Saturday, April 26, 2014

Telling the truth

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2004)

There’s a general consensus that last year was filled with great documentaries: Capturing the Friedmans, The Fog of War, Spellbound, Winged Migration, Bus 174, Etre et Avoir, and it continues this year with The Corporation, Fahrenheit 911 and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.  I liked all those movies too, except for Spellbound which seemed to me to bang the patriotic drum a little too fervently. Fahrenheit 911 became the highest-grossing documentary of all time, and continues to be – in my experience – a film that comes up in conversation unusually often. At the movies, documentaries are finally cool.

Reality TV

On TV meanwhile, “reality” programming fills an ever-increasing portion of the schedule. Of course, “reality” in this context really needs those quotation marks, for the genre relies primarily on foregrounded artifice. The mundane rhythms of ordinary life are anathema to the form, which generally places people carefully chosen for their buff narcissism into situations where they’re pushed into the exaggerated reactions of second-rate melodrama, and then edits it so as to heighten the likeness. I guess however much you feel your buttons being pushed, it still has a frisson that’s missing from pure (or acknowledged) fiction.

It might sound like the two preceding paragraphs are about two entirely different things, but actually they’re about different places on the same continuum. The editorial choice inherent in any form of documentary is at least as wide as that involved in creating fiction. Even for a filmmaker like Frederick Wiseman, whose films present long slabs of unmodulated real life, there’s an obvious choice in what to film, when, how. That might sound like a pointless truism, but it’s easy to overlook how (say) even minor differences in the camera angle (for example, in the relative prominence of people within the frame) adjust the subtext and nuance. There’s barely an event that couldn’t be shot to seem either anarchic or conformist, either complex or banal, either progressive or complacent, When you have someone like Michael Moore, whose films prominently feature his self-generated projects and escapades, the distinction from fiction seems especially tenuous.

After all, Moore’s films have a beginning, a middle and an end – they have comedy and tragedy and celebrities. Even the film’s greatest admirers can see where Moore blatantly overstates or fakes things – such as the idealistic portrait of Toronto in Bowling for Columbine. So why would we believe anything else in the movie?

Sterner Stuff

I can only advance some rather glib theses. The standard blurb on the Internet tells you how our sense of personal space is changing – connectivity pierces almost any moment of privacy. It’s supposed to be cool to have a camera on the cell phone, as though the intimate ability to pass on our quotidian visual experiences was suddenly a necessity. Anyone can get hold of a digital video camera, shoot a movie, and stick it up on the Internet. Of course, only a small percentage of us actually do this. But the awareness of the possibility is pervasive; if you’re not hooked up, you’re probably on the defensive by now.

Add to this the Blackberries and the other gadgets and you get an environment that increasingly denies limitations. Add to this the knowledge of technology we all possess now, the astonishing transparency (largely through all that padding on DVD’s) of the movie-making process, and you get an environment where the allure of fiction as a privileged form of escapism increasingly has to be discounted. It’s so easy to play with reality itself – and isn’t that obviously better?

Maybe in a way the appeal of watching spoilt rich girls on the farm, of watching endless permutations on dating games, of watching interactive singing contests  - maybe our power of identification with these hi-jinks is heightened by our lengthening sense of possibility. Of course, there’s nothing very elevated about any of this. Those changes I mentioned haven’t made anyone more intelligent, except in a glib, narrowly defined kind of way. Maybe it’s the opposite. Still, it may be that at the more elevated end of this range of experience, you end up with a somewhat enhanced sensitivity for documentary. 

Intersecting with this, I think you can sense a hardening in our social discourse. American politics, famously, is more divided than anyone can remember. Canada isn’t in anything like the same state, but in the free trade protests, in the relative resurgence of the NDP and elsewhere, you can see the activist spirit rumbling. As every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so the frivolity I described above may harden the arteries of some of us, and drive us to sterner stuff. A recent example is The Corporation, which I wrote about earlier this year. The movie was very well attended (especially in the premiere screening, when the Bloor Cinema ceiling fell in on them), and when I went, it looked like the kind of committed crowd that wasn’t just there for fun (it could be seen as a case of preaching to the converted).

Political Act

But there’s a problem here. The Corporation had an extensive pre-release email campaign. One of the messages I received read in part as follows:


In today's context, it's a political act to see this film in a commercial movie theatre.

The implication, as I read it, is that seeing the movie on TV is an action that can carry no specific interpretation. But paying money and getting off your ass to go to the theatre connotes a degree of commitment to the film’s “message” that has the same incremental information content (for our political masters) as marching in a protest rally. But that can only be the case if the film’s promoters think that people who see the movie inherently agree with its position. In other words, it’s barely contemplated that someone might go to see the film just out of interest, just because they want to see a good documentary. And the thing is, they’re very probably right.

This is how far documentary has to go. The TV shows get the mass audiences; for now, everything else occupies a niche. When I went to see Etre et Avoir, about a French schoolteacher, I’m quite certain the theatre was filled almost entirely by educators (somehow I could just tell). Ironically, despite the obvious gap in quality, the contrived machinations of primetime seem to people to possess the greater relevance, the greater capacity for identification and self-enhancement. In our brave new world of transformation by technology, it’s the equivalent of tinkering with the on-off button while vast layers of functionality go unexplored.


Soul pain

I remember taking much more time over my 2008 article on French director Arnaud Desplechin than I usually do (you can read it here). As I wrote at the time, the likelihood of my saying anything insightful, or even adequate, just seemed too remote, because Desplechin is a gorgeously complex filmmaker, perhaps the best modern embodiment of the classic “art house” figure. In 1,100 words or so, I used adjectives including “magisterial,” “strange,” “thrilling,” “discursive,” “disciplined,” and “audacious,” summing it all up like this: “To me it simply feels as if he’s absorbed the tools of cinema better than any of his peers. And also for a better purpose. Only a true and eloquent optimist could explore human behaviour so expansively; only a great director could so convince us that there’s still something urgent and personal to be optimistic about.”

Jimmy P

A couple of years later I provided a list of my ten favourite films, and included Desplechin’s 1996 picture My Sex Life….or how I got into an Argument, by far the most left-field of my choices, saying among other things that “The stunning climax profoundly embodies the immense possibilities within even the smallest of interactions for triggering joyous reinvention.” I think My Sex Life… would still be on the list if I went through the exercise again today. Anyway, you get the point – I’m a huge Desplechin admirer, and it’s been a long wait from A Christmas Tale, which prompted the 2008 article, to his new film Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian.

The wait was even longer because while Jimmy P opened in the US in early February, it never came to theatres here - a further indictment of Toronto’s over-hyped notion of itself as a movie lover’s capital. It’s been available on demand for the last couple of weeks, although you had to dig down the list to find that out. On this occasion, Desplechin is working in English (as he did in his 2000 film Esther Kahn), exploring the real-life story of Jimmy Picard (Benicio del Toro), an Army veteran admitted to hospital in 1948 with a variety of symptoms (which in the present day would likely be loosely labeled as post-traumatic stress disorder). After he evades any easy diagnosis or treatment, the hospital brings in Georges Devereux, a French anthropologist/ psychoanalyst with expertise in Native American culture, on the theory that Jimmy’s condition might in some way be specific to his Blackfoot culture; Devereux’s particular expertise in the Mojave, but this at least provides an accelerated starting point. The bulk of the film follows the conversations between the two, along with representations of Jimmy’s dreams and key scenes from his past.

Oedipus complex

Notwithstanding the criticism I just made, it’s not so surprising that the film fell largely between critical and commercial cracks; at times, it almost feels designed to do so, to approach a kind of vanishing point. It functions as an inversion of much of Desplechin’s previous work, substituting inwardness for expansion, eschewing a wide canvas to focus intensely on a single dilemma (although the recreation of the period feels accurate, this is in no way one of those historical films that shows off its sets and costumes). At times, the film almost seems on the verge of dismantling itself under the force of this scrutiny, to decompose into segments for which we lack the connective tissue (whether cinematic, narrative or psychological).

This serves as an expression for Devereux’s investigative methods, calm and collegial on the surface, but drawing from Jimmy a mass of potentially problematic past experience: what we’d now call sex abuse by an older girl; walking in on his mother having sex with another man; foolishly failing to marry the love of his life and, after her death, ending up estranged from their child; head trauma during the war. Some of this seems almost like a parody of Freudian “clues” to bad dreams (at one point, addressing his colleagues on the case, Devereux has “Oedipus complex” prominently written on the board behind him); at another times though, the doctor seems to distance himself from conventional notions of analysis and interpretation. The difficulty of organizing all of this into a coherent “treatment” reflects itself in the nature of their interaction: each talks rather tentatively, partly reflecting that English isn’t a clear first language (Jimmy says he dreams mostly in English but not always), and the film emphasizes Devereux’s precise transcription of their conversations, amounting to what seems like thousands of pages of notes.

Jimmy’s malaise might however be as much cultural: the film contains several instances of casual or institutional racism, suggesting at times that a form of madness might merely constitute a rational response to America’s treatment of him. Near the end there’s a seemingly minor but perhaps key incident in which Jimmy is given the wrong information about office hours, perhaps by mistake, perhaps as a tactic, but if so then seemingly a belittling one representing how Jimmy’s race trivializes his concerns – as with so much in the film, it’s hard to form a clear conclusion. Desplechin seeds the film with a broader sense of mystery, in particular regarding Devereux’s origins: we learn in passing that it’s not his real name, and there are references to professional and personal troubles in his past. In the course of the film, he’s visited by his married lover, called Madeleine; the name and the woman’s unattainable nature seem like a clear evocation of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

String of masterpieces?

Mental illness (or at least, extreme behaviour that blurs the line between that and iconoclasm) has been a recurring interest of Desplechin’s work, often embodied in characters played by Mathieu Amalric, who plays the doctor here (a doctor who, at the end of the film, we himself see being analyzed). In this as in other ways, the film represents a logical extension of the previous films, even as in other respects it takes a vast leap away from his previous territory. In truth, Jimmy P is probably most fascinating if viewed as a knowing contrast to the director’s other work, rather than on its own terms – in itself, I imagine it might seem rather strange and hermetic.

But for me, that only confirms what I said about Desplechin’s classic art house status. A director like Francois Truffaut, whom Desplechin has talked warmly about, didn’t generate an unbroken string of masterpieces – his filmography zigs and zags between genres and moods, between major works and others that were always intended as smaller films. It’s difficult to maintain that kind of career now, if only because of financing. But Jimmy P fascinatingly extends the topography of Desplechin’s work, leaving an immediate sense of regret that one can’t continue right on to its next chapter.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

My top ten

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2010)

I feel the time has come to revisit the greatest of all cinephile games – identifying my ten favourite films. I last played this about five years ago, when it came out as follows:

Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau        (Jacques Rivette, 1974)
Citizen Kane        (Orson Welles, 1941)
Dog Star Man        (Stan Brakhage, 1962–64)
The King of Comedy        (Martin Scorsese, 1983)
Love Streams        (John Cassavetes, 1984)
Ordet        (Carl Dreyer, 1954)
Orphée        (Jean Cocteau, 1950)
The Passenger        (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975)
Playtime        (Jacques Tati, 1967)
Rio Bravo        (Howard Hawks, 1959)

I posted this on the Senses of Cinema website, adding the following note:

“Which of course fails to do justice to Hitchcock, Bresson, Pasolini and at least twenty others. If the object were to select ten films for a desert island, I would have to find room somewhere for Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964) and The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953).”

This exercise generally triangulates between the following points: head, heart, and (perhaps) wanting to look good in the eyes of the other geeks. Looking at my list now, I feel I put a little too much weight on the third, most egregiously in selecting Dog Star Man; if you don’t know, a highly abstract avant-garde film which, although really admirable, wouldn’t ultimately do much to keep you hopping on that desert island. Most telling is that I’ve had no desire to watch the film again since I wrote that list. However, except for Celine and Julie and Love Streams, which haven’t been available to me, I have rewatched all the other seven, as a heart-driven matter.

Since then, other directors have surged in my mind. I can’t imagine a year going by without watching a film by Ozu. But I tend to cycle through the fifteen that I own (depressing to think there may not be too many revolutions left on that cycle, no matter how long I live) rather than returning to a single film. How to reflect that on such a list? Something similar applies to Bunuel, also to Renoir, also to Rohmer. I frequently return to Godard, but almost never feel my capacities are equal to the challenges of the films; still, even if there’s some self-flagellation involved, I keep going. How to reflect that in such a list?

Then there are the “guilty pleasure” type exercises that although I don’t objectively think belong on such a list, are among my enduring points of reference and satisfaction: Blake Edwards’ “10” is a prime example; Spike Lee’s Bamboozled another. No doubt I hang myself up again here on the “looking good for the geeks” criterion, since some people happily hang out their obscure value judgments for the world to see. To pick almost at random, one participant in a recent round of Senses of Cinema postings cites City Slickers, with the rationale: “The best American ‘Men’ film since Deliverance. Billy Crystal is hilarious!” Well, OK, fine, but we’re talking about the rationale for a top ten of all time!

In the end, “10” and Bamboozled don’t quite make my list. But they could have, under my new guiding principle: what ten films would I be most disappointed never to see again, or for someone like Ozu, what director’s body of work would I be most disappointed never to dip into again. Acknowledging that it might not come out the same way tomorrow, here’s my new list:

F For Fake        (Orson Welles, 1973)
The King of Comedy       
Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)
Love Streams       

My Night At Maud’s (Eric Rohmer, 1969)
My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument  (Arnaud Desplechin, 1996)
The Passenger       

That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel, 1977)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

Well, that seems like a reasonable balance between continuity and renewal. The big breakthrough here is the Desplechin film – a director I hadn’t experienced at all until a few years ago, but who’s obviously skyrocketed in my evaluation. Watching My Sex Life again the other week, it seemed to me stunningly relevant to our current predicament. I do believe that our failed consumerism and debt problems and all the rest of it are signs, in part, that we’ve forgotten how to find the best within ourselves. The characters in My Sex Life, mostly French intellectual types, live small-scale lives, but marked by a tumble of analysis and interconnection and upheaval, brilliantly represented by Desplechin’s enormous stylistic versatility. The stunning climax profoundly embodies the immense possibilities within even the smallest of interactions for triggering joyous reinvention. I guess the whole world doesn’t feel as passionately about the film, so maybe it’s my own City Slickers, I dunno, but in a way I feel it’s the contemporary anchor that justifies the rest of the list.

Some of the choices remain undiluted pleasures. The Passenger is the emblematic film that never strikes me quite the same way twice; I used to emphasize its mystical qualities, but now see it as increasingly “grounded,” which however only renders it all the more scintillating. Orson Welles is an increasing joy; I don’t buy many cinema books now, but I’ve bought a few on Welles, because a passion for Welles necessarily can’t stop at the finished works. More and more, I see the vast sprawl of his unfinished work, much of it at least capable of being glimpsed in fragments here and there, as a coherent legacy in itself; F for Fake embodies this pleasure more than my original pick of Citizen Kane (not that I don’t still revere Kane).

The biggest hole in the DVD collection remains Love Streams. I need to see this again urgently! On the other hand, I watched it so many times in the past that I remember it pretty well. I’m quite sure it will hold up.

I regret there’s no room for classic Hollywood in the list, and I’m sure Hawks and Hitchcock and Minnelli and Buster Keaton at least would make it to the next ten or twenty. But just about everyone else mentioned above has to be in there too. And why stop at one per director?

So that, for now, is my list. All I can hope is that when I revisit it in a few years, it’ll again call out to be overhauled. Having one’s tastes and judgments solidify would surely be the same as having them congeal. Having a new film rise to the level of the best ten would be pleasing too, although I don’t expect my pantheon of masters to make it easy on the newer guys. And on that, I would certainly love to pick a film directed by a woman, but hey, there’s no quota system operating here. Please seek out these wonderful pictures, but if you think I’m nuts, hey, I only ever said it was my opinion!

April 2014 postscript – the list still looks pretty good, but if nothing else should have been tweaked to get Jacques Rivette in there…

Known atrocities

The title of Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known (now in theatres and also on demand) comes from former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous/notorious classification of information deficiencies – things we know we don’t know, things we think we know but actually don’t, and so forth. Morris got Rumsfeld to sit down for over thirty hours of interviews, condensed down in the film into a little more than an hour and a half, reviewing the span of his political career (including various roles under Nixon and Ford) but of course concentrating primarily on his last political stand, as defense secretary for most of George W Bush’s presidency, and a prime actor in all that came after 9/11/01.

The Unknown Known

Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody calls the film “a masterwork of political epistemology and dialectical jujitsu,” adding that “Morris reconstructs the mentalities of power and reveals the crucial political importance of character and judgment – and quietly despairs.” Regarding the latter point though: to whom should it be a revelation that character and judgment are vital in politics, and that they’re in increasingly short supply? And I’m not sure the film particularly supports the point anyway – by normal measures, Rumsfeld has enough substance, presence and experience for ten run-of-the-mill politicians, and look where it got us. You’d be better off switching the point around and saying the film reveals the folly of relying on apparent indicators of character in choosing our elected representatives (to take the obvious local example, Rob Ford’s bull-headedness and insistence on his own view of the world is a prime indication of character as the term is often applied, politically speaking).

This is just one example of the slipperiness of trying to extract clear meaning from Morris’ film, which of course perfectly indicates Brody’s first point about the dialectical jujitsu. Rumsfeld’s press conferences were prime Washington events for a while (winning him a reported status as an elder sex symbol) for his willingness to engage with the questions put to him, and his artful self-portrayal as a grand synthesis of battlefield titan and philosopher king. The film’s title evokes this period, one when Washington (and for the most part, it seems, the press) were convinced of the general righteousness of the war in Iraq, while also struggling to control both the reality and the narrative. During this period, Rumsfeld fretted about the definitions of such terms as “insurgency” and “unconventional warfare” in describing the reality on the ground, and found innumerable ways to insist on the one hand that one shouldn’t believe what one saw (for example that footage of chaos on the streets wasn’t necessarily representative of the bigger picture of largely peaceful liberation) and on the other hand that one shouldn’t believe what one didn’t see (that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction didn’t mean they didn’t exist). Given Rumsfeld’s happy immersion in such rationalizations (or if you prefer complexities), and that the main lesson he says he learned from Vietnam was merely that “some things work out, some don’t,” it’s not surprising that he doesn’t look back on his role in events with much self-doubt, let alone guilt.

Failure of imagination

The film looks like you expect an Errol Morris film to look – the main element is Rumsfeld talking to the camera against a black background; Morris himself is occasionally heard but not seen. He uses plenty of historical footage, and finds visual ways of emphasizing key points: for example, when Rumsfeld tells a story involving an elevator, the film gives us an elevator. He underlines Rumsfeld’s dictionary mania by flashing definitions of various terms on the screen as he evokes them (among others: “several,” “scapegoat,” “fantastic” and even “definition.”), juxtaposed against a swirling snow globe that symbolizes Rumsfeld’s “snowflakes” – his term for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of memos he’s generated during his career. The music score rumbles almost constantly in the background. It appears Morris means the film to be aesthetically striking, even beautiful, and he’s said in the past that he doesn’t think a documentary style that’s “grainy and full of handheld material” is “any more truthful.” Presumably that’s especially relevant to The Unknown Known, where the nature of truth (or at least, our leaders’ notion of the concept) is perpetually under interrogation.

But it means that the film ends up feeling like a performance by filmmaker and subject alike. Unlike Brody, I don’t think Morris gives us any perspective on Rumsfeld, or on anything larger, that can be termed a “masterwork.” There’s no revelation whatsoever in the fact that war is often based on lies, or on wild instincts dressed up as strategy and analysis.  Rumsfeld says that Pearl Harbor was based on a “failure of imagination” – that is, that since the US couldn’t have envisaged the Japanese attacking in such a way at such a time, it failed to construct adequate defenses; 9/11 has been described in similar terms. But since then, the terrorist-obsessed “imagination” has only meant a decade of wild spending and misplaced attention to guard against various obscure but vivid risks, while the infinitely more immediate and more easily if mundanely imagined problems of unemployment, infrastructure, inequality and so forth have been allowed to stagnate. I’m writing this in the week following the UN’s latest climate change report, to which the right wing of course has had no problem at all in failing to apply its imagination. Against this vast public policy wasteland, one which grievously exposes our collective failure, Morris essentially focuses on trivialities. It’s not an entirely negligible project, but it’s one of secondary importance at best.

Standard Operating Procedure

This isn’t the first time I’ve had such a reaction to Morris’ work. His 2008 film Standard Operating Procedure, focusing on the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, seemed to me to spend far too little time on the ultimate reasons it really mattered (its contribution to the failure of the Iraq initiative, and the almost endlessly grim implications and consequences) and too much on frankly uninteresting meditations on the nature of photographic representation and the like (that film was similarly decked out with superficially eye-catching but counter-productive visual effects and “enhancements”). Likewise with The Unknown Known, one might forget that we’re talking about a colossal misuse of a nation’s capacities and direction, a vast moral atrocity inflicted on its citizenry.

I’m no fan of Michael Moore’s self-promoting stunt-ridden approach, but some of his passion and outrage wouldn’t be amiss here. If that seems like I’m letting my own views overly colour the assessment of the film, it’s for this reason: regarding the contribution to mankind of Rumsfeld and his cohorts, we actually know enough to make a judgment, and we should know that we know it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Fall movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2009)

Grant Heslov’s The Men who Stare at Goats is one of those movies you rewrite and reedit in your head as you watch it, just getting increasingly irritated as the blunders pile up. Obvious blunder number one: it makes us wait too long to see the men staring at the goats! I mean, how would The Man who Loved Women have gone down if the first ninety minutes played out without any actual women?

Obvious blunder number two: a voice over that just chatters endlessly away, telling us stuff that should have been shown, or yammering about pointless details, endlessly and confusingly referring to new characters and acronyms and complexities. The voice belongs to Ewan McGregor, playing a small-town journalist circa 2002, who takes off to Iraq on spec after his marriage falls apart. He hooks up with George Clooney’s character, a former military man who trained in the 80’s with the “New Earth Army,” a unit focused on developing psychic powers (such as killing enemies simply by looking at them, which is where the staring at goats comes in), and is now on an unspecified secret mission, communicated to him by his former commander in a dream visitation. As they journey deeper into danger, Clooney tells McGregor the whole wacky case history…

Staring at Goats

Leading to obvious blunder number three: an unbearably choppy structure swinging back and forth between past and present, constantly getting in its own way, inhibiting any possible momentum. The opening caption tells us more of this is true than we would believe, but in the absence of any further detail that might merely be the difference between one and two percentage points. Certainly a lot of the material seems flagrantly absurd and untrue, a parody both of New Age ideals and of blinkered military thinking, but this leads to obvious blunder number four: Heslov’s monotone approach to his directing and to his actors. It’s a killer cast – Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey are in there too – but they all behave as if stared at by a particularly intimidating goat.

For all of this, the movie is usually passably interesting, albeit more for what it sets off in your head than for what it directly accomplishes. As I write, Obama is fighting two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both subject to profound uncertainty about the optimum strategy, even though it’s far from clear that either can be won in any definable sense, or arguably that they’re even worth trying to win. The popular image of these battles still seems defined by tanks and planes, and sweeping vistas of 30,000 or 80,000 men advancing on a dastardly foe.  In fact though, much of the key activity is embodied by unmanned robotic drones or other technological wizardry; superior I suppose in safeguarding the lives of the assailants, but all the more insidious for the distance it creates from consequences and culpability.

As with every other important issue in our deranged times, there’s never any rational public debate about this evolution, not when the rules of political engagement demand that every second sentence on the topic be a reiteration of support for our troops. The Men who Stare at Goats could have engaged productively with this backdrop: in a time of looming debt and profound uncertainty about military ends and means, not to mention widespread narcissism and distorted individual ambitions, why wouldn’t some technologically-facilitated application of our psychic smugness be exactly the way to fight a war? Maybe instead of staring at goats, the soldiers should join the rest of us in staring at celebrity websites and the other fluffy news of the day; imagine harnessing all that energy and hurling it at our enemies? Assuming we can agree on who those are…

An Education

Lone Scherfig’s An Education is smooth viewing, but its frequent references to French film only underline how it’s merely a movie, lacking much texture or complexity. New it-girl Carey Mulligan plays Jenny, a London schoolgirl in 1961, way smarter than her classmates and focused on getting into Oxford university, until she falls for an older man (Peter Sarsgaard); despite a shady background (making money mainly by scamming old ladies), he brings a fullness of experience that seems to render her previous ambitions redundant.

Mulligan is a bright and intelligent performer, but falls a bit between two stools: she doesn’t (as some have suggested) blow a hole in the screen like a young Julie Christie, but she’s too consistently collected to allow the nuances that might have accompanied a less conventionally attractive actress. This is more striking because the movie frequently refers to the drabness of her existence, but you don’t really feel it – it seems stuck in a rather narrow register of expression, suppressing both highs and lows. At the end it’s disappointing how little it all amounts to.


Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson, depicts the real-life Charlie Bronson, popularly styled as Britain’s most dangerous prisoner. Born Michael Peterson in 1952, he’s spent some 35 years in jail, predominantly in solitary confinement, changing his name along the way to evoke the late action star. The film is vaguely reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s Hunger from last year (which dealt with IRA prison hunger strikers), filled with unflinching prison violence and consciously stepping outside normal narrative conventions. The key difference is that unlike Bobby Sands and the other protagonists of Hunger, Bronson’s behavior isn’t driven by any political or other broad agenda, or even by any easily identifiable inner lack. As played (very excellently) by Tom Hardy, he has a certain facility (teased out in particular by stylized sequences in which Bronson stands on a theater stage and addresses the audience, or else talks directly into the camera), but simply understands violence better than any other form of interaction, and sees in it his sole opportunity for any form of greatness. Time and again, we see him take a hostage or instigate some kind of situation, fully knowing (and at least in part desiring) that it can only lead in one direction.

Bronson doesn’t seem merely masochistic though; his lowest point comes when he’s put among the mentally impaired, where the drugs and dysfunctional environment thwart his self-expression (his solution to that: try to kill another inmate). Out in the world, he’s essentially a bumbler, rather naively wooing a stripper who doesn’t want him and easily getting caught after his various crimes (his attempt at armed robbery of a post office yields him about forty bucks). Watching the movie you feel relief, that our social structures work as effectively for as many of us as they do, and you almost feel a peculiar gratitude that Bronson, in his own weird way, found a workable dynamic in which to live out his years (the various prison guards he beats up are merely disposable extras).

The film is interesting then, but limited: it’s far less aesthetically challenging than Hunger. Like An Education, you barely get a sense of the country beyond, although maybe that’s the whole point, that Bronson doesn’t have much sense of it either. Otherwise the film has virtually nothing in common with An Education!

Mabuse on Mubi

I was writing here recently about some of the joys and challenges of watching movies online, noting that while we now have easier access to a greater range of cinema than we could have imagined even a decade ago, it’s not without caveats; the online material is often chaotic, disappearing as quickly as it appeared, and the legal status of much of what you come across is often murky. In recent weeks, I’ve been occupied by another aspect of this: when you approach the dream state of being able, on any given day, to watch almost any film you happen to think of, how do you practically decide? In general terms, I know I want to navigate between revisiting the classics and covering the best of the new material, between English and foreign language, between well-informed choices and calculated risks, but it might take a pretty swanky computer program to channel all of that into a daily optimum choice. So, ironically or not, a lot of what I see is still driven by what’s on this TV channel or that one, just like when I was a kid (except with far more channels of course).


There’s nothing remotely unusual about this; many writers have commented that while technology theoretically expands the choices available to us, allowing items previously buried in the catalogue to come back to revenue-generating life, in practice it seems to be imposing uniformity, with everyone chasing the same blockbuster movies and music, and clicking on the same viral videos (the news media is a pathetically willing stooge in this, covering the latest transient sensations as if you’re somehow missing out if you just don’t care). Numerous writers have also pointed out the declining likelihood (unless you really work at it) of coming across the out-of-the-box cultural experiences that might change your life, given the ease of watching only the things you already know you’re going to like, and with Amazon and YouTube working away to distill the essence of your consumerism and keep it fed with endless suggestions and pokes. I work hard at avoiding this, but then – going back to what I was saying – I worry that embracing diversity becomes just as much of a trap, in the same way that promiscuity might be an empty way of avoiding commitment. That is: nothing is easy.

I mentioned last time that I subscribe to, which offers a rotating selection of thirty mostly somewhat obscure films at any one time. At the time I wrote that article, I wasn’t actually watching many of the selections, but in the last month or so I’ve become more inclined to go with Mubi’s choices, and at the time of writing I’ve watched seven of their current thirty choices (and it might have been more, if I hadn’t already watched some of the others fairly recently elsewhere). These seven include the Palestinian 5 Broken Cameras, Stephanie Rothman’s Terminal Island (notable for its “feminist” approach to the 70’s exploitation genre) and Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, a trio which sums up quite well how the selection covers the bases I described earlier.

The House by the River
Also, as this article appears, you still have a week or so to catch two films by Fritz Lang, one of the greatest of all filmmakers. The House by the River is one of the less-heralded films from Lang’s American period; made in 1950, it’s an increasingly intense tale of a failed writer who kills his maid, pressures his brother into helping him cover it up, and then lets the sibling drown in guilt as he recklessly uses the event to boost his own fame. The picture is full of piercing images, and is ultimately almost overwhelming in portraying a venality and ego so all-consuming that truth itself almost seems to bend in its wake; it remains a “small” film, but might be one of Lang’s most overlooked.

Plainly though, it’s a less necessary viewing experience than Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler, Lang’s 1922 silent masterpiece (leaving aside the fact that the four and a half hour length might diminish the feeling of necessity for some viewers). Mabuse is a prominent psychoanalyst and master of disguise who also heads up a crime network; he’s most drawn however to the underground gambling dens of the time, where he uses his intense powers of hypnosis and mental persuasion to manipulate others into losing, or into humiliating themselves by cheating and getting caught. A public prosecutor tries to put the pieces together, unwittingly enlisting the help of Mabuse himself at one point, but (a not so far from what I just said above about House by the River) the villain can manipulate the prosecutor’s sense of reality as easily as everyone else’s, even as the intimacy of his obsessions slowly undermines his strategic position. Lang would return to the character in the 30’s, and then again in 1960, in his last picture.

Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler

It’s astonishing that the film is over eighty years old, as it still feels intensely modern in many respects. I watched it just as the media hysteria over Malaysia Airline flight 370 was subsiding a bit, with all but the hardcore conspiracy crowd seemingly accepting that the plane did in fact just go in the water. But it seems to me that just as the Internet has channeled and often cheapened our collective cultural energies, it’s also been rocket fuel for paranoia, for eroding a sense of common purpose. The media happily supports the premise that impressions are as significant as facts, perhaps more so for being somehow less elitist. Plenty of people seem happy to believe in the likes of Mabuse pulling our strings (some overwhelming percentage still believes for instance that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone) but it’s hardly necessary, given how we’re happy to jerk ourselves around more ruthlessly and self-defeatingly than an evil genius ever could.

Against this backdrop, Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler still feels intensely modern, and the ways in which it doesn’t – the lack of dialogue, the stylization in many of the performances – only increases its power as a kind of timeless diagnostic tool. Many of us would see Mabuse as a metaphor for cabals and crime rings, their influence winding darkly through the official structures of power and business, occasionally bringing down public figures or planes or towers, as if just to remind us they can. But the real Mabuse arises from individual passivity and submission to the agenda of others; an agenda perpetuated in large part, ironically perhaps, on the same devices via which Mubi does its small daily bit to save us from ourselves.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reaching out

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2005)

Kevin Spacey plays Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea, which he also directed and co-produced and co-wrote. The movie is a colossal vanity project – I’d say that thirty to forty per cent of it consists of Spacey strutting around in look-at-me mode. He’s got the Copacabana-era mannerisms down to a T. The big problem, as many have noted, is that Spacey is ten years older than Darin was when he died (at 37), and is thus staggeringly absurd when he tries to portray the singer in his teen idol phase. The scenes of Spacey scampering around with the much younger Kate Bosworth (as Sandra Dee) are about as embarrassing as anything I’ve seen recently.

Beyond the Sea

The film tries to get around this with a meta-structure in which Darin steps outside the action to talk with his younger self; at times it acknowledges we’re watching a movie (supposedly directed by Darin himself). This is remarkably similar to the structure Irwin Winkler used in last year for the movie about Cole Porter, De-Lovely. It seems the musical subculture that spanned Porter to Darin, with its highly evolved codes of sophistication, can’t be presented head-on any more. Maybe we’ve lost our capacity to swoon. But the intricacy seems disproportionate when applied to a life story as dispensable as Darin’s. Further, the movie botches the few interesting aspects of it all. He talks in his later years about how he had to fight to get out of the Bronx, but it all looks pretty easy from what’s presented here (as soon as he gives himself the cool stage name, he’s on TV, and it all just seems to fall into place). And, bizarrely, after some rocky passages, the movie shows him still married to and reconciled with Dee at the time of his death, whereas they’d actually divorced six years earlier and he’d remarried. What’s the point of that?

In any event, Beyond the Sea is a much better movie than De-Lovely. Some of Spacey’s ideas are highly imaginative, and the film has some sequences of real panache. Spacey himself belts out the tunes like the real thing. It’s pretty good entertainment. But it’s also suffused with smarminess and a plain nutbag quality.

Sandra Dee

Watching the film, I started thinking that the more interesting story would be Sandra Dee’s. I doubt that many people have seen more than a couple of her films (I think I’ve only seen three of them, not including Gidget or Tammy anything), but her name is probably better remembered than many actresses of greater achievement. She was on the top ten list of box-office stars for four straight years, from 1960 to 1963. A few years later her stardom was over, and she has no credits listed after 1983, although she’s appeared on stage occasionally. Apparently she was diagnosed with throat cancer and kidney failure in 2000, but she lives on, only 60 years old.

I wrote not long ago about my puzzlement at directors who disappear from view, and I can’t help returning to the theme. All our lives have ups and downs of course, but I always imagine in my fanciful way that the particular intensity of Hollywood fame, especially in its teen idol incarnation, might make for a particularly difficult transition back to anything approaching normality. I wonder too about the fate of a creative personality (some will say I’m being kind to Sandra Dee here, but it costs nothing) so long divorced from her medium. Of course, in the annals of things we should care about, this is just about at the bottom. But we all know how our identification with actors spills off the screen. However much we know the superficiality of it, it seems beyond us to limit our fascination to the duration of the movie, especially when the savvy media so willingly pushes celebrity detritus toward us.

I’m relatively immune to that (only relatively – I’m not that disingenuous). I’m not gripped by their scandals or domestic turbulence, especially when it runs in parallel to a bland career. I don’t think we can learn a shred about ourselves or anything else by dissecting Brad and Jennifer’s break-up. But Dee’s career, with its weird contours – rapidly encompassing highs and lows, washing her up before many major stars even get started – seems like a story specifically created by cinema, a chronicle that might repay further consideration. Spacey circles around Bobby Darin as though there’s a “Rosebud” in there somewhere. But Darin’s story lacks at least one virtually essential ingredient of a great mystery – age, enduring loss. Dee’s story has that much by now.

Stuff of Legend

Spacey recently went on a concert tour to promote Beyond the Sea, which seems to be taking his Darin identification thing to an even crazier level. Still, you have to admire his energy and the scope of his activities. He’s currently based in London, working as artistic director of the Old Vic theater, while at the same time announcing that he’ll play Lex Luthor in a forthcoming Superman movie. Even by Hollywood standards, he’s had to put up with undue speculation about his private life. There’s no evidence that he carries any particular box office appeal, but some combination of luck and acumen rendered him perhaps as close as we have to a popular culture Renaissance man.  And he seems like someone who wants to leave his mark.

The same weekend I watched Beyond the Sea, I finally watched the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye. It’s a movie that effectively rehabilitates that much-mocked woman while never forgetting for a second what a gift she is to camp-lovers everywhere. If nothing else, she deserves credit for inviting men with AIDS onto her cable show in the early 80’s, and advocating on their behalf without a hint of reticence. So the movie goes through the story of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s rise and fall, and then at one point inserts a clip from a 1990 TV movie about the pair, Fall from Grace. And there in bed with the fictional Jessica Hahn, under a bad toupee, is Kevin Spacey. The Internet Movie Database reports that Bernadette Peters played Tammy Faye.

It’s common to refer to such early projects as skeletons in the closet, to imagine Spacey would burn the negative if he could get hold of it. Maybe the best that can be said is that it’s better than early topless scenes of the kind that bedevil Sandra Bullock and others. But it’s not clear that there’s much qualitative difference between playing Jim Bakker and Lex Luthor, so who knows. Spacey is obviously an admirable man in so many ways, but his career is too solid to be truly interesting, or for early oddities like Fall from Grace to carry much meaning. His fascination with Darin seems like a tacit acknowledgment of this, like a reaching out for some intangible stuff of legend.

Maintaining the illusion

For a long while, I wondered whether Wes Anderson’s familiar style - defined by, among other things, distinctive title fonts, bright colours, precise camera movements, chapter headings, a stark use of close-ups alternating with a “figures in a landscape” approach to framing elsewhere, a certain laconic terseness in the dialogue, an avoidance of over-emoting, and left-field musical choices – would ever count for more than pleasant eccentricity. When I reviewed The Darjeeling Limited almost a decade ago, I said it all “has the effect of draining the flavour from everything he looks at.” I didn’t like that film, about three brothers on a “spiritual journey: his view of India seemed to me just another source of gimmicks and bric-a-brac, presented without a shred of real engagement or integrity. Since then though, the flavour has been flowing back. The animated Fantastic Mr. Fox seemed to me a wonderfully peculiar fantasy (and a bit oddly, his most fully realized examination of a fully complex community), and while his most recent Moonrise Kingdom sounded in outline like a rather regressive project – eschewing the mainland, the present day, and to a great extent adulthood – it carried a quite moving sense of melancholy and regret.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Anderson’s new film The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps his best, further refining his methods, while opening up satisfying and highly promising new fronts. The film immediately emphasizes itself as a manufactured structure, operating at several layers of narrative distance: a modern-day tourist in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka stares at a statue of a great writer, from which we cut back some twenty years to the man himself, introducing a story that leaps back in turn to his younger days, and a visit to the dilapidated hotel of the title where an older man tells a tale that jumps back a third time, to a time when the establishment was at its peak, and he worked there as a lobby boy. The story revolves around the concierge Gustave H., a master embodiment of bygone style and refinement, whose tireless workload includes servicing many of the hotel’s elderly female guests (having developed a taste for “cheaper cuts of meat,” as he puts it). One of them amends her will to leave him a priceless painting; when she dies, savage intrigue engulfs the estate, and Gustave decides to steal the painting, kicking off a chain of events that includes his incarceration and subsequent escape, and a startling amount of murder and violence for an Anderson film (I think it also includes more profanity than any of his previous works, although of course each instance of it feels carefully considered).

Even by Anderson’s standards, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a marvel of tightly-wounded plotting – I could easily fill half my space here just trying to untangle the twists of the narrative (and the other half trying to convey the complexities of his conception of Gustave, superbly embodied by Ralph Fiennes, probably giving the most multi-dimensional performance in any Anderson work). Remarkably though, it never feels rushed – even when characters are only on screen for a sliver of time (which goes for most of them here), Anderson enables them to exhale, to fully occupy their moment. In this regard, his use of well-known actors in small roles, a potentially distracting indulgence, stands here as a fully achieved strategy.


At times, the film reminded me of a Howard Hawks work, underpinned by a sense of integrity and morality that allows immediate bonds to form between unlikely individuals (such as, in this case, a refined concierge and a group of violent criminals) while just as quickly stamping others as irredeemably weak, or downright hateful. At other times, rather remarkably, it struck me that Anderson might actually be a viable action filmmaker. The prison break is masterfully enacted, and a subsequent ski chase is legitimately exciting even as it emphasizes its own artificiality.

He broadens the film’s moral net by setting his tale against the outbreak of war, populated by eruptions of thuggery and by all the ethical murk that brings. It’s just a coincidence of course that the film ended up being released at a time when post-Soviet optimism for continued progress in Eastern Europe has taken a big hit. Still, perhaps for the first time, Anderson’s filmic language feels here like a valid tool not just for gazing beautifully inward, but for broader critique. Hotels in the grand tradition have always embodied society’s higher sense of itself, enacting a propriety swamped elsewhere by everyday grime (it’s no surprise that Anderson, a director who’s always seemed in search of something canonical, would eventually be drawn to such a setting). In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gustave’s extreme if quirky affinity for possibility, diversity and beauty extends the ethos of all-encompassing hospitality to a code for navigating the world. It may not be an easy one to implement – perhaps that’s in part why the story has to be placed at such levels of remove – but Anderson presents a worthy adult reverie, a work of engagement rather than of escape.

Wondrous grace

Writing in The New Yorker, David Denby says: “in this kind of errant spoof, design provides most of the meaning,” but concludes that the images “are merely pretty.” He sums up: “Knowingness and formalist whimsy should not, I think, be confused with art, or at least not with major art. The Grand Budapest Hotel is no more than mildly funny. It produces murmuring titters rather than laughter – the sound of viewers affirming their own acumen in so reliably getting the joke.” But on this occasion, it seems wrong-headed to conflate the film’s effectiveness as comedy with its cultural value as a whole. It’s true, I expect, that the movie doesnt often hit laugh-out-loud territory (my favourite moment in that regard involves how Gustave covers up the theft of the bland but supposedly priceless painting by replacing it with a trashily obscene one; probably not a new idea, but expertly executed), but on this occasion, there’s more to getting the film than getting the joke. It’s the first Anderson film that suggests the possibility of evolving beyond needing the jokes at all. Not that there’s anything wrong with keeping them.

Summing up Gustave’s story, the narrator judges: “His world had vanished long before he ever entered it, but he certainly maintained the illusion with a wondrous grace.” It’s a poignant epitaph, in keeping with the reduced circumstances of the film’s present-day. But by evoking that vanished world so vividly, Anderson allows us to come out of the film with optimism: that it might not merely have been an illusion, that the act of remembering and recreating – despite or perhaps even because of the whimsicality of its execution - might allow something to be regained.