Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Du cote d'Orouet (Jacques Rozier, 1971)

In outline, Jacques Rozier’s Du cote d’Orouet might sound very much like a Rohmer movie – three young women on summer vacation on the French coast, passing time doing nothing in particular (they’re in a rather desolate, under-populated spot), with a couple of guys eventually blended into the mix. But these aren’t Rohmer-type women – no one ever makes a literary reference (or barely reads a book) or engages in verbal philosophizing or self-examination. They’re there to have fun, captured delightfully in sequences where they crack themselves up by finding goofy ways to say “Orouet” or engage in other private jokes, or stuff their faces with eclairs. But the equation of vacation time at the beach/coast with ensuing fun doesn’t take care of itself, and waves of melancholy or emptiness might flow as easily as spiritual refreshment. At two and a half hours, the movie takes its time, sometimes just wryly observing, pretending to be a more straightforward project than it is, leaving much unsaid and unshown (there’s very little overt sexuality in the film, for one thing). But it becomes gradually clear that Rozier is musing on the annual vacation as an institution, and by extension on the nature of work and our relationship to it – by implication, the movie is more about the toll of the eleven months spent at work than about the month spent away from it. It implicitly asks: when one’s economic viability depends on subjugation to mind-numbing repetition and triviality, how can we expect to overcome that conditioning by following preconceived, mechanized notions of having a break from it? It’s only at the end though that we can sense this percolating in the mind of one of the women, and sense the existential crisis that could flow from that, if the machine of her life were to yield to it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Blot (Lois Weber, 1921)

Lois Weber’s silent The Blot remains a thrilling landmark of cinema, shimmering with empathy and immersed observation. The blot in question is that on a society which chronically underpays its teachers, in this case a kindly aging professor who seems to have no agenda beyond the transmission of knowledge. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter strain to keep up appearances and health and to make ends meet, the wife reduced to raiding the neighbours’ garbage to feed her cat. Those neighbours, in contrast, are depicted in rolling in money from high-end shoemaking ($100 a week, we’re told!), although their affluence pales in comparison to the true moneyed set. The narrative is driven by the professor’s daughter, pursued by the neighbours’ son, by a rich heir, and by an equally impoverished young minister, although the pursuit ultimately becomes as much collaboration as competition. The film explores the fine line between materialistic desire (even the minister covets rare books beyond his means) and genuine need; like much silent cinema, it’s most riveting when placing us within structures of identification and emotion, for example as we repeatedly observe the wife’s anguish and shame, and it has a consistent generosity of spirit, nudging us to favourably revise our impressions of several secondary characters. In the end, of course, things get somewhat better for the family, but one object of desire can’t be divided into three, and Weber closes on a final look back at the house, by one of the unsuccessful suitors (and the way this plays out suggests that while different classes can at least relatively come together, some societal advantages will remain absolute). The film may not carry the cinematic innovation or intensity of the greatest silent masters, but it feels intimate and true and committed, still capable of moving viewers (this one anyway) to the verge of tears.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Girl with a Pistol (Mario Monicelli, 1968)

A couple of years after Michelangelo Antonioni made his legendary trip to “swinging” London to shoot Blow-Up, his partner in his great early 60’s quartet, Monica Vitti, made her own voyage to Blighty, in Mario Monicelli’s The Girl with a Pistol, a film with not an iota of Blow-Up’s stature (despite a foreign film Oscar nomination at the time), and yet as fascinating a time capsule in its own way. In broad outline, it’s an odyssey of a woman’s awakening and self-discovery: Vitti’s Assunta travels from Sicily to England to find and kill the man who “dishonored” her, and gradually evolves past her archaic social conditioning (in which every woman who smiles at a man is a “whore”) and tempestuous nature to become a confident manipulator of sexuality, professionally and personally. The film’s major appeal lies in the glorious culture-clash oddity of seeing Monica Vitti play scenes in industrial Sheffield (with Till Death Us Do Part’s Anthony Booth, no less!), or in windy Brighton; or attending a rugby match, or dropping into a northern England gay bar, to name but a few. Monicelli doesn’t always exert the tightest control over the concept, populating Britain with characters who improbably speak fluent Italian (one of them played by an ineffectual Stanley Baker); he encourages Vitti into borderline-tedious histrionics. But considering the film in retrospect, one feels surprised at the range of its interests: it nails a Britain where class-oriented grimness (at her English-language class, we see Assunta learn the words “potato” and “marmalade”) is starting to give way to greater self-determination and cosmopolitanism, where lives are transformed through entrepreneurship, where straight white men are no longer the sole determinators of sexual destiny; it even makes time to drop Assunta into a peace demonstration (as if flashing briefly ahead to imagine Vitti returning to Antonioni for his next film, Zabriskie Point).

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Tuned in

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 1998)

For three weeks I told my publisher, David Mackin, that the next article would be about The Truman Show, then instead I wrote about something else (Wild; The Last Days of Disco; Passion in the Desert). Well, those other movies were more in need of the attention. You’d have to be living in an artificially created world, housed inside the planet’s biggest manmade structure, not to be aware of The Truman Show by now. And yet, I guess I can’t let such an acclaimed movie get away without comment.

I’ve already recommended the film: a mighty 8 out of 10 points. So with that stipulated, and since it’d take Columbo to track down any seriously negative commentary on the picture, I’ll concentrate on where the other two points went.

A polite indictment

Part of the reason I found the film hard to write about is that although it seemed meaningful and resonant as I watched it, in retrospect it didn’t seem to have had much of a subtext. You can’t really muse over what it means – that’s kind of obvious – but only over how it says what it means. And on that level it’s tremendously pleasing: it exudes care and attention to detail, and it’s brilliantly sustained. But of a course a lot of the detail is deliberately fake, and what’s being sustained is an illusion. The medium is really the message here in that the film’s intelligence and allusiveness are probably more likely to pull us into the fictional world of the show within the film than to give us analytical distance from it, which cleverly exposes our supposed complicity in this monstrous creation.

Like all satires or fairy stories, we must accept some anachronisms and oddities in what’s provided. In an age of declining attention spans and splintering audience shares, a 30-year reverie on a severely limited, unvarying life wouldn’t seem like an obvious focus of mass appeal. I wonder how many people would really tune in for all those hours of Truman at his desk in the insurance office doing all that insurance paper work. Even as The Truman Show nails us for succumbing to the TV drug, it softens the blow by flattering our patience and civility.

Tweaked nostalgia

In other senses too, the film’s gentle exaggeration allows us to feel good about ourselves. The parodies of product placement – the two aging twins who push Truman against a different billboard every morning, his wife’s cheery blurbs into the camera – are the most unsubtle part of the film; modern-day product placement is much sharper than this. We can appreciate the reference, but would it make us any more likely to avoid being manipulated in the future? I doubt it. The TV show in The Truman Show is soothing and clear, whereas real TV is busy and insidious.

When I first saw the film’s title I assumed it must be something to do with former US president Harry S. Truman. Which it isn’t, and yet…a few years ago Harry Truman came briefly back into vogue as the exemplar of an unassuming, decent competence. Although the film’s sterile vision of suburbia may be more stereotypically linked with Eisenhower than Truman, it’s more or less the right time period.

The movie easily starts to seem like an avalanche of tweaked nostalgia. The notion of a child growing up before the eyes of the world evokes the Dionne sisters and their theme park childhood. And when the townspeople form a night-time search party for the missing Truman, depicted in some strikingly lit images of an eerily coordinated group sweeping the streets, like a meticulous swarm of mutant insects, I instantly thought of Cold War paranoia classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which everyone is revealed to be secretly united against the hero’s (and America’s) interests.

Time is money

The subtext back then was creeping conformity, whether in the form of Commie infiltration or Eisenhower middle-class suffocation. It’s a fascinating echo, because in many senses we’re now more diverse, more multi-cultural, more colourfully fragmented than we could ever have predicted in the 50’s. But of course, the motivation that bounds the search party together in The Truman Show isn’t ideology but money – they’re all employees of the huge corporation, presumably soon to be washed up if the show can’t continue.

It's only when I thought of this that I was able to put the movie to rest in my mind. The Truman Show, of course, is itself an expensive commercial venture, financed by business people rather than philanthropists. Its makers are too smart to throw stones from inside a glass house. The film’s a wonderful satire of a public conformity that doesn’t really exist. So maybe it’s more illuminating (and it usually is) to follow the money. Isn’t the film really about a community that’s held together solely by rampant capitalism? And isn’t it significant that Truman, the only innocent, is also the only guy who never directly made a dime from any of it? But that’s a meaningless message – we can’t opt out of the world we’re born into.

World of voyeurs

Anyway, The Truman Show depends, just as much as television, on our deep-rooted passivity. We like to watch. But so what? Is an artificial activity like watching TV so qualitatively different from a natural one like watching birds? It depends on your system of values. When we watch TV though, our time – as a statistic in the demographic that swells the viewing figures – is money: not for us, but for the cable operator, and the network and so on down the supply chain. We’re worth more doing someone else’s thing than we could ever be worth doing our own. But maybe that’s my naivete in supposing that anything retains its purity. Truth is, the birds are probably carrying ads too.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

HealtH (Robert Altman, 1980)

The minor reputation of HealtH among Robert Altman’s films isn’t really undeserved – it’s immediately recognizable (stylistically and tonally) as his, but in this case that often seems largely as a function of self-absorbed affectations, seldom revealing anything very meaningful about the situation under examination, or about anything beyond it. The setting is a resort hotel, and the national convention of a health association, focusing on a race for its presidency between two unsuitable individuals (Lauren Bacall and Glenda Jackson); the mix includes a White House representative (Carol Burnett) and her ex-husband (James Garner) who now works on the Bacall character’s campaign. That last detail, with its intimations of privileged connections and influences, is just part of a broad political allegory that includes various Watergate-inflected dirty tricks, a third candidate fighting hopelessly for attention, and (rather peculiarly) repeated comparisons between Jackson’s character and Adlai Stevenson. But again, this amounts to correspondences (for example, the entirely generic, or else incoherent, promises of the two candidates) and references rather than to resonant illumination or commentary, and in the end events mostly just peter out. Even Altman’s more notable movies – California Split – for instance, run the risk of being consumed by the underlying emptiness that they examine: in the case of HealtH, Altman’s interest in the edges and the backgrounds and the asides ends up looking like a reluctance to look too directly at anything at all (hucksterism and fake science don’t come under as concerted an attack as they might, for instance). But there are plenty of minor compensations, including the presence of all those name actors (albeit that they mostly seem to be moving in their own barely connecting worlds) and of Dick Cavett, very convincingly playing himself, trying in vain to squeeze some meaningful television out of all this, before settling down alone each night to watch Johnny Carson.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Ma nuit chez Maud (Eric Rohmer, 1969)

Eric Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud is one of my favourite films, one I return to every few years, the experience at once always warmly familiar and subtly evolving. I think much of my pleasure is based in nostalgic idealism, in the idea of a culture where a conversation even with someone new is more likely to leap to philosophy and self-analysis than to the usual establishing banalities – I always think of the film as a kind of tribute to the examined life. This doesn’t mean that the examination is entirely rational or consistent – as in many Rohmer films, there’s a recurring sense that much of what people say about themselves is experimental, put out there to see how it flies, to find out what alchemy may result from the response. This resonates fascinatingly against the film’s preoccupation with a Pascalian wager, with the concept of present sacrifice for the sake of infinite ultimate gain. The limitations of that concept can be laid out almost endlessly, but without staining its metaphysical allure, or its (albeit crude) applicability to romantic commitment – a Pascalian approach to love might almost demand making the “wrong” choice of partner, for the sake of alignment with one’s normative philosophical or cultural benchmarks. The film brilliantly facilitates and interrogates such thoughts, at once providing a detailed immediate canvas (indelibly capturing its time and place, the Christmas season in provincial France) and suggesting a broader one (the protagonist has spent the last fourteen years working in Canada and Chile, a combination spanning the, how to put it, mundane and exotic?). The film ultimately draws on a coincidence of the kind that in a less elegant film would only prompt eye-rolling, but which here serves to confirm the mysteries of the romantic navigation, while also providing a closure of gorgeously conceived irony and great humanity, even as it allows its male protagonist one last opportunity for self-mythologizing.