Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Comes a Horseman (Alan Pakula, 1978)

A viewer who nowadays seeks out Alan Pakula’s Comes a Horseman will probably already be familiar with the director’s core achievement, his 70’s “paranoia trilogy.” For much of the way, Comes a Horseman may seem like an archetypally conscious “change of pace” – a slowly-paced Western, defined by big skies and vanishing plains, with a conniving cattle baron facing off against a hard-headed up-against-it woman who refuses to give up her land, eventually joined by a like-minded cowboy. The film’s enjoyable enough in that mode, but its primary interest lies in the home stretch, as its thematic links with Pakula’s other works come into focus. It takes place toward the end of WW2, and local interests are already looking ahead to a new economic era, where the imperative of fueling and feeding the troops will yield to domestic development, and the energy that powers it will reign supreme. For all his displays of power (his man-cave of a ranch is the film’s sole imposing interior), the baron (Jason Robards) is in the pocket of the bank, and ultimately impotent to stop the exploratory drilling on his property; rather than capitulate and compromise his sense of himself, he chooses nihilistic, ultimately crazed, resistance. Although the two protagonists (Jane Fonda and James Caan, both at their most quiet and recessive) have a climactic moment of heroism, and a symbolic rebirth in flames, it’s clear they’re only participating in one atypical strand of a revolution that will transform America. Gordon Willis’ cinematography eloquently embodies the duality, painting vistas of a scale and handsomeness that demand respectful submission, while darkly insinuating the looming threat from beyond the frame. A few years later, Pakula would cast Fonda at the centre of a worldwide financial meltdown in Rollover, a film more predictively and analytically ambitious than Comes a Horseman, and yet, for all its underappreciated near-greatness, more dated as a result.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Maine Ocean (Jacques Rozier, 1986)

Jacques Rozier’s Maine Ocean often has a rowdy, expansive feel to it, with outsized characterizations and confrontations (in this sense it’s far removed from his earlier Du cote d’Orouet) – the narrative expands from an initial fracas on a train between two women (one of them an errant Brazilian samba dancer) and the fare inspectors, moving on from some of the characters but later returning to them: it feels like the movie wants to scoop up everyone it touches and to forge an all-accommodating unity. This leads to its joyous peak on the island of Yeu, off the Vendee coast, where the characters eventually dissolve their differences and devote themselves to music making and performance, a creative process we observe evolving note by note. The movie then flirts for a while with a bizarre resulting notion, that one of the fare inspectors might be discovered by an American promoter as the “next Chevalier,” before swerving dramatically and leaving him abandoned by all the others, devoting its last twenty minutes or so simply to charting his journey back to the mainland, involving several changes of boats and much agonizing about the low tide: the stuffy imposer of rules and order finds himself stripped of almost all context, literally and figuratively searching for a way back to the shore. By then we may almost have forgotten an odd digression earlier on, where the other woman, a lawyer, chooses to defend a client by launching into a disquisition on different modes of language and their social baggage, which links to how Rozier initially emphasizes the theme of miscommunication – in the end, the fragmentation reasserts itself in a different, elemental form. The film’s shifting modes of transport – from land to air to sea – reflect its remarkable, wildly unpredictable encompassing of everything from communal goofiness to last-man-in-the-world-tinged solitude.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Hustle (Robert Aldrich, 1975)

Robert Aldrich’s 1975 film Hustle is a melancholy reading of its era’s confusions, of a time when restrictive norms and values are loosening, but it’s not yet clear what they’ll be replaced with. Burt Reynolds’ protagonist, police Phil Gaines, affects the necessarily hard-bitten manner while persistently musing of escape, into old movies and songs and expectations and into his memories of the brief time he spent in Rome; he’s modern enough to sustain a relationship with a high-class prostitute (Catherine Deneuve, inherently shimmering with resonances of multiple elsewheres) but not to avoid agonizing about it. The main plot follows a young woman who turns up dead on a beach: it’s ruled a suicide, but her agonized father (Ben Johnson) obsesses with piercing and punishing the hedonistic society she moved in: an impossible task given its connections and protections and the lack of any direct culpability. The film is heavy with the contradictions of its period: it’s suffused in casual racism and homophobia and sexism (the only major female character who isn’t a sex worker, the dead girl’s quiet, unremarkable mother, is saddled late on with a personal history that the film holds out as the reason for the daughter’s self-destructive life choices), and its aspirations to morose complexity often register just as much as artistic indecision or weariness. Reynolds’ customary reserve inhibits the sense of his character’s morality, and there’s often a sense that Aldrich was too overawed by Deneuve to do more than stare at her. In the end the film swerves into moral tennis: Gaines hits a lob through his duties for the sake of his own calculation of fairness, and receives a return punishment in short order in senselessly random manner. These narrative moves don’t really serve the film’s highest ambitions, but then that’s part of the point, that unless you’re a fine-suited “somebody,” the short-term demands of the hustle will always push those ambitions into compromise or surrender.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Histoires d’Amerique: Food, Family and Philosophy (Chantal Akerman, 1988)

The title of Chantal Akerman’s Histoires d’Amerique: Food, Family and Philosophy points at the film’s duality – a promise of conviviality, served up by an outsider. The film isn’t conventionally warm - the camera serves throughout as a fixed, direct spectator – but Akerman’s humanism prevents it from morbidity or oppressiveness. For the most part, the film consists of direct-to-camera English-language testimonies from American Jews: they’re not identified by name or period, but appear to belong at least primarily to the 40s and 50s, to lives recently brutalized by relatives lost in the camps or otherwise separated by exile, and before that by progroms and upheavals: even when the stories are primarily accounts of happiness and success, they always incorporate lurking shadow, the impossibility of ever traveling entirely into the light. Akerman intersperses these with humour of the “the food here is terrible and such small portions” variety – the often-mournful quality of the punchlines all the more plaintive for the surrounding figurative darkness. Not just that: Akerman frames her participants (actors doesn’t seem like the right word somehow) against urban nightscapes, only yielding to hazy daylight in the final scenes, as the film starts to play with its own artifice, bringing its people together and reshuffling their assigned identities. For the most part though, it's suffused in profound loneliness even as it illustrates the power of community – it examines memory both in its glory and its burden. One of the closing testimonies, by a young man preparing to kill himself, is additionally chilling now for the knowledge of how Akerman ended her own life, after a last film – No Home Movie – which while being closely aligned to this one, sheds its elaborations and mannerisms. It gives Histoires d’Amerique an eerie quality of premonition, as if to finally confirm its recurring sense of how events may become hopeless, even if not entirely serious.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Moral edges

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 1999)

The new Nicolas Cage thriller 8 MM would be a disappointment, if it wasn’t directed by Joel Schumacher, who always works to this kind of standard. Cage plays a private detective, hired by a wealthy widow to investigate the authenticity of an apparent snuff film found among her late husband’s possessions. The trail leads him deep into the porn subcultures of L.A. and New York, constituting a wrenching lesson in the extent of the human dark side, and eventually putting him in severe physical and psychological danger.

Our lives with porn

I think most of us would have to concede the fascination of this theme. Even though we might lead lives apparently untouched by prostitution, drug-dealing, bondage, or any of the stuff that low-life dreams are made of, the reported magnitude of the industry ($300 million annually in Canada, according to a recent Globe and Mail article) seems to render it impossible that we’re not closer to it than we think. If I am not lying through my teeth about always walking by those stores and avoiding those street corners, then certainly one of the guys in the next few offices has to be. But movies like 8 MM, figuratively erect with melodramatic frenzy, treat pornography like a journey into science-fiction, winking with cynical calculation at the hush-hush hypocrisy. The fact is, the movie has virtually no potential audience except porn enthusiasts (who, given its box office failure, seem to have decided it’s no substitute for the real thing).

Is society’s silence necessary? It’s difficult nowadays to gauge the shape of the moral consensus, but yeah, it probably is. Many commentators in the States were obviously unprepared for the extent of public tolerance for Bill Clinton’s after-hours activities, and Clinton even seems to have come out of it all with a measure of dignity. People just didn’t seem to deem it that relevant to his job. But what if the revelations had been of regular Presidential visits to an underground dungeon, for a cleansing round of chains and whips? The jokes would be even more plentiful, but wouldn’t a hunger for domination and pain be considered far more damning to his leadership capability than his weakness for Lewinsky’s more submissive attentions? It’s a patriarchal society after all.

Dancing with the devil

8 MM clearly means to explore the effect on a relatively normal Everyman of facing our secrets head-on, the thesis being summed up thus: “Dance with the devil and the devil don’t change – the devil changes you.” But the film is so unsubtle, and the story-telling so melodramatic and wedded to easy conflicts, that one almost expects the climax to reveal Satan himself – hooves and fire and brimstone and all – hanging out in some sleazy warehouse organizing threesomes and bondage sessions (which would have been much more fun than the climax actually provided). It does exactly nothing to illuminate the small-scale human transactions that make up the industry’s life blood.

How clearly can one flirt with the devil without giving ground? Do we chip away at our better selves by renting a video from the back room of the local store? 8 MM implicitly asserts so; a premise that logically leads to Cage – overwhelmed by the wretchedness of the flesh peddlers – transforming himself into an avenging angel of destruction, hunting down the evildoers like the vermin that the movie clearly knows them to be. The morality of this behaviour – arguably even more damaging to our social fabric than the odd beaver shot – is not dwelt upon. That’s Hollywood.

Let’s shift moral gears. John Boorman’s The General is a rollicking, larger-than-life caper about Irish master-criminal Martin Cahill, who robbed his way to semi-Robin Hood status. The movie skims through Cahill’s formative years, the better to enjoy him at the peak of his rabble-rousing powers, and basically settles into a series of set-pieces – marked throughout by nimble handling, lip-smacking characterization, and irresistible earthiness.

Beyond redemption

One of the highlights is a multi-million dollar heist on a jewelry wholesaler, which we’re later told pushed the place out of business, and a hundred people into unemployment. And that, says Cahill, with his usual callous flippancy, will merely put them in the same boat with him (however much his business boomed, he was always in line to pick up the weekly dole money). Other than Jon Voight as his weary police inspector nemesis, there’s never anyone to call him on his self-serving trample through an already fractured and impoverished society. Most of the time, the movie takes Cahill’s voice pretty much as its own, and often seems to exist in a moral vacuum, downplaying contexts and consequences (and treating the various political factions as no more than competitors in larceny).

Towards the end, Voight’s character lets the years of frustration get to him and administers Cahill a beating. The subsequent exchange, focusing on Voight’s self-recrimination and Cahill’s goading of him, constitutes a more pointed accusation than anything else in the film. It initially seemed odd to me that an isolated infraction by an officer of the law was treated as gravely as two filmic hours of advanced crime by a confirmed villain. But later I thought Boorman’s apparently neutral treatment of Cahill was actually the ultimate condemnation – an acknowledgment that the man was beyond redemption or persuasion, outside the zone of conscience or rationality in which our ideals and fine-tunings make a difference. It’s possible a second visit to The General would reveal such moral subtleties embedded throughout, and it’s a rare film nowadays that suggests a persuasive case for an early repeat viewing.

Furthermore, it would probably be just as fresh and entertaining the second time around. In the past, Boorman’s work has often been ponderous and stuffy, but not here. The failings of 8 MM would have been much easier to take if the movie wasn’t so damn serious and self-important. It can’t even manage the easy stuff – imagine a movie about porn with not a single shot that you’d like to take a second look at. From a good director, that might have indicated something interesting going on.