Sunday, March 18, 2018

Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)

Tati’s Playtime hardly encourages a deep sense of people as individuals – few of its dozens of characters are even granted a medium shot, let alone a close-up. The movie seems to warn of nothing less than collective obliteration – submersion into mass standardization, into absurd consumerism, into systems and surfaces that can only be stained by human intervention (and of course this is even before the online/social media revolution), into hopeless distance from basic pleasures (embodied by the American visitors to Paris who are kept well away from all its points of differentiation). Looked at a certain way, it can feel overwhelming, and even depressing – Tati’s choreography is so staggering, often involving multiple bits of foreground and background action in the same shot, that it hardly seems designed for a human spectator. Of course, this is also at the heart of the film’s inexhaustible glory, of its status as one of the most singular of all cinematic masterpieces. And Tati seeds his design with remnants of past humanity or portents of a future one – the sudden appearance of old friends, of mysterious near-doubles, of things that are just funny despite everything. The brilliant extended climax in a restaurant that all but gets destroyed on its opening night speaks to the capacity of collective action for transcending stifling corporate calculation. But it’s also plainly a one-off, incapable of shaping the following day for more than a few dreamy early-morning hours. In one of its final gags, the movie posits that a moving window might actually influence the object that’s being reflected in it – something that might have seemed like the ultimate loss of control, except that Tati presents it as an elating moment, a promise that all isn’t yet heavy and tethered. Least of all, of course, M. Hulot, who returns to the crowd as modestly and mysteriously as he emerged from it.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Husbands (John Cassavetes, 1970)

Husbands is perhaps Cassavetes’ most darkly disorienting work, and probably his most aggressive one: its trio of protagonists interrogates and/or attacks virtually every utterance, every assumption, every active moment and every quiet one, exhausting each other (and possibly us) in their search for a new stable structure – the old structure fell apart after a fourth friend suddenly died. After Harry (Ben Gazzara) gets into a violent fight with his wife, he decides to take off for London – Gus (Cassavetes) and Archie (Peter Falk) tag along; they all set out to find women for the night, and all succeed (the inevitability of this, at least, is one thing the film never questions), but it never feels like conventional coupling will generate much of an answer to anything. The film sees better prospects for renewal within the dynamics of mysteriously-assembled groups, often from using song as a tool for moving past language, to a purer expression of emotion. As with most of Cassavetes’ work, the impact is hardly naturalistic, and doesn’t necessarily seem like an excavation of “truth” either, but it’s an astounding exercise in unbound performance, in traumatic destabilization. And you constantly feel Cassavetes’ delight in faces and voices and expressions, particularly it seems in observing English women with their strange accents and turns of phrase. Harry stays in London (defined here solely by its cramped interiors and its rain); Gus and Archie return, if only because they can’t figure out how to make a case for doing anything else. “What’s he going to do without us?” they ask, but the real question is the opposite one – how they’re meant to reconfigure their relationship yet again to accommodate a further loss. But whether they manage it or not, the final moments of Gus returning to his family (played by Cassavetes’ real-life children) leave little doubt that they’ll be husbands, and fathers, whether or not they’re also living out their concept of being men.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Mother Kusters goes to Heaven (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975)

You might initially consider Mother Kusters goes to Heaven to be one of Fassbinder’s flatter, less stylistically interesting films, until it occurs to you that’s probably the point, to record a cross-section of a society that hardly has the emotional and intellectual energy to lift its drab ugly ass of the ground. Mrs. Kusters works at home assembling electrical components (some 1,500 a week of them, we’re told) while her husband toils in a chemical plant, where one day he kills a boss’s son and then himself. The media pounces on the story as a lurid tabloid sensation, trashing the family accordingly; her daughter grabs the chance to wrap herself in scandal and advance her singing career, while Mrs. Kusters’s bewildered loyalty to her husband makes her an easy toy for the left, seeking to brandish her as the surviving spouse of an unrecognized revolutionary. Virtually every face is familiar from other Fassbinder works, feeding its sense of claustrophobic insularity, of self-devouring ugliness (nobody ever captured eye-hurting 70’s clothes and décor better than Fassbinder did, no matter that he did it in film after film). The restored version of Mother Kusters initially seems to end in terrorism and death, but then a caption introduces an alternative ending, originally used only on the American release it says, which leads to further dissipation of energy, before an act of kindness and a hint of a possible return to happy domesticity. There’s no suggestion Fassbinder ever envisaged showing the film with both endings, and yet it’s just about perfect, underlining how the tangle of personal and political will only ever resolve itself arbitrarily, either due to the unkind whims of society, or to the (perhaps) more sympathetic ones of the artist. Viewed now, at a time of particular shakiness for progressivity, the film speaks louder than ever of a collective inability to diagnose and shape the present, let alone look to the future.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Best of 1997

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 1998)

I hope to indulge in the popular critics’ tradition of selecting my favourite ten films of 1997 (actually twelve, due to some subtle cheating). These come in the order I saw them, although Les voleurs is artistically as well as chronologically first. Apologies to any masterpieces released in the last two weeks of the year.

In a better year I might have hoped for some of the items on this list to be in my “Ten second-best” list rather than in the highest echelon. There was certainly a lack of overall knock-down slam-dunk masterpieces. Even the movies I liked tended to have fairly extensive flaws, and for that reason (out of fear that I’d make those flaws sound more significant than they are, putting people off from going to see them), I steered away from writing about some of them. Still, I’ll watch any of these again any time.

Les voleurs Belgian director Andre Techine is presently making wonderful movies. They’re highly involving as narratives, and yet they’re almost wantonly complex and provocative. The title of this year’s movie (“Thieves”) clues us in perfectly to the prevailing scheme – the array of “steals” across sexual, cultural and professional boundaries (professor Catherine Deneuve having an affair with cop Daniel Auteuil, who’s having an affair with a crook): it’s a quietly anarchic, intellectually thrilling view of human involvement.

Blood and Wine My favourite thriller of the year (an authentic spine-tingler), this film also works as a cynical examination of modern-day family and communality. The violence in this movie is a convincing expression of bitter characters driven by strong antipathies and desires. Every scene has old-fashioned, meaty behavioural resonance; Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine are in their best form for ages.

Everyone Says I Love You/Deconstructing Harry This Woody Allen double bill shows why he’s still a vitally important filmmaker. The first, a musical, has a classical, utterly captivating (if deliberately over-generic) grasp of what the genre should be. The second movie is an almost unbearably vicious self-examination in which Allen virtually invites us to find him repelling. Even if I hadn’t enjoyed these two as much, Allen’s prolific body of work would still add up to one of the most fascinating (and nowadays perhaps underrated) meditations on character, truth and fiction in the modern cinema.

The Daytrippers This movie is about a family that maintains an amiable screwball-comedy wackiness, as long as it remains in its natural suburban habitat. Then it travels into the big city and quickly succumbs to strain and fracture, which is an appealing metaphor for the complexity that families so often avoid. Parker Posey gives the best performance – vibrant, alive, giving wonderful line readings at every stage. But the cast is really a miracle of good direction. Daytrippers gave me some of my biggest laughs of the year.

Brassed Off This exceptionally effective picture elicited as much audience applause as any commercial movie I’ve ever seen, and had me choking up all the way, through the evocative power of music, blue-collar muck-raking and heart-plucking, and some authentically bleak worldviews in which even a fleeting, symbolic victory seems like a gift from God. The movie is the best kind of old-fashioned proletarian filmmaking in that it’s rooted in a recognizable, just slightly idealized, community of insular, battered idiosyncrasy.

Where is the Friend’s House?/And Life Goes On Two separate movies set in presumably remotest Iran, but for those of us who discovered director Abbas Kiarostami for the first time this year (courtesy of the Carlton Cinema’s brilliant programming), one sublime experience. Both films are thrilling illustrations of universal human concerns conveyed patiently through staggering visual images, quirky ideas about the nature of cinematic art, and even comedy, in the midst of highly unpromising circumstances. (I thought less of Kiarostami’s newest film, A Taste of Cherry, but a defender of the movie wiped the floor with me in an email argument on the subject, so maybe that should be up there too).

L.A. Confidential This movie takes some utterly familiar genre mechanics and fills them with knowing vigour and pep. As unselfconscious and nimble as a great movie could be, one sometimes wonders if director Curtis Hanson (whose previous career indicated no possibility of such an achievement) could possibly have made it by accident. At the time of writing, this is my tip as next year’s Oscar winner.

Irma Vep Shown only four times at the Cinematheque Ontario, this French film by Olivier Assayas evokes a pure joy in the myth and substance of cinema. It’s so light and unforced, so deceptively frivolous, and the structure (if any) is so cleverly obscure and elusive that the movie calls out to be underrated. But it’s also a serious investigation into the creative process, and closes with the single most mesmerizing sequence of the year – evoking a cinema that’s both regressively simpler and purer, yet as forward-looking as science fiction.

Underground The 1995 Cannes winner, belatedly released here, lives up to its reputation as a daring, boisterous epic overflowing with messy imagination. It’s frequently sentimental, grandiose, or even silly. But no other picture this year had such passionate ambition (second place in the “sheer audacity” subcategory goes to Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book – an intricate film of images within images that dazzled me with the sheer concentrated strenuousness of its design, even if I was often puzzled as to the point of it all).

One Night Stand A bit of a problematic choice, but I found parts of this movie as spellbinding as anything that turned up on the screen this year. Director Mike Figgis shoots in an allusive, sensitive style that (with the help of varied casting, well-chosen symbolism and a beguiling jazz score) achieves a deeply-satisfying, universal look into emotions in motion. At the time I thought the ending almost ruined the movie, but in retrospect I’ve decided it’s a fitting sign of Figgis’ openness to innovation and alternative directions.

And the best Canadian movie (and my 11th favourite of the year) was The Sweet Hereafter.

Since I’m under no compulsion to pay for movies that don’t appeal to me, I doubt very much that I saw the worst movie of the year. Of those I did see, Evita probably constituted the most painful experience. This seems by and large to have been one of those love-it-or-hate-it movies. For me, the high-decibel incoherence and bombastic self-importance slowed down time so effectively that I swear I could have fitted my entire summer vacation into the time Madonna took to sing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Maybe it’s largely in reaction to this ridiculous attempt at a musical that I rated the Woody Allen movie so highly.

Thank you to all the readers of this column. I hope you had a great Christmas and will be back reading this column in 1998.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Canterbury Tales (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1972)

The last scene of Pasolini’s wondrous Canterbury Tales emphasizes the narrative as an end in itself – “here end the Canterbury tales, told only for the pleasure of telling them” – and this reflects the film’s sense of joyous tumble, one narrative often almost subliminally moving into another. But there’s also something relentless about it, a feeling of people lacking in any real agency over themselves, as puppets of their own desires, as tools of those whose desires are stronger than their own, of the corrupt authorities, of the angels and devils which the film occasionally depicts as walking among the living. There’s carnal overdrive and naturalistic nudity galore, and of course the film carries an erotic charge, but one that leads time and again to humiliation, misery, betrayal, pain, or death, and ultimately even beyond that, to one of the most tangible visions of hell ever put on film. The film is a triumph not so much of casting in the usual sense, but of human placement – an astonishing canvas of flesh and faces, suggesting people torn directly from the Medieval earth (the matchless English-language soundtrack, if you choose that option, adds considerably to this sense, when not evoking Monty Python, not that I’m saying that’s a bad thing); and whether or not the various settings are historically accurate, they likewise feel discovered rather than created. At the same time, there’s no doubt we’re watching a work of extreme stylization, and not just in the episode that happily channels Charlie Chaplin; characters generally seem to be addressing the camera, or the void beyond it, more than each other. Which leads back to the movie’s sense of desperation, that few of its possessed characters expects more from their compulsive screwing than the most fleeting of releases. The classification of the film as part of a “trilogy of life” seems, to say the least, ironic.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer, 1981)

Viewed today, Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way seems even more clearly an expression of America’s divisions and fractures: sleek images of privilege clash with outbursts of paranoia, dark fantasy and instability – the film’s evasive mastery lies in the frequent difficulty of determining the dividing lines. Jeff Bridges’ Richard Bone witnesses the late-night dumping of a murdered woman, and thinks the murderer may be a wealthy oil mogul; his friend Alex Cutter hatches a plan to tease out a confession by threatening blackmail; Cutter’s wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) keeps much of her thoughts and her sadness to herself behind a fixed but fragile smile. John Heard’s Cutter is a singular creation – an eye, arm and leg lost in Vietnam, he seems initially like a wildly provocative, undisciplined drunk, but it becomes clear that there’s some methodical artifice to this madness, even if the only rational outcome of it is self-obliteration. The film hints at past entanglements, crimes and lost possibilities, suggesting that the outrage of Vietnam was only the most visible manifestation of the mess at home. And the outstanding ending delivers an emblematic charging toward justice on a white horse, foretold early in the film, but accompanied by pervasive confusion of a precisely plotted kind only achievable through immaculate creative clarity. When the mogul is finally directly confronted, there’s a direct line from his chilling response - “What if I did?” - to (say) assertions about one’s ability to stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and kill someone without losing voters; the stage is larger, but the challenge to stability and morality (or what's still intact of both) is the same. The main difference, beyond even what the film foresaw, is that our own rampaging mogul would hijack so much of Cutter’s self-justifying paranoia, without any of its moral purpose.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Far from home

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 1997)

After watching Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? at the Carlton cinema the other day, I was walking down Victoria Street, casually looking around, when I suddenly saw a topless woman standing in a second or third floor window. I guess she was aware I’d noticed her because she then held up a big sign. I was too far away to read what it said, so I kept going. Maybe I was looking into the back of one of the Yonge Street strip joints and it was some kind of a marketing strategy. Maybe it was a political statement. Maybe she was insane. Who knows?

As I walked on, I started thinking how that 10-second scene might seem if it were presented in a movie. If I were a character in an Antonioni-like exploration of longing and alienation, the moment might drive home the distanced, passionless emptiness of my existence. If I were in a Taxi Driver – like rage against the modern world, it might underscore the sleaze and immorality I think I see all around me. If I were part of a documentary about the liberation of women, the scene might speak solely about her; her self-determination over her own body.

And of course, the interpretation would be influenced further by the way the scene was shot and edited. For example, would the camera remain at a discreet distance or would it zoom lasciviously toward her? The scene would also be influenced by the preconceptions of viewers. After all, no one is entirely neutral about topless women.

This little incident could hardly be less directly relevant to what lies in store for the viewer of Where is the Friend’s Home? But my train of thought reminded me that even for Western cinema, with its generally familiar styles and settings and subjects, any claims by the viewer to have identified a film’s “truth,” to have hit on an objectively verifiable interpretation of what’s being provided, is highly problematic.

How then should we trust our reactions to a 10-year-old Iranian movie? The plot is virtually all in the title – a small boy looks for his friend to return the school notebook he’s accidentally taken; the film is populated by people whose sense of their lives is far removed from ours – its rhythms are slow and not apparently designed for the viewer’s easy gratification. Beyond giving it a superficial thumbs-up for showing us a different “window on the world,” can the unprepared Western viewer do any justice to this picture?

When I saw the movie about twenty percent of the audience (three out of fifteen people) left before the end – that seems to happen with every other movie I see nowadays though. But I was more interested in the reactions of two women sitting in front of me who laughed and giggled (not dismissively but with real appreciation) through many of the scenes. I’m not sure I would have thought of it otherwise, but the movie’s simplicity and naturalism often do generate an effect similar to that of deadpan comedy. The boy’s single-mindedness, and the generally disinterested reactions of the people he meets in the course of his search, conjure up a sense of stoic perseverance arguably not dissimilar to that of a Blake Edwards picture.

There’s a scene in which the boy initially tries to persuade his mother to let him return the notebook: he keeps harassing her and she keeps telling him to go and do his homework, and their back-and-forth exchange is repeated to such an extreme that you almost start laughing from exhaustion. Similarly, when the boy’s grandfather reminisces about how as a child his own father would every week give him a penny to spend and a beating to teach him discipline, and “he sometimes forgot the penny but he never forgot the beating” – his unsentimental countenance generates an ambience of long-suffering black comedy. But is it meant to be funny? I don’t know.

It’s not that important of course what the movie means to do. Movies must expect that viewers take them as they find them. In this respect, you couldn’t find a much better lesson in the universal power of cinema as storytelling. By Western standards the movie’s premise probably seems ridiculously slight, but in the opening scene we’ve seen the teacher threaten the deprived child with no less than expulsion if he comes to school again with his homework written on anything other than the pages of the notebook in question. The seriousness of the situation is all in the faces of the children. Kiarostami gives us plenty of time to study those faces, and in a way their sincerity and simplicity are just what a Western viewer needs – we might not understand the culture, but we understand the uncomplicated impulses of a child, and as strangers are able to trust the child to lead us on the journey. Which might be harder to do with, say, an Olsen twins movie.

If I were less cautious, I might state that there’s nothing in the movie about Iranian politics or – on a macro level – society, and that the whole thing is essentially minor. But how do I really know that? The comments I quoted from the grandfather are made in the context of berating his grandson’s relative lack of discipline and control. We’re likely to read that as a comment on the impulsiveness of a child, but who knows where subtle rebellion lurks or deeper irony lies? I won’t attempt to gauge how much Kiarostami’s work is worth as a specifically Iranian film. But it’s a film the world as a whole can be proud to own.

A few weeks ago, in some comment triggered by a recent description of the radio show Morningside as “the glue of the land,” I dismissively wrote that “real cohesion is based in shared need, not in shared recipes or suchlike.” My friend Walter Ross has taken me to task on this. He informed me that recipes can be a great force for national glue, and in that vein presented me with a recipe for “very good marmalade,” copied out in his best handwriting. To win me over further, the instructions provide time to take in no less than three movies. I shall frame this recipe to remind me of the importance of small things. To Walter, thank you and good luck, and to Lucien Bouchard, expect to receive a year’s supply of marmalade before the end of the week.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Leo the Last (John Boorman, 1970)

John Boorman’s Leo the Last is at once a parable (of the rich man who seeks to give away his wealth to the poor), an attempt to bottle the revolutionary spirit of its times, and an exercise in grand provocation, insisting on itself as art (to the extent of unseen commentators wondering out loud what kind of movie we’re watching) but often feeling as much like a semi-improvised accident. Marcello Mastroianni plays an exiled European prince, moving after his father’s death into a mansion at the head of a London cul-de-sac, surrounded by a staff of manipulative sycophants; working-class slums stretching on either side, largely occupied by immigrants, otherwise by rapists and prostitutes. The class divide is strictly observed by all, until the unfulfilled Leo starts to fill his days by voyeuristically watching the world outside, first becoming fascinated with it as narrative, then as an opportunity for personal action and meaning. Boorman’s simplistic juxtapositions skirt offensiveness at times: take his cut from the poor black family congregated around a (stolen) chicken as it's lowered into a pot, to the tooth-bared, face-smeared meat-gorging at a gathering of the oblivious toffs (which, of course, later evolves/devolves into an orgy). But he also digs deep into the community, finding camaraderie and song and belief, rooted in shared experience, to which Leo can never be more than a visitor. In the end, the mini-revolution over, it seems Leo's happy with the change he’s achieved, even if there’s little pretense that its impact can be more far-reaching than, well, the impact of a film as whimsical as this one. Despite its extreme otherness, the film is actually among the more sociologically grounded of Boorman films (when not in thrall to stereotypes), but nothing in it has the force of real diagnosis, or of lasting myth.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Night Visitor (Laslo Benedek, 1971)

Laslo Benedek’s The Night Visitor is quite effective on its own chilly terms, ingeniously reconciling two contradictory premises: we’ve seen Max von Sydow’s Salem running in his underwear through the nighttime snow, presumably the cause of the two dead bodies that show up in the film’s first twenty minutes; and yet it’s entirely clear that he’s locked inside his cell, inside an Alcatraz-like asylum (if Alcatraz was on land). The physical demands made on von Sydow in bridging these competing realities are considerable – I’ve seldom seen an actor appear to be so authentically freezing his ass off. The plot turns on various propositions of madness, investigated by a police detective played by Trevor Howard: whether von Sydow was correctly judged insane in the past, whether his detested brother-in-law might be insane in the present - the filmmakers surely meant such heavy themes, enacted within Scandinavian landscapes with the presence of both von Sydow (a chess player here again) and Liv Ullmann to evoke the spirit of Bergman (in 1971 about as mighty a spirit as there was). But for the most part it’s all much too enjoyably literal-minded and briskly calculated for that to be meaningful. Among the more Bergman-like elements are the displaced conception of the setting (the Volkswagens and phones indicate it’s set in the present, but that aside it might almost be taking place at a time of beaten-down workers toiling in the shadow of a towering castle) and the troubling stoicism with which the film’s people seem to adjust to the arrival of death, no matter how unforeseen or savage. But ultimately, whereas (say) the title of Bergman’s The Silence denoted a definitional existential conflict, the Night Visitor really is just a man with an ingenious revenge plan, too occupied with its logistics to bear much thematic or symbolic weight, and that’s without considering the contribution of the parrot.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Risks and reward

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 1997)

(A crummy early article featuring a wildly overextended metaphor and an absurd dismissal of Lost Highway, but presented here for posterity)

A riddle: when is the stock market like the movies? Well, pretty much all the time actually…

Things will probably have moved on by the time this article appears in print, but as I type these words on March 28, 1997, it appears that Bre-X Minerals – the company that had perhaps created more fast millionaires than any other in history – was far less special than it appeared to be. Due to astonishing and widespread error, fraud or a combination of both, the results of the company’s exploratory drilling seem to have been wildly misrepresented; when it all blew up, the stock price fell from around $15 (which was already way below it all-time high, and that’s taking into account a 10-for-1 stock split) to $2.50 or so. Those who took the money at those higher price may feel a sympathetic flutter of anxiety but otherwise will remain unscathed. Those who still own the stock may – if they’re lucky – have the resources to shake their heads and move on to the next thing; others who’d loaned money against it may have been ruined.

Bre-X was worthless when it started out in the not so distant past, and may end its life worthless again, in the not so distant future, which would make it a grimly interesting microcosm of the market: a case where, in the absence of any new wealth being created, the profits made by some people must be more or less exactly matched by the losses incurred by others (after taking into account the commission skimmed off at every stage). We might hope that the redistribution of wealth will have had some beneficial aspects to it, but more likely the map of winners and losers will be utterly chaotic – which was really inherent in the situation from the start.

There are many things that might earn you rewards of various magnitudes: working an honest day’s work, using a unique talent, contributing something wonderful to the world – but the really big rewards are nearly always a payoff for having been prepared to take a risk. And although everyone claims to understand that, it always seems to create shock waves when fate provides a handy reminder of how the principle works.

You recall that when the Lloyds insurance market collapsed, investors who’d been raking in lucrative returns for years got all uppity, and in some cases had the audacity to demand that the government (i.e. the normal people) bail them out. Where did they think those cheques had been coming from, given that they hadn’t been doing anything tangible to earn them? More generally, the economy only grows at 2 or 3% a  year, if that, so for how long can you expect your mutual funds to grow at 12 or 15% a year (better understanding of which, in the foreseeable future, might be forced upon our own crazed mutual fund environment).

You could likely find a metaphor there for the success or failures of emotional relationships, for job satisfaction and for much more besides, but I’m not that ambitious. So, to the movies. Pictures that try to innovate, which take big risks, lose big as often as they win big, but when they pay off, you can live off them – spiritual sustenance-wise - for a year. The safest, most calculated pictures provide a sliver of entertainment but seldom pay huge dividends. As always, a sample of films presently on release provides a comprehensive overview of the principle in action. There’s not a current example of a film that reaps big rewards from taking big risks, but then you’d expect that to be the rarest combination. The other permutations are well covered though.

In Lost Highway, David Lynch certainly takes a chance by creating a narrative that is deliberately and inherently incoherent. Given that even the most fervent of movie buffs still find the cinematic pill easier to swallow if it’s got a rattling good yarn wrapped around it, this is quite brave in its own way.

Result? Well, let’s say the return underperforms the market. Lynch’s wacky sleaziness keeps things rolling along, but the fact that it all makes no sense turns out to be a constant annoyance that sabotages the movie’s minor virtues, and a sign that Lynch is in a real creative crisis.

Donnie Brasco, to my mind, takes no real chances. Some critics have praised it for giving a daringly downbeat view of the mob, but this is basically just a modest spin on familiar movie territory. Casting Al Pacino as a gangster isn’t exactly going out on a limb, either. But then, Pacino is the greatest actor of his age, and the movie is made by real professionals, so the result is like buying blue chip stocks – you don’t expect to hit the jackpot, but you know you won’t lose your shirt either. A highly satisfactory addition to your viewing portfolio (someone stop me before I overload this metaphor).

Finally, I don’t know what the book was like, but Billie August’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow looks to me like a movie that tries to hedge all its bets by throwing in something for everyone. The early scenes have a moderately idiosyncratic frostiness about them, but the movie soon starts devoting itself to the kind of action set-pieces we’ve seen a thousand times before. It’s true that such movies still succeed, but nowadays usually only when they’re really expensive (which is taking a risk of another kind). I don’t know about Billie August’s sense of snow, but if he thinks he can strike gold with this kind of stuff…well, there’s a little site in Indonesia he might want to buy into.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Girl from Trieste (Pasquale Festa Campanile, 1982)

I have a memory of driving through some English town in the early 80s and passing a movie theatre where The Girl from Trieste was playing (presumably in a dubbed and possibly trimmed version), a snapshot of a totally different era in film distribution, and in the identification and satisfaction of erotic tastes. Even as you watch the picture now (which I did in its original Italian), it seems almost as far away as that memory, always receding into some barely articulated preoccupation – in my case, the sense of distance was heavily aided by some of the worst subtitles I can remember, rendering whole exchanges entirely incoherent (among much else, seemingly using the pronouns “he,” “she” and “it” largely randomly). Ben Gazzara (also rather pushed away by the dubbing, his usual smug amusement suppressed) plays a creator of apparent Wonder Woman-type strips; he’s working at the beach one day when a young woman (Ornella Muti, whose sense of sultry calculation allows her some patina of control even at the most flagrant moments of objectification) is saved from drowning; she latches onto him; they make love; she disappears, reappears, shedding an alluring but fragile trail of truths and lies which Gazzara attempts to follow and clarify. Director Pasquale Festa Campanile doesn’t give it much shape or energy, suggesting a fine line between creating a studied enigma and simply being absent. It’s worthwhile though if only for the abstracted grandeur of its final scenes – back on that opening beach, Muti, her head now shaven and her sense of provocative distance at full throttle, all but transforms into a baleful alien being, leaving Gazzara entirely incapable of engagement even in the face of her apparent fatal return to the water, only of obsessively trying to capture her on his page, less as woman than as pure lines and curves.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Story of a Love Story (John Frankenheimer, 1973)

It’s oddly appropriate that John Frankenheimer’s Story of a Love Story was never properly released, and is very hard to see now – the title suggests a distancing (if not plain redundancy), whereas the alternative title Impossible Object threatens to disappear altogether. The love story, if such it is, is between an English writer (Alan Bates, in provocative, improvisatory-feeling form) living in France with an American wife and a houseful of kids, and the French wife (Dominique Sanda, one of the most beguilingly watchful of actresses ) of an older French husband, mother of a single daughter. The film moves around within their timeline of their relationship, further destabilizing itself through the insertion of fantasy sequences from Bates’ imagination, or from another imagination altogether – at various times the movie (which, if nothing else, never seems to be merely coasting) seems to explicitly evoke Fellini (as in a nudity-strewn dream sequence) and Antonioni (the title also evokes his Cronaca di un amore, and Lea Massari from L’Avventura enters with Bates into a vaguely Don’t Look Now-ish tumble of sexual positions) and a generalized on-the-fly kind of New Wave-ish ness. It’s hard to know what the (at least to that point) usually tougher-contoured Frankenheimer wanted out of such a project, if not to disappear within it, perhaps to renew himself through an exercise in evasiveness (although with his wife Evans Evans hovering in the role of Bates’ wife and providing a vague tether). Complaints about the film’s inconsequentiality hardly seem fair in this context – it seems designed to perpetually recede (as love usually does, I suppose), shifting for a while into exotic dreaminess and then into sustained, piercing tragedy, before veering away again into quizzical possibilities. The film’s pretty visuals and ingratiating aspects perhaps made it too easy to dismiss (certainly something did) but it’s genuinely, surprisingly rewarding.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Magnificent obsession

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 1998)

On the afternoon of June 30th, I went to see the new British film Fever Pitch, a modest comedy about a schoolteacher in his early thirties whose obsession with London’s Arsenal Football Club may derail his chance for love and maturity. This happened to be the afternoon of England’s World Cup game against Argentina, and of course, anyone who wasn’t at work and had any interest in English soccer was watching the game. I therefore expected to be the only person at that screening of Fever Pitch, and so I was.

The Lone Viewer

I’ve always got a kick out of being alone in a movie theatre. It injects a certain air of privilege into the whole affair. If I’m the only person in the who-o-o-le of Toronto who bothered to show up here, imagine how this movie must love me! Of course, it might suggest that the word’s out that the movie sucks (although I once managed it with the Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves). That may apply to Fever Pitch – I was too pleased with myself to notice.

Actually, I coasted through the movie just by soaking up nostalgia for its many elements of British subculture. It’s so totally soccer; so totally London; so totally British I can’t imagine many non-British people “getting” this film. After eight years away from the country, I barely got it myself. I cracked lots of smiles, but I kept looking at the lead character and thinking: Jeez, this guy’s really crazy (as opposed to just movie-type “lovable-crazy” or just “normal British male” crazy).

But I know I’m saying this as someone who went to the movies four times in the following five days. How nuts is that? Fortunately, since I started keeping the list of movies now playing (which at the time I was updating every week for The Outreach Connection) I can regard the whole thing as a public service. I think that puts me in a different category. There’s someone I see quite often at various films – I’ve never spoken to him, but I keep noticing the guy. For me to see him so frequently, the guy’s obviously suffering from some scopophilic mania. He should get a life. Buddy, if you’re reading this and you think you might be the one (Le Samourai at 6.30 on Friday the 3rd, Buffalo 66 at 3.30 on Saturday the 4th…), seek help!

The Buffalo Shuffle

Obviously, we’re all mysteries to each other. Fever Pitch is shot in the kind of bright, clean-cut style you associate with sitcom – if you don’t like or identify with the basic elements, there’s no reason for you to be there. It takes far greater ambition and confidence for a film to speak in a language that transcends those simple forms of recognition. I mentioned Buffalo 66 – a film directed by its star Vincent Gallo. The grungy, edge-of-mainstream Gallo can’t have been anyone’s hot tip for the next cinematic poet. And yet, Buffalo 66 – dealing in awfully dour, unprepossessing material – is a constant astonishment, and one of the year’s very best films.

From the opening scene – in which Gallo’s intense, obsessive character comes outside for a while thinking things over, then asks to be let back to use the bathroom – the film treads (utterly consistently) a line between deadpan disillusionment, hopeless dysfunction, emotional crisis, and (happily) the prospect of redemption and renewal, all conveyed with huge style and confidence, and it’s funny! Gallo’s character kidnaps a young woman (played by Christina Ricci) almost at random, and forces her to pose as his wife on a visit to his parents (an utterly horrifying but mesmerizing joint creation by Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston). Having thereby satisfied some sense of obligation, he plans to dump her and kill the former Buffalo Bills football player (and now strip-joint owner) whose missed kick in a long-ago Super Bowl was - as he sees it – the source of his recent woes. But despite his dismal treatment of her, she won’t let him go.

Best debut 98?

The film is open to various charges. Ricci’s character is too close to the misogynist fantasy of the rape victim who likes it. Gallo delivers a jittery sub-Pacino performance that sometimes resembles an acting class exercise; his character is given a wretched personal history that’s rather too overtly sculptured; as a director, his stylistic innovations (showy camera placement, the unique juxtaposing of flashbacks in and out of the action, his astonishing handling of a fantasized death scene toward the end, in which he somehow freezes the gory details in a near-3D effect; the glazed, archived or washed-out look of so many scenes; the use of parody and excess in the acting) could all be dismissed as pretentious flourishes.

But however strongly you might be inclined to resist some of these elements, the film is a huge success. It immerses you in a completely alien landscape. There’s hardly a moment of false glamour in the film – people look ugly and fleshy and sloppily groomed and badly-dressed, and you can smell the decrepitude in every scene. To that extent, the film has the honesty of a documentary, but Gallo’s cinematic edginess simultaneously makes events resemble a deranged (if impoverished) fantasy. That might have taken us no further than David Lynch territory, as yet another expose of sordid secrets and subtexts, but Gallo never seems to be pursuing a simple agenda (only at the very end, perhaps), and he finds his way to some genuinely striking illumination of character. It’s hard to judge someone from his directorial debut, but Gallo looks here like someone with an affinity for somewhat romantic, edgy fatalism, enormous imagination, and huge self-belief. That could be the basis for a directorial career to rival the Coen Brothers and Tarantino.

And happily, the screening of Buffalo 66 was far from empty. Perhaps the good word is already out. I mean, we’re all obsessive in one way or another, and should all be potentially satisfied customers for a movie reflecting those qualities. Fever Pitch, although entertaining, isn’t about much more than one man’s problems. Buffalo 66, also about one man’s problems, has the upper hand twice: it’s a better depiction both of the man, and of the audience.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

2001 Toronto film festival report, part seven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2001)

This is the seventh and last of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival.

L’Anglaise et le Duc (Eric Rohmer)
81-year-old Rohmer’s film, set during the French Revolution, uses digital technology to insert its characters into painted settings. The technique is unsettling at first, but as the film progresses, the artificiality strangely becomes a means of authenticity – the unfamiliarity of its appearance reinforces the sense of a true window into the past. The title characters, she a Royalist and he affiliated with Robespierre, are former lovers whose shifting fortunes reflect the progress of the Revolution. Much of the film consists of conversation, and in this respect it’s certainly not that far removed from Rohmer’s contemporary works, although under the circumstances politics and survival are more pressing subjects than the machinations of love. The characters are superbly self-aware and regard the analysis of the event as part and parcel of living it (a quality that gives them a useful stoicism, if not fatalism, at times of pressure). The matter-of-fact air of even the most dramatic events (there’s an especially well-executed scene in which she hides a fugitive in her bed) seems like a further guarantee of verisimilitude. It’s a film that’s extremely modern while possessing the most classical of qualities, excellently acted especially by Lucy Russell as the lady; some might find it a bit talky and distended, but it will probably stand as a key Rohmer film.

Revolution #9 (Tim McCann)
McCann’s film starts with a young woman bringing home her new fiancée to meet her family – they express doubts about the guy, and then from the very next scene we see that he’s losing his grip on reality. He imagines that his young nephew-to-be is part of an internet-driven conspiracy against him and that a TV perfume commercial is the nexus of a sophisticated mind-control plot. In the film’s best scene, he tracks down and interrogates the ad’s director; taking him for a journalist, the self-absorbed director takes a hilariously long time to catch on. The film intertwines events from his perspective with events from his fiancee’s. The first is a troubled, paranoid fantasy; the second a gritty account of having to cope with his mood swings, the opposition of her family, the police and the public health system (the film spends a surprising amount of time on the details of his journey through the New York psychiatric admission process). It’s also attentive to the real lives of its characters, with money a perpetual issue: because it’s so well-grounded in economic and emotional reality (she’s presumably as dependent on him in some way as he is on her), the film can afford to indulge itself a little in how it visualizes his mental state. At times, these indulgences render it a little repetitive and derivative, but it leaves a strong after-impression.

Lantana (Ray Lawrence)
The Festival closing gala was this somber, troubled drama about interlocking characters in an Australian suburb. It’s somewhere in between a film noir and a kitchen sinker, with a vaguely Latin flavour thrown in (for exoticism I guess) – Blue Velvet and La ronde may be other occasional reference points. Anthony LaPaglia plays a cop who’s cheating on his wife with the woman who lives next door to a guy who may have committed a crime that the cop’s investigating – to summarize just one plot strand (Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey are also in the movie, both to lesser effect). The connections are sometimes illuminating (it makes bedmates out of guilt and innocence, truth and lies; it transforms pursuers to pursued at a snap) but are almost as often mildly groan-inducing. The film maintains its smoky poise very well throughout, but the artistic and thematic calculations drive out much spontaneity and feeling. It also seems to me that the men in the movie are generally allowed a more complex and boisterous brand of angst than the more straightforwardly unfulfilled women – but then it is an Australian movie after all. Lantana’s finest point may be the ending – the solution to the central mystery is mundane enough to be authentically tragic.

Festival summary
As everyone says, it was two events. The movies were just as good in the second half, or just as bad, whatever, but a pinched, dutiful air settled over the whole thing.

I was waiting for a movie to start when I heard about New York. Someone a few rows back said the World Trade Center was gone, and the Pentagon too. It’s not that I disbelieved him exactly, but your concept of your world can only move so far based on one overheard fragment. Then someone else came in who was deeply upset, and I knew something real was happening. For all I knew it was the beginning of the end – I certainly considered it. But I thought – as long as the movie plays, things can’t be that bad. And I waited, and the movie did play, from beginning to end. Then I came out and went downtown, and there were no more movies that day.

This year I stuck to a very steady pace (three a day, pretty much every day) and kept healthy hours – I didn’t go to any screenings ending past 8.30 pm. Some movies I deeply wanted to see (Andre Techine’s Loin, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Millennium Mambo) couldn’t be accommodated by this structure, and they dropped by the wayside. I took more chances this year than I have the past few years, and on the whole they paid off. I wish I’d seen more movies that clearly belonged in the highest rank, but I was nearly always stimulated and intrigued.

My favourite films of the festival were all from Asia: What Time is it There, Pulse and Warm Water under a Red Bridge. Lovely and Amazing was probably the most memorable of the American films; The Pianist and L’Anglaise et le Duc the most memorable of the European ones. Last Wedding was the most memorable Canadian film I saw…well, I guess the only Canadian film I saw. Trouble Every Day put me to sleep, but may stand most to gain from a second viewing. Of the other 25 films I’ve written about, the ones with least to recommend them are probably Sex and Lucia, Heist, Warrior of Light, Birthday Girl and Innocent Fairies (I’m leaving aside the gala offerings Hearts in Atlantis and Training Day, which hardly seem like serious festival offerings at all). But then, I enjoyed watching even those films much more than not. So keep the articles, wait until the movies open (in the case of the foreign ones, pray that they do) and enjoy!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Toronto film festival report, part four

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1999)

This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival.

Breakfast of Champions (Alan Rudolph)
Impossible to imagine many people actually liking this hyperactive version of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel about the impossible strains of latter-day consumption-crazed America (it’s already been and gone from commercial release), although Nick Nolte’s performance as a cracked cross-dresser almost redeems the whole thing. Bruce Willis, though, in the central role, is as flat as the cardboard cutouts of him that pop up in every other scene (as with so much about this film, it’s hard to tell how deliberate that is). The film is seeped in tacky, garish imagery, reminiscent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (although the characters aren’t on acid exactly): it’s a strange, hermetic construct – not wacky enough to be interesting on its own terms, but not sufficiently relevant to perform as satire (particularly as the ending is more a surrender than a conclusion). It does generate a strange sense of alienation and longing, and some of Rudolph’s visual tricks are giddily entertaining in the manner of a Monty Python cartoon insert: one suspects the film’s nutty messiness is more or less what was intended, but it’s hard to celebrate that kind of success.

Guinevere (Audrey Wells)
This sensitive drama of a young woman’s affair with a much older photographer effectively explores the problematic nature for a woman of finding one’s identity and maturity through a relationship which inherently seems weighted towards the egotistical gratification of the male. Sarah Polley and Stephen Rea make intriguing partners in what develops into a subtle power game, even if the conception of Rea’s character tends a bit too much toward conventional, self-possessed charismatic distance. The film’s side-excursions into satire (mainly through pot-shots at Polley’s constipated family of lawyers) are most successful; in the end, the film allows Rea a measure of indulgence in his grandiose fantasy, but makes that enjoyment explicitly a gift that lies under Polley’s control – one might have a satisfying sexual-politics-oriented debate about whether this is a satisfying arrival point (I think it’s passable).

Women talking Dirty (Coky Giedroyc)
An undistinguished piece of festival schedule-padding that although not the worst film I saw at the festival was the one that left my head feeling the emptiest. Two women in picturesque Edinburgh go through an unremarkable succession of romantic ups and downs; one (Helena Bonham Carter) is tediously quirky, the other (Gina McKee) is low-key and mopey. There’s an icky secret that injects some fire into the latter stages, but so little happens through vast stretches of the film that I defy anyone not to get distracted by McKee’s quite pretty apartment and to drift off into thinking about home decorating (great purple couch). The themes, of course, involve female self-determination and life-balance issues (the same issues currently dealt with more effectively in Guinevere and Tumbleweeds and, I’m sure, numerous others). There’s not much dirty talk, which is a further disadvantage. The film is so undistinctive that it plays Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” over one sequence. Elton John was one of the producers. Can’t think of anything else to say about it.

Tumbleweeds (Gavin O’Connor)
A film that, compared with the above, evidences vastly superior insight and finesse in dealing with broadly similar concerns. Janet McTeer  (in an excellent, wide-ranging performance) plays a four-times-married woman whose response to romantic letdowns is always to move along, with her 10-year-old daughter in tow. The film is fundamentally familiar in its exploration of how a woman asserts her self-determination and independence when drawn as a matter of emotional and sexual practicality into relationships with men (none of whom, as luck would have it, are much good); it’s an older, blue-collar version of Guinevere, given additional resonance by the contrast with the daughter’s budding maturity and the well-caught texture of the small-town Northern Californian surroundings. Any film that can cast the great and weird Michael J. Pollard as an office manager without losing its grip on plausibility has confidence to burn; director O’Connor seems to have a perfect sense for where quirkiness and realism most profitably intersect, and creates a rich, resonant film.

Onegin (Martha Fiennes)
An oddly somber, if not depressing, choice as the closing night gala, this tragic story of a nobleman who spurns an offered love then later seeks to reclaim it is dramatically rather inert and thematically unexceptional. Ralph Fiennes rises well to the challenge of Onegin, conveying the character’s shift from arrogance to desolation (his motives remain undramatized in some key respects, but the film is comfortable with its own mystery). Liv Tyler is also as good as she’s ever been. The film’s brooding atmosphere is sometimes highly effective (such as in an almost unbearably tense duel sequence); sometimes on the strained side, with the sound design introducing an almost otherworldly element into its dramatization of disengagement and decay. Its measured eeriness is never dull, but the attention given to the film may be a counterproductive case of overselling – there’s a severe limit to how much hype this modest work can carry.

Mumford (Lawrence Kasdan)
Already in commercial release, this gentle film about the attainment of unobtrusive stability has a style that almost expresses its theme too well – it’s so polite and pleasant as to almost melt away before your very eyes. Loren Dean plays a psychologist called Mumford, practicing in the small town of Mumford (neatly summarizing the theme of assimilation), who achieves success and local popularity more through sympathetic listening and empathy than through clinical technique – no surprise then, that he’s not a psychologist at all, but just a man trying to escape the mistakes of his past. Dean’s undemonstrative performance is oddly suited to a movie that’s clearly conservative, if not regressive, in its distrust of pace, ambition and big business (Ted Danson has a wonderful cameo as the embodiment of all these evils). In many ways the movie seems merely trite and naïve, hardly funny at all even though it’s being sold as a comedy, and yet it’s certainly coherent and assured – it’s as if Kasdan had been making the same basic movie for years and has thus attained a comfortable, almost effortless autopilot; a strange effect given that this hasn’t in fact been Kasdan’s career.