Sunday, January 27, 2013

Finding Osama

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a terrific, engrossing how-it-might-have-gone-down contemporary drama, and maybe that should be the end of the review, because beyond that, it’s tough to tell. The bulk of the film narrates the intelligence search for Osama bin Laden, focusing in particular on Maya, a young female officer (Jessica Chastain) who obsesses on a specific possibility, of finding a man who might be a courier for OBL, and thus might lead them to him; the final half hour dramatizes the assault on his compound in Abbottabad. I was a bit puzzled by the extent of the praise for Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which won her an Oscar, but it’s much easier to see what people are responding to here – it’s a state of the art, eye-on-the-ball, cinema-as-battlefield achievement.

Trouble sleeping

But Bigelow wasn’t nominated for best director this time (although the film itself is up for best picture) and some speculated it might reflect “Hollywood’s” (and Washington’s) discomfort with the film’s open-eyed depiction (or as some read it, condoning) of torture. Even Chastain has expressed some ambivalence on the issue: “I had trouble sleeping to be honest…I had a lot of anxiety about whether we were telling the right story.” In interview after interview, Bigelow and her writer Mark Boal insist on characterizing themselves as even-handed reporters, pragmatically taking what decisions were necessary to condense the story into two and a half hours (Chastain’s character for instance, although closely based on a real person, also serves as a composite for the efforts of many others), but beyond that just sticking to the facts. Bigelow says her aim was "to be faithful to the research, to not have an agenda, to hope that people go to see the movie and judge for themselves". Boal expands as follows: “The film was a political chew toy before I even wrote a word, and I think that will unfortunately continue and people will bring what they want to see. Our intention was to show the complexity of this debate which is fairly complicated and hopefully have people judge for themselves, but there does appear to be a mis-characterization on that front.” One might argue that his “show the complexity of this debate” contradicts Bigelow’s “not have an agenda,” but anyway, they’re consistent on the “judge for themselves” talking point.

But it’s entirely disingenuous of course, because like any film, Zero Dark Thirty reflects thousands of conscious decisions on what to include and exclude, and how, all of which necessarily reflect instincts which can’t be entirely dispassionate. To provide an example, the film early on includes a brief recreation of the 2005 London bombings, but why? It’s not necessary to the central story being told, other than that to emphasize that the terror threat was ongoing, but that’s not a point of dispute in the context of the film; even if it was, we could have been told about it, or it might have been evoked solely through archive footage. I assume Bigelow made this choice (and several others like it) partly to add variation to what might otherwise be a rather dour, small-scale narrative, but whether I’m right or wrong, it’s a choice, and one that can only boost our investment in the film as a dramatic construct (and our sense of the propriety of the effort).

Depictions of torture

More broadly, the film spends little time on the broader wisdom of America’s post 9/11 decisions, such as its disastrous choice (and it was a choice) to cast its response as a broad-based “war on terror” rather than as, say, a pursuit of a specific group of international criminals. The Iraqi WMD debacle is mentioned briefly, but more for the practicality of how it affects the intelligence environment, and reduces institutional appetite for risk, than for the rights and wrongs of the thing itself. The suggestion, raised at one point, of downplaying the search for bin Laden in favour of concentrating on domestic threats is treated as pure cowardice. I don’t think the film even mentions George W Bush, although I might be forgetting something. All of this, again, represents a conscious choice. One could easily imagine an alternative approach, along the lines of what Oliver Stone might have been drawn to in his heyday, which would have emphasized paranoia and chaos rather than honed professionalism.

The film’s depictions of torture are among its most cinematically dazzling – in the film’s first extended sequence, Bigelow brilliantly (in the sense of demonstrating her mastery of cinematic structure) traps us in a triangle of looks: the prisoner’s raw suffering, the practiced moves of his interrogator, the newly-arrived Maya’s clear ambivalence. Again, when Bigelow insists that “if it had not been part of that history, it would not have been in the movie,” she side-steps her choice to make it one of the movie’s dramatic highlights. Now, of course, this might be a deliberate strategy too, pushing us to recognize the ambivalence of our response, how it possibly even verges on pleasure, and therefore our complicity in the flag-waving political consensus that supported all this (before the winds turned): in this respect, the film might be allied to how Tarantino’s Django Unchained, as I wrote last week, perhaps toys with our responses to its depiction of slavery. But if this is Bigelow’s intention, it’s hard to glean either from the film itself or from her comments about it. (As for the effectiveness of torture itself, the film depicts it as yielding a key lead, but also clearly emphasizes that it’s not the only source for that).

What do we do now?

The film’s final image, of Maya’s face after it’s all over, reminded me of the famous ending of Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, where Robert Redford’s character wins his long-shot political race and asks his advisor “What do we do now?” The immediate goal is filled, at huge human and financial cost, but who knows what it amounts to in the greater scheme of things, and Bigelow allows us to sense the horrible apprehension that it may not amount to that much at all. Supposedly, the real-life Maya suffered some career reversals, being denied a promotion and damaging her standing with a misjudged “reply all” email, and for the real America, I’m not sure it’s been anything but reversals. There’s no climactic flag-waving in the film, no cheering crowds in the streets – this part of the history at least, Bigelow feels secure in omitting.

As you can see then, the film – at the same time that it’s just plain exciting - is superbly thought-provoking, but it’s primarily thought-provoking about the nature of Kathryn Bigelow’s artistic decisions. And while it wouldn’t be unrewarding to muse further about the ethics of depicting torture with anything other than painstaking exactitude, we can’t meaningfully do that unless we’re also up for questioning the broader ethics of applying mainstream cinema conventions to events that continue to define our collective fate.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

July movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2006)
I feel over the years as if I’ve reviewed more of Woody Allen’s films than anyone else’s, which is a function of (a) him making more movies than anyone else, and (b) me being there for all of them. Everyone agrees that his work has declined in recent years, and virtually everyone agrees that last year’s Match Point represented an astonishing resurgence. I think this is a fair enough opinion, although that film is probably more impressive for Allen’s unprecedented self-reinvention than for its inherent qualities. It seems even more amazing after Allen’s new film Scoop, which sticks with Britain and some of the same cast and ideas, but turns out not much better than a standard lower-tier Allen comedy transplanted onto swankier accents.
This partly reflects the fact that, unlike Match Point, Scoop has Allen back in front of the camera, doing the kind of shtick he’s done for years. He’s a magician performing in London, who gets dragged into investigating a possible murderer with journalism student Scarlett Johansson, prompted from beyond the grave by dead journalist Ian McShane. If I remembered all of Allen’s films well enough, I think I might be able to demonstrate how every single element in Scoop is lifted from an earlier (and better) work. The opening scene of journalists swapping stories about a departed colleague recalls the framing device of Broadway Danny Rose, as do some of the affectations in Allen’s patter; the otherworldly stuff sometimes recalls Purple Rose of Cairo, more broadly there’s the link to the general premise of Manhattan Murder Mystery, and so on and so on. It seems like an oddly timid follow-up to Match Point, but I suppose it’s pointless to look for much shape to Allen’s ceaseless activity at this stage.

Anyway, I liked the movie more than most critics did; maybe just because I watch new Allen movies in the way you might pull Caddyshack off the shelf for the twentieth time; is it a new one or is it last year’s all over again, who cares, you remember the good years and drink your coffee and it all works fine. On this occasion he makes pleasant but undemanding use of Johansson, and I got a kick out of seeing him do his routines in front of mystified groups of toffy-nosed Brits. The movie does not have one iota of Match Point’s analytical interest in the British high class – it’s a big love fest. The ghost angle is under-developed and lazy, and it all ends rather abruptly, as though they simply ran out of money. The overall problem is that the film doesn’t betray any visual or thematic or intellectual or other kind of interest in anything really (except perhaps in Johansson herself), so that it barely matters if it’s set in London, or Manhattan, or on the moon.
Miami Vice
Only in the strange world of filmmaking could an artifact as accomplished as Miami Vice be regarded as coasting, but that’s how we should view it. This sprawling account of two cops cracking open an international drug ring is pretty much to director Michael Mann as Scoop is to Allen. Mann’s earlier Heat and The Insider made one of the finest one-two punches in recent American film, and his next film Ali was unfairly disregarded. Collateral, for all its virtues, was a retreat into simpler action material, and Miami Vice is a further leap down that road. Mann’s a great orchestrator though, and he’s radically rethought the original TV show (where he made his reputation): although the guys still dress like fashion models and live in impossibly high-end apartments, there’s nothing here of the “MTV cops” – this is a dark, insinuating, often almost abstracted version of the city.

And of life itself – as his budgets and canvases get larger, the core of Mann’s work narrows, honing his vision of men defined by action, with no personal lives beyond sexual interludes; Miami Vice’s most intriguing aspect is a hopeless romance between Crockett (Colin Farrell) and cartel queen Gong Li. Gong is magnificently resonant, but Farrell is generally affectless, and Jamie Foxx as Tubbs is given oddly little to do. Taking Mann’s use of the weak Farrell and his neutering of the charismatic Foxx (compared to, say, De Niro and Pacino in Heat) along with the plot’s frequent incoherence, it’s no surprise that you often feel you’re watching mere logistics – although in Mann’s hands that always seems intriguingly complex and adult, often even hinting at some kind of thematic greatness. But ultimately this material is incapable of supporting a breakthrough.

Two films about Africa

U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha, which won the top prize at last year’s Berlin film festival, is a transposition of Bizet’s Carmen, about the disastrous love between a young officer and a local goddess, into the present-day South African townships. The famous arias are intact, but the libretto has been translated and modified to suit the time and place, and that music often jostles for space on the soundtrack with indigenous sounds and with the clatter of everyday life. In many ways, despite the obvious abstraction of the exercise, this has a more authentic sense of its people and environment than the laboured, overpraised Tsotsi. And the project can be admired for its demonstration of the transferability and adaptability of the cultural canon and in particular for its validation of native South Africa as a safe repository for such works. That said, in some ways it’s more interesting as a theoretical exercise than as an achieved film. But the lead actress is certainly more than adequately magnetic, and it’s full of striking moments.

Finally, another film about Africa, about the tragedy not of the few but of the many, of a number and a pain greater than we can imagine. Michael Caton-Jones’ Shooting Dogs is about 1994 Rwanda, in particular about a Catholic-run school and makeshift UN enclave where 2,500 Tutsis came for shelter from the surrounding massacre, until the UN soldiers withdrew, leaving their charges to be slaughtered by the Hutus gathered outside. It’s a terrible story, and although the film does not spend much time analyzing global culpability (beyond the famous clip of the UN official tying herself in knots to avoid the term “genocide”), it’s impossible to watch it without wondering yet again how it is that our focus and collective energies have become so misplaced. The film is a chilling and convincing recreation, quite similar in many ways to Hotel Rwanda, although without even as many minor points of light: the UN here seems all but inert, without any of the moral identification of Nick Nolte’s Romeo Dallaire stand-in in the earlier film. That aside, Shooting Dogs is sometimes problematic in its focus on white English protagonists and their personal tortures. But what would ever be the “right” way of dealing with Rwanda?

Slave epic

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which opened on Christmas Day, unleashes America’s history of slavery and kicks it into action as a mass-appeal cinematic playground. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave in the pre-Civil war south, suddenly released through the intervention of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a traveling bounty hunter who needs his assistance in identifying a trio of wanted men. After that project goes well, they strike a deal: they’ll work as a team through the winter, then in the spring Schultz will help Django track down and free his wife; she’s owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who relishes the whole business like kids love Christmas, aided by an elderly slave (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s as vehement a defender of the faith as he is. It’s a movie, as they said of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where you cheer the hero and hiss the villains, but presumably without ever fooling yourself that cheering and hissing constitutes an adequate range of responses to the nature of slavery.

I Will Honor Them

Tarantino’s last film, Inglourious Basterds, took a roughly similar approach to World War Two, including depicting a successful assassination attempt on Hitler. Some people perceived that movie as a pernicious form of Holocaust denial, but it seemed to me to capture its basic horror, how the Nazis redefined an entire environment as an ethnic killing machine, better than any gloomy epic recreation. It’s obvious in the new film that the narrative of one triumphant black man isn’t a very representative window on the fundamental reality of slavery, and Tarantino’s kinetic appropriation of its most garish trappings – gloating owners and their thuggish militia, dogs and whips and chains, “Mandingo fights” – doesn’t correspond to conventional notions of honour or respect for this experience. Despite or because of that though, the film conveys the senseless, depraved culture for what it was. This isn’t Gone with the Wind, where slaves might be regarded (if they’re considered at all) as – how to put it – a societal imperfection, but hardly one that negates the prevailing grandeur. Django Unchained leaves nothing to admire – the superficial courtliness of people like Candie is all a symptom of sickness.

At the same time, the film challenges our capacity to hang onto that sense of disgust, by rendering the whole thing so romantically, vividly repellent. Can we be so sure, it might be positing, that we (we the white viewers, that is) wouldn’t have been seduced by all this (and perhaps by extension, that we’re not seduced by parallel injustices now); are we so sure our stance of righteous condemnation is warranted? It’s all the more ambiguous because it’s unclear Tarantino himself isn’t at least somewhat seduced by it. Spike Lee, a long-standing detractor of the director, summed up his view of the film (sight unseen) in the following tweet: “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.It Was A Holocaust.My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.” Rick Groen pointed out in the Globe and Mail: “Tarantino’s approach is so enamoured of the exploitation cinema he emulates, there is a serious risk that noble intentions get smothered in juvenile comedy and cinematic grandstanding.” Tarantino might well turn that around and defend the potential “smothering” as being key to his approach, on the premise that if we’re stimulated into thinking about the morality of his approach, then we’re also prodded into thinking about the essence of slavery and its ongoing legacy, in a way being fed “History with a capital H” (as he put it in an interview in that same paper) likely won’t achieve.

Real Flesh

The problem is that everything I just said might have been anticipated without actually seeing the film, and the actual experience of watching Django Unchained is strangely flat, shockingly so in comparison to Inglourious Basterds. The narrative is largely straightforward compared to most of Tarantino’s earlier films, and contains some of his most cursory writing and storytelling. The earlier stretches are the most straightforwardly enjoyable, coasting along on the tall tale quality of the two bounty hunters, but as the film settles into its primary story, it becomes lumpy and misshapen, and even the regular eruptions of violence seem run-of-the-mill, relying on sub-Peckinpah excesses.

In an interview, Tarantino emphasized the authenticity of his recreation, talking about “shooting those scenes on real the real slave quarters they lived in, knowing there’s real blood in that ground, and real flesh in those trees, and even feeling the spirits that used to be there watching us tell their story.” But this reality singularly fails to make its way into the screen. The settings are oddly affectless, and the direction often lacks texture: Tarantino puts across what the scene requires, but doesn’t seem engaged with the background, or what might lie outside the frame (Foxx and Jackson aside, the other black males in the film are just props, reminding me of how the current season of The Walking Dead was recently criticized for seemingly rationing itself to one such character at a time). All of this, again, could theoretically be defended as an aspect of his dialectical approach, into pushing us to think about the ethics of recreating such a setting – and again, the more seductive the recreation, you might say, then the more potent the ethical challenge. But again, you can entertain these theories without actually going to the trouble of seeing the film.

Greatest in History

 One of Tarantino’s great strengths has always been his imaginative casting, and his ability to transform your perception of undervalued actors, but even that seems to desert him here. Waltz (the great discovery of Basterds) plays much the same character as he did in the earlier film, and Foxx’s Django barely amounts to a coherent character at all. The supporting cast is stuffed with names and faces you might vaguely remember, but seldom to any great impression, as if the director’s thrill of engagement and discovery had become just a mundane habit.

Jackson’s character comes closest to evoking what the film might have been. But he’s ultimately simply lumped in with the villains, leaving it unclear whether Tarantino fully appreciates the tragedy of his creation, and what it says about the insidious power and reach of institutional racism. He recently said in The Star that he’d “like to be remembered as one of the greatest writer/directors in cinema history,” and this bubbly, almost guileless quality is part of his appeal, both as a man and a filmmaker. But it seems increasingly unlikely he’ll get his wish. Ultimately, Django Unchained is the work of an interesting oddity rather than of a major artist, provocative in the way of someone who’d yell “Fire” in a crowded theater, sit back to watch the chaos, and then chatter happily to the cameras about how he orchestrated a grand experiment on the nature of crowds.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Why watch new movies?

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2009)
I find myself musing daily on the so-called “paradox of thrift” – on how our collective economic well-being depends on our willingness to go out and spend money, but our individual interests are surely best served by avoiding unnecessary consumption and saving all we can. Commentators lament the lack of consumer “confidence,” although when applied to such foregone expenditures as electronics and replacements for perfectly functioning automobiles, “recklessness” seems as appropriate a term. This is what worries me most, that the world we’ve built for ourselves isn’t just straining against our best interests; it’s in direct, fearsome contradiction to them.

Forget Your Troubles

I’m just here to talk about movies. But there too, I find myself musing along roughly parallel lines. For those of us who love cinema, the medium’s health surely depends on our getting out and investing in its present and its future. But more and more, I feel our individual interests are best served by its past. By which I mean, although it’s satisfying and in some way relevant to watch new movies, it’s seldom as fulfilling an experience as engaging with the almost innumerable peaks of previous decades. The one big distinction ought to be that only contemporary films can directly illustrate the very specific challenges of the here and now. But as I’ve been writing a lot lately, movies are doing a poor job with that. So, frankly, to take just one of dozens of available examples, Jean-Luc Godard’s diagnosis of the 60’s and 70’s has more to say about the present, albeit by extension, than any of the “serious” films that contended for this year’s Oscars.

Now, of course, that comment overlooks the pleasure of actually going to the movies. One of the year’s few upbeat business stories from the US so far is the 16% attendance increase, making $100 million hits out of such unpromising items as Liam Neeson’s thriller Taken. “It’s not rocket science,” says one commentator. “People want to forget their troubles, and they want to be with other people.” Maybe so. But it seems to me a movie lasting a couple of hours isn’t a very effective way of forgetting one’s troubles, and it’s certainly not a cheap one; as those troubles ratchet up, where easier to save twenty or sixty bucks? So I’d guess this box office surge is partly fluke, partly a function of a culture adapting to a new paradigm, not sustainable for long. I hope I’m wrong, but it’s awfully easy to be right nowadays just by being pessimistic.

Real Art

The communications industry’s current problems (fragmented audiences; plummeting advertising volumes; unsustainable cost structures etc.) have been widely reported. The democratizing impact of technology means almost anyone can make a movie and “distribute” it in the sense of putting it up on YouTube (check out my own opus about my dog, titled Scenes of Pasolini). But real art has mostly always required real funding, and you can’t help being pessimistic about the prospects there. Likewise, many or most of the greatest filmmakers found their creative selves through some (in some cases many) early failures or minor works, a facility that likewise doesn’t seem as available now. No doubt some people will always find a way through all this, but in such a crowded environment, they may be difficult to identify or locate (most serious cineastes’ list of the best current filmmakers would bear little resemblance to popular perception, even of the relatively informed variety). Right now, the film festival is the main window into this activity, and maybe it’s the best there is, but shouldn’t that really be a high-profile showcase (and to some extent a sieve) for a thriving year-round network of films getting shown and engaged with, rather than (as it is for many movies) the only shot they ever get?  

Back To The Future

More and more, I’m tending to view it as a bonus if there’s much good new stuff, and focusing my primary consumption on what already exists. DVD, of course, has been a marvel for making material available. Turner Classic Movies and other networks are a daily treasure trove. These aren’t free, of course, but compared to the cost of movie going, they’re not too damn bad. And if you look at it that way, then even from my fairly random viewing of the last few months, virtually every recent high-profile movie finds itself caught in another’s shadow: 

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Maybe some found it instructive to muse about the consequences of aging backwards; Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 The Passenger is a much more distinctive and yet truly mysterious meditation on living outside the framework set for us.

Doubt Strong characters in a concentrated setting with religious overtones; the application of belief in an environment of pervasive uncertainty. How about sampling ol’ Ingmar Bergman? Most of his movies even contain some Streep-like female acting.

The Reader A reprehensible Nazi past, along with kinky sex? Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist remains startling and daring in a way Stephen Daldry’s film couldn’t imagine. (In other news, also superior to The Reader: just about every even vaguely war-related film ever made).    

Revolutionary Road The repressed underbelly of 50’s suburbia? Why not get it right from the horse’s mouth, via the still amazing, incredibly expressive dramas of Vincente Minnelli or Douglas Sirk, or Richard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet?

The Wrestler Mickey Rourke was great, but the younger washed-up boxer played by Stacy Keach in John Huston’s 1972 Fat City provides a more directly troubling reference point for most of us, and the film as a whole has a much more acute existential agony.

Frost/Nixon is the acid test in a way – it’s interesting enough to watch, but how many people would care about Frost or Nixon if the movie wasn’t placed before them, and it’s tough to glean much from the picture beyond the diversion of the thing itself. So why not seek out great films on subjects or themes that actually interest you? Whatever that may be, I guarantee they’re out there, more of them than you ever imagined.

Well, I could go on of course. And you know, this mindset does sharpen your appreciation of new films that really do seem fresh and directly relevant (Wendy and Lucy) or that at least take a brave approach to previously unexplored subject matter (Che). Obviously it’s easy to diminish contemporary efforts by citing the high-points of past years. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a true or valid exercise. Ultimately, throwing money at the latest box office bauble is more about helping Hollywood handle its own troubles than managing your own. In this particular paradox of thrift, the only rational course is to save your money, and let your reckless neighbours save the industry.

The hell out of love

If I say I find it a bit hard to take Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone entirely seriously, I mean it as a compliment. Unfolding almost like a modern-day fairy tale, it’s built around two bruised characters, each driven by a fraught negotiation between their inner and outer lives. Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is a trainer of killer whales, performing in the Antibes. She meets Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a single father with a difficult past, during a blow-up at a nightclub where he’s working as a bouncer. Soon afterwards, there’s an accident, and Stephanie’s legs are both severed above the knee. Some months later, out of hospital but depressed and barely functioning, she calls Ali. Their relationship zigs and zags, becoming sexual but not always clearly a love story, or one that can seemingly reach a stable outcome.

Rust and Bone

Audiard’s last film, Un prophete, was a prison drama, as narratively meaty as The Godfather, with lots of muscular confrontations and interactions, and extremely intimate, albeit sporadic, violence. Rust and Bone occasionally occupies similar territory, in particular through Ali’s increasing immersion in unregulated fighting. But the physicality broadens out here into a wider, almost metaphysical preoccupation with sensation and contour – of bodies, relationships, souls. Ali’s almost overwhelmingly solidity (Schoenarts wouldn’t need much digital tweaking to cut it as a cartoon supervillain) enters into a visual dance with Stephanie’s beautiful but maimed body (and even though this – at various points depicted in swimsuits, or completely naked -  is a product of digital tweaking, the film would be an answered prayer for a certain kind of fetishist), with the overwhelming bulk of the orca – darkly mysterious for all their willingness to tolerate certain human whims – and at times, with interspersed patterns of dark floating particles, suggesting a return to the elemental.

Un prophete’s major impact, in my mind, lay in its implications for a Europe in which the old guard’s power becomes increasingly hollow and formal, a vestige of past glories, plainly unsuited to the complexities of the new economy. This concern carries over into Rust and Bone too, through an unstinting and often refreshingly specific portrayal of what it takes for Ali, and his sister with whom he lodges, to put a life together. But the film’s main preoccupations lie elsewhere. In an interview, Audiard talked about theclash between realism and stylization” that governed the writing, elaborating: “You had constantly to be looking for an equilibrium. If it's too realistic, it's boring. If it's too stylized, you don't believe it." His co-writer added: "What attracted us to the short stories (by Canadian author Craig Davidson) was the universe they described, a universe of catastrophe – a world where people just have their body left to sell. The characters were normal people, but their destiny is magnified by accidents."

The Love Story as Hero

When I say I can’t take the film entirely seriously, I mean something like this, that I could imagine Audiard deliberately sketching out a narrative that might easily be mocked for relative predictability (and indeed, that’s what some reviewers did) and then setting out step by step to enhance, challenge, or thwart our perception of it – in the ways I’ve mentioned already, or by leaving out the expected connective tissue, or simply by making his film shimmer to a point that we float on something close to pure sensation. The comment about too much realism being “boring,” taken objectively, is a bit strange for such a director, but speaks to Audiard’s desire on this occasion to set aside seriousness (at least of the potentially strained variety) and  to create a unique filmic space, at once identifiable and familiar, and yet somehow fantastic and ungraspable.. His co-writer comments that when we were writing Rust and Bone, we said the hero this time would be the love story itself” – another comment that doesn’t make much sense if taken literally, but by the same token warns us against taking anything in the film too much at face value.

I was unenthusiastic a few weeks ago about David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, and that movie occurs to me again as a point of contrast. Despite Russell’s status in some places as a “master of chaos,” his film feels wearily pre-programmed and suffused in Hollywoodian notions of pain, confession, seduction, and human interaction generally; there’s never much sense that he’s inspired by his actors, except insofar as they have what it takes to deliver his archly clever dialogue. Rust and Bone (the title of which, by the way, is meant to evoke “the flavour of being punched in the face...the blood filling the mouth, the splintered jaw”) in contrast has nothing that sticks in my mind as clever dialogue – Ali couldn’t express himself much more simply, and Stephanie, we assume, holds back accordingly. But consider a small example, about halfway through the film, after Stephanie has obtained artificial legs, and seems to derive increasing pleasure not just from the contrast with being in a wheelchair, but from the opportunity they allow her to create a persona – it’s notable that she often dresses to emphasize the metal struts rising out of her shoes, even though they could easily be covered. Just as part of the regular give and take, Ali calls her “Robocop,” and although it’s not much of a joke, her pleasure in it is palpable, as a confirmation of an identity that doesn’t deny her new reality, but isn’t limited by it.

Marion Cotillard

At this moment, and at many others in the film, Marion Cotillard is simply indispensable – I don’t know if there’s a current lead actress who better embodies and deploys what they call star quality, although I suppose she may be too mysterious and tough-minded to consistently capture mass audiences. In one of her first films, Arnaud Desplechin’s 1996 My Sex Life…, she appeared only in a brief flashback, naked and with no dialogue, as an object in another character’s recollection of an experience of overwhelming beauty: it’s always stuck in my mind as a transcendent moment. She’s moved way beyond that now of course, but Audiard might well have been inspired by that memory, his delight in observing her seems so intense. Except that he brings equal delight and absorption to all else, constantly leaving us unsure whether our feet are on the ground, or levitating off it, or whether we’re even still in possession of them.

“The most heroic thing you can do is tell someone that you love them,” he said in one of those same interviews. “Love can beat the hell out of you. But I can also beat the hell out of love.” Once again, it sounds like a great string of aphorisms, but is it even semi-valid, does it actually mean anything? God grant us all a stable enough equilibrium that we might one day have time to reflect on it.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Making it

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2009)
The new film Sunshine Cleaning isn’t a big deal, but it’s an honest portrayal of getting by in hard times, entertaining and moderately enlightening without being frivolous or preachy. The raw materials are highly familiar. Virtually every critic pointed out the filmmakers’ apparently overt desire to replicate the success of Little Miss Sunshine (see repetition in title, and Alan Arkin playing another flavourful grandfather). The focus on two sisters, one always having to take care of the other, heavily recalls Curtis Hanson’s In Her Shoes (which I know itself reminded me heavily at the time of something else…) And so on for much else in the movie.

Sunshine Cleaning

Amy Adams plays Rose, a former cheerleader, now working for a cleaning service, bringing up her son alone, having an affair with a married cop. He tunes her into the lucrative crime scene clean-up business – removing bloodstains, organic matter: the dirty job someone has to do but no one ever thinks about. She pulls in her younger, disruptive sister Norah (Emily Blunt) and things take off quickly, although they only learn the basics along the way (for example, that you can’t merely throw everything into a dumpster). As you’d imagine, there are reversals; as you’d also imagine, they mostly get by them.

The film starts with a suicide in a gun store, and the residue of past tragedies marks it throughout. In one scene a bewildered old woman waits for them outside the house where her husband killed himself; the inside is full of post-it notes bearing day-to-day instructions he’d written to himself, presumably trying to ward off Alzheimer’s. There doesn’t seem to be much mobility – Rose still runs into girls from high school, usually doing better than she is, but living in the kind of prettified excess that we know embodies the tapped-out American consumer. It’s a scrupulous film about these kinds of things, and convincing in such things as Rose’s approach to her affair (and, for that matter, in the camera’s approach to her as an attractive woman, but in a way bearing no sign of Hollywood make-over).

In a way, the film’s trajectory represents the more “creative,” self-sufficient society we’re often told represents our best way period – through a bit of luck and application, you find a niche and move into it. One worries the number and variety of these niches is much smaller than the hopes attached to them (how many people really make a good living selling things on Ebay, or from developing their own websites?), and the film – although obviously written and filmed a while ago – taps precisely into the credit crunch’s threat to heartland entrepreneurism: good ideas need financing, maybe a lot of it.

Unpretentious Integrity

All of this is still uncommon enough in mainstream cinema that Sunshine Cleaning projects an unpretentious integrity. I also liked director Christine Jeffs’ (she’s best known for the rather grim Gwyneth Paltrow movie about Sylvia Plath) subtly assertive approach to her female protagonists (both very well acted by Adams and Blunt). At the end, Rose may be on the verge of entering into a new romance, but the film couldn’t present that much more offhandedly; Norah’s sexuality, meanwhile, seems somewhat ambiguous. Either way, the film seems to avoid the common trap, as someone (I forget who) put it, of suggesting that even strong and capable women only find their fulfillment in the eyes of a man.

In other ways, the film is pretty minor. The writing isn’t that bracing. Arkin seems mostly to be doing shtick, only tenuously related to the rest of the film (albeit pleasant enough to watch). The subplot about the sisters’ deceased mother (also reminiscent of In Her Shoes) pumps up the renewal/ redemption aspect perhaps a bit too much. But you still come out way ahead. In the end, Rose’s commercial prospects are on a momentary upturn, but only by ramping up the personal risk. Still, things being what they are, it’s more promising than her earlier ambition, to become…wait for it…a real estate agent). Meanwhile, Norah is on the road, and it’s tempting to think that Wendy & Lucy takes up the story from there.

Sin nombre

Still, Sunshine Cleaning is much more optimistic than not; it generally (albeit cautiously) supports the premise that America is large and diverse enough to afford an answer to almost every personal crisis; or failing that, remains better than most alternatives. Sin nombre, directed by Cary Fukunaga, has lots of momentum and energy, but the only even vague prospects, it seems, lie to the north. A family from Honduras heads up into Mexico, aiming ultimately towards family in New Jersey. In Chiapas, Mexico, a young gang member falls out with the other members. The narratives cross paths, murderously; now the gang refugee travels with the Hondurans, but pursued by his former brothers, seeking blood revenge.

The film is undeniably gripping; it’s a much more kinetic piece of cinema than Sunshine Cleaning. Anthropologically, it’s fascinating at every step, whether illuminating mass deprivation (the familiar juxtaposition of natural beauty increasingly receding from layers of squalor and sprawl), the grasping at faint hope, or gang habitats and rituals. This last element, though, also embodies reservations about the high dependence on melodrama and manipulation. The lead performances feel authentic and deeply felt, but the movie does feature a lot of unlikely, big-screen-worthy behaviour and a lot of sleazy, strutting violence. It’s impossible, from this perspective, to know how much this reflects an outsider’s quasi-romantic impositions on a sadder and duller reality (Fukunaga is an American), but it’s hard not to have suspicions. In this sense, the film falls under the same broad umbrella as Slumdog Millionaire, although in comparison with that picture’s irresponsible excesses it feels like the work of Robert Bresson.

The film only provides the briefest glimpse of America at the end – an anonymous big box landscape that might as well be on the moon compared to what we’ve seen previously. Sin nombre doesn’t damn South America exactly, but it doesn’t spend much time illuminating its virtues either – throughout there’s a feeling of heat and claustrophobia and confusion and threat; a volcano either spewing people out or swallowing them up. Certainly the contrast with American urban commercialization is striking, but it’s also easy; it’s disappointing not to come away with a more piercing aftertaste. Still, we can again provide our own extrapolation, that with much work and relative luck, the journey of Sin nombre might connect somewhere with that of Rose in Sunshine Cleaning, and however temporarily, her problems would seem like victories, the kind of bourgeois worries available only to those nearer than it feels to the top of the global pyramid.

Searching for Christmas movies

We were in Edmonton over Christmas, and we planned to go to a movie on Christmas Day with my mother in law as usual, but we couldn’t agree on anything. We nixed Les Miserables on our behalf; we nixed Django Unchained on her behalf; she surprised us a little by expressing no interest in seeing Barbra Streisand; and since hell wasn’t actually freezing over, there was no need to see The Hobbit. In the end we all agreed on A Late Quartet, but it meant we had to wait until Boxing Day, because it was in an old downtown theatre that did the civilized thing and took a day off. My nephew came with us, and because of weather conditions (I guess I lied about hell not freezing over), it looked for a while like we were going to miss the start of the movie. So I asked him what he’d think of a Plan B by which we went to see Hitchcock in the same theatre, which started a bit later, and he surprised me by saying he’d already seen it; when I asked what he thought of it, he said the first half was much better than the second. On further questioning, it transpired he was thinking of the old Will Smith movie Hitch. I like my nephew very much, but this story tells you something about why I’m glad I belong to my generation rather than his.

A Late Quartet

Anyway, in the end we made it to A Late Quartet (which is just about playing its final notes on the Toronto circuit) with a few seconds to spare, and I think my nephew might have ended up enjoying it more than I did, although this might be in large part because it’s the kind of thing he’d never usually see, whereas in broad terms it’s the kind of thing I always seem to be seeing. Directed by Yaron Zilberman, it depicts a long-standing and esteemed string quartet, suddenly in jeopardy when its cellist (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease; this opens up other tensions within group members, some of them long-simmering, others new. In broad terms, I suppose the notion is that the human equilibrium that keeps the four together is as intricate, and potentially fallible, as the technical demands of the music, but whereas they nurture the latter through painstaking rehearsal and attention to detail (possibly to the extent of stifling the sense of risk and excitement), the former develops much more haphazardly and incompletely.

At one point, Walken’s character talks of the “transcendent moments” that push through a performance’s faults and imperfections, but A Late Quartet is disappointingly short on such moments – if there are any at all, they’re provided by Walken himself. The film is intriguing when it studies the contours of the professional musician’s existence, but it’s contrived, overwritten and/or melodramatic in dealing with most else. And while the inherently resonant Walken might be striking some unique notes, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener might as well have been directed to give their canonical “standard” performances. If I’d seen the movie in November when it came out in Toronto, I’d have been quite disappointed. But these are the three things I know you need to do at Christmas: (1) put your normal expectations aside; (2) focus on the glass half full, and (3) keep in mind that as long as you avoided having to sit through The Hobbit, you’re ahead.


The following weekend, back in the city of choice, we returned to the cinematic life to which we’re accustomed, and went to the Lightbox to see Christian Petzold’s Barbara. Barbara is a doctor in 1980’s East Germany, compelled to work in a small town for reasons that aren’t fully explained; she’s subject to constant surveillance and frequent searches, and maintains a self-protective distance from her surroundings and colleagues. Despite the difficulties, she occasionally manages to meet up with a lover from the west, who devises a plan for her to defect. At the same time, she gradually makes connections, in particular with her immediate supervisor, and with a troubled patient.

With superb, almost subliminal precision, Petzold makes Barbara a compelling study of lives lived under perverse constraints. The film shows little of the State at work, and spends no time on the merits of the governing ideology, but it conveys a constant sense of inner siege, all the more powerful for withholding its details. Near the beginning, her supervisor talks about Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, casting it as a study in perception and composition, and thus alerting us to the film’s strategy. Right afterwards, he acknowledges his monologue might have been unwelcome: in this environment, every utterance is potentially suspect for one reason or another, every act of apparent kindness potentially duplicitous.

At Last I Am Free

However, Petzold doesn’t overdo the greyness of things – there’s still some beauty in this world, both natural and manmade. And he doesn’t present the west as a perfect alternative – when her lover tells Barbara she won’t need to work over there, because he makes enough money, we sense her choice as one between competing pressures and strictures, not merely between confinement and freedom. In one of the film’s best scenes, she meets a younger woman, also the lover of someone from the west, a man who gives her gifts and says he’ll marry her; the exchange only lasts a few minutes, but is remarkable in conveying a tangle of excitement, fear, capitulation and awareness. And what about Petzold’s decision to run the closing credits over Chic’s At Last I am Free – a very witty evocation of the relative texture of Western culture at the time!

It’s unclear what degree of freedom Barbara actually attains at the end. The decision she makes, if less subtly handled, might be regarded as one of those “triumph of the human spirit” machinations in which the emotional and moral payoff transcends the possible physical toll. But Petzold leaves the final accounting ambiguous, as it presumably must always be in such an environment. Overall, Barbara is one of the year’s most satisfying pictures, and I hope my nephew gets to see it some time. It sounds like his favourite foreign film might currently be the recent Little White Lies, but that movie seems to me almost as contrived and calculated as any Hollywood “product,” with its Frenchness providing only the most trivial layer of difference. Oddly, he thought Little White Lies might have been directed by Jean-Luc Godard, which for an art movie aficionado ranks with that Seinfeld episode where someone thinks Dustin Hoffman was in Star Wars. But it’s endearing that he even cares, and (Christmas wish coming up) I truly hope he manages soon to identify and love the immense difference between the two.