Sunday, October 27, 2013

Female power

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2004)

The hot new spot in my downtown neighborhood is called Laide, an externally unprepossessing space housing a cool restaurant/bar. It’s a good place to hang out, with quality food and pleasant if slightly imprecise service. Laide’s design gimmick, if that’s the way to look at it, is built around sex – some erotic statues by the entrance, and vintage porn flicks projected on the wall (the night I was there, some time after midnight, they dumped the old stuff and started playing the Paris Hilton tape). From what I could see, very few if any of the patrons were actually watching the porn, and people who talk about having been to Laide generally don’t mention it. The badge of cool, I think, demands exactly that – to place oneself in a position to be (if we were nerds) titillated or (if we were prudes) offended, and then barely even to notice.

Town Bloody Hall

Laide would seem to me a perfectly plausible location for a first or second date, although the standard dating manuals, with their strategic relationship-building flowcharts and complex algorithms for calculating do’s and don’ts, would surely advise against it. Long insulated from dating considerations, I am genuinely uncertain how much of the prevailing wisdom in these matters has any real-life application, at least in a liberal, seen-it-all, Lavalife-friendly Western city. Certainly I’m not naive enough to think that everything between men and women has been equalized, although it seems likely to me that at least part of the remaining disparity might be subject to mutual agreement – albeit one in which it’s unclear how much of that agreement is lightly coerced by historical, cultural and biological determinism.

I recently rewatched the classic documentary Town Bloody Hall, which records a memorable, headline-forming debate on feminism that took place at New York’s town hall in 1971. Norman Mailer moderated a panel including Germaine Greer and Diana Trilling (with Susan Sontag, Betty Friedan and others in the audience). It’s still a rollickingly entertaining spectacle, although much of the way in which it’s entertaining (often involving Mailer being heckled, or blasting out outrageous statements) comes at the cost of a considered exploration of the issues.

The film transmits a distinct sense of accelerating female empowerment, but one grappling with multiple indices of oppression and belittlement. There’s a strong feeling of discomfort with the easy slogans of the liberation movement – Jacqueline Ceballos, at the time the president of the National Organization for Women, opens the debate with a laundry list of demands and goals, and then is never heard from again. Greer strikes more of a chord, not just for the audience but for the ages, with her vision of a more flexible, pluralistic movement. Mailer seems for the most part to be in tune with this, but occasionally shows severe limitations – such as in his claim that if a man doesn’t occasionally hit a woman, she’s caused him violence by denying him a necessary outlet. The film is very much a record of a specific time and place – such an event now would probably be an academic, sparsely attended yawner. This seems to me a case of at least one step forward.

The Stepford Wives

But also one back, because any debate on sexual politics nowadays is likely to be far more superficial than that in Town Bloody Hall. Take for example the shower of opinion pieces that accompanied Frank Oz’s remake of The Stepford Wives. The plot here is straightforward – a young couple and their kids, fleeing a career meltdown, move to a gated Connecticut community where all is beautiful and the wives are serenely compliant, to the point of idiocy. It turns out they’re all programmed to fulfill their nerdy husbands’ fantasies, and the heroine (played here by Nicole Kidman) is next in line for the treatment.

I can no longer recall much about the 1975 original, but I believe the tone was of a composed, precise chilliness. I searched the web for commentary on how that film might reflect the feminist waves of its time, but without finding much. Here’s one review I came across: “Little more than a knockoff of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives makes one tragic mistake: The women in town actually seem more interesting after their transformation than before it, when they come across as whiny and petulant, and little else.”

Which, obviously written by a male, might seem to unwittingly endorse the preconceptions that drive the Stepford males’ project. Anyway, the new film is an odd creation. Directed by Frank Oz and written by Paul Rudnick, it’s for the most part a comedy, partly a send-up of the original, partly a satire on...well, I’m not exactly sure what, and there lies the problem. The film doesn’t reinvent the concept of the Stepford wives in a modern idiom – as in the original, they’re all frilly dresses and Martha Stewart values. The men, hanging out in the Stepford Men’s Association, wear club jackets, smoke big cigars, and engage in radio-controlled car duels. I seriously question how relevant this will seem to Toronto audiences.

Stepford Husbands

The Stepford men are a narrow social sub-group – geeks who happened to be married to high-performing women and got tired of living in their shadows. This seems to be more about power than about sex – an interpretation supported by the film’s throwing in a gay couple and even a former champion terrier, transformed now into a mechanical echo of its former self. But this plight (a mere blip on the vast spectrum of power inequalities) doesn’t seem like a very compelling basis for social commentary. In the end, somewhat remarkably, the film comes up with a plot twist (not in the original) that goes some way to explaining the movie and justifying it on its own terms. But only at the cost of rendering everything we’ve seen the result of a single warped psyche, thus making it easy to write it all off.

I don’t want to dump on the film completely – in fact I might even give it a mild thumbs up for the wacky trilogy of Kidman, Bette Midler and Roger Bart, who – mocking everything around them  - share the film’s most engaging scenes. At 93 minutes, it’s a colourful, zippy concoction. But on top of everything I mentioned, the ending (apparently extensively reshot) is clumsy and poorly handled, leaving a distinctly flat taste in your mouth. It’s meant to be an affirmation of feminine individuality, but I don’t think too many female viewers will feel a bloodrush of identification. 

Despite all this, the fact that the film looks as if it ought to harbour some kind of meaning gives it some currency as a cultural focal point – and there would certainly have been even more attention paid to it if it hadn’t been generally poorly received. But this only raises questions about those who determine our cultural focal points. I doubt the film could sustain too many conversations at Laide, even if it were projected right on the wall.

Bad times

It often feels now that we’ve created a world incapable of being governed for any notion of the collective good. Individuals and even organizations remain capable of generating wonders, but our societal clumps – whether cities, provinces, countries, continents – just keep failing, often with startling abandon. The only reason the crisis isn’t more obvious is surely that it’s too extreme for our comprehension; it seems impossible that this dazzling network of wonders we’ve constructed for ourselves could be so fragile. The toxic combination of ballooning inequalities, perversely unbalanced social contracts, grim environmental deficits, the chronic distraction and superficiality of the citizenship, and leadership hypocrisy so fluent and all-encompassing it needs to be marked by some new term: all of this increasingly resembles a mechanism that can only be powered by forcing more and more people (the poor, unwanted excess, in effect) into a pit of the living dead.  The recent fiscal fiasco in the United States was notable for the grotesquerie of its details, but the basic scenario of underlying pus and blood bursting out into the open, temporarily stemmed only by pushing on a soiled bandage that will only deepen the underlying infection, is all but universally recurring now.

A Touch of Sin

The US gun epidemic demonstrates the all-but-obvious: that such incoherence will keep breeding more trouble - and, short-lived hand-wringing aside, mass acceptance of its presence. Jia Zhang-ke’s masterly new Chinese film A Touch of Sin, currently playing at the Bell Lightbox, causes us to reflect on the horrible if not terminal implications of viewing violence as inevitable; even as ethical – or at least, not plainly less ethical than all that surrounds it. Of course, this is in a certain sense one of the more over-explored subjects in cinema, embodied by all those ridiculous studies of the inner lives of serial killers, assassins, and the like. At times, Jia’s film has the startlingly brutal and bloodily stylized moments that form the basic grammar of that grim genre, but it redeploys them not as periods, leading nowhere except into their own sick entrails, but rather as question marks, profoundly probing the environment that gave rise to them. In an interview, Jia put it like this: “I do believe that every instance of violence that I’m talking about has in the background injustice that’s suffered by these people. They have no language to express their anger, so they end up treating violence with violence.”

The film consists of four loosely-connected episodes, each a story of systemic injustice ending in personal tragedy. In the first, a man seethes at the corruption that sees the profits of recently denationalized industries flowing to an elite few, rather than for the public good; his efforts get him beaten up and ridiculed, so he takes other action. In the second, a compulsive traveler makes one of his periodic returns to his home village before setting off again; we ultimately learn how he makes his living. The third has a young woman, emotionally or physically mistreated by her lover, his wife, and by clients at the all-night sauna where she works, eventually forcing her to defend herself. The young man in the final, quietest story drifts through a series of jobs until the cumulative mistreatment and compromise forces him too into a bleak response.

Overwhelming pessimism

Summed up in that way, the film may sound like a grind, but in Jia’s hands, it’s constantly visually ravishing, filled with remarkable compositions, often contrasting the country’s imposing physical presence with the faltering human attempts to master it, or alighting on small moments of beauty and mystery. It doesn’t feel hopeless necessarily – not as long as the basic everyday social fabric perseveres. But it’s also aware that the non-elite subsists on little more than relative scraps from the table. This is Jia again: “There’s suddenly an overwhelming sense of pessimism towards the current Chinese situation. In my past films, I’ve portrayed the various changes pertinent in Chinese society, but within this process of change there was always a notion that with these changes, life could bring upon itself certain resolutions to its problems. But now we see resources are being more and more held by a smaller margin of people and there’s less and less movement for progress for everyone else.”

This pessimism confers a certain nobility on the quotidian interactions of those people excluded from the elite. People still worry about not “losing face” in the eyes of others; the most likely way to get from A to B may be simply to wave at a passing truck and hop into the back; for every area of modernization, there’s another that hasn’t changed for decades. But these social rituals becomes as circumscribed as the travels of caged birds. In the second story, the protagonist’s older brother, taking seriously his familial responsibilities, sets out a full accounting of the net proceeds from their mother’s recent birthday celebration, and its division between the family members (right down to the left-over cigarettes). We already know however that the amounts involved are dwarfed by what’s been generated from the wanderer’s illegitimate activities: virtue doesn’t stand a chance, any more so than (in one of the loveliest scenes) a young prostitute’s attempt to rebalance her moral ledger through the Buddhist practice of releasing captive fish back into the water.

The World

Jia’s comments about his growing pessimism seem to be rooted in clear-eyed realism. His strongest work prior to this, the 2004 film The World, was also often melancholy, and was particularly attuned toward the forces driving women toward merely superficial advancement, ornamentation or even prostitution. But compared to A Touch of Sin, it contained much deeper veins of humour, even using occasional cartoon inserts that through their peppy excess underlined the characters’ inertia (and, as a secondary theme, the mixed blessing of their reliance on cellphones, which isn’t a major factor in the new work). His personal journey in that ten-year gap, seemingly disinclined even to passingly enjoy the trivial offsets of our progress, tracks the calcifying of expectations about what the modern Chinese revolution might realistically achieve.

It’s uncannily mirrored in the West, for instance in how the recovery from the economic problems in 2008 belongs almost entirely to the super-rich (who, nevertheless, persist in portraying themselves as hamstrung by the ills of government regulation, taxes and so on); it sometimes seems like a miracle that this hasn’t unleashed greater physical anger and attempted redress. This makes A Touch of Sin doubly remarkable, as a film that’s both gloriously specific about its own environment, and disturbingly productive as a springboard to contemplating our own.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Nightmares and dreams

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2007)

This is David Poland’s reaction to Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part II: “I never did respect Roth's work.  Now, if he and I crossed paths, I would refuse to shake his hand.  I would extinguish the fire if he was burning, using something quicker than urine, but I'm not sure that I wouldn't consider it karmic payback for him.”

Sometimes I think I need to power up my own style. Roth is kind of an easy target though. It’d be more satisfyingly perverse to get verbally medieval on the perpetrators of Shrek III. But I guess I just lack those hormones, because I can’t recall any movie sending me into such a hissy fit. So, I would shake Roth’s hand for sure. I wouldn’t kiss his hand though, if there’s any kind of line there.

I quite liked the first Hostel, which I thought worked fairly viably as an allegory of bull-headed American imperialism trampling all over the world and getting its come-uppance. Not to mention that it was genuinely nerve jangling. The sequel isn’t as effective in either regard. Once again, the premise is a group of American backpackers boozing and screwing their way across Europe, lured off track to a remote Slovakian town, where it turns out they’re destined as raw meat for international high-rollers who get their kicks from torture and killing. This time the victims are girls rather than guys - a predictable switch that merely aligns the movie more drably with the age-hold women in terror genre.

The other main change is that we’re shown more of the perpetrators – a real off-putting bunch, all of whom I’d guess vote Republican. In Roth’s wittiest move, the client we see most of is played by Roger Bart, a campy presence in The Producers and Desperate Housewives; the casting doesn’t really come off though. Otherwise, there’s much of the same stuff we saw in the first film, some entertaining parodying of the importance of contracts in business, a few really nasty images, including the one that set Poland off, and another turn-the-tables finale that although well executed, doesn’t pack much of a punch. And not much to think about afterwards. It comes with the “Quentin Tarantino presents” opening title and is certainly a less self-conscious example of the grindhouse mentality than Tarantino’s own Death Proof, but that’s not really a compliment, merely an observation.

The Golden Door

Emanuele Crialese’s Nuovomondo, released here as The Golden Door, is a film of modest but satisfying revelations. In the early twentieth century, a poor Sicilian farmer decides to take his family to the New World in America (partly influenced by postcards that depict money growing on trees, and vegetables as big as people). The film is in three parts: the start of their journey in Sicily; the fraught sea crossing; and then, on arrival, the crushing, insensitive bureaucracy of Ellis Island.

The last section is the most gripping, meticulously setting out innumerable humiliating rituals (presumably historically accurate). Viewed against current American paranoia about border security and illegal immigration, this section stands as a persuasive implied criticism of the country’s disrespect for its own heritage. Much of what comes before feels largely familiar, but Crialese has a knack for arresting images that capture the family’s extreme disorientation.

The film’s main narrative flourish comes through a character played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, a woman of uncertain past traveling alone; articulate in English and alert to nuances (at times implausibly modern), she’s ideally equipped for a new life, but forced into compromise by the sexual politics of the time.  It’s hard to make sense of the character, but I think that’s deliberate – she embodies a complexity that the Sicilians (almost totally unschooled in abstract thought, it seems to me) can’t grasp, and yet intuitively know to be a necessary resource for their successful evolution. 

Brand upon the Brain

Brand upon the Brain is perhaps the most accessible entertainment so far from the wacky Winnipeg auteur Guy Maddin, although it doesn’t sound like it if you list the ingredients. It has no dialogue, telling the story through a combination of intertitles and an eccentric voice over read by Isabella Rossellini, and is shot in grainy, beat-up looking black and white. The plot involves a man called Guy Maddin who comes back to the lighthouse (and former orphanage) where he spent his childhood, unleashing a flood of memories of the olden days: suffice to say he didn’t come from a normal background. It’s a flurry of paranoia, voyeurism, sexual displacement, cross-dressing, devil-worship and penny-dreadful monster-movie stuff, drenched in Oedipal implications.

Maddin’s movie, like all his work, is only superficially kooky and primitive. This is as intricately crafted a film as you’ll see all year: the flow of images never takes a break, and the narrative is equally as breathless. It’s very true to the general spirit of silent movies (a period of cinema history that Maddin reveres), but very modern both in some of the imagery (such as the casual use of nudity) and the complexity of the underlying layerings. I haven’t generally been all that enthralled by Maddin’s work (frankly, with several of them I couldn’t even figure out why I was meant to give a damn), but the traumatic whimsy of Brand upon the Brain really pushed my buttons.


It worked pretty well that I went right from Guy Maddin’s film to Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, another remarkable fantasy. This is a work of anime, with visuals that alternately evoke both kindergarten cuteness and sleek, techno-savvy sexiness, and it’s vaguely reminiscent of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, if Lynch had inhaled several cases of bubble gum and decided to embrace primary colours. A futuristic dream-monitoring device has been stolen from a research facility, placing the boundary between dream and reality in jeopardy. Paprika, the dreamland alter ego of one of the female scientists, gets on the case, along with a visually varied group of collaborators.

Paprika fits comfortably into the apparently bottomless well of meta-movies that constantly challenge their own reality, but it’s too bouncy to succumb to that genre’s frequent self-importance. Given the current state of digital technology it’s probably no longer accurate to say that such a film – despite its parade of wondrous creations – could only have been rendered through animation, but as you watch it you realize the frequently rather depressing heaviness of big-budget attempts at fantastic realism.

It also has a nice, unforced angle on the frequently evoked parallel between dreams and cinema – of all the preoccupied cops in movies, this has the first one I can recall whose angst is rooted in having chosen law enforcement over film-making – and a warm-hearted approach toward the human heart (if you think the guy in Knocked Up got the girl against heavy odds, you should see what plays out here). I don’t watch a lot of Japanese anime – if memory serves, it’s only been Steamboy and a couple of Miyazaki movies this decade – but I have to admit, every time I go there, it’s worth the trip.

Difficult people

The TIFF Lightbox is currently showing a season of films by Claire Denis, one of the most thrilling of current filmmakers. In the program notes, Brad Deane ably evokes the unique impact of her work: “Marked by an intimate sensuality that contrasts with her often harsh subject matter, Denis' films are made up of fragments constantly coalescing and dispersing, creating a visceral ‘in the moment’ experience that renders her characters uncannily familiar even as their motives and drives often remain mysterious. The extraordinary proximity Denis creates between her characters and the audience allows us to slowly, almost intuitively understand their struggles, pains, difficulties and desires.”

Claire Denis

Perhaps the work that most pushes this approach to the extreme is The Intruder, one of the few films in recent years that I watched again within days of my first viewing. Even the second time round, it doesn’t come close to being “explicable” in the normal sense – some elements are surely fantasy, or else expressions of an inner state, but they’re not easily coded as such; Denis holds inner and outer geographies in stunning, almost humbling alignment. Others of her films, like Vendredi soir and 35 Rhums, are easier to absorb, but no less impressive for how she illuminates a small, unremarkable piece of the world and makes it thrillingly sensuous, without any sense of force or excess.

Her 2001 film Trouble Every Day illustrated how Denis’ methods might as effectively be applied to explore a heart of darkness. It’s a tale of two people afflicted by a kind of contemporary vampirism, as alert as ever to alternate possibilities and pathways, but in this case using that sensitivity to intensify the trauma at its centre. The title hints at her audacity – it’s almost offhand, as if bemoaning one’s everyday lot (the irritating days, for instance, when one gets covered in blood from tearing one’s victim apart): it’s the quotidian resonance that makes the film so disturbing and powerful.


Her latest film Bastards, also playing at the Lightbox, returns to bleak material: it’s a contemporary film noir, constructed from classic raw materials. The opening stretch alone encompasses heavy rain; a man lying dead; a young girl walking naked in the street; a tough sea captain who comes home to sort out the mess; a desolately beautiful woman who becomes his lover, although she’s already linked to the powerful man who’s somehow in the background of all this mayhem. Many reviewers found the film overly confusing and obscure, but a few secondary plot points aside, I didn’t find it so; actually, if anything, I might judge it to be too tightly wound to carry the impact of Denis’ very greatest works.

Having said that, it’s another indelible creation: certainly one of the most fascinating and spiritually gripping films I’ve seen this year. Denis cites William Faulkner’s book Sanctuary as a major influence: I’m not familiar with that material, but I kept thinking in various ways (as did others) of Polanski’s Chinatown, another story of local politics (although in Bastards it’s personal and commercial – focusing on a bankrupt family business – rather than municipal) and of sexual transgression that crosses the ultimate taboos, with another protagonist in a dangerous liaison; another story too where the nature and capacity of the power at the centre only gradually reveals itself.

It’s a loose comparison though, and one of the major points of difference lies in contrasting Jack Nicholson’s scrappy Gittes to Vincent Lindon’s Marco, the returning voyager in Bastards. In very short order, Marco leaves his job, sells most of his possessions, cashes in his life insurance, seemingly following an intuitive journey toward self-immolation, even as the details of what and why he’s doing remain unclear to him. Lindon has all the craggy resonance of a classic outsider, but Denis doesn’t overplay the character’s existential momentum – he isn’t a quasi-ethereal figure like Alain Delon in Le Samourai, but a man who admits to numerous limitations, and who gets snapped at by the daughter who lives with his ex-wife. Likewise, his lover Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni) seems perpetually weighed down and haunted by the compromises that have defined her life. As always with Denis, the film is enormously ventilated by the keenness of her observations – even if in this case they’re as often horrifying (day to day items put to grotesque use) as they are illuminating (details of bankruptcy law, or the extremely precise inventorying of Marco’s possessions – his expensive white shirts, his watch, his classic car, his smartphone).

In that same essay, Deane says: “As the increasing unity of our globalized era ironically augments the fracturing of our identities and the fragmenting of our experiences, Denis reminds us of our inescapable nearness to one another through the shared language of the body — a nearness that, whether it be reassuring or unsettling, compels us to confront our own longings and desires, our own personal states of exile, rather than pass judgment on those of others”. That last point is explicit in the movie, when Raphaelle explicitly tells Marco she doesn’t judge his actions (implicitly asking for a similar courtesy), and film writers in general often hold up such reticence to “pass judgment” as a sublime virtue among artists, but I’m not sure why that’s the case: aren’t there plenty of situations, personal as well as political, where principled, informed opposition should count for more than a wholly-headed tolerance?

Withholding judgment

In any event, the last scene of Bastards poses an extreme test of our ability to withhold judgment, and of this reading of her work, as Denis forces us up close against the events at the centre of the plot, destroying any capacity we might have had to regard these matters as abstractions. We’ve earlier seen that one of the men involved is capable of loving his son, but that’s merely the indulgence you find even in monsters; maybe even the way they reassure themselves that the evil they commit elsewhere is justified in the grand calculus. It seems appropriate and even necessary to judge, but at the same time, to Deane’s point, Denis all but dares us not to fantasize ourselves into that scene, and thus to indict ourselves.

There’s a similar provocation in one of the film’s most shocking moments, when the camera travels down the naked girl’s body, an image that travels in seconds from being potentially or actually erotic to traumatic, as we register the damage done to her. Moments like these sum up Denis’ immense power as a filmmaker – forcing us into contradictory impressions and reactions, into constantly reassessing what’s before us and thus in some way ourselves. It would be remarkable enough if she confined her power to a single genre or a narrow line of enquiry, but her interests and affinities seem almost boundless. Only for one of the greatest of filmmakers would a film as richly controlled and allusive as Bastards seem like a relatively second-level work.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Stage and Screen

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2006)

So I was lucky enough to go to the stage Lord of the Rings recently. I put it that way because it’s a major cultural event and I know lots of people would love to be able to see it. And a feeling of privileged access is at the heart of theatre. If I try to recall my most thrilling artistic experiences, it’s likely that as many come from the theatre as from film – usually on occasions when I was very close to the stage, able to watch every flicker of expression and drop of spit, utterly enveloped in the mix of rampant illusion and overwhelming specificity. Then if I try to recall my worst artistic experiences, a fair number of them involve sitting in not-so-good seats, fighting off sleep as some lumbering, airless spectacle goes through the motions. Don’t get me started again on Cats. 

Lord of the Rings

Once the unenthusiastic reviews came out, and I kept reading about its monster length, I actually started to dread LOTR. As we walked to the theatre our legs must have been resisting us, because the curtain was already up when we arrived – I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before. Eventually we got to our seats, and by the end of the first act I definitely thought my expectations would be surpassed. A little bit of that mythical silly name mumbo jumbo goes a long way with me, but the play seemed to be moving through it fairly fluently, the first act has a fairly jaunty musical number, and even by the standards of big budget productions, I found myself captivated by the stage craft. Time and again, the setting would utterly transform itself (no wonder they took so many previews to get it all down pat) and I’d think: how the hell did they manage that? I could definitely have used an instant replay. And the first act has a finale with a dragon which, although a little hokey, certainly delivers the big-budget goods.

And that’s as good as it gets. The remaining two acts get weighed down in endless exposition, repetitive action, boring songs (a shame they passed on the challenge of finding a rhyme for Bilbo Baggins), and diminishing variations on what had initially grabbed me. The production has a huge cast, but they’re all swamped – sad to say, Brent Carver is particularly lost under Gandalf’s beard. To the end, Lord of the Rings never quite gives up the ghost (again, where did all those sunflowers at the end come from?), but the immense talent and application seems wasted. For it never comes close to answering this one key question: what the hell was the point?


Well, to make money of course, and to prove it could be done, and because everyone loves a challenge, and maybe it was even someone’s childhood dream, although if so it obviously took Peter Jackson to shake that dream loose. None of which is quite enough. It’s philosophically somewhat interesting too to know that the chicken crossed the road because it was there, but nothing much is gained by observing the journey.

You can’t assess Lord of the Rings, inevitably, without thinking about the reported $26 million budget. The play is much more significant as a capital investment than it is as art, and it’s probably best contemplated in the abstract as a “Quirky way to blow $26 million,” rather than as something consciously aesthetic. If you look on it as a matrix of human and logistical choreography, without worrying about the purpose of all that, it’s perhaps rather wonderful. Some people will be susceptible to that mindset. But the closing shouts of “Bravo” from the man behind me sounded awfully isolated.

A few days later I saw the new film Brick, directed by Rian Johnson. Brick is almost the ultimate example of a film powered by a single inspired idea. It is this: make a classic film noir, with all the hard-bitten dialogue and world-weary attitudes and femmes fatale and complicated plotting – really, the entire package – but set it all among high school kids. And I’m talking about playing it straight – not about a campy Bugsy Malone-type exercise. Brick may actually be the most focused, single-minded example of the genre in recent years.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the protagonist, a senior following the trail of his missing girlfriend, and among other things he takes more beatings than almost anyone I’ve ever seen outside a boxing movie. Also prominent in the scheme is a menacing drug dealer played by Lukas Haas, who runs a local crime ring from his basement, from which he sometimes emerges to be pampered with cereal and juice by his mother. Most of the film’s laughs come from such incongruities with adults, but that doesn’t add up to a large number. And it’s rather miraculous how such an extremely stylized film seems to constitute a valid expression of the turbulent questing adolescent psyche – it never pushes the conceit so far that they don’t all still seem like flailing vulnerable crazy kids. The movie’s sparse, plaintive mood is highly effective in this regard.

For all that I can’t say I really enjoyed watching Brick that much – it’s a bit repetitive, and too abstract to develop much dramatic tension. And I have to come clean – a lot of the time, I just couldn’t follow what was meant to be happening. That’s famously true of The Big Sleep too of course, but that film had a somewhat richer fabric overall (oh, and Bogart and Bacall). But I do admire it, because it has the feeling of a film rooted deep in someone’s psyche, executed with immense fidelity to a vision, and tolerating almost no concessions.

Sophie Scholl: The Last Days

Sophie Scholl was only 21 when she was caught in 1943 distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in a Munich university. She was interrogated, sentenced to death and guillotined. Marc Rothemund’s film about these events (which was nominated for this year’s foreign film Oscar), based on the actual transcripts, is sober and meticulous, sticking very close to the actual events with little sense of the world beyond. Julia Jentsch’s portrayal of Sophie is similarly unshowy, but it’s extremely effective at conveying Sophie’s sheer inability to process this experience – her consistent grace seems like part heroism and part bewilderment, although the film subtly maps her gathering maturity.

The movie has a few conventional ploys, such as her interrogator’s sympathy for her and – seeming most contrived perhaps – the way her defense at her trial seems to provoke a silent awakening among the Nazi functionaries in the audience. That trial by the way is a hysterical sham that may make your blood boil. But overall Rothemund depicts this human tragedy as fully as one would want, constituting an appropriately measured tribute to Sophie without ever coming close to a hagiography. Her story has apparently been filmed a couple of times before, but this may be a necessary project every generation or so.

Above the Earth

As Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity begins, two astronauts – Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) – are carrying out a mission at the Hubble telescope, respectively luxuriating in and trying to cope with the absence of normal physicality, the contrast between their phenomenally rarified perspective on the Earth and the more mundanely challenging task at hand. The chatter with Mission Control is easy and bucolic, suddenly hardening when they get a warning about approaching space debris. Chaos hits, and immediately it’s all about survival – with no other survivors, a ruined craft, and a declining oxygen supply.

In for a penny

I saw the film in the most expansive (and expensive) available format – IMAX 3-D – on the basis that with this kind of spectacle, it’s in for a penny, in for a pound. It’s worth it: 3-D has come a long way in the last few years, and Gravity is a sensuously immersive experience, giving you the feeling of privileged vigilance over, if not participation in, astonishing events. Cuaron has been talking in interviews about the various technological breakthroughs required in making the film: you occasionally get the impression of a cinema released from all constraints (according those of scientific accuracy, according to expert commentators), limited only by the capacity of dreams and imagination to keep flowing without faltering. The effect is all the more impressive for the times when Cuaron very specifically emphasizes, in contrast, the existence of the apparatus: subjective points of view from inside a space helmet, or water landing on the lens.

Fragility is baked into the story too. The interiors of the vessels – presumably realistically – exhibit the kind of old-fashioned technology design that all but evokes the rotary phone, along with bygone-era instruction manuals. It’s impossible not to reflect on the miracle of the original Apollo moon landings – carried out, it’s sometimes said, on the basis of less computing power than we can now carry round in our pockets – and on the tragedy that (insofar as we can see right now) man’s engagement with space looks more like a story of the past than one of the future. At various moments you feel the hard physical presence of hand rails and wheels and tethers: again, essentially primitive indicia of industrial society, in this context connoting both the limitations of human progress and a vaguely comforting form of continuity. The title itself has a similar duality, as the movie is less “about” gravity than its absence.

How tiny we are

These aspects of the film are easy to praise, expressed throughout in startlingly beautiful images (I don’t think I’ll ever forget a moment when Stone/Bullock, having just removed her suit and replenished her oxygen, simply allows herself to float and be renewed – an unforced evocation of something elemental). I find it a bit harder to assess other aspects of its relative achievements though. Peter Howell in the Star puts it this way: “Beyond sheer entertainment value — and there’s plenty of that — the film’s deeper meaning is profound appreciation of just how tiny we are in the vastness of the universe and how connected we are to the Earth’s embrace.”

This may indeed express Cuaron’s underlying intentions, but as deeper meanings go, it’s not much of one: our tininess in the vastness of the universe and reliance on the earth are, for lack of a better word, obvious, and whether one appreciates these matters profoundly or superficially doesn’t seem likely to make much difference to anything once the picture’s over. Howell goes on to add that “CuarĂ³n is out to inspire us and make us believe in miracles,” but this is merely the intention of every other Hollywood movie from Rocky to The Blind Side, and frankly, you could well argue that for a country in such a deranged current state, it’s the height of bourgeois decadence to be swooning over such unrepresentative wonders.

That might seem like a trite series of objections to something that’s perhaps intended to inspire a wordless, inchoate awe, but it would be easy for mainstream cinema to be no more than a rush to build the biggest and the brightest, trying to dazzle us with images of Vegas so that we forget where we actually live. It seems to me a shame that Gravity has so little to offer as a study of people, especially given the unique situation in which it places them. Clooney’s presence seems to me especially problematic: he plays Kowalski as an unshakably optimistic, wise-cracking, but super-capable veteran, whose demeanour doesn’t crack even at his darkest moments. Such behaviour is a plausible reaction to extreme stress of course, especially among such experienced operators, but as presented here, it’s about the least interesting psychological course that could possibly have been followed.

Conjuring the sublime

Bullock’s character, on the other hand, comes with plenty of baggage – a daughter who died at the age of four, leaving her an emotional shell, and thoughts of whom occupy her heavily as she faces her own mortality. As presented here, the device seems like little more than a manipulation, albeit not as much of one as the film’s hoariest scene, which relies on giving physical space to Stone’s oxygen-deprived imaginings. It’s possible the banality of such devices is somewhat deliberate, as a kind of expression of ordinary human un-remarkableness in the most extreme of circumstances; even in the midst of unprecedented sensations and sights, we can’t hope to transform our basic matter in all its messiness, only to direct it as best we can (the opposite, really, of Howell’s interpretation about having us believe in miracles). But even if that’s the intention, Cuaron makes it much less interesting than it should be.

Liam Lacey, in his Globe and Mail review, remarks how there’s “something conceptually pure about a drama that pits one individual against a hostile environment,” but then ends up somewhere close to Howell, describing how the film “intimates mystery and profundity, with that mixture of beauty and terror that the Romantics called the sublime.” There’s an irony there: in one of the most famous expressions of that tradition, Wordsworth evokes the blessed mood in which the heavy and weary weight of all this unintelligible world is lightened.” In Gravity, you might say, the lightening of the world’s weight is (somewhat literally) the problem – the desire to return to it, to invert the usual direction of the sublime, becomes the driving force. This might mean Lacey has things the wrong way round, or might indicate how Gravity ultimately occupies a thematic space whose coordinates are as hard to pin down as passing shards.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Mysteries of Character

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2005)

Three movies and the people in them:

Cinderella Man

Virtually every review of Cinderella Man, even the negative ones, cite the movie as the year’s first big Oscar contender. It’s a neat illustration of how the popular conception of quality has become a knee-jerk commodity. I find Jeffrey Wells’ review on his Hollywood Elsewhere website particularly entertaining in this regard. He leads off: “Cinderella Man isn't quite stupendous, but it's honest and earnest and has dignity and heart, and if you don't respond to it on some deep-down human level there's probably something you should have inside that's not there.”

It’s a statement of towering arrogance when you think about it – affirming capitulation to commercial calculation as a measure of personal decency. As always, this notion is tied in to the enduring myth of America’s transcendence. Wells goes on: “Every movie that connects with audiences (and believe me, this one will) says something that everyone including your grandfather recognizes as honest and true. The message of Cinderella Man, simply put, is that there's nothing like getting heavily and repeatedly kicked in the ass (like having to deal with hopelessness and soup kitchens and bread lines, having no job, being unable to pay the electricity bill, seeing your kids go hungry) to give your life a certain focus.”

Which is a convenient message indeed for an age when increasing numbers of people are getting heavily and repeatedly kicked in the ass, even if they don’t know it yet. Cinderella Man is the story of James J Braddock, a boxer who achieved success in the 1920’s, plummeted during the Depression, and then made a spectacular comeback in the mid-30s’. Russell Crowe plays Braddock, and Ron Howard directed the film: it’s their reunion after the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind (co-written by that film’s writer Akiva Goldsman). The film is indeed impeccable, beautifully crafted, blah blah blah. It’s also lacking the slightest iota of individuality or invention – even by prevailing standards, it’s monstrously conventional. Among its obvious flaws: the effect of the Depression is only superficially conveyed, the film doesn’t engage at all with the undercurrents of boxing, Crowe’s performance is a one-note portrayal of simpering quasi-idiocy, and it goes on.

And yes, the film is effective – I felt myself getting choked up on several occasions. But this only confirms how its turgid calculations feed into familiar scenarios of identification and emotional vulnerability without ever challenging them. The fact that Cinderella Man moves you only makes you doubt the integrity of your own responses. The fact that I enjoyed it makes me think there’s something I should have inside my head that’s not there.

The Holy Girl

Lucrecia Martel’s La Cienaga got good reviews a few years ago, but I found it very dense and sultry and I must confess I had trouble staying awake through it. Her second film The Holy Girl is quite a bit more accessible, while at the same time weaving a thematic web of often thrilling complexity. The film follows a teenage girl, living in a hotel with her mother. The hotel hosts a conference of physicians, one of whom molests the girl in a crowd one day. Her head is full of ideas from her religious instruction classes, and she fixes on herself as an instrument for the doctor’s redemption. But these impulses can hardly be distinguished from her sexual awakening, and her sense of mission renders her intensely dangerous.

The film imposes its mood with great authority – the mustiness of the hotel (a maid constantly spraying), creeping dilapidation, references to microbes and blood flow and the like; and the proximity of so many doctors only seems to emphasize the unhealthiness of it all. The film of course intertwines physical and spiritual health until any distinction appears impossible – in the opening scene, while the religious instructor conducts her class, the girls whisper that she’s been seen with a man, and speculate on his tongue sliding down her throat. Virtually all relationships in the film appear either transgressive or easily undermined, and although it’s not exactly a comedy, there’s a wryness in much of the plotting. The girl’s mother falls for the doctor too, so that when he comes to her to confess, she thinks his mind is on her, and subsumes his frail attempts to spit it out with a gushing admission that she feels the same way. But the film’s sticky atmosphere never slips, and we feel the pressure underlying any human interaction, however flawed. The film reaches an end point that’s highly conditional, establishing a form of closure for one character while verging on the edge of catastrophe for others. You get the feeling that within Martel’s universe it may always be this way.

I wouldn’t claim that I could summarize the film with great authority after a single viewing, and I feel rather guilty that I’m even trying to. Martel’s film doesn’t give us what we already know – and not just because it’s from Argentina. We all know the idiosyncrasy and murkiness of human motives, and we must surely know that much of our success as human beings lies in our ability to engage with that complexity (within ourselves and others), and yet we constantly look to simplicity, to a transparency that I’d call childlike, except that even children are more nuanced than many of the people we see in movies. The Holy Girl is stylized, but not at the cost of intense engagement with its superbly conceived people.


Susanne Bier’s Danish film Brothers lies somewhere between the two movies discussed above. It’s the story of a soldier who’s shot down and believed killed over Afghanistan; his wife tries to move on, growing closer to her wastrel brother in law. The soldier languishes in a camp, where he undergoes a terrible experience (in perhaps one of the year’s most wrenching scenes); when he’s finally liberated, the memory of what he’s seen and done mixes in with his suspicion of events in his absence, and he becomes frighteningly volatile.

Bier has a naturalistic quasi-Dogme style, and her movie is exceptionally watchable. The scenes at home in Denmark have an intimate rough and tumble style, while the scenes in Afghanistan have a more conventional dramatic edge. Truth be told, boiled down to its elements, much of the film is standard melodrama, and it’s not a particular step forward from Bier’s intriguing first film Open Hearts. On the other hand, the movie is ultimately intriguing for what it leaves out. It leaves the relationship between the brothers satisfyingly vague, defining them both almost as much in relation to the wife as to themselves, although her feelings are left consistently opaque. In the end Brothers seems like the product of a much simpler sensibility than The Holy Girl, but still, next to Cinderella Man’s anthill of human discovery it appears mountainous.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Middle-aged love

Nicole Holofcener makes the kind of film they don’t make any more, and also the kind of film they never really made. Her work reminds you of the golden age of writers like Neil Simon, and of a time when a commercial romantic comedy might star actors like Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson: the movies were only intermittently laugh-out-loud funny, and seldom moved outside a fairly narrow tonal and emotional range, but they were entirely satisfying within those parameters. The word “pleasant” sounds too much like damning with faint praise, but very little contemporary cinema brings the word to mind: Holofcener might be the modern-day standard-bearer of that quality. At the same time of course, she’s a woman, which was seldom the case for the writers of such comedies in previous decades, and almost never for the directors. In Holofcener’s work, with its different emphases and preoccupations, a modern-day Glenda Jackson might ascend from second- to top-billing once in a while.

Enough Said

There’s no point denying though that a finding of pleasantness might actually constitute faint praise, and Holofcener’s new film Enough Said illustrates its limitations as a governing attribute. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva, a masseuse who’s sort of drifting through life, sharing custody of her teenage daughter with her ex-husband. At a party she separately meets and hits it off with a poet, Marianne (Catherine Keener), and a divorced man, Albert (James Gandolfini); before long, Marianne is one of her best friends and Albert is her lover. It’s all good, until she finds out the two used to be married, and can’t stand each other anymore, making it implausible to be a soulmate to both of them.

The film is extremely enjoyable to watch, and illustrates most of Holofcener’s customary strengths. Characters and interactions are carefully conceived and grounded; other than the rather endearingly rarified notion of a commercially successful poet, Enough Said is about people living small-scale, repetitive lives in plausibly modest surroundings, depicted with attention to detail and with unforced originality. She allows her performers to shine – Louis-Dreyfus, who’s hardly ever worked in cinema, almost literally does. And the undertones are serious. In previous films like Friends with Money and Please Give, Holofcener explored respectively how poverty defines and limits the place of women, and the intermingling of self-indulgence and altruism: this time, her focus is on loneliness and dissatisfaction, and the effectiveness of various coping strategies. The characters talk several times about their lack of friends, and Eva’s best friend (Toni Collette) almost seems to be wishing for a marriage that’s just slightly worse than the one she’s in, so she’d be justified in ending it (in the meantime, she works out her frustrations by endlessly rearranging the furniture). Albert is plainly overweight, and not likely to do anything about it, something that makes it easy for Eva’s evaluation of him to be affected by Marianne’s bitterness.

James Gandolfini

On that topic, the film unintentionally acquired an unwanted additional subtext when Gandolfini suddenly died before its release, and many reviewers found the film rather poignant, especially because it suggests how his career might have evolved in new directions. Indeed, I couldn’t help wondering about the likely reaction of a hardcore Sopranos fan who unwittingly attended the movie as a means of paying tribute (“What the hell, Tony turned into a f-ing pussy!”). But in truth, his presence sums up the film’s limitations. His relationship with Eva, as the film presents it, consists of little more than quips and banter: there’s little sense of what they actually talk about. They end up in bed on their second date together, but Holofcener cuts right from the first kiss to the post-coital cuddling, sacrificing not only some potentially charming intervening exchanges, but more importantly diluting the film’s punch in dealing with issues of body image and self-esteem. The omission is especially odd if one recalls the already legendary scene in Holofcener’s best film Lovely and Amazing, in which Emily Mortimer (in a startling fusion of actress and character) stands naked to be critiqued by the Dermot Mulroney character.

Holofcener expresses Albert’s isolation by giving him a career as a TV archivist, spending his days safeguarding the frail shadows of old shows; and he refers near the end to his heart being broken. But we never feel that pain, and certainly never come close to a flash of the old Soprano anger. Although it’s a new direction, it often feels like one achieved by flattening and neutering Gandolfini, more than by exploring and challenging him. Something similar might be said about Louis-Dreyfus – as I said, she’s inherently radiant and pleasurable to watch, but she’s not stretched much beyond sitcom limits. It brings to mind previous occasions when Holofcener’s seemed reluctant to push things too hard, as if doubting the audience’s tolerance. In particular, Friends with Money seriously diluted its examination of the theme I described, eschewing much in the way of diagnosis and sticking to softballs, including one of the more dubious happy endings of recent years.

Didn’t say enough

Woody Allen, just about the only survivor from that golden age I mentioned (although of course he always occupied his own distinct place within it) has often pulled his punches too, but this year’s Blue Jasmine has a recurring undercurrent of trauma and anxiety which Enough Said never really approaches. I don’t mean to fall into a trap of criticizing Holofcener for not being someone other than she is, but Enough Said ends up feeling like a film which, in fact, doesn’t actually say enough, or show enough, or make us feel enough. It doesn’t even have the structural interest of her earlier films, being pretty much entirely driven by that central, not particularly believable coincidence.

I also couldn’t help registering the coldness with which, once Eva’s deception falls apart, Marianne simply drops out of the movie, as if she was only ever of interest to the extent of the challenge she represented to the heroine’s romantic fulfillment. It’s the kind of device one expects from a male director, but which we might have hoped Holofcener to avoid. Going back to Glenda Jackson, I remember a female critic years ago (I can’t remember which one unfortunately, and I couldn’t find the quote) saying that even those American films that seem to be about strong women perpetuate the reductive notion that a woman’s only fulfillment comes in the eyes of a man; she held out Jackson’s A Touch of Class as one of the few partial exceptions to this principle. For all its many strengths, I’m afraid Enough Said wouldn’t change anything about that basic assessment.