Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sublime taste

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2001)

The terrific new French film The Taste of Others isn’t actually that new – it opened in New York almost a year ago, and was a nominee for best foreign language film at the last Oscars. It lost to Crouching Tiger. Hidden Dragon, a film of much greater physical sweep, and of course much greater popularity. Crouching Tiger was probably the better winner; a victory for The Taste of Others would have had too many people shaking their heads, and you have to admire a foreign film that hits so many multiplexes. But on merit, you could certainly argue it the other way. Either way, it’s a joy to have the film here at last.

On connait les chanson

The film is directed by Agnes Jaoui, who also co-wrote and co-stars in it with her husband and frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Bacri. I know them best from their work on Alain Resnais’ On connait les chanson, a poised tale of up-and-down relationships. Resnais’ film, made with his usual elegance, used the Dennis Potter trick of having the characters occasionally burst into song, but that aspect of it never seemed like much more than a Potter homage. The most striking element to me was the suggestion of a more supernatural element to the various maladies. In a party sequence, for instance, we get shots of a fluid plasma-like object floating between scenes, perhaps connoting the life force, or destiny, or just the tangible presence that we might wish for our problems to possess.

Another reference point. I’ve written several times before about my admiration for Andre Techine, the director of Thieves and Alice and Martin. I think Techine may be the most underrated director in the world right now. But I do understand how the mistake gets made. The films are lush and filled with large incidents, with narrative gaps that seem to signal a fondness for melodrama. To really get Techine’s work, you have to have a certain predisposition for the off-kilter. Not just in the liberal sense that allows you to blur the distinctions between say whore and professors (although that helps too), but to an extent that you could imagine discovering at almost any moment that the universe is wired differently than everyone’s believed so far. To put this in less rarified terms, I love David Letterman and Larry David’s Curb your Enthusiasm almost as much as I love Techine’s films, and that all seems pretty consistent to me.

The grass is greener

When you navigate your way through Techine’s ambitious structures, you ultimately get to some scintillating human payoffs. The Taste of Others has payoffs as satisfying, but in a way even more impressive for being mined from more straightforward territory. Bacri plays a bored businessman, going everywhere with a bodyguard in tow while he works on a high-stakes deal. He has barely an artistic bone in his body, until his wife drags him along to a play at which he’s strangely mesmerized by one of the actresses. He knows her already – she’s his English teacher, and (herself middle-aged and disillusioned) has made no previous impression on him. But now he starts to pursue her, and even pushes himself into her artistic circle, where he’s regarded as little more than a figure of fun who pays for the drinks.

Meanwhile his bodyguard romances a waitress (played by Jaoui) at a local bar, and of course there’s more going on too. The Taste of Others is clearly in the same register as Resnais’ film – it’s about more or less ordinary people and their shifting connections. But it has no singing and no explicit signs of the metaphysical, and the cinematography and editing could hardly be smoother or less obtrusive.

I think the title holds the key to the film. Note its deliberate ambiguity – it might be implying either a subject’s taste for new experience (the grass is always greener…) or evoking the range of desires and inclinations of those around us (in which case the subject might become the object). The film beautifully sets out both meanings. The businessman’s wife is a would-be interior decorator with a fatal flaw – she works only to her own aesthetic sense, not to that of the customer. “Can’t you see?” she says in desperation. “Some things go together, others don’t.” The fun of the movie is in keeping us guessing about what falls into what category. Its great insight is in its full and mature depiction of the fluidity of the categories themselves.

Beautiful moment

So a relationship might be on the verge of marriage and commitment, but then naturally fall away (given their own long and presumably happy relationship, Jaoui and Bacri are hardly gloomy about the prospects of marriage, but it’s fair to conclude they’re aware of how things might have gone differently). You might take up something new just to win an advantage, or else out of a genuine spontaneous passion -and you might not know yourself which one it is. And the movie doesn’t criticize its characters for their shaky sense of themselves. When the bodyguard chides the waitress for selling drugs on the side, because it’s against the law, it’s clear that this is too simplistic a rationale for her, but the movie has a way of presenting such disagreements that preserves the legitimacy of both viewpoints.

The Taste of Others has a beautiful structure – not in the sense of the “three acts” that still holds sway in the mainstream, but in the sense that everything is counterbalanced and proportioned. It’s often quite funny, sometimes in a fairly conventional way. It has ironies both somewhat predictable and not. And at the end it has one of the most beautiful moments of the year, where a woman (having finally realized where her own taste lies) looks around for a man, doesn’t see him, then suddenly breaks into a smile of pure happiness. The next shot confirms what the smile has so eloquently told us – he’s there after all, and it’s clear from his face that his mood is aligned with hers. You realize how little she’s smiled in the film prior to that, how sealed off she’s been, how close she came to missing her destination. Any realistic depiction of human possibilities has to admit the existence of the happy ending, while also giving us a realistic assessment of the odds. Jaoui’s ending represents the triumph of the long shot, but on this occasion it would probably have seemed tasteless to have it any other way.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The box-office express

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2002)

Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s carbon-copy remake of Psycho a few years ago. Not directly, but in that it’s more interesting as an abstract artistic experiment than as a thing in itself. The concept seems to be simply this: what if a lame but iconic movie was lavishly remade with a superstar cast. “I miss those days,” says Soderbergh, “when you look at a movie like Murder on the Orient Express and there are, like, 12 movie stars. You can’t do it anymore because of the economics.” Of course, Murder on the Orient Express wasn’t such a great movie – it was all about the gimmick, and the very fact of having all those movie stars (at least half of whom, by the way, were well past their heyday, and presumably available relatively cheaply).

Badge of class

Soderbergh nowadays carries inescapable connotations of classiness. He is in that rarified zone where he could get financing to film the phone book. Every time an actor appears in one of his films, it’s established as his or her best performance in years, if not ever. I doubt that anyone thought the new Ocean’s Eleven would constitute the road to an Oscar. But just as a Woody Allen movie used to seem like the ultimate badge of class for an actor, maybe George Clooney and Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts and Matt Damon sensed that their stardom would never be more directly vindicated than this; by being one of Soderbergh’s hand-selected bouqyet of stars.

Oh, in interviews they insist it’s all about the script. But you have to see that from their point of view I guess. The script gives each of the actors at least two or three juicy little “bits,” and various opportunities to hang out together. And no one has to get wet or cold. So in that sense the script must have seemed pretty good to all involved. At the end of the movie, most of the cast stands in a row, gazing at the night-time Vegas sights. The music is elegiac, the tone contented and lingering. Everyone’s at ease and proud of himself. This seems to me what the movie is really about.

No one can doubt the actors had a good time. But I doubt whether much of it will infect the audience. Soderbergh executes his project perfectly – he makes a movie with lots of movie stars, and with minimal distraction from them. The heist in Ocean’s Eleven doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s one of those movie schemes in which each piece of the plan depends on predicting exactly how someone else will react in a certain situation. For example, Damon’s entry to a particular high-security part of the building depends on knowing that after he carries out an elaborate ruse to get past the guards, big boss Andy Garcia will then leave him alone to go back for the pager he’s conveniently “forgotten.”

Hollow fun

There are probably ten such points at which a slight variation in timing or reaction would cause the plot to fail. Of course, the fun of a heist movie is in watching the seamless flow of events as an aesthetic creation in itself, not in worrying about plausibility. But the downside of Soderbergh’s polished facility is that it shows up the hollowness all the more. As heist movies go, The Score by comparison is a triumph of realism.

And of character development too. Most of the cast no doubt gets what they wanted. Clooney and Pitt, with the two biggest roles, seem exceptionally happy and relaxed. The supporting players are generally zesty. Bernie Mac has a nice race-baiting bit (“Might as well call it whitejack…”), the only edgy moment in the whole film. Damon though seems unaccountably bland in his role, and Roberts’ role just isn’t substantial enough for either presence or good acting to make anything of it. These are just my opinions. Others will see it differently. On this occasion, even more than usual, there’s little prospect of resolving such differences of assessment. The movie’s pristine cliff face contains no fingerholds, no crevices: nothing in which a stray flower of life might flourish. Predictably, it’s a megahit, but will anyone remember it? Maybe twenty years from now as the kind of film that can’t be made any more, because of the economics.

But here’s some news for you – I loved Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Yes, I know that critics familiar with the book are lukewarm about it. Elvis Mitchell in The New York Times, not untypically, said it has a “dreary, literal-minded competence.” Well, I haven’t read the book – I don’t intend to. I didn’t have a clue how the movie was going to unfold. I don’t doubt it’s a safe approach to the project – given the economics, and that choice of director, it would never have been anything else. But I found it remarkably engaging, often enchanting.

Harry new year!

From the beginning, with Richard Harris’ magisterial wizard materializing in a dull British housing estate, the film has a nice balance between the quotidian and the phantasmagoric. The first twenty minutes have Harry’s monstrously hissable foster parents and his indulged cousin; a scene where he talks to a snake at the zoo and helps it escape; and thousands of owls surrounding the house, inevitably evoking Hitchcock yet even at such an early point in the film establishing a grand sense of childlike one-upmanship. The film is immediately captivating, and this is all mere preamble. Harry sets off on his quest, and from then on, without ever feeling to me merely workmanlike, the film sweeps in one revelation after another. And the cast (actually not far off a latter-day equivalent of the cast of Murder on the Orient Express) is delightful.

Certainly I have some reservations. Sometimes the film has too much of that distancing computer-generated look about it – one reason why its more intimate concepts (like the mirror that shows what one’s heart most desires) are often the most enveloping. I think the dramatic impact would have been greater if Harry wasn’t treated like the Son of God from the outset – his triumph is no more than confirmation of the hyped-up expectations that surround him throughout the film. And if the outcome of Quidditch depends on the seeker catching the little ball, what’s the point of all the other players?

I’m sure that readers familiar with the mythology are having a good laugh at my expense here – and that’s fine. Truth is, I held off going to the movie for weeks, unsure I would ever find any way into it. Maybe I was afraid the rest of the audience would spot me as an interloper and hound me out of there. But it turned into a perfectly sublime two and a half hours. I even put it in my top ten films of 2001. Harry New Year!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Castles and dreams

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2001)

Robert Redford’s new film The Last Castle was apparently going to be called The Castle, but the title was changed to avoid confusion with an innocuous Australian comedy from a couple of years ago. Surely the concern ought to have been about confusion with Kafka’s novel. But it’s revealing that it wasn’t. For this is a film of amazingly limited thematic or metaphorical intent – so limited that the very absence of subtext becomes the movie’s most intriguing, almost gripping, element.

Redford plays an almost legendary army general who disobeyed orders on his last mission in Burundi, and gets sent to a military prison (known as the Castle). It’s run by James Gandolfini, an effective but brutal and unethical disciplinarian. Slowly becoming appalled by Gandolfini’s methods, Redford decides he’s not fit for the job, organizes the rabble of inmates into an effective machine, and launches a coup. The film culminates, of course, in a fight for control of the Castle.

Stars and Stripes

The climax focuses on the Stars and Stripes, and the movie is obviously about various notions of honor, justice, duty and integrity. It’s awfully hard though to nail down exactly how it’s about these things. It’s not very explicit about matters, except in occasional snatches of dialogue that’s too sentimental and hackneyed to be listened to. It has a pervasive lack of humour, lightness, or irony. It takes place entirely in the Castle, which ought to lend itself to an intriguing abstraction. Yet the movie seems uninterested in crafting more than a strictly functional portrayal of that environment. In some of the dialogue, and especially in the tactics used by the prisoners, the film draws a parallel with the Middle Ages – but it’s hard to see why.

The casting adds to the sense of something missing. Redford is an interesting presence here, but seems too reflective to be the awesome battlefield mastermind and hard-ass that everyone keeps talking about. I don’t think that’s a miscasting though – the film seems to be using Redford’s star image in an old-fashioned way, letting him be essentially himself, but using our knowledge of his liberal credentials to deepen the character’s resonances. Much the same goes for Gandolfini, whose performance here is a much more effective confounding of his Tony Soprano persona than his more stunt-like casting as a gay hitman in The Mexican. They’re both fascinating. But what does the casting actually mean? Why do we need the particular resonances that Redford brings to the role, rather than (say) the more traditional bull-headedness that Clint Eastwood would have embodied? It’s impossible to know. Both characters are given only very limited back story – we have to take them pretty much as we find them: again an apparent strategy of abstraction that counts for very little here.

Waking Life

The Last Castle was directed by Rob Lurie, whose last film was The Contender. I thought that was an awful movie, but it was certainly brimming with ambition and at least a bit of life. It’s very hard to know how this makes sense as a follow-up. The new film is entertaining and well-handled, and seems intelligent enough within the parameters of a big-budget Hollywood movie. But it seems to be dallying with a vision that never comes to fruition.

As a contrast, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life is all vision, all fruition (no real story, but how often can you have everything?) The loosely structured film follows a slacker-type young man drifting from one conversation to another – people talking at (rather than to) him about their theories of life, the universe and everything. The film is in love with the sound and contour of unabashed “deep” conversation, although the approach is often somewhat precious, like listening to a parade of college students on an oral exam. As it progresses, the theme of wakingness versus dreaming comes to the fore, and the protagonist comes to perceive this entire string of encounters as an extended dream, one from which he can’t seem to wake up. He wonders whether this is what death is.

If that were the whole film, it would be intriguing, but not a great advance on Linklater’s earlier films (which include the wonderfully entertaining Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise). But Linklater did something unique – after filming the movie on digital video, he had a team of computer-assisted animators overlay every frame. At its simplest it’s a tracing and coloring exercise, but the style varies hugely from scene to scene. It’s sometimes impressionistic (so when a character talks about our bodies being composed mainly of water, we fleetingly see him as pure liquid), sometimes weird and ghostly, sometimes making broad caricatures of people, sometimes almost resembling a child’s doodling. If that sounds like a gimmick, it’s remarkable how the technique preserves – or sometimes even enhances – the subtlety of the actors’ expressions and gestures.

Or whatever

It’s a consistently strange film to look at – at once familiar and unprecedented. And this of course enhances and extends the central theme – the character’s uncertainty over his state of being is echoed in our own uncertainty over what it is we’re watching. The approach suggests a world that’s struggling to make sense of itself, continually in danger of losing its basic identity, stretched and prodded in line with its characters’ ideas. This definitely makes even the film’s most dubious patches of conversation seem more worthy of reflection.

I can’t quite agree though with the sizeable body of opinion that Waking Life is one of the year’s best films. The flow of probing talk and painstaking technique never lets up, meaning that for all its free flowing structure, the film feels a bit didactic and oppressive. Another problem for me is that the subjects being discussed often aren’t actually all that interesting. This is, I admit, a wholly subjective reservation, and may only tip off the reader to my own superficiality. But I would rather watch films dealing with sex, or identity, or politics – things in other words that we might be able to do something about (and maybe even use the ideas we get from movies as a springboard to do it better). Waking Life, for all its excellence, may not forge much of a connection with people who, once the movie’s over, have a life to be getting on with. Regardless that we may just be a dream in God’s brain. Or whatever.