Monday, February 22, 2016


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2003)

I’m an immigrant to Canada – one of the luckiest of all immigrants in that I came here as an English speaker, with a Canadian wife and a good job already lined up. I wouldn’t pretend to have suffered or struggled in the way that the term “immigrant” often connotes. Still, I’ve shared the experience of arriving in Canada with a profound sense of fear and insecurity, of not recognizing basic references or understanding basic rituals, then of assimilating and settling into accepting Canada wholeheartedly as the place where I ought to be.

Ten years ago, my wife and I had a choice between New York and Toronto. At the time I may have been somewhat more inclined toward the former – after all, it’s New York. But we mutually decided to come here instead. I’ve never regretted it for a second, and I’d be very reluctant to move to the States now; I’m generally lukewarm even about visiting there. I’ve become very disillusioned with America (I suppose a cynical interpretation might be that this is the measure of how I’ve become Canadian). It’s de rigeur to be a detractor of George W. Bush, but my heart sinks whenever I contemplate the record to date. It’s so far beyond a laughing matter.

The 51st State

The other week I was watching the action movie Formula 51. In its European release it was called The 51st State, which alludes to Britain, where most of the action is set, as an appendage of the US. There’s a scene where a Liverpool drug dealer played by Rhys Ifans (a former schoolmate of mine in Wales, readers may recall) lays out a vast arsenal of high-tech guns for the inspection of an assassin played by Emily Mortimer (the winsome younger sister from Lovely and Amazing). It’s one of those scenes that wallows in the intimacy of destructive possibility, of Schwarzenegger-type murderous potential dropped into your back yard. I was rather taken aback at the crassness of it. And then it struck me – I couldn’t imagine something like this in a Canadian film.

Not that I’ve seen every Canadian film, of course, so there may be some evidence to the contrary that I’m not aware of. But if there is, it’s an anomaly. British films increasingly spawn that kind of posturing – think of Guy Ritchie movies (pre-Swept Away), Gangster No. 1, numerous other Rhys Ifans movies. And yet, British gun control is even tougher than Canada’s, and the murder rate is almost as low. Not to mention that given the geographical distance, Canada ought to be far more susceptible to cultural influence from the south. But we seem to retain our decorum in a way that others, frankly, don’t.

Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine explores America’s gun culture, with the bear-like Moore doing his familiar sub-Letterman shtick with a variety of nuts and celebrities (most prominently, NRA president Charlton Heston), weaving in some broader reflections on what led the country to its wretched state. The movie effectively establishes its key thesis – that America’s propensity for guns and violence is correlated with a pervasive excess of fear: fear of violent crime, home invasion, fear itself, and of more esoteric threats that fade in and out, like shark attacks and killer bees. The sensationalist media feeds this frenzy; so do the swaggering language of politicians, the coarse popular culture, and a bastardization of the country’s “traditions.” Guns in such jumpy hands breed violence that seems to reinforce the original fear, leading to more guns and more violence – a delusional, sick spiral.

Litmus tests

The movie is rife with omissions though. Most prominently – Moore says he’s a lifelong member of the NRA, and although he says in interviews that he merely holds his membership for contrarian purposes, this isn’t clear from the film. It never actually proposes banning personal use of guns, and says nothing about control measures stopping short of that. It just keeps reasserting the broad, relatively easy point that America has too many guns.

But, and here’s the surprise, it allegedly doesn’t have so many more guns than Canada, on a per capita basis (according to the movie). So Moore comes to Sarnia and Windsor and Toronto, where he “discovers” that Toronto’s “slums” look like America’s middle-class neighborhoods, and no one locks their doors. Which makes you wonder about the accuracy of what he shows us of America. But still, he captures the key point: that Canada avoids America’s neuroses and rhetorical excesses.

That famous slogan “it’s the economy, stupid” wasn’t quite right, or at least isn’t now. Americans don’t just vote the big-ticket issues. On the contrary, they allow issues like gun control and abortion and other ideological “litmus tests” to outweigh any subtler considerations. If they thought about it rationally, they’d realize the substance of their lives isn’t found there. But they don’t think, and the country thus drifts into dysfunction. The gap between rich and poor widens to a potentially destabilizing extent, and still the Republicans propose further tax cuts and breaks that would widen the disparity further. America’s dealings with the rest of the world have regressed to the crudity of good vs. evil, with the UN lectured on its lack of “backbone” and the whole notion of international cooperation reduced to a cynical shrug.

Raw anger

The situation demands raw anger, which isn’t Moore’s stock in trade. Not that humour isn’t often the sharpest ideological tool. But Moore’s shtick is all too easy to brush off. His film seems structured to highlight outrage and guffaws in equal measure. At one point he harasses Dick Clark for what seem to me like tenuous reasons, and he carries out one of his patented attacks on corporate America, turning up at K-mart headquarters with two Columbine survivors, demanding that the company stop selling handgun ammunition. When K-mart promptly agrees, Moore seems properly non-plussed and ceases his activism, but it’s hard to know where this really gets us. He doesn’t prescribe a broad agenda for action. Basically, he sugars the pill (or would sugar it except that, as I already pointed out, he doesn’t actually prescribe one). And when he presents a catalogue of American outrages to the accompaniment of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, we can only conclude we’re in the company of a pretty crass sensibility.

Obviously, I’m letting my own preconceptions colour the review pretty heavily here. But I think Moore’s movies demand that kind of response. Bowling for Columbine is in many ways one of last year’s most worthwhile films. But it takes on a subject that seems to me to demand nothing short of greatness, if it’s to avoid the kinds of easy generalizations and woolly affirmations favoured by gun control advocates. Even so, the movie has truth enough, and is profoundly depressing. We have but one consolation – that we’re here rather than there – but for how long can we sustain it?

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Meaning in life

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2003)

Have you ever tried to step outside your own life, and to speculate what kind of movie it might make? Reflexively, most people will reply it’d be the pits. I don’t suppose there are too many real-life James Bonds, for instance, reading this column. But there are plenty of smaller scale movies – ones where a plot summary amounts to very little, and where the wonder lies in the perception of the everyday.

Human identity

With an opening like that, you might be expecting me to write now about Adaptation, the current film sensation that famously mixes invention and self-reflection. But that’s not where I’m going. In passing, I’ll admit I was disappointed in the movie. After ten minutes, I’d already gotten as much out of it as I did out of the whole two hours. The film’s too self-conscious and abstract for you to surrender to it as entertainment, but too glib to be fully intellectually engaging.

Let me go in another direction. The other week I was watching Much Music – a show called Meet a Rock Star or something along those lines. This particular episode was about meeting Snoop Dogg, and the lucky winner was a white kid from what seemed to be an upscale British Columbia neighborhood. The kid seemed to be doing everything in his power to evoke his hero – speech patterns, posture, general approach to things – but the lack of authenticity, the sheer incongruity of a boy from this background behaving that way, was hard to get over. I’m not suggesting the kid is a fake. I’m sure that on some level this is currently his “natural” way of behaving – and who wants to be governed by a narrow, predetermined view of human behaviour anyway? But, to say the least, you got the feeling that he’ll be off on another thing a few years from now.

I can’t help thinking that when an upscale BC white kid decides to live his life to the beat of Snoop Dogg, he’s playing to an invisible camera. Surely many of us are; I know I am a lot of the time. The advertising industry depends on the premise that we think we’re being watched more than we actually are; that how we’re seen is inseparable from who we are. Of course, if we really are being watched that much, it’s by the prying network of hidden security cameras I keep reading about, rather than by a jury of style gurus. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look our best.

Personal Velocity

But even if you just live a modest, insular life, there may be a movie in there. It wouldn’t necessarily take much. Reality TV shows like Survivor and The Osbornes represent staggering feats of editing – retaining just a few percent of the entire footage shot. Wouldn’t we all have grand drama lurking in our lives, if you removed 97% of the flab? I’m sure I would. If you took the splashier moments from my year and mixed them in with some of the more pensive ones, you might end up with a pretty good narrative on underlying alienation, or something like that. It’d probably be a complete fiction, but potentially a hell of a documentary.

Filmmakers have tried to resist that manipulation – a direction that generally leads toward minimal editing and extreme length. But no one cares to watch those movies. You can only possibly find an audience by finding moments that encapsulate the whole: a near contradiction in terms, if you view the essence of life as being in its very duration.

This is all a lead-in to Rebecca Miller’s film Personal Velocity, which is an almost exemplary example of how small things, seen on screen, may become profound. It’s based on her book of short stories, and consists of three separate half-hour segments; perhaps normal life yields up meaning (or the appearance of it) more readily when taken in small doses. Not that these stories seem “small,” certainly not if there’s something pejorative to that term.

All three episodes revolve around New York women, and the title alludes to their different growth modes – people make wrong turnings, or even if they make right ones, they may outgrow their destinations and need to choose again. The movie is optimistic enough to allow all three women a closing moment of revelation, but intimate ones – so intimate indeed that one could miss them. The difference between success and failure, as seen here, may be little more than a state of mind, a certain way of integrating things. All three women in Personal Velocity have rather unhappy pasts, and to the extent they triumph, it’s by learning to take what they need from those experiences.

The first sequence has Kyra Sedgwick as a battered wife who takes her children and flees from her husband, ending up in a tiny town where she takes a waitressing job. Sedgwick’s odd, worn sexiness is perfect here, and the episode builds to a conclusion that depends on her reclaiming her promiscuous youth. Like nearly all films that depict female sexuality, the movie carries a certain ambiguity: if it were directed by a man, you might suspect it of romanticizing sluttishness (Miller’s voice over for all three stories is spoken by a man, as if she were toying with our sense of who’s in control here).

Metaphysical dimensions

The third sequence has Fairuza Balk playing a pregnant woman, driving desperately away from the city after an incident that nearly killed her; she picks up a hitchhiker who’s been brutally beaten, and who ultimately leads her to a deeper acceptance of her own condition. If it’s the least successful, it’s because the metaphysical dimensions seem too strenuous – the artistic calculations are more visible than in the other two episodes.

But the middle story is superb, and stands as one of the best short films I’ve seen for a while. Parker Posey plays a book editor whose career takes off, causing her to question her happy marriage to a New Yorker fact checker. Although it’s set in a somewhat glitzier environment than the other two, there’s really nothing out of the ordinary about the raw material: people fall out of sync with each other all the time. But Miller expertly weaves in the woman’s problematic past, leading us off on tangents and bringing us back again, illustrating all aspects of the character with astonishing thoroughness. In a way, the story’s about a woman who suppresses her natural killer instinct, gets it back again, and decides to surrender to material values: there’s no pretense of nobility, and no false sentimentality either. The decision she makes is both mundane, because thousands like it get made every day, and astonishing, because it shows the extent of her capacity. The mundanity is inherent in the story, but it takes an artist to bring out the astonishment.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

DiCaprio's double

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2003)

I was sick the day I went to see Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. I’d been throwing up all night, and I’d slept all morning through the early afternoon, with every prospect of doing the same for the rest of the day. But I hated the idea of losing an entire day to illness, so I insisted on dragging myself to a movie. It was a mistake – my wife had to wake me up at least four times during the three-hour film. When I got home (one of the most arduous journeys I can recall) I was asleep again within five minutes, and I stayed that way for the rest of the night.

It might therefore seem that I’m ill equipped to comment on the film, and indeed I’ll try not to be too strident in expressing my opinions on it (I may not succeed). But it seems to me my semi-feverish condition actually allowed me to enjoy the movie more than I might have done otherwise. It notionally has a historical setting, and it makes vague reference to real events and people, but it’s obviously at heart an abstracted fantasy of conflict and revenge and strong emotions. Scorsese’s referred to it as a “western in outer space.”

Gangs of New York

This is evident right from the start: a priest strides through a dark warren, gathering men and arms for a pending conflict. With the last man on side, he flings the door open to reveal the snowy landscape outside, and the group lines up to await the opposing forces. This scene has nothing to do with the actual work of preparing for a battle, or for anything else – it’s all sheer momentum and visual flourish. The confrontation itself is a predictably savage spectacle, but the reasons behind it remain vague. During the film, we learn that the leader of the victors maintains a sentimental regard for his vanquished enemy, regarding him as the one good man he went up against during his bloody career. This makes little sense either: it’s a strenuously myth-making device – emotional resonance by numbers. One could continue through the movie, scene by scene, pointing out how nothing really clicks.

The film’s intent is clearest, unfortunately, in the closing credits, designed in a cartoonish style reminiscent of Sergio Leone, the title of whose last work Once Upon a Time in America might have been perfect for the Scorsese film. I’ve become increasingly enchanted by Leone’s films; I appreciate more and more the audacity of his particular blend of politics, stunning panorama, and microscopic attention to eccentricity and foible. Gangs of New York has Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, and the final hour blends the culmination of the personal drama with rigged elections, and riots over an 1830s Draft Act. But the fiction never illuminates the fact, or vice versa.

Even one of Leone’s lesser films, A Fistful of Dynamite, has stunning moments of recreation, like a long pan across dozens of soldiers shooting down into trenches, massacring hundreds of rebels. Whether or not that actually happened, the scene’s overwhelming presence provides a stunning contrast with the film’s lighter, more laconic elements. When Gangs of New York tries something similar, it’s overwhelmed by an uncharacteristically fussy shooting and editing style, intercut with (presumably authentic) etchings from the period as though the movie didn’t believe in its own ability to convince us. It’s Scorsese’s heaviest movie by far – in the sense of conveying an oppressed and oppressive soul.

Catch Me if You Can

It hardly seems relevant who the actors are in the film. But for the record, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the butcher, in a much-praised performance that’s as mannered and meaningless as everything else in the movie. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the son of the dead priest, who returns years later to avenge his father; he looks awful and achieves nothing.

Two days later, more or less fully recovered, I went to the movies again – and there was DiCaprio again, in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can. It’s hard not to admire the strategic brilliance of this career planning (or, if it’s pure luck, it’s hard not to admire the way luck can sometimes resemble strategic brilliance). As if having predicted that Scorsese’s dark vision might leave his talent barely visible, the actor contrives simultaneously to appear in theatres in infinitely more ingratiating mode.

Catch Me if You Can is the story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., a real-life con-man who in the 1960s posed as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, along the way embezzling more than four million dollars. Spielberg, who himself bluffed his way onto movie studio lots as a teenager, treats the material as a breezy fantasy. It’s not apparently designed to bear much weight, and yet the film’s tone is so perfectly confident it approaches profundity. He’s said in interviews how he kept the pace of filming deliberately fast, moving on after four or five takes, eschewing the elaboration of his last film Minority Report (which, you’ll recall, appeared a mere seven months ago). It’s a highly successful approach – he should work this way more often.

As DiCaprio soars in his fantasy career, his father (well played by Christopher Walken) sinks into poverty and broken dreams – a thematic backbone subtler than Spielberg usually finds. He’s the long-established master of putting childhood wishes on film, but maybe this is the first time he’s dramatized mundane adult fears so well. Among many other smaller pleasures, the film beautifully captures the sheer thrill that surrounded commercial flight forty years ago – in his (stolen) pilot’s uniform, DiCaprio resembles the keeper of the gate of dreams.

Scorsese’s future

For some reason, I remembered a Scorsese interview from the mid-80s, after The King of Comedy went over-budget and, in most people’s minds, artistically astray (it’s now increasingly regarded, correctly in my view, as one of his best films). He regrouped by making the low-budget, off-the-cuff After Hours, and then by quickly following that up with The Color of Money (which, with its wintery abstractions of his usual themes, I think is his most underrated and patronized movie). He acknowledged having rather lost his way for a while, saying that the practice of alternating a smaller, faster film with a larger one would mark the new pattern for his future.

I think he should have stuck to it, but he didn’t. Gangs of New York is a creative black hole. Even if he’d achieved his “western in outer space” concept, how many of us would care? How relevant would that ever be to anything? And he plans to follow it with another big-budget epic, again with DiCaprio, on the early life of Howard Hughes, called The Aviator. What’s the point? With Catch Me if You Can, haven’t we basically had that experience already? Who would ever have thought that Spielberg would threaten to pull away from Scorsese not just commercially, but artistically?

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Franchise restored

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2003)

Nowadays, there are more movie “franchises” than any of us can count, but before Star Wars there was only one – James Bond. Growing up in the UK in the early 70s, I remember a new Bond movie as a genuine event, and so was the traditional Christmas Day TV Bond film (there were only three channels, so a huge audience was guaranteed). Roger Moore was the epitome of a movie star at the time. Now there’s come career mismanagement for you. I just looked him up on the Internet Movie Database and scanned his recent list of work. The last time I saw that much obscure junk was when I cleaned out the closet.

A life with Bond

Back then I went along with the excitement when it seemed appropriate, but I don’t remember ever really being that big a Bond fan. I’m not a huge action aficionado by nature (of course, as a kid you’d tend to keep this kind of reservation to yourself), and even then, I think the repetitiveness of the format was a bit wearisome to me. Moore was the kind of upper-crust Englishman who left me cold, and Connery, with his remarkable Untouchables-inspired resurgence still years ahead of him, was yesterday’s man. I was too young for the women to be a major compensation, although I do seem to remember Barbara Bach making a distinct impression on me in The Spy who Loved Me. But she also epitomizes how the movies were barely fending off official schlock status – in the Moore era they were full of people like Britt Ekland and Richard Kiel and Corinne Clery, actors whose natural playing ground was cheap Euro-trash, and in some cases soft porn.

By the end of the Moore era I wasn’t paying attention at all, and although Timothy Dalton was less of a walking joke than Moore was at the end, the movies didn’t get much better. Pierce Brosnan has been a good Bond I guess, but I couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of his three films. The last one, The World is Not Enough, seemed to me to lack a single distinguishing feature. I only saw it in the first place because I was stuck in St. Albert, Alberta for Christmas with nothing better to do, and that wasn’t the case this year, so I was assuming I’d give the 20th and latest entry, Die Another Day, a miss.

But then the reviews came out, and were pretty good, and the prospect of a Bond movie directed by Lee Tamahori, the guy who made Once Were Warriors, and with Halle Berry (I’m somewhat better able to appreciate those compensations now) piqued my interest. So I went for it. And I’m glad I did. It’s the best Bond movie for a long time – perhaps since the 60s.

Die Another Day

I must admit though that my reasons for saying this are largely rooted in matters arguably antithetical to the Bond concept – Die Another Day comes close to being the Bond movie for people who don’t like Bond. Following a typically high-voltage opening sequence, he’s caught and thrown into a North Korean jail, where he’s confined and tortured for over a year. The West trades him out, but he’s suspected of having broken under pressure, and he’s thrown aside, his license revoked. On the trail of whomever set him up, he makes his way to Cuba, where Berry emerges from the ocean in her already iconic orange bikini. One scene later, she’s in bed with him.

The opening stretches strip the character pretty comprehensively of his superhuman qualities, before gradually allowing most of it back in. But even then, the movie contains several moments where Bond needs a major assist to save his skin, and Berry is a much more equal partner than most of the women who’ve gone before her (although she’s still a bit under-utilized). Her first scene with Bond is, in a way, a typical piece of glib double-entendre, but because we know Bond is still shaky from his ordeal (and that he hasn’t had an action for well over a year) and because she’s so much more assured from the norm, it carries a different dynamic than we’re used to. When we find out she’s an agent as well, their relationship takes on the rather desperate, needy air of two people who can only admit to each other their fear and isolation. Not that the movie, of course, gets quite that explicit about it.

I could actually follow the plot of Die Another Day, and I don’t know when the last time was I could say that about a Bond film. The film has an excellent second female character and a few action sequences that are impressive even by modern standards (I was especially taken by the car chase inside the melting ice palace). So on this occasion, I was a satisfied customer. It occurs to me that this may be the film’s greatest skill – to have tweaked the formula just enough that even an old skeptic like me can swallow it. Well, after forty years, they ought to have the audience manipulation thing nailed by now.

Harry Potter

Since we’re talking franchise movies, I’ll report as well that I went to see Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. On this occasion I had the advantage (or not), very rare for me, of having read the book – albeit in French (very slowly, over a period of many months with frequent detours to the dictionary – but I stuck with it!) Maybe it loses in translation, but the book seemed to me a bit of a mess – certainly it’s not the most artful of structures.

This problem is carried wholesale into the movie. Most critics regard Chamber of Secrets as an improvement on the first film, but I really can’t see why. I thought the first film was kept aloft by a boy’s sense of wonder and discovery, but maybe that’s because in that instance I hadn’t read the book. The second film has a businesslike air that leaves most of the characters on the sidelines (even Hermione, supposedly a key character, has almost no functional role and what feels like barely more than ten lines). It improves on the book in some ways through simple compression, but ends up feeling just as arbitrary. Much more than the first, I think this movie is only for the fans. Others have already started looking ahead to the third film, which is to be directed by Alfonso Cuaron, the director of Y tu Mama tambien. They expect a harder-edged Harry Potter movie, which would certainly be better art, and may well be a shrewd move in terms of protecting the franchise.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Return of Herzog

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2002)

So that’s the end of my seven film festival articles, and a return to normal moviegoing. The festival, of course, is a good news/bad news proposition. You’re handed a chance to see some of the best work of the year – but you have to get it all done in ten days. With viewings lined up like dominos, even a masterpiece fails to fill you as it should.

My life with Herzog

If one watched only a few movies a year, I suppose each would stay in the memory on its own sculptured podium. But I watch three or four a week (and two or three more at home) and there isn’t room for that many podiums. My biggest regret is that I often feel the sheer pace of this activity pulls everything – the mainstream and the esoteric alike – toward a uniform intellectual and emotional response. My main exceptions come at the Cinematheque, which occasionally shows something so weird and unexpected that it demands, and gets, a wholly unprecedented reaction.

It must be to the credit of Werner Herzog’ Invincible, which came and went at the Carlton a few weeks ago, that as I was watching it I felt different. It’s not just that I’d been looking forward to the movie, although I had been. I feel I grew up with Herzog in a way. When I first became seriously interested in foreign films, around 1981, he was just about at the peak of his success. He’d just made Fitzcarraldo, a famous folly for which he hauled a river-boat over a mountain. I went to see it, and it occurs to me that I haven’t seen a film of his in a commercial theater since then. I’ve seen them just about everywhere else though – many at the Cinematheque, also on video, at the film festival, and so on. I have two of them on DVD, which is a lot given my frugal habits in that area.

As I write this, I looked back at my notes on various Herzog films, and realized to my extreme surprise that over the past few years, I’ve frequently written his name as a reference in responding to other people’s films. These include The Lord of the Rings (in which a scene of a boat going down the river brought him to mind), Jacques Rivette’s Joan of Arc, and even Bo Widerberg’s Elvia Madigan (which was actually made pre-Herzog). But I find it much easier to recognize something as “Herzog-like” than to actually summarize the man’s career. At his most superficial, he’s an adventurer – making films all over the world, insisting on a feeling of authenticity. He’s drawn to characters on the edge of society, whether because of mad ambition (like the conqueror in Aguirre: Wrath of God) or inherent “difference.” For example, in the 70s he cast former mental patient Bruno S in several films, and his movies feature a disproportionate number of dwarfs and eccentrics.

How Much Wood…

He made a version of Nosferatu, and filmed documentaries about an island on which a volcano is about to explode (La Soufriere) and the world championship for cattle auctioneers (How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck). But his anthropological zest has always coexisted with a certain laconic quality. Because both ends of human extremity – both the epic over-achievement and the epic under-achievement – equally fascinate him, it’s easy to see him as an opportunist. His reputation hasn’t held up particularly well since Fitzcarraldo. He made a few strained variations on previous themes, and Scream of Stone, a confused Canadian co-production about mountain climbers (featuring Donald Sutherland and Al Waxman). Other than that, it’s been all documentaries – one of which, My Best Fiend, looked back on his long collaboration with Klaus Kinski and seemed to explicitly acknowledge that his best days were behind him.

A recent New York Times profile found him living in Los Angeles, apparently content enough but seeming (to me anyway) simply in the wrong place. But now, as if out of nowhere, comes Invincible, a film that begins with a studiedly authentic recreation of a street market in a 1930’s Polish shetl, and within its first ten minutes features a spookily gifted child, a dog dressed in a crocodile suit, and a circus strongman trailed into the ring by a dwarf. It feels as though Herzog is indeed back. Of course, I’m being deliberately superficial about these indicators. Anyway, they turn out to be misleading, because the movie settles into quite a different register altogether.

A local blacksmith takes on and beats the circus strongman in the ring, and then finds himself courted by a Berlin talent impresario. The blacksmith treks to the city, and finds himself working in an establishment called Hanussen’s Palace of the Occult – basically a burlesque cabaret whose owner has pretensions of greatness, casting himself as a seer who foresees Hitler’s greatness looming, and thus becomes a hero to the burgeoning Nazi party. Clad in a blond wig, the blacksmith is initially sold to the audience as Siegfried, an Aryan hero, but one night he tires of the deceit and reveals himself as a Jew. This makes him a hero to the Jews who now flock to the cabaret, and in a certain way increases the fascination he holds for the Nazis. The cabaret becomes a twisted microcosm of the horribly confused society outside. The arrangement inevitably shatters.

Caged Beast

This is obviously serious, overtly metaphorical material. The film has evoked extremely mixed responses. Both Eye and Now gave it one star, with Eye calling it a “choked off little turd” (a line one can’t help being jealous of in some perverse way) and “The Conformist as a circus pantomime” (would this necessarily be a bad thing?) On the other hand, Roger Ebert sees it as one of the best films of the year. He wrote: “Watching Invincible was a singular experience for me, because it reminded me of the fundamental power that the cinema had for us when we were children. The film exercises the power that fable has for the believing. Herzog has gotten outside the constraints and conventions of ordinary narrative, and addresses us where our credibility keeps its secrets.”

The truth I think lies somewhere in between. Herzog hardly seems well suited for such claustrophobic material. His “getting outside the constraints of ordinary narrative” seems to me like no more than restlessness here, like a beast pacing back and forth in its cage. The movie is frequently meandering, rather dour and monotonous. The metaphysical dimension is interesting, but contrived. The film’s closing sequence returns to the shetl, as the blacksmith tries to act on what he learned in Berlin, but takes on an earnestness that’s far from Herzog’s best quality. The material is inherently interesting, and Herzog is attuned to its perverse elements, but given the underlying seriousness, it looks as though he felt obliged to be more stately about it than he really wanted to be.

Despite all this, Ebert is right that there’s something “singular” about the film. It’s just that it should have been even more singular, if that makes any sense. But Herzog is in his sixties now, and not likely to be allowed to pull too many more boats over mountains.