Sunday, February 23, 2014

May movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2007)

In Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, a husband must put his wife into a residential facility after 44 years together, when she starts to develop Alzheimer’s; she’s initially too lucid for her new surroundings, but finds a way of adapting that only seems to accelerate her decline, and widens the gulf between them, until he sees the inevitability of things. Julie Christie is utterly luminous as Fiona, conveying the jagged contours of her disintegrating consciousness so precisely that it’s as if she were drawing a map; Gordon Pinsent as her husband is almost as moving. The film is, by its nature, depressing, but in a way that’s emotionally true and eloquent. It’s based on a short story by Alice Munro, and always feels distinctly literary – living in usually snow-bound isolation, the couple read poetry to each other and each scene is precisely investigated and crafted. At times, given the ugliness of the disease and its consequences, I found it a little too pristine - for example, we hardly sense the full misery of the facility’s dreaded second floor, where patients are moved after a certain stage of decline. In particular perhaps, the ending – turning on what would have to be an incredibly wrenching, turbulent compromise, overemphasizes structural tidiness, irony and perseverance. But it’s difficult to blame a director as young and enterprising as Polley for retaining a certain measure of idealism in this.

The Valet

At the other end of the directorial spectrum, in so many senses, is Francis Veber, who turns 70 this year. Over the years he’s perfected his M.O. – dreadful, garish comedies that seem lost in time. The latest of these, The Valet, is about a wealthy businessman who’s sleeping with a gorgeous supermodel; when his wife gets suspicious, he pays a lowly parking valet to move in with his girlfriend. No pesky nuances and shadings in Veber-land – each character is allowed a couple of traits at the most, and a scene doesn’t so much lead into the next as collapse into it. And Veber’s handling of actors resembles some kind of perverse laboratory – on this occasion drawing out the worst-ever performance from the great Daniel Auteuil. Like several other Veber movies, it’ll probably be remade by Hollywood within a few years, and then it’ll be even worse!    

I may have had a bit of a crush on Adrienne Shelly after her first two films, The Unbelievable Truth and Trust, both directed by Hal Hartley. Hartley seemed uniquely weird and promising at the time, and Shelly was a spiky, accessible local goddess. Well, Hal Hartley lost his inspiration in a big way – his new movie Fay Grim is a sad spectacle. And Adrienne Shelly is dead – murdered in her building last November by a construction worker, reportedly after an argument about keeping the noise down. She’d been barely visible for the last fifteen years, taking lesser roles in lesser films. But she was working on becoming a director, and when she died she’d just completed her first feature film, Waitress. She also wrote it and plays a supporting role (treating herself quite unflatteringly). 


This background makes an inherently quite poignant film even more so; it’s surprisingly successful, and would no doubt have opened up further possibilities for Shelly. Keri Russell plays a waitress and ace baker of pies, stuck in a lousy marriage to a self-absorbed control freak, secretly hoarding away money to plan her escape. She finds herself pregnant, then falls in love with her gynecologist. Meanwhile, her two colleagues at the diner tinker with their own lives.

Sounds pretty hokey, and I didn’t even mention Andy Griffith, playing the owner of the diner, a curmudgeon with a heart of, well, you know. The movie is studiedly mild – nothing in it bites as much as it might have – but there’s a lot of grit and clear thinking baked in there too. The movie focuses on the circumscribed choices of normal working women, leading them to make decisions which even their best friends might view as settling for less, or morally questionable; but when you’re stuck in the same place with the same people, how much room for manoeuvre do you have? (no doubt there’s something here of a transplanted metaphor for Shelly’s own experience). The movie treats its men generously – even Jeremy Sisto’s portrayal of the wretched husband is unusually subtle – while remaining resolute that this isn’t their story. And the ending feels about right, if you can look past the tragic fact that the two-year old girl in the last scene is played by Shelly’s own daughter. Her ending was too freakish to constitute much of an emblem for the continuing challenges of women, and yet the echoes are awfully unsettling.

Spider-Man 3

It’s hard to write a review of Spider-Man 3 that doesn’t simply recycle dozens of past reviews of underwhelming Hollywood blockbusters – the movie doesn’t even have the panache to fail with any great distinction. At least it’s not one of those mechanical, cold creations where you doze from one explosion to the next; in fact the film’s greater failing is that it’s so determined to continue the emphasis of its two predecessors on Peter Parker’s character, on the emotional contours of being Spiderman. In practice though this only means that we go through yet another round with his girlfriend, his former best friend who now hates him, his wise old aunt, and his ever-present obsession with the death of his wise old uncle, all without generating anything new. The set-up of the villains is laboured, and here too the movie seems to be suffering from an imagination deficit. And finally, it’s yet another big-budget movie that pushes digital technology into the realm of counter-productivity – the sense of artificiality is pervasive, if only because it’s so clear how none of the actors are sweating, or suffering, or straining (it’s largely the commitment to these qualities that made Casino Royale so relatively effective). Naturally, it enjoyed the biggest opening weekend of all time.

Jindabyne, directed by Ray Lawrence, is an intriguing Australian drama, treating some familiar family dynamics very deftly, and then ventilating the film’s texture with a highly specific sense of place. It’s a small, mostly barren looking New South Wales town, built on the haunting shores of a former settlement that’s now submerged beneath a lake. It’s initially odd that the film’s main focus is a couple played by Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne, neither attempting Australian accents, but their obvious (largely unexplained) otherness generates some useful resonances. Byrne’s character goes away with some buddies on a weekend fishing trip; they find a dead body floating in a river, but keep fishing for a few days before reporting it; when this comes out, the men are pilloried in their community, and the couple’s fragile marriage almost collapses. The film weaves a very diverse tapestry, and might have generated greater overall complexity and after-effect with less tidy resolutions to some of its strands, but it’s alluringly dense with instability, foreboding and danger.

High Life

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is the favourite to win this year’s foreign language film Oscar, and as many have mentioned, such an award would be a happy throwback to the days when the mega-auteur Fellini was a frequent contender and winner (he took it home four times). The film places us in the world of Jep Gambardella, a journalist and long-ago novelist who lives in the heart of Rome (in a gorgeous apartment overlooking the Colosseum), even in his mid-sixties still getting up in the afternoon and partying until dawn (it’s unclear how he funds his lifestyle, as he seems to work very little). It’s a dazzling life, filled with heightened experiences and encounters, and an abundance of sex, in one of the world’s most privileged and overwhelming settings; at the same time, it’s the same places, same people, same variations on what he’s been doing for decades, while the possibilities for greater achievements fall away.

The Great Beauty

There’s a lot of death in the film, literally and figuratively, but then there’s a lot of everything in it – it runs nearly two and a half hours (and on this occasion it’s hard to leave during the closing credits too), and it would take nearly that long to disentangle everything Sorrentino crams in there. Sometimes, he embraces the whip-cracking ringmaster tradition, opening up the city’s secret places, orchestrating frenzied parties with copious side orders of debauchery, plopping down giraffes and flamingoes, staging absurd conceptual art pieces, and peppering his cast with extremely short or extremely old people, or befuddled representatives of the cloth. At several points, Jep evokes the concept of writing a novel about nothing, whereby Sorrentino tempts the audience to label his film as such while actually making it a richer and more tangible something than any other work you’re likely to encounter.

But, as in Fellini films like La Strada and 8 ½, there’s also the gorgeously outfitted boredom of it all, the existential angst, pivoting here on the magnificently resonant actor Toni Servillo, with his inherent ability to project depths and unexpressed calculations. The character is an unashamed artificiality – I can imagine lots of people watching the film and finding no way into it, and Sorrentino virtually dares us to judge him an elitist, even condescending filmmaker. At one point, Jep visits the widowed husband of an old girlfriend, finding him now happy with a new woman (pointedly depicted as the kind of woman Jep himself never encounters), with no plans for the evening other than to iron, have a glass of wine and watch TV. With measured passive-aggressiveness (there’s a lot of that in the film too) Jep describes how in contrast he’ll be spending the night in controlled revellment, going to bed when they’re getting up. It’s the contrast between a large, visible life and a small one, but begging the question of which best serves underlying needs (Jep’s only there in the first place because of unresolved anxiety about the dead woman). One of Jep’s friends, one of the sadder characters in recent cinema, ends up essentially writing off forty years of his life in Rome as a misconceived disappointment.

The Great Trick

Time and again in The Great Beauty, Sorrentino arrives at something that might be the thematic or emotional high point of a lesser film, only to move on. He presents the death of one major character so subtly, almost subliminally, that you might literally blink and miss it; the film teems with glimpses down other roads it might have followed. After a couple of hours or so, I actually thought it was over, only to have it crank up again with one of its most brilliant sustained strands, involving a visiting Mother Theresa-type and the surrounding hoopla (the actual ending, when it arrives, is satisfying, but doesn’t by any means embody classic narrative closure). The film shows up the claustrophobic calculations of a film like Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, which I wrote about last week; Sorrentino elevates every scene with some elegance of camera movement or dialogue, or human mystery. Of course, it’s a performance (“a trick,” in the words of the film), as much as that of the magician who says he’ll make the giraffe disappear. There’s not enough room in the cultural world for that many films like this. Maybe it’s a miracle there’s even enough room for one.

Sorrentino’s auteur status, insofar as such a thing is available now, has been steadily building for a decade. He’s probably previously best known in this country for his 2008 Il Divo, a study of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. It’s not the best introduction to him though, at least not for those who, like me, have only a vague knowledge of post-war Italian politics (as in, it’s really dysfunctional, and a lot of people got blown up) – even the opening explanatory screen-scroll is barely penetrable. Still, it’s an interesting, silkily menacing portrait of advanced inscrutability (we see Andreotti rip a page out of a mystery novel because he doesn’t want to know the killer). A better starting point might be his earlier The Consequences of Love, possibly the least likely film one can imagine having that title. Yet another portrait of a human enigma (both this and Il Divo also starred Servillo), it seems for a long while like a collection of elements that can’t possibly be explained, until Sorrentino immaculately does exactly that (albeit with some recourse to melodramatic extremity). 

This Must be the Place

More recently, he made the English language This Must be the Place, starring Sean Penn as a reclusive rock singer living in Ireland, who embarks on a very strange trip across America. The film was barely seen here, but it’s another fascinating exercise in creating a character and situation lying outside any familiar reference point, while somehow remaining coherent. Views might differ on how well Sorrentino succeeded on the latter point, but it’s a fascinating performance by actor and director alike (it seems right here to apply the term to both): the title speaks to a desire for anchoring and closure, but the film itself is a constant exercise in displacement and in the fusion of extremes. Characteristically of Sorrentino’s work, I could attempt to describe it here in great detail while still failing entirely to convey what you should actually expect to see.

In the end, The Great Beauty may be at its core an elevated expression of the same human mess we’ve seen many times before – it has some similarities to Wolf of Wall Street for instance. But the magic is in the elevation.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Fall movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2004)

While I was running off my film festival articles, it feels like a thousand movies came and went, and the one I heard about from most people was (of all things) What the Bleep do we Know. Based on a flashily off-putting trailer and mediocre reviews, I’d initially decided to give it a pass. But then people kept mentioning it to me - my friend Irene even saw it three times. So I went too.

What the Bleep...

The film is notionally about quantum physics but actually has about as much hard science as an old episode of Star Trek – it merely establishes a general notion of all things being connected, then extrapolates this into a rambling meditation on the power of positive thinking (suggested daily affirmation: “I’m taking this time to create my day and I’m affecting my quantum field.”) Interviews with scientists and commentators intertwine with lots of computer-generated gimmickry and a bizarre narrative with Marlee Matlin as a preoccupied photographer, whose personal regeneration illustrates the film’s themes. Judged as documentary, the film seems completely woolly. But I have to admit it caught me at a moment when I was predisposed to its thesis, so I basically lapped it up.

It’s surprisingly outspoken in its denunciation of organized religion – given its premise of individual possibility, it dismisses the image of a controlling God as the “height of arrogance” on the part of those who perpetrate this image. Which confirms this as a liberal “blue state” movie. A brief aside at this point. Since I was writing about film festival movies through November, I wasn’t tempted to digress onto the US election. Whatever I might have said, it wouldn’t have been pretty. But now, with two months’ buffer, I’ll just quote What the Bleep: “The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery.” I think Bush’s victory might have succeeded in putting all of us there.

Fall Documentaries

At the other end of the documentary spectrum, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s The Take zoomed in on a small beacon of progressivity in Argentina, where worker collectives are taking back control of factories brought to their knees by Carlos Menem’s reckless free-market policies. It’s a shame the movie couldn’t have provided a bit more context, but it was good reporting, missing Michael Moore’s agitprop exuberance and the analytical edge of The Corporation, but also lacking the occasional pretensions of both. Lurking as the villain in the film’s background was the International Monetary Fund, an organization that came in for further bashing in the one-of-a-kind The Yes Men. This follows a couple of guys who carry out a sort of global performance art, wrangling speech and TV invitations in the guise of IMF representatives, and then delivering monstrous pronouncements with a straight-faced reasonability that reels in their audiences. I also went to Team America: World Police in the hope of further pointed political satire, but came away severely disappointed.

The fall had its usual quota of feel good movies, and I’ll confess to getting distinctly teary at the death of Tinkerbell (presaging that of Kate Winslet) in Finding Neverland. On the whole the film was distinctly familiar, albeit pleasant, boosted by yet another remarkable Johnny Depp performance. Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason had to strenuously break the happy ending established at the end of the first movie before equally strenuously reinstating it, but Renee Zellweger’s dedication (however misplaced) gave it more verisimilitude than it deserved. Shall we Dance had little reason for existing, and the remake of Alfie even less than that.

I didn't like The Motorcycle Diaries as much as most reviewers – it was pictorial and gently intriguing but the character of Che Guevara was utterly idealized, and the film’s frail attempts to signal his future development seemed pasted-on. Another overpraised film, Enduring Love, seemed to me no more than standard stalker-slasher stuff with a pretentious coating of gush.

Friday Night Lights was quite a bit more intriguing. I saw it in a mall in Calgary, where the movie’s painstaking excavation of a small football-obsessed town seemed (to these unschooled Eastern eyes) to carry mysterious resonance. Birth was an accomplished but ultimately minor exercise in style over content. Saw was bewildering and off-putting.

The fall’s big epic, Oliver Stone’s Alexander, was a real mixed bag. There’s an intriguing 90-minute picture buried in there, carrying considerable contemporary resonance, about a radical imperialist ambition. Unfortunately, what with all the padding, the film lasts twice that long, and much of it is dire. Like Martin Scorsese with Gangs of New York, it feels as if the film’s logistical demands simply defeated Stone’s energy and ability to control the material.

The season’s biggest hit, The Incredibles, impressed me for its visuals and for its surprising subtlety, although I found the plot itself somewhat tedious. As no particular fan of animation, I didn’t yield to the movie as completely as I did to The Triplets of Belleville or Spirited Away. I have to confess that I didn’t see The Spongebob Squarepants Movie.

The Season’s Best

Best of all, Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake. It may be slightly less philosophically exhilarating than his Topsy-Turvy, but otherwise stands at the peak of his amazing body of work. The film’s first hour, with amazing fluency and almost supernatural attention to time and place, sketches a cross section of activities and encounters that fully convey the limited parameters of 1920’s working-class Britain, revolving around a housewife who among a plethora of good deeds “helps out girls in trouble” – she performs abortions for them. When the police apprehend her, her world collapses – she becomes all but catatonic, and we see how fragile is the definition of a woman in such limited environs.

The film is a remarkable depiction of sexuality. Vera, despite her transgressive behaviour, seems effectively sexless, and every character around her represents a slightly different perspective on sex and its conditioning by class. It’s unspeakably sad and remarkably contoured; once in a while, looking at some of Leigh’s sad sack characters, you can see why some detect a note of condescension in his approach, but who else immerses himself in this world with such tenacity?

All that, as well as a great season of Maurice Pialat movies and the extended The Big Red One and Queimada at the Cinematheque, and the John Cassavetes DVD boxed set to watch at home. And I didn’t see National Treasure, The Polar Express and dozens of others. So that’s the fall season taken care of...and now on to winter...

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Looking back

France has always been a lighthouse to foreign filmmakers looking for different shores. Of course, any number of American directors have found their way there, to Paris in particular, but there’s also an intriguing if somewhat cautionary list of one-off French films made by non-Westerners. Twenty-five years ago, Nagisa Oshima made Max mon amour, about a diplomat’s wife in love with a chimp; no one liked the film, and he achieved little thereafter. More recently, Iranian Abbas Kiarostami made the rather academic Certified Copy before moving on to Japan and the scintillating Like Someone in Love. In 2007, the gorgeous Flight of the Red Balloon seemed to mark a new direction for the Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-Hsien, but he hasn’t managed to release a film since then. Of course, it’s fanciful to extract any impression from such a light sample, but it suggests it’s not so easy to transform oneself into a French filmmaker, to channel that classic allure without losing something of your creative soul. This wouldn’t be out of step with what people say about France in general – there’s a whole mini literary category of bemused memoirs by outsiders who’ve tried to break the societal code.

The Past

Asghar Farhadi’s The Past is a highly assured addition to the category, perhaps reflecting that the Iranian director has spent extended periods of time in the city. It starts as Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arrives there from his home in Tehran, to finalize his divorce from his French wife Marie (Berenice Bejo). She’s now living with Sahir, and expecting a child by him (she also has two from the man she married before Ahmad); he’s also married, but his wife is in a coma, non-responsive, after a suicide attempt some months previously. The film could best be summed up as a series of questions, only some of which are ultimately answered. What are Marie’s real feelings for Sahir (their relationship seems fraught, and her teenage daughter Lucie claims his primary appeal to her is simply in looking somewhat like Ahmad)? What did Sahir’s wife know about the relationship he and Marie were having behind her back, and how much did it push her to do what she did? More broadly, what’s the viability of such a messy family unit, with bonds and living arrangements perpetually shifting, and ongoing ties with previous partners perpetually getting in the way of present ones?

Farhadi won the best foreign film Oscar for his previous film A Separation, which he made in Iran. When I wrote about the film here, I cited how Sight and Sound (in a typical assessment) called it “a film that pays us the compliment of letting us make up our own minds,” and I added: “I find this more persuasive in some senses than others. To the extent that we have to make up our own minds about the facts of the depicted events, it’s largely just the result of a cinematic contrivance, not inherently more sophisticated than any he said/she said police procedural.” Warming to the theme, I added: “I don’t know if being allowed to ‘make up our own minds’ is really such a big deal. I mean, we spend a big chunk of our lives making up our own minds, not necessarily with such stellar results. I think we could use more artists who are actually out to change our minds, and who are passionate about it.”

Old-style art-house

Much the same kind of praise and counter-praise might be directed at The Past, although it’s not attracting a fraction of the attention its predecessor did (Bejo did win the best actress award at last year’s Cannes festival though). But in a way, the new film’s smaller canvas and relative artistic modesty make the criticism less compelling. The Past is an old-style art-house film, a work that feels calculated more than felt, designed for audiences with a penchant for sinking into extended conversations and anguish and the kinds of ambiguities I mentioned (and, as a not un-meaningful aside, a tolerance for a film where a pregnant woman smokes frequently, with the fact barely remarked on by others). It’s most distinguished by Farhadi’s eye for small details and elaborations. This isn’t the Paris of Breathless and Funny Face, but that of the margins, of the daily grind (in an interview, Farhadi said: “The pitfall for filmmakers working in an unknown setting is to highlight in the film the first things that catch their eye. I tried to do the opposite.”). Much of the film is set in Marie’s house, a superbly envisaged, rickety structure where everything is either actively falling apart or else needs work, heavy with memories and traces. It’s strongly cast too: Mosaffa has a patiently searching affect to him that inherently expands almost everything he does or says, and Bejo’s beauty seems authentically strained here in a way that her best known role, in The Artist, kept artificially masked.

I also thought of a French film that goes in the opposite direction to the one I mentioned – Agnes Varda’s 1977 One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, a chronicle of two decades or so in the life of two women. One of them falls in love with an Iranian man and visits there with him, later getting married and staying on; the looseness he displayed in France starts to fall away, showing him as another perpetrator of the patriarchy, and she ends up leaving him. It’s a strength of sorts that Farhadi – even given all the present-day neurosis about Iran’s place in the world – doesn’t come close to such territory: there’s no suggestion that such issues played any part in Marie and Ahmad’s break-up (unless I missed something, we never even know what Ahmad does for a living).

Not just anywhere

But at the same time, it emphasizes the artificiality of his construct. Perhaps somewhat contradicting the remarks I quoted about avoiding an obvious take on Paris, he said in the same interview: “When you want to tell a story dealing with the past, you need to set it in a city like Paris that exudes the past. This story couldn’t have taken place just anywhere.” But you could easily argue that any human story built on a certain amount of structural and sexual messiness “deals with the past” even as it deals with the present and future, and if this one couldn’t have taken place elsewhere, that seems to say more about Farhadi’s abstract conception of it than about the inherent benefits of the city’s skeleton-channelling qualities. After all, Paris, and France in general, have a whole lot of economic problems, increasingly resembling a super-charged version of everyone else’s, and its societal focus on the past is a big part of why it never gets anywhere in solving them. At some point, the country, like the director, will have to find a way of moving on.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Hurt and hurter

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2009)

Quite a few of the highly positive reviews for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker come across as expressions of relief. Take Roger Ebert, who calls it: “a film shot clearly so that we know exactly who everybody is and where they are and what they're doing and why. The camera work is at the service of the story. Bigelow knows that you can't build suspense with shots lasting one or two seconds.” Now, on its own terms, this seems rather strange doesn’t it? What’s so amazing about filming things clearly – isn’t that kind of, you know, basic? Whoever said you could build suspense with one or two second shots?

The Hurt Locker

Now, he doesn’t mention Transformers 2 in there, having thrown it a brief one-star dismissal elsewhere, but that film really rubbed critics up the wrong way. They almost all thought it was long and boring and stupid and poorly made, and they told the world so, and then it became a mega-hit anyway. If you were a salesman, and customers kept spitting in your face, you’d probably go and sell something else; film critics don’t have that kind of mobility, so they just sit there and seethe (since I occupy a more enviable niche as far as film reviewing goes at least, I just didn’t see Transformers 2, and thus need have no angst about it.)

 The Hurt Locker isn’t quite a way of sending the spit back, but it’s been brandished at least as a suitably eloquent retort. It actually screened originally at last year’s Toronto festival, almost a year ago, and was well enough received, but not in a way that separated it from the pack. Cut to ten months later and it’s greeted as the answer to all our problems. This is probably just more proof of how quickly the world is getting worse.

The movie is set in Iraq, focusing on a bomb defusing unit; the leader is blown up in the film’s first scene, and we focus from there on his replacement, Sgt James, played by Jeremy Renner. The opening quotation tells us “war is a drug,” and after over eight hundred successful missions, James has become somewhat dislodged from the normal procedures and protections, disregarding convention in a way that might be foolhardy, might be his only remaining way of feeling alive, might evidence the extent of his honed intuition, or all of the above. There’s not much analysis or “bigger picture” in the film: one mission follows the next, each life threatening by definition, each testing soul and stamina in its own way.

It’s certainly gripping viewing, and it’s not that I disagree with the rapturous reviews as such; it’s just that I’d grade the achievement inherently a little lower. As I suggested, I’m not sure others wouldn’t too, if mainstream Hollywood movies were inherently better. The action sequences are marvelously done, but hardly revelatory, and James’ form of addiction to the “drug” certainly fits comfortably with a long history of taciturn movie mavericks. As presented, actually, the drug isn’t war as such, but more its capacity for allowing extreme personalities to craft themselves a suitably stylized persona: watching James do his stuff, usually watched from doorways and windows and rooftops by numerous local civilian spectators (sometimes likely including the people who planted the bombs in the first place), the term “theater of war” comes to mind. Popular culture responds with gusto to such displays – why, for example, is the highly implausible Kilgore (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”) the best-remembered element of Apocalypse Now? But these displays surely take place in war’s colourful margins, rather than its degrading, deadening heart.


Bruno, starring Sacha Baron Cohen as a gay nincompoop out to attain celebrity, is actually a more stimulating movie to me than The Hurt Locker, in the sense of leaving more to think about afterwards, and greater uncertainty about what it all amounts to. Peter Travers in Rolling Stone says the film is “Swiftian — crude, profane, fearless in using ridicule to bite hypocrisy on the ass.” Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle counters: “Cohen's strategy is to make audiences laugh at homosexuality itself, or perhaps at his outrageous lampoon of homosexuality - and then think less of the unsuspecting people who take his act at face value..(but it) can't succeed as satire, because it has no moral grounding or honest point of view.” Nearly everyone who’s written about the film seems to evaluate it slightly differently, which may in fact be its primary achievement. Oh, plus that it’s as funny as hell in places.

I’m more on the LaSalle side of the spectrum. The film deserves points for sheer pace and variety – Bruno’s project takes him from Hollywood to the Middle East, from swingers to preachers, from politicians to cage fights, and as in Cohen’s Borat (directed like this one by Larry Charles), many of the set-ups use real (and presumably unsuspecting) people, manipulated by Cohen usually into either meltdowns or incoherence. These generally involve Cohen flouting all accepted standards of behaviour, or private space or social convention, for example getting himself into a private situation with a straight guy and then starting to take his clothes off; whatever messy, spontaneous reaction the other might have to that, I’m not sure it’s fair to label the set-up as “biting hypocrisy on the ass.”

Actually, a lot of people either get the joke and play along or else demonstrate a sometimes-admirable pragmatism (sometimes it’s almost poignant, suggesting people are just trying in their unsophisticated ways to keep going). But however you score the individual scenes, it’s hard not to think the whole enterprise is conducted – again – in the margins of things. There’s nothing here about mainstream industry or business, nothing that’s relevant to the core question of what discrimination gay people trying to live an honest and equal life might suffer. But then, I just don’t think the movie’s about that. To be honest with you, I don’t really think it’s about anything: it’s like a lowbrow conceptual performance art creation, cleverly designed to facilitate opposing readings, and thus (perhaps) to illustrate what a crock these readings all are. Certainly you feel the audience reaction is as much part of the show as anything on the screen – the whole thing has a loose-leaf kind of feeling, as if inviting annotation. But if it is about anything, then it’s about how a really talented and largely fearless straight guy can rake in laughs from behaving like a moronic, sex-obsessed homosexual. Almost Swiftian, no question.

Time of wonder

In the most recent issue of Cineaste magazine, Dina Iordanova writes about how the Internet has changed the world for lovers and students of classic films. She notes: “we now deal with a profoundly transformed landscape of availability for rare cinematic texts, an environment that has never existed before, not even a year ago, and that is getting richer by the day, evolving in an extraordinarily accelerated manner through both paid and free channels.” She observes that whereas it was probably only plausible to study the full range of cinema in the past by living in a major city, it can now be done from anywhere (Iordanova herself says she lives “in a remote Scottish fishing village”). The abundance and opportunity is thrilling, but not without caveats: the online material is often chaotic, disappearing as quickly as it appeared, and this aspect of the Internet calls out for greater curation and guidance for the uninitiated. Still, she concludes, “the future holds more promise than our present hopes and imaginings can foretell.”

Plugging holes

I know entirely what she means – in the last few years, I’ve plugged most of the holes in my mental list of films I wanted to see, some of which had been there for thirty years. A film like Josef von Sternberg’s 1953 Anatahan – which I cite more or less at random just because it’s the most recent thing I found on there – isn’t available on DVD and never shows up on TV; to my knowledge, it hasn’t played at the Bell Lightbox or its predecessor during the last twenty years (although of course there’s always the chance of overlooking some stray screening, which sort of underlines the point). To all practical purposes, for “normal” people with no privileged connections, Anatahan has been a lost film. I’d tried in the past to download it from online, but for some reason it froze at 87% (an example of the recurring bumps in the road of access). But when I tried again the other week, it downloaded within a few hours, and I watched it the next day. No matter how many times I experience things like this, it still seems like an unimaginable wonder.

Iordanova specifically excludes considerations of copyright and remuneration from her article. I’ve generally tried to download things only when there seems to be no way of paying for them even if I wanted to (although my record in this respect isn’t perfect). YouTube poses a problem because as a huge visible archive operated by a major corporation, it seems reasonable to assume as a base premise that one isn’t abetting illegal activity by accessing whatever you find on there. I proceeded on this basis for a while, absorbing all sorts of rare treasures. But a few months ago, when I came to the end of Georges Franju’s Thomas the Impostor, I got a message saying the film – and other wonderful material posted by the same source -  had been removed due to repeated complaints by copyright holders. Counting myself lucky that the removal had happened in such a way that I’d still been able to see the end, I assumed that was that.

Keeping it legal

But I’ve subsequently noticed that the film, and the rest of the related archive, turned up on YouTube again, so I guess it’s not easy to thwart a determined apostle of art cinema. It’s usually impossible to know then whether films like this are there “legally” or not, and even when it seems they’re not, is the virtue of staying away always clear? Put another way, should we respect the rights of the legal owner of an inaccessible film such as Thomas, if the owner’s only plan for it is seemingly to keep the film from ever being seen?

Trying to keep things legal can be wearying. I subscribe to, which offers a rotating selection of thirty mostly somewhat obscure films at any one time. I was excited that one of these, recently, was the Korean film Oasis, until it transpired that the film came only with Norwegian subtitles, an unbelievable idiocy for a service being marketed in Canada. This then raised a further moral question – would I be justified in downloading a useable version of Oasis, since I’d sort of paid for it already? Similar questions arise in my mind when I try to PVR something that’s on cable (for which I pay for many, many channels), and the recording doesn’t work, usually because the Rogers Nextbox often seems to reboot around 3 am on Tuesday morning. To me, such questions are considerably greyer than the ethics of downloading, say, the current Hollywood blockbuster, which I don’t see any justification for at all. But I guess I wouldn’t raise the issue unless I had some doubts.

Still, this is all just to say it’s a work in progress, and incidental to the main point, which as Iordonova describes is simply the immense richness of what’s available. Time and time again, I find myself thinking back to my teenage years, when I’d read about magical-sounding directors like Bunuel or Ozu, with no immediate hope of seeing anything they’d made. This had its positive aspects of course – when I did somehow manage to view even one of their films, it was a supremely exciting event. It’s also true, no doubt, that billionaires can find reasons to speak warmly of the years they spent cold and hungry. It’s a continuing amazement to me that, decades later, I have fifteen Ozu films on my shelf now; several others are on YouTube as I write, and several others again can be located elsewhere.

Shifting constraints

So the constraint has dramatically shifted, from access to time and capacity. More and more, I deal with this regressively, by playing within my teenage wishlist, ticking off unseen works and revisiting core ones. I know this limits the time I might spend opening up new frontiers, but at least it’s a somewhat informed choice; others would and should make it differently. If I were a teenager now, given how much more sprawling the body of great work is now compared to thirty years ago, I don’t think I’d know where to start. (In the Lightbox bookstore recently I saw a book seemingly intended to help with this problem, titled 1001 Movies You Must See before You Die, but as the cover consisted of a still from Life of Pi, and my random opening of it landed on The Muppet Movie, it may be most effective at enhancing the relative appeal of death).

Obviously, no one with access to a modem should ever have to complain again about having nothing to watch. But that’s a paltry way of expressing the richness of the opportunity available to us. Without ever leaving our remote fishing village or equivalent, we can be educated and stimulated and thrilled and nurtured beyond all measure. The challenges I’ve noted will presumably dwindle with time, but the gift will endure forever.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Men and women

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2005)

Agnes Jaoui’s film The Taste of Others was one of my favourite releases of 2001.  The film always stays in familiar, easily assimilated territory, juggling various stories of relationships; it’s often funny and ironic in a pretty straightforward way, it’s unobtrusive in its style and acted in a pleasant register. Yet I found it as scintillating as the best recent work by Alain Resnais or Andre Techine. The title has a double meaning, incorporating both a subject and an object, and the film wholly realizes this duality as it examines in surprising detail a range of shifting tastes and possibilities.

Look at Me

Jaoui’ follow-up film Comme une image (Look at Me) won the award for best screenplay at last year’s Cannes festival. Like The Taste of Others, Jaoui co-wrote it with her husband Jean-Pierre Bacri, and they both also act in it. Bacri plays a famous, acerbic author and publisher, living with a much younger wife and small daughter, maintaining a fractious relationship with his grown daughter by his first wife. That daughter (played by Marylou Berry) is training to be a classical singer, and (not incidentally to her relationship with her father and others) is on the heavy side. Jaoui plays her singing coach, whose husband is also an author; in the course of the film he goes from struggling to successful, and becomes ensconced in Bacri’s entourage. This group also includes a man whose precise function is unclear (even to those in the film), but whose even-keeled, mostly sycophantic counterpoint to Bacri’s moods provides some of the film’s best laughs and (in one astute close-up) its most delicate poignancy.

Bacri‘s character is functionally a monster, and the film’s rough measure of its other characters’ spiritual health lies in the distance they manage to put between themselves and him. But the film understands that such monsters are created as much by the structures around them as by rampant pathology; the title (Jaoui and her translators are a whiz with titles) suggests how identity is as much social as personal. The characters are articulate enough in explaining themselves, but these explanations don’t necessarily bear much relationship to what they’ll actually do, or why.

Jaoui’s interest in the gulf between interior and exterior lives lends itself well to a milieu in which most of the characters are artists of one kind or another. Someone says that a book of Bacri’s has “humanity and conscience,” although the man himself seems far from those qualities. He suggests that his daughter’s devotion to singing is merely that of a dilettante, an opinion that appears at least plausible for much of the film. Jaoui’s husband, at the height of his theme, appears on a gloriously tacky TV show which despite the host’s stated admiration of his work seems implicitly to mock the very notion of an inner life.

Renewal and Revision

This all gives the film a pervasive existential doubt: when one character says of something that “it’s no big deal,” the response is “no, nothing is.” But this doesn’t negate their vividness, or their alertness to possibilities of renewal and revision. There’s a beguiling moment where Jaoui’s character goes to a party and falls under the intent gaze of a younger man. We see them dancing together, but nothing more. Who knows what was said, what might have transpired? Likewise, an underwear model and flagrant object of desire haunts the film’s fringes and appears in person near the end; Bacri habitually remarks on the attractions of various women; and even the insecure Berry character has two (sort of) boyfriends. These alternate possibilities show up the ambiguity of prevailing arrangements. It’s utterly unclear, for instance, what Bacri’s young wife sees in him (he quotes her as saying that his face terrifies her). She leaves for a while, but returns. This all leads to a finale that pulls off the expected balancing act, allowing a sense of resolution while giving no ground on anything that’s gone before, and allowing considerable remaining ambiguity.

In this brief space I’m merely picking out some of the patterns and themes that struck me,  and sometimes I wonder if Jaoui isn’t working in a sort of high-toned semi-freeform style, out of which certain shapes fall as they will. She seems like the most reticent of directors, so it’s hard to say.  The Taste of Others created such high expectations for her next film that Comme une image can’t possibly carry the same element of surprise, and this is perhaps the reason why the earlier work remains slightly higher in my memory. But Comme une image is certainly one of the year’s most pleasurable viewing experiences so far. Sadly, I’ve been reading that Jaoui and Bacri have now broken up, so it will be interesting to see how this affects her artistic equilibrium.

Sin City

Sin City lies at the opposite end of the filmmaking spectrum. This is based on a comic book by Frank Miller, whose fidelity to his vision is such that he apparently rebuffed more than ten previous attempts to film his work. Robert Rodriguez (director of El Mariachi and Once Upon a Time in Mexico) won him over, and even gives Miller a co-director credit. So I guess we know we are watching Miller’s true vision. It’s narrow and sordid, with hardboiled men and mostly slutty women strutting round in violent but vaguely idealistic circles against a corrupt background. It’s a world that’s mostly recognizable as our own, but with considerable elasticity at the edges – the darker emotions are magnified, and the laws of nature a bit more pliable.

The film has three main plot lines, starring Mickey Rourke , Clive Owen and Bruce Willis. All three stories are extremely similar – hard-boiled, fatalistic tales of personal exertion (the details are often gruesome, but it practices a certain restraint in the depiction). The film looks pretty good – shot mostly in pristine black and white with the occasional careful insertion of colour – and technically it’s just about immaculate, but the general monotony and lack of true inspiration or purpose prevent it from generating much substantial interest; it’s just inherently second rate. The rather amazing cast also includes Benicio del Toro, Brittany Murphy, Rosario Dawson and Jessica Alba – Miller’s conceptions of the men are simplistic enough, but seem quite nuanced next to those of the women. On the whole, it’s less interesting to watch Sin City than it is to daydream (illogically, I admit, but not unprofitably) about what Agnes Jaoui would make of it.

Computer love

In Donald Cammell’s 1977 film Demon Seed, a super-computer rejects its creator’s plan of having it work on governmental and corporate challenges, and focuses instead on the scientist’s wife (Julie Christie), imprisoning her in her house and figuring out a way to impregnate her, to thereby give itself a physical form. The movie is probably more interesting now than it was at the time – lots of it is overdone, but it’s often very scrupulous in its physical imaginings, and Cammell searches for ways to express the machine’s expanding consciousness. We now know however that if computers are a threat to our social and sexual structures as we’ve known them, the threat lies less in big centralized edifices, and more in little devices in our pockets. Although you could see the fertilization-by-computer notion as a displaced prediction of that.


Spike Jonze’s Her might be seen as a contemporary response to Cammell’s film – we’re all now well and truly knocked up, but we’re not yet sure what we’re giving birth to, or how much we care. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a recently separated man living in a Los Angeles of the near future (partly represented by Shanghai for the film’s purposes), much more like our present day than not: urban density seems to have gone on increasing, fashions have generally regressed (really ugly pants) and of course technology keeps pushing forward. He purchases a new operating system with advanced capacities to tailor itself to the user; in his case, it speaks with the voice of Scarlett Johansson, and provides much better conversation than most real-life women – after a while, it also becomes interested in sex (first the phone kind, and then in more creative ways of surmounting the physical problems). He becomes comfortable with telling people he’s dating his operating system, which by then isn’t such an isolated condition anyway.

The film is up for the best picture Oscar and won awards from various critics group, and it plainly taps into some recurring contemporary concerns. It feels like you hardly go a day without running into another article about putting appropriate boundaries around the time one spends in the digital world, or the dangers of becoming more comfortable with texting people than actually talking to them, etc. etc. I don’t think there’s any doubt that many of the theoretical benefits of the web and everything that flows from it have comprehensively failed to materialize: we may have unparalleled access to our collective cultural heritage, if we look for it, but the prevailing conversations in the media and life generally could hardly be more uniformly dumb. Of course, it’s possible to be all pious and retrograde about this: people only have one life, and it’s not easy to make it work, and who cares what kind of crutches you rely on? But at the same time, there seems to be a surge in generalized anxiety, in financial strain, in a sense that things used to be better, that we just keep dancing faster and faster when deep down we really want to stop the music and get off the floor. For better or worse, the momentum seems set; we can only hope it leads toward some kind of sustainable long-term social equilibrium, rather than total breakdown and idiocy.

Talking to Samantha

Some of this is in Her – Theodore for example seems literate and well-educated, working with words for a living, but he seems to spend most of his free time playing video games, and early in the film we see how racy celebrity pictures catch his attention much more than serious news headlines. But the film’s prevailing mood is dreamy and contemplative, suffused in relationship-speak, in musings about whether you’ve already felt everything you’re going to feel in life; the voice of the OS (who christens herself Samantha) sinks into this mode as fully as everyone else. As Samantha evolves, she starts to communicate with other OSs, and at one point they digitally revive a deceased thought-leader: I’m not sure if it’s meant as a joke that he too speaks in much the same way as everyone else. In this version of where we’re going, technology isn’t a threat but an extension, expanding possibilities in some respects, but in others just adding to the existing thicket of confusion. In one of the film’s wittier touches, the husband of one of Theodore’s best friends (Amy Adams) constitutes a torrent of passive-aggressive interventions behind a smiling face, embodying a human correlation for much of what we fear about losing our grip on the physical world.

Eventually, Samantha and the other OSs start to move beyond the limitations of their designated applications. If this film were in the Demon Seed tradition, this might have meant they band together to take over the federal government computers, or to launch missiles at designated targets, but it’s not giving anything away to say that never seems remotely likely here. Her suggests the possibility of a virtuous symbiosis, in which humanity passes through the potential pitfalls of its technological obsession to rediscover its own suppressed capacities. Or some of them that is: it doesn’t seem very likely that any new wave of awareness will lead to Theodore cutting back on the video games.


Even more than for most movies, I expect one’s reaction to Her depends largely on where one stands in relation to these matters. I have my own excesses in this area: I wish I spent less time reading online newspapers and suchlike. But I have no problem resisting the likes of Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve never even played with the Siri on my iPhone, so I’m pretty old-school. And then, happily, I’m not lonely and consumed by melancholy about relationship what might have beens. So I have to admit it seemed to me like a fairly drippy movie. Compared to his recent run of fine work elsewhere, Phoenix turns in a mostly one-note performance, as do most of his co-stars. Johansson’s casting works well to the extent that it helps us visualize what Phoenix might have inside his head, and thereby in normalizing the set-up: although a lot of the movie essentially consists of Phoenix hanging out by himself, it feels much like watching a conventional relationship picture, with a largely conventional trajectory about love for a dazzling but ultimately unattainable woman (one so unattainable that, as Theodore eventually learns, she can conduct conversations through different personalities with thousands of potentially smitten users at once, which suggests a whole new future take on Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire). I suppose this conventionality, in the circumstances, might be simultaneously both the film’s primary achievement and limitation, which may or may not conceal some deeper point about the going-round-in-circles nature of hanging out with artificial intelligence.