Monday, January 29, 2018

Risks and reward

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 1997)

(A crummy early article featuring a wildly overextended metaphor and an absurd dismissal of Lost Highway, but presented here for posterity)

A riddle: when is the stock market like the movies? Well, pretty much all the time actually…

Things will probably have moved on by the time this article appears in print, but as I type these words on March 28, 1997, it appears that Bre-X Minerals – the company that had perhaps created more fast millionaires than any other in history – was far less special than it appeared to be. Due to astonishing and widespread error, fraud or a combination of both, the results of the company’s exploratory drilling seem to have been wildly misrepresented; when it all blew up, the stock price fell from around $15 (which was already way below it all-time high, and that’s taking into account a 10-for-1 stock split) to $2.50 or so. Those who took the money at those higher price may feel a sympathetic flutter of anxiety but otherwise will remain unscathed. Those who still own the stock may – if they’re lucky – have the resources to shake their heads and move on to the next thing; others who’d loaned money against it may have been ruined.

Bre-X was worthless when it started out in the not so distant past, and may end its life worthless again, in the not so distant future, which would make it a grimly interesting microcosm of the market: a case where, in the absence of any new wealth being created, the profits made by some people must be more or less exactly matched by the losses incurred by others (after taking into account the commission skimmed off at every stage). We might hope that the redistribution of wealth will have had some beneficial aspects to it, but more likely the map of winners and losers will be utterly chaotic – which was really inherent in the situation from the start.

There are many things that might earn you rewards of various magnitudes: working an honest day’s work, using a unique talent, contributing something wonderful to the world – but the really big rewards are nearly always a payoff for having been prepared to take a risk. And although everyone claims to understand that, it always seems to create shock waves when fate provides a handy reminder of how the principle works.

You recall that when the Lloyds insurance market collapsed, investors who’d been raking in lucrative returns for years got all uppity, and in some cases had the audacity to demand that the government (i.e. the normal people) bail them out. Where did they think those cheques had been coming from, given that they hadn’t been doing anything tangible to earn them? More generally, the economy only grows at 2 or 3% a  year, if that, so for how long can you expect your mutual funds to grow at 12 or 15% a year (better understanding of which, in the foreseeable future, might be forced upon our own crazed mutual fund environment).

You could likely find a metaphor there for the success or failures of emotional relationships, for job satisfaction and for much more besides, but I’m not that ambitious. So, to the movies. Pictures that try to innovate, which take big risks, lose big as often as they win big, but when they pay off, you can live off them – spiritual sustenance-wise - for a year. The safest, most calculated pictures provide a sliver of entertainment but seldom pay huge dividends. As always, a sample of films presently on release provides a comprehensive overview of the principle in action. There’s not a current example of a film that reaps big rewards from taking big risks, but then you’d expect that to be the rarest combination. The other permutations are well covered though.

In Lost Highway, David Lynch certainly takes a chance by creating a narrative that is deliberately and inherently incoherent. Given that even the most fervent of movie buffs still find the cinematic pill easier to swallow if it’s got a rattling good yarn wrapped around it, this is quite brave in its own way.

Result? Well, let’s say the return underperforms the market. Lynch’s wacky sleaziness keeps things rolling along, but the fact that it all makes no sense turns out to be a constant annoyance that sabotages the movie’s minor virtues, and a sign that Lynch is in a real creative crisis.

Donnie Brasco, to my mind, takes no real chances. Some critics have praised it for giving a daringly downbeat view of the mob, but this is basically just a modest spin on familiar movie territory. Casting Al Pacino as a gangster isn’t exactly going out on a limb, either. But then, Pacino is the greatest actor of his age, and the movie is made by real professionals, so the result is like buying blue chip stocks – you don’t expect to hit the jackpot, but you know you won’t lose your shirt either. A highly satisfactory addition to your viewing portfolio (someone stop me before I overload this metaphor).

Finally, I don’t know what the book was like, but Billie August’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow looks to me like a movie that tries to hedge all its bets by throwing in something for everyone. The early scenes have a moderately idiosyncratic frostiness about them, but the movie soon starts devoting itself to the kind of action set-pieces we’ve seen a thousand times before. It’s true that such movies still succeed, but nowadays usually only when they’re really expensive (which is taking a risk of another kind). I don’t know about Billie August’s sense of snow, but if he thinks he can strike gold with this kind of stuff…well, there’s a little site in Indonesia he might want to buy into.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Girl from Trieste (Pasquale Festa Campanile, 1982)

I have a memory of driving through some English town in the early 80s and passing a movie theatre where The Girl from Trieste was playing (presumably in a dubbed and possibly trimmed version), a snapshot of a totally different era in film distribution, and in the identification and satisfaction of erotic tastes. Even as you watch the picture now (which I did in its original Italian), it seems almost as far away as that memory, always receding into some barely articulated preoccupation – in my case, the sense of distance was heavily aided by some of the worst subtitles I can remember, rendering whole exchanges entirely incoherent (among much else, seemingly using the pronouns “he,” “she” and “it” largely randomly). Ben Gazzara (also rather pushed away by the dubbing, his usual smug amusement suppressed) plays a creator of apparent Wonder Woman-type strips; he’s working at the beach one day when a young woman (Ornella Muti, whose sense of sultry calculation allows her some patina of control even at the most flagrant moments of objectification) is saved from drowning; she latches onto him; they make love; she disappears, reappears, shedding an alluring but fragile trail of truths and lies which Gazzara attempts to follow and clarify. Director Pasquale Festa Campanile doesn’t give it much shape or energy, suggesting a fine line between creating a studied enigma and simply being absent. It’s worthwhile though if only for the abstracted grandeur of its final scenes – back on that opening beach, Muti, her head now shaven and her sense of provocative distance at full throttle, all but transforms into a baleful alien being, leaving Gazzara entirely incapable of engagement even in the face of her apparent fatal return to the water, only of obsessively trying to capture her on his page, less as woman than as pure lines and curves.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Story of a Love Story (John Frankenheimer, 1973)

It’s oddly appropriate that John Frankenheimer’s Story of a Love Story was never properly released, and is very hard to see now – the title suggests a distancing (if not plain redundancy), whereas the alternative title Impossible Object threatens to disappear altogether. The love story, if such it is, is between an English writer (Alan Bates, in provocative, improvisatory-feeling form) living in France with an American wife and a houseful of kids, and the French wife (Dominique Sanda, one of the most beguilingly watchful of actresses ) of an older French husband, mother of a single daughter. The film moves around within their timeline of their relationship, further destabilizing itself through the insertion of fantasy sequences from Bates’ imagination, or from another imagination altogether – at various times the movie (which, if nothing else, never seems to be merely coasting) seems to explicitly evoke Fellini (as in a nudity-strewn dream sequence) and Antonioni (the title also evokes his Cronaca di un amore, and Lea Massari from L’Avventura enters with Bates into a vaguely Don’t Look Now-ish tumble of sexual positions) and a generalized on-the-fly kind of New Wave-ish ness. It’s hard to know what the (at least to that point) usually tougher-contoured Frankenheimer wanted out of such a project, if not to disappear within it, perhaps to renew himself through an exercise in evasiveness (although with his wife Evans Evans hovering in the role of Bates’ wife and providing a vague tether). Complaints about the film’s inconsequentiality hardly seem fair in this context – it seems designed to perpetually recede (as love usually does, I suppose), shifting for a while into exotic dreaminess and then into sustained, piercing tragedy, before veering away again into quizzical possibilities. The film’s pretty visuals and ingratiating aspects perhaps made it too easy to dismiss (certainly something did) but it’s genuinely, surprisingly rewarding.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Magnificent obsession

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 1998)

On the afternoon of June 30th, I went to see the new British film Fever Pitch, a modest comedy about a schoolteacher in his early thirties whose obsession with London’s Arsenal Football Club may derail his chance for love and maturity. This happened to be the afternoon of England’s World Cup game against Argentina, and of course, anyone who wasn’t at work and had any interest in English soccer was watching the game. I therefore expected to be the only person at that screening of Fever Pitch, and so I was.

The Lone Viewer

I’ve always got a kick out of being alone in a movie theatre. It injects a certain air of privilege into the whole affair. If I’m the only person in the who-o-o-le of Toronto who bothered to show up here, imagine how this movie must love me! Of course, it might suggest that the word’s out that the movie sucks (although I once managed it with the Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves). That may apply to Fever Pitch – I was too pleased with myself to notice.

Actually, I coasted through the movie just by soaking up nostalgia for its many elements of British subculture. It’s so totally soccer; so totally London; so totally British I can’t imagine many non-British people “getting” this film. After eight years away from the country, I barely got it myself. I cracked lots of smiles, but I kept looking at the lead character and thinking: Jeez, this guy’s really crazy (as opposed to just movie-type “lovable-crazy” or just “normal British male” crazy).

But I know I’m saying this as someone who went to the movies four times in the following five days. How nuts is that? Fortunately, since I started keeping the list of movies now playing (which at the time I was updating every week for The Outreach Connection) I can regard the whole thing as a public service. I think that puts me in a different category. There’s someone I see quite often at various films – I’ve never spoken to him, but I keep noticing the guy. For me to see him so frequently, the guy’s obviously suffering from some scopophilic mania. He should get a life. Buddy, if you’re reading this and you think you might be the one (Le Samourai at 6.30 on Friday the 3rd, Buffalo 66 at 3.30 on Saturday the 4th…), seek help!

The Buffalo Shuffle

Obviously, we’re all mysteries to each other. Fever Pitch is shot in the kind of bright, clean-cut style you associate with sitcom – if you don’t like or identify with the basic elements, there’s no reason for you to be there. It takes far greater ambition and confidence for a film to speak in a language that transcends those simple forms of recognition. I mentioned Buffalo 66 – a film directed by its star Vincent Gallo. The grungy, edge-of-mainstream Gallo can’t have been anyone’s hot tip for the next cinematic poet. And yet, Buffalo 66 – dealing in awfully dour, unprepossessing material – is a constant astonishment, and one of the year’s very best films.

From the opening scene – in which Gallo’s intense, obsessive character comes outside for a while thinking things over, then asks to be let back to use the bathroom – the film treads (utterly consistently) a line between deadpan disillusionment, hopeless dysfunction, emotional crisis, and (happily) the prospect of redemption and renewal, all conveyed with huge style and confidence, and it’s funny! Gallo’s character kidnaps a young woman (played by Christina Ricci) almost at random, and forces her to pose as his wife on a visit to his parents (an utterly horrifying but mesmerizing joint creation by Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston). Having thereby satisfied some sense of obligation, he plans to dump her and kill the former Buffalo Bills football player (and now strip-joint owner) whose missed kick in a long-ago Super Bowl was - as he sees it – the source of his recent woes. But despite his dismal treatment of her, she won’t let him go.

Best debut 98?

The film is open to various charges. Ricci’s character is too close to the misogynist fantasy of the rape victim who likes it. Gallo delivers a jittery sub-Pacino performance that sometimes resembles an acting class exercise; his character is given a wretched personal history that’s rather too overtly sculptured; as a director, his stylistic innovations (showy camera placement, the unique juxtaposing of flashbacks in and out of the action, his astonishing handling of a fantasized death scene toward the end, in which he somehow freezes the gory details in a near-3D effect; the glazed, archived or washed-out look of so many scenes; the use of parody and excess in the acting) could all be dismissed as pretentious flourishes.

But however strongly you might be inclined to resist some of these elements, the film is a huge success. It immerses you in a completely alien landscape. There’s hardly a moment of false glamour in the film – people look ugly and fleshy and sloppily groomed and badly-dressed, and you can smell the decrepitude in every scene. To that extent, the film has the honesty of a documentary, but Gallo’s cinematic edginess simultaneously makes events resemble a deranged (if impoverished) fantasy. That might have taken us no further than David Lynch territory, as yet another expose of sordid secrets and subtexts, but Gallo never seems to be pursuing a simple agenda (only at the very end, perhaps), and he finds his way to some genuinely striking illumination of character. It’s hard to judge someone from his directorial debut, but Gallo looks here like someone with an affinity for somewhat romantic, edgy fatalism, enormous imagination, and huge self-belief. That could be the basis for a directorial career to rival the Coen Brothers and Tarantino.

And happily, the screening of Buffalo 66 was far from empty. Perhaps the good word is already out. I mean, we’re all obsessive in one way or another, and should all be potentially satisfied customers for a movie reflecting those qualities. Fever Pitch, although entertaining, isn’t about much more than one man’s problems. Buffalo 66, also about one man’s problems, has the upper hand twice: it’s a better depiction both of the man, and of the audience.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

2001 Toronto film festival report, part seven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2001)

This is the seventh and last of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival.

L’Anglaise et le Duc (Eric Rohmer)
81-year-old Rohmer’s film, set during the French Revolution, uses digital technology to insert its characters into painted settings. The technique is unsettling at first, but as the film progresses, the artificiality strangely becomes a means of authenticity – the unfamiliarity of its appearance reinforces the sense of a true window into the past. The title characters, she a Royalist and he affiliated with Robespierre, are former lovers whose shifting fortunes reflect the progress of the Revolution. Much of the film consists of conversation, and in this respect it’s certainly not that far removed from Rohmer’s contemporary works, although under the circumstances politics and survival are more pressing subjects than the machinations of love. The characters are superbly self-aware and regard the analysis of the event as part and parcel of living it (a quality that gives them a useful stoicism, if not fatalism, at times of pressure). The matter-of-fact air of even the most dramatic events (there’s an especially well-executed scene in which she hides a fugitive in her bed) seems like a further guarantee of verisimilitude. It’s a film that’s extremely modern while possessing the most classical of qualities, excellently acted especially by Lucy Russell as the lady; some might find it a bit talky and distended, but it will probably stand as a key Rohmer film.

Revolution #9 (Tim McCann)
McCann’s film starts with a young woman bringing home her new fiancĂ©e to meet her family – they express doubts about the guy, and then from the very next scene we see that he’s losing his grip on reality. He imagines that his young nephew-to-be is part of an internet-driven conspiracy against him and that a TV perfume commercial is the nexus of a sophisticated mind-control plot. In the film’s best scene, he tracks down and interrogates the ad’s director; taking him for a journalist, the self-absorbed director takes a hilariously long time to catch on. The film intertwines events from his perspective with events from his fiancee’s. The first is a troubled, paranoid fantasy; the second a gritty account of having to cope with his mood swings, the opposition of her family, the police and the public health system (the film spends a surprising amount of time on the details of his journey through the New York psychiatric admission process). It’s also attentive to the real lives of its characters, with money a perpetual issue: because it’s so well-grounded in economic and emotional reality (she’s presumably as dependent on him in some way as he is on her), the film can afford to indulge itself a little in how it visualizes his mental state. At times, these indulgences render it a little repetitive and derivative, but it leaves a strong after-impression.

Lantana (Ray Lawrence)
The Festival closing gala was this somber, troubled drama about interlocking characters in an Australian suburb. It’s somewhere in between a film noir and a kitchen sinker, with a vaguely Latin flavour thrown in (for exoticism I guess) – Blue Velvet and La ronde may be other occasional reference points. Anthony LaPaglia plays a cop who’s cheating on his wife with the woman who lives next door to a guy who may have committed a crime that the cop’s investigating – to summarize just one plot strand (Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey are also in the movie, both to lesser effect). The connections are sometimes illuminating (it makes bedmates out of guilt and innocence, truth and lies; it transforms pursuers to pursued at a snap) but are almost as often mildly groan-inducing. The film maintains its smoky poise very well throughout, but the artistic and thematic calculations drive out much spontaneity and feeling. It also seems to me that the men in the movie are generally allowed a more complex and boisterous brand of angst than the more straightforwardly unfulfilled women – but then it is an Australian movie after all. Lantana’s finest point may be the ending – the solution to the central mystery is mundane enough to be authentically tragic.

Festival summary
As everyone says, it was two events. The movies were just as good in the second half, or just as bad, whatever, but a pinched, dutiful air settled over the whole thing.

I was waiting for a movie to start when I heard about New York. Someone a few rows back said the World Trade Center was gone, and the Pentagon too. It’s not that I disbelieved him exactly, but your concept of your world can only move so far based on one overheard fragment. Then someone else came in who was deeply upset, and I knew something real was happening. For all I knew it was the beginning of the end – I certainly considered it. But I thought – as long as the movie plays, things can’t be that bad. And I waited, and the movie did play, from beginning to end. Then I came out and went downtown, and there were no more movies that day.

This year I stuck to a very steady pace (three a day, pretty much every day) and kept healthy hours – I didn’t go to any screenings ending past 8.30 pm. Some movies I deeply wanted to see (Andre Techine’s Loin, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Millennium Mambo) couldn’t be accommodated by this structure, and they dropped by the wayside. I took more chances this year than I have the past few years, and on the whole they paid off. I wish I’d seen more movies that clearly belonged in the highest rank, but I was nearly always stimulated and intrigued.

My favourite films of the festival were all from Asia: What Time is it There, Pulse and Warm Water under a Red Bridge. Lovely and Amazing was probably the most memorable of the American films; The Pianist and L’Anglaise et le Duc the most memorable of the European ones. Last Wedding was the most memorable Canadian film I saw…well, I guess the only Canadian film I saw. Trouble Every Day put me to sleep, but may stand most to gain from a second viewing. Of the other 25 films I’ve written about, the ones with least to recommend them are probably Sex and Lucia, Heist, Warrior of Light, Birthday Girl and Innocent Fairies (I’m leaving aside the gala offerings Hearts in Atlantis and Training Day, which hardly seem like serious festival offerings at all). But then, I enjoyed watching even those films much more than not. So keep the articles, wait until the movies open (in the case of the foreign ones, pray that they do) and enjoy!