Sunday, September 27, 2015

Big questions

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2002)

I suspect that on another day I might have described World Traveler as a big yawn, but sometimes things click, and a movie ends up seeming more interesting than it may deserve. The film stars Billy Crudup as a New York architect, drifting along in a nice apartment with his wife and three-year-old son. One day he’s at home preparing for his kid’s birthday party, and he impulsively decides to take off. He works on a construction site for a while, drinks a lot, has some flings, behaves in a generally scuzzy way. Then he tries to do someone a good turn, but it ends badly. Lurking in the background of all this is the memory of his father, who’d walked out on Crudup as a kid.

World Traveler

Billy Crudup now seems firmly established as an actor who isn’t quite going to make it. This is a highly relative statement – he gets lead roles in interesting films, presumably makes tons of money. But he doesn’t seem to have evoked the cultural or commercial excitement that would make him into a Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. Maybe it’s that he isn’t quite ingratiating enough. World Traveler films him as though he were a screen icon, as though we already knew a lot about what goes on beneath his chiseled features, and just needed to stare for long enough to coax it to the surface. People frequently refer to his looks in the film – asking, for instance, whether he gets away with his misuse of women because he “looks like that.” It’s as though the answer to Crudup’s quest somehow rested here – instead of going on the road, he should just have looked in the mirror for longer.

In a drippier movie that would be a not-very-interesting narcissism. In World Traveler, it’s rather fascinating. The film is basically a road movie – one of the looser genres, and one which generally emphasizes the self-gratification of its protagonists. Although there may be a notional reason for their rootlessness – it’s much more about the thrill of being unencumbered, of constantly redefining the surroundings, of sex without obligation. World Traveler follows the conventional blueprint – Crudup’s journey is defined through a series of brief encounters. But they’re deliberately fragmented and abbreviated, left dangling, to an unusual, unsettling extent.

For sure, the movie relies far too much on a vague air of mysticism (Crudup seems to be attracted to such material – Jesus’ Son, Waking the Dead). It’s as though director Bart Freundlich thought the meaning of it all would be self-evident as long as the audience was prepared to concentrate hard enough. Just as (going back to Crudup’s looks) it often seems that beauty and sexiness, given our general preoccupation with them, must carry an enormous, transcendent premium.

At one point, Crudup meets an old schoolmate at an airport, who banters superficially before revealing a reserve of long-standing, bilious hatred for the kid who always had it too easy. He’s amazed that Crudup doesn’t seem to have changed in any way at all, and tries to make a taunt out of it. Momentarily it works, but the movie as a whole thwarts this argument because constancy doesn’t seem like a weakness here. And when Crudup finds his father, blankness rather than passion marks the reunion. The movie again goes through the motions – Crudup asks why he left, tries to push the emotional buttons – but there’s nothing there to extract, except a platitude about desiring a better life.

The film works its way to a relatively conventional climax, but the evasiveness of what came before leaves an impression. Although it’s hard to know if it’s the impression the film was aiming for.

Thirteen Conversations…

Thirteen Conversations about One Thing should be a substantially more interesting film than World Traveler. It’s preoccupied with similar questions – the meaning of life, how to attain happiness (this is collectively the “one thing” of the title) – but it’s more ambitious. The film is organized into thirteen “chapters” built around five main characters (the actors include Amy Irving, John Turturro and Matthew McConaughey) who undergo various life challenges, and interact to greater or lesser degrees.

I found the film vastly over-designed, to the point where barely a moment goes by that isn’t marked by some handy aphorism or strenuous revelation. Nothing in the movie seems real or spontaneous, and most of it is pretty old-hat (the math teacher who finds real life isn’t as reliable as equations are; the arrogant lawyer who repents, etc.). The most entertaining sections are also the broadest and most convivial, in which Alan Arkin plays a cynical middle manager rubbed the wrong way by the perpetual sunniness of one of his underlings. His sections of the movie have a shambling, anecdotal feel to them that counteracts the film’s distinct frostiness.

It’s made by director Jill Sprecher, who on the evidence so far isn’t much of a chronicler of modern times. Her first film Clockwatchers was fairly funny, but completely unconvincing in its portrayal of corporate life – it looked as if Sprecher’s research consisted mostly of watching the 50’s Gregory Peck movie The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. That film, about an ad executive pondering his lot in life, doesn’t have much of a reputation now, but I think it’s rather fascinating. Come to think of it, it might equally have been the springboard for much of Thirteen Conversations. In the 50’s though, one could get away with such generalizing earnestness.

Magic Moments

True, we’re not living in as reflective an age as you might hope for. In the average workplace, you don’t exactly have to be Michael Ignatieff to find yourself labeled as the resident intellectual oddball (you may detect some personal commentary here, but don’t worry about me – I tone it down enough to get by). And yet, I’m sure we’ve all done our share of musing on the meaning of it all, even if just in flashes of momentary doubt. Stepping off the subway for instance, you see someone who reminds you of something long buried, and the layers of reality shift disconcertingly, allowing you a fleeting but horrendously vivid glimpse of this undeniable truth; that it could all just be a dream.

Thirteen Conversations feels made by someone who’s pondered such things for about fifteen minutes, and assumes the audience has only pondered them for seven and a half. The difference is thought to represent revelation, but feels more like condescension.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Other countries

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2002)

We’re fairly well supplied in Toronto with new Israeli films – one every few months on average. I see most of them, but I’m usually left a little dissatisfied afterwards. Usually I attribute it to my lack of knowledge of Israel’s complexities. I don’t just mean the politics, with which I keep up as best as I can, although they obviously defeat me as they do most of us. I’m thinking more now about the contours of daily life. For example, I’ve seen several films that suggest a distinct vein of liberalism and candor, and of sexual self-determination by young Israeli women – but these images and impressions don’t sit easily with those from other films, or even from elsewhere in the same films.

Of course, one could look from afar at fragmented images of Canada and think them incoherent, but I always imagine (perhaps complacently) that in our case the diversity is part of what defines us. Maybe because we’re accustomed to thinking of Israel as embattled, it’s hard to appreciate how much diversity it can accommodate (maybe the notion of a single “Israel” is largely a fallacy). As if being under attack means that anyone would necessarily defer his or her personal agenda.

Late Marriage

The new film Late Marriage doesn’t help in resolving my issues – far from it. The film suggests an Israeli society (this particular subset is the Georgian √©migr√© community) with huge cracks down the middle – “tradition” rolls along, consuming the older generations, while the younger people…well, they behave much like younger people anywhere else. The film suggests that for now, a combination of economic power and the weight of custom leaves the advantage with the elders. On its own terms, the film is quite excellent. Whether it’s a reliable social document I don’t know.

I suspect it may not quite be, because it seems to be deliberately lampooning, albeit slightly, that older generation. The film opens with an old man in the bathtub, smoking a cigarette as his wife scrubs him. Another couple arrives, and the film for a while follows a familiar kind of broad bantering. The group is preparing to take the second couple’s unmarried 31-year-old son for the latest in a long series of failed meetings with eligible women. The film depicts the process in some detail – the son, Zaza, stays outside until called; the two families sit around and discuss the prospect of the marriage as a straightforward business proposition.

Eventually the marriage candidates go to her room to talk among themselves, and suddenly the film seems modern – the two size each other up with cynical frankness. Their meeting comes to nothing, and Zaza drives his parents home. Then he drives to his lover’s house. The woman is a few years older, a divorcee with a young daughter. They have sex, and the film shows this with the same detail that it earlier devoted to the mechanics of the courtship process – but of course what was earlier amusing now becomes intense and rather unsettling.

Static situation

As a potential partner for him, in his parents’ eyes, she’s frightening, and the rest of the film involves the family’s reaction to her when they find out. The sex scene’s explicitness seems like the film’s sharpest comment on Israel – seeming to underline how the parents’ musty preoccupations float far from the real dynamics of human relationships. And yet, the old men still affect a macho swagger, and it’s clear they’ve had their own flings. The suggestion is that sublimation is eternal.

This all leads to the film’s fine final scene, in which a wedding takes place, and the son seems to come to the very edge of committing what would be the ultimate act of social defiance, before it’s suddenly blunted and rendered safe, and the festivities go on. This last scene seems to come from a different place – there’s a sense of shocked, squirming voyeurism to it. It’s barely connected to what came before, and might almost be a dream or a nightmare. I’ve seldom seen a notionally happy ending that’s so utterly compromised. You feel intensely for the son’s predicament, but also wonder how many other Israeli marriages might take place under similarly mixed emotions.

Director Dover Koshashvili presents all this straightforwardly, but very effectively. “From my viewpoint,” he says, “Zaza’s situation is static, which is reflected in the camera’s fixed state. I do not wish to emphasize the dynamics of my lens. I want to focus the audience’s attention on the characters rather than on the means of expression.” The mission was accomplished, but I wish I understood a little better what he means by “static.” He might as easily have emphasized the opposite – that Zaza’s in a situation that can’t possibly be sustained. Still, the film is one of the blackest comedies in a long while, and one of the most fascinating takes on human relationships. And although I suspect I missed a lot through not understanding the setting, maybe it gains something too in translation – a certain surreal, disembodied nastiness.

Nine Queens

We don’t see quite as many Argentinean films as we do Israeli ones, but Nine Queens is the second in as many months after the Oscar-nominated Son of the Bride – it has the same lead actor too. No agonizing necessary here over the accuracy of what we’re looking at – it’s clear from the start that we’re watching something wholly artificial. That’s not meant to be pejorative. Nine Queens is the story of two small-time con men who team up to pull off the biggest job of their lives. It feels from the start like David Mamet’s House of Games, and as the plot gets increasingly complex and more colourful characters start sprouting up at every turn, you know with complete certainty that everything is not what it appears to be. But of course you don’t know how, and I never did guess entirely (although I was kicking myself afterwards).

The film hints that Argentina’s fraying stability makes a fertile setting for shrewd economic exploitation. “I’ve never seen such goodwill for doing business,” says a Spanish businessman who plays a key part in the plot – and generally seems like a bigger villain than anyone else in the movie does (in one scene, a paper shredder churns away in the background – funny how that’s become such a resonant image post-Enron). And the denouement turns on a back that goes belly-up. There’s something a little discomfiting about these indices of decline being used straightforwardly as plot devices – but I guess we’re the beneficiaries of it, if it makes Nine Queens seem more evocative and earthy than it actually is. There’s little to it except the design of the deception, but as in some of Mamet’s work, when it envelops a movie so completely, it almost becomes a philosophical statement.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Searching for Demy

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2002)

I was born in 1966, which is old enough to have seen several major changes of the seasons in cinema. When I became seriously interested in film, around 1982, I remember it causing me far more depression than joy. There were only four TV stations in the UK at the time, and foreign films weren’t shown more than once or twice a week. Adult American films were generally cut ( I remember a minor cause celebre involving the excision of the scene in Chinatown where Jack Nicholson’s nose gets knifed). Video wasn’t yet established – much less DVD. Although the big cities had art cinemas that showed some older films in repertory, I didn’t live close to any of them. In other words, I couldn’t even imagine how I’d ever get to see most of the pictures I was reading about. I remember Bunuel’s Belle de Jour was on TV and I missed it. I was completely miserable, thinking I might have missed my one chance at it.

Last of the old-timers

Now, of course, much of cinema is gloriously accessible. I doubt if there’s a big-studio release of the last 30 years that would be seriously hard to see. Foreign films are a little different, but when HMV has two Hou Hsiao-Hsien pictures in its DVD section (as they did last time I looked) you suspect you’ve reached the promised land. Once video took off, I started to fill the holes in my viewing resume at lightning speed. And over the past eight years, the Cinematheque Ontario has been valuable in plugging many of the holes that remained. There’s barely a significant director now whose major works I haven’t seen (often twice or more, which is frequently a necessity) – and I’ve seen many of the minor works too.

But that took a huge investment of time. Through most of the 80s I watched far more than one film a day. One year I averaged two a day. Even now, with a demanding full time job and a wife and a dog and all sorts of other things going on, I come close to averaging a movie a day over the course of the year. But for anyone starting out now, that would never be a fast enough pace to conquer the back catalogue. You’d have to watch two movies a day in perpetuity, and that’s just too much to sustain a balanced life. So I don’t think it can be done any more. I think I’m just about the last of the old-time cineastes. Maybe I should leave my body to science.

Even at the age of 36, hoping not to be at the halfway mark yet, I’m beginning to resign myself to the idea that I may never see some of the films that evade me. A few months ago, the Cinematheque announced a forthcoming season of Jacques Demy films, and I was extremely excited. Demy is best known for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, although in the 60s he made several other films almost as beguiling. The films he made after the early 70s are all generally unknown, and I’ve never seen any of them. So I imagined the Cinematheque would remedy this. But no, because once the details were announced, it turned out to be a “mini-retrospective of his most important films,” including nothing since the early 70s.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The Internet Movie Database allows registered users to grade films on a scale of one to ten, and this provides an interesting gauge of a film’s relative visibility. It tells us that Demy’s later films can be found, but barely. Trois places pour le 26 has 23 votes. Une chamber en ville has 25 votes. Parking has less than the minimum required 5 votes. Compare this to Attack of the Clones, which already has 18,471 votes. Still, if a film has any votes at all, it’s out there somewhere. Samuel Fuller’s Street of no Return has only 19 votes, but I’m one of them.

It’s good to have something to aim for. In the meantime, I’ll make do with going to the Cinematheque to see Lola and The Young Girls of Rochefort and The Model Shop again. The only reason I leave out The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is that I have that one on DVD. If you haven’t seen it, it shouldn’t be missed – even if you’re not concerned about charting the highlights of cinema history.

The film is a musical in which every word is sung. It’s set in a small town, and begins with a torrent of enthusiasm as a young mechanic celebrates a date with his girlfriend. She lives with her mother, who owns a struggling umbrella store. The boy gets sent off to war, and the girl realizes she’s pregnant. The mother pushes her toward a jewelry salesman who’s fallen in love with her.

Cherbourg has some of the finest and most sustained surface pleasures of any film. In the restored DVD, the colour design is breathtaking. The music is beautiful without ever being twee, and the film has a constant grace and delicacy. But it’s much more than pristine ornamentation. Demy roots the film squarely in blue-collar concerns and aspirations and regrets. In recent years it’s been more common to marshal the musical form for downbeat or dark material, but this usually involves some necessary sacrifice of the genre’s inherent pleasure. Demy’s film still represents the finest attempt to broaden its scope and depth without a corresponding loss.

Did he exist?

For a film that already attempts so much, it takes substantial structural risks. The boy disappears from the film for a long time; then he returns and the girl disappears for as long. The film builds up to events – like her telling the salesman she’s pregnant – and then dispatches them literally on a single beat. It ends on a note of perfectly judged mixed emotions. It varies its tone with remarkable ease, while always seeming wiser about the demands of real life than any 33-year old director should be.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg isn’t the film of a great contemplative artist. Although hindsight helps, it’s not particularly surprising that Demy couldn’t build on it. Not for the first time, critic David Thomson may have put it best: “(Demy) does not seem quite possible. Did he really live? Have those wistful, gentle and melodic films been made? Or is he only an ideal director one has dreamed…It may be more comfortable in this age of dread-ridden movies to believe Demy never existed.”

Maybe Demy even stopped believing it himself. Maybe the Cinematheque is merely carrying out a kindness in keeping his later work, made in that dread-ridden age, away from us. For most viewers, it will be more than sufficient to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and a couple more of Demy’s earlier films. But if you belong to the vanishing breed, that leaves a further journey ahead.

(PS Six years later, having seen more of Demy’s movies, I wrote about him again).

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Group effort

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2002)

Working in the corporate world, you hear a lot about the importance of vision and goals and strategy (all expertly lampooned by Ken Loach in The Navigators). The weird thing is: it’s all true. A misguided tone at the top will trump all the enthusiasm in the lower ranks. And so it is in movies. It’s a collaborative art, and it’s appealing to think it should be viable to make films truly collectively, reflecting not one but a multiplicity of voices. But that seldom happens in the mainstream. Even if people don’t believe the director is king, they believe in the structural efficiency of the single guiding voice (or, as with the likes of the Wachowski brothers, the two voices that speak as one).

Is it preordained that film and business must follow similar principles? True, the arts are all like that, but to say it again – film seems uniquely collaborative by its nature. But maybe the question should be whether there’s any aspect of human organization that isn’t hierarchical.


I was thinking about this during the new British film Crush, which seems to have lots of good individual elements, but is led firmly into the ditch by the weird instincts of its writer-director John McKay. The trailer suggests a movie tailor-made for groups of middle-aged women. I don’t know how often groups of middle-aged women go to the movies, but I know that whenever I run into such groups, they’re very noisy. Anyway, the trailer emphasizes the scenes in which the film’s three friends hang out together, drinking and smoking and swapping stories about their miserable luck with men. Which turns out to be only where the picture begins.

After that, it careers through sexual obsession, the breakdown of the friendship, an illness, a death, before resurrecting the friendship (but not very convincingly). The film was originally going to be called Sad F***ers Club, which sounds more Tarantino than chick movie. The change from that title to Crush constitutes a change of marketing strategy of hilarious proportions. The former would actually have been a more appropriate title, although it’s more daring and attention-grabbing than the movie deserves.

It would be appealing to take the film’s confusion as an illustration of the tumultuous range of the female psyche. Unfortunately for that theory, John McKay is a man. The film looks like a documentary about the cultural rites of an obscure tribe, made by someone who’s never actually visited it. All three actresses (most notably Andie MacDowell) look like they’re slumming – as if all this moping strikes them as a wacky diversion from whatever their lives usually consist of.

The Sum of all Fears

The Sum of all Fears is an interesting (and perhaps rare) example of commercial instinct under severe pressure. Largely shot before September 11, the film revolves around a nuclear bomb detonated in the middle of Baltimore. This doesn’t seem as abstract a notion as it did a year ago, although it’s fairly amazing how equanimity reasserts itself. Anyway, the movie was apparently edited to make this less vivid than originally intended, among other things.

The portrayal of the explosion actually works rather well, conveying a muted, distanced feeling that’s more eloquent than the details of destruction could ever have been. The problem is, the whole film feels equally muted and distanced. Ben Affleck plays a low-level CIA operative who’s suddenly catapulted into the middle of ultimate-stakes brinksmanship between the US and Russia. The plot turns on a secret Nazi conspiracy – a threat so distanced from our real sources of nuclear anxiety that it seems almost endearing. The US and Russian presidents stand around looking callow and bemused, which is a nice touch up to a point, except that the film doesn’t really want to be damning or satirical. The only really good sequence is a Godfather-like montage of multiple assassination scenes at the end, but it’s immediately undercut by a droopy romantic epilogue. It’s all very underwhelming, and suggests no one much in charge.

Beijing Bicycle, like Shower and an increasing number of others, is a feel-good Chinese film. This may sound odd, given that it ends with the protagonist almost having the life beaten out of him. But we’re dealing here with that universal movie staple: the Triumph of the Human Spirit. A poor young man gets a job as a bicycle courier, slowly earning ownership in the bicycle. A few days before it becomes his, it’s stolen. He searches the whole of Beijing and, amazingly, finds it in a schoolboy’s possession. He takes it back, but the schoolboy regards it as his own (he paid the thief for it) and takes it again. From this point, things escalate rather like a sparse version of Changing Lanes.

The film is designed for easy consumption. It references Vittorio De Sica’s classic The Bicycle Thief and builds itself around a simple structure from which it seldom strays (the film’s sole subplot, involving an affluent woman spied on by the delivery boy and a friend, is arguably its most intriguing element). While the delivery boy’s motives are rooted in plain poverty and desperation, his adversary really only cares about status and the affections of a local girl – the same motives that would inspire a Freddie Prinze Jr. film. Absent any references to politics, the film thus manages to present a picture of an upwardly mobile China, and to me it feels a bit too good to be true.

Dogtown & Z-Boys

China ought to be an ideological bastion of a communal approach to popular cinema. But if Beijing Bicycle resembles a communal effort at all, it would be a commune of pollsters, diligently tailoring to audience reaction. Still, it’s better at what it does than the American Sum of all Fears or the British Crush, so maybe the 21st century really will belong to China.

The only faint exhibit for the defense is Dogtown & Z-Boys, a documentary about a dozen Californians who revolutionized skateboarding in the 1970s. The film has an exceptionally peppy style, and manages to be somewhat overblown about the significance of these antics without crossing into pretentiousness. An example of why it’s so endearing – at one point narrator Sean Penn coughs during his voice-over.

The film was directed by Stacy Peralta, who was one of the Dogtown group. Nothing in the film identifies him as the director – not even the lengthy sequence dealing with Peralta himself. The movie is certainly a symbolic reunion, even if the former members don’t appear on camera together in the present day. It’d be appealing to think of this engaging movie as a collective self-directed valentine. But we learn in the film that Peralta was always a little bit more mature than the others, which I guess is the only way he got to make a movie.