Friday, June 29, 2018

Cesar and Rosalie (Claude Sautet, 1972)

The title of Sautet’s film is a bit of a tease – the fairer title might seem to be “Cesar and Rosalie and David,” or even some other subgroup of the three. The chosen title prompts us to regard the relationship of Cesar and Rosalie as a normative benchmark and David as a threat, as such taking the viewpoint of Cesar – a self-made man overawed to have Rosalie as a partner, but not knowing how to express it except by aggressively filling every silence with his own voice and by relentlessly reciting how much money he spent on this and that (Yves Montand is just sensational in the role). David (Sami Frey) returns after five years in America, still pining for his old love, and through his youth and handsomeness and (as Cesar puts it) greater cool seeming to stand a chance of getting her back. Cesar rapidly succumbs to obsessiveness, and then to outright violence, but even as his actions threaten to push Rosalie away rather than secure her, his fraught interactions with David are actually becoming more meaningful to him, perhaps to both men. For a while, the film seems rather offputtingly dominated by Cesar and David, even to the point of underlying misogyny, but by the end Sautet has repositioned that impression to a degree that seems quietly radical (the movie stops short of any sexual implications between the two men, but then it’s mostly discreet about sexuality throughout). In the end, Rosalie is nothing more than pure image, observed from a distance, captured in a final freeze frame, making the point that perhaps that’s all she ever was, and that the apparent lack of attention to her inner life in the earlier stages wasn’t an oversight, but a quiet rebuke of our expectations of women in cinema, and beyond it. The fact that Rosalie is embodied by Romy Schneider, in all her mesmerizing reticence, dares us to see beyond the image, while simultaneously acknowledging we may not think to.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Fighting back

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 1999)

My place in the hierarchy of Toronto film critics doesn’t amount to much of anything, but even so I feel like resigning it in disgust after looking at what’s been written locally about the current film Fight Club. An excessive response on my part? Of course, but folly on this scale demands no less. It’s the edge-obsessed passivity of the reactions that’s so annoying. Malene Arpe in Eye: “A demented, funny and brutal exploration of manhood, Fight Club posits that irony, clever post-modern references and style for the sake of style suck – all the while employing those very devices liberally and to great effect.” Sounds to me like that ought to be setting up a condemnation of the film’s cynicism and hypocrisy, but instead it’s the start of a rave, five-star review. Cameron Bailey treads almost identical territory in Now: “The way (the film) tries to resolve (its) contradictions is so obviously weak that I have to imagine it means Fincher agrees to let them stand.” He cuts the movie another five stars worth of slack. Even the semi-mighty Rick Groen in The Globe and Mail goes along for the ride, noting that the film “inevitably degenerates into the very thing it derides – a saleable commodity” but deeming it an important work nonetheless.

Man’s fate

Fight Club is an ugly, incoherent piece of work that pushes its incoherence right up tight against your face until the thing virtually splatters into pieces, and then goes on pushing. The attention given to the film focuses mainly on the concept in the title: the notion of an underground club where men go at each other with bare fists, rediscovering their stifled identity through violence. Edward Norton plays a pathetic, directionless middle-manager who hooks up with Brad Pitt, a charismatic, self-driven, perpetually self-renewing rebel. Pitt’s reinvigoration of Norton, initially fairly benign, takes off when they discover the liberating impact of a tussle in a parking lot; as other men gather around them, the official fight club soon springs into life.

For some reason, most of the reviews of Fight Club seem to be written as though the film more or less ended there; had it done so, it would have been merely a shallow, forgettable, efficiently handled piece of glossy exploitation – certainly capable of prompting a discussion about the place of manhood in society, even if the film’s tangible contribution to that discussion is negligible. But there’s much more to come, as Pitt parlays his leadership of the fight club into the assembly of a fanatical fighting force: a dark-suited fascistic crack squad that worships him as a Messiah, and meticulously prepares for a revolution of sorts. And the plot turns out to have a Sixth-Sense-like “twist,” although one which leaves the movie looking like a partial retread of Fincher’s last work The Game, and which makes a mockery of most of what’s gone before (rather than, as in Sixth Sense, enhancing it). Long before the end, Fight Club has become tedious in that particularly barren, monotonous way that only a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza can manage.

Coddled in stuff

But what about this central thesis that (per Arpe’s synopsis) “contemporary man is emasculated by a society that offers him no outlet for aggression and no real purpose and instead coddles him in stuff?” Well, I doubt the notion has any merit. Who does this emasculating “society” consist of? Contemporary woman? (Fight Club has no insight on this side of the equation, having virtually no female roles other than a freakish, inaccessible Helena Bonham-Carter, and a briefly glimpsed dying cancer sufferer longing to get laid one last time). What is the “real purpose” that contemporary man lacks – and that, presumably, some pre-contemporary generation of man possessed? The honest trade of a dirt-poor farmer? Cannon fodder in the army of a feudal leader? Of course one can meaningfully talk about the emasculation that accompanies – for example – economic deprivation or systematic racism? But to suggest that a well-paid corporate up-and-comer like Norton has an even faintly legitimate interest in surrendering to violence is a careless, complacent brand of armchair anarchism. (Similarly, Bailey adopts a goofily pugilistic approach to writing his review: “What do you hate about your life? Who do you want to kill? What’s stopping you?”)

Along the way the film has some good lines, some imaginative individual scenes and ideas, and – whether intentionally or not – some intriguing echoes of other, better movies. But Norton gives his least interesting performance to date, and Pitt’s work merely confirms that he’s only at all worth watching when playing ghosts or weirdos. Obviously  the whole thing rubbed me the wrong way. It would be pointless (and hypocritical on my own part) to insist that filmmakers must practice what they preach, but I find something particularly galling about the way Fight Club relentlessly lectures the audience. Ikea, for instance, is constantly attacked as a symbol of the pernicious consumerism in question, but I see no significant way in which a multi-million dollar, intensively-marketed, string-pulling Hollywood movie has a moral upper hand over such products.

It’s all crap

As I write that, I can already hear the film’s defenders protesting: well, that’s one of the points, that’s part of the self-reflective irony. Which is the sort of application of irony that makes you want to jump on the Jedediah Purdy wagon. If any criticism of Fight Club can be absorbed by positing that the film anticipates and provides for them, then that seems to me like the ultimate proof of its self-regarding vacuousness. What kind of achievement would that be, anyway, once you get past Philosophy for Dummies – to have grandiosely undermined everything we think we know (or everything, that is, except the manipulability of the audience, in which the film most assuredly does believe)? Shouldn’t a five-star movie have a better message than (approximately): it’s all crap?

Is the film, as some have charged, irresponsible? Arpe considers it “sure to inspire dimwits to copy what’s going on onscreen” (the rest of contemporary man – you know, the portion that aren’t dimwits but nevertheless are emasculated with no real purpose – will presumably have to go on suffering). But I suggest that the film, for all its insistent immediacy, is stifled by its hysterical virtuosity – that even dimwits will be repelled by the weight of the calculation. Having been pummeled to the limits of endurance by the movie itself, few will be inclined to experiment further. “It’s an open text,” raves Bailey. “An open wound. It’s bleeding.” And so, for the lack of a Band-Aid, two hours were lost.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Domino Principle (Stanley Kramer, 1977)

In its two unsubtle references to Franz Kafka, Stanley Kramer’s The Domino Principle seemingly means to impress on us the immensity of what its protagonist finds himself within – a network of such reach and influence and connection that any attempt at defiance or assertion of free will is doomed to failure. But the effect, if anything, would be instead to point out the relative artistic blandness of Kramer’s film; how the character’s dilemma largely fails to illuminate anything meaningful about power and connection, or about our own natures, at least not in the way it intends to. Gene Hackman plays Tucker, languishing in prison with at least fifteen years left on his murder sentence; the unnamed organization, fronted by Richard Widmark’s Tagge, offers him freedom, a well-funded new identity, and a resurrected relationship with his wife (Candice Bergen), all in return for unspecified services to be performed later (given that the movie starts off by flashing the term “Assassination” on the screen in several languages, the services will be obvious to the viewer at least). It might seem like a simple narrative weakness that of all the available stooges in all the country’s prisons, the organization chose in Tucker just about the most contrary, uncooperative subject imaginable. On the other hand, that points to the most intriguing sub-textual question – if these guys (they’re mostly although not exclusively guys) are so powerful, shouldn’t their control on things be tighter, removing the need for such expensive, drawn-out convolutions? In this sense the movie resonates against incomprehensible contemporary theories of the “deep state” and the like, which mainly serve as rather plaintive assertions of (if not disguised wishes for) dark underlying order, even as all the evidence only suggests we’re being dragged into increasing global chaos and erosion. Kramer’s direction is perhaps a little more fluid than his sticky reputation suggests, leaving aside the thumping quasi-sermon at the start, but given such fanciful underpinnings it’s all doomed from the first narrative domino.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Pnantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel, 1974)

Luis Bunuel’s late run of films is one of my favourite streaks by any filmmaker – I don't know that anyone else ever achieved such sustained, unmediated self-expression, marked by such unfussy cinematic elegance. The Phantom of Liberty is a consistent astonishment, fundamentally a loosely-linked collection of sketches, all of which challenge some aspect of convention or perception – in its most famous bit, the guests at a dinner party sit on lavatories around the table and discreetly absent themselves to eat in private. Its sequences subtly vary in their relationship to reality: in some cases providing a relatively simple reversal of expectations (the “dirty pictures” revealed as mere tourist postcards); in others savagely firing at religious sanctimony (monks who embrace booze, smokes and poker but recoil from sexual display); in others suggesting a mass breakdown in perception (a little girl who everyone counts as disappeared, even as they acknowledge her continuing presence); an episode involving a call from a dead sister gives the dislocation a psychic dimension. The film belongs securely to the living rooms and fancy offices of the bourgeoisie, except that suddenly Bunuel shows us a mass shooter gunning down random victims, and we’re dropped into real streets and markets and cafes, into real disruption (of a kind of course that doesn’t seem dated at all), and it’s clear how the film isn’t just a semi-affectionate ribbing, but rather a suggestion of a malaise spreading out from the establishment, a toxic discharge from so much self-absorption and self-congratulation and under-examined reliance on hypocritical moral precepts, of a kind that brings us down whether we know it or not (the film’s most pointed political dialogue actually addresses the environmental consequences of increasing population). Phantom doesn’t feel revolutionary or anarchic – it’s too comfortable with its settings and people for that – but it’s never complacent, wondrously ventilated by Bunuel’s timeless assurance.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Grasping at ashes

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2000)

If any movie ever pushes me into giving up on cinema, it might well be something like Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes. While watching it, I was so miserable that I seriously considered walking out – which, if you knew how stubborn I am in these matters, is like Preston Manning saying he’s thinking about switching to the Liberals. I didn’t even walk out of Parker’s last film Evita, even though I swear the thing took five years off my life.

Parker has made some of the most vacuously overblown films of the age, as well as a few moderately intelligent works which were filmed so as to appear vacuous and overblown. My favourite of the bunch is probably Shoot the Moon, a story of a failing marriage where – if memory serves – the ranting and raving somehow coalesces into a raw, chilling picture of emotions on the edge. Parker himself seems, from studying all the evidence, like a bull-headed loudmouth. One of the joys of cinema comes in fancying that you can feel your way through the screen into the soul of the director; avuncular Robert Altman beaming his way through Cookie’s Fortune; Paul Thomas Anderson hurling Magnolia into an inspired frenzy. Try that kind of thing with a Parker film and your head feels like burnt pizza.

Stopping the shouting

But Angela’s Ashes marks a change – according to a recent Globe and Mail profile, it’s conceived as a quieter film. “I think maybe I felt before that no one would listen,” says Parker, “if I said something in an understated way. Now I have the courage to know that sometimes the more understated a scene is, the more powerful it can be. You don’t have to shout all the time to be effective.”

But here’s the crazy equation – Alan Parker minus shouting all the time equals a big empty space. The new film is entirely inert – dramatically and thematically and artistically negligible. It has no ideas. One thing follows another. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. People get older. Three Hail Mary’s here, a pint of Guinness there. Whatever. It’s as boring as hell. Which could be a compliment if it meant the film were stoically and faithfully transcribing the painful barrenness of a disadvantaged childhood. But that’s not how I meant it.

It’s based, of course, on the best-selling memoir by Frank McCourt, who grew up in abject poverty in Ireland, then emigrated to the States and worked as a teacher until achieving literary fame late in life. I haven’t read the book, but I’m told the film is a faithful adaptation, at least in the sense that it preserves the structure and key incidents. The father can’t hold a job; drinks away the family’s meager income; eventually abandons them altogether. The mother struggles to feed and clothe her children. The kids do the best they can.

Well, here’s the thing – so what? That personal history, in itself, is utterly unexceptional, and the telling of it might amount to no more than a Greatest Hits of Misery and Suffering (with, of course, occasional light relief indicative of the possibilities of the indomitable human spirit). But the book had McCourt’s narrative voice, which struck people as being warm and moving and artistically vibrant. Even though the Toronto Star recently had a story about how he’s been boring people with this stuff for years. “Stop whining,” said his wife allegedly, “I’ve heard enough about you and your miserable childhood.”

Designer poverty

The book presumably rose above that, but it’s exactly the kind of review the film deserves. Scene after scene passes, lit with uniform steely grayness, each as carefully composed as the last. The Globe and Mail reports that “Parker knew there was a danger of falling into presenting what he calls ‘designer poverty.’” It’s a trap the writer of the article implicitly seems to view as having been avoided, regardless that he praises the film as “beautifully photographed.” Am I missing something in thinking that a film about poverty and suffering ought not to be beautifully photographed? Did Parker even seriously try not to fall into the “designer poverty” trap?

When my wife was reading the book, she was especially moved by the vivid evocations of hunger. The key passages are in the movie, but not in a way that will cause you a moment’s disquietude as you munch on your popcorn. Through his inability to abandon middle-brow notions of quality filmmaking or to get in close and dirty, Parker lets everything get away from him. Regardless that it may be based on truth, the film seems more and more like fiction as it crawls on – especially in the final scenes, where Frank almost miraculously comes by the money he needs to finance his passage to America.

Of all recent films, this is the one that least needed to be made. If the book’s that good, who needs the movie? How could it not have failed? And it certainly doesn’t fill any detectable hole in cinema history. Elia Kazan’s America America was a far more evocative account of the immigrant dream and its price. Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy is but one of dozens of movies that deal with Irish childhoods, or Catholicism, or childhoods in poverty, or absent fathers, or all four.

The idiot’s game

All in all, it’s a deadly boring experience. And I suppose it’s just the mood I was in, but it seemed close to a back-breaking straw. You go and see what’s alleged to be literate Hollywood cinema – Snow falling on Cedars, The Hurricane. Angela’s Ashes – and just get hit with turgid, self-important crap time and time again. Man, it’s depressing. I don’t want to end up a mainstream-spurning elitist who watches nothing but Iranian movies at the Cinematheque because, well, for one thing this column would suck. And beyond that, I want to enjoy the thrill of new openings, to succumb occasionally to the hype and the marketing and even to the star-gazing and the Oscar buzz. But it’s really an idiot’s game.

You need to clear your head afterwards. The film I watched after Angela’s Ashes was the 70’s exploitation flick Foxy Brown, starring Pam Grier, which I taped from Moviepix for what I would claim were historical reasons. And it’s awful – cheesy, poorly written and acted, clumsy, whatever you want to say about it – but I would argue vehemently that it’s a better film than Angela’s Ashes by any measure that counts. At least it lives and breathes and captures something of its time. And in terms of entertainment value, of course, it’s a complete no-contest. So watch Foxy Brown, or rent a porno video.

Or – and I admit this seems a bit radical to me – you could read the book.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Blue Collar (Paul Schrader, 1978)

Blue Collar, Paul Schrader’s first film, might not be easily identifiable as a Schrader film if you didn't know: for long stretches of time it almost feels like something arising organically from the factories and the surrounding community, particularly from the male workers who navigate between profane self-assertion and constant losing-battle economic anxiety. This doesn’t mean it feels like documentary – it increasingly submits to the mechanics of the plot and to the journey toward its final cinema-fist freeze-frame – but much of the movie carries an enormous feeling of ease and almost unmediated expression, with all three lead actors as fine as they’ve ever been. The film explores the complex equilibrium of the worker – at once proud of the union and what it represents but mostly contemptuous of the specific individuals who embody it; adhering to a traditional role as head of household while constantly on the lookout to subvert it with drugs and available women; sensitive to criticism and accusations of fallibility while constantly aware of their circumscribed place in the system. It’s a gripping film from beginning to end, but inevitably now it’s the sociological aspect that holds sway, given the subsequent decline of such labour-heavy production methods, and its consequences for the kind of worldview and social infrastructure Schrader explores. The film’s treatment of race is also notable: the film’s protagonists - two black and one white – are joined by what they have in common without being suspicious of what they don’t, until their unity poses a threat to the system, and so must be not just broken, but converted into active hatred. That ending freeze-frame isn’t subtle, but watching the movie now, it’s like a portal to the toxic present, in which such communities are plundered for easy votes, with never a shred of economic concession or compassion given in return.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Arrival of Joachim Stiller (Harry Kumel, 1976)

It's only in its final moments that Harry Kumel’s The Arrival of Joachim Stiller resembles an explicit parallel of Christianity, and it’s a measure of the film’s scope that this represents one of the more modest potential destinations. The film’s protagonist, Freek Groenevelt, starts to observe strange events, many of them linked in some way by that name “Joachim Stiller” – the unseen Stiller starts to assert himself as an explicit presence in the life of Freek and others, for example in letters arriving correctly addressed despite having been mailed decades earlier. Over the course of its two and a half hours, the film sometimes seems to be building the kind of myth that in contemporary Hollywood hands would yield a portal to hell surrounded by swirling CGI demons; at other times though “Stiller” seems more like an abstract expression of all that’s unresolved in our personal or collective pasts, or else like mere mischief-making, some kind of local in-joke. The film’s closely-observed Antwerp setting is certainly a major part of its appeal – we spend so much time observing the city’s trams and streets and cathedral that you wonder if Stiller doesn’t work for the local tourist bureau. But equally as important are the copious narrative strands and throwaway scenes that in terms of their strict contribution to the resolution seem to be neither here nor there, in particular a bawdy extended subplot about a near-feral local graffiti artist and the unprincipled entrepreneur who sets out to profit from his work: as in the Hitchcockian opposition between suspense and surprise, you get the sense that the film’s scheme depends as much on what doesn’t happen, or on what can’t be rationalized or justified, as on what does and can. For all its considerable eccentricity then, the film stands as a more intriguing and rewarding exploration of personal and spiritual striving than a more devout or linear work would likely be.