Monday, March 31, 2014

Burials and block parties

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2006)

Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a remarkable directorial debut for the 60-year-old icon, as assured as, and quite a bit more distinctive than, Clint Eastwood’s best late films. Jones plays an aging South Texas farmhand, whose best friend, illegal Mexican Estrada is shot dead by an arrogant Border Patrol officer. Unhappy with how the local sheriff handles the case, Jones takes matters into his own hands – he digs up the body, kidnaps the officer, and sets off on a trek across the border, to return his dead friend to his hometown.

The film’s strengths are varied and considerable. It has the overall arc of a great eccentric Western, true to the evocative power of the landscape and the stoic, taciturn hero, but bursting with oddities – character quirks, strange incidents and parallels, the sheer inexplicable. The film is laconic and sun-baked, but with frequent outbursts of violence and malevolence. It’s a wonderfully evocative portrait of a small town, eloquent about the compromises and excesses that rise out of its all-suffusing boredom, turning people into either myths or beasts. The performances, down to the smallest role, are magnificently well judged.

Little Fish

The movie has been somewhat overlooked - it won a couple of prizes at Cannes, including for Jones as Best Actor, but never gained much awards-season momentum here, and it barely seems suited to the normal vocabulary of critical approval - I’m finding it very difficult to select the right words to describe it. Most compelling is the way that Jones keeps the lid very tight on his own character, and yet in the end the power of his will and vision – although beyond our understanding – seems to transform the film’s physical and psychological elements alike: it’s one of those endings that simultaneously makes little sense, and yet as much as anyone should possibly need. I suppose there’s something inherently indulgent and overdone about these Western concoctions – constantly valorizing an essentially limited patch of the world, of dubious governing ethos – but even more than the sexual subversion of Brokeback Mountain, Jones’ film shows there’s still much life in the pot yet. 

Little Fish, directed by Rowan Woods, sees Cate Blanchett back in her native Australia as a former junkie trying to stay clean. The movie revolves around her anxious mother and equally fragile brother; a former football star who befriended her years ago and who she must now watch slowly killing himself on drugs; and a suave gay drug lord. There’s a stock element to these characterizations, but the acting is of very high quality, even if the use of Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Sam Neill gives it a slight stunt casting quality. The film is most compelling in capturing the real economic and emotional motives that drive the characters, and is most run-of-the-mill in executing some standard drug movie double-crossing intrigue. The ending is somewhat misty and unresolved, which may simply reflect the reality that the upside for such characters is limited, but nevertheless seals the film’s decidedly secondary importance. Seeing it the day after Melquiades Estrada, one can’t help reflecting how many filmmakers think safely inside the box, albeit with much facility.

Dear Wendy

Lars von Trier is one director who is safely outside the box, but may merely be constructing his own, disconnected box, within which he slowly stagnates. His follow-up to Dogville, Manderlay, didn’t even open here – I saw it at last year’s festival and found it highly provocative as a melting pot for American sins and scandals, but it was very plainly nothing new. He wrote the script for Dear Wendy and gave it to Thomas Vinterberg (Festen) to direct, and that one did open here (briefly). It’s another parable of the mid-West (set in a small town – actually constructed in Copenhagen – that feels barely more real than Dogville’s chalk outlines), about a group of underachieving youths who develop an obsession with guns; they are pacifists, but develop a complex ritualized gun mystique from which they draw strength and confidence. This is a pretty good way of satirizing America’s Second Amendment delusions, and the film’s peculiarity, along with an undercurrent of fragility and near-sweetness, make it very diverting for a while. It’s always clear though that it only has one place to go, and that’s how it happens, ending up like a kindergarten version of The Wild Bunch. I would generally recommend the movie nevertheless, but it’s no more than the sum of its parts.

Wayne Kramer, director of the quirky The Cooler, seeks to transform himself into a punchy, technically proficient, yet still somewhat quirky action-master in Running Scared, with Paul Walker as a violent hood (but dedicated family man) spending a hectic night dodging Russian mobs, crooked cops and so forth. The movie is initially off-putting, but settles into a reasonably effective groove before losing it again toward the end. The use of unadorned blue-collar settings is effective, and it does have one rather stunning sequence involving a couple of child molesters; this is really the only point where the movie comes close to what the title design suggests is its sense of itself as a grim modern fairy tale.

Dave Chappelle

Night Watch, a huge hit in its native Russia, is a very similar viewing experience to Running Scared, although in this case the set-up is supernatural – yet another of those complicated crapolas about an eternal battle of light and dark, exploding into our own world via the wonder of digital technology. I nodded off for a while early on and never really picked up the thread after that, but I doubt this made much of a difference. The movie is no doubt well executed, but it’s the lamest kind of Hollywood wanna-be, with only the thinnest sense of local seasoning.

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is an exceptionally enjoyable documentary about a 2004 concert organized by comedian Chappelle on a Brooklyn intersection. I’ve never seen Chappelle’s show on Comedy Central (and certainly didn’t know that he’s #43 on Comedy Central’s “100 Greatest Standups Of All Time”) but based on what we see here he’s a sweet good-hearted guy (for all his “edgy” material), and that goodwill permeates the whole movie. Surely the whole affair can’t have been as impromptu as it seems, but the illusion works, and the performers all seem liberated and happy. Highlights include Kanye West, Mos Def and Erykah Badu – and your reaction to that list probably weighs heavily on whether you think there’s a chance in hell you’ll ever go to see this movie, but really, even if you think that stuff is just noise, you should think about trying it out. Michel Gondry, so imaginative and distinctive in directing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is a much more self-effacing director here, and delivers a great, subtly orchestrated package. 

This week’s winner, Tommy Lee Jones, with a good showing by Chappelle and Gondry. Let’s play again next week!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Joe's wild years

As promised, here’s the follow-up to the article I wrote two weeks ago after watching volume one of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, having now seen volume two as well (both parts are playing at the Bell Lightbox, and are also available on-demand). To recap, the film is structured around Joe, a middle-aged woman, telling the story of her life to Seligman, an older man, after he comes across her injured in the street; with few exceptions, virtually everything she tells him is sexual in nature, reflecting the dominant preoccupation and motivation of her existence. Last time, I said that even if part one seldom seems truly new or revelatory, it’s much more fascinating than not, and in retrospect, I more or less filled this space by recounting colourful highlights, as if summing up a day at the carnival.

Darker territory

At the end of the first part, Joe suddenly cries out that she can no longer feel anything, and volume two reflects the loss of the reckless momentum that often drove its predecessor. She gets married and has a son, but after a while she’s seeking out other men again, with a greater need now for pain and danger. Eventually, all of this takes its toll, making sex too painful; she moves into the debt collection business, where her detailed knowledge of male weakness supplements the strong-arm tactics of her co-workers. It all ends grimly, as we’ve known it will from the start. In part one, Seligman supplements her story with intellectual reference points and digressions, but he starts to run dry as the story darkens, and she comments on the declining stimuli he and his room provide her (continuing the possibility that her story might be partially invented). He tells her that he’s a virgin, and asexual, and the confession more or less coincides with her story’s turn into greater bleakness, as if his cleanliness had to be abrasively balanced out.

Deliberately or not, the film suggests that fully achieved nymphomania – a term that Joe brandishes proudly in contrast to the more clinical “sex addict” – is the province of the young, eventually running into declining opportunity, creativity and stamina. Like a conflicted artist, she can sometimes step back and admire the artistry of what she’s achieved, knowing that by its very extremity and capacity to repel, she’s achieved something beyond normal boundaries. I mentioned last time how the film’s rather unplaceable location supports a sense of disembodiment - all the indications are that it’s set in Britain, but it doesn’t really feel like it, or like anywhere specific – and the second part extends this nowhereness: we get a brief glimpse of an office where Joe works, but in this context, its familiar blandness seems weirdly alien. Even more so because volume two’s strangest character, a dominator who whips and beats up willing women, works out of a similar space, where his subjects wait silently as you would in a government office, with no fixed appointment time.

A work of pornography?

Charlotte Gainsbourg is an effective focal point for the sense of accumulating wear and tear, but von Trier basically doesn’t seem to find Joe’s descent as artistically galvanizing as her earlier peak, and the film gets mired in increasingly strained, unlikely melodrama. This can be defended as an artistic strategy, in externalizing Joe’s declining physical and psychological scope, dramatizing how her life inevitably hems her in; likewise, it makes a sad kind of sense how she entirely loses control of events in the end. But this doesn’t take us anywhere much different from Looking for Mr. Goodbar or for that matter from classic Hollywood film noir, in which women who challenge male supremacy must always pay a price, usually their lives. Near the end, Seligman sums up her life in explicitly those kinds of terms, claiming that if much of what she’d done as a woman had been done as a man, no one would think much of it. Even if this is true (and in her case it’s probably a bit overstated), it’s unrevealing, because the distinction could hardly be more familiar. It’s disappointing that von Trier is left merely asserting this weary battleground, rather than finding a new way to navigate across it.

In this respect, I’m inclined to agree with David Denby in The New Yorker that it’s largely a mistake for the film even to toy with real people and real feelings: “this is a work of pornography,” he says, “in which fantasy, and the contemplation of it, is the only thing that’s real” (Denby judges that the film “falls apart at the end”). But this overlooks another startling moment late in the film, when Joe, trying to get at the weakness of a defaulter who seems immune to the usual smashed furniture and physical threats, suddenly detects and forces him to acknowledge his pedophilia, an urge he’s spent his whole life suppressing. Far from being repulsed, responding to what she sees as his lack of culpability for his own desires, and his courage in resisting them, she performs a spontaneous act of kindness, which in the telling disturbs even Seligman’s sense of equanimity. For a moment, you perceive how the film might have broken through to something less hermetic, more disturbing and politically current, to an exploration of the lies we all tell about our tastes and dreams, some of them necessary to society’s functioning, others purely ideological.

The myth of von Trier

But it doesn’t go there, and Denby is correct in emphasizing the film’s status as pornography, in the sense that what’s happening there on the screen as sure as hell isn’t what’s happening here in our lives. Ultimately, even though part one ends abruptly in the middle of things, it feels in many ways more coherent than the completed work, as an erotic artistic playground needing no more justification than the equilibrium of its own elements. The second half’s extensions succeed in tearing up the playground, but there’s more than a little redundancy to that project. And so ultimately, the film abandons us, like its protagonist, to the shadows.

Still, it adds significantly to the myth of Lars von Trier, a filmmaker of enormous breadth and flexibility, who sometimes seems to be reaching for (sometimes seems to be achieving) an ongoing cultural synthesis of such daring proportions that no one can figure it out, especially as what we see of the man himself (prone to “controversial” outbursts, unwilling to travel outside Europe, and so forth) often suggests that what he’s achieving can’t possibly be as momentous as you intermittently wonder. I’ve tended to find his films don’t much live in the memory; others disappoint on a second viewing. I think Nymphomaniac, for all its flaws, perhaps because of them, might endure better than most, not just because you remember the dirty stories better than the others, but yes, partly because of that.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Wrong kind of trash

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2007)

So does this sound like a comedy or a tragedy? Rae, a hopeless young white nymphomaniac in a lousy Southern town, flips out when her boyfriend ships off to Iraq and starts putting it about even more than usual. At the end of a wild night she’s thrown out of a truck into the road, where she lies until dawn in a bloodied stupor. Then an aging black guy called Lazarus (a farmer and local blues singer) finds her and takes her into his shack. At first he’s just being a good guy, but he has problems of his own – his wife took off with a close friend, and he needs something to get himself back on track. Figuring in some way that her redemption might be his own, he resolves to clean her up, but she keeps wandering off, so he does, well, the only thing he can do. He secures her in his living room with a chain around her waist, oh and this is still wearing the dirty micro-top and panties she turned up in. She screams and yells, but he holds firm. And that’s the set up.

Black Snake Moan

It sounds like a comedy to me, or at least a Russ Meyer kind of concoction where you can’t tell the difference. I didn’t throw that out randomly – Meyer actually made a film called Black Snake, which came with the tagline “No man escaped her island – or her whip!” I don’t remember a thing about it now, but I’m pretty sure it was a hoot. Black Snake Moan though is by writer-director Craig Brewer, whose underlying premise in Hustle and Flow was that it really is hard for a pimp. How much worse then, for a mere nympho. And so the weirdest and worst thing about Blake Snake Moan, despite its attractively lurid title and poster and trailer, is its general ponderous sensitivity. Sure, the movie has its schlocky aspects; it eats up Ricci’s body, and punctuates the action with eye-popping memory montages that illustrate Rae’s almost constantly verge-of-orgasm mental state. But it’s also full of boring secondary characters, dawdling self-discovery dialogue, and a lot of scenes that barely seem to matter one way or another.

Isn’t something missing with that? Dana Stevens in Slate came at it as follows: “I’m sorry, but in the age of Abu Ghraib and Alberto Gonzales torture memos, it seems important to say…Chaining people and holding them against their will is not the right thing to do. By that I don’t mean, simplistically, that Jackson’s character is ‘bad’ and should be punished at the end of the film. I mean that the questions – ethical, sexual, racial, whatever – that are raised by this initial act of violence are never addressed.” Stevens’ broad point, to be trite about it, is that the film should be better. But I think maybe it’s the opposite, that it should have been worse.

Apologetically Trashy?

A movie called Black Snake Moan surely has no business directly addressing ethical, sexual or racial issues. Its better role in life is to be unapologetically trashy. But trashy – and this is the key point – in the way that the best pulp genre movies used to serve effortlessly as outlets for the submerged ideological detritus of the age. Like a zombie movie that acts as a metaphor for the sublimation of individuality in a capitalist society. Or a film noir that blows the door open on Cold War paranoia and the oppression within the bourgeois family.

You don’t get too many movies like that any more, probably because that kind of subversion needs either an industry – structure and contracts and a measure of predictability, creating crannies and shadows where subversion can percolate and occasionally spurt to the surface – or else a devil may care attitude (but that seems out of tune with current moviemaking). Eli Roth’s Hostile might have been the closest recent example of what I’m talking about – a rampantly sleazy concoction that seemed at least semi-meaningful about America’s current place in the world. A few episodes of the TV anthology Masters of Horror have come close too, perhaps because the lower budget and the relatively lower visibility loosen the constraints a bit. But really, what is Black Snake Moan up to? The image of a white woman chained by a black man still carries a greater charge than most other racial and gender permutations one could think of, but there’s never any real doubt here about the basic purity of Jackson’s motives, never any hint that the two might cross the line into some sick master-slave thing.

The film might have been concocted solely to show that it’s possible to take that premise and make a toothless movie out of it. Lazarus’s heart seems to lie not with Rae but, for God’s sake, with a kindly pharmacist played by Law and Order’s S. Epatha Merkerson. And in the end the film is explicit that his shock therapy has given Rae the mental structure she needs to do better from then on. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but if you’re going to play around with nympho psychology, why not steer toward something more diverting? Ricci is pointlessly committed to her silly role, Jackson does his usual thing except with a worse haircut, and Justin Timberlake is very good as the boyfriend. Timberlake just gets better and more credible all the time. I even liked his album. In this movie though Jackson and Ricci do all the singing.

The Number 23

Joel Schumacher has intermittently tried to occupy more respectable territory (Tigerland, Veronica Guerin), but with The Number 23 he reverts to his customary territory as one of the worst and most annoying directors imaginable. His star Jim Carrey, as everyone knows, is even more preoccupied with artistic validation than Schumacher is, and he gamely leaps here, with misapplied earnestness, into darker waters than he’s ever previously occupied. The star and director affect a messy collision, resulting in a conventionally overdone, contrived film that nevertheless has glimmers of something more affecting.

Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, an animal control officer, fundamentally dissatisfied and drifting despite being a caring husband and father, who comes across a book – “The Number 23” – that tells a story of numerology-driven mayhem, and that seems to him strangely relevant to his own life. Off the rails he goes, and the plot quickly follows – it rapidly becomes impossible to chart how one thing leads to the next, a confusion annoyingly accentuated by Schumacher’s technique, which is like listening to a garbage can lid being smashed against a wall for an hour and a half. I think this week we should have engineered a swap. Craig Brewer probably would have made something more sensitive out of The Number 23, whereas Black Snake Moan would surely have been much more acceptably campy and dumb in Schumacher’s hands. I bet he would even have got Timberlake to sing.

Life achievement!

Later this year, Jane Fonda will receive the American Film Institute’s  42nd American Life Achievement Award, reflecting – to paraphrase the AFI’s selection criteria, a talent that has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time. Fonda is a fine choice, who should have had the award years ago – I think the fact that she didn’t illustrates the limits of even the AFI’s collective memory (and other considerations I’ll return to below). But if anyone could strain your memory, she’d be the one. More than most stars, her career breaks into at least five definable and in some cases drastically different phases: fresh all-American girl (Barefoot in the Park), continental sex kitten (Barbarella), radicalized serious actress (Klute), all-conquering mainstream star (Coming Home) and then the graceful veteran of recent years.

Jane Fonda

The equally remarkable shifts in her personal life (daughter of Hollywood’s favourite US president, Henry, and sister of the one-time emblematic rebel, Peter; so committed to opposing Vietnam that some still despise her for it; queen of the work-out tapes; Ted Turner’s wife, etc.) contribute to the significant complexity of her star image, to its elasticity as a measure of changing times. And along with all that, she’s won two Oscars (for Klute and Coming Home) while seldom being less than memorable; the biggest regret is that she stopped working for so long (no credits at all from 1990 to 2005, for which it seems we must blame Turner).  

It’s sad how few stars have careers like this now. Of course, anyone’s image evolves with time, if only because of the weight of aging and the assumption of greater gravitas, but that aside, the image of actors like Harrison Ford and Morgan Freeman and Tom Hanks hasn’t shifted much throughout their mature careers. Nowadays, if a major star’s image does shift, it’s probably in the direction of embodying greater banality: take Robert Downey Jr. as a prime example. But for the most part, the kind of career longevity required to scoop the AFI award depends on maintaining bankability, which demands steadfast discipline. Actors like George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon (all near-certain future winners of the award, health and good luck allowing) allow themselves some sideline passion projects, but they’re not likely to commit themselves to a modern-day Jean-Luc Godard, as Fonda did in Tout va bien. And their internal stardom-stoking clock always brings them back on the hour to the next Gravity/World War Z/Bourne, in which they’re always capable, but seldom venturing more than the narrowest of variations on well-honed identities. There’s no doubt that keeping it going is a life achievement, but it only “advances the film art” in the sense that really proficient brush salesmen advance the art of painting.

Classic figures

The award has been presented annually since 1973, and one imagines the selection process in the early years must have been delirious: so many classic figures to choose from, so many looming grim reapers. In the first years, it went to John Ford, James Cagney, Orson Welles, William Wyler, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda and Alfred Hitchcock, and continued on that level for over a decade. Note that four of those first seven recipients were directors rather than actors (although Welles was both), but that’s true for only three out of the last sixteen: George Lucas, Mike Nichols and Mel Brooks (who’s also both). Both the limp ratio and the composition of that trio tell you a lot about how the process has come to value celebrity over all else – even to the limited extent it recognizes those behind the camera, it values profile over consistent achievement. Scorsese and Spielberg have also won, but it’s unlikely that the likes of Robert Altman and John Cassavetes were ever seriously considered.

The Wikipedia article on the topic also notes that “agreeing to appear at the televised ceremony apparently is part of the AFI's criteria for selecting the award.” The ceremony seems to turn up on a different Canadian channel every year, but always in a highly edited package that unsurprisingly emphasizes gushing tributes and lightweight anecdotes over anything approaching serious evaluation (my favourite contribution, which you can find on YouTube, was by Steve Martin at the Jack Lemmon event, encompassing his “anecdote” of how he made Lemmon’s career by excising the tapioca pudding from the original concept and title of Days of Wine and Roses, and by persuading Billy Wilder to cast Some Like it Hot with two men rather than two women). Anyway, this condition likely explains why Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Hepburn and Woody Allen aren’t on the recipients list. As for the fact that Jane Fonda is only the eighth woman to receive the honour, that might either be seen as a specific source of grievance, or a grimly accurate reflection of how things stand (no female director has made the cut, unless you include Barbra Streisand, but given the prevailing criteria, it’s hard to see who would have). Likewise the fact of two African-American winners – Freeman and Sidney Poitier (with Denzel Washington presumably just a year or two away).

A radical choice?

Of course, any award given at the pace of just one a year will always have as many notable omissions as recipients. But it’s disappointing, especially in recent years, how little the list conveys about why we might cherish American film, or regard it as art rather than merely entertainment or commerce. Couldn’t the AFI find any place for sustained eccentricity or iconoclasm (beyond the narrowly studied brand of a Mel Brooks), for underappreciated corners of the landscape, for transcendent one-off achievements that amount to more than safely lucrative careers? It seems not.

Anyway, against this background, Jane Fonda stands as something close to a radical choice, although one suspects that the award ceremony (at least in its edited form) will omit much of the reasons for that, providing instead a generically uninformative portrait of long-lived Hollywood royalty. I’d be surprised if anyone mentioned Vietnam, or Godard, or even my favourite of her peak-career films, Alan Pakula’s Rollover, one of American film’s most intriguing attempts to engage with international finance and where it leaves us. And the interest in getting some young faces on the screen no doubt entails disproportionate attention to later, unimportant pictures such as Georgia Rule and Monster-in-Law. Well, no matter, her admirers will tune in to glean what snippets of value they can, while running their own better tributes inside their own heads.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Zombies, and more

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2004)

Observations on a more commercial batch of movies this week.

Dawn of the Dead

I’m a great admirer of George Romero’s 1979 zombie classic, and there is no significant respect in which Zach Snyder’s remake improves on it - unless you give extra points for casting Canadian actors. The decision to change the original’s shambling, braindead zombies into lightning-fast killing machines sums up how the new version tarts everything up, losing Romero’s peerless satire in the process. The first film’s suburban mall, where a group of survivors hide from the zombie plague, was depicted with such peerless detail that I remember the geography more vividly than almost any other movie location; here it’s just a backdrop. The superficial conflicts and shallow characterization in Snyder’s version makes you realize how unfairly Romero’s terse actors were criticized at the time. And so on.

But if you forget Romero (and for that matter, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, another superior film along similar lines), Snyder’s film is actually a better than average action-horror picture. It’s effectively eerie and repulsive (I stared and squirmed), and although set in Minnesota, it sure feels Canadian (it was shot near Toronto, with Sarah Polley and numerous other vaguely familiar faces), which in these circumstances seems endearing. And you know, sometimes you just feel like agreeing with Polley’s remark to the Globe and Mail: every movie should have a zombie in it. Especially in George W. Bush’s America.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Ace screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) is already a semi-legendary figure, but I have trouble warming up to him. He’s a master of structure, and not in a hollow way either; every film takes you somewhere you’ve never been before in terms of both plot and theme. But I’ve so far found them a little cold and ultimately not that relevant to anything I’m interested in (which of course could be primarily a measure of limited horizons on my own part). The latest Kaufman film, directed by Michel Gondry, is the best so far, in that Kaufman’s complex extrapolations seem here to flow from a half-profound (and if not profound, at least beguiling) notion of the human condition.

Jim Carrey plays a low-key, buttoned-down man, who takes an impulsive train trip to nowhere and meets a kinetic woman played by Kate Winslet. They fall into a tentative relationship, but then we shift in time – the relationship is over, and she’s had him erased from her mind using the technology of Laguna Inc., a slightly seedy-looking operation. He decides to go through the same thing, and a team of technicians (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst) carries out the procedure that night in his apartment, while he’s lying unconscious. Except that as the procedure’s in full flight, he decides he wants to retain her memory after all. His buried attempts to fight the machine’s onslaught, mixed in with his vague consciousness of what’s going on around him, and the technicians’ additional entanglements, form a reality/time-bending, impressionistic, surreal web that’s challenging, even by Kaufman’s standards, to the audience’s faculties.

The movie is drawn towards bleak landscapes of ice and snow or desolate beaches: as viewed through Gondry’s loose, grainy style this mutes the story’s potential conceptual overkill. Eternal Sunshine thus forms a poignant, edge-of-heartbreak meditation on human connection.  But the visual grunginess, the patent imperfections of the relationship, and Carrey and Winslet’s refusal to play their roles as conventional romantic figures, keep it from becoming a high-tech soap opera. Rather, the film extrapolates the normal detritus of normal life into a vast psychic struggle, placing the mundane balancing that’s the stuff of relationships under a microscope that somehow illuminates even as it twists and evades. In a sense it’s one of the most optimistic movies of recent times in that it posits how even the most chilling technology may possess some profound redemptive power. 

David Edelstein of Slate thinks this may be the best movie of the last ten years. Others regard it as a movie to be admired more than loved. I have some sympathy with the latter view, and yet in a way that’s a measure of its achievement. The film tangles with the human condition without becoming ingratiating – indeed, it’s unclear whether we’re meant to find Carrey and Winslet particularly likeable, or whether we’re meant to identify with them in the way we do normal protagonists. By so bravely severing the conventional mechanics of identification, the film illustrates the inherent arbitrariness of all relationships, without diminishing their crucial status. Along with any number of passing concepts and felicities of execution that make you gasp, it adds up to quite a show.

Taking Lives

D J Caruso’s thriller, with Angelina Jolie as an FBI agent going after a serial killer in Montreal, seems to have received surprisingly good reviews, citing Caruso’s sharp visual style, the appeal of the Montreal locations, and a good performance by Jolie as her customary offbeat self. These attributes are all there to be seen, but I can’t say the film did a lot for me. It’s yet another over-elaborate premise, with little stand-alone significance, and a “surprise” ending that distinctly isn’t. I enjoyed it well enough, but there’s never a moment when you wouldn’t be better off watching something else. And Jolie’s charismatic self-assurance has its downside – the thematic weight, to the extent there is any, comes from her unwise infatuation with a key witness, but I could never believe she was doing more than toying with him.

Still, the location (albeit filled mainly with estimable French actors like Tcheky Karyo and Olivier Martinez playing Quebecois cops, or else with Americans like Gena Rowlands and Ethan Hawke) earns a rare distinction – two big Hollywood movies in the same week that might qualify at least as half Canadian. But if this were a real Canadian film, how would The Barbarian Invasions’ Cannes award-winner Marie-Josee Croze be languishing in a nothing two-scene role as a pathologist? Only, maybe, if the film were cast by zombies.

Enter...Zombie King

Since I was talking about zombies, I’ll say a few words for a movie called Enter...Zombie King, which I saw on DVD (it played a couple of nights at the Bloor Cinema last year). I know nothing about anyone involved with it except that it features local cult band The Tijuana Bibles. The film reflects a somewhat complex aesthetic revolving around wrestling, topless babes, an odd approach to choosing locations, and of course zombies. The execution often falters (well, to be honest, it seldom gathers sufficient momentum to be accused of faltering), and yet I must confess I thought the movie had its finger on something vaguely admirable. George Romero is credited for “guidance and inspiration,” and the end credits also promote a wrestling website. Somewhere at that intersection, eternal sunshine may lurk.

One woman's story

Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, says the TIFF website, “is guaranteed to be one of 2014's most debated and controversial films,” which instantly sounds as much like a wish as an assessment. Over the last year or so, seemingly from the moment von Trier started shooting the film, entertainment news sources have been supplied with a steady supply of provocation about its unusual cast, its reported length and scope, and its possibly hardcore pornographic content. As if to support the sense of an experience beyond normal processing, the film is being released in two parts of approximately two hours each (unusually, it was available on demand a couple of weeks before going into theatres, perhaps to cultivate some furtive sense of intimacy); at some point, an extended version will follow, apparently with much more explicit material. I’m writing this article after seeing volume one; I’ll follow up another time with any new thoughts prompted by volume two.


As the film opens, Joe, a middle-aged woman, is lying injured in the street, where an older man, Seligman, comes across her. She refuses to let him call an ambulance, but says she’ll accept a cup of tea; later, while she’s recovering in his spare bed, she starts to tell him about the events leading up to that evening, a process requiring, as she conceives of it, that she return virtually to her earliest memories. With few exceptions, everything she tells him from there is sexual in nature, starting in earnest with how she lost her virginity at fifteen and rapidly became promiscuous, seldom caring about the men she was sleeping with. Seligman is a willing listener and quasi-therapist, throwing out metaphors or reference points intended to clarify her sense of herself, or to alleviate occasional outbursts of self-loathing.

With regards to that TIFF quote, I think we’re probably past the point where such knowing creations can become controversial in any kind of high visibility way, and while the film is certainly susceptible to being debated, the terms of the debate are largely predictable before you even see the film. That is: does a woman inherently limit or even demean herself by exercising her sexuality, and what are the conditions – either of external behaviour or internal positioning – that might alter her place on this spectrum? And if sexual experiences are among the most rarified we have – which most of us would agree with in at least some form – then isn’t it arguably logical, from a self-examining utilitarian perspective, to place greater weight on pursuing those experiences, in all their variety, than most of the things we spend time on instead? And if a woman who would follow that kind of project also ends up servicing the passing whims and urges of hundreds of men over her life, well, frankly, so what – isn’t everything in life a transaction?

Rolling the dice

Von Trier weaves his way through this familiar territory in mostly imaginative and nimble fashion. The framework inevitably lends itself to the possibility that Joe is an unreliable narrator, misremembering, embellishing, or outright lying, and Seligman draws on an apparently wide-ranging knowledge of art and science and culture to prod her this way and that, taking issue with her interpretations and self-assessments, near the end outright asserting that he doesn’t believe her account of one incident. In the flashbacks, Joe is played by a young actress called Stacy Martin; it may or may not be deliberate that she doesn’t look much like Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays the older woman, but she’s a very reticent presence, physically unimposing, often talking in little more than a whisper, seldom suggesting any great compulsion or even engagement; that is to say, the classic unformed canvas on which fantasies are painted. The film’s rather unplaceable location supports this sense of disembodiment: all the indications are that it’s set in Britain, but it doesn’t really feel like it, or like anywhere specific.

At various times, Joe’s pursuit of sex is highly structured, as sophisticated as the machinations of the business world that the film briefly parodies. At one stage, she tells us, she was seeing seven or eight men a night, which she seems to recall primarily as a scheduling challenge; at another, unable to keep straight all the male voices on her answering machine, she adopts a practice of basing her response on a roll of the dice (one: she tells them she loves them; six: she never returns the call). At various points the film plunges into numerology, playing with the notion that her activity has mathematical significance (the wittiest expression of this comes when, after her companion has failed to squeeze into a particularly tight parking space, she takes the wheel and does it perfectly), and Van Trier sometimes finds ways to graphically represent these ideas, as if partly intending the picture as (of all things!) a teaching aid. The pedagogical (or maybe just loud-mouthed) impulse also comes across in how Seligman discourses on such matters as fly fishing, Edgar Allen Poe, and Bach.

More melancholia

At other times though, the abstract momentum of her activities crashes into the tangible pain of human intimacy. A lover sets out to leave his wife for her, bringing down the vengeful weight of the wronged woman (Uma Thurman in a memorable vignette); she finds herself strangely attracted to one man who keeps reappearing in her life (Shia LaBoeuf), and the older Joe comments repeatedly on her own callousness, denying herself even the addict’s consolation of acting on perceived need (it was merely lust, she says). Sometimes, her actions represent a more conventional mode of losing herself in sex, as when for example she leaves the bedside of her dying father for a break, and has a quickie with the first hospital employee she finds. Most of the men in the film make no more impact on us than they do on her (at one point Van Trier reduces several dozen of them to a rapid succession of penis shots), which intensifies the danger attaching to those who, by whatever human mystery, somehow come to embody something deeper to her.

Writing here a few years ago about Van Trier’s last film Melancholia, I commented among other things on how the film depicts the emptiness of our structures and devices and rituals, ultimately suggesting we’re so eroded by them, even the pending end of the world can’t galvanize us to reclaim our inner selves. Nymphomaniac, at least based on the first volume, doesn’t feel much like watching Melancholia, but it extends its fascination with the prospect of oblivion, focusing down to its purest and most pervasive expression, the brief post-orgasmic embrace of death. Even if it seldom seems truly new or revelatory, it’s much more fascinating than not. Come back soon (if, after the above, you can stand the prospect) to see whether volume two changes this assessment.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Walking dead

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2008)

Martin McDonagh has written several acclaimed plays. I saw one of them, The Pillowman, here in its Canadian Stage production, and it was a scorcher. He made a short film, won an Oscar for it, and has moved on now to make a first feature, In Bruges. Rather like many of David Mamet’s films, it suggests McDonagh doesn’t view his cinema career as an extension of his theatre one particularly, but as a necessarily more lowbrow endeavour. To me it smells of condescension (although maybe we should withhold judgment, and view this as a set of training wheels).

Highly generic, although lively and more artful than it seems, it has Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as a pair of Irish hitmen sent by their evil boss (a miscast and over-compensating Ralph Fiennes) to cool off in the Belgian city and wait for orders. Gleeson gets to work lapping up the culture; Farrell’s more about the beer and babes. It’s a little bit violent all the way along, and then it gets really violent. As I’ve said before (and I apologize to regular readers for this), assassins are so over-represented in the annals of cinematic employment that any director taking on the subject all but disqualifies himself (is there a female example?) from serious consideration (and no, I’m not overlooking No Country for Old Men). Yep, In Bruges, for all its skills, need be considered about as seriously as boxer shorts on a dog.

Diary of the Dead

Which many might think still puts it comfortably ahead of Diary of the Dead, seriousness-wise. George Romero is at the very least a cult figure, and his zombie movies in particular have always had pockets of critical support, but how far can admiration for this stuff possibly stretch? Master filmwriter Robin Wood, for one, thinks pretty darn far – his article in the current Film Comment calls Romero a “great and audacious filmmaker” and finds brilliant elements in the new film.

I might be halfway there. The new film, forming a completely separate story rather than a continuation of the four previous works, focuses on a group of students, who take off in an RV, headed for their various homes or else just to take off, as reports start to circulate of the dead coming back to life and feasting on the living. They’re mostly film students, and Romero structures his picture as an assembly of material shot through a DV camera one of them perpetually wields, supplemented with footage from the Internet, security cameras, and so forth. It’s not Romero’s fault that as he worked on the film Brian De Palma was simultaneously applying a similar approach to the Iraq war in Redacted, nor that Cloverfield was doing almost the same thing as well; still, it inevitably undercuts the technique’s impact.

There’s a lot of conversation about the ethics of the student’s continual filming – arguments about whether this records reality or distorts it and suchlike – and this intersects with the film’s broader theme of unreliable media: we see how the official network version of one of the initial attacks differs from the full version (secretly uploaded onto the Internet). Information is withheld throughout – the film stays with the students on the road, with relatively few other people in sight; they download information or pick up news in bits and pieces, but neither they nor we ever really know how far things have gone.

Collapse of Everything

Even the zombies aren’t as visible as in the previous films, and the kids figure them out pretty quickly, so it’s hard to focus on them as being specifically threatening or “evil.” Instead it always feels – and this version perhaps is more clearly and eerily metaphorical than any of its predecessors– that we’re watching an embodiment of the big unknown future upheaval that will force a reinvention of everything. As Wood points out, the films have always systematically demolished central building blocks of our society and worldview: the nuclear family, consumerism (in Dawn of the Dead, my own favourite of the quintet), the military, capitalism. In Diary, it’s perhaps more generalized and thus more despairing than its predecessors – the whole damn thing, it seems, just can’t be sustained, and maybe shouldn’t be.

I do wish that Romero had a little more finesse in some respects. The new film has a lot of over-emphatic dialogue and a hackneyed approach to some of the characters. Some of the specific notions – such as a lame scene of a damsel in distress pursued by a mummy being played out twice, once within the student film they’re shooting at the start and later for real – are distractingly clunky. But you have to take the director for what he is – he’s not a minute craftsman but, rather, it seems, a brilliant mess of high and low impulses, serving as a conduit (maybe in large part unknowingly) for some of our great under-examined fault lines.

And as Manohla Dargis pointed out in her New York Times review, there’s a humane aspect to his work here. At the end of the film (which can’t deliver anything even half-approaching closure in the usual sense), a character asks if we’re worth saving, tying the question specifically to more Internet footage showing redneck abuse of the zombies. There’s a link there, perhaps, to the US’ mistreatment of enemy captives and terrorist suspects, and how that’s undermined the country’s place in the world. Do such atrocities and transgressions, step-by-step and drip-by-drip, erode our existential credit and prepare the way for the collapse of everything?

The Band’s Visit

I was careless on the day we went to see The Band’s Visit, and had it in my mind it started at 2.25 rather than 2.40, so that we missed the first couple of minutes. In the old days I would have called off the whole thing, but I’m much more philosophical now. After twenty minutes or so, I was thinking it was a shame not to have a beverage and a snack (once realizing our mistake, we’d swept past the concessions) so I ran out to get us something and of course, life being was it is, had to stand through a change-making process that took as long as some public company audits.

There will Be Blood, to cite one example, is an hour longer, but if I’d missed even half a minute, I would have (and should have) been bothered. I got lucky, because it seems to me that any random fifteen minutes of The Band’s Visit suffices to extrapolate almost perfectly to the whole. Not to the exact details of course, but to the overall aftertaste, which is pleasant but hardly rich. It’s about an Egyptian band inadvertently stranded in a deadly dull Israeli town. It’s nice, but I might have wished for someone to pull a gun, or get eaten.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


This year’s Oscars seemed mostly successful to me in one respect at least – they rewarded an unusual number of winners associated throughout their careers with enterprising or at least “different” films, nicely expanding the quirk factor of the “Oscar club.” I’m thinking in particular of Steve McQueen, Spike Jonze, Alfonso Cuaron, Matthew McConaughey, The Great Beauty’s director Paolo Sorrentino, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and, indeed, Brad Pitt – it sounds as much like the career tribute list from a prestigious mountain resort festival as a traditional roll-call of industry royalty. Sorrentino and McQueen aside (perhaps), I doubt any of these won for their best work; many of them didn’t even win in the “ideal” category given how we usually think of them (Pitt won as a producer rather than an actor; McQueen and Jonze won as producer and writer rather than as directors) but such caveats have applied since the early days of the awards (Orson Welles, for instance, won only for writing Citizen Kane rather than for directing and acting in it). Along with the (based on recent years) novelty of giving the top award to a serious film rather than a piece of fluff, and avoiding the much-anticipated blunder of over-awarding Jennifer Lawrence so early in her career, I’d say it hit most of the marks that will matter in the long run (and it’s hard to say none of it does, if only because the first line of the obituary for all the people I mentioned will now be amended to include the term “Oscar-winning”).

Seeing Sting

One of the less impressive winners was Twenty Feet from Stardom in the documentary category – it’s a very smooth and pleasant piece of work, but in the great scheme of reality-based filmmaking, pretty fluffy. Still, ever since I saw the film, some reason keeps popping up to think back to it. The night before the Oscars, we went to the Paul Simon/Sting concert at the Air Canada Centre, and one of the documentary’s participants Jo Lawry was in his back-up band, often to very powerful effect. Later that week, we watched a PBS recording of a performance he did in New York last year of songs from his forthcoming musical The Last Ship, and she was in that too.

It must seem from this that I’m a big Sting fan, but that’s not really true – the main draw of the concert was Paul Simon (or at least the two-for-one aspect), and The Last Ship was just a coincidence. I mean, I own some Police albums, and one of his solo releases, but that’s not so much among the 38 days of music on the iPod. And I know what my friend Pete meant when, in response to a message I sent him after the concert, he said: “I may be a 46 year old office clerk but I’m still too punk for Sting.” I mean, he is. And it sort of makes me feel bad I’m not.

The Last Ship

Only sort of though, because I guess I’m less interested now in Sting’s deficiencies than in his longevity and the diversity of his biography. For one thing, he used to be, if not punk, then at least someone highly compatible with the cool end of the classroom, at least when I was there in the Regatta de Blanc days. It was widely known he’d been a teacher for a few years, so his image benefited from such close association with, and transcendence of, the mundanity we were living day to day; he was also prominently featured around that time in the movie of Quadrophenia, another iconic expression of rebellion, and in some other edgy cinema. I think the Police probably became less interesting as they became more famous though, and although his solo career has exhibited plenty of craft, he’s never had the intuitive grace of, well, Paul Simon. As he settled into the typical elder statesman groove of tours, reunions, benefits, cameos and so forth, he’s been like the well-preserved wallpaper in the part of the room no one ever visits.

The Last Ship is set in the declining days of the shipbuilding industry in the Newcastle area, and if not autobiographical in its narrative, draws heavily on his memories of growing up in that environment, with its surrounding culture and rituals and dialects. On the PBS broadcast he talks several times about how his main motivation when growing up was just to get out of that life, but since he achieved that about as fully as anyone’s ever achieved anything, it seems he can now afford to be magnanimous, even affectionate about it. Of the songs he performed, some are instantly forgettable, but a handful are potential crowd-pleasers, with the right defiant swagger. Whether they’ll be enough to sustain a whole Broadway show, who can tell.

Novak and Minnelli

In the Air Canada concert, he performed songs from the span of his career, and interacted beautifully with Paul Simon; it was the kind of show where everything feels impeccably worked out and well-rehearsed, yielding a very high quality of musicianship. As I already conceded, Simon has much the stronger catalogue, but that didn’t seem to matter so much on this particular night. A woman behind me, who seemed to be a fan of Simon more than of Sting, consistently and loudly identified songs like Diamonds on the Souls of her Shoes within about two bars (not so tough actually), telling her companion (and everyone else in range) how much she loved the song, and then continuing either to talk about her love of it or else to ill-advisedly sing along for its entire duration. This seemed to me a prime example of the affliction that’s often identified now, the chronic inability to submit to experiencing the moment. This was prominent at the Oscars where, on the one hand, presenters gushed the usual waffle about the magic of cinema, its life changing quality and so on, and yet the main preoccupation of the ceremony seemed to be selfies and other disposable bits of celebrity interaction. I guess if Hollywood can’t live fully in its own prime moment, why should anyone else?

Another aspect of this was the mockery (on the show itself) of Liza Minnelli and (everywhere else it seemed) of Kim Novak, sad in several respects, not least for how you know for sure that most of those doing the mocking have little sense of what the two of them achieved; we may all be relative office clerks, but we’re too punk to dig up some basic empathy and interest. The life story ought to be worth infinitely more than the funny tweet, but I guess that takes too long, when you’re living twenty feet from absolute banality.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Movie diary

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2005)

For me, watching movies is a matter of considerable planning and strategy. I have an ongoing aspiration to be someone who can comment at least semi-articulately at any given time on almost any notable film, as though the encyclopedia of world cinema were lodged prominently in my cortex. Given the number of pages in the encyclopedia, this is an impossible object, involving not only seeing the major new releases (I’m using “major” here to denote artistic interest rather than commercial prominence) but also constantly visiting and revisiting films from the past. One could easily watch three or four films a day and barely crack the surface of this task; since I have a full time job and a wife and a dog, such a commitment is clearly impossible. So as a compromise, I’ve long aimed to watch a film a day on average, from all sources.

Movies all the time

As I write, I’m doing rather well on this year’s target – I’m actually ten or so films ahead. I can’t fully explain how this happened, although it helped that I acquired a laptop that plays DVD’s and I thus have additional flexibility in cramming movies into otherwise unproductive time. For example, on a recent trip to my parents’ house in Wales, I watched The Killing of a Chinese Bookie in bed across a succession of early mornings. That aside, the average week might take in two or three new films in the major chains, a couple at the Cinematheque or other repertory venues, with the balance coming on DVD or video, usually in fifteen minute or half hour chunks here and there. Some people can’t watch films this way, and I wouldn’t say it’s ideal either, but for me it’s a matter of logistical necessity.

It’s a little puzzling that I’m watching so many movies this year, because I’ve been spreading myself potentially a bit thin. Work takes up nine or ten hours a day. I do these weekly columns of course, and I also wrote an article in the current issue of CineAction. I’ve also been writing a novel (you’ll probably never hear of it again) which is nearly at 50,000 words. I spend half an hour a day studying French and have been exercising diligently. My wife and I eat out at least twice a week. I’ve been socializing more than in years, in some weeks scheduling something for virtually ever night. I’ve read more books so far this year than I usually do (albeit mostly books about cinema, which I was trying for a while to avoid), as well as numerous magazines and papers and the ever-growing roster of websites I visit regularly. And I did all my share of the dog walking and my other designated household duties. And much else. Before you ask, no, I don’t sleep a lot, and it’s getting to be less.

Money in the Bank

You can probably see from this that I don’t spend much time doing what people term “nothing.” Of course, some might say that seven movies a week is a big investment in doing nothing, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. Most of my days are like relays, the baton constantly being passed from one activity to the next. But I don’t think (not that it’s completely in my power to judge) this makes me one of those highly-strung perpetual motion types. I walk fast, sure, and I make decisions fast, but most of the time I feel pretty laidback. In the middle of this hurricane of activities, I like to claim there’s a peaceful eye.

And not the least of the reasons for this is that I’m on a real movie high this year. I think I may have seen a better quality of films this year than I ever have before. Virtually everything I watch is just thrilling. In the last few weeks alone, for instance, I’ve watched films by Bunuel, Dreyer, Resnais, Kurosawa, Antonioni and (courtesy of MoviePix) seven by Hitchcock. This is all like money in the bank. Many of the new movies have been good and diverting – the six hour The Best of Youth, the documentary Darwin’s Nightmare, the German Head-On caught at the Goethe Institute (unfortunately that one didn’t get a wider release).

Just as you sometimes appreciate simpler food as a contrast to a series of high-end meals, I’m also finding heightened pleasure in the second-tier films I’ve been watching. For example, I watched Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan for the first time in twenty years. The film looks cumbersome and rather laborious now, and the progressiveness of its sexual politics is certainly compromised. But the central axis of a bored housewife breaking out of her prison through identification with another more self-defined woman still seems fresh and exciting. It’s a film in which every element seems culturally and politically intriguing.

I actually went to see Monster in Law, for Jane Fonda of course, and although I could certainly see all the weaknesses and idiocies that some critics were so vituperative about, I regarded the movie with general goodwill (any review I might have written would have been somewhat wet and bloodless, which is why I didn’t bother with it). Fortunately for my future prospects in this space, I found there is a limit to this wellbeing, and I reached it with Paul Haggis’ Crash. The film received some terrific reviews (The New Yorker thought it the best American movie since Mystic River) and some damning ones that saw it as an absurd preachy fake (albeit well-orchestrated). That’s pretty much my own view.

Valid Investment

And yet, watching Crash was a scintillating experience, and my wife and I discussed it solidly for at least half an hour afterwards. With so much to choose from, there’s no excuse for anyone watching a movie that’s at least stimulating and interesting. And the network of decisions and inputs and compromises and tensions underlying a failed or unsatisfying movie can be at least as interesting (and often more so) as those underlying  a conventionally successful one of limited ambition. It seems to me that everyone would acknowledge that on some level, and yet given the choice, I’m always surprised and dismayed how people choose to opt for something simple and reassuring, without concern for how this marks them as puppets of mass commerce.

When I was growing up in Wales, I latched on to films fairly early as a central means of self-definition – I desperately wanted to transcend my surroundings, to be the kind of person who could get out, and cinema helped me acquire the expanded parameters to accomplish that. I suppose I feel more settled and fully defined now, and yet every time I watch a movie, or rewatch a good one, I feel something meaningful is added. Chasing movies may sometimes be arduous, but I’ve never seriously doubted the validity of the investment. I wish more people realized the richness of what’s available to them, but I also know how much I’m ignorant of in areas I don’t pursue. I wonder, truly, if I could expand my range of activities a bit, if I could get by on half an hour less sleep a day...

Surviving the plague

Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club (still in theatres after several months, and also available now in other formats) is up for several Oscars this year, including for best picture, and by the time this article appears may have won at least two of them, most likely for best actor and supporting actor. I didn’t get round to watching the film until last week, having felt it had “wait for cable” written all over it. Basically, I think that was right. The film’s not dull or irritating, but there’s little advantage to actually watching it over just reading about what it depicts; quite the opposite, because the approximately two hour running time would allow you to absorb a much wider slab of history than the film provides. Put another way, on this occasion the film’s pictures aren’t in any way worth a well-chosen thousand words.

Dallas Buyers Club

Set in the late eighties, it’s a portrayal of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a heterosexual who becomes ill with AIDS at a time when it’s barely understood except as a gay disease. Given thirty days to live, he bets everything on AZT, still in highly controlled trials at the time but perceived as a potential wonder drug, and bribes a hospital employee to smuggle it out to him; instead of curing him, the drug nearly overwhelms his metabolism. A renegade doctor in Mexico brings him back from the brink, opening his eyes both to better treatment options, and to the money-making potential of smuggling unapproved drugs into the US; later on, this leads to founding the buyers’ club, an attempt to finesse the law by selling monthly memberships rather than directly dealing in drugs. Business booms for a while, but the authorities are soon climbing all over him, in what you might see as a typically bureaucratic obsession with saving desperate and dying people from acting on their own risk assessments.

As it happened, it worked out well that I’d delayed watching Dallas Buyers Club for a while, because I ended up seeing it in the same week as the recent documentary How to Survive a Plague, which is currently showing on SuperChannel. Constructed mainly from archival footage, that film covers much the same period and concerns, depicting the evolving fight against a slow-moving Food & Drug Administration for access to treatments. Although it highlights some pivotal individuals, How to Survive a Plague is most distinguished by its portrait of a community, united in unimaginable loss and fear, but also at times deeply divided about strategy and tactics.

The broader story

In contrast, Dallas Buyers Club is very much the story of one man, and even if it’s a broadly true one (as usual, people have raised various quibbles about accuracy), the narrative barely touches on the broader story of AIDS in America. That is to say, just as a film like Cry Freedom chose to tell the story of apartheid by concentrating on the travails of a white liberal, and relegating Steve Biko to a supporting character in his own story, Dallas Buyers Club barely has a gay person in sight, except as background extras and bit players. The main exception is Rayon, a transgender woman played by Jared Leto, who becomes his business partner, using her contacts to help him drum up business. Leto is said to be a near-lock for the Oscar, which I don’t really understand; it may be a capable physical transformation (for one thing, both actors lost a significant amount of weight) but Rayon always seems like a collection of traits rather than a fully realized person. Still, it’s not as if the film is any more artful in its heterosexual characters, primarily embodied by a thuddingly rendered opposition between a good doctor (Jennifer Garner) and her FDA tool of a superior.

The conception of Rayon seems like a throwback to a time, not so long ago, when a straight actor wouldn’t play a gay person without heavy coding and signposting to avoid any confusion about fact and fiction. One of the film’s more interesting aspects is its depiction of a Texas subculture where homophobia isn’t just prevalent, but seems to be a key component of social discourse. Ron becomes estranged from his former crowd, and later runs into a former buddy in a grocery store; the friend seems inclined to take a stab at burying the hatchet, but the way he chooses to do it is by throwing a random slur at the nearest deviant in sight (who happens to be Rayon). As with the seemingly rampant sex, drugs, drink and gambling that seems to define the group, it’s not a stretch to wonder what underlying emptiness and identity confusion underlies such obsessions (according to Wikipedia, the real life Woodroof may have been bisexual, which if so seems like a regrettable omission, and hard to justify except as an instance of running away from complexity).

Radical treatments

The film is most appealing when it’s being wayward and hard-headed – and it does a relatively good job of avoiding sentimentality: Woodroof’s initial antipathy to homosexuals (whereby the writers allow themselves to lay out a mini encyclopedia of colourful euphemisms) dissipates somewhat, but it remains more about the money and his own survival than about altruism. There are moments when you might think you glimpse the chaotic darkness of a 70’s movie, but they never last very long (in one of the best moments, Woodroof perks up at the sight of a girl among his typically all-male clientele, because it’s a chance for mutual beyond-risk sex). McConaughey’s performance is strong and unfussy, but seems well within the comfort zone he’s established with his recent performances (which admittedly is a pretty electrified zone). But already I find I’m running out of things to say here; the film, basically, just isn’t very stimulating.

It seems to me that radical subjects demand at least somewhat radical treatments. As How to Survive a Plague passionately depicts, for some communities, AIDS comprehensively rewrote everything. Our society has an entirely decadent approach to death and suffering – some theoretical losses of life, such as those that might result from vaguely foreseeable terrorist attacks, are worth any amount of money and energy to prevent; other infinitely more foreseeable ones, like the toll of daily poverty and malnutrition, aren’t judged as a practical matter to be worth caring about at all. Given that health care is perpetually afflicted by ridiculous bureaucracy and, basically, executive theft, there’s no reason to think the next public wellness crisis will be addressed any more humanely and flexibly than previous ones (we should likely view obesity and general slothfulness as such a crisis, which isn’t being addressed at all). In all of this, you can always find individual stories of virtue, but they’re as likely to distract and distort as they are to illuminate.