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 clich├ęd 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 this...it’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)

Monday, March 13, 2017

Bad made good

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2001)

When I write about films, I suppose I tend to deal in absolute concepts of good or bad. I never feel very comfortable giving an opinion on whether something is “a good film of its kind,” although that’s basically the approach that, say, a reviewer for a daily paper has to take. The Outreach Connection allows me a little island of independence, and I’ve been lucky enough to occupy it on my own terms. I hope that after this long it’s an approach of interest to enough people to be worthwhile, but it wouldn’t cut it at the Toronto Star (fortunately, I have an actual paying job which doesn’t involve movies at all, unless you include watching the odd training video).

Crowe versus Penn

A comparison of two current films presents an interesting litmus test – A Beautiful Mind and I Am Sam. The first of these now seems to be the favourite to win the best picture Oscar. As I’ll write further next week, I like it well enough, although it seems to me far from the year’s best (I might place it around, say, no. 45). I Am Sam has basically received bad reviews – or rather, it’s received good reviews only from reviewers that nobody respects. I can’t see much at all to choose between the two. And I think that’s because I just don’t “get” that particular attribute that takes two films of broadly similar tone and content and thematic intent and makes one generally discernible as “sensible and intelligent” while the other is “manipulative and over-sentimental.”

That’s my first problem. My second problem, which is probably more my own idiosyncrasy, is that although I don’t have a basis for calling I Am Sam “better” than A Beautiful Mind, I definitely enjoyed it more. In part, it’s just because of the kind of quirks people argue pointlessly about over a few drinks – I find Sean Penn much more fascinating than Russell Crowe, that kind of thing. The second thing, which you can either buy into as a concept or don’t at all, is that it’s more interesting to me to think about I Am Sam than A Beautiful Mind, precisely because of its flaws. It’s not as deft, not as artful, not as sure of its tone; it doesn’t have things as well in place. But to me that’s a recipe for more provocative cinema.

There’s nothing profound about that – it comes from the same place as the old chestnut that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. I’ve tried to argue this general viewpoint numerous times with people, but seldom get anywhere with it. Most people can accept that you’d like a movie despite its weaknesses, but not because of them. Or else they reserve such compromised affection for stuff like American Pie 2 and Steven Seagal, allowing a genetic affinity for the genre to override their own tastes. I do that sometimes too, but the column on such guilty pleasures will have to wait for another day.

I Am Sam

I should probably get specific now about I Am Sam. Basically, the film works much better if you view it as an absurdist comedy. I don’t think that’s the filmmakers’ intention though. Penn plays a man with the mental age of a 7-year-old, who has a one-night stand leading to the birth of a daughter. When the mother bails out, Penn brings her up by himself, with the help of an agoraphobic neighbour and his group of similarly learning-challenged friends. When the girl herself turns seven, she comes to the attention of social services, which quickly takes her away from her father into care. To fight his case, Penn lucks into obtaining the services of a high-powered, ultra-neurotic lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer) with family problems of her own.

The thesis of all this is, more or less, that love is all you need (Sam is an obsessive Beatles fan who relates to much around him by applying Beatles lyrics or bits of folklore). As critics galore have pointed out, this is obvious nonsense, because Sam is objectively incapable of doing almost anything except providing a genuine but affectless love. It’s such nonsense that it’s better to treat the whole thing as a parody of liberal, heart-on-their-sleeve message movies. And that works, particularly since Pfeiffer does seem to be playing much of her part for laughs.

The movie has a light, caught-on-the-fly kind of shooting style, which rather contrasts with the somewhat deliberate writing style and the generally awful, gooey Beatles covers that drench the soundtrack. Whereas Penn is of course putting on a performance and looks like it, his friends appear to be played by men who are really learning-challenged – if they’re not, they’re certainly portraying that state more subtly and authentically than Penn does. Penn himself is the single most debatable thing in the film. He received a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best actor, so it must look pretty good to a lot of his peers.

Nightmare performance

But some find the performance unwatchable. This is Charles Taylor in Salon: “I don’t know the last time I’ve seen so disgraceful a display from a talented actor…Penn delves into mannerisms and vocal distortions with an appalling eagerness. He makes the classic mistake of playing the handicap instead of the person. An actor affecting this demeanor to make fun of a retarded man would be pilloried. Penn’s portrayal strikes me as equally insensitive. It’s the nightmare performance of 2001.”

I thought the performance was largely terrific, but I agree that it generally fails in creating a rounded character. But to me that helps neutralize the film’s sentimentality and turns it into something more abstract and stylized. At one point, Sam makes a surprisingly eloquent courtroom speech that’s soon revealed to be lifted from Kramer vs. Kramer, a movie he’s just seen. The odd thing is that the ending of I Am Sam relies on a sudden change of heart that also recalls Kramer. It seems that this must be connected in some way, as some kind of commentary on life vs. art, but it’s hard to see what sense that would make for such a film. But again, it works if you see it as a deliberate absurdity, as a narrative capitulation acknowledging how much Sam’s quest depends on impractical idealism.

The film’s title is the simplest assertion of an identity that if not asserted might be overlooked. And that sums up how the film works for me – there’s Sam with his quest, and the film seems to support it emotionally while demonstrating (inadvertently or not) its lack of merit. He’s embodied by an actor who (inadvertently or not) suggests how little “identity” the character has. And he moves through an incoherent world, following unanalyzable rules. Perhaps these are the characteristics of a bad film, but also of a rather fascinating one. And here’s one last confession: it may be the most transparently manipulative of weepies, but I Am Sam almost made me cry.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Interesting minds

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

A Beautiful Mind is one of the favourites for the Oscars, and probably deserves to win for best actor and best supporting actress at least. Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly are both extremely resourceful and moving in their roles – there’s hardly a scene where one or the other doesn’t contribute something more surprising, subtle or moving than you would have expected.

Intellectual stature

It’s a very watchable movie all around. Crowe plays John Forbes Nash, a math prodigy who made several important breakthroughs in the 40s and 50s before his talents were severely compromised by acute schizophrenia. Nash drifted in and out of functionality for years before reemerging – his crowning achievement was the receipt of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994. Connelly plays his wife, who put up with so many years of turmoil. The film is directed by Ron Howard, who sometimes takes the notion of smooth craftsman almost to a new height (Apollo 13) but generally doesn’t (The Grinch) – ED TV, one of his least controlled films, may be one of his most intriguing.

One of the film’s faults is highly predictable – it glosses over Nash’s work, giving little sense of his real contribution (based on what’s shown, “An Interesting Mind” would be a better title). There’s a good scene in which a friend’s flippant application of Adam Smith to a pick-up situation leads Nash to make a sudden breakthrough in bargaining theory, but that’s about it (except for numerous shots of blackboards filled with equations). And according to an article in Slate magazine, the scene I mentioned doesn’t actually convey Nash’s theories accurately.

And at the end, when Nash makes his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he says not a word about the work, devoting his (very brief) remarks entirely to love and the human spirit. I went on the Nobel website to see if Nash’s speech was on there; it wasn’t, but I feel confident the movie doesn’t quite capture the full scope of his remarks. Not that the movie leaves Nash’s intellectual stature in doubt (particularly given Crowe’s persuasiveness), but you feel a bit short-changed.

The film has also been criticized for whitewashing Nash’s sexual history, particularly his numerous affairs with men. The movie’s Nash might well be a virgin at the time he meets his wife (a relationship in which she makes almost all the running). This wasn’t really as bothersome to me here. It’s not like, say, The Hurricane, in which the historical distortions were central to the film’s effect. There may be a fine movie to be made of Nash’s sexual history alone, but it’s a peripheral matter here.

Inner Life

The focus of A Beautiful Mind is on Nash’s struggle with mental illness. As such, the biggest problem for me is inherent in the structure. Halfway through the film, we learn that some of what we’ve seen to that point (including some entire characters) was merely Nash’s delusion. It’s an effective dramatic revelation, and marks I think the turning point in the film. But it’s also somewhat manipulative, treating the “beautiful” mind as a variation on the reality-bending tricks that drive the likes of Vanilla Sky. The movie’s second half, once we know what we’re dealing with, certainly felt much more honest and potent to me.

I think the fact that Nash’s inner world looks just the same as the film’s depiction of the outer world points to Howard’s limitations as a director. The film should have provided a rare opportunity to visualize an extreme subjective state. Howard does do some neat little tricks that illustrate Nash’s ability as a code-breaker, through sheer will and brilliance coaxing hidden meanings and structures out of text and numbers. But since some of these hidden codes later turn out to be merely a product of Nash’s imagination, it’s not clear at the end whether this illustrates his brilliance or his madness (maybe the point is that the two can hardly be distinguished).

Taken together, these criticisms seem to indicate excessive caution on the part of the filmmakers. A Beautiful Mind is a superior mainstream movie, but I don’t think there’s anything in it that truly transcends that category. Still, it’s very moving in its latter stages, and the acting really is a sight to see.

In the Bedroom

Todd Field’s In the Bedroom is another best film Oscar nominee. A middle-aged couple struggle to come to terms with the murder of their son, by his lover’s ex-husband. The film’s raw materials are somewhat familiar, but it’s raised to another level by its sensitivity, intelligence and reticence. Liam Lacey’s comments in the Globe and Mail are fairly typical – he called it “an impressive achievement, first of all for the quality of real life, especially the force of grief, that it captures…there has probably not been a more adult American film made in the last year.” Slate’s David Edelstein went even further, calling it “the best movie of the last several years.”

Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson as the parents give generally quiet performances that occasionally erupt in anger and pain and frustration. The movie, similarly, starts in a gently paced depiction of a family and surrounding community, but becomes governed after the tragedy by shorter, more self-contained and pointed scenes. Although the film is in most senses slower and “smaller” than A Beautiful Mind, it creates a finer cinematic vocabulary. Field manages to support his actors fully (in general, the film seems driven by their needs more than A Beautiful Mind is driven by Crowe’s) without surrendering to them – you feel a deep-rooted fascination with the contours of their needs and secrets.

I don’t disagree with too much of the specific praise given to the film, but it seems I have a difference in how much value I place in its qualities. In the Bedroom seems to me inherently less interesting than say Chunhyang with its assured formal experimentation, or The Pledge with its metaphysical ambition, or Mulholland Drive with its overwhelming personal vision. And the last half hour of In the Bedroom, however well-executed, comes down to vigilantism. Not an old Charles Bronson cleansing shoot-em-up for sure – the ending here is ambiguous, seeped in uncertainty and self-delusion. Still, wouldn’t the most “adult American film” of the year work toward a more, well, adult resolution? See it and admire it, but retain a sense of proportion.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Different universes

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

On a recent weekend, I went to see both Todd Solondz’ Storytelling and Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days. Well, I’ve never been accused of going to movies just for the spiritual uplift, but maybe this was taking things a little too far. Each film has a caustic view of mankind; each is uncompromising in its own way. But not too unsurprisingly, the European film’s notion of uncompromising comes from an entirely different universe than that of the American one.

Dog Days (an Austrian movie) follows a few characters in a seemingly affluent suburb, suffering through a heatwave. The movie opens with a young man humiliating his girlfriend and abandoning her at the side of the highway. Then it shows a fat old man pottering around the garden in his underwear, followed (quite shockingly if you didn’t know it was coming) by some hardcore orgy footage. This turns out to be in some kind of private club beneath a shopping mall, from which one of the orgy participants (looking prim and middle-class) drives home to the house she shares with her ex-husband. He endlessly prowls the rooms bouncing a tennis ball while she lounges naked and hangs out with her paid bedmates.

Dog Days

A few more characters are introduced too, but we’ve already been exposed to the crux of Seidl’s methods. How does he get people to expose themselves like this? We perceive quickly enough that the woman at the orgy is unfulfilled, compensating for a huge void in her life (the death of a child). But we’ve also seen her in explicit, unquestionably unfaked sex acts, during which, by the way, we’ve been amply able to observer her (like almost everyone else’s in the film) tired, droopy body. Dog Days takes the voyeurism inherent in cinema and blows it up to the point that conventional pleasures quickly wither, leaving us scrambling for self-justification.

Seidl provides enough relatively easy (if never comfortable) laughs and points of identification that the film’s generally an enveloping experience, but to the extent to which it’s straightforwardly pleasurable just makes all the more uncomfortable the myriad occasions on which it isn’t that. Near the end, a dumpy old woman (let’s say maybe seventy years old) performs a striptease, which Seidl’s camera captures with his usual lack of reticence. After she’s finished, the old man watching her pronounces it very good – “Just like in the Orient.” This could be viewed as Seidl’s cruelest exploitation, and yet I think the scene should be read straight, allowing us to see the woman as a functioning sexual being.

When our concepts of sexuality are so consistently associated with beauty and conventional allure, Seidl arguably does something truly valuable here. His characters may look pathetic in a certain way, and we may wonder about the sanity of the actors, but the point is that we end up pondering a unique sexual terrain, and one that’s expansive rather than limiting.


Ironically, nobody is talking about the wild sex in Dog Days, whereas article after article discusses the red rectangle that, for American release purposes, blocks out the offensive bits in a certain scene from Storytelling. In Canada, we get a clean print, but everyone writes about the red rectangle anyway.

Where Seidl’s film is rough-edged and grainy, Solondz’ Storytelling is glossy and carefully composed. The film consists of two separate, although thematically connected stories. The first, titled Fiction, involves a college student who sleeps both with a disabled fellow student and then with her college professor; both these encounters generate short stories that are discussed in class. In the second, called Non-Fiction, a documentary filmmaker makes a movie about a dysfunctional suburban family, centering on the disconnected oldest son.

Storytelling has evoked quite a debate over whether Solondz is a petty, mean-spirited creep who creates characters only to abuse them, or whether he’s something more valuable than that. I think it’s the latter, but not by wide enough a margin to get excited about. He has a facility for clever plotting, for concepts and characters that tap a timeless (but essentially adolescent) cynicism about bourgeois values. Storytelling’s short ninety minutes pull in homosexuality, interracial sex, sex with the disabled, racism, Jewish self-consciousness, and much else. The effects are sometimes shocking, sometimes trite, but rarely profound or even stimulating.

This may not be clear while you’re actually watching it, for the movie does have a certain crisp earnestness. Fiction in particular has a symmetry and ambiguity that, in tandem with the segment’s daring elements, almost seem as if they must be significant. But in the end it can offer up only humiliation and evasion. Non-Fiction is more explicit about a theme that lurks below the surface of Fiction – that the creative process will almost inevitably belittle those who get caught up in its glare. But since this insight is built on a character who’s a nebbish, no-talent filmmaker with no artistic vision or talent, it’s not clear how wide an application this thesis might have. Maybe it’s not meant to have any. The film contains a leaden moment of self-reflection where the filmmaker’s editor tells him the rough-cut of his movie condescends to the characters. I guess Solondz thinks he’s being smart in anticipating his critics, but that just shows how narrow his preoccupations are.

In the Bedroom

Almost everything in Storytelling is clever, but almost nothing in it is intelligent. I have no problem accepting that Middle America is a solid bucket of banality. But Solondz just swats snidely at one thing after another, seemingly blind to the weariness that this provokes.

When I watch movies, I sometimes try to imagine the director behind the camera, watching and nodding and coaxing and shaping. If you did this while watching Storytelling, you’d imagine a precocious but whiny guy with several chips on his shoulder who seldom leaves his bedroom. Which means that rather than make the movie, maybe he should have just gone outside and got some fresh air. On the other hand, for all his film’s rampant sleaziness, Seidl comes across as a weirdly genial eccentric who’d talk your head off in the bar for hours. You wouldn’t agree with everything, and once in a while he’d probably make you wince, but it would be – not just euphemistically – an experience.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2002)

Don’t get me wrong – I love ambiguity. It’s a rare movie that’s not better off for a dose of it. But at a certain point, ambiguity turns into evasiveness, and I’m not sure that’s as productive an attribute. The greatest directors are frequently restrained to the point of mystery – they understand that the complexity of the human condition makes a mockery of over-assertiveness. Their greatness is more about how they explore than about what they find. Except, maybe, for true pessimists. It’s surely easier to be definitive about the darkness than the light. Which is maybe why Alfred Hitchcock’s films have more great endings than just about anyone else’s.

Mystery, no doubt

I liked a line that David Thomson wrote about Robert Bresson in his Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema – “Mystery there is in his work, but no doubt.” Meaning that although Bresson is “a great director…no other great director seems less intrigued by cinema itself…Bresson’s is a cinema of demonstration, so broad in its consequences that its wordly narrowness is made irrelevant.” Thomson retained that last description in the latest edition of his book, but removed the sentence about mystery and doubt – perhaps now considering it too trite a summarization of such a master. Or maybe he realized that, in a different way, it might as easily be applied to Antonioni, Godard or numerous others.

Several recent movies have been superb at sowing ambiguity, but they fail to find their shape, meaning that in the worst case their qualities come to resemble gimmicks. Some would place Mulholland Drive in this category, although as I wrote a few months ago, that film ultimately seemed to me almost more coherent than anything else released last year.

After a long delay, Francois Ozon’s Under the Sand recently opened here. The film stars Charlotte Rampling as a woman whose husband disappears while on vacation. It seems he may have drowned, but there’s no body, and she doesn’t accept his death. She continues to talk about him in the present tense, and imagines his presence when she’s alone at home. Gradually the evidence mounts that he is indeed dead, and sometimes she seems on the verge of acceptance, but then her faith, or her self-delusion, takes over again.

Under the Sand

The film is supremely poised, and takes much of its tone from Rampling’s classic, sculptured beauty. She gives a performance of great nuance, accommodating numerous interpretations with equal-minded finesse. At times, the psychological choreography of the film is quite dazzling. Towards the end there’s a moment when you think she’s finally given up, then she bursts into laughter. Moments later she’s crying on the beach, then she reverses again. When you dissect it, it has an experimental if not arbitrary aspect to it, but Rampling provides immense coherence.

But in itself, however well mounted, this doesn’t inherently amount to more than an elaborate guessing game. Beyond that, what does it all mean? The most obvious interpretation would turn on feminism. Rampling’s insistence on interpreting her own reality represents the ultimate transgression. It’s clear from the film that it’s not a matter of pining for a lost utopia – the marriage seems stable and comfortable, but also largely silent and cast in routine. Her state may not have been particularly liberated, but in insisting on maintaining it even when it’s been snatched from her, she almost makes it so. At the same time though, there’s enough genuine weakness and emotion in the film that it never seems like a theoretical exercise.

But this kind of project no longer seems particularly radical. The very same day I watched Under the Sand, I watched Carl Dreyer’s 1943 Day of Wrath – about a young woman who transgresses her strict seventeenth century society and ends up denounced as a witch. Although the film has a whole set of thematic and social concerns that Under the Sand doesn’t share, it could nevertheless be read in much the way I just described – as depicting the pitfalls of female self-determination. And that’s just the other film I saw that day – hundreds more could be read in a similar way.

Beyond this, you would have to resign yourself to the absence of explicit meaning, and take Under the Sand as purely an aesthetic construct. It has enough beauty and flair to make that viable. It’s certainly possible to regard the details of the narrative as incidental, to step back from what individual scenes might or not mean, to look at the film as a kind of meditation on doubt and memory and desire. It’s difficult though, because the film looks and smells and sounds like it’s telling a story. You can’t easily luxuriate in it in the abstract way that you might a piece of music or a sculpture – the pull of the next scene is too strong.

We were Soldiers

The very fact that the film can prompt such musings is, of course, part of its achievement. Compare it to We were Soldiers, the big movie that opened here on the same weekend as Under the Sand. We were Soldiers, a Vietnam war epic, is also well executed – the equal of Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down in the authenticity of its battle scenes. Given how bars get raised, I suspect that’s already a moot point, and that there may never again be a war movie that doesn’t equal those two films in authenticity. The grisliness of We were Soldiers (I’m thinking in particular of a depiction of a burning face) is especially chilling though in comparison to the film’s earlier piety (an unusual number of prayer scenes).

Also like those other two films, We were Soldiers treads a safe line in its attitude to war. This goes as follows: (a) war is hell on earth; (b) despite that, American soldiers are entirely admirable, and the soldiers on the other side are more to be pitied than despised; and (c) the politics of the situation are complex and not worth addressing in detail. We were Soldiers, written and directed by Randall Wallace (the writer of Braveheart) applies this formula cleanly and prototypically, and as I watched it I kept thinking there was something I was missing – some homely subtext that an urban liberal couldn’t hope to understand.

It’s been said that film aspires to the condition of music, but We were Soldiers seems to aspire more to the security and comfort of an incredibly vivid slideshow at a small town church hall. Under the Sand doesn’t quite satisfy on the highest level, but it’s conceived out of a love of cinema, and its mysteries are a fair homage to those of the medium itself.