Sunday, June 4, 2017

Castles and dreams

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2001)

Robert Redford’s new film The Last Castle was apparently going to be called The Castle, but the title was changed to avoid confusion with an innocuous Australian comedy from a couple of years ago. Surely the concern ought to have been about confusion with Kafka’s novel. But it’s revealing that it wasn’t. For this is a film of amazingly limited thematic or metaphorical intent – so limited that the very absence of subtext becomes the movie’s most intriguing, almost gripping, element.

Redford plays an almost legendary army general who disobeyed orders on his last mission in Burundi, and gets sent to a military prison (known as the Castle). It’s run by James Gandolfini, an effective but brutal and unethical disciplinarian. Slowly becoming appalled by Gandolfini’s methods, Redford decides he’s not fit for the job, organizes the rabble of inmates into an effective machine, and launches a coup. The film culminates, of course, in a fight for control of the Castle.

Stars and Stripes

The climax focuses on the Stars and Stripes, and the movie is obviously about various notions of honor, justice, duty and integrity. It’s awfully hard though to nail down exactly how it’s about these things. It’s not very explicit about matters, except in occasional snatches of dialogue that’s too sentimental and hackneyed to be listened to. It has a pervasive lack of humour, lightness, or irony. It takes place entirely in the Castle, which ought to lend itself to an intriguing abstraction. Yet the movie seems uninterested in crafting more than a strictly functional portrayal of that environment. In some of the dialogue, and especially in the tactics used by the prisoners, the film draws a parallel with the Middle Ages – but it’s hard to see why.

The casting adds to the sense of something missing. Redford is an interesting presence here, but seems too reflective to be the awesome battlefield mastermind and hard-ass that everyone keeps talking about. I don’t think that’s a miscasting though – the film seems to be using Redford’s star image in an old-fashioned way, letting him be essentially himself, but using our knowledge of his liberal credentials to deepen the character’s resonances. Much the same goes for Gandolfini, whose performance here is a much more effective confounding of his Tony Soprano persona than his more stunt-like casting as a gay hitman in The Mexican. They’re both fascinating. But what does the casting actually mean? Why do we need the particular resonances that Redford brings to the role, rather than (say) the more traditional bull-headedness that Clint Eastwood would have embodied? It’s impossible to know. Both characters are given only very limited back story – we have to take them pretty much as we find them: again an apparent strategy of abstraction that counts for very little here.

Waking Life

The Last Castle was directed by Rob Lurie, whose last film was The Contender. I thought that was an awful movie, but it was certainly brimming with ambition and at least a bit of life. It’s very hard to know how this makes sense as a follow-up. The new film is entertaining and well-handled, and seems intelligent enough within the parameters of a big-budget Hollywood movie. But it seems to be dallying with a vision that never comes to fruition.

As a contrast, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life is all vision, all fruition (no real story, but how often can you have everything?) The loosely structured film follows a slacker-type young man drifting from one conversation to another – people talking at (rather than to) him about their theories of life, the universe and everything. The film is in love with the sound and contour of unabashed “deep” conversation, although the approach is often somewhat precious, like listening to a parade of college students on an oral exam. As it progresses, the theme of wakingness versus dreaming comes to the fore, and the protagonist comes to perceive this entire string of encounters as an extended dream, one from which he can’t seem to wake up. He wonders whether this is what death is.

If that were the whole film, it would be intriguing, but not a great advance on Linklater’s earlier films (which include the wonderfully entertaining Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise). But Linklater did something unique – after filming the movie on digital video, he had a team of computer-assisted animators overlay every frame. At its simplest it’s a tracing and coloring exercise, but the style varies hugely from scene to scene. It’s sometimes impressionistic (so when a character talks about our bodies being composed mainly of water, we fleetingly see him as pure liquid), sometimes weird and ghostly, sometimes making broad caricatures of people, sometimes almost resembling a child’s doodling. If that sounds like a gimmick, it’s remarkable how the technique preserves – or sometimes even enhances – the subtlety of the actors’ expressions and gestures.

Or whatever

It’s a consistently strange film to look at – at once familiar and unprecedented. And this of course enhances and extends the central theme – the character’s uncertainty over his state of being is echoed in our own uncertainty over what it is we’re watching. The approach suggests a world that’s struggling to make sense of itself, continually in danger of losing its basic identity, stretched and prodded in line with its characters’ ideas. This definitely makes even the film’s most dubious patches of conversation seem more worthy of reflection.

I can’t quite agree though with the sizeable body of opinion that Waking Life is one of the year’s best films. The flow of probing talk and painstaking technique never lets up, meaning that for all its free flowing structure, the film feels a bit didactic and oppressive. Another problem for me is that the subjects being discussed often aren’t actually all that interesting. This is, I admit, a wholly subjective reservation, and may only tip off the reader to my own superficiality. But I would rather watch films dealing with sex, or identity, or politics – things in other words that we might be able to do something about (and maybe even use the ideas we get from movies as a springboard to do it better). Waking Life, for all its excellence, may not forge much of a connection with people who, once the movie’s over, have a life to be getting on with. Regardless that we may just be a dream in God’s brain. Or whatever.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mysterious movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

I keep a database of notes on every movie I see, new or old. Sometimes I start out describing a film as being difficult or obscure or hard to assimilate, but then in the process of writing about it I arrange things in my mind and end up identifying it almost as a masterpiece. Likewise, I sometimes start these articles thinking I’m going to write a thumbs-down, and find to my own surprise and pleasure that it ends up the opposite. In such cases, I think I subsequently remember that sense of discovery more than I remember the specifics of the movies themselves. This may entail that they become even more elevated in my subsequent memory. Sometimes a second viewing supports this reassessment; sometimes not.


Some films almost seem designed to be played with in this fashion – to be even more of an optical illusion than all movies are already. I especially love movies that seem in command of their own mysteries. I’m not thinking of conscious jigsaw puzzles like Memento – that’s too deliberate and hermetic a challenge for my taste – and I’m not thinking about rootless quirkiness. I’m thinking of films that are unprecedented in their specific wisdom as well as their structure.

I started thinking about this after watching Bob Rafelson’s King of Marvin Gardens again the other day – for a while I was thinking it seemed more fragmented and offputting than I remembered, then it all came together for me. After that I went to see Jon Favreau’s new film Made, about a couple of guys who think they’re going to make it in the world of Big Crime when they get sent on a job. Made concentrates closely  on its main characters, and it’s much more interested in behaviour and interplay than in narrative. Some people have compared the texture to a John Cassavetes film.

That’s very high praise in my book – for me, Cassavetes films like Husbands and (especially) Love Streams are saturated in the qualities I was talking about. Made, unfortunately, is not. One of the main characters, played by Vince Vaughn – basically a stupid, self-regarding weight around the other’s neck – is allowed to be ingratiating, even cute, and never has to answer for anything. That’s not much like Cassavetes. The film cares far too much about keeping the laughs coming. Even the short running time of around 95 minutes testifies to its strained audience-friendliness – Cassavetes usually had trouble keeping his films at manageable length.

Its ending, though, has stuck in my mind, and almost serves to place the whole thing on a higher level (potential spoiler ahead here). When the Favreau character returns from the job, thinking he can start a new chapter with his lap-dancer girlfriend, she rebuffs him instead; when he expresses concern for her daughter, she tells him just to take the kid. Which he does, and in the epilogue some months later he and Vaughn seem to be sustaining an unconventional family.

George Washington

It’s rather hard to relate this development to the rest of the film, but the mother’s abandonment is genuinely cruel and shocking, and the two men’s reaction to it seems like much more fruitful territory than the earlier stuff about setting up a drop point and whether or not they should carry a gun. It’s almost as though Favreau realized what a parched movie he’d ended up making, and couldn’t resist a crazy attempt to do something that might thrust the whole thing into greater profundity – a grungy equivalent of the revelation at the end of The Sixth Sense.

That’s a small thing though compared to David Gordon Green’s George Washington – one of the best films of the year so far. Set in a derelict corner of North Carolina, it follows some kids, mostly black kids, as they hang out and see what happens. Some of the kids are precocious – like the 12-year-old that dumps her boyfriend for someone more mature; others just do the best they can. The film has a languid pace, and it’s full of lightly poignant dialogue like this exchange: “It’s too bad you can’t see the stars on account of the smoke”/”My room ain’t got no windows anyway.”

This is all fine, but a little of it goes a long way, and the film drags for a while. Then a tragedy strikes one of the kids. The scene itself is beautifully conceived and executed, but when the other kids try to cover it up, the film threatens to enter familiar melodramatic territory. The sense of contrivance deepens as one of the kids saves another from drowning, becoming a local hero. He responds to the praise by starting to run around town in a makeshift superhero costume, convinced he may have the power to save more lives.

Of the imagination

As the film’s narrative becomes stranger, everything else about it becomes richer, culminating in a series of images that’s almost hallucinatory. The 12-year-old girl I mentioned seems to be directed as a knowing scene-stealer in the early scenes, but in her last appearance in the film she delivers a disconnected strand of conversation; we’re losing our sense of her – she’s threatening to dissolve into pure poetry. It becomes clear that the movie isn’t about poverty, or racial issues, or about anything much in the concretely here and now. There’s an unusual lack of pop culture in the film; there’s not much of anything to anchor it in time or place except a photo of George Bush Sr. on one of the bedroom walls. It barely distinguishes between children and adults for much of the time. In part it’s about the tentative way people attempt to anchor themselves in their environments and in their own skins. But as much as that, it appears to be a pure creation of the imagination – it could have been documentary or teen movie or much else, but found a strange muse that makes it all of these, and none of them.

I suspect that there’s something in the film to mystify or annoy just about everyone. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum got hung up over why the film only once flashes a caption to identify the date, and it does this at a point that doesn’t seem very relevant to the bigger picture. I liked that touch, but I thought that an uncle’s speech about his fear of dogs – apparently designed as a revelation – was rather silly and stilted. But I don’t want to overemphasize the film’s challenges. Really, it’s not difficult at all. Mainly you just need an open mind and a belief that relatively simple things can work to thrill in very complex ways.

Monday, May 22, 2017


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2001)

One of my friends at the office has been entertaining himself by telling people about his encounter with me at the film festival. He arrived ten minutes into the movie, and with all the seats taken in his preferred area at the back of the theater, he moved down to the first few rows. He came across a row that was empty except for one guy sitting in the aisle seat, who he recognized as me. He whispered my name as he pushed past me, but I didn’t respond. Then he tapped me on the knee, but I again didn’t respond. Then he reached across and tapped me harder, at which I finally did look round, offering a cursory smile before settling back into the movie.

Thomas in Love

I guess the point of the story is that I was unnaturally wrapped up in the movie (an especially unnatural state since this happened at the relatively unengrossing Sex and Lucia rather than at, say, Pulse). My angle on the story is that I knew some jerk was tapping me, but I figured that if I ignored him he’d just go away. It’s true that to me, hell in movie theaters is other people. I like to sit as close as possible to the screen so that I won’t be distracted by the audience. I have an unnatural memory for bad encounters – the old woman with the Scottish accent who caused me to move during The Insider, the guy with the cellphone in Bringing out the Dead, and so on.

The other week I went to see Thomas in Love at the Carlton. I got there about five minutes early and passed maybe five or six people on my way down to the front. I slumped down in my seat for ninety minutes and watched the movie. When I stood up at the end, I realized that I was the only one there. Everyone else had given up at some point during the film. Which puzzles me, because the film surely delivered well enough on what it claimed to be.

But maybe Thomas in Love is best seen in just the way I unknowingly saw it – as a film for one. It’s set in a near future where connectivity has reached its full potential. The title character is a severe agoraphobic who never leaves his apartment and can’t even bear to be in the same room with other people. Living completely alone, he communicates with the world via an all-purpose monitor. The film’s gimmick is that we never see him – we hear his voice, and we see only the screen he’s staring at. In that sense the movie consists of a single unchanging camera angle, although the format accommodates lots of diverse stuff. This includes videophone conversations with prostitutes, his mother, his shrink, and a simulated female with whom he has cybersex via some kind of sensor-laden body suit (a practice that the movie presents as being highly effective, but socially frowned upon).

Better on TV

Given the constraints, the film develops some quite effective story lines – although maybe if I knew what some people already do online or over the phone, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. The film hints at the source of dramatic tension – how can Thomas maintain a love if he won’t let anyone near him? The story arc is pleasant, but ultimately a little rushed – it reaches for an emotional impact that’s not quite there. Thomas’ voice over seemed to me too bland and monotonous, although so much time alone would do that to you.

It’s usually a put-down to say of a particular film that it might look better on TV, but that should be a fair comment for Thomas in Love, which evokes the condition of a whole life spent watching the box. Theoretically, seeing the film on TV might make you more likely to identify viscerally with Thomas’ predicament; on the other hand though, TV lives among all the distractions and paraphernalia that remind us we’re not sealed off from human contact. The movie theater is a far more insinuating environment. The street may only be feet away, people may be laughing and talking in the lobby, but there you are in this dark space, divorced from everything. If the movie works and you’re willing to go with it, you could find yourself anywhere.

The communal aspect of movies, sitting near the back with your pals and your popcorn, whispering and laughing out loud, always seems to me like an evasion of cinema’s power. If you’re watching Me, Myself & Irene, I guess it doesn’t matter – the movie virtually aspires to be hanging out with you in the aisle. I’m not necessarily criticizing – I saw that movie on cable and thought it was just fine. For me though, there’s no need to pay the premium to see it in the theater. If I were interested in the nature and texture of communal experiences, it’d be different. But when I talk to people about movies, I realize how it never occurs to them, even to some of the smartest people I know, that if they put everything else aside for a couple of hours, if they let the coordinates slip, the movie might repay the effort ten times over.


Did everyone all walk out on Thomas in Love because they decided they’d save it for TV? Who knows? Maybe it’s just coincidence – a few people all realizing they’d left the oven on.

This is a wacky town for movies. There’s not a week when the New York Times doesn’t carry ads for five or six cool movies that will never make it here. They’re usually foreign films of course. But then, on the other hand, the Carlton will occasionally make a totally unexpected programming move. Thomas in Love hasn’t played in the States to my knowledge. And Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure recently opened out of the blue – four years old, but extremely welcome.

Cure is one of the best releases of the year, but we’re in a year where even the best releases are a touch disappointing. I know Kurosawa’s work only from his most recent aforementioned Pulse, which played at this year’s film festival. Maybe there’s a problem with seeing his work in reverse – after the apocalyptic Pulse, the more intimate traumas of Cure seem a little tentative. But the film – about a detective investigating a series of apparently unrelated murders – has superb poise. It’s very much a genre exercise, certainly a cousin to standard-issue serial killer fare, but it manages to make the plot mechanics reflective of our deepest fears about the fragility of relationships and self-identity. You don’t want to be tapped on the knee during this movie, even by someone you know.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Too many games

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2001)

Just as The Last Castle retreats from theatres  (a clear box office failure), Robert Redford returns in Spy Game – clearly a shrewder commercial calculation if only because it only stars Brad Pitt. I wrote a couple of weeks ago of my bemusement at The Last Castle’s lack of much significance. In Spy Game, things are a little clearer – the movie is superficial, and doesn’t care who knows it.

It may not have helped me that just before going to Spy Game, I’d been watching The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, the 1975 German film about the interrogation and media hounding of a young woman who’s been having a relationship with a wanted anarchist. Katharina Blum isn’t perfect by a long shot – it’s very strong on the portrayal of the woman and the ambiguous implications of her interactions with the system, but has substantially less finesse in how it bangs the drum against the gutter press. In a case like this though, the flaws are no less integral to the film’s ability to provoke. It’s a film of unquestioned serious intent, with the overall facility to support that ambition.

Katharina Blum

Katharina Blum is a contemporary of the golden age of Redford’s career, when he made The Candidate and All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor and The Way we Were. One might forget how even that latter film, the memory of which tends to be shaped by its sappy title song, spends considerable time tracking the workings of the McCarthy era. It’s as if there was a brief period when entertainment could hardly avoid being challenging. Now flash forward. Katharina Blum was co-directed by Volker Schlondorff, who in 1979 would win an Oscar for The Tin Drum. In 1998 he made the Woody Harrelson potboiler Palmetto, at which time he seemed ready to renounce his former achievements. Schlondorff said: “I want to be more like my brothers who are doctors – just do the operation.” He said of Palmetto specifically: “It’s unabashed trash, and I’m fully conscious of that and it’s guaranteed to have no deeper meaning.”

Since then, Schlondorff has again made a more serious film, so maybe it was just a phase he was going through. But his case is just one of hundreds that would make the same point – that there’s been a pervasive loss of ambition in cinema. Mulholland Drive, which continues to get better and better the more I think about it, is one of the very few films this year that suggests a multiplicity of interests on the part of its maker.

I know I write about this subject too much – like a voyeur that keeps creeping back to the scene of the car wreck. I just can’t get away from it. If I hadn’t written about Spy Game this week, I probably would have taken on Novacaine, an utterly lackluster film that fancies itself to be a daring amalgam of film noir and black comedy. The film evidences no grasp at all of cinema past, present or future.

Spy Game

Anyway, Spy Game was directed by Tony Scott, whose last movie was Enemy of the People – a tremendously fast-moving and stylish piece of work that tapped very ably into our neuroses about being watched and manipulated and outwitted. Spy Game isn’t as fast moving (except for rather odd moments when the film suddenly seems to start running quicker through the projector) and doesn’t have as strong a structure. Redford is a CIA mission director, one day short of retirement, whose protégé (Pitt) is in a Chinese prison, one day short of execution. Realizing the Agency has written Pitt off, Redford puts together his own rescue plan, while the movie flashes back to the greatest hits of their time together in the field. It’s a rather oddly organized movie, suggesting a lack of both focus and confidence.

The action takes in Vietnam, Berlin, Beirut and China – without displaying an iota of specific interest in any of those locales. The film builds to an incident that has the potential to be immensely destabilizing to US-China relations, but then it ends before we know what comes of it. It’s one thing when a popcorn movie conjures up some cartoon version of a rogue state; Spy Game evidences enormous research and care for visual authenticity, but then has no use for it beyond the usual shootouts and set pieces. It’s actually rather unnerving. Other aspects of the film add to  the sense of a skin that doesn’t fit the beast. For example, the casting (Charlotte Rampling, David Hemmings, Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is superbly imaginative – far too much so given how little these actors actually have to do. The fact that virtually all of Pitt’s part takes place in flashback gives his entire role a feeling of dislocation.

But it’s Redford’s presence that most clearly drives this home. How could he have been content to deal so superficially with this material? For sure, this film is a better vehicle for his charisma than The Last Castle – he radiates ease and assurance. It looks like being on the set was barely any more effort for him than being at home – although with all his varied interests, maybe Redford’s days at home are pretty hectic. Unlike most of his media-shy contemporaries, who’ve gradually crept onto Leno and Letterman, Redford still keeps his distance from the media. It’s a shame, because we could use his help in figuring out what the hell he’s up to here.


I have no idea what the Oscar contenders will be this year, except perhaps that Amelie looks like a good shot for best foreign film. Some people might regard this film as exactly what’s needed to cure a movie grump like me – a surefire crowd pleaser with at least half a brain in its head. The title character is a shy witness who intervenes in various peoples’ lives, but has trouble going after the man she desires. The film is sometimes widely expansive (when Amelie wonders how many couples in Paris are reaching orgasm at that particular moment, we’re taken on a quick ride through fifteen heated couplings) and sometimes intimate and whimsical.

One has to admire the thought behind it all – the film gives the impression of hitting every target for which it aims. Whether they’re the right targets is another question. Lead actress Audrey Tautou is perfectly sweet, but might seem rather one-note in a less adept film. And sometimes it’s just too contrived to care about. Still, although there have easily been better foreign films this year, this is probably the one that American voters will feel takes them on best at their own game. But like Robert Redford, Amelie is a long way from the depths of Katharina Blum.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Strategic exercises

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2000)

The day after the final episode of Survivor, I was ten minutes late for a meeting at the office. But it didn’t make any difference because when I came in they were still arguing over the final tribal council. And I didn’t need any help getting up to speed. “Kelly blew it,” I declared, heading for the cookies. “She never even mentioned that she won five straight immunity challenges. However you think the game should have been played, no one could match that. Why was she relying on all that touchy feely stuff?” This sparked a new round of discussion, which I could reproduce here more or less line by line, regardless that the (I assume) important stuff we went on to discuss at the meeting has pretty much faded away already.

Kelly blew it

Well, like everyone said, the show was a phenomenon. I work mainly with accountants and lawyers, and Survivor was as hot a topic in that environment as anywhere else. Maybe more so, because we white-collar types love talking about strategy and tactics, and Survivor lent itself quite magically to those kinds of discussions. Richard certainly got some lucky breaks on the way to victory, but he always maximized his opportunities (even though I really do think Kelly blew it). And in the subsequent days, scanning my regular sites on the web, I read several analyses of Survivor which were barely distinguishable – whether in tone or content or seriousness of intent – from the op-eds on the Bush vs. Gore race.

Mike Hodges’ latest film Croupier isn’t as big a phenomenon as Survivor of course (although the veteran Hodges is shaping up as quite a survivor himself), but it’s doing pretty well in its own way. Initially scheduled for the most minimal possible release, the film refuses to quit and has worked its way up to a box-office gross in excess of $4 million. The audience for the Saturday matinee I attended at the Cumberland was the largest I’ve seen in a while. It’s always a bit of a mystery why some movies take off like that. But if I had to guess, I’d say it’s that Croupier’s cool-headed, articulate artistry appeals to that same strategic bent.

A strategic artist

It’s written by Paul Mayersberg, who wrote The Man who fell to Earth and the unjustly forgotten Eureka and whom I think of as a very strategic kind of artist – working within complex investigative structures that treat time as flexibly as space, casting truth and identity as malleable and unstable. Croupier is about an aspiring author called Jack Manfred who takes a job as a croupier or dealer in a London casino. The film tracks his analytical fascination with the milieu and the people in it, particularly various women – all of which he transcribes into a thinly disguised fiction.

Voice-overs from the novel in progress accompany the action, and it’s these voice-overs that carry the bulk of the film’s thematic ambition, spinning off a dizzying array of one-liners on the metaphorical possibility of the croupier, and of the gambler he might otherwise have become. The gambler is a familiar subject in movies, but the croupier occupies a lonelier and (this film suggests) more ambiguous territory. Forbidden to interact with customers or to intervene in the game, he’s trained to be as impassive as possible, but also to observe the players minutely. Actor Clive Owen’s dead-eyed, controlled performance conveys this internal tension quite well (although perhaps not quite in the Brando or Bogart-like style that the ads suggest).

Jack’s uncertain bearings are unmistakable – a problematic relationship both with his father and his girlfriend, a failed career as a writer, hints of trauma at every turn (most explicitly when he takes excessive relish in beating up a cheat who accosts him outside the casino, and shortly afterwards shakes off the last of that aggression through violent sex with a co-worker). His self-mythologizing is shot through with insecurity, but Jack tends to identify the role of the croupier with an idealistic detached certainty, confusing his own disillusionment with a privileged sense of realism. The gambler, on the other hand, seems to embody all the errors and self-deceptions of mankind: gambling, says Jack, is about not facing reality, ignoring the odds.

This all generates a subtly obsessive quality that’s always entertaining, and effective in evoking the smell of the casino. But the film (at least judged on a first viewing) never goes much beyond simply reiterating its basic ideas. Exchanges like “You’re an enigma you are”/”Not an enigma, just a contradiction” seem trite, and there are an awful lot of them in Croupier.

Master of the game

In the final scene, Jack refers to himself as “master of the game…(who’s) acquired the power to make you lose,” but events seem at least as much to confirm his impotence. In finding a specific place for each of its major characters within the resolution, the film suggests that it might best be viewed as a therapy or psychoanalysis, the object being to tuck all Jack’s loose ends away and regain functionality. But nothing about Croupier is quite that easy to summarize.

I would certainly much rather watch Croupier again than something like The Tao of Steve, another highly-praised movie in which the moderate air of intelligence just makes the contrivances particularly annoying. And at least Croupier doesn’t try to be cute. But even though you could probably discuss it for hours afterwards, I wonder whether those discussions would amount to much more than the post mortem on Survivor. It’s fun to figure out how the pieces fit together, and how the final tribal council is played out. But it’s not worth delaying the meeting for more than ten minutes on that account, whereas real art might force us to cancel it altogether.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Without cream

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

A man walks into a coffee shop, says to the waitress, “Gimme a cup of coffee, without cream.” She says, “We don’t serve cream – want it without milk?” The object lesson (once you’ve stopped laughing): sometimes, in dealing with the unavailable, the form of the absence (or to put it in more contemporary terms – the spin you put on the absence) is just as important as the absence itself. This isn’t leading to a point about Clinton, but rather – after seeing the current comedy Next Stop Wonderland – to one about the eternal subject of romantic yearning; about the bumpy journey to love, and what it says about those who embark on it.


I’ve long been a huge admirer of composer Stephen Sondheim, and I’ve never forgotten reading – twelve or fifteen years ago – a piece about his solitary life, describing how he’d never been in a long-term relationship; written in terms that seemed to paint this as Sondheim’s choice, and that implied his insightful genius was somehow rooted in this emotional austerity. It never occurred to me to doubt the accuracy of this account, and I was so impressed by Sondheim’s apparent superhuman self-control that I’m sure I decided, for at least a few days, to follow that route myself. But you can guess how well that turned out.

More recently, Sondheim’s been open about his homosexuality and about the years of inner turmoil that barred him from attaining intimacy (better late than never, he is in a relationship now). I must admit to being a little disappointed when I found this out. I’d grown really attached to the idea of an artist having a boundless ability to portray the span of romantic frailty in his work, while retaining his own immunity to it. The truth (which frankly seems to me less interesting), by suggesting that you can never take contented isolation at face value, just feeds into the much remarked-on contingent quality that colours our view of living alone. It’s a state that invites analysis and commentary in a way that being coupled just doesn’t.

In Hollywood movies, the single man is generally an icon – his solitary state all the better to afford us an obstructed view of him. Sex comes where he needs it; hang-ups are incidental, if any. A single woman is seldom bathed in such a favourable light. A female critic once said there aren’t any great films about women, because even movies with strong women perpetrate the notion (she may have used the word “myth” – I can’t remember) that a woman’s fulfilment lies in the eyes of a man (based on this analysis, she cited A Touch of Class as the only halfway grear film for women).

Eyes of a Man

An Unmarried Woman, for example, ends with Jill Clayburgh imposing her own terms on the relationship with Alan Bates; still, it is a relationship, and she needs it. Whether she needs it just for physicality, for self-esteem, for fun, because of her biology, her inadequacy – well, we probably all just place our bets based on ideology. Speaking very generally about it, I don’t think Clayburgh’s self-improvement during the course of that film is compromised by wanting a man somewhere in her life. As a practical matter, I wonder whether her ending point wouldn’t have seemed incomplete or impermanent to the mass audience had it not included a man. After all, the assumption of adults organized by pairs holds pretty widely among the population at large, even if not among feminist film critics (I know I’m letting some same-sex themes drop here).

In Next Stop Wonderland, Hope Davis plays a young nurse, recently abandoned by her boyfriend, who walks the fine line between loneliness and romantic wishfulness, and her revulsion at what’s entailed in dealing with those states. At one point her mother places a personal ad on her behalf, setting up a fine montage of Davis’ various unsuccessful dates; hyper-sensitive to insincerity, calculation and “technique,” she occasionally resorts to lecturing the men on their lack of naturalism.

As she goes about her life in Boston, she keeps narrowly missing an easy-going marine biologist who’s amiably juggling financial and career and romantic problems. A film from last year, Till There was You, similarly followed the intertwined lives of Jeanne Tripplehorn and Dylan McDermott, bringing them together – to instant happiness – only in its last five minutes. That was a bad, clumsy film, with nothing to it beyond that gimmick. Next Stop Wonderland, and Davis’ performance, are unusually subtle. The structure as I’ve described it may be too straightforwardly evocative of fate and fairy tale (and eliminates any suspense as to the final outcome), but the picture is shot in a nimble, lightly edited, almost semi-documentary style that dances observantly over the numerous potential pitfalls. The heavy use of Jobin-style bossa nova is a modest inspiration too – being both highly listenable in itself, and evocative of a tasteful exoticism that sums up the character’s ambivalence: she wants the dream, but doesn’t believe in it, and won’t act as if she did.

Wide Awake

Although the title refers to an actual stop on the Boston subway system, it has an initially sappy ring to it that, however, reveals an air of skepticism on closer consideration. Alice woke up from Wonderland of course, which carries a negative implication for the climactic union in this film. But consistent with the movie’s general intelligence and consideration, the final scenes aren’t gooey or overblown in a way that would make you doubt their sustainability – they’re marked more by quiet contentment and peace of mind. To the Davis character, this may be the proof of Wonderland – that it’s a state she more or less slides into, without rituals and calculations and games.

Maybe that’s why Next Stop Wonderland often seems close to being a great film about women – it disdains the notion of a woman as a prize, as a commodity trafficked between men (Davis’ mother is something of a sexual predator, and the film’s other key female character is very much a pursuer rather than one of the pursued). Of course, the best way to avoid the potentially degrading rituals is not to need them – to make an instant connection that transcends all that. Which, conveniently, happens to be a romantic ideal in itself. So although the outcome is preeminent, all routes are not equal. Very definitely, insist on having it without cream.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

My Christmas movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2002)

Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day – three great days of family and tradition, and three trips to the movies. Here’s my take on what the movie Santa brought us.

Starting in the middle, I went on Christmas Day to see Michael Mann’s Ali. Mann is one of the finest American directors. His style alternates between slick (he created Miami Vice) and artfully messy; he draws equally on psychological exactitude and melodramatic grandstanding – much of the fascination of The Insider, his last film, came from the tension between Russell Crowe in the former category and Al Pacino in the latter. His films are glorious works of design and drama, with the music track almost perilously foregrounded. I don’t suppose Mann smokes cigars on the set, but I always imagine he does – he’s that kind of old-fashioned auteur general.

Ali presents him with overwhelming opportunities in these areas, and the greatest surprise of the film is Mann’s relative restraint. Not that the film lacks his usual panache. The opening sequence, intercutting between Ali training for a fight against Sonny Liston, a Sam Cooke night-club performance, and miscellaneous snippets of Ali’s history (including traveling as a boy on the “coloreds only” section of the bus), is dazzling. The fight sequences are staggeringly well-realized. I could go on. But the heart of the film, of course, is the man himself. And for once, Mann seems to blink, coming close to giving the film a soft centre.


Fortunately, he has Will Smith in excellent, perhaps Oscar-winning form, conveying Ali’s mixture of canniness, rough-edged charisma, and bull-headed naivete. The movie has been widely criticized for not explaining Ali to us, but I think it shows how he surely defied explanation even to himself. Near the end, road-training in Zaire for the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman, he wanders off the road, a crowd accumulates around him, and he comes across a huge drawing of himself on the side of a battered old wall. Mann holds the scene at great length; just soaking in Ali’s almost overawed reaction, almost puzzlement (despair?) at the weight of his own myth and rhetoric. The scene goes on for so long, the movie seems about to throw in the towel. And indeed, thereafter, it functions largely as a recreated documentary (largely reenacting the material covered in the documentary When we were Kings).

Veteran sports columnist Robert Lipsyte, in the New York Times, describes as a “major lie” the context in which Ali says the line “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.” The movie, says Lipsyte, presents the line “as a measured explanation for his refusal to be drafted” whereas the truth is that the sentence was “blurted…after a long day of being hectored.” This must illustrate the ambiguity of the film’s portrayal, for it seemed clear to me that the move’s Ali basically does “blurt” out the line, and then decides to stick with it, making up his philosophy on the hoof (one of several such instances in the film). It’s the same mixture of waywardness and populism that has Ali calling himself “The Peoples’ Champion” while insisting in the next breath that he’s going to be the kind of champion he wants to be.

Lipsyte also criticizes the film for leaving out “a reckoning that might have come out of Greek tragedy, (the fact that) Ali’s unique gifts of movement and speech (became) seriously impaired.” The movie ends after the 1974 “Rumble” and doesn’t address Ali’s subsequent Parkinson’s disease, not even in the ending captions. But it’s hard to see how such a last chapter wouldn’t have fallen into morose irony and easily reductive metaphor, falling far short of Greek tragedy. Still, my guess going in would have been that Mann would take it on. His refusal to do so is another example of how he keeps the gloves off. In all, I thought Ali was terrific, one of the year’s best. Still, a lot of that opinion may be based in an appreciation of how it relates to Mann’s other pictures. Absent that perspective, it’s probably too problematic a film to win general acceptance.

Gosford Park

On Boxing Day, I saw Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. As I pointed out recently, virtually every estimable new film nowadays is compared to some Altman film or other. It’s a pleasure to see that the man himself can still get it done. The new film is set in a British country house in 1932, where a group of aristocrats gathers for the weekend. The film devotes equal time to the servants, inhabiting a below-stairs community with its own rules. The essence of the picture lies in its coordination and juxtaposition, and Altman’s handling is masterly – shot after shot takes your breath away with its deftness in moving from one character and mood to another.

The broad premise is that the upper-class are barren and spent (a point ruthlessly executed here) and on the verge of being, if not displaced, at least squeezed by their underlings for supremacy (of any kind). Almost any randomly chosen five-minute chunk of the film would demonstrate this point. The movie turns into a nominal whodunit, with the bumping-off of one of the toffs precipitating an investigation. Altman’s handling of this aspect is so perfunctory that it’s clear it barely matters. Even so, although the denouement is dramatically little more than a shrug, it supports the overall theme. I enjoyed the film enormously, yet among Altman’s later works I think Cookie’s Fortune remains his most rich and scintillating.

The Majestic

Jim Carrey’s latest shot at an Oscar (it’s hard not to concede to the tabloid wisdom on this point) turned out to be his biggest box office flop, and a backward step in terms of artistic credibility. The Majestic has been critically derided, and Carrey may be the weakest thing in it.  It’s a dawdling, feel-good piece about a 50s Hollywood screenwriter who loses his memory and ends up in a small town where he’s mistaken for a long-lost son who was presumed killed during WW2. Carrey helps his presumed father renovate the local movie theater, romances the dead man’s former girlfriend, and has no idea that the FBI is searching for him as a suspected Communist subversive.

The latter element is supposed to establish the film’s seriousness, but is so lamely treated that it undermines the “Capraesque” qualities of the rest. The Majestic is almost incalculably far below the other two films dealt with here. Even so, I find myself more positive on the film than most critics. It seems to me almost identical in quality to director Frank Darabont’s previous The Green Mile; since that (Oscar-nominated) film was incredibly overrated, The Majestic comes as no surprise whatsoever. Much as with Ali, although in a very different way, a lot depends on your expectations. But then that’s Christmas for you!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Film art

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2002)

Mulholland Drive recently became one of the few movies in the last few years I’ve paid to see twice (the others being, if memory serves, Magnolia, Bamboozled, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, YiYi and The Wind Will Carry Us – this must evidently be a personal recent pantheon of sorts). In all these cases, the second visit was immensely worthwhile, maybe more with Mulholland Drive than most. Of course, the film is famously hard to figure out, so that’s no surprise. But I think it’s worth repeating here, for those put off by the prospect of confusion, that it’s one of last year’s best.

Mulholland Drive again

In a second viewing, knowing how many of the film’s secondary elements end up as pure loose ends, I concentrated from the outset on the character played (brilliantly) by Naomi Watts, and saw more clearly how the film’s first half represents a fantastic, desperate rehabilitation by that character of her grim Hollywood experience.

One of the keys to this is the passivity of the character played by Laura Elena Harring – she has no name, no memory, only a minimal agenda, and Watts seems at times almost to move her around like some kind of big doll. Their love scene is pure joyful seduction. Meanwhile, the filling of the lead role in director Justin Theroux’s film is the subject of impenetrable conspiracy and deviousness – while it might hurt to lose a role that way, it’s also an effective rationalization for failure.

With such a rewriting of her sad facts, Watts reimagines defeat as victory. In the second half (what I take to be the “real” world of the film), she’s lost control over herself, her career and her relationship with Harring – this section is suffused with her powerlessness and frustration. At the very end, it struck me that the weird old couple who appear first as her benefactors and later as her tormentors are probably her parents, or at least a representation of whatever developmental trauma brought her to this point: her dream necessarily begins with safely repackaging them into benign idiots. In total, this is a much sadder impression than I came away with first time round.

I’ve always been unsure about Lynch’s work, although I loved The Straight Story (but then, of course, that’s his most atypical film). Mulholland Drive is one of the rare movies that makes me want to go back and revisit all its maker’s previous work. But I suspect I’ll still find Lost Highway and Wild at Heart and the others a little lacking, because I think they miss the profound human tragedy that gives Mulholland Drive its shape. Narratively, the film is as confusing as anything you’ll see at the multiplex, but in so many other ways, it’s more deeply coherent than almost anything else out there.

More awards

No, you’re not imagining it – every year, they have more awards shows than the year before. This year the American Film Institute (“Advancing and preserving the art of the moving image”) established its own gig. Unlike the usual five nominees, the AFI had ten – a surprisingly well-rounded list including Mulholland Drive, Memento and The Man who Wasn’t There. Unfortunately, the televised award show was undermined by most of the winners choosing to stay away. And then, at the end, they gave the prize to Lord of the Rings.

The citation on the AFI’s website is as follows: “Lord of the Rings taps the mythical forces of American film to bring life to J R R Tolkien’s rich literary legacy. Never losing sight of the “human” elements of this first book in his trilogy, the scope of the film sets the standard by which future motion picture epics should be judged.”

So there you go – presumably that’s the measure of what most advanced and preserved the art of the moving image in 2001. Even by the AFI’s own account, it sounds as much about commerce as art. Anyway, I think this kind of recognition stamps Lord of the Rings as the most overrated movie of last year. I concede that I like it less than anyone else I know, and I’m sure it’s a treat for fans of the book (I haven’t read it – it’s always seemed to me the archetypal activity for which life is too short). But on its own merits, the film is a stuffy, plodding, monotonous bore.

Lord of the Rings

For sure, the film’s “scope” is real, with some magnificent landscapes and individual sequences. At times, it does indeed evoke slightly greater psychological complexity than the average action epic. But it doesn’t have much panache, and it’s hampered by deadly seriousness. The Harry Potter film has been criticized for being overly faithful to the book and creating little artistic personality of its own. But even if that’s true, the film nails the giddy thrill of a world just below the surface of our own, so close you could scratch it, yet bursting with marvels. Lord of the Rings starts off with a voice-over cumbersomely defining the rules of its universe, sticks with those rules throughout, and never winks at the audience. If you can surrender your mind to all that stuff about magical rings and kingdoms of elves, then you’re fine. But it’s relentlessly self-contained – you wait in vain for any thematic or metaphorical payoff that might be any good to you once you step back into the real world.

And however well-executed the physical elements may be, it still comes down to the same cliffhanger escapes, battles in which each hero slays about twenty of the other side, the same visual and aural fireworks. The current movie is just the first part of a trilogy, but at the end of it I felt as if I’d watched three films already. Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be back for the other two.

As for the American Film Institute, since 1973 it’s given out a life achievement award. The first recipient was John Ford, and in the early days the award recognized as many great directors (Hitchcock, Capra, Welles) as actors (Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, James Cagney). But it’s four years now since any director won, and this year’s recipient is Tom Hanks. He’s 45 years old! What about David Lynch, Robert Altman, Francis Coppola, Arthur Penn? Well, given that the last two winners were Harrison Ford and Barbra Streisand, it’s clear that the assessment of “life achievement” is a hell of a lot more popcorn-driven than it used to be. If you ask me, they’ve sold out to the cult of celebrity – and to their desire to get a big audience for the televised banquet. Is the art of the moving image really at a point where it owes more to Tom Hanks than anyone else, and where Lord of the Rings is its finest embodiment? Don’t believe it for a second.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Real war

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

The other day I was watching Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River – one of my favourite director’s best films. In the first half of the film, I always get lost in its feeling of authenticity – the stampede and the river crossing and all those epic views of the cattle traversing the desert. But of course, Red River isn’t “realistic” in the sense of aspiring to the pace and cadences of normal exchange. Hawks’ style was naturalistic in some ways, but he kept things within certain parameters of behaviour, generating a wholly distinct, recognizable stylization.

In Red River, it kicks in particularly in the last third, when a woman gets involved. She meets Montgomery Clift in the middle of an Indian attack, falls for him even though he’s brusque toward her, and by the end of the evening she’s in his arms. Then she sets the basis for a reconciliation between him and John Wayne. It’s scintillating as a study in character, but it’s clearly idealized, and in some ways it rubs oddly against the film’s more verisimilitudinous aspects. Rio Bravo, my favourite Hawks film, seems more unified – notionally a Western, but actually an almost abstract world where Hawks indulges his notions of character to the hilt.

Meaning of Right

A few days afterwards, I watched Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, and Red River came to mind in two ways. First, my wife had half-watched Red River, and when the Indians are circling the wagon train she remarked it looked like an old-fashioned view of natives – one that probably wouldn’t get put on screen today. Which may be true for the Indians, but Black Hawk Down’s portrayal of the Somalians as a similarly anonymous, gun-toting mob seemed awfully close to the same thing. And then, before going into battle, Josh Hartnett says how he “just wanna do it right today,” and I thought how much Red River cites the notion of being “good.” If you watch enough Hawks films, you figure out his meaning of “good.” The ambiguity of Black Hawk Down is whether you think it know the meaning of “right.”

Scott used to be regarded as a brilliant eye, whose visual mastery might compensate for lesser acuity in matters of character and storytelling. But the failure of 1492 and White Squall seemed to put paid to that phase, and he’s now reinvented himself as the ultimate Hollywood general – knocking out Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down in less than two years. All three can probably be seen as pure hackwork. But if Black Hawk Down is hackwork, it’s such an accomplished example as to make the term meaningless.

The film, set in Somalia in 1993, is about a failed military mission – a group of mostly young Americans in Humvees and helicopters fly into the centre of Mogadishu, to capture a bunch of warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid’s lieutenants. The mission goes astray almost immediately, leaving many of the Americans holed up, trying to hold back bloodthirsty waves of Aidid’s supporters – it’s a land where bread is scarce but guns apparently plentiful.

State of Hostility

It’s a superb recreation, exhibiting only minimal contrivance; it evokes the sad desolation of Mogadishu and the pounding chaos of battle with equal skill. But there may never have been a war film so unconcerned with the broader context, with the political and strategic rights and wrongs. The film has an unusually long series of captions at the start, fixing the time and place and the approximate state of hostility, and again at the end. But in between, we just get the event itself. To the film’s detractors, this is a key point of moral as well as artistic weakness. This is Rick Groen in The Globe and Mail:

“Without any surrounding context – without a deeper characterization of the men or a proper account of the politics that brought them there – we’re left to respond to the blood and guts viscerally but not emotionally. The edge of our seat gets a strenuous workout, yet our heart and mind go pretty much untouched…if this is artistry, it comes perilously close to the spirit and intent of propaganda – a paean to the triumph of soldierly will.”

Maybe…and yet, if the blood and guts attains such realism, what artistic prodding should we need in order to respond emotionally? Isn’t our reason for grieving inherent in what’s being shown? Maybe that sounds like moralizing on my part, but I think it’s conceivably an artistic strategy by Scott.

Triumph of will

I started wishing he had gone even further with this – that the film was an even more aggressively self-contained, claustrophobic experience. It still has many of the trappings of the conventional war movie, albeit downplayed. There’s the motley bunch of recruits (although the film is mostly reticent about their backgrounds), the theme of naivete and bluster receiving a harsh wake-up call (at the start, the men are so nonchalant about the mission that they leave behind standard pieces of equipment), the contrast between the turmoil on the frontline and the general in his high-tech bunker, the pep talks and one-liners (“It’s what you do right now that makes a difference”). Saving Private Ryan contained two or three magnificent sequences, and a lot of mundane padding. Black Hawk Down sharply reduces the mundanity ratio, but it doesn’t find a new vocabulary of war – it doesn’t have the grand vision and shocking introspection of Apocalypse Now (but then, I query how “realistic” that film really is) or the troubled poetry of The Thin Red Line (ditto). I think it might have got there, had it taken its approach even further – to the point where character and personality might virtually disappear completely.

As it is, as I mentioned, character and personality disappear only among the Somalis. This too might have been a persuasive artistic strategy, if Scott didn’t sometimes seem to be personalizing them – through shots of children carrying guns, or in which a face is picked out of the crowd (usually just before being blown away). And a scene in which a captured soldier is interrogated, providing his captor the most dialogue of any Somali in the movie, may be the most clichéd in the picture. This aspect of the film ends up seeming confused and a little opportunistic.

The brutal reality leaves many of the Americans dead and serves as a rite of passage for the others. I suppose that amounts to the “triumph of soldierly will” in Groen’s phrase, but what is that really saying? Ultimately, Black Hawk Down illustrates the limits of setting so much store by authenticity. I expect the film can be read to support whatever preconception the viewer brings to it. Maybe that’s an artistic evasion by Scott, but it’s sadly not untrue to its subject.

2005 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Eight

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2005)
This is the eighth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.

Les Amants reguliers (Philippe Garrel)

In my preview article I noted I'd never seen any of Garrel’s films, and was looking forward to remedying that here; the anticipation only grew after he won the Best Director award for this film at the Venice film festival (which ends during the first weekend of the Toronto fest). Regular Lovers is a long film (just under three hours) and I won’t claim that you don’t feel that length, but it’s a rewarding experience. The protagonist is a young poet (played by Garrel’s own son Louis), initially at the centre of the 1968 agitation – we see him burning cars, resisting the police, and ultimately evading capture after a long, skin-of-his-teeth chase. At this point he has every potential for cultural and political distinction, but this slowly dissipates; he lives with several like-minded friends in a large house owned by a rich friend, smoking drugs and languishing, and then he meets a woman with whom he falls in love, but whose presence only seems to increase his stasis (someone says that they are “losing the revolution indoors”). Despite the reciprocity of her love for him, her trajectory is much more familiar and coherent, leading to an inevitable outcome. The film is shot in luminous black and white, and it generally maintains a narrow tonal register; although the plot includes free love, the presentation is extremely chaste by contemporary standards (the only sex we ever see is on a package of dirty playing cards). This gives it a melancholy, repressed quality that’s effective in evoking the unfulfilled underpinnings of what might otherwise seem (as it did, for example, in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, which also starred Louis Garrel) as a lush wet dream of a lifestyle); the girl says at one point, a propos of nothing in particular, “It’s unbelievable, the solitude in every man’s heart,” and it’s this solitude, immune to all genres of revolutionary provocation, that ultimately claims the movie. Director Garrel (who lived much of this, and was in a long relationship with iconic singer Nico) certainly indulges himself here, and I find it difficult to make much of a guess as to what sense of him might emerge from viewing his more than twenty earlier works, but Regular Lovers at least was one of the highlights of the festival for me.

The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron)

This sweet-natured account of 50’s pin-up queen Page is intended as a “celebration” of her life, and so it is – it’s hard to imagine a more benign treatment of once-inflammatory material. Page was an aspiring actress who started doing glamour shots on the side and gravitated first to “tasteful” nudity and then to S&M, 50’s style (per the film at least, she was only incidentally troubled by, or even aware of, the use that male purchasers might have been making of this material). Meanwhile, she went to acting classes, using thoughts of Jesus for inner motivation. Gretchen Mol is very good as Bettie, achieving a complete immersion in the character; as someone puts it, she’s consistently successful in spending half the film nude without ever looking naked. The movie dramatizes anti-smut Senate hearings – soberly and diligently allowing the testimony of a grieving father who attributes his son’s death to the photographs’ influence – and has a vivid period flavour, but there’s not much sociological ambition on display here, and it ultimately feels like coasting for Harron (who was in more dialectical mode with her earlier films I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho) – the feminist angle is simply that regardless of what porn meant for women in the longer term, Bettie’s career made sense to her, and that’s all anyone needs to know. It’s not that I take issue with’s just that it’s kind of limited. Unlike most biopics, there’s no end note on what happened to Bettie after she ended her career – the final mark of what might actually be an over-respectful treatment of her.

The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang)

When you’re seeing three or four films a day for ten days, you probably treat some of them less kindly than you should, and I’ve always thought I was too snippy two years ago about Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn. Subsequently I’ve read many great accounts of it, and the programme book at the time said it had “the shape of an entrancing, wordless vision.” I wrote it had “just the shape of one, with the feeling of an absent centre.” This was surprising since I’d loved Tsai’s previous film, What Time Is It There, which I often found virtually hypnotic. And recently I rewatched his early movie Rebels of the Neon God, a film utterly anchored in a specific time and culture, with an aching identification for the people it follows, and at the same time utterly timeless, cultivating a transcendently perverse deadpan sensibility. 

Tsai is simply a terrific director. But the journey from Rebels to Dragon Inn illustrates a diminishing interest in the contours of the real world, and this perhaps troubling trajectory takes a further leap with The Wayward Cloud. The new film also ups the ante considerably on sexual explicitness, often to the extent of seeming rather callow and tawdry, but it comes together at the end with immense, unnerving authority. It’s another desolate urban landscape, apparently with no running water (meaning that bottled water litters virtually every scene) but with a surfeit of watermelons, the erotic possibilities of which are juicily seized. The film is a triangle of sorts, with a male porn actor at the centre, his female co-actress at the other, and at the other a restrained young woman with whom he develops a tentative mutual attraction.

The film is full of images of displaced, warped sexuality, often immensely well-conceived, and also (as in Tsai’s film The Hole) incorporates various throwback musical numbers that through their colour and panache further underline the wretchedness of the real world. But the implications of all this seem familiar, circling round well-marked territory, with the new relish for sexual excess serving as the only (questionable) point of advancement. But then there’s the ending. which is gripping, horrible, sick and nihilistic, all of which in the circumstances I’m offering up as a compliment; it ensures that the film leaves more chilling an after-effect than any of his previous works. Overall, in truth, I enjoyed this garish work more than the objectively superior Goodbye Dragon Inn. But Tsai pulls it off only by the skin of his teeth, and he is desperately in need of a new preoccupation.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Memories of Quentin

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2002)

An overdue mea culpa – I used to bash Pulp Fiction fairly often in these pages, usually as an example of an overrated triviality illustrating Hollywood’s loss of direction and higher purpose. I haven’t mentioned it for a couple of years at least now – maybe a sad sign of the effect of Quentin Tarantino’s Kubrick-like deliberation over his next project (out of sight, out of mind). But I watched the film again the other day, for the first time since it came out, and felt quite ashamed of my early carping. Sure, there’s a lot in it that’s self-indulgent, wantonly brutal and violent – the sheer confidence can become grating. But I think I vastly underestimated the film’s formal intelligence. It’s a remarkable mix of fluent storytelling and of longeurs that would be deadly boring, if not for Tarantino’s amazing ability to soak in the nuances and idiosyncracies of a particular situation.

Rewatching Pulp Fiction

Time and character and normal concepts of causation and motivation seem almost infinitely mutable and extendible in Tarantino’s hands – he strips the story down to its bones and lays them bare while simultaneously investing in them a stranger and more scintillating life. And even the mythic ambitions, Jackson’s quoting from the Bible and the strange suitcase and the guy in the basement and so forth, seemed much more compelling to me this time, validated by Tarantino’s almost transcendent mood and structure.

Best of all perhaps was the film’s extreme, glowing romanticism, especially in the sequence between John Travolta and Uma Thurman: it takes two extreme, nerve-ridden personalities and forges a real connection between them – before blowing it away again. As with the relationship between Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer, there’s no question that Tarantino believes in love even under extreme pressure, but he’s also aware of how malformed and objectively crazy the resulting relationships might be. In all, a great film, and I apologize for all my cheap cracks. It may be time now to look at Fight Club again as well.

Anyway, just thought I should get that off my chest. Pulp Fiction was of course an astonishing career resurgence for Travolta – there’s a real spontaneity and emotional nakedness in his work there (as well as fine, unpredictable comedy timing) and he should probably have won the Oscar for it. Since then. He’s been as great in such works as Primary Colors, She’s so Lovely and Get Shorty. But lately his work has severely waned. He was the best thing in Battlefield Earth, but his performance made only slightly more sense than the movie as a whole. In Swordfish he seemed complacent, bloated from too many early paychecks. I didn’t see Domestic Disturbance (why would anyone?) I doubt that much of interest will come from him in the near future.

The Shipping News

For a while, Travolta was attached to the film version of The Shipping News, but it didn’t work out and the role passed to Kevin Spacey. At this point, I think we should probably be grateful. When I think of Travolta in The Shipping News, my mind keeps defaulting to Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter. But the gratitude is strictly relative, for I think the film would have been better off without Spacey too. Also without Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench and the rest of its starry cast.

I haven’t read the book, but based on all accounts and on what filters through the film, it’s a fairly raw account of a physical and emotional unfortunate. The film is generally wistful – which is exactly the adjective that best applied to director Lasse Hallstrom’s last two films, The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. The Shipping News is much better than Chocolat, which seemed to me entirely inconsequential and manipulative. But there’s a frosted quality to it that holds most emotion at length.

Spacey plays a widower, lifelong deadbeat and father of a young girl who comes with his aunt to Newfoundland, the home of his ancestors. Although he has no journalistic experience, he finds work on the local newspaper, writing the shipping news. He slowly develops a relationship with a local widow played by Moore.

The film is inevitably very pictorial, but in the manner of a travel brochure, with bits of local eccentricity and legend dotted throughout. I don’t think it conveys the feel of Newfoundland nearly as well as New Waterford Girl captured the similar feel of Cape Breton. The comparison is instructive – for New Waterford Girl was a cheap, homely film with the confidence to experiment. Hallstrom’s biggest problem as a director, by far, is his adherence to traditional notions of accessible, sensitive storytelling. He is, very likely, the polar opposite of Quentin Tarantino is just about every way possible. You don’t get the sense that Hallstrom could possibly be enjoying himself that much on the set – he makes everything feel so strenuous.

Experimentation wanted

This doesn’t create the best environment for actors to do their best work. Hallstrom’s films have done well lately on scoring Oscar nominations (and a win for Michael Caine in The Cider House Rules), so the Academy doesn’t agree with me. But he plays safely into our expectations. Spacey gives a wounded puppy kind of performance; Moore is radiant. Both actors are too intelligent to convey the tentativeness that their characters seem to require. Most everyone else in the film looks too good (the authentically drawn and worried-looking Pete Postlethwaite, as a nasty colleague of Spacey’s, being the main exception).

There are real pleasures in the film though. I liked the depiction of Spacey’s growing confidence as he learns to work with words; how he finds a real personality in conjunction with an artistic one. The ensemble acting around the local paper is usually amusing. But the romance between Spacey and Moore seems distinctly undramatic. Except for some minor disagreement at the start, they’re always moving toward each other. In general, everything seemed overly compressed to me – the film should surely have been longer.

Actually, I’d like to see Quentin Tarantino direct something like The Shipping News. That sounds crazy, but he’ll surely never top what he’s done already in the lowlife stakes – and the long creative silence suggests he knows it. Pulp Fiction’s exquisitely tender and dreamy sequences between Bruce Willis and Marta de Medeiros showed Tarantino could maintain a softer mood without losing his head. He should give that part of himself a more extensive workout. The appeal of experimentation only goes so far though, for I have no desire to see what Lasse Hallstrom does with a Pulp Fiction-kind of script.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Jacques Rivette film

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2002)

Jacques Rivette is one of my favourite living directors, but of all my favourites he’s the one for whom I have the most work left to do. His new film Va savoir is the only one I’ve ever seen under a regular commercial release. I’ve seen seven others on video or DVD or at festivals, but that leaves many to go. Salvation may be near, for apparently there’s a Cinematheque Ontario retrospective coming up later in the year.

Rivette’s women

Given Rivette’s low profile in North America, he’s been quite well-served by DVD. It’s in this format that I recently saw his brilliant 1992 version of Joan of Arc – a film of great understatement, exactitude and care. It’s a fascinating exercise to compare the film to Luc Besson’s The Messenger – where Besson is bombastic and insistent, Rivette is sparse and matter-of-fact. At times he studies Joan as carefully as a psychoanalyst; at others, he recedes, allowing alternate interpretations to stand. It’s one of the great historical films of the last twenty years.

But he normally deals in contemporary subjects. Probably his best-known film is La belle noisseuse, a long exploration of the creative process, set around a model who poses nude for an aging artist. The film’s sensuality never obscures the rigour of its examination of gender relations and of the relationship of art and life. The theatre, where these intersect most directly and dynamically, turns up in many of his films. His films feel theatrical too – not in the sense of being stagy or uncinematic, but in that they have choreography and poise that walk an often-magical line between naturalism and artificiality.

By general consent, his masterpiece is Celine and Julie go Boating, a film I seriously need to see again. Two women slip into an imagined world that they summon up by sucking on strange candy. The film is as grainy, obscure and elongated as the most experimental cinema; it has a concept simultaneously goofy and brilliant, and it’s a complex text on femininity. Rivette has probably been more productively preoccupied by women than any other male director of his time, something exemplified by the Joan of Arc project, but also reaching back to his 1965 film The Nun, still a stunning depiction of a woman driven to the grave by societal pressure.

Gang of Four

These comments are more fragmented than I’d like them to be, but it just reflects how I’ve had to acquire my sense of Rivette. He seems to me a highly uninsistent artist – his films aren’t conventionally passionate or prescriptive; they reflect the open-mindedness of someone who has a generously expansive vision of both life and cinema. It follows that Rivette has shown limited regard for certain conventions – particularly normal movie length. His Out One, which I’ve never seen, ran for twelve hours and forty minutes (he later edited it down into a four hour and twenty-minute version). The films habitually run to three hours. David Thomson, calling Rivette the “most important filmmaker of the last thirty-five years,” cites “the uncompromising way that he has identified the future of film as something other than the two-hour work shown to paying audiences in special buildings, and telling tidy stories.”

But Rivette’s experimentalism shouldn’t obscure his humanism. Another film available on DVD, The Gang of Four, is one of his lesser-known works, but a sheer joy. It follows four young women, sharing a house while they study in the same exacting drama class. Like many Rivette films (right back to his first in 1961, Paris Belongs to Us), it introduces an odd conspiracy that tangles their lives into knots, but always returns regularly to the sanctuary of their endless rehearsals. The film makes countless points about the creation of reality and identity, but it’s also a captivating portrait of the four women (at times, watching Rivette doesn’t feel so very different from watching Eric Rohmer). The Gang of Four might be the film I’d recommend as the best introduction to Rivette – it shows his huge intellect at its most easeful. In general, Rivette seems to have been getting more benevolent as he gets older – one of his most recent films, Haut bas fragile, was a musical – and why not?

Which brings us to Va savoir. The film continues Rivette’s latter-day grace – it’s another story set around the theatre, with criss-crossing relationships and a focus on women. Jeanne Balibar plays an actress performing with an Italian troupe in Paris, sleeping with her director/co-star and perhaps rekindling a relationship with an old boyfriend. As the film progresses, the canvas widens to include other connections and coincidences. The film has twists and turns galore, and a bona fide happy ending.

Va savoir

Given everything I’ve said above, it’s obvious that I regard Va savoir as one of the best things you can currently do with your time, cinematically speaking. However, my immense desire to hype Rivette’s work must yield to honesty – good as the film is, I think it’s probably the least interesting of the Rivette films I’ve mentioned in this article. The film’s title translates as “Who knows,” which might indicate anything from a shrug to submission to ultimate mysteries.

But on this occasion, the film seemed more earthbound than I’m used to with him – the convolutions in the structure didn’t seem as philosophically or intellectually revealing. Of course, this may be the very reason that the film has found such popular acceptance. But even on that level, it’s probably not as engaging or as subtle as the recent The Taste of Others.

Still, it gives you a place to start. And I may change my mind about it, for as I sit here, I find myself thinking more and more about various moments in Va savoir. A young woman says to the director: “You are lucky to be someone else every night. And never really serious.” Thereafter, the two spend the film alternating between seeming to gravitate toward love and suddenly pushing each other away. In a way it’s the kind of device movies always use, but Rivette makes us feel the desperate exhilaration of this dynamic. And her reading of him as not being serious is of course an error – an error that Rivette himself might too easily attract.

The Gang of Four is dedicated to “the prisoners, to the one among them, to those who wait for them.” This supports several readings in the context of the film, but I like to think of the actresses, of those dedicated to their art, of Rivette himself as the prisoners he’s mainly thinking of. He’s captive to cinema, and yet far too great an artist to be limited by it. And following Rivette has necessarily involved far too much waiting, but it’s getting a little easier now.

(2017 comment – I still treasure Rivette as much as ever, but I’d write much of this article differently now)