multitude of other sins, and its performers may be increasingly aging and rather tawdry, but the genre remains closer to epic religiosity than any other branch of rock – its codes and patented moves now embodying delirious fulfillment. Spinal Tap couldn’t possibly be as enduring if they didn’t capture this so successfully, and then humanize it.

Or maybe it’s Guest’s inane monologue about how, if he weren’t a guitarist, he’d work at a haberdasher’s. Or Paul Shaffer as a lousy publicity agent, begging them to kick his ass. Or the sheer ludicrous perfection of the lyrics. I tell you, on the comedy scale, this one goes to eleven. Sure, the scale I’m using reaches to fifteen. But hey, eleven’s pretty darn good.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Making that world

Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is a beautifully crafted jewel of a film, a complete pleasure to watch, but ultimately subject to the inherent limitations of any beautifully crafted jewel, that you can’t ultimately do much with it except put it back in the box. It’s summer in the mid-60’s, on a group of islands off the coast of New England; an orphaned pre-teen boy, Sam, runs away from his scout group to hike across some old Indian trails with a local girl, Suzy, who became his soul-mate at first sight. The other scouts, her parents and the local cop all head off after them; if they’re caught, he’ll be removed to the mainland orphanage, perhaps separating them forever.

Wes Anderson

I know my first sentence swung rapidly from enthusiasm to dismissiveness, but that’s the most accurate way I have of summing it up. When I came out of the movie (which elicited a rare ripple of applause from the Varsity audience), I felt completely happy and elevated, but I also had no idea what I was ever going to write about it. I mean, I could describe this scene or that scene, or say how I particularly like this bit or that bit, but where would that ultimately get you or me? For all its strengths, Anderson’s cinema doesn’t add to our sense of the world or of ourselves as the most significant films (at least as measured by my criteria) do; he just doesn’t see himself as that kind of artist.

In a recent Salon interview he put it this way: “My kind of movie — the kind I’ve always been interested in making — are ones where part of it is that we’re inventing a setting where I hope the audience has never been before. Part of the experience of the movie is going into this world, and the characters are a part of the world. They’re a part of what is making that world.” He’s proven his facility at refining these invented environments, and cinema wouldn’t exist without such dreamers – the trip to the Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t perhaps fall so far from Georges Melies’ voyages to the moon and to subterranean fairy kingdoms. But then Scorsese’s Hugo recently reminded us of how easily the world lost its taste for Melies’ visions.

Moonrise Kingdom

All of that said, although Moonrise Kingdom might sound in outline like a rather regressive project – eschewing the mainland, the present day, and to a great extent adulthood – it carries a rather moving sense of melancholy and regret. Suzy’s parents, both lawyers (occasionally addressing each other as “Counsellor”) have long fallen out of love it seems; she dallies with another man, and he seems to have had all the colour drained out of him. Likewise, the cop is lonely and almost affectless, and the scout master (who composes his daily log over a cigarette and a stiff drink) just bleeds a desire to count for more than his profession as a high school math teacher seems to allow him (the scouts actually seem like a godsend for Anderson, bringing along their weird rituals and iconography, and their sense of an idealism that no doubt seems naïve and archaic now, but embodies an honest desire for community and a kind of clarity). And even the two children have the least heady “love” affair you’ll ever see on screen – the magic of their relationship consists in large part of its matter-of-factness, which Anderson rather magically manages to keep from seeming like a mere stunt (you might find his approach to some aspects surprisingly frank).

In previous reviews, I’ve summed up Anderson’s familiar style as being defined by, among other things, distinctive fonts, bright colours, slow pans, chapter headings, a stark use of close-ups alternating with a “figures in a landscape” approach to framing elsewhere, a certain laconic terseness in the dialogue, an avoidance of over-emoting, and left-field musical choices. When I reviewed The Darjeeling Limited a few years ago, I said it all “has the effect of draining the flavour from everything he looks at.” I didn’t like that film, about three brothers on a “spiritual journey: his view of India seemed to me just another source of gimmicks and bric-a-brac, presented without a shred of real engagement or integrity (I think I liked his earlier work – especially Rushmore I guess - more at the time, but it hasn’t had much staying power with me). The familiar style hasn’t changed here, but it certainly didn’t rub me up that same way. The opening credits play over a tour of Suzy’s house, as her brothers listen to Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – it has the appearance almost of a giant doll’s house, but Anderson’s shot-making is too precise to connote play, feeling almost scientifically rigorous. Britten’s record (combining stirring music with a narrative guide to how it’s all done) reinforces that sense of investigation and instruction, as do the repeated head-on shots of Suzy looking through her binoculars (the film also has a narrator, who at various points instructs us in such matters as weather patterns and crop yields).

Rear Window?

In some ways the set-up reminded me of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but the intent isn’t voyeuristic – there’s nothing furtive about the act of seeing here, because this is a world that comes most alive from being observed. This is the glory of signature Anderson shots such as the sight that greets Sam and Suzy when they open their tent one morning, raised on a narrow strip of beach: they encounter what seems like half the cast arrayed before them, perfectly arranged across the frame. You wouldn’t want to change a single detail of such shots: if Anderson wasn’t a filmmaker, he could have single-handedly reignited the art of window-dressing.

Anyway, I was already feeling more positive about Anderson because of his previous film, the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, which seemed to me a rather wonderfully peculiar fantasy (and rather oddly, his most fully realized examination of a fully complex community), and Moonrise Kingdom certainly continues this upward evaluation. Really, there’s nothing about it not to like. It’s hard for example to see Anderson as a great director of actors exactly, certainly not if that means “drawing them out” as the phrase goes – this is why the inscrutable Bill Murray is so vital to his universe. But the new film’s cast – including Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton – is pitch-perfect, and very well-integrated. And the film has any number of grace notes and moments of sweetness that I haven’t mentioned. In fact, the longer I keep writing this article, I realize that maybe I’m not in such a hurry to put the movie back in the box after all.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2008)

Had I seen the 1971 film Malpertuis before I recently bought it on DVD? I don’t know. Maybe I saw it on late night TV, twenty-five or thirty years ago, in some butchered version, perhaps under its alternative, graceless title The Legend of Doom House. I’m sure I once saw the trailer at least, or is it rather that I saw the trailer for a film called Necromancy, which was made around the same time, also with Orson Welles? Maybe I’m just remembering long-ago dreams, built from images of Welles and trips to Belgium and fears of old dark houses. Maybe it’s from someone else’s parallel dreams that the film emerged in the first place.

Harry Kumel

I know I had seen director Harry Kumel’s most famous film, Daughters ofDarkness, which I remember for its impressive sickly grandeur. I didn’t know much about Kumel, but I imagined him a mysterious, rather grand figure, constrained by some misfortune – perhaps even supernatural in origin – to spend his career in the shadows (having now seen him interviewed on one of the DVD extras, I can confirm that this impression was a little off). His films of the last 35 years are almost entirely unknown, and there’s been virtually nothing anyway since 1991. The films we do know seem to be resisting the temptation to collapse in on themselves. It’s tempting to see the confusion of titles as an expression of chronic evasiveness, as if they were vampires fleeing from the dawn. Daughters of Darkness, according to the IMDB, has also been known at times as Children ofThe Night, Erzebeth, Blood on the Lips, The Promise ofRed Lips, The Redness of the Lips, and The Red Lips!

Malpertuis, set in some unspecified bygone time, tells of Jan, a sailor who's knocked out in a brawl while on shore leave, and wakes up back in the vast, creepy house (Malpertuis) of his domineering uncle Cassavius, played by Welles. Cassavius is dying, and his will dictates that his relatives and hangers-on’s entitlement to their share of his fortune depends on their never leaving Malpertuis, with the last survivor among them inheriting everything. The group duly follows suit, becoming increasingly eccentric and weird, while Jan creeps around the house’s many dark corners in search of its secrets.

David Lynch

The film’s first half is relatively conventional, and during the middle section I was getting a little bored at times (although there’s always enough incident, some of it distinctly hokey, to keep you going), anticipating a potentially underwhelming whodunit kind of outcome. This categorically does not happen. The film suddenly lunges in an astonishing new direction, completely reinventing our understanding of the people we’re watching, then briefly suggesting it might have been a dream before plunging us back in, providing a crazily brilliant explanation for it all, and then ending on a final chapter set in the then-present day (or maybe that’s a dream too, in the mind of a character located elsewhere again). The revelation is highly mythic – it’s the kind of concept that we associate now with the films of M. Night Shyamalan (although I'm not comparing him with Kumel in any other way). It’s nuts of course, and it doesn’t do much to explain many of the specific incidents that went before it, but it’s undeniably grand.

More than the wretched Shyamalan, I found myself thinking of David Lynch, and Inland Empire in particular. Kumel’s film ends on a quote from Lewis Carroll -“Life, what is it but a dream” - and at that point it’s clear that any ending will be merely provisional, that Jan’s real fate may be an endless series of awakenings, demises and reinventions – something that marks him as a precursor to Laura Dern’s character in Lynch’s film. Whereas Inland Empire has Lynch’s customary brooding ominous quality, Kumel’s visuals are sharp and bright. Mathieu Carriere, the actor playing Jan, has a sculptured quality, and always seems objectified – whereas Dern had a surfeit of contradictory, ever-renewable motivation, he’s always a mystery. We don’t know if his actions are at all self-directed, or whether he’s merely carrying out a role in some impossibly complex pre-ordained drama. Ultimately it’s not clear whether he’s even human. Meanwhile, Susan Hampshire plays four parts in the film – a strategy which can be analyzed in fairly obvious terms, but which plainly adds to the sense of artifice.

Orson Welles

This isn’t to say that the film feels particularly modern. Michael Atkinson on the IFC blog refers to it as an “expression of a kind of 1960s-70s lawless filmmaking — well-funded and targeting a large counter-culture audience, but still often outrageously ridiculous.” It’s from that age of Euro productions where you regularly had actors dubbed into foreign languages – so in this case Orson Welles speaks Flemish. The deprivation of his famous voice would seem like a handicap, but he still dominates the movie despite minimal screen time (all of it spent in bed). Called on so often to add gravitas to a film in a minor role, and often far more imposing than anyone or anything around him, Welles the actor compiled a weird filmography (again of a wacky international diversity that would hardly be possible now) that sometimes despite itself takes on the illusion of coherence.

For example, around the same time as Malpertuis, he was in Claude Chabrol’s Ten Days Wonder, as another scheming patriarch, intent on living his life as though the clock had stopped in 1925, certain of his own omnipotence. The film is quite an eye-opener for those who only know the clinical, precise Chabrol – a pre-cursor to the meta-narratives that now proliferate, but smarter and more fluid than any of them. It draws superbly on Welles’ bottomless resonances, and on those of Anthony Perkins, in quasi-Psycho mode from the outset.

None of this makes Malpertuis the movie that you most urgently need to see tonight, but there’s a power and a conviction to it that are missing from many objectively greater films. It has an almost endearing kind of earnestness, a belief that its deconstruction of life as a dream might actually be revelatory. The freshness of the opening sequences, in which Cassavius’ henchmen trail Jan through the streets after he disembarks, leaves no doubt that this all derives from a real world where you can breathe the air, and then there’s that catapult at the end into the immediacy of the modern world. Rather like how you bracket the experience of seeing a movie of course. Nothing so original about that parallel either, but if you immerse yourself into it each time as though it were new, then it might just always feel like a revelation.

Not dead yet

Tim Burton isn’t very central to my view of cinema. Even in his heyday, when most cinephiles were gushing over Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, I think my reaction was along the lines of, where’s the beef? I liked his 1994 film about Ed Wood, but it already seemed to suggest a fear of grappling with anything close to real people. So it proved, and in recent years Burton seems almost desperate for suitably outlandish subjects: efforts like Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were clearly going through the motions, albeit at a high level, like a cinematic God who never moved beyond creating different types of monkeys and parrots. The main exception was his version of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which took a surprisingly scrupulous approach to the material, and stands as one of the best filmed stage musicals of recent years (not a high bar admittedly).

Dark Shadows

Nothing about his new film Dark Shadows suggested a break in this pattern – what need could there be to resurrect a mostly dimly remembered late 60’s daytime serial? Certainly audiences didn’t see any; they generally went to The Avengers instead. The movie seemed in advance to have a static, recessive kind of feeling to it, as if it were only passing through theatres as a courtesy on the way to joining that exhibition of Burton props and artifacts that occupied the Bell Lightbox for a few months when it first opened. I only went to see it because my parents – in their 70’s – were visiting and we wanted to see a movie together: they’d already seen The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, so this seemed like the most suitable choice from what was left. If you knew my parents – or hey, if you knew me – you’d see this doesn’t say too much for the film’s cultural relevance.

As the new film tells the tale, Barnabas Collins sailed with his parents from Liverpool to the New World in the 18th century; the family’s fishing business flourished, spawning the coastal town of Collinsport and a huge family mansion. But Barnabas got into the bad books of a family maid, Angelique, by spurning her love; because she happened to be a witch, she killed off his parents and his fiancée and turned him into a vampire. In 1972, a construction crew digs up his coffin; he slays them all (a vampire gets pretty thirsty after two centuries) and heads back to his ancestral home, now in disrepair and occupied by the remaining dregs of the Collins dynasty. Barnabas sets on restoring the family to its former glory, a task aided by the treasures he retrieves from the house’s recesses, but hindered by being, you know, a 200-year old vampire, and by the fact that the new commercial power in Collinsport is now Angelique, still around and looking as good as ever.

Expert painter

Well, as I said, nothing about that plot conveys any urgent reason for resurrecting this material. The film’s a bit more persuasive than I expected though; if it’s something of a shame that Burton only seems at ease in highly manufactured landscapes, Dark Shadows reminded me how lovingly and expertly he plans and polishes that terrain. It reminds you of the cliché about the camera as a paintbrush: while your run-of-the-mill directors are barely out of the painting-by-numbers category, Burton conjures up one dazzling canvas after another, and even manages to make them all feel joined up. The way in which it’s dazzling is often familiar – lots of looking down at things from a great height, for instance, and not always avoiding the sense of too much digital paint being applied – but still, it’s as close as modern cinema comes to the sweeping pleasures of an old-time pictorial epic.

Burton also enjoys the 1972 setting for a while, resurrecting old Shell logos, putting Superfly and Deliverance into the local theatre, and spinning some good deadpan jokes – the notion that a blood-stained vampire could wander through town at night without anyone really noticing him, or the idea that Alice Cooper looks the same now as he did then. I don’t think I’ll ever see the Carpenters again without remembering how Barnabas reacts to the TV, commanding the “tiny songstress” to step out and reveal herself. This aspect of the film peters out rather quickly though, to be replaced by a more generic Addams Family-type weirdness.

Johnny Depp

But then there’s the cast. Johnny Depp’s acting career has much the same limitations as Burton’s directorial one, partly of course because the two are so often the same thing. You can’t but admire someone so resourceful and inventive, but when you actually scroll through his list of movies, you feel like you’re coughing up M&M’s. It wasn’t always like this – there was a time when his emphasis seemed to be on working with great directors, like Roman Polanski in The Ninth Gate and Jim Jarmusch in Dead Man, returning periodically to Burton for a mainstream visibility boost. But since the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie almost ten years ago, it’s been mostly dire (if lucrative), and his more serious projects like Michael Mann’s Public Enemies only made him seem lightweight. Depp’s starting to remind me of the story about how Peter Sellers decided to play James Bond in Casino Royale without any tricks, the way Cary Grant would have done, but came across as merely a blank.

Still, Sellers’ tricks, when they worked, were awe-inspiring, and so it is with Depp: his Barnabas is a stunningly precise creation, with not a breath seeming out of place. Everyone around him seems especially well cast too, and for a variety of reasons: Eva Green plays Angelique the old-fashioned full-throttle way; Michelle Pfeiffer as the surviving head of the household is chilly and iconic; Helena Bonham Carter, as a psychiatrist who came for a short-term assignment and never left, occupies her own world, which must be the way Burton likes it. Ideally, for sure, they’d all be doing something more substantial, but at least the movie gives them something to act, which is more than you can say for a lot of films now.

So on the whole, taking my parents to Dark Shadows worked out pretty well (they liked it – remarkably, they’d never seen a Johnny Depp movie before, as far as they could recall – although they thought the ending might have amounted to more). But despite its various pleasures, it only changed things so much for me, Burton-wise. Before the movie, they showed the trailer for his next film, Frankenweenie, an animated fable of a boy who reanimates his pet dog. It’s an expanded version of a short film Burton made right at the start of his career, in 1984. What was I saying about seeming desperate for outlandish subjects? I’m not sure who would have to visit town to get us into that one.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Horror...

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2004)

Within a couple of days I read several articles which, in trying to grapple with the war in Iraq, cited either Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness or the movie it inspired, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Coppola’s film, a vastly complex and committed epic, seems a useful reference point to me as well in contemplating a war that, even more than any war, strains our frames of reference. As I write, it seems that almost nothing definitive can be said about it, whether about its past, present or future. As the uncertainty over its course remains profound, the official version of its genesis shifts – winding from weapons of mass destruction to a broader notion of freedom and stability which now itself seems to be defined in ever decreasing increments. The abuse of the Iraqi prisoners is officially an aberration, no matter the accumulation of evidence; but there seems to be little official interest in understanding the nature of the aberration, perhaps because of political expediency, or perhaps because it seems inherently beyond understanding.

Our Vietnam

Which indeed it is, if your view of America is that idealistic. For the rest of us, possessing even the faintest intuitive grasp of the arrogance of the conqueror, of the incendiary possibilities of boredom and hazy purpose backed up with official nods and winks, of the unquestioning sense of entitlement that seems to be replacing virtuous endeavour as the real American dream, the abuse may not seem quite so mysterious, not that this renders it less depressing. And I didn’t even mention simple racism.

For now, most people don’t think that Iraq is another Vietnam, which seems reasonable measured by geographic differences and by the simple point that the US can theoretically, for now, get out of Iraq faster than they ever thought they could in South east Asia. But each was an avoidable quagmire (of various kinds), prompted by stupidity, ideology, hubris, fear (take your pick) masquerading as policy. Personally, while acknowledging that the death toll and atrocities recorded in Vietnam far outweighed anything accumulated in Iraq so far, I find it easier (albeit with hindsight and based on no first hand knowledge) to accept the Vietnam war – at least the idea of it – as a consequence of its time. The nearness in time of World War Two and the Cuban missile crisis, in a Cold war environment, in a world not even that securely installed in the modern industrial age, let alone our own high-communication iteration of it, seems to me to have had better reasons for obsessing about geopolitical footholds.

With Iraq, none of that seems to apply. For every rationale handed out in a sound bite at one time or another, you can throw out a counterexample that merely underlines the arbitrariness of the project. Weapons of mass destruction – so why not North Korea? Mistreatment of Iraqi people – so why not Zimbabwe or a dozen others? And that doesn’t address the so-called policy goals that were hurt by the war (a stable economy; the broader imperatives of international cooperation) but for which the positives were meant to be so overwhelming as to sweep them aside.

Sprawling Chaos

Reading and watching about the Vietnam war, you get an impression of sprawling chaos in which individual pockets of soldiers constantly found themselves alone, abandoned in the jungle, lacking a strategic or perhaps even an actual compass. This doesn’t seem to be physically the case in Iraq (a problem with dismissing as an aberration anything that individual soldiers might do), but everything you read about it transmits a sense of rootlessness and confusion.

To return to where I began, and to the fact that this is a movie column after all, I watched Apocalypse Now again this week, in the expanded Redux version that came out a couple of years ago, and found that it took on even greater resonance in the light of current events. In its longer version, the film seems more digressive and confused and to sacrifice some focus, but I take that as a good thing to the extent that it better sets the stage for the famous confusion of the final stretch, where Martin Sheen’s Willard fulfills his mission to kill the errant colonel Kurtz, but while denying the film any true sense of resolution, even less of clarity.

The film’s most famous sequence remains that with Robert Duvall as the semi-crazed, surf-obsessed Kilgore, with his famous “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” line. Indeed that section of the movie, logistically brilliant and visually almost overwhelming, is a devastating depiction of war’s skewed perspectives and motivations. It’s one of the film’s most ambiguous stretches in that it would be easy to mentally relax and let the spectacle wash over you, losing the skepticism that the film so assiduously promotes elsewhere – presumably this temptation is part of Coppola’s method, and it’s hard to imagine he didn’t somewhat succumb to it himself. The sequence with the command-less soldiers on the bridge, spiraling into utter madness, is a more direct illustration of how the war degrades the warriors; other scenes, often perversely idiosyncratic (especially the ones that were cut from the original version) seem intended to create a near atlas of war’s irrational consequences.

Apocalypse Now

And then there’s that ending, where Sheen finds Marlon Brando set up in the jungle with his own mini kingdom, having tapped some sort of magic that allows him to appear godlike both to the natives and to the few Americans who hang around there, seeing profundity in his every mumbled utterance. It’s too pat to say that Kurtz has renounced his past actions and American ideology – his uniform and medals are still on display, and his calculated grandeur exhibits some variation on imperialism. The ending seems rather like an exercise in complexity for its own sake – having traveled all the way up the river, exhausting the catalogue of atrocities and excesses, Sheen finds a new paradigm that dwarfs his understanding, so that he seems merely to sag, becoming an easy prisoner (his traveling companion Frederic Forrest denounces Brando’s kingdom as “pagan idolatry,” as though everything we’ve witnessed to that point were somehow righteously Christian).

Of course, Brando himself is central to the way this works. In the same week I watched Apocalypse Now, I also rewatched Last Tango in Paris, an even more starling example of how his acting exposes great trauma both personal and political. His role in Apocalypse Now doesn’t have quite that scope, but watching it now, it seems more apposite than ever. The most insulting aspect of the war is surely the refusal by Bush and his minions (other than an increasingly distanced Colin Powell) to admit the complexity that Coppola’s film embraces, not just in the basic sense of admitting mistakes were made, but in acknowledging any affinity for fault lines and implications that might not fit on a flowchart. Like the slightly sinister superiors who send Martin Sheen on his mission, they see war as a linear thing, where every bend can always be quickly ironed out, allowing the resumption of the straight line.