Monday, September 25, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part four

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2001)

This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

La chambre des officiers (Francois Dupeyron)

After half his face is blown off near the start of World War One, a French officer spends the rest of the war in an officer’s medical ward, where he and those around him gradually learn to live with their disfigurements while undergoing apparently endless surgery. Although it’s a viable anti-war piece, the heart of the movie is in the meticulous process by which the men conquer their suicidal urges, their fears of mirrors and of the gazes of others, ultimately even acquiring the inner resources to make fun of themselves. A disfigured woman, spurned by her own family but beautiful to the men, provides another frame of reference. Sometimes the film seems strained and over-calculated (for example, in making us wait half an hour to see what the officer’s face looks like after the accident) but at its best it’s extremely relevant and yet somewhat other-worldly. Episodes like the mens’ trip to a bordello are faintly surreal as well as moving, and when the armistice is signed, the men celebrate as fervently as the crowds – but it’s a celebration taking place in a sealed-off corridor, high above the masses. The film’s life-affirming themes are all the more convincing for its lack of sentiment – it conveys an emotional theme with clinical precision.

Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair)

A certain crowd-pleaser (and the winner at the Venice film festival) about events surrounding an affluent Indian family wedding. The bride and groom barely know each other and she’s still carrying a torch for her ex-boyfriend, the father (the movie’s beleaguered centre) has money problems, the wedding planner is unreliable and distracted, and (in a surprisingly dark turn), one of the elders is revealed as a child molester. Things go on, of course. The movie has been compared to one of Robert Altman’s sprawling canvases (Altman must be evoked how often his name is evoked nowadays), but that only indicates its limitations. There’s an inevitability to the direction it takes, and the film never gets that deeply under the skin of its characters or of the social segment they embody. Instead, it throws out references and concepts like wedding confetti, presumably reasoning that if enough of them stick, the film will amount to an emotional epic. The juxtaposition of modern and traditional attitudes and outlooks is generally interesting, but on the whole I learned less about contemporary India from the film than by watching Satyajit Ray’s 30-year-old Days and Nights in the Forest a few months ago. And less about the human condition than in fifteen or twenty other festival films.

Hotel (Mike Figgis)

Figgis’ film again uses his split-screen technique from Time Code, but this time it’s mixed in with various other experiments – the film plays throughout with image speed, size, quality and placement on the screen. The film’s plot is much more elusive and sprawling than the earlier film too, involving the filming of a Dogme-style version of a classic play, a mysterious conspiracy among hotel staff, and various other stuff (some of which I couldn’t follow). The film is not conventionally entertaining, and in its willful obscurity and unanchored feeling may remind people of this year’s other weird hotel movie – Wim Wenders’ Million Dollar Hotel. Being just about the only person who liked Wenders’ film, I’ll admit to some admiration too for Figgis’ latest effort. I don’t think it has the overall coherence of Time Code (which to me fused form and content very effectively) but then it’s not meant to – it’s allusive and deliberately eccentric. You always suspect it’s going to end with some kind of metaphorical comment on cinema, but it’s still a surprise how Figgis gets there. He makes the tyrannical, edgy director into a truly supernatural figure, and simultaneously evokes both da Vinci’s Last Supper and B-horror movies, which should indicate the film’s variety if nothing else. For star-spotters, the film includes a brief and pointless appearance by Burt Reynolds, a slightly longer one by Lucy Liu, and perhaps the best performance ever by my old schoolmate Rhys Ifans.

Birthday Girl (Jez Butterworth)

Butterworth’s second feature is much more professional and smooth than his messy, barely coherent debut Mojo, although what minor ambition the earlier film possessed seems to have vanished along with the rough edges. Birthday Girl is a conventional, predictable film about a mild-mannered, unfulfilled bank clerk who searches for a Russian wife on the Internet. He ends up with a real hot babe who may not live up to all his specifications (she can’t speak English) but makes up for it in other ways (primarily by fully indulging his bondage fantasies). Things get sticky when two friends of hers suddenly turn up unexpectedly – will our hero ever find true happiness? This is the kind of movie that hardly needs a festival spot – there’s nothing about it to get critics even modestly excited, and since Nicole Kidman plays the girl, the film is already guaranteed all the publicity it needs. The movie moves along nicely, but it’s completely predictable, and it has nothing at all in the way of nuance, theme, artistic embellishment etc.

Eloge de l’amour (Jean-Luc Godard)

Godard’s new film, widely regarded as his most successful in years, still failed to quite overcome my 15-year mental block on his work – I was engaged in flashes, but the overall shape of it eluded me. Those flashes may be adequate reward though. A meditation on love, cinema, memory and art, the film’s most prominent narrative element involves a project to make a film out of an aging couple’s memories of the Resistance; the first half is shot in pristine black and white, the second in more impressionistic digital video color. Godard works in densely allusive fragments; every scene is striking for the vividness of his compositions; the soundtrack is dense in philosophical and intellectual propositions. In a film that takes numerous potshots at Hollywood (particularly Spielberg), Godard continues to believe in the fallacy of straightforward, self-contained representation – affirming that “you can only think about something if you think of something else.” While this seems as modernist a position as ever, his attention to cultural and political history and lack of frivolity give the film a timeless romantic quality: the music score is certainly as elegiac as the title demands. A character quotes “The measure of love is to love without measure,” and Godard’s feeling for cinema is indeed immeasurable; the film is moving even as it rejects the means by which other films move us.

Monday, September 18, 2017


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

If this year’s Oscars had to be held next week (and I don’t mean to suggest I can’t wait until March) it looks to me like the best actress race would be between Renee Zellweger, Thora Birch, Kirsten Dunst and Piper Perabo. The combined age of whom might just about amount to a Judi Dench. Hollywood’s always criticized for giving the younger women all the breaks, but this is something new. Especially as none of the four had to pretend to be in love with Michael Douglas, or with any other contemporary of their grandfathers (well, Birch in Ghost World hooks up with Steve Buscemi, but that’s hardly the same thing).

Piper Perabo

Perabo is in the current Lost and Delirious, a Canadian film about a doomed affair between two teenage boarding-school girls. In their top floor dormitory, she and Jessica Pare share an idyllic rapport, and a bed, until they’re discovered together. Pare quickly turns stridently heterosexual to safeguard her reputation. Perabo, whose character is stamped from the first scene as a potentially out of control self-dramatizer, quickly goes over the edge – accosting Pare with Shakespearean monologues in the library, challenging her new boyfriend to a duel with real swords, and yelling abuse in all directions.

If I had an impressionable teenage daughter with a touch of the turbulent poet about her, I definitely wouldn’t want her going near this film until she’d made it safely into her twenties. Resembling a slightly softer Angelina Jolie (who did win an Oscar for burning through a very similar role in Girl Interrupted) and radiating as much misplaced self-assurance. Perabo makes breakdown look like the only way to go. The movie devotes itself to her at the cost of almost anything else – she’s allowed to rant and pose long after the teachers should have sought serious help, and her special relationship with a hawk in the forest is too easy a symbol of the primal force she embodies. She’s quite excellent, and she’s certainly charismatic, but in an abstract kind of way. Still, give her a few years, and Piper Perabo may be the next Julia Roberts.

Apocalypse Now Redux

I don’t suppose Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux will be eligible for any Oscars this year (on its first release, in 1979, it lost to Kramer vs. Kramer – how dumb does that seem now?) Coppola and editor Walter Murch have gone back to the Vietnam epic, brushing up the image and sound quality and adding some fifty minutes of new scenes, bringing the total running time to three and a half hours. I haven’t watched the original for many years, so I’m not well-equipped to carry out a before-and-after comparison (critical opinion seems generally in favour of the new material, although with some strong dissenters too). But I do agree with the pack that Redux is the most impressive American movie to be released this year.

It's an engrossing spectacle, of course – especially in the early part of the film where Coppola feverishly orchestrates helicopters and explosions and people into an evocation of war that’s too beautiful and vivid to be quite real. In his famous performance, Robert Duvall is almost excessively charismatic as the brutally effective Colonel Kilgore, razing villages as if as an afterthought while indulging his passion for surfing: an absurdist approach that might have worn thin if pursued for the entire movie. As it continues, the film tones down its potentially cartoonish edge, but hones in on the intense incongruity and confusion that are rather brashly contained in the Duvall scenes.

Martin Sheen plays Captain Willard, sent to travel up-river with a small group, in search of an army colonel who’s deserted and now leads a strange community in the depths of the jungle. In one of the newly-added sequences, they encounter two Playboy bunnies, stranded after their promotion tour helicopter ran out of fuel. Later, they find a French family holding out on a plantation long after all others have left, still dressing formally for dinner and engaging in conversation as though caught in a time warp. These sequences make Redux less of a pure war film and more an abstract meditation on political, cultural and psychological confusion (with Vietnam being one of the all-time great media for such a project); leading more inevitably now to the famously murky finale where Sheen finds the missing Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando.

Kurtz is viewed by his followers as a great man, but the main mouthpiece for this is Dennis Hopper’s character – a standard-issue 60’s hippie photographer – suggesting that Kurtz’ power lies mainly in the very idea of transcendence (or dropping out). Brando’s most famous line from the movie is his final apparent indictment of war “the horror…the horror…,” but if Kurtz is mad, it seems attributable as much to excessive introspection as to his experiences in themselves. “It’s judgment that defeats us,” he says in one of his monologues, and at another point: “You have the right to kill me, but not to judge me.” The movie damns judgment, and makes it almost impossible to render. Just when Sheen should deliver some closure to himself and to us, he becomes incomprehensible.

The film uses fades and slow dissolves and mist to hide the basic linearity of its structure (they encounter one incident, then travel on up the river for a few minutes and encounter another): it ultimately generates the sense of a world turned on its head. It’s no great shakes as politics or analysis, and its energy sometimes seems touched by naivete, but no other current film has even half as much going on.

The Others

I suppose my list of Oscar contenders should also have included Nicole Kidman – especially since Moulin Rouge and her new film The Others constitute two separate chances (if the Oscars are as sentimental as some say, then the break-up with Tom Cruise may constitute a third). But I thought she was swallowed up amid the technical cartwheels of Moulin Rouge, and she’s quite cold and unemotive in The Others. Not that this isn’t what the film, a well-crafted haunted house story, needs. But despite the effective mood and pacing and the nicely sprung surprise ending, it’s hard to get really excited about a movie with so little emotional depth. And Kidman never does anything at all unexpected in it. I’d like to see her carry off a role in which “delirious” was a major concept, but I can’t imagine it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part three

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

This is the third of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke)

Haneke’s drama about a piano teacher’s gradual capitulation to her sexual and psychological hang-ups is so raw and intense that it skirts the outer edges of watchability. “What is this foolish desire driving me into the wilderness?” sings a student in one scene, and the film draws on lead actress Isabelle Huppert’s vast resources to create a horrifying portrayal of that very journey. A severe teacher, she barely seems to take any joy from the music, and we gradually see that her psychological universe is just as barren, encompassing self-mutilation, voyeurism, debasement, substantial personal risk. It often seems that she barely has feeling, only desires, and orgasm seems abhorrent to her, as though even momentary fulfilment and rest would be more than she could endure. The film’s scheme includes a highly problematic relationship with her mother, and a finally devastating one with a young student who sees through some of her layers, but not enough of them. Haneke’s films are often set on the perimeter of psychological viability, and The Piano Teacher is a superb depiction of that place; it’s also a hermetic work though, so intense that even its greatest admirers may want afterwards only to forget it as quickly as possible.

Eden (Amos Gitai)

Gitai’s latest film is set in 1940, a confusing and not generally well-understood point in Israeli history. The movie does sadly little to illuminate it – it’s often so subtle in its telling that one might miss entire events. The film follows a small group of characters, embodying different perspectives and relationships to the Israeli ideal, and their fates broadly point to the way forward (in the final shot, the scene around the heroine shifts to the present day). It’s based on a short story by Arthur Miller, who plays the father of one of the characters – his presence is problematic, not just because he recites his lines so badly but because his presence skews the film too much toward comfortable Western intellectualism. For that matter though, the film’s casting is unsuccessful in a number of key roles. Gitai uses traditional distancing techniques to prevent easy absorption into the story and to focus the viewer on the broader historicism; however, it often seems fuzzy in its approach, and for all the variety of events and characters it’s very boring. One obtains flashes of insight, usually when the movie is most straightforward in reconstructing specific scenes or events, but no more than that. Overall, it seems like a major missed opportunity.

Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis)

Every year there’s at least one festival film that puts me to sleep, and here’s the one for this year. I was awake for the whole last hour though, all the better to observe people walking out around me. Denis’ movie is basically horror-film material – a couple of the characters have a vampire-like condition, a doctor is carrying out weird experiments, and his wife is locked up in the house – and it’s filmed in a moody, meditative style (the music score is quite beguiling). The movie links violence with sex, and the screams of the victims are as vivid as you’ll ever hear; together with the weary familiarity suggested by the title, the approach suggests that Denis is aiming not for mythology but for something more quotidian and immediate. It’s often impressionistic, one event following another through nuance rather than straightforward plotting (indeed, the movie is surely deliberately refusing to provide explanations, to tie up loose ends, or any of that normal stuff); it also has some striking set-pieces, and not just the violent ones – for example, it watches the mundane rituals of a young chambermaid who’s oddly drawn to one of the afflicted characters. But it’s very hard to concentrate on, and never delivers anything commensurate with the effort. I’ll concede though that a second viewing might cause this assessment to move sharply upward. (2017 afterword – it did).

The Man from Elysian Fields (George Hickenlooper)

When the festival has so much material that will seldom if ever be seen again, I guess there’s not really that much logic to spending even two hours of that precious time watching a smooth little movie that’ll fit just fine onto cable. But the vicissitudes of scheduling took me into this undemandingly delightful little fable about a career-imperiled writer who agrees out of desperation to go and work for an escort service. His first client is the wife of a fading literary giant who later enlists him to help write a final novel. This is lightly perverse material with lots of potential themes about whoring, integrity, self-deception, and the relationships between them all. Unfortunately, the movie’s heart lies mostly in what it all does to the writer’s relationship with his wife – not that this isn’t interesting too, but it’s far more conventional. The thing would seem more soft-centered if not for its terrific cast, including Andy Garcia (more appealing than he’s been in years), Mick Jagger (remarkably supple and idiosyncratic as the head of the escort service) and James Coburn (almost at the level of his Oscar-winning work in Affliction as the older writer). And the movie has terrific dialogue; it has the kind of one-liners and retort that used to flow from Woody Allen’s movies at their best (albeit in a somewhat different register).

Lovely and Amazing (Nicole Holofcener)

Holofcener’s film looks like a glossy contemporary comedy, but the movie may demand a psychotherapist as much as a critic – it’s virtually an encyclopedia on female angst and insecurities, spanning self-respect, body image, fear of aging, racial insecurity, stagnant relationships, and much else besides. By the end you feel properly entertained, but also educated and shaken – the scope is astonishing for such a small-scale movie. Catherine Keener (whose self-loathing and barely repressed anger is scary here) plays an unsuccessful would-be artist; her sister is an actress, convinced that her sputtering career is a result of her perceived physical defects. Their mother is going into hospital for liposuction, leaving her adopted black child in the care of the two sisters. The kid is a compulsive overeater and clearly disturbed – you worry about the child actress as much as about the character; Holofcener exploits a similar ambiguity in a scene in which the actress’ physical appearance is minutely criticized by her lover. The film has more of a stopping point than an ending, and various scenes and characters and developments are questionable too in one way or another, but overall it’s an excellent use of provocative material in an accessible package.

Monday, September 4, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part two

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

This is the second of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

What time is it there? (Tsai Ming-Liang)

Tsai’s film confirms him as a major poet of contemporary despair. A young watchseller has a brief contact with a customer who tells him she’s going to Paris. She gives him a cake, and it seems that this act of minor kindness shakes the structure of his drab, circumscribed life. He becomes obsessed with changing every timepiece he sees by seven hours, to conform to Paris time. The film is suffused in alienation, longing and futile endeavors. His mother, grieving for her late husband, devotes herself to rituals and superstitions that may tempt his spirit to return (at one point she mistakes what he’s done to the living room clock as a supernatural manifestation). Meanwhile, the girl’s stay in Paris is presented as one lonely, mechanical scene after another. All three plot strands culminate in desolate sexual encounters, but the film’s ending finds transcendence in some truly inspired and deeply beautiful images. The film was often virtually hypnotic to me. There’s no question that it’s slow and deliberate and narrow in its preoccupations, but its central idea works perfectly: dour lives demand grand gestures, whether physical or metaphysical, and even if these don’t succeed as intended, it’s beyond us to assess the full scope of their consequences.

The Pornographer (Bertrand Bonello)

A curious account of a veteran director of pornographic movies who’s way past his personal and professional peaks and can barely keep going. The pornographer started in the business in 1968, when making porn was plausible as a political act, and he can still conceive of himself as a former revolutionary, but that self-image no longer holds. In the film’s saddest scene, the producer spontaneously takes over the direction of a scene, disregarding the director’s fragile aesthetic scheme to inject louder moaning and more money shots. The casting of Jean-Pierre Leaud, archetypal 60’s French actor, as the pornographer, confirms that the film is as much about the decline of cinema (not just of the porno kind) as anything else. The pornographer’s story is generally presented in a classical drawing-room kind of style, but it’s contrasted with a vaguely Godardian treatment of his son, a student who joins an activist movement the main weapon of which is silence, the thesis being that muteness is “the ultimate opposition.” The juxtaposition makes for something genuinely weird and oddly nostalgic, and at least halfway stimulating. Certainly at the end you’re left with a convincing sense of decay and intellectual futility; given the film’s esoteric preoccupations though, it’s hard to know how much value to place on this. I think the film might be all but meaningless to someone not acquainted with the heyday of New Wave French cinema (a declining breed, obviously).

The Navigators (Ken Loach)

Loach’s film shows the readjustment of a group of Northern English railway workers after the deregulation of the mid-90’s. The British public’s contempt for the state of its railways makes this movie a pretty safe bet on its home turf, and Loach punches home the easy targets, having great fun with the new customer-friendly terminology and training video culture that suddenly gets dumped on the men. As usual, he makes an efficient argument against capitalist excesses while paying mere lip service to the other side; also as usual, he simplifies the real economics of the case and grossly caricatures the corporate bosses. Largely backed by a laconic jazz score, the movie is pretty easygoing compared to some of Loach’s earlier works – it’s far more assured than last year’s uneasy Bread and Roses. Ultimately, his protagonists seem like babes in the new market-friendly woods, and in the melodramatic but affecting finale they sell their souls to keep on going; the camaraderie of the opening stretch is replaced by a resigned, neutered obedience. The movie is tremendously entertaining and covers a lot of ground in an hour and a half – pound for pound, Loach is one of the prime storytellers in the game.

A ma soeur (Catherine Breillat)

This typically provocative film from Breillat is a further variation on her ongoing investigation of female sexuality, this time contrasting two teenage sisters – one a confident looker, the other clumsy and overweight. The “fat girl” (the film’s title for English release purposes) variously gets both abuse and affection from her sister; they’re fascinated and disgusted by each other. “Hating you,” she says, “is like hating part of myself – that’s why I loathe you so violently.” In the film’s key scenes, the fat girl pretends to be asleep while her sister on the other side of the room has sex with her boyfriend – his ruthless manipulation (you know what you’d do if you really loved me…) sets up a continuum of exploitation and victimhood. The latter part of the film, as their mother drives the sisters home from vacation, reduces them both back to being just kids, and Breillat seems for a long while to be vastly overdoing the shots of the car journey – time and again you anticipate an accident that never comes. But then the film takes a turn that is truly shocking, and can be read as sick fantasy, morbid come-uppance, terrible turn of fate, or as a realignment of the sexual politics. It’s probably all four, and leaves a potent after-impression. The movie will probably neither expand nor contract Breillat’s circle of admirers – I found it more subtle than Romance, but not as rich as her earlier Une vrai jeune fille, although its peaks may reach higher than that film’s.

Heist (David Mamet)

Mamet’s stripped-down crime drama doesn’t make much of an impact; as with Robert de Niro in the similar The Score, you wonder whether Mamet is overly interested in sacrificing his talent to the demands of genre. The movie’s terse plotting, snappy conversation and emotional minimalism come from the “less is more” school, but set against the other films I saw on the same day, it’s plainly just less. Lines like “he’s so cool, when he goes to bed the sheep count him” try too hard for classic status, and they read better than they sound. The film has some good twists and turns but that’s all they are – the movie doesn’t have the philosophical and emotional richness of Mamet’s last film State and Main, and the frequent confusion over who’s doing what to whom gets harder to take one you realize it’ll never really matter. Actors like Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito keep it interesting, but they’re just fleshing out ciphers in an arbitrary universe.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part one

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

This is the first of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

Last Wedding (Bruce Sweeney)

Sweeney’s gala opener (a brave choice for such a spotlight) tracks the downward spiral of a young couple’s relationship after their overly impulsive wedding; his two best friends’ lives are simultaneously on more or less the same track. Although the details of the three plot strands may differ, there’s not much tonal or thematic variation to any of it, and the film seems much less rich and provocative than Sweeney’s Dirty. He has a taste for actors with low-key styles and just a dash of quirkiness (Molly Parker is the best-known face, but she’s less interesting than her lesser-known co-stars, most of whom are excellent) and a penchant for occasional shock tactics (usually involving sex of course). Sometimes, the combination of the two creates something quite unpredictable and unsettling. The arc of the main relationship, from infatuation to open contempt, is thrilling in some ways (the open contempt, by the way, never seems to completely exclude the possibility of having sex) but it’s undermined by what seemed to me a patronizing portrayal of the woman; she’s an aspiring country-rock singer dropped into a movie populated by white-collar professionals like architects and librarians. On that subject – there’s something about the line “I’m not a dinosaur, I’m a librarian” that may stay with me for a while. The film’s weakest point of all is its ending – a simple period/exclamation mark to cap off events, where you might have hoped at least for a question mark of some kind.

Animal Love (Ulrich Seidl)

The festival devoted its “spotlight” section this year to Austrian director Seidl. Of the four films shown, I caught only this 1995 semi-documentary about a succession of emotionally, economically or sexually marginal people and their close (and that’s generally a euphemism) relationship with their pets. The animals – mostly dogs (some rabbits, no cats) – put up reasonably well for the most part with their owners’ tactile excesses, which include one scene of man/dog French kissing and lots of dubious romping on beds. Much of the film is set in drab, confined settings, with no good-looking people in sight, and most of it is self-consciously posed, consisting of sad little snapshots of grim lives, or monologues or confrontations that the camera obviously couldn’t just have “happened” upon. Some of it though is all too obviously real – like a painful scene of a dog sinking its teeth into another’s neck and refusing to let go. One of the subjects says that animals have a higher moral code than humans do (in another scene, we see this same guy and his wife advertising for sex partners) but most of these people seem way too needy to afford morals. You watch it with equal parts empathy and disgust, which is probably exactly the intent. On the whole though, it’s too narrow an artistic thesis to be of enormous interest; the film’s exploitative form certainly conveys effectively the exploitative behaviour of its human subjects, but repetition sets in awfully early. The movie, thankfully, left me feeling relatively secure about my relationship with my own dog – although not entirely so.

Ignorant fairies (Ferzan Ozpetek)

A middle-class doctor finds out that her suddenly-deceased husband had a seven-year love affair – with another man. Numerous films, like The Daytrippers, have made entertaining diversions out of similar ideas – Ozpetek belabors it for an entire movie. The woman makes contact with the lover and gradually gets drawn into his circle – a slice of gay society that’s portrayed as a colorful cavalcade of conviviality, with people always dropping in for lunch (there’s also someone with AIDS, a transsexual…everyone you’d expect). Her immersion in all this doesn’t make much sense except on the vaguest level of self-discovery, healing and assimilation; the developing suggestion that she and the lover might themselves get together struck me as the lamest plotting imaginable. Equally simplistic are the contrast between the lover’s warm, colorful apartment and her sterile white-walled home, and the extension of the “liberation” theme to include a much younger man who sets his sights on her. The lead actress is unusually frosty and glum, and her heavy touch seemed to me to embalm much of the film. Ozpetek’s The Turkish Bath had danger signs of melodramatic excess; that adverse promise is sadly realized here. The film’s self-regard is confirmed by not one but two loving pans along the faces of the group within the last five minutes, and by the outtakes and on-set footage included with the closing credits.

Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Kurosawa’s film initially seems like a fantasy on the false promise of technology, with the idea of connectivity turned on its head – ghostly websites start to appear on computer screens, pulling the users into suicidal depression. Later on, the film becomes broader and more apocalyptic – and also more explicitly supernatural, which to me meant a lessening of its insinuating power (how many films by now have created a mythology of portals to the spirit world?) Overall though it’s the best of the five films reviewed in this article. Concentrating almost entirely on students and people in their 20s, the film draws excellently on youthful angst and uncertainty, and its apparent centre keeps shifting: these are skillful genre mechanics, aided by a brilliantly sustained washed-out color scheme and a design that locates the fearsome empty spaces even in the best-lit and most ergonomically friendly environments. At its bleakest, Pulse posits that “ghosts and people are the same, whether you’re dead or alive,” that there’s no real connection between any of us, and the film’s heart certainly lies in desolation and capitulation, regardless that it closes on a plaintive assertion of happiness.

The Business of Strangers (Patrick Stettner)

It’s definitely fair to summarize this one as a female In the Company of Men, although it’s more straightforward and the dialogue doesn’t crackle nearly as much. Stockard Channing is a hard-driving businesswoman who hooks up on a stopover with Julia Stiles, a low-level assistant that she fired earlier in the day. The two sort of bond, get drunk, then join together to humiliate a headhunter who may once have raped a friend of Stiles’. The movie is dark and moderately potent in contrasting economic and sexual concerns and neuroses, finding affinities and enmities between the two women in equal measure. For example, Channing’s economic upper-hand is overturned when she identifies Stiles as “privileged little brat” who’s never had to work for anything, and whose attitude is rooted in complacency; her own modest origins still rankle. By the end the landscape is so confused and fractured that conclusions are hard to draw; the movie may be overstating the inherent interest and novelty value of the premise that women can be as multi-layered as men. It’s dramatically pretty satisfying though on the whole, and at 84 minutes it's nicely concise. Channing and Stiles are both excellent.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Terrible art

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2001)

In the wake of September 11, as a consensus settled in, a few people took heavy criticism for straying off-message. Bill Maher and Susan Sontag – both questioning the prevailing notion of “cowardice” – were the most prominent examples. A lesser-known but more truly subversive statement came from the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. At a press conference for a series of concerts in Hamburg, he said: “That characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for 10 years, completely fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos. Against that, we composers are nothing.”

Crafted by Lucifer

This produced a storm of protest, against which Stockhausen tried to back off, explaining that the “work of art” in question was crafted by Lucifer, and thus loathsome. But it was too late, and scheduled concerts of his music were cancelled both in London and in New York. I suppose Stockhausen’s subsequent explanation of what he meant is plausible if you interpret “greatest work of art for the whole cosmos” as a value-neutral term. But who would have read it that way?

Among the movies that were canceled or postponed around that time, some raised concern because of a similarity of subject-matter (plots featuring terrorists or aircraft hijackings); others because of a more general nervousness about abrasive material. For example, Training Day, which has no discernible connection, was pushed back a few weeks. But no one, to my knowledge, ever had much concern over releasing John Dahl’s Joy Ride. To be sure, there’s nothing in this film either that explicitly evokes September 11. But starting from Stockhausen’s weird take on events and the antipathy it aroused, it seemed to me that if there’s been a case for holding back any film at all, then Joy Ride should maybe have been the one.

The film depicts two easy-going brothers and a female sidekick on a cross-country road trip, who use a CB radio to play a trick on a trucker who strikes them as having a dumb handle (Rusty Nail) and a dumb voice. Things backfire, horrendously, when the prank results in Rusty Nail beating a man to within an inch of his life. They scoot out of town, but the trucker has discovered their identity and is out for revenge. From then it’s an extended game of cat and mouse, as the huge truck perpetually bears down on them.

Pure sadism

But if the cat is driven mainly, as cats are, just by the instinct to kill the mouse, he also seems to have some major advantages. We, like the characters, never see the trucker. But he sure sees them. He unobtrusively spies on them and gathers information, yet at key moments always contrives to be safely behind the wheel of his far-from-unobtrusive megaton vehicle. He takes steps that would have required a vastly implausible degree of foresight. Numerous reviews pointed this out, normally with some amused affection – the film received decidedly positive reviews overall. The New York Times for example: “The sight of his vehicle slicing through the night and the sound of his phlegmy growl on the radio are sufficiently chilling to keep some nagging questions at bay. How does he learn so much about Lewis, Fuller and Venna, and how is he able to be both in front of them, leaving messages and setting traps, and hot on their tails? Precisely because he’s an invisible, inexplicably malignant presence, with no motive other than pure sadism, those questions seem irrelevant. All you need to know is that those kids need to get away from him, and fast.”

The Times didn’t make any reference in this review to September 11, although it’s been doing so regularly for movies that seem problematic in one way or another. But think about that second to last line – the notion of inexplicable malignancy. Joy Ride has most often been compared to Steven Spielberg’s Duel. But we’ve all seen any number of movies in which the villains are implausibly well-equipped, or unfeasibly quick in staying ahead of the hero, or have an absurdly grandiose motive, or make too many escapes from the edge of death. The trucker hero is merely an extension of so many gravity-defying supervillains. And it’s always been a given that anonymous people perish along the way.

Time to end

But this abstracted attitude, more than brutal events in themselves, is at the heart of the movies’ troublesome romanticizing of violence. It’s a way of evading the real implications of such acts; creativity crowds out culpability. Right after September 11, commentators predicted the end of irony, the end of filmed violence, the end of reality TV – reality had become so real that nothing short of extreme scrupulousness could ever measure up. But they were wrong – for now there’s still a place for hard-edged escapism. But really, if you think about it for a second, should it be fun to watch “pure sadism”? After all, that’s how most of us have chosen to label the terrorists. We know they have motives and a worldview, but the consequences for the West are so horrific that we can barely accept them as such. So, effectively, as far as we’re concerned, they’re pure sadists. And there’s nothing that’s “fun” about them, or what they might yet do, or what the pursuit of them might do to us.

In the thirty years since Duel, dozens of films functioned by positing such sadism – in our homes, our institutions, our trains and planes and buses. But now we know it exists, and what the consequences are. Surely it’s time for such gleeful choreographing of violence to end. Joy Ride is negligible as a character piece, or as something meaningful, so it’s the style and pace and orchestration that critics are responding to. But Rusty Nail is actually exactly the kind of “artist” that Stockhausen was pilloried for evoking.

The irony is that we’ve been awed by stunts and special effects for so long, they’ve become routine. Even if you pursued Stockhausen’s line of thinking, I doubt the terrorists would qualify as great artists – they’re not original enough for that. They’d merely be echoing the cold-minded commerce that underlies such movies. Stockhausen’s statement was almost as barren as a commentary on art as on politics. But the antipathy he aroused ought to be the death knell for a certain type of cinema.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Three titles

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2001)

Maybe the title of the Coen Brothers’ new film, The Man Who Wasn’t There, gives the strategy away a bit too much. The Coens’ films have occasionally been criticized for having more style than substance, for constructing dazzling structures and surfaces at the cost of much emotional or thematic weight (although, times being what they are, they’re probably among the five or ten most esteemed American filmmakers nevertheless). Maybe the new film is their attempt to take this point of view head on – to construct perhaps their most dazzling surface yet, while making it harder than ever to locate the movie’s centre – indeed, glorifying the very absence of one.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

The movie is cast in the mold of a classic film noir – a twisted tale of adultery, double-crossing, sexual tension and murder, with lots of devious plotting, misplaced guilt, and juicy characters (with names like Creighton Tolliver and Big Dave Brewster). It’s even shot in black and white – although the tones have an ultra-modern silvery shine to them. Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed, a 40s small town barber who doesn’t talk much, except to the audience in his voice-over narration. His wife is having an affair with her boss, and when Thornton has an impulse to invest in a new-fangled business venture (dry-cleaning), he decides to raise the money by blackmailing the boss. Things lead to a late-night fight between the two men, and Thornton kills him, but it’s his wife who gets arrested. Which, of course, is merely the film’s first act.

Thornton perfectly embodies the character’s extreme recessiveness and oddly abstract quality – the character does the things that film noir characters have always done, and that we’ve always known to attribute to avarice or sexual jealousy or a wretched temper or suchlike. In this case, the motivation is stripped away – Ed just plays the cards he’s dealt, regardless where they lie with regard to the law. The film’s several references to UFOs seem designed to orient us toward the cosmic – and maybe Ed’s most tangible quality is a vague yearning for transformation. He becomes preoccupied with a young girl who plays the piano – he doesn’t have much of a sense of what the music’s about, or of how good she really is, but she seems to embody a notion of something finer. When she reveals herself to have a cheap streak, it’s basically the end of the road for him.

The Coens have fun with the classic tropes of the genre, and the movie is always entertaining. But it’s an odd project, and a bit of a barren one. Ed could have been one of the scariest creations in movie history, and I think everyone involved knows that, but the movie sells those implications short for the sake of a more insinuating overall effect.


On the subject of easy-seeming titles, what about the Swedish film Together, which depicts life in a mid-70s commune? When I tell you the film concludes with a soccer game in the snow, uniting just about everyone in the cast (even the suspicious next-door neighbor), and with an ABBA song on the soundtrack, it’s fair to expect a pretty soft touch of a movie. And that’d be true maybe half of the time. But the ABBA song is S.O.S., the lyrics of which strike at least a slightly plaintive note in this context. And along the way, the film is fairly clear-eyed and raw about the limits of this living arrangement.

The commune, with its notions of openness and self-sufficiency and ideological purity, looks quaint from this distance – perhaps from any distance. Director Lukas Moodysson is hard-pressed not to play some of the characters purely for laughs – such as the born-again lesbian who zooms in on every visiting woman (for some reason, her ex-husband’s parallel discovery of homosexuality seems like a more meaningful growth journey). And he builds the film around a rather dull story of a woman and her kids who’ve moved into the commune to escape a loutish husband. But his vivid, intimate approach, darting between incidents, builds considerable authenticity, and the movie’s infectious quality ultimately seems legitimately earned. The film suffers though through being reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, another commune-based film with a more daring thesis and a wider emotional range.

Mulholland Drive

The title of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive definitely doesn’t give too much away. Skeptics might say that the movie doesn’t either. The Coens’ movie may have a man who isn’t there, but you can’t be sure that Lynch’s has any real characters at all. At first it seems to be about a young actress who comes to seek her fortune in Hollywood, and crosses paths with a femme fatale-type who’s on the run from something but can’t remember what. Hints of conspiracies and weird doings haunt the edges of this central story. But after about ninety minutes, the movie goes into a very different mode, in which the relationships between the characters have all changed, and most of what’s been set out so far now appears unreliable.

The internet is already full of speculation on what the movie actually means (there’s a particularly heroic effort at salon,com). I can’t add much to questions of literal interpretation (such as whether or not the entire first section is merely the dream of one of the characters). In broader terms, the crux of the movie seems to me to be the narcissism and self-absorption at the heart of Hollywood – the image-making and self-positioning. If this seems a rather old-fashioned theme, more suited for a Hollywood that’s largely been lost – well, that’s what Lynch gives us here: a faded, seedy milieu where artistry takes second place to staying on the right side of gangsters.

The title of Lynch’s movie evokes a scene that’s played twice in the film, first as the centre of an apparently deadly plot, the second time as a stopover on the way to another dumb Hollywood party. So maybe that’s a hint to what’s going on. But of the three films reviewed here, Lynch’s is clearly the least susceptible to conventional analysis and description. Immediately after watching it, I thought I preferred the relative coherence of The Straight Story, and I thought Lost Highway and Blue Velvet more scintillating examples of Lynch’s “weird” mode. But the movie’s stayed in my mind – not so much because of its narrative mysteries, but because of the sense that Lynch has captured the complexities of something real and significant while still indulging his considerable idiosyncrasies to the hilt. Lynch and Coen shared the Cannes best director prize this year, but I’d say Lynch should have had it all to himself.

(PS I subsequently returned to Mulholland Drive here).

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Gay times

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2001)

In Francis Veber’s The Closet, Daniel Auteuil plays a rather mediocre accountant who overhears that he’s going to be fired. This happens in a washroom stall of course; in movies, the washroom stall regularly yields up secrets that in real life couldn’t be cracked by the FBI. So that evening he nearly kills himself by jumping off the balcony. Most of us would probably view this as an over-reaction (he could at least have waited until it was official) but we’d be forgetting that thwarted suicide is a time-honored device for kicking off a comedy set-up. He’s saved by his new neighbor, who gets him talking, and the next morning presents him a grand scheme to stall the firing. If a company fired an employee right after finding out he was gay, it would be obvious discrimination. So Auteuil has to come out of a closet that he was never in!

Lost in translation

If you think this is a witty and imaginative premise, then the movie will probably work just fine for you. The audience I saw it with (which, for whatever reason, contained a higher than average quota of elderly ladies) seemed highly predisposed to enjoy it. Several people laughed themselves silly, in the opening minutes, at the following unremarkable exchange: “Poor guy”/”He’s an idiot.” Maybe they were Francophones, responding to something that the subtitles lost in translation. There was even a fair-sized smattering of applause at the end, which is unusual nowadays.

But as Letterman sometimes says about some of his routines, The Closet only has the appearance of comedy rather than being the actual thing. It’s only eighty minutes long, and moves along pretty quickly, as an actual comedy would. As well as the stuff I mentioned already, it has twists and turns, fights, misunderstandings, an over the top nervous breakdown, and a guy wearing a condom-shaped hat. Sounds like comedy to me so far. But Veber is up to his usual trick (last exhibited in the equally awful, but also much-loved The Dinner Game) – he makes a movie so anachronistic and musty that it ends up seeming as if he’s mining some kind of wonderful classicism. The film opens with the kind of jaunty sitcom music you never get in a movie any more, and its title pops up on screen in big red lettering of the kind that was used to advertise Carry on Doctor. The cinematography of Veber’s films doesn’t exactly fall into the “painting with light” category – everything’s bright and plain and to the point. No shadows to be seen, literally or figuratively.


Veber’s plots often spring from unlikely schemes or ploys that push one or more of the characters into excess. In The Closet, Gerard Depardieu (his every scene suffused with the sense of physical and artistic bloat) plays the factory’s homophobic personnel manager. Some colleagues convince him that in the company’s new gay-friendly environment, he may lose his own job if he doesn’t tone it down and reach out to Auteuil. Depardieu is funny for a while, but then the character’s supposed to get confused about what his real feelings are, and everything goes adrift (he ended up reminding me of Herbert Lom’s Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies).

The theme of The Closet, such as it is, is that by introducing some sexual ambiguity into the way he’s perceived, Auteuil gains greater confidence and control over his own life, and rubs off a positive influence on most people around him. A co-worker who’s ignored him for five years suddenly finds him attractive; his disinterested son starts dropping in for dinner. But the film is a stacked deck. In a company employing close to a hundred people, would the revelation of one homosexual really be such a galvanizing topic? Not in downtown Toronto for sure. The Toronto audience seems to go along with it anyway, on the basis I suppose that the film’s not about us but about someone else (maybe it’s set in the same France that the Coneheads come from).

Veber only ever works in France, but he reportedly prefers living in Los Angeles, rendering his films somewhat foreign (and therefore subject to being allowed some slack) no matter where you’re from. Even the title sums up the fuzziness. The Closet is a perfectly generic, easily digestible, title for a comedy with a gay premise. But since the movie is specifically not about being in, or having been in, a closet, it seems a lazy choice.

If only Veber had slowed down occasionally and traded in a little efficiency for the sake of individuality. This year’s films have been severely short of interesting characters. But at least a couple of them turn up in another current movie, Crazy/Beautiful. Kirsten Dunst plays a rich girl who’s into drink and drugs and heading nowhere fast. She hooks up with a diligent, hard-working kid from an immigrant family (Jay Fernandez), and starts to pull him off track.


If The Closet occupies a nowhere land of its own, Crazy/Beautiful is at least recognizably contemporary. It’s a rather compromised version of that though – reportedly due to commercial pressures on the director John Stockwell (it certainly looks that way in the finished film). Dunst seems game for just about anything, and in some of her high-octane freewheeling life force moments is just about as naturalistic as any actor ever gets. But the film is restrained on the details of her condition (we don’t see any drugs or sex), and has rather too many easily digestible montages of frolic and fun, and too much of its lush California setting in general. The ending is soft, although maybe all I mean by this is that it’s a happy ending. Basically, for all its qualities, Crazy/Beautiful ends up seeming mainly like a movie for teenagers.

But it has some genuine pain tucked in there. Dunst’s father, played by Bruce Davison (who suggests a more complex back story and inner calculation than the film can accommodate), advises Fernandez to stay away from her for its own good, essentially writing her off to oblivion. Davison’s character is a former radical, now a Congressman, still apparently in touch with his idealism, which makes this personal betrayal all the sadder, and Dunst’s reaction when she finds out is as lacerating as it should be. Sometimes at least, the movie manages not to pull its punches. Even if you’re not a teenager, it’s a much better use of time than The Closet. Even if you’re gay. Even if you’re just pretending to be.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Dog film

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2001)

I don’t digress as much on these columns as I used to. Three or four years ago, the movie at hand would often be filtered through an anecdote about my wife or my dog or a passing comment on the political issue of the day: the intention was that the personal elaboration should serve to illuminate the film, but with hindsight I doubt how often it succeeded. Nowadays I’m a bit more disciplined about that much at least. But, for one week only, the new Mexican film Amores Perros will prompt a major regression, for this is one of the great dog movies of all time – and who could write about that impersonally?

About Pasolini

My dog is a two-and-a-half-year old Labrador retriever, and he wouldn’t do very well in the hard-edged canine world of Amores Perros, for he’s very sweet, without an aggressive bone in his body, and he’s a bit of a coward too. He’s named Pasolini, and yes, that is a reference to the corrosive Marxist homosexual poet and director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was murdered under sordid circumstances in 1975 (I’m always a bit disappointed, in this culturally sophisticated city, how few people get the reference). Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales is one of my favourite guilty pleasure type movies, and the perversity of saddling a little puppy with such a loaded name always appealed to my wayward side, but it’s been a great name for him apart from that – it has a playful air about it, and we generally call him Paso for short, which sounds properly mischievous.

Anyway, I’ve never made any secret about it that the dog was my wife’s idea, and I just sort of went along with it, and I thought I’d made a terrible mistake in the early days when the dog acted like a little terror and bonded solely with my wife – I was at best ignored and at worst snarled at. But we came through all that, and Paso and I are now real buddies. We must be real buddies, because the dog absorbs hours of my time, and yet I still provoke him so he can use up a bit more. If you’ve ever been downtown, especially in the St. Lawrence market neighborhood, and you saw an 83-pound lab pulling along a thin guy, that was probably us.

My wife and I both feel that our lives are much fuller for having Pasolini, that tending to him keeps us better-balanced, maybe tending off potential selfishness or self-absorption; and we’re both constantly moved by him, seeing something mystically fascinating about the depth of his happiness and goodwill. Sadly, we may learn something from him about lows as well as highs, for Paso isn’t in the best of shape – he has hip dysplasia affecting his hind legs, and degenerative arthritis in his front (this, I repeat, at the age of two and a half).

Dogs in film

My experience with Paso doesn’t mean I’ve become a sucker for every dog-related merchandising scam, although it’s the only thing that made me pay to see Dog Park (I would have seen Best in Show regardless, but I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much). But whenever I come across an essay or an article about the magical qualities of dogs I smile in recognition. And I certainly seem to remember a lot of movies primarily for their dog content. The dog wearing shoes in Bowfinger cracked me up, for instance, and it seems to me a major problem in the current documentary Dark Days that we never find out what happened to the four dogs that lived underground with their owner, once he was installed in an above-ground apartment.

Of course, dogs are normally used in movies for sentimental purposes, and I’m a sucker for that too. Amores Perros is notably free of sentimentality. On the contrary, the movie is so raw in depicting dog fighting and related abuse that it’s aroused some minor controversy.

It consists of three interlocking narratives. The dogfighting provides a backdrop to the first, in which a young unemployed man tries to earn enough money to run away with his brother’s wife by putting his Doberman to work in the fighting pits. In the third narrative, a former guerilla lives as a down-and-outer with a collection of mangy dogs, foraging for garbage and occasionally taking on hit-man assignments. These are gritty, hard-edged stories, roasted in the sweat and striving of the city’s back streets, with the threat of violence vivid in every breath the characters take.

Under the floorboards

The middle story is about a supermodel who moves in with a new boyfriend, injures her leg in a car accident, and spends long days in her sterile apartment as the relationship falls apart. The dog in this section is a fuzzy little thing who gets trapped under the floorboards, where his sad yapping haunts their days and nights: the plight of this pampered little thing, although real enough, seems potentially trivial against the savagery of the other two sections. This section of Amores Perros plays a role similar to the Catherine Zeta-Jones sequence in Traffic – it’s easier to shrug it off as a contrivance (I guess it’s always easier to shrug off the problems of the rich than those of the poor, especially if they don’t seem to deserve their money to begin with) but it provides different thematic territory and at least demonstrates the scope of the director’s talent.

I don’t think Amores Perros has any points of brilliance, but it has many of great interest. Sometimes too reminiscent of Pulp Fiction (the three interlocking narratives involving various shifts in time; a relish for the contours of low-life dealings), and with a visual style typical of so many recent Dogme-style movies, it ends up with its own identity, Much of this reflects its immersion in the currents of Mexico City, but it also speaks to how director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu keeps things intimate, never letting attitude and grand design overwhelm the characters.

Amores Perros was nominated for the foreign film Oscar this year, but lost to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which seems to me the right result. The first time I saw Ang Lee’s film I was dazzled by the choreography but it took a second viewing for me to appreciate the film’s philosophical elegance. I doubt whether a second viewing of Amores Perros would be as revealing. And with Pasolini’s demanding walk and play schedule, I’m lucky I get to see as many movies as I do even once.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Battle of the sexes

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2001)

The US stage hit The Vagina Monologues played recently in Toronto, and received a surprisingly snippy reception from local critics. They found it obvious, even puerile. Leah McLaren, for instance, characterized the play as an expression of frustrations and repressions that most (just Canadian?) women her age were never burdened by to begin with. Which isn’t to say that there’s no such thing as genre-based behavioural difference – McLaren cites her fascination with her own eggs. But these differences may now be sufficiently clearly stipulated that stridency or militancy on the issues appears woefully obsolete. On the other hand, The Vagina Monologues was a hit – so maybe it’s not so obvious to everyone.

Dr. T & the Women

I work on a team of 23 people, of whom only 3 are male. Given how much of my own day involves being the only man in sight, I’ve been thinking that when I look back on this period, I may realize that Robert Altman’s recent Dr. T & the Women should have been an emblematic film in my life. In that film, Richard Gere as a prosperous Southern gynecologist negotiates female trouble galore, from wives and daughters to adoring staff to an over-scheduled appointment list that finds the waiting room in perpetual chaos.

Gere plays it cool and laid-back, and although his performance was compared to Cary Grant in some quarters, I read the film more as a chronicle of smugness earning its comeuppance, in which Gere learns more than he can handle about female diversity. And how much diversity is that exactly? Well, nothing special – just that a woman might be content to abandon a love affair at a certain point, or might be amazed that anyone could expect her to leave her career to serve a lover’s vision. I doubt that Altman finds these ideas revelatory, but Dr. T does – and the movie consequently ends in a vision of utter cataclysm. I think it works very well, as long as you take the grimmest possible reading of what the protagonist’s attitude really amounts to.

Watching the new Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want, I was often reminded of Altman’s film (not just because Helen Hunt plays the hero’s main object of affection in both cases), but usually to the newer film’s detriment. Dr. T opens with one of Altman’s trademark long, highly orchestrated sequences, tracking the comings and goings at the waiting room as things gradually fly out of control – the scene is a blizzard of incident and observation that perfectly establishes one of the key coordinates of Gere’s universe even though (or in large part because) he doesn’t appear in the scene. What Women Want, in contrast, opens with a very broad explanation of its protagonist’s problems – he’s a heel who treats women like objects, because he grew up around too many Las Vegas showgirls and gamblers.

Now grown up into a successful ad executive, he’s threatened by the arrival of a new female boss (Hunt) who wants to take the agency in a more female-friendly direction. Researching feminine products that night in his bathroom, he suffers a freak accident that gives him the power to hear women’s thoughts – a talent that he exploits to forge better relationships with his colleagues and his teenage daughter and to steal Hunt’s ideas before she even knows she has them.

Rat Pack

The film has very little complexity – it’s simply plotted, moving straightforwardly from one set-up to the next – but it’s strangely literal in its approach to the subject. The accident (attributable to partial electrocution while wearing stockings and surrounded by cosmetics) is dramatized more painstakingly than anything else in the film, as though the viewer might be expected to try it at home. A character tells Gibson, “If you know what women want, you can rule,” and as far as I can tell, the film accepts straightforwardly that there is something that women (distinct from men) want, that it’s possible to know what that something is and, indeed, that you could ride that insight to glory. Somehow though, the movie dances around revealing much about what the something might be (it’s pretty well-established that better sex is part of it though – go figure).

The film’s main strength is probably Gibson, radiating good spirits, chattering away and clad for much of the movie in form-fitting black that makes it look as though he’s attending some kind of improv workshop. He’s ingratiating for sure, but nothing about the performance connects very deeply. At some point it appears that he’s passed from merely exploiting his abilities to learning from them (becoming a nice guy), but from what’s presented it’s entirely plausible that he’s merely learned how to be a more subtle and efficient heel. This though is the kind of ambiguity that the film consistently fails to detect or accommodate. Another example – Gibson’s character is an aficionado of vintage Sinatra, and the film is accompanied by the emblematic renditions of songs like I Won’t Dance and I’ve Got You Under My Skin. But one simply can’t tell to what extent this is supposed to put us in mind of the misogynistic, rat-pack contortions of that period in Sinatra’s life.

Mirror of society

To sum all of that up, the title of What Women Want ought to be ironic, but it isn’t. The title is apparently reminiscent of a question asked by Freud, but I think the movie may be inspired more by Christina Aguilera (they might have made a good Joan Crawford movie out of it though, circa 1942). Maybe this is the epitome of a movie that looks mildly daring to small-town fundamentalists and regressive to seen-it-all urban liberals. It’s a huge hit, so it must do the trick for someone. Maybe our views on gender differences, while progressing in some areas, just go round in circles on others (I used to think that the 1968 movie Guide for the Married Man and the 1972 The War Between Men and Women had titles and premises that would never be utilized nowadays, but I may have to reconsider).

It's rather mysterious to me that Helen Hunt would have made these two films in quick succession. She’s regarded as one of the more intelligent and perceptive actresses, so what would be the appeal of playing twice over a woman who’s little more than a vehicle for a man’s self-discovery? But they say Hollywood is a mirror of society, so maybe she’s on to something. Still, I would have thought that Ann Hulbert closed the issue off in a recent New York Times article: “What do women want? The answer…is obvious: everything. (Isn’t that what everyone wants?)” Might not sound so profound, and I think Altman was on to it, but it’s more than you’ll get from Mel Gibson.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Desert island

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2001)

Cast Away is one of the more intriguing recent Hollywood films. If nothing else, it exhibits some mild audacity in the face of commercial expectations, primarily by devoting the greater part of its length to largely silent sequences, featuring a single actor, alone on a desert island. The castaway, Chuck Noland, is played by Tom Hanks, the only survivor from the crash of a Federal Express cargo plane. He spends four years alone, before setting out to sea on a raft. The film’s trailer, and just about all reviews of the movie, are pretty open about the fact that he makes it back to civilization – this isn’t a story of what, but of how.

Hanks’ third Oscar?

Hanks’ commitment to the role pays off in a physical transformation that’s quite moving at times. At the start, he effectively suppresses his mannerisms, sketching a driven, comfortably plump businessman who preaches the gospel of timeliness and tears himself away from Christmas dinner to do the company’s bidding. I’ve always thought that Al Pacino’s performance in The Godfather, from fresh-faced outsider at the start to dead-eyed Don at the end, marked one of the most chilling transformations in any film; Hanks almost matches that standard here. After the action leaps four years, Zemeckis provides a long close-up of Hanks eating a fish that he’s speared – his eyes don’t blink; they’re held steady by faded resignation, just staying alive, keeping on breathing, waiting. As I write, I don’t know whether Hanks won a third Oscar for this – but if he did, he deserved it more than the previous two.

I like the film, but I don’t think it’s as adventurous as some commentators have claimed. It’s around two and a half hours long, but it goes by in a flash. In an age when so many mundane offerings (like Hanks’ The Green Mile) plod on beyond the three-hour mark, I started wondering whether the film mightn’t have been even better if it were longer. I started thinking how stillness, repetition and silence paid off for Chantal Akerman in Jeanne Dielman (a 200-minute study of a housewife), for Andy Warhol, for Jacques Rivette in several films.

What Lies Beneath

Of course, when I say paid off, I’m speaking artistically rather than commercially. American films don’t show loneliness, boredom, repetition – that’s as good a reason as any why they generally don’t tell us much about the way we live. They communicate those states of being – if they’re necessary for the plot – through montages, or snatches of dialogue, or close-ups. Cast Away is no different in this regard. It doesn’t particularly make us feel the weight of Hanks’ four-year isolation. It telegraphs that state as American films always do. The scenes on the island are hardly lacking in incident – actually Zemeckis speeds along quite zippily from one pivotal incident (learning how to open a coconut, extracting a diseased tooth) to the next (learning how to make fire, catching a fish). We see Hanks talking about building a raft – the next thing we see, it’s all ready to go.

Bear in mind that the filming of Cast Away closed down for a year to accommodate Hanks’ physical transformation, and in the interim Zemeckis completed an entire separate movie – What Lies Beneath, released last summer. What Lies Beneath was hardly as ambitious a project as Cast Away, but it shares an unusually deliberate pace for a mainstream film, a certain structural adventurousness (most of the first half of What Lies Beneath is devoted to a plot that turns out to be a tease, and irrelevant to the film’s ultimate direction) and it’s unusually restrained and contemplative for a thriller. Consider the long sequence in which Michelle Pfeiffer lies paralyzed in her bathtub as the water level slowly rises – staged without background music, building considerable suspense from the fact of her stillness and inability to act.

For me, the comparison with What Lies Beneath is instructive regarding Cast Away’s limits. I don’t think the film is a radical departure from storytelling norms and techniques; it’s a variation on them, but positioned safely within accessible limits. For example, Zemeckis’ use of space and silence is unusually striking for a mainstream film, but it doesn’t have the transcendental quality of Antonioni, or even of David Lynch in The Straight Story. At times it comes close. It seemed to me that the film contained an intriguing recurring use of circular motifs – an overhead shot of the life raft, the fading light from Hanks’ flashlight as he falls asleep in a dark cave, followed by the sun streaming in through the entrance; girlfriend Helen Hunt’s picture inside an antique pocket watch; his friend Wilson (see below). But when Hanks is on a plane coming home after the rescue, we see a view of hundreds of fields below, the landscape divided into countless geometrically precise parcels – instantly and subtly conveying the disorientation that accompanies Hanks’ return to order. At the very end, Zemeckis simply allows the character to bask in the vastness of the American landscape and its attendant possibilities.

Return to the world

Many critics have found the material on either side of the desert island sequence lacking – too suffused in mainstream values and attitudes to do justice to the modest radicalism of the film’s centre. Personally though, I thought the closing stretch was well-judged in conveying Noland’s sense of the world to which he returns – sterile spaces, strange artificial noises and (in a scene no less acute for being an easy mark) a buffet table piled with barely appreciated food. When he’s reunited with Hunt, and neither has any reference point for how to behave, the scene convincingly charts the odd topography of their conversation. And Zemeckis’ elliptical approach to the storytelling (for example leaving out the rescue itself, or most of the detail about how Hanks reintegrates into the world) is always intriguing.

I also mentioned the film’s famous “co-star” – the volleyball that’s washed up on the island in a FedEx package, on which Hanks draws a face using his own blood and to whom he converses at increasing length as his exile lengthens. Called “Wilson,” the idea never becomes comic, largely because the face looks more ghoulish than cute. Zemeckis gets perilously close to anthropomorphism here though, through such devices as the wind or the waves nudging Wilson into a nod or shake. But like most everything else in the film, it holds together.

Ultimately, Cast Away succeeds substantially. It never seems like a mere stunt. Numerous aspects that might seem strained on paper (the character’s presumably symbolic surname of “Noland”; the irony of an efficiency-obsessed clockwatcher ending up with nothing but time on his hands) are dispatched deftly. I’ve argued above that the film could have been better, but the likes of Rivette and Antonioni would never have come even vaguely to mind if it weren’t as good as it is.