Monday, August 29, 2016

Movie expeditions

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2003)

I don’t think I’ll ever forget how I saw the first few minutes of Raising Victor Vargas. It was a Saturday matinee at the Varsity. They went straight from the trailers into the movie, without the “Feature Performance” logo that normally lets you know the preambles are over, and since the movie has no opening titles or credits, I initially thought it might just be another trailer. The film starts with a disembodied shot of the title character Victor Vargas, traveling up his body as it might in some kind of commercial, and then launches right into the middle of a scene, so you could almost think they’d omitted the start of the movie. On top of that, the sound was way too low, so you really had to strain to hear it, and there was a major distraction involving what looked like a couple of cops and other guys searching the theater (maybe on a manhunt, for someone who’d slipped past the ticket taker?) In total, there was none of the easy promise that normally accompanies the start of a new movie. Raising Victor Vargas seemed like hard work.

Raising Victor Vargas

But this was all exhilarating, because it caused you to approach the film as an expedition rather than as a glide, which was exactly the attitude it needed. The movie, a simple story of young love in New York’s Lower East Side, has some moments of observation that are just gorgeous, and I found myself utterly transported by them, in a way that might not usually have happened. In one scene Victor invites a girl to dinner with his family; just straightforward burgers, and nothing really happens for a while except the stilted conversation you’d expect. It’s captivating, to the point that it’s actually rather disappointing when something relatively dramatic then takes place.

The movie has great verisimilitude, but there’s no question that it’s somewhat sentimental at times, going for emotional effects that, however well disguised and hidden under a layer of urban grime, are fundamentally hokey. But I don’t know to what extent life in that community is pervasively shaped by that kind of outlook. Raising Victor Vargas doesn’t have the knowing irony and glibness common to other branches of the teen movie genre. The movie isn’t overly political, but the community’s apparent homogeneity and insularity suggests that access to America’s vaunted upward mobility is uncertain here.

The two main female characters start off mutually reinforcing their indifference to men, then both surrender over the course of the film. This could be read as a filmic convention, or as sheer sentiment, or as a shaking off of impractical youthful idealism. I think it’s all of these – but it’s also a depiction of the mechanisms that may keep the women’s lives, and perhaps those of their children and grandchildren, not far from the block where they started. Young love is terrific and inevitable, but it comes with a price tag visible only with hindsight.

Swimming Pool

So I obviously liked the film, but it’s the work of a young director, and not completely sure-footed at times. For me, circumstances definitely helped. Contrast this with Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool, which could hardly be more assured. If you watched it projected onto a sardine can, it would still seem unbowed. Ozon’s a young director too, although already with five features and many shorts under his belt. A few years ago I wrote a mixed review here of his Water Falls on Burning Rocks. Since then Under the Sand and 8 Women have boosted his reputation considerably. I liked, but didn’t love, both of them. But Swimming Pool is the first of his films that I think will grow in my mind. After I saw it, I kept mentally turning it over, thinking with delight of more nuances, more complexities.

My initial reaction though, when the movie ended, was slight disappointment that such a poised, allusive work had turned out to be yet another “meta” movie with a surprise ending that amounts to a cheat. The film, Ozon’s first to be filmed substantially in English, has Charlotte Rampling as a prim English mystery novelist who, suffering from a deep malaise, goes to stay in her publisher’s French summerhouse. Her peace is shattered by the arrival of his 17-year-old daughter (Ludivine Sagnier), a force of nature who lounges around the house naked and brings home a different guy every night. The two women initially clash, but Rampling eventually realizes she’s being provided with a better narrative than the detective story she originally had in mind. So their relationship grows more complex, but is everything what it seems?

Well, you know the answer to that one already. But I don’t think it’s too productive to worry about that the film’s ending actually means, or whether it “works” in terms of tying everything up. Viewed as a whole, the film’s a superb depiction of repression (which the film pretty much seems to peg as a specifically British malaise) gradually loosening up under the French sun; of a woman slipping out from under the patriarchal thumb and reinventing herself. For sure, Rampling’s character is a bit too much of a device – an extreme of self-denial postulated only so she can be melted by the film’s machinations – and everything that follows has a resulting artificiality. You watch it as a clever piece of work. But Ozon’s mastery is so exquisite that the reservations normally attaching to such material are heavily muted here.

Open mind

Towards the end, it becomes reminiscent of Mulholland Drive as identities shift (the wizened dwarf woman in one scene certainly seems like a Lynchian touch): the film connotes the freeing of Rampling’s psyche by visibly breathing out, allowing coherence to fray. The symbolism is sometimes a bit heavy-handed, such as in the equation of writing with self-determination, or in how the film marks Rampling’s transformation by giving her a nude scene to blow all of Sagnier’s away. And if you think about it too much, you might conclude that the movie is more truly about nothing than Seinfeld ever was. So the trick is to think about it just enough and no more.

Which must be a measure of what Ozon has still to achieve. The Swimming Pool is the kind of film that barely seems to need a spectator. Although I have no doubt it’s a better film than Raising Victor Vargas, there’s something truly endearing about the latter movie’s cross of sentimentality and naturalism – it seems to acknowledge some sense (maybe, admittedly, a naïve one) of the viewer’s humanity. Of course, that train of thought could lead you to awarding points for mere pandering, which is why heart-tugging movies perhaps tend to be overvalued in middlebrow circles as long as they carry a minimum veneer of intelligence. But once in a while, I guess that’s not such a major crime.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Anything but movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2003)

People keep accusing me of being movie-crazed. I deny it as a matter of policy, but it’s a shaky denial. I try to watch a movie a day on average – is that madness? It’s certainly tiring, and means a lot of other ambitions get squeezed to the margins. And sure, in an ideal world I’d be more well-rounded. But I do my best. Let’s take an inventory.


I have a feeling I’ve written at least twenty articles by now where, in the course of discussing a movie based on a book, I felt bound to admit it was something I hadn’t read. The fact of my pointing out these instances probably illustrates I feel a bit guilty about them – or at least regretful. There’s no question that (to name a few recent examples) About Schmidt, The Hours and Nicholas Nickleby would be fuller viewing experiences if, in addition to engaging with them on their own terms, I were able to critique them as adaptations. Not (I hope) in the dutiful way of merely noting similarities and differences, but as a way of identifying alternative portals into the work. I know that Chicago, derived from a stage musical that I’ve seen twice, seemed to me different (probably worse, actually) and more intriguing than it would have otherwise.

I used to read a lot, but it’s the old story – as your work gets more demanding and you pick up other commitments (walking the dog being a big one), something has to give. For many people, movies are the something that has to give, but I was never going to cut the cards that way. I still spend what seems like hours a day on newspapers, various internet websites and several magazine subscriptions including Variety and The New Yorker, but vacation reading aside it’s surprising if I finish even two books a year. Since the vacation reading is always non-fiction, it ended up that a decade went by without my reading a novel (except a few that I read in French as a learning exercise). Then last year, for reasons obscure even to me, I broke the drought by reading Jerzy Kosinski’s Blind Date. I thought it was pretty awful, so I guess that’ll be it for another ten years.

The irony is that I do read book reviews and I have a pretty good retention for titles and authors’ names, so I can fake my way through a conversation pretty well. My wife reads a lot, and I choose most of her books for her based on what I’ve picked up from reviews etc., but she doesn’t really care about names and titles, so I have better knowledge – in that superficial sense – of what she’s read than she does. Anyway, I’m thinking maybe I’ll catch up when I retire. Except by then I’ll have forgotten what most of the movies were like, so I’ll have to watch them all again. And that’ll be very time consuming.


Last Christmas, my wife gave me a Macintosh ipod. This is one of the cool-looking little gadgets which carry close to 1,000 songs, either downloaded off the Internet or from your own CDs converted into MP3 format (2016 note – that’s right, that’s how old this article is, it seemed necessary to explain what an ipod was). I’d often admired the ads (I think Apple is the only company whose advertising consistently works for me – I bought one of the ill-fated cubes as well) but frankly I didn’t think I’d ever use it enough, so I showed some restraint. But she got one for me anyway, and it turns out I use it all the time – walking the dog or to and from work, on the subway. At least one and a half hours a day, and that’s on a slow day. I absolutely love the thing. And it made me realize how long it’s been since I just listened to music. It’s always been in my life, sure, as I worked on the computer or read the paper, or whatever, but I never drive any more, and that wiped out a large block of pure listening time. With a few exceptions, I haven’t gotten to know the CDs I bought in the last ten years as intimately as those I bought earlier. I regretted it, but it just seemed like another one of those things.

But now, with my head full of music as I follow the dog round the park, I’m hearing subtleties I never knew about, and they’re just thrilling me. This really came to me when I was wandering around in the dark early one morning, listening to The Band’s recording of The Well, from The Last Waltz soundtrack. I must have heard it at least fifty times, but it had never struck me, as it did then, what a truly wonderful arrangement it has. I could make a similar point over and over again with different examples. My current ipod wandering-in-the-dark favourite is Joni Mitchell’s latest album Travelogue. Played at home on the stereo, it’s more interesting than actually good – a somewhat overblown symphonic reinterpretation of her own songs (and not generally the best ones either). But on the ipod, it sounds staggeringly haunting.

I guess my taste is pretty wide, although no more so than a lot of other people. I guess I just don’t look the type. I also have on there Barbra Streisand, The Sex Pistols, John Coltrane, Neil Young, Quincy Jones, the soundtracks to Will Rogers Follies and Sunday in the Park with George, Pink Floyd, Charles Mingus, Prefab Sprout, Bobby Womack – maybe you’ll concede me the point about the wide taste. My big blind spot is classical music. I know it’s a crazy generalization even to put it that way, but it’s simply not what I enjoy.


Here’s another medium in which I easily manage to exceed average activity, even if that isn’t saying a lot. I probably see around five plays a year – about half of them here, the others in the course of a vacation to somewhere or other. But I’ve never been to the opera or to the ballet, and the best guess is I never will.

And once in a while I go to an art gallery or a photo exhibition. So what’s the big picture? Even if I say it myself, for someone who spends so much time on movies, I’m not a total wipeout in other areas. So recently there came a weekend with only one new film I wanted to see – usually it’s two or three. I love movies, but I actually thought this was great. I’ll have all this extra time, I thought to myself. So what did I end up doing? I watched three other movies on tape.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Zombie movie

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2003)

According to the Internet Movie Database, George Romero is making a new film next year, called The Ill. It would be only his second film since 1993 – the other was something called Bruiser, which I’ve never had a chance to see. I don’t know whether this glacial pace is a sign of artistic deliberation or just lack of economic opportunity, but it’s a sign of Romero’s odd status that either seems possible.

George Romero

Romero has almost always worked in the horror genre, most famously with the zombie trilogy that began with Night of the Living Dead, and his films show every sign of budgetary constraint (particularly the use of no-name actors) and capitulation to genre expectations. But he regularly renders it plausible to believe that he chooses the genre simply because it’s a fitting vehicle for his particular philosophical and thematic concerns. Not that I don’t think he enjoys spattering the ketchup around a bit.

I’ve also failed to see his 1978 film Martin, which many claim as his masterpiece, but of those I have seen, the pinnacle has to be Dawn of the Dead, which I have on DVD. I used to think of it as one of my “guilty pleasures,” but I guess I’m getting too old to be very guilty now. This second film in the trilogy opens on scenes of utter chaos as the zombie plague pushes civilization into the most tenuous of corners. It gradually focuses on a quartet who flee in a helicopter, arriving at a suburban mall where they seal themselves in and briefly settle into a life of parodic consumerist plenty, while the zombies clamour ineffectually outside the doors.

Romero's cinematography is crystal clear, almost gaudy; the zombies are so in our face that the film dares us to laugh at the absurdity of the premise. But they also take on an enormously specific identity, suspended in some godless limbo between what they were and what hell has made of them, shambling ineffectually until they catch a whiff of a live human, when they become crazed cannibals. You realize that the movie’s deadpan aesthetic reflects the dehumanization of the premise, and it becomes way more unsettling than seems possible from the raw ingredients.

Danny Boyle’s new zombie movie 28 Days Later obviously evokes Romero, and Boyle acknowledged that the film’s supermarket scene, where his own band of survivors ransacks a deserted store, is a nod to Dawn of the Dead. 28 Days Later is an effective film, but I guess it must be significant that it made me think about Romero’s film more than about 28 Days Later itself. Boyle’s opening certainly outdoes Romero though. After a prologue where a group of animal activists set free an infected chimp over the protests of a terrified research scientist, we jump via the “28 days later” caption to a man waking up in a hospital, finding himself alone, and then wandering outside into an utterly deserted London. He walks in solitude across Tower Bridge, through Trafalgar Square – only an apocalypse could generate a London like this.

28 Days Later

After some initial encounters with the demented population, he runs into a couple of fellow survivors who tell him that while he was in a coma (after a bicycle accident) a mysterious infection engulfed virtually the whole country. They later find a man holed up with his daughter in an apartment building, then pick up a radio broadcast about a survivor community to the north. They set out in a cab, finding a group of soldiers in a country house, planning how to start things over, but the soldiers’ ambitions conflict with theirs…

Boyle shoots the movie in an ultra-grainy, low-definition hand-held style that frequently plunges into incoherence – the encounters with the zombies are splashes of blood and shadow and movement, impressionistic bursts of darkness that reflect the unknown, overwhelming nature of the new world in which they find themselves. In one scene the taxicab drives past a field of flowers which look like blobs of super-imposed colour. The style is generally effective, but I think it buffers the audience from forging a visceral connection with events. The ads quote someone as saying it’s the scariest film since The Exorcist, but I didn’t detect much fear in the theatre when I saw it. It’s a chilling presence for sure, but the pseudo-documentary style is such a cliché by now that it actually emphasizes the film’s artificiality.

The big picture in 28 Days Later is a bit hard to figure out. The zombies seem to come out mainly at night, but even allowing for that, there aren’t many of them around, or many dead bodies. Since the infection takes hold in a mere twenty seconds, it seems that chaos must have descended with horrendous speed, but it left the streets remarkably clear of abandoned traffic, corpses, debris and suchlike. On the other hand, the movie makes a fair bit of behavioural sense, even if some of the characters might appear to have adapted rather too easily to their new circumstances. It seems particularly shrewd about the troublesome sexual politics of a world where ten men (worse, mostly macho soldier types) coexist with only two women.

On the whole, Boyle seems more cerebral than Romero, which would be an advantage in almost any genre, except maybe this one. 28 Days Later plays effectively on a multitude of fears, but the almost naïve sincerity of Romero’s film ultimately proves more intriguing.

Owning Mahowny

There’s another movie about a destructive zombie in a desolate wasteland – well, no, actually it’s about an embezzling assistant bank manager living in Toronto. Based on a true story, Owning Mahowny tracks the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as he embezzles and gambles away over ten million dollars. This kind of movie material is often rendered splashy and flamboyant, but that streak is largely confined here to John Hurt’s grinning-serpent performance as the manager of Mahowny’s favourite casino. The rest of the movie is deliberately drab, mostly confined to colourless interiors, befitting Hoffman’s extremely interiorized performance.

The gimmick is that he’s a world-class embezzler who never really benefits from his crimes – he rates the gambling experience, on a scale of 1 to 100, as a 100, but it sure doesn’t show. The casino and his bookie get rich, the bank manipulates him to better squeeze their clients, even his mistreated girlfriend seems to draw some kind of perverse satisfaction from his errant ways. Receding behind huge glasses and a barely changing expression, Mahowny becomes a virtual commodity, like the mounds of cash that change hands around him. It’s a simple premise really, and the film sometimes seems a bit threadbare and hokey, but it ultimately has substantial wherewithal. The immensely versatile Hoffman really seems like someone who could play any man alive, or dead.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Green man

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2003)

It seems now that every mass-market comic book movie comes with a spin about how this particular movie represents a more cerebral take on the material (whether Batman, Spiderman, X-Men etc.) than we’ve ever seen before. And now we have Ang Lee’s Hulk, for which some of this commentary is more than usually persuasive. Here’s Roger Ebert:

Dealing with issues

“The movie brings up issues about genetic experimentation, the misuse of scientific research and our instinctive dislike of misfits, and actually talks about them. Remember that Ang Lee is the director of films such as The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility, as well as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; he is trying here to actually deal with the issues in the story of the Hulk, instead of simply cutting to brainless special effects…Lee has broadly taken the broad outlines of a comic book story and transformed them to his own purposes; this is a comic book movie for people who wouldn’t be caught dead at a comic book movie.”

The film stars Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, whose research into DNA takes an unexpected turn when he’s accidentally exposed to a huge dose of deadly radiation. It should kill him, but he doesn’t know that he inherited abnormal DNA from his presumed-dead father, also a scientist, who experimented on himself before Bruce was conceived. The DNA/radiation combination turns him into the Hulk, a raging green beast who emerges whenever Bruce loses his cool. Rival scientists duel with the military for the economic and strategic potential of this genetic breakthrough, but Bruce’s ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) is the only one who seems to care about him, including his father (Nick Nolte) who now reappears with his own crazy schemes in mind.

Remarkably for a film of this kind of breadth, Hulk has only five characters of any consequence: Banner father and son, Connelly and her father (Sam Elliott) who leads the military efforts, and a scheming scientist played by Josh Lucas: over 95% of the film’s dialogue goes to this quintet. Especially given the doubling of the parental estrangement theme (Connelly and Elliott have an icy relationship), this concentration of interaction lends the film a uniquely odd feeling: of an anguished chamber piece, almost a stage piece, played out on an absurdly vast canvas.

Full of talk

The film has a vague handle on a witty central metaphor: Banner’s relationship with Connelly was on the rocks because of his emotional inaccessibility; turning into the Hulk is the ultimate remedy to that problem…but of course introduces its own problems. In some relationships, you just can’t win! There’s almost no humour in the film though. Lee obviously understands the Hulk’s potential as metaphor – how could you not? – but seems to have no specific strategy for unlocking it, other than to have his camera stare somewhat plaintively at the characters.

As Ebert says, the film is full of talk, but it’s absurd to suggest it has anything significant to say on the subjects he lists. The loquaciousness seems to me more like a sign of frail self-confidence on Lee’s part, almost like a delaying tactic before he surrenders to the action. Throughout the opening section, Lee uses a dazzling array of techniques for transitioning from one scene to the next: all manners of wipes and dissolves and blends and split screens. It’s broadly reminiscent of comic book style, of the artist’s ability to control the tone by varying the size and placement of individual frames. Sometimes, the effect in the film is rather beautiful, but it’s an aesthetic approach that calls attention to itself, and to the movie as an artificiality. And all the talk, despite its superficial “depth,” can’t overcome the story’s perhaps insurmountable silliness.

Recent comic-book movies played up their protagonists’ sexiness by emphasizing their sleek, sexy muscularity. This option isn’t really available to the makers of the Hulk, who are stuck with an absurd, lumbering green monster. Even the film’s defenders have criticized, to varying degrees, the computer-generated character for not looking real enough. At worst, in long shot, it’s like watching a mere green blob moving across the landscape (“Toss a plastic toy figure across your yard,” said Glenn Lovell of the San Jose Mercury News, “and you’ll have a good approximation of what this film’s $140 million-plus budget bought its producers”). In close-up, the Hulk looks more convincing, but still inherently absurd.

The Abstract Hulk

Even so, the action scenes still often have a certain grace to them, although there’s nothing to match the duel above the treetops in Crouching Tiger. But they lack any sort of conviction. We’ve all become used to the trade-off entailed by computer-generated wonders: as the spectacle’s wow value goes up, our emotional involvement in it goes down. Watching action scenes now is more about grading the execution, measured against the ever-increasing stakes laid down by other big movies, than about visceral investment. One of the ultimate examples is the fight scene from Matrix Reloaded between Keanu Reeves and the dozens of Hugo Weaving clones. It’s hard to remember a more impressive display, both in conception and execution. But as many writers commented, it nevertheless leaves you flat, because there’s no sense of danger to it whatsoever. And how could there be? When you had Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine beating each other to a pulp on top of a moving train, then you felt some danger.

Lee compounds the abstraction of the action scenes by staging many of them in the desert, always a movie locale of such resonance that the most straightforward thing seems symbolic. The scenes seem underpopulated and stark – echoing the film’s lack of substantial people. It’s as though the film was a microscope, stripping away the usual action movie diversions to illuminate its central psychodrama. In this sense, Lee’s more contemplative “Eastern” side is amply evident in the film. But much as he indulges the characters to a point, he doesn’t invest them with the detail and rough edges that would make them into more than archetypes. Bana was apparently deliberately directed to be fairly bland, the better to support the contrast with the beast within him. It seems a simplistic strategy. The biggest disappointment is Nolte, who’s almost always compelling in his films, but not here.

When the concept of Ang Lee directing a Hulk movie was announced a couple of years ago, it was startling and exciting, and you had no idea how it would work. Now the movie’s out, and it’s a testimony to the concept that you almost want Lee to direct a sequel and get it right next time. But the artistic update’s too limited. He’s in the same spot now as Martin Scorsese after Gangs of New York – someone for whom going back to smaller movies wouldn’t be a limitation, but a liberation.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Strange places

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2003)

Four movies from four very different and (to varying degrees) odd places

Whale Rider

Whale Rider, a film from New Zealand directed by Niki Caro, won the audience-voted people’s choice award at last year’s Toronto film festival. The most recent preceding winners were Life is Beautiful, American Beauty, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Amelie. It’s an unquestionably prestigious lineage, and a revealing one as to what kind of movie strikes the “people” as special: three out of the four were foreign films that achieved unusual acclaim through the accessibility and “universal” quality of their storytelling. Whale Rider falls directly into that category too: it shows us a self-contained culture following unfamiliar rules, but uses narrative and visual strategies that are solidly familiar and comfortable.

It’s about a young Maori girl, being brought up by her grandparents in a remote village; her mother and twin brother died in childbirth and her father is largely absent. Preoccupied by the community’s spiritual decline, her grandfather instructs the local boys in Maori myths and cultural traditions – key among them the search for the contemporary equivalent of an ancestor who rode in on a whale, heralding the community’s rebirth. Although the girl has more affinity for these traditions than any of the boys do, the grandfather chauvinistically excludes her from the group.

The film reminded me at several points of the recent Inuit film Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner, but not in a way that’s really complimentary to Whale Rider. Atanarjuat is much more difficult to watch, and not as much “fun,” but the unfamiliarity of its approach to storytelling seems to reflect the cultural tradition that’s central to the film. Whale Rider talks a lot about the uniqueness of the community it depicts, and that’s evident in the sense that (for example) they dress a bit differently and follow unfamiliar rituals, but the film’s relationship to this activity often seems like that of the tourist or sightseer.

Still, it achieves real grandeur in its closing passages, where the whales come into view and events attain the mythical pay-off that’s been broadly obvious from the start. Unfortunately, budget constraints (or so I assume) leave much of the key imagery off screen, and anyway the feel-good factor outweighs everything else. In terms of emotional impact, it’s basically like watching Bend it Like Beckham again.

Hollywood Homicide

Ron Shelton’s Hollywood Homicide has Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett as two LA cops who, like just about everyone else in Hollywood, really want to be something else. Ford moonlights as a real estate agent and Hartnett as an actor. They’re also both being investigated by Internal Affairs, which makes the film a close relative to Shelton’s last film Dark Blue, which just came out a few months ago. But where Dark Blue was angry and chronic, Hollywood Homicide is a breeze. In Shelton’s hands though, that doesn’t seem like a complete capitulation to the demands of summer box-office and bigger stars; rather, it seems like his commentary on Hollywood, the place and the attitude, and how it barely accommodates seriousness.

To this end, he gets Ford to relax more than he has in years, and constructs the movie as meticulously as a work of major intellect, while devoting it almost entirely to diversion and subversion. It’s a shame he didn’t have a larger final thematic pay-off up his sleeve, but his picture achieves more than you’d think likely from the raw materials. The reviews were mostly mediocre though, and the poor box office results make this another installment in the dimming of Ford’s long run at the top. But if he’s in as genial a mood as the movie suggests, he shouldn’t care too much.

The Safety of Objects

In The Safety of Objects, Rose Troche takes on a place even stranger than than Hollywood – suburbia. The film tracks four families, all evoked in the opening credits as benumbed, almost faceless figures; like game pieces carved in some synthetic material with a marble-like glaze. All four have major-league traumas of course, and as the title suggests, they all cope with these problems via various forms of displacement. Maybe the most striking is the pre-teenager who has a love affair – emotional and, insofar as such a thing is possible, physical – with one of his sister’s dolls. The movie also has Glenn Close as a woman whose son is in a coma after a car accident; she tries to redeem her relationship with her traumatized daughter by trying to win the girl an SUV in an endurance contest.

The material is a bit overwrought at times, and Troche’s direction is pitched to match, and yet the movie is highly effective, and finally moving. The structure sounds somewhat conventional, and the ending – with its flashback revelations, epiphanies and points of resolution – isn’t particularly radical in concept. But the movie illuminates its characters without becoming servant to them; it maintains a pervasive strangeness and sense of perversity. So that in the final scene, where the families all sit in the garden together on a fine summer day, it feels less like closure than like a mildly demented bulletin from an only superficially familiar galaxy.

The Wild Dogs

Finally a Canadian movie, Thom Fitzgerald’s The Wild Dogs. In many ways, it’s the most self-indulgent and even amateurish of the four – a loose scrapbook of odds and ends set in Budapest where a Canadian pornographer (played by Fitzgerald himself) comes in search of new women, but instead finds a social conscience. He hangs out with a British embassy official on the one hand and with various beggars and lowlifes on the other; meanwhile, the city streets are overrun by (we’re told) over 200,000 wild dogs, who generate various other plotlines.

The Wild Dogs can be faulted in so many different ways I don’t know where to start, but the overwhelming problem is a willful, solipsistic obscurity and perversity which doesn’t consistently seem like artistry. Despite that, it may actually be my favourite of the four films mentioned here. The raw elements are fascinating, and the movie ultimately comes to resemble a troubled, rough-edged sculpture where the personal and the political fuse into a semi-recognizable dream landscape.

It’s reminiscent at various times of Kusturica, Fellini, Egoyan, and often of Ken Loach, whose social conscience forms the movie’s last word. Actually, I would have preferred if the movie didn’t end on quite such a preachy note (with a montage of pictures of the disadvantaged kids Fitzgerald meets along the way) – it makes for a rather callow final note. Still, the bottom line: not a bad summer at the movies!

Monday, August 1, 2016

In love with movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2003)

I’ve written before about critic David Thomson, whose Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema (first published in 1975) had a huge impact on me when I was growing up; I probably read the whole thing ten times over. I couldn’t believe someone could engage with cinema as fluently as Thomson seemed to. Even now, he influences my perception of filmmakers. If not for Thomson I’m sure I wouldn’t think as highly of Dreyer or Rivette (or Angie Dickinson for that matter) and I wouldn’t be as hard on Ford or Fellini.

It probably helped that Thomson was pretty close to what I fancied I might become – a young British guy from modest origins, engaged on a process of giddy, tireless discovery. He writes about the early 60s in London with his best friend, “busy charting the past of the medium we loved” and describes for illustration a week (one week!) in 1961 when they saw Les 400 coups, L’Avventura, Senso, Dark Victory, A Taste of Honey…and nine other films! Since no filmographies were available, they compiled their own, using the library of the British Film Institute. It almost makes you wish that we might lose much of cinema history, so we could have the thrill of excavating it all over again.

David Thomson

Thomson revised his book in 1994, and I eagerly purchased it. It was a huge disappointment – an obvious rush job, with flaccid updates pasted forlornly on top of the peerless original essays. He updated it again last year, and this time I haven’t bothered buying the book. The reviews seemed to confirm that Thomson, now a longtime resident of San Francisco, had become a lazy stylist, either unaware of or indifferent to the contemporary cutting-edge.

A recent issue of Film Comment carried a review of the book by Kent Jones. It’s a wonderfully written review that made me admire Jones almost as much as I once did Thomson. And Jones nails something in Thomson that had put me off, even though I think this too is something I absorbed into my own approach to cinema – a pervasive air of disappointment, if not disdain. Jones thinks Thomson expected too much of movies, and his love “turned cold because they didn’t deliver everything he expected of them when he was young.” Jones offers his prescription: “If you fall for the idea that cinema is any more or less powerful than any other art form, that movies are anything other than aesthetic objects that exist in reality, then you’re fooling yourself.” True enough, except if it were that simple, why would Jones spend so much of his own life writing about cinema?

The Movie Network recently screened a documentary called Cinemania, about five hardcore film buffs in New York. They mostly live on welfare or disability, skimping on meals, spending day after day after day engaged in an intricately planned swirl around the city, from one screening to the next (scheduling bathroom breaks is a major ongoing issue). None of the five have significant careers or, as far as one can see, meaningful relationships. I must admit I watched it with an air of snotty superiority.

Illusion of control

Saddest of all, although not really surprising, is that the five have relatively little to say about the movies themselves. One guy’s obsession is with memorizing running times. Another merely rattles off which stars he likes, and which he doesn’t. For this, they tie their lives into a knot?

Of course, we can’t pick and choose our obsessions. But cinema seems particularly susceptible to this kind of hopeless immersion. I always imagine it’s something to do with the grandeur of the experience – alone in the dark, visually and aurally overpowered, your senses and perceptions guided in a way you don’t even register. No matter how often you do it, it’s like a laboratory that never yields up its secrets. It’s an utterly passive experience, and yet the activity on the screen avoids the emptiness that (unless you have a real problem) eventually accrues to most other time-killing activity.

With the DVD boom, more and more viewers are conquering, or at least radically amending, this passivity. Extras, alternative endings, commentary tracks, features that allow you to reedit part of the movie – it all serves to make the film less a fixed artifact than a somewhat provisional item that can be endlessly probed and adjusted. In a recent New York Times magazine article, Terence Rafferty suggested the dangers of these developments: “The more ‘interactive’ we allow our experience of art – any art – to become – the less likely it is that future generations will appreciate the necessity of art at all. Interactivity is an illusion of control, but understanding a work of art requires a suspension of that illusion, a provisional surrender to someone else’s vision. To put it as simply as possible: If you have to be in total control of every experience, art is not for you. Life probably isn’t either. Hey, where’s the alternative ending?”

Alternative ending

Fine, but Rafferty’s examples are mostly the likes of X-Men, Lord of the Rings and E.T. Not to diminish those films, but does it really matter how much enthusiasts play around with them? How profound is the artistic experience to begin with? And for viewers who might have a tendency to end up like the geeks in Cinemania, isn’t this healthier – a way of avoiding complete submissiveness, of hanging onto some iota of self-determination?

Well, yes and no. Either way, you’re still spending too much time on a single movie. My problem with the DVD extras isn’t their impact on the artistic experience, but the underlying arrogance of the assumption that anyone should care that much (an arrogance that’s amply justified of course, judging by the format’s popularity). Rafferty’s “illusion of control” is a pale illusion indeed, if you exercise that power by spending twenty hours of your life, and fifty or sixty bucks, on last year’s sensation.

Still, whether it’s for the reasons Rafferty sets out, or whether because the movies used to be better, or because of a shift in the heavens, being in love with the movies isn’t what it used to be. It’s hard to imagine too many future film buffs retracing David Thomson’s arc from infatuation to disappointment, because they would never have shared his high to begin with. When Thomson was rushing around London cramming in movies, he was a geek no doubt, but he was also a pioneer. Today, he’d just be a geek. When art becomes too available, it runs the risk of conversion into kitsch. Maybe Thomson moved to the States, new technology came along, filmographies became as available as ice cream, and after a certain point, whether or not he still needed movies, it felt like they no longer needed him.