Sunday, July 28, 2013

Far from heaven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2005)
Kingdom of Heaven is yet another example of the weirdness of current Hollywood. The film is hugely expensive – it cost well over $100 million. It takes on a subject that surely ranks nowhere on anyone’s list of surefire popular subject matter – the 12th century war between Christians and Moslems over Jerusalem – a subject that seems to carry some particular topical resonance. It’s an immense technical achievement, with epic recreations of the period and wonderfully orchestrated battle sequences. And yet at its heart it seems to flinch from its subject. It consistently rejects complexity in favour of simplicity. It interprets its characters in blatantly modern terms. It chooses tired narrative strategies that emphasize trivialities and clich├ęs at the cost of the wider subject. Scene by scene, it negates the ambition inherent in the choice of project.

Pulls you back in...

$100 million movies are sometimes artistically interesting, but maybe we should view those few examples as pure gravy, and otherwise rid ourselves of the temptation to view the entire category as other than commerce. Over the years I find myself writing in this space about “big” movies quite a bit less than I used to – it just doesn’t seem worthwhile. On the other hand, if you love movies at all, the mainstream is awfully hard to ignore, and as Pacino said in The Godfather Part III, just when you think you’re out, it pulls you back in.

On a recent trip to the UK I visited some relatives who have their satellite TV switched on basically all day, switching endlessly from one channel to the other. Most of the stuff is American, or looks like it’s aspiring to it. My relatives acknowledge most of the stuff is crap, but they have it on anyway. One day, one of them said that she does the crossword in The Sun (a paper that’s famously even more divorced from a meaningful concept of “news” than its Toronto equivalent) because, at home all day, she needs something to stimulate her mind. I couldn’t bring myself to point out the inadequacy of the Sun crossword for this task, or the copious range of available alternatives (starting for example with buying a better newspaper). But then, she knows already. I’ve encountered something similar numerous times among my (generally intelligent) colleagues – they know on some level that the stuff they choose to watch or absorb is trivial and unworthy, but their frames of reference are entirely defined by mainstream media, and it barely occurs to them that they might break out (the one peculiar exception to this tends to be film festival week, during which everyone suddenly becomes a connoisseur of the obscure).


If one viewed Hollywood cinema as a coherent entity, projects like Kingdom of Heaven would seem like a strategic play – the enterprising choice of subject serving to demonstrate that movies as a whole can’t be as limited and pandering as people say, but then with an execution studiously avoiding setting any real challenges. The film could potentially have been rather daring in how it presents the Moslems as being somewhat more temperate and rational than at least a faction of the Christians (during its making, there were reports that the film threatened to evoke controversy by being anti-Moslem, but maybe that was merely artful publicity). But this comes across as no more than political correctness, or else as just a matter of whim and happenstance. Of course one could debate the film’s version of events, one could research inaccuracies or odd choices of emphasis. But what, truly, would be the point?

I realize I may have comprehensively removed what small reason originally existed for anyone to read to the end of this review, but on the “in for a penny in for a pound” principle, here are a few more comments anyway. Kingdom of Heaven is directed by Ridley Scott, and it’s in a similar vein to his big hit Gladiator. At the start, a modest blacksmith played by Orlando Bloom encounters a knight (Liam Neeson) who announces himself as Bloom’s  long lost father. The blacksmith is grieving his wife’s recent suicide, and perceives an opportunity to redeem her soul by accepting his father’s invitation to follow him to the Holy Land. Neeson is killed before he gets there, but instantly on arrival, Bloom establishes himself as the most charismatic, level-headed man in town. He quickly aligns himself with the dying Christian King of Jerusalem (played, uncredited and behind a mask, by Edward Norton) and against a group of Christian rabble-rousers who blatantly seek to disrupt the workable if fragile peace with the Moslems who control most of the territory around the city. He also falls for the wife of one of the main rabble-rousers (played by Eva Green, from Bertolucci’s The Dreamers), which helps keep things interesting. The pretty good cast also includes Jeremy Irons and Brendan Gleeson.

Pros and Cons

When Bloom arrives in Jerusalem and inherits his father’s lands, he quickly sets to work on upgrading it with better water and ambiance, looking like a 60’s commune leader. Is there any historical verisimilitude at all to that? Who knows, but it’s clear that contemporary identification is the driving motivation here. The same goes for the frequently irony-laden, edge of flip dialogue (“It was not that they had no right to take you,” says Neeson after polishing off a bunch who tried to apprehend Bloom, “it was the way they asked”) and for the emphasis on personal validation and definition. All of this makes the film feel profoundly suspect. That would be fine, even admirable, if this were part of (say) a distancing or dialectic artistic strategy that sought to tell us something intriguing about our 21st century situation, but there’s nothing there beyond a bland acknowledgment in the closing titles that the battles over Jerusalem continue to this day. Even Oliver Stone’s Alexander, a huge failure though that was, seemed to be grappling more intelligently both with how to identify and dramatize the truth of its protagonist and to show why that should matter to any of us now. And although Scott handles digital technology superbly, creating more authentic looking epic sequences than just about anyone, I still much prefer the threadbare historical recreations in the work of someone like Pasolini. Scott’s authenticity is so overwhelming, you never get past the fakeness of it.

Leaving aside all historical and political references and judging the film purely as a self-contained drama (as though, like much of Scott’s earlier work, it were science fiction), it’s moderately engrossing, although lacking any distinction or sense of discovery. The relationship with Green seems to carry a potential that’s not realized, and Scott cuts so many close-ups of the actress into the battle scenes that I started to wonder if the whole thing was going to be revealed as a fantasy inside her head. Others will no doubt pick up on things that passed me by. Like a candy store, there’s enough there for everyone to come away with something, but it’s all dispensable and nutritionally suspect.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

My TV viewing

It’s probably funny how I’ve written about film here for some sixteen years while only very rarely mentioning television. Several times a year, I might devote the space to reviewing an HBO movie (in recent months, Phil Spector and Behind the Candelabra), and I wrote a few weeks ago about finally catching up with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but that just proves the point, that I’ve only been addressing television here when it makes stuff that looks like cinema, or at least is a close cousin to it. Sixteen years ago, I doubt anyone would have questioned the underlying value judgment: despite real pockets of strength, TV operated under too many restrictions (of format, budget, standards, everything really) to generate long-lived equivalents to Scorsese and Coppola and the Coens (for purposes of this article, I’ll just talk about the U.S. – the relationship has long been more symbiotic in Europe for instance). But that’s all changed now, and you can find any number of commentators who believe the quality of American television has eclipsed that of its films in recent years; indeed, it may be harder to find people who could convincingly argue the opposite.

TV vs. movies

Well, I’ve recently had to acknowledge to myself that I watch much more TV than I used to, and maybe for emphasis I should say much much more. This doesn’t mean I’ve completely let go of my old snobbery, if that’s the word for it. Whereas I always give movies my undivided attention, allowing no distractions, I invariably watch TV while doing something else, usually while surveying my daily roster of Internet sites. Part of this is just practicality – if I didn’t combine the two activities, I’d run out of time and, well, I’d have to watch fewer movies (and that would be drastically unacceptable!) But it’s not just that – in truth, I don’t believe TV shows, even the very best of them, need the same attention the best movies do. The open-ended nature of the form, the enforced refilling of the tank, the contingencies of fate and discovery along the way (most obviously, as the strengths or weaknesses of various actors suggest or impose different pathways) inevitably entail peaks and troughs – the beast is too unwieldy to be controlled in the same way as a single film. It’s not a weakness – much of the fascination lies in the way shows evolve in a way that couldn’t have been foreseen. But to me it’s like the difference between a short and a long conversation – it would be rude and probably self-defeating not to give your full attention to the former, but it’s inevitable that your attention drifts in and out of the latter.

Dregs of society

It follows that the TV shows that most challenge my ability to keep half an eye on the laptop are those conceived as finite stories, often from the UK – as I write, Secret State (four episodes in total) and especially The Fall (five episodes) come close to resembling long films that just happen to have been subdivided into segments. The latter, although brilliantly executed, points though to another reservation – that if you watch what’s commonly accepted as the best television, you spend a lot of time with serial killers, gangsters, and assorted dregs of society (because it’s easier, I suppose, to keep a long conversation going about demons than angels). The Fall is a chilling example of the serial killer genre, but it’s still adding to the crazily disproportionate body of work on such figures. Dexter relies on turning up a new serial killer every week, but it’s always verged on the cartoonish, which is part of its transgressive, borderline-goofy charm. I don’t watch Boardwalk Empire – my wife does though, so I’ve seen big chunks of it – but it’s always seemed to me somewhat wearying, what with having to meet its endless atrocity quota.

I’ve been getting increasingly into The Walking Dead, although again, I don’t like watching swaggering, would-be mythic creations like The Governor, the villain of the last series; I like the show better when it’s more intimate and incremental (while acknowledging this wouldn’t be a viable mode for the long run, but hence the eternal compromises I talked about). Mad Men’s last season seemed to me more interesting in theory than practice, seemingly unwilling or unable to commit to any clear direction for its main protagonists, and yet unable to deploy that uncertainty to illustrate the period as effectively as it used to. The Americans impressed me with some very deft plotting, although it seems like an unnecessary compression of the universe to have the CIA agent living across the street from and hanging out with the undercover spies he’s chasing. The Newsroom seems as overly-stylized and full of itself to me as it does to most reviewers, and yet I look forward to it, if only because it’s such a clear contrast from everything else I mentioned. Under the Dome is the only show on our current viewing roster that airs on one of the traditional networks, and illustrates exactly why the networks are in trouble: it rattles along well enough, but never has a moment that feels psychologically or emotionally true.

Backlog crisis

We also manage to fit in some comedies, including Girls of course, although I’d swap the whole series to date for the recent film Frances Ha. Veep is an irresistible machine, set in an environment where it doesn’t matter that it’s a rather cold one. Christopher Guest’s Family Tree, which just ended, was a distinct disappointment, endlessly slack and padded. I’m with the pack on this: Louis C.K.’s Louie rules the genre right now – it’s perhaps the only show on TV where the episode you just watched gives you no reasonable chance of predicting the content of the next one. And I hope for a return of the endlessly masterful Curb Your Enthusiasm.

At the time of writing, we haven’t yet been able to start watching The Bridge or Top of the Lake, and in fact we might be heading for a backlog crisis. We watched the first episode of Ray Donovan, which was more of an ordeal than anything else, but not so much that it didn’t deserve a second chance; as yet though, it never seems like the right night for that. And Breaking Bad, which can lay a claim to being the most consistently accomplished of the bunch, is only a month or so away. And then of course there’s my rock, my Grey’s Anatomy. No, actually, I’m joking about that one. Although now I count up how many shows I just named (and I’m pretty sure I forgot some), it looks like the joke’s on me. At least I can count my blessings, that things would be worse if I was hooked on True Blood and Game of Thrones.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Enduring Love

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2008)

This is Catherine Breillat from the 2004 film festival program book: “There are, every time, only two possibilities. Either we talk about it, try to understand, and abolish; or we respect and live in absolute denial…” This presumably explains something about Breillat’s rigorous (detractors would say obsessive and morbid) preoccupation with female sexuality, but of course cannot explain all of it – we’re defined by the choices we make, and the time we spend on one battleground means that we decline the battles elsewhere. And the clearly declining cachet of Breillat’s work (not to mention the subject’s intractable nature) entails that the warrior gradually appears more neurotic than brave. Having said all that, I like her films much more than not – her clinical interest in the mechanics of sexual politics regularly generates shockingly memorable sequences.

The Last Mistress

Her previous film Anatomy of Hell, even so, didn't break much new ground, and shortly afterwards she suffered a stroke. She made her latest, Une vieille maitresse (released here as The Last Mistress) after recovering, but reportedly suffered another stroke since then. Unusually for her, it’s a costume drama, set among the French aristocracy, where Ryno de Marigny, a young man with a reputation as a libertine, is engaged to be married. To set her grandmother’s mind at ease, he tells her everything about his mistress of ten years, a headstrong Spaniard, Vellini; he admits their mutual obsession, but assures her it’s now over, and the marriage proceeds.

Blood was a prominent motif in Anatomy of Hell – although there it was specifically menstrual blood, rendering the film often more medical than erotic. The only true path, it posited, is to embrace what’s disgusting in womanhood. She asks if she should have shaved her armpits; he says there would be no point, for the skin would still be as bumpy and repellent, like a frog (“except that at least frogs have the decency to be green”). “The lie about the softness of women,” he says, “is hateful.”

Asia Argento’s recent career might be devoted to obliterating that hateful lie, and she’s perfectly cast as Vellini. At times she seems to dial up the patented Kubrick stare from A Clockwork Orange and other films – making herself strange, unknowable, frightening, mesmerizing. De Marigny at first sight calls Vellini “an ugly mutt” (no one defies the categories of beauty and ugliness like Argento) which she overhears – the more she hates him, the more he pursues her. In an early costume ball she says she’s dressed as “the Devil himself,” and her Spanish “otherness” is flamboyantly coded through clothing that looks like a fetishistic message board compared to the stiffness of the prevailing female dress.

De Marigny’s persistence leads to a duel with her elderly husband; he’s shot but survives, and as the doctor treats his wound she enters the room to lick up his blood – which the doctor disgustedly says will prolong his infection. The next scene starts with an apparently unsimulated scene of a chicken being cut by the throat (it ain’t always subtle). The tone of their relationship is set - the evocation of vampirism sums up the interplay of submission and possession. A similar dynamic will recur throughout the film.

Jacques Rivette

It makes for a gripping, fascinating story. The film’s historical recreation appears attentive enough, but precise fidelity never seems like Breillat’s primary concern (several reviewers pointed out how the very modern tattoo on Argento’s back is visible in at least one scene).  On the Chicago Reader blog, Pat Graham pointed out the general resemblance to Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais, which played here a few months ago, and put it this way: “Whatever her merits as historian, Breillat's micromanaged attraction to the vagaries of human passion invites a complicity that Rivette, more austere and abstract, isn't inclined to give. On the other hand, Duchess fascinates out of sheer obliquity, its terse, alienating distance—everything less predictable since less familiar, a matter of epistemological cunning rather than identification strategies unleashed. Yet despite its raw immediacy, it's the Breillat that arguably wears you down and out.” (I know – Graham’s writing always has that “huh?” aspect to it).

Rivette is one of my very favourite directors, but I wrote here that Duchess struck me as “second-tier Rivette,” lacking the classic elements of his “unique cinematic universe.” I haven’t yet seen the film for a second time, but I’m fairly sure that when I do, I’ll start to see my reaction was constrained by preconceptions. The apparent new direction of Une vieille maitresse, conversely, had me approaching the film with a quite open mind, but in the end it certainly feels like watching a Breillat picture – which, as I say, is just fine with me.

It follows that there could never be a tidy ending to this battle. If de Marigny and Vellini don’t literally obliterate each other, the film almost metaphorically presents it that way, letting someone else have the last word on them. Society can accommodate – indeed, could hardly function without – scandals and transgressions; what it ultimately means to the participants though, we can only guess. By leaving the possibilities somewhat open, Breillat provides what might actually be, by her fearful standards, an upbeat happy ending. 


Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, is an interesting enough documentary on the legendary journalist, who killed himself a few years ago. I’ve never read much of Thompson, and can’t decide after the movie whether I want to make the effort – one commentator describes his reporting as a blend of scrupulous accuracy and complete fantasy. The movie gives us snippets - read by Johnny Depp (who played Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) – but spends more time on anecdotage, often very diverting. On the other hand, if the portrait of Thompson is as unimaginative as the soundtrack musical collection, then we’re not unearthing much at all. Director Alex Gibney did a great job (and won an Oscar) on setting out some Bush administration outrages in Taxi From The Dark Side, and seems to have taken on the Thompson project specifically as a lighter contrast, which may not have been for the greater good.

The movie doesn’t try to analyze his legacy, beyond a few token judgments that we could use Thompson nowadays (cue picture of George W); my best guess is he provided some genuine inspiration, but on the other hand his open fixations for or against various individuals, and his increasing immersion in his own distinctive persona, might establish him as a fairly clear forerunner of today’s bloated celebrity opinionators. But Gibney’s film doesn’t come close to providing clarity on that.


Michael Cimino

Cinema is full of stories of reversals of fortune, but not many as jarringly extreme and sudden as Michael Cimino’s. In 1978, not yet forty, he won the best picture and director Oscars for the Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter, only his second film (his first was Clint Eastwood’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot). On the basis of its huge success, he obtained backing for an even more ambitious project, the western Heaven’s Gate, which went way over budget, and ended up losing all of it. Almost no American critics liked the film (although many of them only saw it in a butchered version), and the stories of Cimino’s excesses made him almost unemployable, especially after a very entertaining and high-profile book by one of the studio executives, Final Cut, charted the whole messy history (Cimino derides the book as a work of fiction). He didn’t work for five years after that, and hasn’t made anything at all since 1996 (except for a short film, part of an anthology, lasting just a couple of minutes). In a recent interview, he summed up his status as follows: “Being infamous is not fun. It becomes a weird kind of occupation in and of itself.”

The Deer Hunter

Heaven’s Gate was always better received abroad, and by now it’s much more highly regarded at home too, recently receiving what almost constitutes a form of “official recognition” via a release of a restored-version DVD on the Criterion label. Ironically, it probably gets more attention now than The Deer Hunter – put crudely, it seems to me that film’s status was retrospectively downgraded in the light of the mass hatred for Heaven’s Gate, although not to the point where it might itself become a candidate for reclamation. I recently rewatched both films in quick succession (an investment of some six and a half hours) and found it a remarkably complex enterprise,

The Deer Hunter starts off in an industrial Pennsylvania town, on a day when one of a group of friends gets married, on the eve of shipping out to Vietnam with two of his buddies. One of them makes it back more or less intact; one loses his legs; the third goes missing, but the first later goes back to find him. One of the film’s central oppositions is between the deer hunting of the title, a self-aggrandizing, ritualized enterprise constructed around the ideal of bringing down the quarry in one shot, and the famous Russian roulette sequences in Vietnam, where the emphasis on the one shot constitutes an apex of human degradation and incoherence. The film doesn’t spend even token time on the war’s putative purpose or conduct, presenting it as little more than a sick mess, the effect of which further draws out and strangifies the fractures that always existed on the home front. In the last scene, the assembled group sings God Bless America, evading any easy reading – not with sarcasm or utter hopelessness, nor with blind patriotism: like much in the film, it’s a scene that seems to tempt us into a more superficial reading, based on our preconceptions and impulses, than it’s actually capable of supporting.

Robin Wood

The film has the feeling of grappling with a subject of almost impossible immensity, of trying to find a structure and a mode of expression equal to the sadness of its subject. The best analysis of the film that I know of, by Robin Wood in his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond, disentangles its complex strands with surgical clarity, while allowing that the scalpels can only reach so far: he concludes that the film’s greatness perhaps lies “in the richness of its confusions.” Among many other things, Wood’s essay is masterful in drawing out an element which I’d registered, but hardly mulled on in such detail – the way in which its treatment of the three main characters played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep expresses “the universal bisexuality our culture strives to repress.” Reading Wood’s account, and mulling on the sly radicalism of Cimino’s achievement, it seems plausible there was something primal in how the world soon turned on him, seizing an opportunity to quell some unresolved anxiety in what he represented.

I’d watched The Godfather again a few weeks before rewatching The Deer Hunter, and while that remains a staggering feat of story-telling, and much more obviously influential on American storytelling in recent decades, it seemed almost limited and self-absorbed by comparison (Wood seems to have little time for Coppola, judging his work “a daunting mixture of the pretentious and the banal, in roughly equal measure,” with the Godfather films constituting “only partial” exceptions). The Godfather remains tremendously provocative about the nature of post-war America, but only insofar as we choose to regard the somewhat rarified trajectory of the Corleones as an experience with inherent metaphorical resonance (there’s virtually nothing of what you might call “the real world” in the film). Compared to that film’s impeccable sense of assurance, The Deer Hunter preaches and rambles and occasionally seems to lose its thread altogether, but while it draws on American myths and archetypes, it obsessively bores in on one of America’s thousands of culturally specific environments (marked in this case by the steel mills that dominate the town, and by the fraying Russian immigrant heritage), yet universally struggling and unfulfilled. On the other hand, Cimino was never a documentarian – as my wife pointed out, the deer hunting scenes, supposedly taking place above their Pennsylvania town, were actually shot half a continent away.

Heaven’s Gate

Wood rates Heaven’s Gate even more highly than The Deer Hunter, placing it “among the supreme achievements of the Hollywood cinema.” Set in the 1890’s, it depicts how a group of establishment Wyoming landowners (acting outside the law, but with the tacit support of authorities and institutions) launch what we might now almost call a campaign of ethnic cleansing against a “death list” of immigrants; Kris Kristofferson plays a marshal, an establishment man himself, but disgusted by these actions. More than the previous film, Heaven’s Gate is marked by its extreme visual beauty, but not of a glassily pictorial kind – there’s a slight gauziness to many of the images, so that the film and its meaning often seem to be dissolving away from us. Of course, respondents often analyzed this quality, along with Cimino’s discursive approach to narrative and relationships (if one wasn’t sure about the politicized sexuality of The Deer Hunter, it becomes even clearer in Heaven’s Gate), as denoting simple ineptitude. But in a way, they only confirmed one of his core points, that American ideals, almost as soon as they were articulated and formalized, have always been in the process of degrading and dying. If I found Heaven’s Gate slightly less stimulating than The Deer Hunter on this occasion anyway, maybe it’s only because I’ve never been particularly dazzled by America’s claims for its past, whereas we have no choice but to be invested in its present.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

2006 Toronto film festival report, part 8

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2006)

This is the eighth and last of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.

Summer Palace (Lou Ye)
The Chinese authorities recently banned director Lou from making films in China for five years, after he took this film to Cannes without the proper approvals. Presumably this was substantively motivated by its depiction of Beijing University in the late 80’s as a morass of volatility and sexuality, with not an ideological precept in sight: it also includes a (somewhat murky) depiction of Tiananmen Square. But the film certainly won’t seem very provocative to Western eyes. The first half, based around a rural girl who attends the university and goes wild, before dropping out in the wake of a busted love affair – is diverting but never as probing or acute as one wishes for, and then the second half, following the two ex-lovers in their divergent paths through life for the next fifteen years, eventually comes to seem like little more than soap opera. The programme book calls the film’s style “oblique,” but actually it’s all too comprehensible – the attempts to mirror internal and external states come across as laboured. With no particular finesse of technique overall, the movie is unfortunately more interesting in theory than in practice, although the theory does count for a lot here.

Renaissance (Christian Volckman)
I don’t have any specific interest in animation, nor in the science-fantasy genre, so a film combining both held no particular appeal for me. But sometimes you go with what fits the time slot. Renaissance certainly has a distinctive technique – it’s composed almost entirely of pure black and pure white, eschewing shadings, so that foregrounds and backgrounds can often be distinguished only through evocations of shadows and movement. It’s impressive, for example, how much facial expression can be evoked through the movement of four blobs of black. The problem is that the main aesthetic takeaway is pretty well established after ten minutes, and so it all comes down to the story, which is a humdrum concoction in the vein of Blade Runner and many others. It’s Paris in 2030, a young female scientist has disappeared, and a hard-bitten cop searches for her, with a sinister corporation lurking in the background. The film’s conception of the future isn’t particularly distinctive or detailed, and whereas animation used to carry the constant advantage of pulling off spectacles that couldn’t be achieved otherwise, digital technology has narrowed that gap considerably. So the movie basically didn't feel that necessary to me.

Paris je t’aime (the Coen Brothers, Wes Craven, Alexander Payne,  Gus Van Sant and others)

You could use up your word quota just listing the directors and principal cast on this one, a collection of 18 vignettes set in various areas of the City of Love. This was the last film I saw at the festival this year, and since I was seriously flagging by then, it was a just about perfect stopping point, delivering goodwill and a vague sense of upper-middlebrow activity (hard to feel you’re slumming it when all those auteur names keep popping on and off the screen) without making any serious demands on the audience. Most of the segments are just pleasant baubles. Alfonso Cuaron’s is, strangely, the dullest and least inspired. Christopher Doyle’s is the giddiest and most boundary pushing. The Coens deliver a very proficient metro nightmare. Gerard Depardieu recruits Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands for a Cassavetes reunion, but then fails to think of anything interesting for them to say. Olivier Assayas’ story of an American actress and a drug pusher is one of the few segments that might productively be stretched out to greater length. Tom Tykwer’s segment, with Natalie Portman, is certainly the most hardworking. But nothing in the movie will persist as more than the slightest footnote in its creator’s biography.

And then I saw this one later on in its commercial release:

Infamous (Douglas McGrath)

This is the unfortunate film covering almost exactly the same ground as last year’s Capote – Truman Capote’s researching and writing In Cold Blood, in particular his relationship with one of the convicted killers - and since Capote scooped up enough attention for five average films, there was never going to be much left over for Infamous. It’s almost impossible to write about it on its own terms, so here it is: it’s more or less the same length as the first film, but spends much more time on his celebrity friends and less in charting the precise impact on Capote’s artistic soul; Toby Jones may be a closer physical match than Philip Seymour Hoffman, but is also less charismatic and nuanced; the casting is blander all the way along the line; the storytelling has much less finesse here, often relying on talking heads to deliver key information or interpretation. I have to admit that I never quite understood why Capote was so highly valued, and found that film heavy going at times for all its strengths, so in a certain lesser way it was actually more fun watching the glossier Infamous and ticking off similarities and differences. But truly, this film’s only place in history, along with the likes of Milos Forman’s Valmont, will be to surface every five years or so in articles about strange movie coincidences.

And that’s it for this year’s festival. Many writers found this a bit of an off year. The opening gala left many people cold, the most heralded premieres (The Fountain, A Good Year, All the King’s Men) frequently fell a little flat and there was a lack of real breakthrough discoveries: the People’s Choice went to a movie called Bella, about which I barely heard a word before, during or after the festival. Several writers even criticized the caliber of the visiting celebrities, or maybe it’s more that they failed to do anything sufficiently splashy once they got here (Sean Penn’s famous cigarette aside). I never know to what degree the quality of the films I saw can stand as a representative sample, so I can only say that I enjoyed most of them, although I did feel a little deprived of near-masterpieces. The two films I liked most were probably Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and Alain Resnais’ Coeurs, and in truth there’s probably a bit of a gap between those two and whatever it is that might take my bronze medal.

I mentioned above how I was flagging, and it’s true – I actually seriously (well, semi-seriously) considered dropping out before the end. On two occasions in the last two days, I actually went to the wrong theatre, which tells you a lot about how my faculties were becoming undone. Is this the beginning of the end for your indefatigable reviewer? Only time will tell!

Stealing stuff

I’d never try to argue that human innovation and achievement has run out, but it does sometimes feel as if its capacity for meaningful public discourse has hit the wall. Politics has never been so trivial; substance has never been so crowded out by trivia and ephemera; it seems unthinkable that we might ever conduct an even vaguely balanced mass conversation about our long-term needs and how to get there. Rick Salutin pointed out in The Star last week that even bedrock terms like “democracy” have become degraded, essentially used merely as a synonym for “elections,” regardless that those elections may be rendered all but meaningless by the lies told at the time, or by subsequent lack of faith. It’s a better way to go, argued Salutin counseled, if “you don’t assume the definition of democracy or human progress has reached any fixed end points. Most cultural activity only really began 8,000 to 12,000 years ago, as a teenager recently told me; it would be odd to assume anything is complete. In that light, it’s we who should uncouple from fixed definitions and learn something from their openness.”

The Bling Ring

This might not seem like the most obvious way into Sofia Coppola’s new film The Bling Ring, based on the real life story from a few years ago about a group of teenagers who got into burglarizing celebrity homes, taking off with several million dollars in stuff. But I think the film’s main interest is in its implicit challenge to governing concepts – morality, the “rule of law,” property rights; it suggests their underpinning has become (at least in certain quadrants of America) so distorted and degraded that it’s increasingly unclear what they’re meant to safeguard. The kids in The Bling Ring might well be largely  “uncoupled from fixed definitions” – the trouble is, instead of this being a path to enlightenment, it strands them in mind-boggling narcissism and idiocy.

The narrative gets under way as Marc, a vaguely troubled kid of no great distinction, arrives at a new school, where he instantly falls in with Rebecca, one of the hot girls. In a few minutes of screen time, she’s leading him outside from a party to check out the parked cars, finding a good percentage of them unlocked and containing spoils. They progress into rifling empty houses, first the homes of no-names and then (aided by Google as a supplier both of addresses and of information on who’s out of town at any given moment) of the rich and famous, their favourite target being Paris Hilton’s, which they hit up as you or I might visit a local Starbucks (the premise, reasonable from what we see of the house, is that she has so much stuff, she’d never miss any of it as long as they keep the nightly haul no greater than, say, a small truckload). Of course, it’s a bubble that inevitably bursts.

Taking from Paris

Their targets, like Hilton, all belong to that category where the source of their fame and wealth is either unknown, or else seems grossly disproportionate to their actual achievements, and Paris’ pad in particular resembles a department store cum nightclub cum Museum of Paris Hilton more than a place where anyone might feel at home. Of course, there’s not much new to be said about such excesses, and yet Coppola manages it, by conveying just how little any of these trappings matter, how they constitute an existential black hole of meaning. As the film presents it, the security at these buildings is shockingly lax, far more so than it would be for a “normal” person, who actually cared about their space and what it contained. The kids seem not to perceive their actions as stealing, and how could they, when what they’re taking wasn’t “earned” by any rational measure of functioning capitalism, doesn’t seem to fundamentally matter to its notional owners, and has little inherent value relative to its ticket price (it’s hard to imagine them wearing or using anything they steal much more than once). When they’re caught, they barely seem to relate to the development as other than a practical problem, which for at least one of them might as much constitute a public relations opportunity (Lindsay Lohan’s jail time gets cited several times). A shot near the end of Marc being led along in an orange jumpsuit, followed and preceded by serious-looking convicts with the kind of bodies and ambiance appearing nowhere else in the movie, emphasizes how little any of this has to do with broader societal notions and impacts of crime.

It’s not that Coppola defends her subjects as such, but that she seems to regard them as beyond defense or criticism, as embodiments of a complete moral absence. Writing in the British Observer, Catherine Shoard called the film “a Tinseltown stitch-up that exonerates all involved by understanding the plight of the crimes in terms of simple celeb worship (and) actually acts as yet another ad. By reiterating the desirability of starry clobber, Coppola is pushing positive brand reinforcement.” She adds: “Coppola's dialogue is remorselessly authentic in its inanity, and this blankness runs deep in what finally feels a shallow film about shallow people.” Many other reviewers saw the film in broadly similar terms, and it’s not hard to see where they’re coming from. But the depth of the blankness seems like the point – any kind of imposed intelligence or analytical distance would be untrue to the all-consuming absence of those qualities. If the film was going to be made at all, it could only be as an artfully shallow one.

A better life?

You might fairly argue though that the film didn’t need to be made, that Coppola is mining to exhaustion a narrow seam of material. Writing here about her last film Somewhere, an examination of a star actor, I said it raised such questions as “if someone like Johnny Marco isn’t living a better life than the average slacker, then what’s the point of it all; in particular, what’s the nature of the attention directed at him, the desire to be close to him?” and “we can find meaning in such lives if we look for it, but why are we bothering?” These may not be exactly the same questions as those raised by The Bling Ring, but they don’t seem a million miles removed from them either. Still, Coppola is skillful enough that it continues to seem like a useful line of investigation, even if the inner layerings of Hollywood can only stretch so far in illustrating broader issues.

I quoted Shoard as calling the film an “exoneration,” but it would be a complex task to consider whether America retains enough intellectual and ethical coherence to convict or exonerate anyone of much of anything; it’s a country that seems fixed where it ought to be open, and vice versa. I don’t think it’s quite at the point where Paris Hilton’s closet is a more meaningful institution than, say, Congress, but it might be getting there fast.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

2006 Toronto film festival report - part 7

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2006)

This is the seventh of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.

Red Road (Andrea Arnold)

This is Arnold’s first feature length picture (although she won an Oscar in 2003 for best live action short film) and took the special jury prize at Cannes last May. That award is easy to understand, for this is an expertly constructed drama, almost unbearably intense at times, and provocative about issues of morality and justice, especially in a surveillance society that reduces the physical and figurative ability to hide. It’s built around a Glasgow woman who monitors the network of security cameras trained on a rough part of the city; she recognizes a man just released from prison, starts to monitor him obsessively, and then gradually to inject herself into his life. There are some similarities with films like Vertigo and Blow-Up in how a desire we can only partly understand is driven by a compulsion to watch and to influence, but the precise contemporary milieu makes Arnold’s film distinctive and disturbing. Both lead actors are excellent, sustaining a strong feeling of pending violence. The film’s overall shape, once revealed, might be seen as a little too contrived (although very clever) and it certainly works too hard at providing a final feeling of closure. Still, it’s hard to imagine how a debut film could be much more assured.
Fay Grim (Hal Hartley)

For a while I thought the laconic Hartley might be one of the best directors of his time, although with hindsight he may always have been playing to the downtown crowd. Henry Fool was a distinct high, but since then his work has seemed tapped out. So back to something that worked at the time, with this sequel to Henry – Parker Posey’s suburban housewife (the wife Henry left behind at the end of the previous film) is suddenly catapulted into international espionage when her vanished husband’s rambling journals turn out to be currency in a terrorist plot. Well, it doesn’t work any more. Hartley’s patented technique, somewhere between cool and stunted, seems now less calculated than merely limited. The film, dense in exposition, codes, double-crosses and jumbled motivations, no doubt parodies the genre and the new imperative of “connecting the dots” against terrorism, but when carried out at such length and artificiality, parody is barely distinguishable from a pallid stab at the real thing. And the obsession with the earlier film’s entrails (presumably barely remembered now even by those of us who liked it) speaks merely of expired inspiration. If I hadn’t sadly suspected it might turn out this way, then this would have been my biggest disappointment of the festival.

Flandres (Bruno Dumont)

Dumont has a tenuous following at best – Humanite caused a bit of a scandal when it won several major prizes at Cannes, and his next film Twenty-Nine Palms was mostly seen as silly and tawdry. Personally I was highly susceptible to Humanite’s metaphysics and committed weirdness (it made my DVD-purchase grade, and I can’t say more than that), but there’s no question that Dumont is an egoist with an occasional lack of grace and limited preoccupations. Flandres exhibits his usual failings, and yet it seems imbued with a more straightforward sense of humanity, even sentimentality, rendering it rather more accessible and perhaps straightforwardly likeable. The film starts among a group of French farmers who are going off to an unspecified war (the details are intriguingly anachronistic), and a local girl who sleeps with two of them; later we follow the men through the brutal conflict, while the girl finds herself pregnant and is hospitalized. Dumont sees both home and war fronts as barely better than primitive; flesh and churned earth and blood and dying and living are all elements in some desolate recipe (although this approach makes for a compelling depiction of war), and yet he implies that something transcendent lies close to the core of all this. It’s an easy film to criticize, but I must admit I found it oddly impactful.

L’Intouchable (Benoit Jacquot)

Jacquot has been, rather inexplicably, a film festival favourite, subject of a spotlight retrospective in 1997 and now designated as a “Master,” although I’m not sure even discerning filmgoers really think of him as such. His last film A tout de suite was highly engaging though, indicating the possibility of a new, more discursive direction. L’Intouchable has the same loose feel as that movie, but is much slighter. A young actress travels to India to find the father she’s never met, and in the course of the journey acquires a certain amount of spiritual self-definition. Jacquot’s muse from A tout de suite, Isild Le Besco, again plays the protagonist here, and it’s not difficult to understand her appeal for him – not a classic beauty, she nevertheless suggests considerable sensuality and complexity, generating maximal affect from minimal apparent input. She seems to embody the loosening of Jacquot’s technique and the apparent dissipation of his interest in plot and structure. But I’m not sure there’s much more to this film than the concept “Isild goes to India.” It effectively captures some Indian vignettes and gently conveys her acquisition of greater serenity, but the film strikes me as a substantially blank canvas. A Master, I think, would demand more of himself, and of us.

And I saw this next one on its subsequent commercial release:

The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald)

Macdonald’s first fiction film (after documentaries including Touching The Void) is an intensely vivid dramatization of Ugandan Idi Amin’s decline from apparent liberator to outright murdering despot, as seen through the eyes of a young Scotsman who flukily becomes his personal physician. If you’ve ever seen a Western-made film about Africa, that synopsis already gives you the flaw – this is yet another film in which we concentrate on the narrow moral dilemmas and hazards of a single white protagonist, while the suffering of the multitudes passes mostly unseen in the background (the underappreciated Shooting Dogs, which quickly came and went a few months ago, was relatively more effective in pushing home the full extent of what happened in Rwanda). Forest Whitaker (in a performance that’s mentioned as an Oscar possibility) is effective enough at capturing the extremes of Amin’s personality, but the scenes that might make the portrayal truly illustrative simply haven’t been provided to him. Ultimately, the film merely becomes annoyingly contrived and sketchy. For all its obvious flaws, it’s saturated with atmosphere and dread, and hardly allows a dull moment, and given how the Amin regime already counts as distant history under the weight of so many subsequent cataclysms, it’s a useful contribution to future History Channel archives.

Better than saving the world

I know I’ve quoted it here before, but one of my favourite lines of film criticism is David Thomson’s comment about Howard Hawks, that it’s the principle of Hawks’ cinema “that men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world.” He goes on to say “that Hawks attends to such small things because he is the greatest optimist that the cinema has produced,” and that “the optimism comes out of a knowledge of failure and is based on the virtues and warmth in people that go hand-in-hand with their shortcomings.” Depending on your view of cinema, or of Hawks, you might not think that sounds like much, at least not compared to saving the world, and indeed it doesn’t, if you value “spectacle” and “escaping from your troubles” and the other heavy-welded components of the Hollywood brand above all other considerations. But is there a greater form of pessimism, I wonder, than submitting to an endless stream of coldly peril-ridden mythologies?

Frances Ha

Thomson’s line came back to me as I watched Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, one of the year’s most optimistic films – in the sense laid out above – and one of its most enchanting. Broader similarities with Hawks might not be self-evident, although it does provoke the thought that modern-day New York as occupied by young “arty” types – the territory of Lena Dunham’s Girls (with which the film shares a key cast member) and of a thousand low-budget movies – might now constitute a sort of genre framework in the way that westerns and private eyes once did. That is, whether or not what we’re watching is particularly representative of any documentable reality, it provides a wonderfully fertile framework in which to plot human interactions. I like Girls very much, but Baumbach’s work in Frances Ha is so subtle and skillful, it almost makes that show, and his own previous work, look heavy-handed (it also solidifies my reservations about Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, which I wrote about here two weeks ago).

Much of the credit certainly belongs to the lead actress Greta Gerwig, who wrote the film with Baumbach, and somewhere into the line entered into a much-covered relationship with him. Her Frances is 27 years old, poor, but as a friend points out, not really poor – although her actual income may be minimal, the supplementary momentum of favours, borrowed apartments, maxed-out credit cards and so forth still has a while to run. As the film begins, she’s sharing an apartment with her best friend Sophie, delighting in the easy familiarity of their relationship, and imagining it might continue indefinitely. But Sophie suddenly moves out, and then acquires a serious boyfriend, and her life heads off on a trajectory which threatens to exclude Frances altogether; Frances falters personally, and professionally (she’s trying to make it as a dancer), and enters what seems capable of becoming a serious downward spiral.

Weekend in Paris

The film proceeds through a gentle, often almost subliminal series of displacements and shifts, of mood and relationships and emotional structures. Its centerpiece, perhaps, is Frances’ weekend in Paris – a wickedly disastrous experience, so beautifully rendered it could constitute a short film in itself, while avoiding all sense of a calculated set-piece (even though it is that). But throughout, Baumbach avoids the over-emphatic rhythms that often mark even better films. Writing about a central dinner scene in Before Midnight, I noted how “the dialogue is all nicely spaced and distributed, with none of the digressions and dead zones of real social intercourse: everyone talks entirely in comic or metaphysical zingers (or both).” Baumbach may well have been subject to similar limitations in the past, but seldom here.

For another point of reference, Frances Ha has a dinner scene too, where Frances bemuses her hosts with her incoherent digressions. As I saw it during the weekend when The Heat was the number one film, I couldn’t help thinking how such a scene would play out in a Melissa McCarthy film, the prevailing mood shattered by imaginative obscenities and knowingly grotesque sexual innuendos. It might be funny, but it wouldn’t reveal a thing about character, and could never allow the scene’s surprising conclusion, where Frances suddenly shifts into an oddly beautiful reverie about love, all but taking away the breath of her previously skeptical hosts. Her imagery in that scene sets up a key moment toward the end, in a way that supports a theme of growth and adaptation – Frances achieves, if only in passing, her romantic dream, but in a context, and bearing a meaning, more tempered and complex than she could previously have imagined.

In addition to the trip to Paris, the film has numerous references to the French new wave, and to Francois Truffaut in particular – we glimpse a poster for one of his films, and his key actor Jean-Pierre Leaud gets a mention; Baumbach shoots it all in gorgeous black and white (which also brings some of Woody Allen’s peak-period comedies to mind at times). I don’t know whether Baumbach finds these links a specific source of artistic strength, but if nothing else they place Frances Ha in a tradition of eternally provocative and fulfilling cinema, created out of relative poverty of means, ventilated by a rejection of deadening conventions.

Classic Gerwig

Part of that tradition was always its greater sexual frankness, but funnily enough, Baumbach keeps things remarkably decorous in that respect: there’s a certain amount of sex, but no hint of any on screen – indeed, this absence (and the accompanying suggestion that Frances may be fundamentally undateable) is key to the film’s effect. Although it’s certainly a contemporary movie, there’s something rather out-of-time to this courtliness (judged as anthropology, it might be a flaw that smartphones aren’t as prominent as they should be, not that they’re absent), which adds to that sense of genre filmmaking, ably weaving reality and myth.

The film, then, seems to me a considerable delight, and confirms all the buzz about Gerwig as the truest heir to classic Hollywood – only a moderate beauty by magazine cover standards, but with a beyond-beguiling resourcefulness that might cause you to redefine your standards in such things. Frances Ha ought to be the talk of this supposedly film-loving city, but when I went with my wife to see it at 5 pm on the second Sunday of its release, there were only three other people in the place. The number one picture, as I mentioned, was The Heat, which at least by all accounts isn’t a film about saving the world, but nevertheless may constitute another step closer to destroying it, culturally speaking. What can you do, except close with an ambiguous ha?