Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Best of 1997

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 1998)

I hope to indulge in the popular critics’ tradition of selecting my favourite ten films of 1997 (actually twelve, due to some subtle cheating). These come in the order I saw them, although Les voleurs is artistically as well as chronologically first. Apologies to any masterpieces released in the last two weeks of the year.

In a better year I might have hoped for some of the items on this list to be in my “Ten second-best” list rather than in the highest echelon. There was certainly a lack of overall knock-down slam-dunk masterpieces. Even the movies I liked tended to have fairly extensive flaws, and for that reason (out of fear that I’d make those flaws sound more significant than they are, putting people off from going to see them), I steered away from writing about some of them. Still, I’ll watch any of these again any time.

Les voleurs Belgian director Andre Techine is presently making wonderful movies. They’re highly involving as narratives, and yet they’re almost wantonly complex and provocative. The title of this year’s movie (“Thieves”) clues us in perfectly to the prevailing scheme – the array of “steals” across sexual, cultural and professional boundaries (professor Catherine Deneuve having an affair with cop Daniel Auteuil, who’s having an affair with a crook): it’s a quietly anarchic, intellectually thrilling view of human involvement.

Blood and Wine My favourite thriller of the year (an authentic spine-tingler), this film also works as a cynical examination of modern-day family and communality. The violence in this movie is a convincing expression of bitter characters driven by strong antipathies and desires. Every scene has old-fashioned, meaty behavioural resonance; Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine are in their best form for ages.

Everyone Says I Love You/Deconstructing Harry This Woody Allen double bill shows why he’s still a vitally important filmmaker. The first, a musical, has a classical, utterly captivating (if deliberately over-generic) grasp of what the genre should be. The second movie is an almost unbearably vicious self-examination in which Allen virtually invites us to find him repelling. Even if I hadn’t enjoyed these two as much, Allen’s prolific body of work would still add up to one of the most fascinating (and nowadays perhaps underrated) meditations on character, truth and fiction in the modern cinema.

The Daytrippers This movie is about a family that maintains an amiable screwball-comedy wackiness, as long as it remains in its natural suburban habitat. Then it travels into the big city and quickly succumbs to strain and fracture, which is an appealing metaphor for the complexity that families so often avoid. Parker Posey gives the best performance – vibrant, alive, giving wonderful line readings at every stage. But the cast is really a miracle of good direction. Daytrippers gave me some of my biggest laughs of the year.

Brassed Off This exceptionally effective picture elicited as much audience applause as any commercial movie I’ve ever seen, and had me choking up all the way, through the evocative power of music, blue-collar muck-raking and heart-plucking, and some authentically bleak worldviews in which even a fleeting, symbolic victory seems like a gift from God. The movie is the best kind of old-fashioned proletarian filmmaking in that it’s rooted in a recognizable, just slightly idealized, community of insular, battered idiosyncrasy.

Where is the Friend’s House?/And Life Goes On Two separate movies set in presumably remotest Iran, but for those of us who discovered director Abbas Kiarostami for the first time this year (courtesy of the Carlton Cinema’s brilliant programming), one sublime experience. Both films are thrilling illustrations of universal human concerns conveyed patiently through staggering visual images, quirky ideas about the nature of cinematic art, and even comedy, in the midst of highly unpromising circumstances. (I thought less of Kiarostami’s newest film, A Taste of Cherry, but a defender of the movie wiped the floor with me in an email argument on the subject, so maybe that should be up there too).

L.A. Confidential This movie takes some utterly familiar genre mechanics and fills them with knowing vigour and pep. As unselfconscious and nimble as a great movie could be, one sometimes wonders if director Curtis Hanson (whose previous career indicated no possibility of such an achievement) could possibly have made it by accident. At the time of writing, this is my tip as next year’s Oscar winner.

Irma Vep Shown only four times at the Cinematheque Ontario, this French film by Olivier Assayas evokes a pure joy in the myth and substance of cinema. It’s so light and unforced, so deceptively frivolous, and the structure (if any) is so cleverly obscure and elusive that the movie calls out to be underrated. But it’s also a serious investigation into the creative process, and closes with the single most mesmerizing sequence of the year – evoking a cinema that’s both regressively simpler and purer, yet as forward-looking as science fiction.

Underground The 1995 Cannes winner, belatedly released here, lives up to its reputation as a daring, boisterous epic overflowing with messy imagination. It’s frequently sentimental, grandiose, or even silly. But no other picture this year had such passionate ambition (second place in the “sheer audacity” subcategory goes to Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book – an intricate film of images within images that dazzled me with the sheer concentrated strenuousness of its design, even if I was often puzzled as to the point of it all).

One Night Stand A bit of a problematic choice, but I found parts of this movie as spellbinding as anything that turned up on the screen this year. Director Mike Figgis shoots in an allusive, sensitive style that (with the help of varied casting, well-chosen symbolism and a beguiling jazz score) achieves a deeply-satisfying, universal look into emotions in motion. At the time I thought the ending almost ruined the movie, but in retrospect I’ve decided it’s a fitting sign of Figgis’ openness to innovation and alternative directions.

And the best Canadian movie (and my 11th favourite of the year) was The Sweet Hereafter.

Since I’m under no compulsion to pay for movies that don’t appeal to me, I doubt very much that I saw the worst movie of the year. Of those I did see, Evita probably constituted the most painful experience. This seems by and large to have been one of those love-it-or-hate-it movies. For me, the high-decibel incoherence and bombastic self-importance slowed down time so effectively that I swear I could have fitted my entire summer vacation into the time Madonna took to sing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Maybe it’s largely in reaction to this ridiculous attempt at a musical that I rated the Woody Allen movie so highly.

Thank you to all the readers of this column. I hope you had a great Christmas and will be back reading this column in 1998.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Canterbury Tales (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1972)

The last scene of Pasolini’s wondrous Canterbury Tales emphasizes the narrative as an end in itself – “here end the Canterbury tales, told only for the pleasure of telling them” – and this reflects the film’s sense of joyous tumble, one narrative often almost subliminally moving into another. But there’s also something relentless about it, a feeling of people lacking in any real agency over themselves, as puppets of their own desires, as tools of those whose desires are stronger than their own, of the corrupt authorities, of the angels and devils which the film occasionally depicts as walking among the living. There’s carnal overdrive and naturalistic nudity galore, and of course the film carries an erotic charge, but one that leads time and again to humiliation, misery, betrayal, pain, or death, and ultimately even beyond that, to one of the most tangible visions of hell ever put on film. The film is a triumph not so much of casting in the usual sense, but of human placement – an astonishing canvas of flesh and faces, suggesting people torn directly from the Medieval earth (the matchless English-language soundtrack, if you choose that option, adds considerably to this sense, when not evoking Monty Python, not that I’m saying that’s a bad thing); and whether or not the various settings are historically accurate, they likewise feel discovered rather than created. At the same time, there’s no doubt we’re watching a work of extreme stylization, and not just in the episode that happily channels Charlie Chaplin; characters generally seem to be addressing the camera, or the void beyond it, more than each other. Which leads back to the movie’s sense of desperation, that few of its possessed characters expects more from their compulsive screwing than the most fleeting of releases. The classification of the film as part of a “trilogy of life” seems, to say the least, ironic.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer, 1981)

Viewed today, Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way seems even more clearly an expression of America’s divisions and fractures: sleek images of privilege clash with outbursts of paranoia, dark fantasy and instability – the film’s evasive mastery lies in the frequent difficulty of determining the dividing lines. Jeff Bridges’ Richard Bone witnesses the late-night dumping of a murdered woman, and thinks the murderer may be a wealthy oil mogul; his friend Alex Cutter hatches a plan to tease out a confession by threatening blackmail; Cutter’s wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) keeps much of her thoughts and her sadness to herself behind a fixed but fragile smile. John Heard’s Cutter is a singular creation – an eye, arm and leg lost in Vietnam, he seems initially like a wildly provocative, undisciplined drunk, but it becomes clear that there’s some methodical artifice to this madness, even if the only rational outcome of it is self-obliteration. The film hints at past entanglements, crimes and lost possibilities, suggesting that the outrage of Vietnam was only the most visible manifestation of the mess at home. And the outstanding ending delivers an emblematic charging toward justice on a white horse, foretold early in the film, but accompanied by pervasive confusion of a precisely plotted kind only achievable through immaculate creative clarity. When the mogul is finally directly confronted, there’s a direct line from his chilling response - “What if I did?” - to (say) assertions about one’s ability to stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and kill someone without losing voters; the stage is larger, but the challenge to stability and morality (or what's still intact of both) is the same. The main difference, beyond even what the film foresaw, is that our own rampaging mogul would hijack so much of Cutter’s self-justifying paranoia, without any of its moral purpose.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Far from home

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 1997)

After watching Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? at the Carlton cinema the other day, I was walking down Victoria Street, casually looking around, when I suddenly saw a topless woman standing in a second or third floor window. I guess she was aware I’d noticed her because she then held up a big sign. I was too far away to read what it said, so I kept going. Maybe I was looking into the back of one of the Yonge Street strip joints and it was some kind of a marketing strategy. Maybe it was a political statement. Maybe she was insane. Who knows?

As I walked on, I started thinking how that 10-second scene might seem if it were presented in a movie. If I were a character in an Antonioni-like exploration of longing and alienation, the moment might drive home the distanced, passionless emptiness of my existence. If I were in a Taxi Driver – like rage against the modern world, it might underscore the sleaze and immorality I think I see all around me. If I were part of a documentary about the liberation of women, the scene might speak solely about her; her self-determination over her own body.

And of course, the interpretation would be influenced further by the way the scene was shot and edited. For example, would the camera remain at a discreet distance or would it zoom lasciviously toward her? The scene would also be influenced by the preconceptions of viewers. After all, no one is entirely neutral about topless women.

This little incident could hardly be less directly relevant to what lies in store for the viewer of Where is the Friend’s Home? But my train of thought reminded me that even for Western cinema, with its generally familiar styles and settings and subjects, any claims by the viewer to have identified a film’s “truth,” to have hit on an objectively verifiable interpretation of what’s being provided, is highly problematic.

How then should we trust our reactions to a 10-year-old Iranian movie? The plot is virtually all in the title – a small boy looks for his friend to return the school notebook he’s accidentally taken; the film is populated by people whose sense of their lives is far removed from ours – its rhythms are slow and not apparently designed for the viewer’s easy gratification. Beyond giving it a superficial thumbs-up for showing us a different “window on the world,” can the unprepared Western viewer do any justice to this picture?

When I saw the movie about twenty percent of the audience (three out of fifteen people) left before the end – that seems to happen with every other movie I see nowadays though. But I was more interested in the reactions of two women sitting in front of me who laughed and giggled (not dismissively but with real appreciation) through many of the scenes. I’m not sure I would have thought of it otherwise, but the movie’s simplicity and naturalism often do generate an effect similar to that of deadpan comedy. The boy’s single-mindedness, and the generally disinterested reactions of the people he meets in the course of his search, conjure up a sense of stoic perseverance arguably not dissimilar to that of a Blake Edwards picture.

There’s a scene in which the boy initially tries to persuade his mother to let him return the notebook: he keeps harassing her and she keeps telling him to go and do his homework, and their back-and-forth exchange is repeated to such an extreme that you almost start laughing from exhaustion. Similarly, when the boy’s grandfather reminisces about how as a child his own father would every week give him a penny to spend and a beating to teach him discipline, and “he sometimes forgot the penny but he never forgot the beating” – his unsentimental countenance generates an ambience of long-suffering black comedy. But is it meant to be funny? I don’t know.

It’s not that important of course what the movie means to do. Movies must expect that viewers take them as they find them. In this respect, you couldn’t find a much better lesson in the universal power of cinema as storytelling. By Western standards the movie’s premise probably seems ridiculously slight, but in the opening scene we’ve seen the teacher threaten the deprived child with no less than expulsion if he comes to school again with his homework written on anything other than the pages of the notebook in question. The seriousness of the situation is all in the faces of the children. Kiarostami gives us plenty of time to study those faces, and in a way their sincerity and simplicity are just what a Western viewer needs – we might not understand the culture, but we understand the uncomplicated impulses of a child, and as strangers are able to trust the child to lead us on the journey. Which might be harder to do with, say, an Olsen twins movie.

If I were less cautious, I might state that there’s nothing in the movie about Iranian politics or – on a macro level – society, and that the whole thing is essentially minor. But how do I really know that? The comments I quoted from the grandfather are made in the context of berating his grandson’s relative lack of discipline and control. We’re likely to read that as a comment on the impulsiveness of a child, but who knows where subtle rebellion lurks or deeper irony lies? I won’t attempt to gauge how much Kiarostami’s work is worth as a specifically Iranian film. But it’s a film the world as a whole can be proud to own.

A few weeks ago, in some comment triggered by a recent description of the radio show Morningside as “the glue of the land,” I dismissively wrote that “real cohesion is based in shared need, not in shared recipes or suchlike.” My friend Walter Ross has taken me to task on this. He informed me that recipes can be a great force for national glue, and in that vein presented me with a recipe for “very good marmalade,” copied out in his best handwriting. To win me over further, the instructions provide time to take in no less than three movies. I shall frame this recipe to remind me of the importance of small things. To Walter, thank you and good luck, and to Lucien Bouchard, expect to receive a year’s supply of marmalade before the end of the week.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Leo the Last (John Boorman, 1970)

John Boorman’s Leo the Last is at once a parable (of the rich man who seeks to give away his wealth to the poor), an attempt to bottle the revolutionary spirit of its times, and an exercise in grand provocation, insisting on itself as art (to the extent of unseen commentators wondering out loud what kind of movie we’re watching) but often feeling as much like a semi-improvised accident. Marcello Mastroianni plays an exiled European prince, moving after his father’s death into a mansion at the head of a London cul-de-sac, surrounded by a staff of manipulative sycophants; working-class slums stretching on either side, largely occupied by immigrants, otherwise by rapists and prostitutes. The class divide is strictly observed by all, until the unfulfilled Leo starts to fill his days by voyeuristically watching the world outside, first becoming fascinated with it as narrative, then as an opportunity for personal action and meaning. Boorman’s simplistic juxtapositions skirt offensiveness at times: take his cut from the poor black family congregated around a (stolen) chicken as it's lowered into a pot, to the tooth-bared, face-smeared meat-gorging at a gathering of the oblivious toffs (which, of course, later evolves/devolves into an orgy). But he also digs deep into the community, finding camaraderie and song and belief, rooted in shared experience, to which Leo can never be more than a visitor. In the end, the mini-revolution over, it seems Leo's happy with the change he’s achieved, even if there’s little pretense that its impact can be more far-reaching than, well, the impact of a film as whimsical as this one. Despite its extreme otherness, the film is actually among the more sociologically grounded of Boorman films (when not in thrall to stereotypes), but nothing in it has the force of real diagnosis, or of lasting myth.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Night Visitor (Laslo Benedek, 1971)

Laslo Benedek’s The Night Visitor is quite effective on its own chilly terms, ingeniously reconciling two contradictory premises: we’ve seen Max von Sydow’s Salem running in his underwear through the nighttime snow, presumably the cause of the two dead bodies that show up in the film’s first twenty minutes; and yet it’s entirely clear that he’s locked inside his cell, inside an Alcatraz-like asylum (if Alcatraz was on land). The physical demands made on von Sydow in bridging these competing realities are considerable – I’ve seldom seen an actor appear to be so authentically freezing his ass off. The plot turns on various propositions of madness, investigated by a police detective played by Trevor Howard: whether von Sydow was correctly judged insane in the past, whether his detested brother-in-law might be insane in the present - the filmmakers surely meant such heavy themes, enacted within Scandinavian landscapes with the presence of both von Sydow (a chess player here again) and Liv Ullmann to evoke the spirit of Bergman (in 1971 about as mighty a spirit as there was). But for the most part it’s all much too enjoyably literal-minded and briskly calculated for that to be meaningful. Among the more Bergman-like elements are the displaced conception of the setting (the Volkswagens and phones indicate it’s set in the present, but that aside it might almost be taking place at a time of beaten-down workers toiling in the shadow of a towering castle) and the troubling stoicism with which the film’s people seem to adjust to the arrival of death, no matter how unforeseen or savage. But ultimately, whereas (say) the title of Bergman’s The Silence denoted a definitional existential conflict, the Night Visitor really is just a man with an ingenious revenge plan, too occupied with its logistics to bear much thematic or symbolic weight, and that’s without considering the contribution of the parrot.