Sunday, February 24, 2013

Christmas movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2005

 The Aviator
After the substantial disaster of Gangs of New York, I arrived at Martin Scorsese’s new film with some apprehension, but came away satisfied. Not that the film, an epic glide through Howard Hughes’ young adulthood, adds substantially to Scorsese’s oeuvre. The character has an intensity and obsessiveness approaching that of Robert De Niro’s classic antiheros, but Scorsese no longer seems sufficiently preoccupied (or self-aware, who knows)  to tap such classic feverish stylization; Leonardo DiCaprio is quite excellent as Hughes, but even at his most dysfunctional he’s far from the danger of a Travis Bickle. And while Scorsese can still put together stunning sequences, and dazzle you with his assurance and cinematic imagination, it’s all working here to a much more mellow end. Oddly enough, with its breeziness and romantic notion of flight, the film reminded me of DiCaprio’s last movie, Spielberg’s Catch me if you can, more than of Scorsese’s own films.
I think general audiences may be confused at the way the film plunges itself into Hollywood folklore – Hughes’ swashbuckling direction of the aerial epic Hell’s Angels; cameos by Gwen Stefani and Jude Law as Jean Harlow and Errol Flynn; a long treatment of the romance with Katharine Hepburn. Cate Blanchett plays Hepburn evocatively enough, but the film doesn’t convey much sense of how that relationship worked. And its trajectory into increasing madness and political machinations is distinctly familiar. Ultimately though, the film feels young and vigorous where Gangs was old and overwhelmed, and it’s never dull, but it doesn’t dispel the now long-established feeling that Scorsese’s best and most fitting context has been closed off, never to reopen.

The Phantom of the Opera
I love musical theatre, but I’ve never seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom on stage. Actually, the only Lloyd Webber show I’ve seen is Cats, the charm of which completely eluded me. So I can’t comment on the adequacy of Joel Schumacher’s film as an adaptation. My sense though is that it’s probably as good a job as could possibly have been done. The reader will detect a “but” coming, and here it is: the material seems to me inherently unsuitable for cinema, consisting of lumbering songs delivered in static settings of minimal dramatic consequence. Underneath all the dramatic bluster, this is thin stuff, and Schumacher’s ornamentation and filigree can do nothing to disguise that, especially since his cast is so lackluster. I don’t want to limit the possibilities of musical cinema, but the genre’s magic surely lies in the translation of inner emotional states into external movement; a classic moment like the title performance of Singin’ in the Rain strikes a symbiosis of performer and song and choreography and camera into an almost transfixing expression of heedless joy. To say the least, Schumacher’s film has nothing like that going on – the lousy songs, lousy performers and lousy overall conception don’t even fuse into an overall coherent lousiness.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Wes Anderson, director of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, takes a fall with this turgid take-off on Jacques Cousteau, starring Bill Murray as the captain of a sea-faring unit that travels the world and makes movies about it, but has now fallen on hard times. The diverse cast includes Owen Wilson as the pilot who may be his long lost son, Cate Blanchett as a TV reporter and Anjelica Huston as his wife. The film looks pretty much like Anderson’s previous films – colourful and well-mounted and with a liking for deliberately flat stagings including actors who look right into the camera; it’s never naturalistic but when the style works it strikes a synthesis between an evocative fictional world and cinematic knowingness. But in The Life Aquatic the approach resembles complacency, if not arrogance. The plotting is lazy and inconsequential, the characters are thinly conceived, and the film’s comic momentum sputters completely, fueled by deadpan tableaux and non-sequiturs which sometimes work through simple incongruity but absolutely never impress.

Bill Murray has been on a good run lately, but this film shows how his dryness can become merely dull, if not smug. The Zissou character surely has potential – with has-been status threatening, he’s tilting into aggression and empty self-mythologizing – but there’s no sign that either Murray or Anderson ever thought about this in coherent terms. The mythmaking is signaled further by the film’s creation of digitally created, deliberately too-cute-to-be-true fish and sea creatures, giving form to Zissou’s idealistic vision of his engagement with the ocean; a final sequence where the cast loads onto a tiny submarine and journeys to the ocean floor is shot like a disembodied dream. But even such relative highpoints are only interesting in theory rather than in practice. I called it arrogant because it’s manifestly obvious how Anderson overstates his understanding of and appeal to the audience, assuming that his idiosyncratic preoccupations are of self-evident interest to the rest of us.

Flight of the Phoenix

This is a remake of Robert Aldrich’s 1965 film about a desert plane crash; when the survivors realize there’s no hope of rescue, they build a new plane out of the remains of the old one. I haven’t seen that movie for a long time (although when I was growing up in the UK I think it played on the BBC every third week, rotating with The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarone) but for all the limitations of the time I think it had a gritty authenticity missing from John Moore’s new version. The new version has a terrific visceral rendition of the plane crash  - sitting a few rows from the front, it felt like I was going down with them – but after that its adherence to contemporary norms of pacing and slickness means that it never develops much sense of heat and fatigue, or of fear and hunger, or of time passing, or of the sheer unlikelihood of the whole enterprise. This is summed up in the moment when the finished Phoenix is completely buried in a sandstorm; momentarily losing hope, they then resolve to dig it out – and the movie cuts to the excavated, cleaned-up plane being tugged to the start of the runway.

The movie’s conveyor-belt quality is confirmed further by its impeccably B-movie cast – Dennis Quaid, Miranda Otto, Giovanni Ribisi, the guy from TV’s House, a couple of rappers, and no one else you’ve ever heard of (the original had James Stewart). None of them makes any impact- the unimaginative use of Quaid here compared to the current In Good Company (review coming next week) tells you a lot about the high versus the low end of mainstream filmmaking. Still, for all that, the film’s clunky momentum means it never comes close to being boring, and at the risk of seeming like so much Christmas viewing eroded my standards down to nothing, watching it the day after The Life Aquatic, I found its lack of pretentiousness distinctly refreshing.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Gregg Araki

I first saw Gregg Araki’s film The Living End on one of my first trips to New York, in 1993 I think. I was living in Bermuda at that time – a pleasant place obviously, but something of a cultural wasteland, and I got into the habit of going to New York and cramming in plays and movies. Everything I went to see on these trips had a heightened magic to it; movies that might have seemed innocuous elsewhere drew added electricity from everything about New York that exceeded my grasp – the pace, the textures, the resonances, the resources. The Living End , about two HIV-positive men on a road trip, would never have seemed innocuous anywhere, but given my heightened state, it was just about my emblematic viewing experience of the period – way beyond anything I’d lived or been educated in, and seeing it in New York made me feel kinetically relevant.

That was Araki’s first movie to gain significant attention, and I stuck with him for a while after that: one of the first reviews I ever wrote in this paper, in 1997 (truly, it’s been that long) was of his Nowhere. I no longer have any direct memory of the film, but my review records the prominent role of a “tacky-looking green lizard-like monster that turns up here and there and apparently zaps various characters into oblivion.” Despite this possible handicap, I liked the movie overall, saying it “has the feeling of a crazed prophet you don’t quite want to ignore.” Araki’s subsequent work toned down a bit on the “crazed prophet” angle, and he hadn’t occupied much of a place in my mind over most of the last decade.

But then I realized that without consciously planning it, I’d watched five of his films (that’s half of them) in the last couple of years, which amounts to more time than I’ve spent on some of my official favourite filmmakers. This included revisiting The Living End, which remains an amazing spectacle, insisting on the possibility – indeed, the necessity - of giving appropriate weight to AIDS as a death sentence while still asserting and expressing one’s sexuality. The film still feels gloriously risky – Araki labels it as an “irresponsible film” – and despite all the progress made since then toward the popular acceptance of gay images, it still stirs you toward action, almost convincing you of the need to reset the whole conversation.

His next film The Doom Generation was another road movie, this time with a girl and two guys, and announced itself as a “heterosexual film,” but it was hardly as simple a contrast as that suggests. It’s a heterosexuality that keeps pushing boundaries, veering dangerously between tenderness and contempt, its natural desire toward experimentation (including dissolving the homo/hetero boundary) thwarted by the world’s violence and general crappiness (junk food plays a prominent role in the film). In the last scene, it’s down to a girl and one guy – the desired happy outcome of many genre movies of course, but seeming here like a total, numbing defeat. It’s a terrifically feisty little movie, but unashamedly forged out of that crappiness I mentioned, and thus all but inviting the unwary to confuse the medium and the message – a recurring limitation on the serious acceptance of Araki’s work.
Mysterious Skin

Despite what I said about dissolving the boundary, it was a bit of a surprise that Araki had a relationship in the late 90’s with Canadian actress Kathleen Robertson; during that period she starred in his romantic comedy Splendor, one of his most disposable efforts (since they broke up, according to Wikipedia, he’s “mainly dated men”). He lost several years after that to a failed TV pilot, before making Mysterious Skin in 2004, contrasting an unapologetic young gay hustler with another boy from the same town who believes his life to have been thrown off course through an alien abduction; the film gradually works its way to a revelation about their shared formative experiences. Roger Ebert called it “at once the most harrowing and, strangely, the most touching film I have seen about child abuse,” and Araki forces us into chillingly contradictory responses, daring for instance to present the hustler’s memories of the baseball coach who abused him as all but magical (the film’s title perfectly captures the squirmy kind of bliss that runs through it).

He then made Smiley Face, an amiable comedy with Anna Faris as a hopeless stoner drifting through a day of inadvertent larceny and property destruction (including an original copy of Das Kapital). The character’s inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality dictates the film’s course – it’s serenely, almost supernaturally non-judgmental, but ultimately seems to glorify in merely having been a “weird ride” in no particular direction. Looked at conventionally, it’s a step backward, but why would Araki have endorsed, let alone embodied, the conventional trajectory?


His most recent film, Kaboom, seems at first like a relatively straightforward teenage sex comedy (although with an infinitely gayer sensibility than the norm) then extends ever-outward until it’s ultimately about nothing less than the end of the world.  It’s rather impressive how everything in the film turns out to have a precise explanation – there’s always been a distinct old-fashioned streak, albeit pretty well-hidden, to the director’s meticulousness about structure – and if all the sex talk initially seems a bit juvenile, this again comes to seem strategic, as a challenge to the willful blindness that constitutes the “mature” governing ideology. On the other hand, yet again, a lot of the film might potentially seem juvenile, cartoonish, too amiable to be taken seriously. But on the other other hand, would an immature artistic sensibility take such a tender approach to the all-powerful cult leader who may have ended up destroying everything, seeing him less as an evil genius than the all-time screw-up, a sad figure who ran out on his family, lost touch, created a personal myth and infrastructure that doesn’t meet anyone’s needs, and then colossally lost control?

The Bell Lightbox showed all his films last year, noting in the program that “his films have never really been embraced by the majority of the gay and lesbian community…(but at the same time) critics have been little better, if not worse.” Araki is in his early fifties now, and it doesn’t show a bit, unless you think the peppiness of Smiley Face and Kaboom constitutes too strenuous an insistence of youth. It’s hard to imagine him ever attaining conventional respectability, and difficult to decide how comfortable he’d be with it. You might fleetingly wish he’d take straighter aim at a major topical subject, but at the same time you’re aware that would only simplify his ongoing ideological critique. He’s generated one of the most constructively provocative bodies of work in American cinema, and you don’t need to go to New York to feel the truth of that.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Corruption and Blues

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2009)
One problem with movies about organized crime, if you’re not part of that scene in real life, is that it’s hard to gauge their authenticity; often, of course, their main reference points seem to be other movies, and if it’s not that, then it’s usually a stylized minimalism often seeming to be constructed mainly on the imperative of not referencing other movies. Certainly the gangster life is disproportionately covered in movies compared to most others; and while these films frequently claim social relevance, they’re usually relevant (if at all) in the same narrow way.


Matteo Garrone’s Italian film Gomorra belongs broadly to the category; incorporating five intertwined plot lines, it examines the reach and impact of the Neapolitan Camorra. Some of the behaviour seems familiar too – the strutting, preening, swaggering, gun waving. But Garrone escapes the genre quicksand, in part by showing how cultural images and clich├ęs bamboozle the criminals as much as anyone else. A group of overweight gangsters, pampering themselves in the spa to get sleek and tanned, are suddenly blown away. A couple of perilously immature guys who think they’ve absorbed the ghost of Al Pacino in Scarface are obviously heading for a correction. There’s little sense in the film that much of anyone is getting seriously rich (except maybe a businessman who builds his waste disposal practice on circumventing environmental regulations, but then business occupies a different echelon, right?)

Around this, Garrone’s portrayal of the environment is detailed, convincing, and utterly grim. One of the main hubs of the action is a frightful, decaying apartment complex of the kind that might have represented some post-war urban planner’s shallow dream of a fusion between living and public space, with walkways and courtyards and open-air swimming pools. Now it merely evokes the geometry of hell. The police are mentioned, but seldom seen – the main social safety net is the Camorra itself, doling out (inadequate) weekly benefits for past services rendered and ongoing loyalty (there’s not much of a sense of what if any legitimate work goes on). In one scene we see a wedding party marching along one of the covered walkways; even such a life transition can’t escape the oppression (it sadly contrasts a brief scene where the businessman and his helper visit Venice, and comment on how all life’s rituals take place on the water).

Working Boots

The film overflows with intimations of human and toxic waste. The businessman, trucking hundreds of poisonous canisters into landfills, explains he merely helps people get things done within a stifling regulatory system. In the last shot, we watch corpses carried away. There’s barely a “beautiful” shot in the movie. And Garrone explicitly tags globalization as a big piece of the engine. Everything costs double since the Euro came in, says one woman (negotiating a higher price for leasing out one of those landfills).

Perhaps the most intriguing of the storylines has a tailor, working for a factory partly financed by dirty money, secretly providing lessons at night to a Chinese competitor. On the other side, the assembled sweatshop staff greets him like a king, and he’s well paid for it, but of course it’s a perfect capsule for how the West only wins the short term game by giving away up the long term one. Near the end, he stares at a TV showing Scarlett Johansson on a red carpet in one of his creations; a very direct connection to the good life, but so distant as almost to mock his own – still, at least his life goes on. Other strands follow an aging functionary who delivers the mob welfare program, and a kid taking the first steps into deeper involvement (and it’s implied, a very short likely existence from there). One of the film’s minor virtues is in not saddling all this with the kind of over-plotting (coincidences; inter-connections) tending to mark such structures; the links here are more implicit, and of course more devastating for that.

Gomorra’s virtues are in the working boots category: it’s powerful, well judged, and relevant. This is also to say, it’s not quite transformative. We should be severely worried about escalating urban hellholes and about increasing gang crime, but it’s not yet so bad that fixating on the latter doesn’t still represent a choice of sensationalized local threats over monumental systemic ones. After coming out of Gomorra, there’s not much you can do other than shake your head and hope it never happens to you...but at least that’s a plausible hope for most of us, for now anyway.

Cadillac Records

Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records came out in December in the US, but only had a few scattered repertory screenings here during February; it’s now on DVD. It’s the story of Chicago’s Chess Records, founded by Leonard Chess, a Polish immigrant. Seemingly oblivious (at least in this telling) to colour barriers, Chess started out with Muddy Waters, hit it really big with Chuck Berry, and provided Etta James her first big platform (as well as, perhaps, his secret affection).

The movie, for the most part, functions in affectionate tribute mode, moving smoothly through twenty years or so in just an hour and three quarters. The music scene always having been what it is, there’s womanizing and overdosing and violent scuffling and premature dying; Martin treats it mostly matter-of-factly, as the price of revolution. At the start, the records are labeled “race music” – the crossover is Berry, inventing a new era as effortlessly as comics fire off one-liners. Even after becoming famous, he sleeps in his car on tour to avoid patronizing segregated motels; his concerts have a rope down the middle to separate the black audience from the equally enthusiastic white one, until it breaks down. This is perhaps more about feeling good than about meticulous history, but the movie occasionally hits harder; a scene of harmonica pioneer Little Walter getting beaten up by the cops couldn’t be much more in-your-face.

It’s surprising the movie didn’t get more play if only for its cast, especially since it has Beyonce Knowles as Etta James, a little bulked up and earthier than usual both in her singing and her acting (as James, she sings the same At Last she memorably sang the day of Obama’s inauguration). Mos Def makes a colourful Chuck Berry; Adrien Brody as Chess, though, embodies the movie’s blander aspects.

But maybe that’s useful, in service of an ongoing suggestion of various manipulations behind the scenes; royalties being diverted from one performer to another, and a paternalistic attitude by Chess (preferring to provide the talent with cars and perks rather than actual cash) perhaps hiding some murkier bookkeeping. It kind of makes you miss the days when a little friendly corruption might be the price of genuine social and cultural progress.

Bad medicine

Looking back at my various reviews of Steven Soderbergh’s past films, I find myself constantly drawn to the same kind of caveat, even when I’m being generally positive. On Contagion; “The problem – although it doesn’t feel like a big one while you’re watching it – is that, not for the first time with Soderbergh, you miss the wildness and revelation that characterizes art rather than instruction.” On Magic Mike: I’m sure Soderbergh likes the (film-making) process well enough, but his work never communicates the sheer grand/kooky relish of (say) Paul Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.” His new film Side Effects generated similar musings from others – such as Scott Macdonald on the Toronto Standard website; “Watching it, I had no idea why Soderbergh had made it—he seems to have no feelings about the material, or about the people onscreen. But then, has he ever? For an anointed auteur, Soderbergh is strangely passionless. He may dig the medium of movies—you get that sense from the interviews he does and from his DVD commentaries—but his approach to making them hasn't progressed beyond workmanlike. He seems to know everything about how to make a film, nothing about why.”

Side Effects

The problem is potentially confounded on Side Effects by what strikes many observers as an unconvincing series of narrative developments, perhaps inexplicable except as an illustration of Soderbergh’s underlying cluelessness. Here’s Macdonald again: “If (Soderbergh had) cared more about the material, he’d presumably have realized what a letdown the film’s latter half is, and maybe even encouraged (his screenwriter) to rethink it. In a way, it’s he who’s the zombie, not the (Rooney) Mara character. He wanders from film to film, going through the motions, unaware his heart no longer beats.” Since Soderbergh claims Side Effects will be his last film, at least for a long while, you might even see the film’s spectacular meltdown – if such it is – as a deliberate flourish of self-destruction: the zombie finally regains some flicker of self-awareness, and to cut off his agony, throws himself into a furnace from which there’s no return.

On this occasion though, I find myself in the pro-Soderbergh camp: Side Effects isn’t perhaps the most major of works in the scheme of things, but it seems to me entirely coherent, and one of his most quietly sustained social analyses. Rooney Mara plays a young New York woman, whose husband is released from prison after serving four years for insider trading. While he tries to get something new going, her behaviour starts becoming erratic, including driving her car into a wall for no apparent reason. This brings her into the orbit of a psychiatrist (Jude Law), who prescribes a series of pharmaceuticals, initially with mixed results, and then seemingly triggering a horrible consequence; the psychiatrist’s attempts to understand this event, and to redeem the consequences for his own life, drive the film’s second half.

Desolate landscape

Magic Mike, behind its flashy trappings, demonstrated an unusual specificity (by Hollywood standards anyway) about money, and Side Effects continues this interest, first by focusing on the husband, and then on the psychiatrist – stretched by the demands of an out-of—work wife, a new home, and a stepson in private school, all of which might contribute to emphasizing client satisfaction over clear-sighted medical analysis. He also signs up as a consultant to a large pharmaceutical company in a drug trial, which pays him another $50,000, and S0derbergh deftly evokes the interplay between the corporations and the practitioners, where it’s in everyone’s interest to keep product lines stuffed and flowing, and assessments of ultimate benefit become hopelessly murky – especially for broadly defined conditions like depression or anxiety, where the maladies might be as much social, or definitional, as medical (if the distinction even makes sense). As Soderbergh put it in an interview: “If you've got a company that's based on the premise of getting a lot of people to take a pill, I would think you'd spend a lot of time trying to convince people that there's a problem that will be solved by this pill.”

It seems to me that Side Effects’ later narrative evolution works as the logically chilling extension of this diagnosis. In an environment lacking any clear ethics or broadly accepted standards, and where the financial motivations and pressures are cranked up to an untenable level, we can only expect breakdown – of family structures, of traditional duties of care, of how things are meant to work. The film’s ultimate “reveal” isn’t just another tacked-on twist – it’s the laying out of a misdeed having its roots in multiple intertwining transgressions, all of them arising from the distorted expectations and relationships it explores earlier on. And whereas in a more conventional thriller, we might discover the truth at the point of a gun or a knife, there’s no ramped-up melodrama here, no exultation as the good and bad guys are separated out. The ending presents a reestablished family unit on one side, and then a final image of incarceration on the other, but with little sense that this constitutes any particular return of order, or operation of justice. Having charted the desolation of the landscape, Soderbergh doesn’t pretend there’s any magical way out of it.

American dream

There’s a displaced quality to Side Effects which supports the film’s unforced eeriness. Mara has a recessive, ethereal quality that’s hard to get a hold of; as her husband, Soderbergh casts the movie’s most conventionally charismatic actor, Channing Tatum, and then withholds him almost entirely from the foreground. The other two main characters, both psychiatrists, are played by British actors, Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones, both very restrained and low-key, extending the sense of something missing at the centre.  Law’s character talks in one scene about how he came to America from Britain because it allowed him to interact with patients as part of a collaborative problem-solving process rather than one of just treating an illness, suggesting the broader untruths in the American dream and its global call.

After all, the movie’s analysis could apply to any number of institutional subjects: the corrupting impact of money in politics; the erosion of education, take your pick. As I said, I don’t know if I’d categorize Side Effects as a major picture – for all its points of interest, you can only enthuse about it so much. But it seems to me one of Soderbergh’s more lasting films, not least because the earlier caveats I mentioned – about his lack of wildness and revelation, or of kooky relish, or of passion – largely become the point here. It’s a film about all our malaises, real or imagined, created or imposed, and how they position us to be played for suckers, whether by the structures we should trust or by the people who claim to love us. If he really is going to stop after this, the film communicates pretty well why his heart’s not in it anymore.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Contrarian views

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2006)
A couple of acclaimed movies this week, and a few others that were commercially and critically dead on arrival. Typically, I go somewhat against the consensus on all of them. Hey, who wants to run with the pack?
Don’t Come Knocking

Wim Wenders is the prime example of a once-great director who has now fallen –someone recently pointed out that it would have been better for his chances at posterity if he’d passed on around the same time as his countryman Fassbinder. Absolutely no one liked The Million Dollar Hotel, and the hectoring Land of Plenty was barely released. I went to see the first showing of his new film Don’t Come Knocking on a Friday afternoon, and was the only person in the theater – this despite the trailer having played for months, and the presumed star power of Jessica Lange and Sarah Polley. It’s an obvious return to the past glory of Paris, Texas, again written by Sam Shepard, and also starring Shepard as a Western movie star who impulsively walks off the set and embarks on a journey through his past.

The movie can plainly not be taken seriously as a contemporary chronicle – Shepard seems to have the kind of career that hasn’t existed since the heyday of Randolph Scott, and the main setting of Butte, Montana is presented as the kind of place where you can go nuts, throw all your furniture into the street, and leave it there all night virtually unnoticed and untouched. The film is overwritten in some parts, and utterly vague in others, often seeming made up of tired, almost random leftovers from a catalogue of American myths. Nevertheless, it seems to me Wenders’ most beguiling movie in a while. Chaotic as it is, the relationship between filmic and emotional identity is ultimately intriguingly plotted, and the ending stumbles toward a giddy affirmation. Still, Wenders’ head is buried deep up the ass of his past glories, and nothing here provides optimism for his next step.

That may sound like highly qualified praise, but it’s just about the most positive thing anyone has said about Don’t Come Knocking.

I am not a good booster for Canadian film, and barely registered the release of Amnon Buchbinder’s Whole New Thing until someone mentioned it at dinner one night. I’m glad I went. The film starts off with a too-good-to-be-true family of ecologically attuned intellectuals living in rural Nova Scotia, it breaks the unit wide open, and tentatively points to a realignment at the end. The focus is the precocious teenage son who’s sent to the local school for the first time after a lifetime of home schooling – he develops a crush on his teacher (played very originally by Daniel MacIvor), setting up some compelling (if ultimately perhaps a little too knowingly spine-tingling) suspense. The movie has all the virtues one would expect from a well-made low-budget film, and quite a few one wouldn’t have thought of. 

3 Needles
And then two days later, I saw another Canadian film, Thom Fitzgerald’s 3 Needles. Fitzgerald burst on the scene with the acclaimed Hanging Garden in 1997, since when his reputation has stagnated. My favourite of his films is The Wild Dogs, a wildly flawed but fascinating scrapbook of odds and ends about a Canadian pornographer in Budapest. His next movie The Event, about a man who’s died of AIDS and the assistant DA who suspects it was an assisted suicide, seemed however mainly dislocated and exhausted.

3 Needles is another film about AIDS, and a very ambitious one. It blends three stories, set in South Africa and China and Montreal, all premised on the disease’s horrific potential and the human mess that results from it. The project sometimes seems a little forced, and there are more than a few moments of rather glaring melodrama. But the film is immensely absorbed in its subject, dense with local observation, and bursting with authentic tragedy; for every bold-faced narrative hook (like the nun in Africa who decides to sleep with the local plantation owner in order to tap his wealth; or the Montreal mother who injects herself with AIDS for the sake of a viatical settlement on her life insurance) there are ten glimpses of quieter human tragedy. The movie captures the immense complexity of individual motives around the disease, showing how even altruism may be based primarily in personal neurosis, and how apparent benevolence may be a front for outright evil.

There were only two other people in the theater when I saw 3 Needles (as you can see, it was a pretty lonely week), and I do find the lack of attention it received highly surprising – it’s far more intriguing and illuminating than Crash for example (although of course it lacks the easy gratification). Personally I think Thom Fitzgerald’s body of work is much more rewarding than, say, Atom Egoyan’s over the same period. Still, the movie, like Don’t Come Knocking, was gone after a week. So I guess what I’m really doing here is logging a video recommendation.

Two Admired Films

Set for a much longer run I expect, The Devil And Daniel Johnston, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, is a documentary about cult singer and artist Johnston, who’s built up a substantial body of odd, cartoonish (but some say visionary) work despite being in and out of mental hospitals for years and continuing to be slightly over the line of quirkiness. Maybe I’ve just seen too much of this kind of stuff, but the movie – which has been generally acclaimed – didn’t do a thing for me. The biggest problem is that I just couldn’t get close to buying in to the notion of Johnston as a “genius” and one of the “best American songwriters.”  That’s partly subjective of course, but also reflects the fact that the movie simply doesn’t apply itself to making the case in the way that the somewhat similar Jandek On Cornwood did about its own idiosyncratic musician subject, or that In The Realms Of The Unreal did about eccentric artist Edward Daeger. And it’s far less probing and distinctive than Tarnation or Capturing The Friedmans, among other excavations of emotionally fraught domestic footage. I think the movie takes the goodwill of its audience too much for granted, although I can’t deny that plenty of people have gone along.

Hard Candy is another widely admired film that should be around for a while. It’s basically a two-hander, about a teenage girl and a man in his thirties who connect on line, and then meet in a coffee shop. Mostly going along with her suggestions, he takes her to his house and serves her screwdrivers, constantly asserting that he knows where the lines are; suddenly he’s groggy and unconscious, and when he wakes up the tables have been turned. People have said it’s difficult to watch, but I found it far too contrived and artificial to have any real impact. But if you like the title, I guess you may like the movie.  

Cracking Up

Jerry Lewis is the only Hollywood star to whom I ever wrote a letter. This was over twenty-five years ago; I was studying film in England, and we all had to write an essay on an aspect of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, which we’d studied in depth (literally shot by shot). I decided to focus on Lewis’ character of Jerry Langford, a Carson-like talk show host kidnapped by Robert de Niro’s aspiring comedian, and I enterprisingly contacted the man himself to ask for his perspective. He sent me a copy of his book The Complete Filmmaker (in a very cool Jerry Lewis Films envelope bearing a caricature of the younger Jerry) and the following communication, dated June 10, 1986:

Thank you for your letter, and your interest in me and my films.

King of Comedy was a fascinating film to work on. Mostly because of DeNiro and Scorcese (sic)…talented people. The character itself was also interesting. Langford was a combination of all talk show hosts, and the loneliness of it all!!

I’m involved working on the TELETHON again this year…and in September I’ll be filming the Nutty Professor – II in North Carolina.

Good luck on your essay


Late Lewis

This was too short really to be that useful, but I obviously appreciated it immensely. The Nutty Professor II never happened though, just one of many late-career frustrations for Lewis, the largest being his buried Holocaust movie The Day the Clown Cried, which I wrote about here in the past ( Of course, he kept on going with the Telethon for years, and finally won the humanitarian Oscar for it in 2009. But the Academy had made him wait a long time, seemingly held back by the same reservations that temper almost any assessment of Lewis’ place in popular culture. He and Dean Martin were voted number one box office stars for a few years, and Lewis became a fairly innovative director…but, you know, how many people ever choose to watch those films over something else? Some may claim (the French, most famously) that his work is formally, thematically and psychologically complex, but to get to that, you’d have to stop cringing and rolling your eyes. And even the undoubted altruism of the Telethon was tainted by streaks of arrogance and self-righteousness, by allegations that the whole thing was exploitative, too dependent on soliciting pity.

His casting in The King of Comedy drew on all this of course, but kept it suppressed; you only glimpse Lewis’ trademark goofiness in there a couple of times, so fleetingly you might not register it. The rest of the time, the film allows you to sense the proximity between “classic” show business jocularity and cold, self-denying vacuousness; Lewis embodies the overlap scarily well, maybe better than anyone should have been capable of. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the film. But despite that and the letter, I’ve never spent much time on his earlier work. I’ve seen most of it, but so long ago it barely sticks in my mind, and on the rare occasions I think of trying out The Errand Boy or The Patsy or whatnot, it’s always instantly supplanted by a better idea. I did rewatch The Nutty Professor a few years ago, but was disappointed (I realize you may roll your eyes at that).


It occurred to me recently though that I’d never seen Cracking Up (also known as Smorgasbord), his last film as a director, which he made around the same time as King of Comedy. Once this entered my mind it stuck, mainly because of my curiosity to see how much Jerry Langford might be visible in the movie. So I went ahead. And the experience pretty much embodied the duality I was talking about. On the one hand, the film was far more fascinating and provocative than I’d expected. On the other hand, it was so dumb that I’d have little need to watch anything else like it for years to come.

Lewis plays Warren Nefron, seen in the opening scene checking into a hotel room with a suitcase full of suicide tools. He tries to hang himself from the light fitting; the ceiling collapses. He rigs up a gun to shoot him in the head when the bell boy opens the door; instead it fires into the TV, which is showing an old cowboy movie; the TV cowboy shoots back, killing the bell boy. Warren goes to a psychiatrist, where the office is so slick and polished he can’t get any traction, and helplessly slides around. The problem, he eventually tells the shrink, is that he’s always been a nerd and a loser; the film depicts some low points from his life and those of his equally inept ancestors, while his troubles continue between subsequent appointments.

Some of Warren’s challenges fall broadly into the “social observation” brand of comedy, such as a waitress who recites the menu options at such length that he ultimately leaves without eating anything. Brief appearances by Milton Berle and Sammy Davis Jr. speak to the aforementioned tradition of talk show kibitzing. But in many ways, the film is rather disconcertingly radical. Warren goes to a museum and looks at pictures of animals; a horse takes a leak on him; a bull leaps out and busts a hole in the wall. A plane to London is powered by a hold full of cycling slaves; cars fall apart or explode at the slightest provocation. When the doctor takes him to the roof of the building to help cure his fear of heights, Warren is fine, but a giant ape hand grabs the doctor. Sometimes these episodes, for all their outlandishness, seem to form part of a vaguely linear “plot”; sometimes they seem entirely disconnected (I couldn’t follow at all why Lewis was suddenly playing a cop in one scene).

Jerry…Who Else?

Cracking Up has an aggressively take-it-or-leave-it kind of air. Lewis bills himself as “Jerry…Who Else?” and there’s no sign he took much input from anyone else – if he thinks a line or a demented pose is funny, it stays in. In some ways the film looks crude and ugly, but at times this gives it a piercing, unflinching quality. At the end it turns self-referential – Warren appears “cured” (the doctor’s now crazy, or maybe it was that way all along?) and takes a date to a movie, which turns out to be the movie we’re watching; Warren/Jerry starts to tell the people in line for the next showing what they’re about to see. The credits conclude with a shot of Jerry in the director’s seat, making a car explode. Just like God!

Is it good? Not particularly, by any normal measure. I can’t say it changed my stance on revisiting the earlier films. And yet, it’s a vision. It was in my head for days afterwards. Fact is, I guess Jerry Lewis has been in my head more often than I usually acknowledge. Make of that what you will…

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Best in the world

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2008)
In my Oscar predictions article back in February I moaned about not feeling the vibe this time – it all seemed so predictable, I said. But then it ended up producing one of the freshest and most worthy lists of winners in years. Whatever one’s reservations about No Country for Old Men, it’s obviously not a “safe” or bland choice in the much-mocked tradition of Oliver! et al. So I ended up enjoying it after all. And look at the progress that’s been made in secondary trouble spots. Best song no longer gets automatically mailed over to Disney. Best documentary shows an increasing affinity toward, well, good documentaries. Best sound effects editing…well, I’m sure that one always hits the spot too.
Dubious Winners

The focus of discontent this year, as it often has been in the past, was the best foreign film category. One commentator after another lambasted the process for excluding (in particular) the Romanian 4 months, 3 weeks & 2 days from the nominations, and derided the chosen nominees as a group of musty second-raters. They certainly sounded that way, although given that virtually no one had seen the films at that point, the criticism might have been a little unfair. As it turned out, the eventual winner, The Counterfeiters, seemed to be admired by just about everyone. More on that below. But it’s no 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days.

Just as, in 1977, Madame Rosa was no That’s Obscure Object Of Desire. Or in 1966, A Man and a Woman was no Battle of Algiers. And so on. But Bunuel and Pontecorvo beat the odds big-time in even getting to that stage. What’s most wretched about the category is the plethora of utter dross, winners that barely even registered at the time, let alone subsequently. How about 1982’s To Begin Again? Or 1984’s Dangerous Moves? Where do they find this stuff? And the stuff they beat was, for the most part, of the same ilk. Mostly no-name filmmakers who hit the jackpot (this being an apt metaphor for the apparent correlation of success and merit). Meanwhile, the list of names that never got in sight of a nomination is staggering: Godard, Ozu, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Hou…and it goes on and on and on.

Over the years a few directors, closely corresponding to the traditional canon of great art-house filmmakers, have made it through the process (although usually for lesser works): Bergman (3 times), Fellini (twice), Kurosawa and Truffaut (once each). A few recent winners – All about my Mother and The Lives of Otherswere actually the year’s best foreign film (or at least one of the best) for many viewers. But then you ask yourself who might be the best foreign directors of our time, and it’s pretty clear that Caroline Link, Gavin Hood and Stefan Ruzowitzky wouldn’t be on the list. They do have Oscars though.
Flawed Process
The problem seems to be twofold. First, unlike most of the other awards, the foreign film nominees don’t even represent an attempt, on anyone’s part, actually to survey the year’s world cinema and pick a sampling of the best. Every country submits a single nominee, selected as it sees fit (so that for example, the limping Kazakh industry gets as big a shot as the somewhat richer depths of French cinema). Therefore many notable films are never in the game (for example, La Vie en Rose, despite its best actress victory, never had a shot at best foreign film because the French submitted Persepolis instead). Films that straddle two or more countries may never get selected by anyone. Then, of course, there are endless eligibility rules. This year’s The Band’s Visit was reportedly disqualified this year for having too much English dialogue. Well, it’s a group of Egyptians in the middle of Israel – that’s the only language they have in common! Doesn’t verisimilitude count for anything?!

Secondly, again unlike the other Oscars, the award doesn’t get voted on by the Academy’s general membership. A committee hones down the submissions (this is where 4 months fell by the wayside) to pick the five nominees, which can then only be voted on by members who’ve viewed all five in movie theatres (not, as they increasingly do for many other categories, on DVD). Who know how dramatically that whittles down the membership? Maybe it’s just a dozen people, mostly retirees. I certainly doubt Jack Nicholson gets to vote most years. (The prevailing theory is that the committee just didn’t get 4 months – too edgy, not obviously well crafted in the traditional sense – and certainly didn’t care for the abortion material).

There’s some theoretical merit to all this of course – primarily to ensure that small countries aren’t crowded out by big ones. But the process I described, by its nature, doesn’t constitute any rational evaluator of merit. It’s more analogous to having a group of loosely knit acquaintances select the destination for a collective night out. No matter how adventurous some of them feel on a given evening, if it’s an Olive Garden kind of bunch, you’re not going to sell them on Susur.

The Counterfeiters

Well, that was time well spent: until that whole process is scrapped and replaced by something more broad-based, I’ll be able to recycle this article every year (with a few token updates) and it’ll always be right on the money. So how does The Counterfeiters rack up against this sad history? I’d say somewhere in the middle of the pack. It’s a good enough movie, but in a very familiar manner. Nothing about it startles you  - the technique is solid but not at all distinctive, the themes are interesting but well trodden. It’s not even close to being the best foreign film of the year, although I grant it may be the best Austrian film of the year,

Directed by Ruzowitzky, it’s set primarily in a 1944 concentration camp, where an imprisoned counterfeiter is put to work by the Nazis to manufacture vast quantities of pounds and dollars, initially to undermine the Allies’ economies but later on to finance the collapsing German war machine. Someone pointed out the parallel to Bridge on the River Kwai – the desire to stay alive, and an innate sense of professionalism, fights against the shame of providing such massive assistance to the enemy.

I don’t mean to dismiss the film at all – there are many subtleties here. The central character, played by a ratty-looking Karl Markovics, is a finely conceived study in conflicting motives and beliefs. The film is almost a chamber piece – well treated up to a point and isolated from the other prisoners, the team of counterfeiters experiences the ongoing war mostly as overheard gunshots, screams, as fragments of news. And it flirts subtly with the situation’s black comedy without ever distilling its horror. As I write, I saw it two weeks ago, and it’s almost already forgotten.

End of the road

Scott MacDonald’s review of Michael Haneke’s Amour on the Toronto Standard website, dissenting from the general high regard for the film (and presumably from its several high-profile Oscar nominations) provides an interesting way into thinking about it. Seeing the film as “essentially a horror movie” made by a director with “no interest in love, nor a capacity for it,” he sums up his thoughts like this: “I kept thinking of other, better end-of-life films like Away From Her … all of which are clear-eyed and utterly devoid of sentiment, yet somehow manage to avoid nihilism. They find moments of grace, even transcendence, amid the suffering, whereas Haneke insists that grace and transcendence are illusions for chumps. Amour is a work of art only if you believe that art and misanthropy are compatible.”

Grace and transcendence

I like MacDonald’s writing quite a bit, but I think he’s wrong here, albeit in the way that only someone thoughtful can be. In insisting that Haneke’s rejection of “grace and transcendence” (whatever that means, really) constitutes some kind of de facto weakness, he essentially appeals to some canonic model of how one should treat death, one in which the event will always be at least partly redeemed by what it leaves behind, by the fact that we would collectively assess it (clear-eyed, and without sentiment) as a “good” way to have died. A death, implicitly, belongs only in part to the dying person, and also as much or more to the rest of us. And this, I think, is exactly what Haneke means to diagnose and reject. If his film is in any sense a horror movie, then the horror is us and our interventions and prescriptions, our so-called ethics and applied humanity, all of it rooted, more broadly, in our disregard for culture and contemplation, for what would constitute a full life in the first place (this, admittedly, being theoretically open to attack as a classically “bourgeois” perspective).

The film observes Georges and Anne, a long-married couple presumably in their 80’s (the actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, are both in that decade), living in a large Parisian apartment filled with the marks of their time together. As the film begins, the police break down a door; they find Anne dead on a bed, flowers arranged around her; Georges is missing. From there the film goes back , showing the couple attending a concert by a former pupil of Anne’s; the following day she experiences her first symptom of what becomes her final illness, and compels Georges to become a caregiver.

Sense of siege

Haneke has always been preoccupied by themes of invasion: I wrote of him before that he’s a “stern taskmaster, sometimes giving the sense that he intends his films as strong medicine for our fuzzyheaded engagement with history, culture and the world.” His best known film Funny Games is a violent drama about a bourgeois family disrupted by thugs, designed both to masterfully push your easy-response buttons and to shame you at your capitulation. His last film The White Ribbon, which like Amour won the top prize at the Cannes festival, depicts a small German village in 1917 that starts to experience an unsettling series of strange accidents, tragedies and brutalities; some of them explicable, others not; the film brilliantly evokes the tangle of perspectives, from certainty (even if hypocritical and manufactured) to despairing, that underlie war, or indeed any national purpose. I recently rewatched his early film The Seventh Continent, about a family that systematically destroys its home and then itself, seemingly overcome by an imbalance that whatever its precise nature, will only proliferate as consumerism and globalization escalate.

From the start, Amour conveys a similar sense of siege. When the couple returns from that concert, it seems someone has tried to break into the apartment; later, Georges has a nightmare about being lured into the corridor and mugged. But the intrusions are also much subtler. Several times, Anne asks Georges to stop watching her, and Georges is offended by their daughter’s shallow protestations that there must be a better way of dealing with things. At one point he fires a nurse, supposedly for incompetence, but from what we’re shown, the woman’s real transgression is in treating Anne like just another old woman who you handle with baby talk; that is, denying the specificity of her identity.

Haneke is very sparing in what he shows us of that identity, and that of their marriage – a few photographs, and passing remarks, such as a comment of Anne’s about how Georges is a “monster” sometimes - and he emphasizes our ignorance of them as much as our trivial knowledge, for instance in a brief montage of the paintings on their walls, evoking the meanings they must hold for the couple while emphatically withholding those meanings from us. But all of that hardly amounts to having “no interest in love.” The whole point, it seems to me, is that a love (or whatever it might be) that sustains an intertwined life for so long, and especially a life that’s not merely functional and morose, is created by and belongs entirely to its participants, inherently beyond the knowledge of others.

Bit of a nuisance

From the very start, the film emphasizes itself as an aesthetic construction – the opening shot of the police breaking down the door has a “curtain-up” quality, and Anne has clearly been “posed” where she lies. Near the end, when a pigeon enters the apartment for the second time in the film, it’s the final manifestation of that theme of being pierced from without, but what’s equally as significant is that Haneke chooses to show Georges writing about it afterwards. Death is going to happen to all of us, no matter what, and it’s our right to view it either as a matter of grace and transcendence or just as an inevitable wretchedness, and to shape and record it as we choose, unmediated by uninvited interventions, whether physical or ideological.

Looked at in this way, I found the film much less oppressive and depressing than some commentators have. It’s a mesmerizing viewing experience, composed with such specific weight that you suspect it’ll hold itself in your mind for much longer than most films do, even good ones. And of course, as everyone says, the performances are fairly spellbinding. It’s rather revealing, and darkly amusing, to reflect on Trintignant’s remark in a recent Film Comment interview that while he adores Isabelle Huppert, who plays their daughter, “I like Emmanuelle less: she is magnificent in the film, but she was a bit of a nuisance.” It’s hard to imagine a seasoned American actor dropping all the standard mush, let alone unprompted, to throw a dart at his venerable co-star. But it seems the perfect manifestation of the deep, perturbing truth of Haneke’s film – how all art, like all death, must find its own way.