Thursday, December 30, 2010

Technical Demands

I understand this year’s Oscar for best film is a tight race between The Social Network and The King’s Speech, with The Fighter a somewhat inexplicable “dark horse.” Actually, I’m pretty sure The Social Network will win. But until I saw The King’s Speech the other day, I assumed this was a contest between polar opposites – cutting-edge commentary on one of the driving forces of our time versus a nice but no longer too consequential seventy-year-old anecdote. Actually though, the two films are thematic cousins, positioned at different ends of the technological and existential revolution that’s remade our world, but in the end perhaps not sending such different messages on what we should think about it.

The King’s Speech

The reason the King, George VI of the United Kingdom (Colin Firth), cares particularly about his quality of speech is that he has a stammer, and since it’s the dawn of the media age (the 1930s), it matters: the once-distant royalty now has to make speeches and radio broadcasts and appear in newsreels, making a social phenomenon of its flaws and imperfections. In addition, Hitler’s growing power in Europe suggests imminent war, and a heightened need for (at least quasi-eloquent) national symbols of continuity and perseverance. After suffering through a long series of failed treatments, he finds his way to an unconventional speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who insists on calling him Bertie, as his family does, as a necessary component of a doctor/patient relationship of equals. The movie’s main selling point is the interplay between the two, and this certainly provides satisfying enough entertainment (although I found the film a little vague on what Logue’s treatment actually amounted to or how it actually worked). But in itself, this wouldn’t amount to so very much, notwithstanding a fine performance by Firth in particular.

The film’s greater power, I think, comes from its analysis of what Bertie represents, and how that’s under strain. From what we see here, the centre of royal power consists of a series of cramped, musty-seeming rooms, where one is always skirting round creepy servants, or being pushed from one stale obligation to the next, or being belittled to an extent a normal adult might reasonably hope to have left behind. Firth is very moving in an extended scene where Bertie talks about his often lonely and miserable childhood (playing with a model airplane of the kind he was always denied – his father collected stamps, so he had to collect stamps as well), and later on he rails against the uselessness of being king in an age where the role doesn’t allow (indeed suppresses) exercising real power or autonomy.

George VI only reluctantly became king, of course, after his older brother Edward VIII abdicated, as a result of his relationship with an American divorcee. Bertie speculates in the film that Edward has become mentally unsound, and indeed he may have been, but the tension between private desires and public propriety has overshadowed all else about the Monarchy in recent decades. The less important the institution becomes in any substantive terms, the more exhaustively it gets covered, which of course only reflects the infantilization of culture more generally (the very day after I saw the film, a newspaper article was insipidly blathering on about Kate Middleton’s “commoner” status).

Versus The Social Network

The title refers both to George’s affliction in general and to a specific speech he gives following the declaration of war, when he must stir the Empire and set it on its proper course. It’s no spoiler in the circumstances to say he pulls it off, but as galvanizing as the speech may be to radio listeners, the movie makes it clear that to him it’s a technical exercise; his focus on getting through (occasionally, for example, inwardly spouting obscenities to help bridge difficult transitions) is far more pressing than any sense of great personal purpose. Afterwards the inner circle congratulates him on getting through it, but the point is that he didn’t screw it up, not that he demonstrated some remarkable leadership. Start from there, hop forward a few generations, and you arrive at our prevailing culture of tireless dissection and meta-commentary, where purpose and substance only intermittently shine through the barrage of strategizing and point-scoring.

But maybe you could argue we’re all trying to attain the status of low-end royalty. It’s an age of connectivity and on-line visibility, but who knows how any of that correlates with our inner selves, or even whether the concept of an inner self has the same validity it used to have. As a viewing experience, David Fincher’s The Social Network is very different from The King’s Speech, moving at a substantially greater words-per-minute pace, more visually alluring, and of course aggressively contemporary. But like Bertie, Marc Zuckerberg’s actions are specifically driven by his analysis of class imperatives (in the celebrated opening scene, he’s mouthing off about the importance of cracking the right circles), and Fincher closes his film by emphasizing the remaining distance between Zuckerberg’s formal achievements and his inner priorities. Most striking is the irony of Zuckerberg (a member of the modern new economy royalty if anyone is) reinventing the concept of “friendship” while being so ill-attuned to the normal rhythms of interaction and seduction, amusingly paralleling Bertie’s accidental embodiment of Empire and continuity.

Tom Hooper

Anyway, while it’s virtually impossible to write about The Social Network without referencing its director Fincher, The King’s Speech seems to be in the category of films like Shakespeare In Love and Driving Miss Daisy (both of which won the best film Oscar without winning best director), perceived primarily as achievements in writing and acting. The film’s rather more than that though; I don’t know how its director Tom Hooper could have done much better with the material. The film has an insinuating, appropriately grim use of space (I was particularly fascinated by the hideously coloured wall in Logue’s office) and is far less calculating in its crowd-pleasing than it might have been (although I think the comic montage of the two engaging in assorted tongue-strengthening and other exercises might have been profitably omitted).

Hooper directed the HBO mini-series John Adams, but I’d only seen his last film The Damned United, the story of 70’s soccer manager Brian Clough and his short-lived attempt at managing the then-mighty Leeds team. I enjoyed that film a lot (not least for evoking an unpretentiousness and accessibility unimaginable in professional sports now), but it would be difficult to say it had much broader relevance - it would be no surprise if many viewers were simply to find it mystifying. But anyway, Hooper is plainly a shrewd and versatile director. And it’s barely necessary to mention that The King’s Speech is well-acted by all. The main thing though, it’s not that usual to come out of one of these British stiff-upper-lip period movies thinking, wow, that actually had some relevance to something.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Global Ideals


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2005)

The United Nations is a rather battered organization now, but like others I still view it with much idealism and (no matter how frequently this is challenged) with much optimism. I’ve often said it’s an organization I’d like to work for, although someone who knows about it told me the bureaucracy is stifling. I remember when I went on the tour of the New York headquarters, maybe twelve years ago. It was exciting enough, but even then the place seemed musty and dated. This shouldn’t matter in itself, except one suspects the air of creeping dilapidation doesn’t contribute to its overall effectiveness.

Sorrow Or Anger

The recent scandals have been depressing, and it’s difficult to know whether to respond with sorrow or anger. If we knew the full extent of the UN’s institutional challenges, it’s possible the place might seem practically unfixable. But we’re not going to get anything better, so I wish we could find a truer consensus for the UN as a true strategic outgrowth of national interests rather than as some kind of quasi-self contained problem child. As in so much else, the US’ bloated sense of preeminence stands as a major obstacle to this, especially as the UN has played so maladroitly into its hands. Still, Bush’s nominating John Bolton as Ambassador to the UN seems (even by his standards) like a particularly contemptuous step, just one step above declining to nominate anyone at all (or else sending the White House dog).

Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter is the first picture to have been granted permission to film inside the UN headquarters, and presumably its general good intentions toward the organization helped close the deal. Nicole Kidman plays an interpreter who overhears talk of a plot to assassinate an African leader, during his pending visit to address the General Assembly. Sean Penn is the Secret Service cop assigned to look into it. He soon finds out that Kidman has an active background as a former radical, which makes her credibility and possible motives suspect. On the other hand, although still reeling from his wife’s recent death, he finds himself drawn to her. The film is restrained though on this point.

Actually it’s a restrained film on every point. Pollack has made many famous movies, and he obviously possesses a certain cool intelligence, but his films don’t seem marked by any great artistic passion or instinct or any particular feeling for the human condition. His most recent work (Havana, The Firm, Sabrina, Random Hearts) seems entirely academic, and the increasing gaps between films since his Oscar for Out Of Africa don’t seem to indicate much more than creative stasis. Still, The Interpreter seemed to hold greater promise than any of these, because of the material’s inherent political potential. The fictional African country is closely based on Zimbabwe. The UN’s lack of any meaningful voice in Zimbabwe isn’t yet an emblematic shame on the level of its failures in Bosnia or Rwanda, but history may yet bring it there.

Zimbabwe’s Tragedy

As The Interpreter’s parallel back-story suggests, the slow metamorphosis of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe from visionary freedom fighter to despotic, complacent oppressor is one of the saddest contemporary case histories. Someone who knows the country told me the mood on the streets is now broken and decrepit where it used to be vibrant. Mugabe denies his own people every opportunity – perhaps he hasn’t instituted a defined genocide, but his economic and psychological savagery is absolute. On the day I write this article, a British paper reports that a famine watch group issued a red alert, anticipating a third of the population will need food aid this year; but Mugabe rejects most external attempts at assistance. Still, his past credentials and some misplaced notion of solidarity keep a substantial international block in his back pocket (South Africa’s President Mbeki is a consistent cheerleader), and Zimbabwe’s lack of any military or geopolitical threat to the West means it’s nowhere near Iran on the “Axis of Evil radar.

Far from doing something meaningful about this, the UN recently appointed Zimbabwe to its United Nations Human Rights Commission. Even the US spoke out against that one. Zimbabwe’s ambassador said in response that “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones” (actually, he did have a point). As the cliché goes, it would all be funny if it wasn’t so serious. Initially, I thought The Interpreter might contain some good commentary on all this – a promising early scene parodies the US’ pathetic resistance to the International Criminal Court (to which, in the movie, France wishes to commit the dictator for trial). But this all peters out, and soon it’s all about plot mechanics.

Those mechanics, as far as I can tell, only make limited sense, and most reviews of the film have pointed out various implausibilities. I wouldn't mind any of these if they were in the service of something even mildly subversive or probing, but the ultimate shallowness of The Interpreter’s ambitions is severely disappointing. Although it seems to support the premise of the UN (or at least a fuzzy notion of it, exemplified by Kidman’s statement that “love and compassion are the better way”), the movie actually depicts its ultimate positive outcome as the consequence of petty conspiracy and skullduggery, thus pretty effectively undermining itself.

Squandered Promise

It’s also disappointing how completely the film allows Nicole Kidman (who in any event, with her inherent coolness, hardly conveys much political fire) to serve as the repository for resentment at Mugabe’s squandered promise. This isn’t at all uncommon of course. Just a few weeks ago I reviewed John Boorman’s In My Country, which made similar use of Juliette Binoche in dramatizing the hearings of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But at least Boorman’s film evidenced some sense of the limitations of its own approach. The Interpreter seems utterly comfortable with its parameters, and although I try in these reviews not to cite too often the insularity of “Hollywood,” Pollack’s film sure seems like something conceived in the study overlooking the private tennis court (albeit with a Democratic fundraiser to come later in the evening).

When the dictator enters New York, he comments on how the streets looked during his last visit. “Things change,” says an aide. “They diminish,” says the leader, and his later actions seem to suggest his awareness of his own failure. Is it ungenerous to suggest that this grants Mugabe more humanity than he deserves? To me this seems like the final failure of a bland film; one that even cursory awareness shows to be just a meek scratch across the surface of its vital subject.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Fighters

I’ve written here before about my fondness for Blake Edwards, who died the other week at the age of 88. At his best, in films like “10” and S.O.B., he made unusually piercing movies about aging, disappointment and self-delusion, deploying his deadpan style as an unflinching microscope. I don’t think his work has always worn that well – the Pink Panther movies for instance often seem dawdling now, and he stretched out the concept long past its natural death. But then I often find Edwards’ weaker and less inspired movies to be more stimulating than his classically successful ones (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for instance, doesn’t particularly reflect his mature style), for how they absorb and embody his affinity for desperation.

Blake Edwards

For instance, The Carey Treatment, an early-70’s medical thriller with James Coburn, isn’t particularly distinguished stuff, but Edwards’ handling of it is so unadorned, allowing Coburn to become so stylized and above it all, that it takes on an existential charge, rendering the self-absorbed institutional environment almost as abstract as the comic landscapes of the Clouseau films. And after he died, I watched Days of Wine and Roses, which he made in 1962. Another early and more self-effacing Edwards work, depicting a young couple falling into alcoholism, it’s still enormously raw and affecting, and still scary for depicting love and mutual delight becoming helplessly destructive.

I kept thinking of the film a few days later when I went to see David O Russell’s new movie The Fighter. This is the true story of Micky Ward, a Boston-area boxer slugging unproductively away in the early 90’s in the shadow of his older brother Dicky, also a fighter who achieved modest fame by once knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard (or maybe Sugar Ray slipped). Between Dicky’s chronic unreliability (he’s a crack-addict) and his mother’s inexpert management, Micky’s going nowhere, until a combination of events puts him on a new path.

The movie’s been widely praised, and by all accounts it’s a major Oscar contender. Taken in opposition to The Social Network, this might be a rerun of 1976 when Rocky beat out a bunch of topical heavyweights (Network, Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men). In fact, it’s almost exactly like that, because I couldn’t really list any significant way in which The Fighter advances on Rocky. Certainly not in the boxing scenes, which don’t add anything to the long cinematic inventory of such material, or in Mark Wahlberg’s sympathetic but largely blank central performance.

The Fighter

I suppose it aspires to a grittier texture, but a lot of it feels caricatured, if not outright condescending. For example, it presents Micky’s seven sisters as a hideous posse of dumbass harpies, good for easy laughs, but incomprehensible otherwise. Dicky’s addiction isn’t presented with much clout; his depraved life seems to consist of hanging out harmlessly with a colourful bunch of losers, and then leaping comically out of the window when Mom comes looking for him. Christian Bale, also tipped for an Oscar, plays the addled Dicky with great technical facility, but he’s not particularly interesting to watch. Likewise, Melissa Leo’s portrayal of the self-righteous mother is no doubt skillful, but frankly, I couldn’t stand the awful woman.

Of course, that’s a subjective response, and the film does convey something of her underlying vulnerability and the challenges that necessitated this hard shell, but there’s nothing remotely new to such calibrations. Director Russell, unseen for six years since overreaching with I Heart Huckabees (in the interim he got bogged down on another problem film, which remains unreleased), keeps things moving and mostly colourful, and that’s about it. Unless one is a boxing movie completist, I just can’t see any point of going to see the film; it feels like what it is, a bunch of rich people flattering themselves on doing something important. Blake Edwards knew he belonged too much to the entertainment elite to pretend otherwise, which helps makes it easy to unthinkingly dismiss his work as glossy pap. But in its own way, that’s the same kind of complacency that puts people off subtitled films. Why should artists pretend to be normal guys – isn’t it inherent to their value that they’re not?

Client 9

I caught up late with Alex Gibney’s documentary Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, an immaculate case study on the idiocy and corruption that holds America increasingly in its grip. Spitzer was the New York attorney general who showed amazing focus and effectiveness in taking on corporate crimes (in effect diagnosing many of the endemic excesses and perversions behind recent problems), fairly easily moving on to the state’s governorship. Along the way he gathered some well-connected enemies, and when he started using a premium escort service (albeit with extreme attention to secrecy and anonymity), he eventually threw them a string that could only ever end up forming a noose.

The film persuasively argues (without being able to connect every dot) that Spitzer’s transgressions would have been lost in the system without some powerful intervention: a mundane bank activity report vaulting over hundreds of others onto the desks of investigators; a local attorney general suddenly choosing to make high-priced prostitution a priority; affidavits devoting disproportionate attention to “Client 9”; helpful leaks to the media. Even then, he might have survived the disclosures (as others have in similar situations) if not for his political isolation. Spitzer, who’s interviewed in the film and answers the questions as forthrightly as you could reasonably expect, doesn’t engage in special pleading, and views might differ on how much of a loss his demise represents. What seems less debatable though is that his contributions to enforcing corporate ethics and fair dealing – which likely outweigh anyone else’s in recent times – were ultimately squashed by the sheer scale of the problem, and since no one else in the public sphere shows an iota of his focus and determination, we’re all screwed.

Even allowing for personal animosity and verbal imprecision, it’s staggering when an establishment figure says Spitzer’s place in hell should be hotter than anyone else’s (the specific grievance behind this: Spitzer’s opinion that the job of running a not-for-profit organization might not deserve a $200 million cumulative wage package). But as Obama’s recent capitulation on the millionaire tax cuts illustrated (as if the failure to rein in anything meaningful after the banking crisis hadn’t already), America has long lost any sustained grip on its corporate aristocracy (which itself does retain a perfect grip on the Tea Party stooges and other buffoons who somehow think taking care of Wall Street trickles down to safeguarding their own freedoms). At the start of Client 9, Gibney tricks us into thinking the film will be a chronicle of unbridled desire collapsing in on itself (even Spitzer likens his own story to that of Icarus, flying too close to the sun). But in the end we see New York’s glittering surfaces – along with so much of this physical and existential infrastructure we’ve built for ourselves – as traps, keeping the dazzled mice in place while the cats smoothly make off with the cheese.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Living On Blood


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2009)

Signs the world is getting worse #5,673: the increasing fact that serious and important documentaries are all as depressing as hell, and the only uplifting ones are about spelling bees or singing retirees or other such marginalia. I wrote a few weeks ago about Food Inc., and to be honest, The Cove prompts a largely similar reaction. Maybe that’s just me, but on the other hand, shouldn’t every engaged diagnosis of our dilemmas lead to the same handful of causes: grotesquely expanded lifestyles, based on assumptions unrelated to any sane theory of entitlement or sustainability; a degraded popular culture that keeps us high as kites on brain-freezing distractions, etc. etc. Have I been here before – absolutely…and on that earlier day 15,000 people died of hunger, as they will again today, and the permafrost melted a little more, as it will today, and the debt and deferred reckoning piled up…

The Cove

The Cove’s cove is a spot of water just off a small Japanese town, where the locals butcher some 23,000 dolphins every year, despite the low global demand for dolphin meat (it’s high in mercury contamination, and can frequently only be sold in the guise of something else). Richard O’Barry is an aging activist who forty years ago trained the dolphins in the TV show Flipper, something he now regrets for how it boosted the global trade in the creatures (they look so cute and happy doing tricks in those little pools, regardless that it drives them nuts); since then he’s devoted his life to freeing and fighting for them. O’Barry’s premise, sparking the movie’s main action (filmed a couple of years ago) is that if he can get the organized killing on film (something never accomplished, given local sensitivity and hostility), public pressure will put an end to it, and things can only improve from there.

As reviewers have noted, this project gives The Cove the air of a thriller, leading to a conclusion that’s satisfying in terms of the immediate objective (if not perhaps in terms of O’Barry’s broader objectives). Built around this, the movie (directed by Louis Psihoyos, one of the team who worked with O’Barry), digresses to briefly essay the broader degradation of the oceans, and to place the dolphin trade in some political and social context. These elements, if more conventional, are for me its most powerful. I’ve heard before the statistic that fish stocks at the current rate of depletion will collapse completely in a few decades, depriving 70% of humankind of its primary source of protein, but a brief speeded-up montage of the action at Tokyo’s fish market makes the scale of what we’re talking about chillingly clear.

Japan’s main policy response to this, incredibly, consists of stepping up its efforts to resurrect the whaling industry, including blaming excess numbers of whales and dolphins for eating up too many fish. The film’s expose of the International Whaling Commission, on this evidence an egregiously useless organization even in a world that’s full of them, is bleakly comic; for example in highlighting how Japan bribes third-tier nations into voting its way (who knew those Caribbean islands held such strong views?). Absurd as it is, we’ve all seen or read enough to know this is the masquerade of leadership: sleek boards who go through the motions of “governance” while understanding nothing about the steam building up in their organizations’ frail entrails; government panels and summits brandishing as progress their frail climactic statements of the vague and obvious, while meanwhile the machinery of collective slow death grinds away.

The Call Of G.I. Joe

For me, the easiest ones to let off the hook are the local Japanese who perpetrate this slaughter. I mean, what do they know, what have they ever been taught? The whole world over, you have people following the only choice they have, too frightened or beaten down to accept the reality of their actions or to test their own long-tutored assertions (keep the government away from my Medicare!). People are only so smart (and surely getting dumber), that’s why we need structures and leaders. And that’s why we should be angrier when they fail us so persistently and complacently. And yet, the possibility of that anger might be the most frightening thing of all I guess, because the immense weight and complexity of what we’ve built and what we think we possess, for all its obvious wretchedness, has a sense of necessity and knowability, sanctioning our moronic discounting of future exposures and risks. We can’t deal with uncertainty, so basically we ignore it.

I guess we’ll never know how intelligent dolphins really are, but when The Cove shows them in their unhindered natural state, covering sometimes 40 miles a day in the (absent humanity’s intervention) inexhaustible ocean, powered by their immense auditory capacities, they seem as sensuous and blissful and justified as anything you’ll ever see. It’s a disgrace how we feel entitled even to meddle with them, let alone uselessly kill them, but of course it’s just a variation on our approach to everything, even to ourselves. Honestly, the more I stew over all this, I almost understand the mentality of someone who’d rather throw their money at GI Joe and never think about anything again.

Thirst

No need to sink quite that low, because there’s still plenty of life left in the old genres, especially if you don’t hitch your viewing wagon purely to Hollywood (and God knows you shouldn’t). Last year’s Let The Right In was a highly respectable contribution to the vampire annals, touching most of the genre requirements in the novel setting of a dingy Swedish housing complex. Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, from South Korea, injects even more fresh blood into the old corpse (I may need to rethink that metaphor). The protagonist this time is a priest, who gets the affliction after volunteering for a medical research program. In no time at all, he’s got his blood-supply infrastructure set up (easy access to a hospital helps, and – via the Confessional – to a steady stream of suicidal locals), and since vampirism is always great for the libido, he’s also got a major hot and heavy thing going with an under-appreciated young woman.

This last strand provides the film’s visceral highpoint, through some highly distinctive and rigorously staged sexual encounters, and Park also delivers on any reasonable individual’s expectations for blood and violence. But the film is also a very effective dual character study, carefully and broodingly following the implications of a condition that bestows both God-like powers and horrific, debased urges. If you apply that to what I said about The Cove, you realize vampires are merely a super-charged version of the chaotic creator/destroyer dichotomy that marks how we’ve chosen to conduct ourselves as a species. Thirst’s protagonist seems to think for a while he can reconcile heaven and hell, but it’s not giving much away to say it all breaks down.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Favourites of 2010

I rejigged my movie-watching quite a bit this year, spending much more time on discovering or revisiting the masterpieces of past decades and less on chasing the new and usually transient wonders. I doubt then that I covered this year thoroughly enough to be able to comment on what the ten best releases might have been. But here (in alphabetical order) are ten I enjoyed watching a lot. See you in 2011!

Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
Over nearly six hours, the film fluidly summarizes the famous terrorist’s career, entailing a dazzling variety of characters, incidents, locations and shifts of mood and pacing. Assayas is completely in control throughout, although perhaps inevitably has less room here for the mind-bending leaps of insight or structure that make his work so thrilling overall. And at a time of increasingly quasi-revolutionary “take back America” talk, if he doesn’t exactly romanticize Carlos’ heyday, he makes it easy for us to.

Hereafter (Clint Eastwood)
Another year, another Eastwood film. This time it’s a tale of the supernatural – three ultimately inter-connected stories asking (very gently) what happens after we die and what does that mean to those of us who are still here. By its nature, it suggests there is indeed something out there, but otherwise it’s just about as reserved on the matter as a movie could be. Maybe I’m marking this one easily because of Clint, but the film seemed to me an intriguing addition to the expanding Eastwood landscape: illustrating his apparent guiding philosophy of getting close enough and moving on, not just in how to make a movie, but as a way of coping with the existential questions that tie many of us up in knots.

The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
The everyday story of how a basically well-functioning family – two women and their two kids - responds to the reemergence of the long-ago sperm donor. Given Cholodenko’s previous work, the film initially surprises by how apolitical it is, which later impresses you as perhaps the most effective political statement she could possibly make. It’s very skillful (quite bravely cruel in how it ultimately treats the interloper), and a consistent pleasure; Annette Bening and Julianne Moore make a compelling and often very funny pairing.

Lebanon (Samuel Maoz)
Although the film is set in Lebanon (in 1982), as far as its participants are concerned it could be anywhere: they’re an Israeli tank crew, and except for the first and last shot, the entire film takes place in the tank’s interior. It partly plays as an exercise in intense, distilled realism, but the overall effect for me was closer to a cinematic concept piece like Paranormal Activity. When I wrote about here I called it engrossing but also complained “it doesn’t prompt any particular thoughts about Israel, or combat, or cinema, which I didn’t have before.” But since I now find it growing enough in my memory to push its way onto this list, maybe it didn’t need to.

The Messenger (Oren Moverman)
A young sergeant, injured in an explosion and now back home, is assigned to casualty notification, accompanying an older captain who informs the next of kin about fatalities. The task, like everything else about the army, comes wrapped in meticulous protocol, some of which contradicts the sergeant’s natural empathy. This very finely crafted film sensitively explores the distorted contours of the military and how the men strain to anchor themselves within it.

Please Give (Nicole Holofcener)
The title points to the film’s key preoccupation, the hopeless intermingling of self-indulgence and altruism. The set-up – built around a middle-aged couple who make a good living by scooping up furniture bargains from families of the recently deceased - allows for almost boundless productive interaction, and it’s amazing how much Holofcener packs into a mere hour and a half. Her creative personality is in many ways overly conventional, but compared to the pure drivel of most commentary on modern-day lifestyles, the film is the proverbial breath of fresh air.

Un prophete (Jacques Audiard)
This is a strong, muscular narrative about a young Moslem prisoner rising within the inmate hierarchy while also making himself a player on the outside. Its greatest impact comes from its implications for a Europe in which the old guard’s power becomes increasingly hollow and formal, a vestige of past glories unsuited to the complexities of the new economy. It’s full of strange and disconcerting moments, reminding us of the deadening precision of the conventional “well-made” film; the violence, although sporadic, is extremely intimate.

The Social Network (David Fincher)
The deservedly acclaimed movie about the birth of Facebook, built around a gorgeously complex portrayal of its founder Mark Zuckerberg, is full of terrific ironies and ambiguities. It thrillingly captures the myth of the new economy, where as someone says “inventing a job is better than finding a job,” but although it’s just about as contemporary as a serious-minded picture could be, it feels somehow elegiac, even nostalgic. At first glance it’s an odd departure for Fincher, but it’s only that the threat to order here is more subtle than the serial killers and aliens of his previous work; he’s brilliantly in tune with the material.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Perhaps my overall favourite from all of these, and one of the most deserving Cannes prizewinners in a long time; it belongs to the privileged circle of cinema that extends and deepens the conversation about why some of us care so much about the art in the first place. Boonmee is dying of kidney disease, and his long-dead wife’s sister and her son come to see him on his farm, followed by other visitations - the generalized notion is that Boonmee’s weakening grasp on this world is stirring up the next. With exceptional grace, it suggests the poverty of our usual rushed or circumscribed perception of things, but Apichatpong’s concerns aren’t merely ethereal either; as Boonmee nears his end, the film makes a startling change of direction, into a photomontage suggesting (to me anyway) the extreme danger that man would only abuse any greater access to the spirit world.

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
This is a gripping drama, and even if it’s less accurate as anthropology than it seems, it’s still an eye-opener. 17-year-old Ree Dolly, living in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, searches for her vanished drug-dealer father: it’s not exactly an amateur detective story – it’s not that his whereabouts are inherently mysterious, just that people won’t tell her. The movie is most fascinating simply when following Ree around the neighborhood – a topography of wrecked cars, piled-up tires and general drabness (it’s possible Granik overstates the community’s isolation – this is one of the few present-day movies lacking any signs of telephones, the Internet, video games, or even television). It’s an eye-opener into why Washington and the things that consume the national conversation would seem so alien to so many.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Blume In Love


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2008)

Paul Mazursky’s Blume In Love, made in 1973, is one of the films that jolted me from teenage to mature filmgoing. I saw it on British late night TV, some time in the early 80’s when I was maybe 16 or 17, and I was completely astonished. I remember being blown away by how adult it all was, by the very notion that affluent Americans would be so afflicted by neediness and rough edges, and by the frank awareness of sexuality. And yet the film was unquestionably warm and sentimental and idealistic. It was rooted in 60’s attitudes, but clear about the need to evolve and reinvent oneself. It was plainly a comedy, with something stylized about the writing, and it was even funny at times, but what comedy ever encompassed such pain?

Have To Get Her Back

I’m sure that at that formative time, far lesser films could (and, to some extent, did) have a comparable impact on me, but I’ve forgotten those by now, whereas Blume In Love has stayed with me. It’s on DVD now, and viewing it again recently, I found it as beguiling and thrilling as ever. George Segal plays Stephen Blume, a Los Angeles divorce lawyer, happily married to Nina (Susan Anspach), until he blows it by impulsively sleeping with his secretary. They get divorced; Nina takes up with Elmo, a laidback singer (Kris Kristofferson in what might be his emblematic role); Blume enters a relationship of convenience with an old friend (Marsha Mason). But he gradually realizes he still loves Nina. “I will die if I don’t get her back,” he tells us in voice over. “I do not want to die. Therefore I will have to get her back.”

The film starts and ends in Venice, where Blume wanders and drinks espresso in quasi-exile, telling us his tale in flashback. The opening lines are an inherently optimistic paean to love in all its guises; the ending will confirm the validity of this worldview, but with a few strands of compromise. In between, the characters enact the pursuit of happiness, a project made bumpy by moods, personal limitations, the pressures of modern life, and the difficulty of knowing what happiness could even be. The film is exceptionally good on sexual matters, and the nerdy psychiatrist’s sudden use of a way-out-there expression (along with Blume’s reaction to it) is one of my all-time movie moments (even though I’m not 17 any more).

Mazursky seems to know the milieu like he knows his Rolex, and is in complete control of his film’s tone. Sometimes he indulges himself big-time, such as in the weird cameo given to a waiter in a vegetarian restaurant (we hear him recite just about everything on the menu) or a lengthy (but wonderful) improvised group singing session between Blume, Nina and Elmo (who, just to complicate things, Blume grows to like). Sometimes the convivial veneer gets snatched away and the underlying rawness comes to the surface. And sometimes Mazursky pumps it out like an old-time Hollywood maestro.

Paul Mazursky

He’s a much-underappreciated director I think. He started out big with the swinging couples comedy Bob & Carol &Ted & Alice, a film whose Blume-like virtues may have been obscured by the indelible four-in-a-bed imagery. His best known films are probably An Unmarried Woman, in which the portrayal of a middle-aged divorcee likely influenced many people even more keenly than Blume did me, and Down and Out In Beverly Hills, his biggest commercial hit, but for me a rather coarse affair which marked the start of his decline. I greatly cherish his modern-day updating of Tempest though for the rather weirdly wonderful fusion of his own sensibility with that of John Cassavetes, playing the Prospero character.

Enemies: A Love Story was his last generally admired film, followed by the highly minor The Pickle and Faithful, and then by a couple of TV movies (although he just made a documentary about a pilgrimage to his Jewish roots in Ukraine; he also has a long list of acting credits in recent years, including a recurring role on Curb Your Enthusiasm). There’s no question that it’s an “inside Hollywood” career – Mazursky is not a great innovator nor philosopher, and most of his films take place at the upper end of the income bracket. But for fifteen years or so his privileged access and vantage point seemed to align with genuine wisdom, patience and intuition.

Segal/Kubrick

James Monaco, in one of the few essays on Mazursky that I know of (written in 1979!) says that Blume “is perhaps Mazursky’s most admirable character because he combines elements of total, open vulnerability…with a sublimely obsessive regard for his own power to control his destiny.” He’s perfectly embodied by George Segal, who is one of my favourite actors. He’s resolutely ordinary looking, congenitally rather bemused, but very facile, and capable of bringing on the darkness. He was in some great films in the early 70’s - Loving, California Split, A Touch Of Class – but too many lame comedies eventually killed that momentum (the best known trivia about Segal is that he dropped out of the main role in “10,” perhaps denying himself the career boost that went to Dudley Moore instead, although I think the film really needed Moore’s odder presence to catch the wave that it did).

His best-known gig in recent years, among tons of low-grade movies, was the recurring role in the TV sitcom Just Shoot Me. He was great in it, but I don’t think anyone really cared. I like to think he can make a big comeback, but it’s not likely to come from (I’m not making this up) Chutzpah, This Is? or My Wife Is Retarded. He’s completely convincing in Blume, conveying all the character’s raw neediness, but as Monaco implies, you also feel that in a way he enjoys this deprivation, the opportunity to enact a tragedy worthy of his beloved Venice.

A strange footnote: Blume In Love is seen in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, on the TV in Nicole Kidman’s kitchen. For the famously meticulous Kubrick, such a thing would never be mere chance. The young Mazursky did act in one of Kubrick’s earliest films, but that’s hardly an explanation for such a reference. Either way, it seems like one hell of a tribute. Kubrick’s films hardly foreground human emotion, but apparently he was a warm individual in person, and for all its surreal and dreamlike qualities Eyes Wide Shut is rooted in human loneliness and longing. I like to think he recognized the more unsung Mazursky’s mastery of this territory, and wanted – however slightly – to acknowledge that if his own very precisely sculptured characters could just reorient themselves a little bit, then their lives could be so much richer, even through the suffering.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Various Visions

Watching Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, I felt something I’ve seldom experienced at the movies lately: boredom. To say the least, it’s not what I expected from the film. Peter Travers in Rolling Stone, in one of many deliriously positive reviews, called it: “a hotblooded, head-spinning erotic thriller in which director Darren Aronofsky does to ballet what Kanye West does to rap: turns it into his own beautiful dark twisted fantasy.” The movie got a fair number of negative reviews too, but even when people didn’t like it, they usually seemed somewhat fascinated. And there I was, barely even interested.

Black Swan

As noted, it’s set in the ballet world, with Natalie Portman playing Nina, a young dancer who gets her big break in a reworking of Swan Lake. Unable to find the spark to satisfy her director (Vincent Cassel), she becomes increasingly nervous, and maybe unhinged, obsessing in particular over Lily (Mila Kunis), another dancer whom she suspects of plotting to take her place. There’s never much possibility of this ending up happily, and sure enough, it doesn’t.

Well, that’s not necessarily true actually. What we see in the final scenes can’t possibly be literal reality – some portion of it must be Nina’s fantasy, or else a pure cinematic reverie – but it’s pretty much up to the individual spectator to decide what to make of it. Of course I have nothing against ambiguous endings – many of my favourite films go there, and they had to, for instance because a traditional closure would contravene their investigative or disruptive intentions. Also, of course, I love the inherent open-ended spirit of inquiry of much modern art. But Black Swan isn’t investigative or disruptive or inquiring: it’s very tightly conceived and executed, a precisely controlled mood piece, unfolding virtually without reference to the real world or real people. It’s not really about anything, beyond how it moves its selected pieces. And if in the end you don’t really know how it actually did move the pieces, then it seems to me the film’s about even less than you already thought.

Fearless Visionary

I guess we just have to conclude it’s not my kind of film. It’s not that I have an inherent aversion to ballet. I watched The Red Shoes (with which Black Swan has an obvious if rather vague kinship) just a few months ago, and I enjoyed Robert Altman’s The Company – a highly focused depiction of life inside Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet – more than most people did. Actually, to my untrained eyes, Black Swan doesn’t evoke ballet itself, or the insular world within which it’s created, with much skill. On the dancing, we see a lot of Nina going through her pained motions, but not much else, and the movie provides little basis for distinguishing the mundane from the supposedly brilliant. As for the broader institution, the film basically depicts an environment where Cassel’s director does whatever he likes, with all other players reduced to faceless lackeys.

But of course Aronofsky – a “fearless visionary” in Travers’ words – is after more than dull verisimilitude. This is where I found the film particularly disappointing. Portman’s performance – widely considered a favourite for the Oscar – may be technically accomplished, but Nina is a dull, repetitive character: infantilized, frigid, repressed, stiff (all of this, it seems, largely the result of an oppressive mother, played by Barbara Hershey in similarly one-note terms), her fragility making her an easy prey for inner and outer wounds. It’s true that the film would feel more limited and conventional if it treated Nina less severely, and Aronofsky keeps the horror genre’s conventional rhythms well at bay. But it seemed to me this only makes the film inert and isolated. Someone being a fearless visionary sounds great, but it doesn’t mean his fearless vision necessarily should be any more important to the rest of us than his fearless holiday beach photos.

Three Art Films

In a sign of that new-world convergence I keep reading about, several of the films having their premieres at the new Bell Lightbox have also turned up almost immediately on SuperChannel, where they continue to play periodically. Being mostly a hermit, I stayed home and watched them all on SuperChannel. None of them are in the “must see” category, but they’re all superior to just about everything else on there (based of course on my highly limited sampling).

The Father Of My Children, directed by Mia Hansen-Love, is the most diverting for film aficionados, depicting a prolific French art house producer who’s stretched himself to the limit and is on the verge of losing everything; halfway through he does, kind of, and then we follow the aftermath. The film is, as they say, very French; it feels fresh and naturalistic, skillful and full of verisimilitude, but very much in the way French films often do. At the end, Doris Day’s Que Sera Sera plays on the soundtrack, less in resignation than to acknowledge the shifting priorities and inevitabilities that mark both art and life - very much the kind of place you’d expect a French film to navigate towards. I don’t mean to mock the film, because it’s very engrossing, but you might wish it embodied more of the main character’s iconoclastic energy, rather than just observing it.

Tales Of The Golden Age is a Romanian anthology film consisting of five segments by five directors; the title refers ironically to the drab days of the Ceaucescu regime, when the stories take place. The film works well enough as an amiable comedy, but again that doesn’t seem like quite enough; the episodes all illustrate minor variations on the same core thing – the absurd bureaucracy, the poignancy of people trying to squeeze out a little pleasure from the system – and in any event, it’s pretty well-established territory by now.

Finally, Vision, directed by the veteran Margarethe von Trotta, tells the story of a 12th century nun; delivered to the order as a child, growing up to be its leader, powered by what she describes as direct inner communications from God. It’s an effective enough addition to von Trotta’s almost four-decade gallery of portraits of women; most satisfying simply as a story of the increasingly righteous Hildegard challenging and sometimes manipulating the prevailing order (the film leaves considerable – and to my earlier point, productive! - ambiguity about what she really experienced or believed). She’s a rather earthbound director though – the film doesn’t ring or ascend as you might feel it should; it could even have used the Aronofsky touch at odd moments (then it might have been called Fearless Vision). On the other hand, maybe it’s better that the erotic resonance of nuns – even more widely evoked in cinema than that of ballet dancers – is off the table here.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Innocent Pleasures


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2005)

Most people have movies that they return to, like an old blanket. Objectively they may know these aren’t the best movies ever made, and that time would be better spent seeking out something new, but when that rare unoccupied evening opens up, it’s often safer to stick with the safe bet. Supposedly, an uncle of my wife’s in England watches only three films: The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Lawrence Of Arabia. A recent article speculated that DVD sales are starting to level off because people have now “built their DVD libraries.” And so Hollywood’s latest avenue of hope may be killed off by the joy of losing oneself endlessly within Titanic and The Lord Of The Rings trilogies (extended versions of course).

Rewatching Movies

I don’t spend a lot of time on this kind of movie viewing. Regular readers may recall my ongoing neurosis about trying not to exceed seven movies a week, a quota rapidly used up by new releases, Cinematheque seasons, DVD discoveries of treasures I’ve never seen before, and the odd thing taped from cable. This hardly leaves much time to spend on already established territory. The closest I have to a “comfort” movie might be Michael Mann’s Heat – I watched that one last December, in July 2002, and maybe three more times since its 1995 release. I don’t think I’ve watched any other movie as often over that period, and although Heat is a fine film, I wouldn’t claim my motives are primarily aesthetic. I just get off on it – and in particular on Al Pacino’s performance. I’ve been known to steal lines from that and drop them into my own conversations, although I admit I have a hard time making “She’s got a great ass, and your head is all the way up it” sound like something I came up with.

Pacino is surely my favourite actor because in the last year or two I also rewatched People I Know and City Hall, neither of which would possibly warrant revisiting otherwise (and I rewound several times to the funeral address in City Hall). But otherwise, I’m not sure I have much to report. My closest thing to a “guilty pleasure” might be Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales. The film is wholly defensible on numerous grounds, but I admit that’s not why I watch it – I just like the bawdiness of it, the sense it almost turned into Carry On Chaucer. Unfortunately, it’s not on DVD and my tape is just about falling apart, so I haven’t seen that one for a long time either. Otherwise, if I think about those of my DVD’s I might watch slightly more than the others (by which I mean more than once, although I hate to admit it given the price tags), I come up with things like Citizen Kane, films by Jacques Rivette and John Cassavetes, and Jacques Tati’s Playtime. No possible reason for guilt there.

The Wild Parrots

I know I sometimes get a little haughty in my writings on popular movies, but it’s often not the movies that get to me so much as the cloud of hype, lies and delusion that surround them. I certainly get more irritated than I used to by the number of times I’m expected to debate some aspect of Revenge Of The Sith or Batman Begins, a conversation that I truly can’t see is worth having (I wrote a mere 161 words on Batman Begins a few weeks ago, and even that was a strain). As I write, the last movie I saw was Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, about which I can think of almost nothing worthwhile to say. Other than to note that whereas the 1971 Gene Wilder movie is itself comfort viewing for a fair number of people, the Tim Burton version most definitely won’t be.

This is all something of a preamble to saying that it would be no surprise if Judy Miller’s film The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill ended up as repeated viewing in more than a few households. The epitome of the little film that got lucky, it’s a documentary about a middle-aged semi-bum called Mark Bittner who became enchanted by a colony of forty or fifty wild parrots living in downtown San Francisco, and eventually started to devote his life to them. Every parrot has a name, and – in Bittner’s telling – a distinct personality, and the film conveys this with extreme charm. There’s a bit of a plot relating to some changes in Bittner’s life, but basically it’s just under ninety minutes of parrot shots.

These ninety minutes were surely assembled from hundreds of hours of footage, which could cause you to wonder whether the visual proof of the parrots’ individual characteristics doesn’t belong to the same genre of documentary as the videotape that supposedly showed Terri Schiavo responding to her parents and struggling to express her desire to live. But as my wife pointed out the other day, I would never have liked this film as much if we hadn’t got a dog (named Pasolini, in tribute to the abovementioned), which caused me to evolve into a vastly sentimental disciple of animal idiosyncrasy (actually, my favourite part of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was probably the squirrels). So now I can understand what Bittner means when he says it’s not that he’s anthropomorphic about the parrots; it’s that the rest of us are too anthropocentric in general.

Connor’s Demise

The film is no great shakes by usual measures, allowing opportunities to get away in several directions. For example, it’s asserted several times that Bittner’s work has scientific value, but it’s never enunciated what that is. He’s criticized the movie himself, for portraying an excessively easy-going sense of the life he was leading (in reality, he says, he “was constantly struggling to stay afloat”), and creating “an image which I’m not particularly crazy about.” Irving inserts herself into the movie, and frankly doesn’t come across as the most scintillating intellect.

But none of this matters, because The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill contains some of the most memorable, engaging, and moving character portraits in years. I’m talking of course about Picasso, Mingus, Sophie, Olive, Tupelo and the rest. Connor, the crusty but kind-hearted senior bird, is a particularly central figure, but I warn you now, he comes to a sad end. The film has a G rating, but it seems to me that Connor’s demise would be way more traumatic for a young child than breasts or swearwords. As I write that, I recall accounts of young dreams shaken by memories of the death of Bambi’s mother. The Wild Parrots is not a Disney movie, but in the same way that animation at its best might appear purer and more magical than life, it resembles an oasis of empathy amid so many cold and barely approachable films.

Friday, December 3, 2010

My New Beginning

I’m 44, which isn’t that old, but I’ve started to worry lately about what that means, relative to my love of cinema. I manage to watch a movie a day on average, which I know is much more than most people have time for. Of course, the new stuff is always more prominent than the old, although regular readers will be aware I try to be discriminating on where I invest my time. But I’m not really worried about new movies. The problem is that I really try to hold the major planks of cinematic history in my mind: I like to carry Citizen Kane and The Passion Of Joan Of Arc and L’Avventura around with me, because what was it all for otherwise? But it’s awfully difficult. Even your favourite films fade in the memory and need to be revisited every so often; indeed, much of the reward comes from building on previous viewings, as greater familiarity and your own (one hopes) increasing maturity allows you to venture deeper.

When Was Psycho?

And then there’s little point just knowing Citizen Kane, if you don’t know the rest of Orson Welles. Welles is actually fairly easy – there are only a dozen or so films to absorb and periodically revisit (for purposes of this article, I’m leaving aside the related problem of books and articles and related scholarship, although it would be impossible to engage adequately with Welles’ work without making some headway into that). But Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, made over fifty films, and so did John Ford. At a movie a day, you’d spend over a month on Luis Bunuel, and on Roberto Rossellini, and on Ingmar Bergman. You see where I’m going with this: even if you watch everything just once – which is only adequate for list-making, not absorbing – you’ll run out of time before you’ve even covered the central core of greats.

This came home to me recently when I started thinking I hadn’t seen too many Hitchcock movies recently. On consulting my lists, I realized I hadn’t seen any Hitchcocks this year, and only two last year. I hadn’t seen Psycho for four years, and to find out when I last saw (say) Notorious or Rebecca, I’d have to go rummaging through an old stack of paper (printouts of documents saved on floppy disks and no longer searchable…like many other people, in the early days of computers I didn’t realize the impermanence of what we were dealing with, just as they didn’t in the early days of film). Anyway, I watched Psycho again, and of course it was gorgeous, infinitely more rewarding than any shiny new flick I might have fallen into watching.

My List Of Directors

This was a breakthrough in my thinking. A couple of days later, I searched my archives for Stanley Kubrick, and on realizing I hadn’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey since 2003, I watched that again (although in fact it’s been even longer for Dr. Strangelove and Paths Of Glory, let alone the lesser-known works). Again, this viewing experience profited immensely from a sense of actually being a rational choice, set against my higher ambitions. So now I’ve drafted a list of around 35 directors (the exact composition will no doubt keep shifting for a while) from whom I intend to watch at least one film each a year. It’s not really adding much, since in any given year I probably would have got to at least 25 of them anyway, at least once (last year, without really registering any disproportionate attention in his direction, I watched ten Godard films). But it’ll make sure at least that those core filmic relationships retain some minimum vascular activity.

Of course, this is only the smallest of steps forward. As I pointed out, one Hitchcock film a year, even without repetitions, won’t get through me through his body of work, assuming I’m granted a normal lifespan. Although the targets are meant to be minimum touchpoints, they may become effective maximums; I’ll rush to tick off my Hitchcock by mid-January and then, with the pressure off, won’t think about him again until the following New Year. Almost everything carrying a higher and decent purpose, from financial regulation to health care routines, contains the risk of just becoming a hollow, abstract ritual. That’s why I deliberately kept the list to around 35 names. I mean, I could easily name 200 directors whose work deserves revisiting every year. But if I tried to do that, then I really would spend the year worrying more about the list itself than its core purpose, as well as perhaps not being sufficiently open to other major work that hasn’t been made yet, or that I haven’t discovered.

Becoming Better

I’m hoping, in a way I can’t quite define, that more disciplined and serious film viewing will make me better, because this is serious engagement with the art form that most moves me, not just the somewhat disorganized, often self-defeating consumption that tends to come with cinephilia. And although this article is obviously based in neurosis, I know I’m just about the luckiest film lover there is. I was born early enough in cinema history, and I’ve been doing this for long enough, that I’ve actually seen all the key Ozu movies, and the Pasolini, and the Billy Wilder – for someone younger, who’s starting on it now, unless they watch five films a day and give up everything else in life, that’s no longer possible. And although I sometimes miss the old days when movies were less accessible, and tracking them down often felt like intercepting the last unicorn on the brink of extinction, I know that’s not valid. Not so long ago, it would have been taxing to watch even one Ozu film; now I can watch fifteen or twenty whenever I want. It follows from this though that I’m not really aligned with the purists who insist you haven’t seen a picture unless you see it on a movie screen, projected on film. I mean, even if that’s right, life is literally too short to allow most of us that standard. You have to do the best you can.

Because of course, seeing the films, in the sense of sitting in front of them as they play, is only the first step. If the main thing on your mind as you do that is trying not to nod off, or daydreaming about the grocery list, then again, all you’ve done is maintain a list. But my point here is to safeguard the experience, not the list; I can deliver myself to the right doorways, but not necessarily with the appropriate sensibility to access what’s on the other side. But then, that isn’t meant to be easy. The harder it is, and the more you sense and exult in that difficulty, the closer you are perhaps to getting it right. And it’s only partly, not even primarily, about watching films. It’s mostly about being fully alive.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Major Art

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2007)

You’ll have picked up that I’m not a sports nut of any kind, and I’m not equipped to muse about the ethics or aesthetics of those pursuits. So with that stipulated, I’ll throw out that I’m always puzzled by the regular scandals about steroids and other illicit pumping-up of “natural” ability. These practices, we’re told, are unfair; it’s cheating; it sets a bad example for the kids. As if much of anything in the bloated contemporary carcass of professional sport could be salvaged as an unmitigated good example. But anyway, the average athlete now is developed and maintained within a fitness, diet, and technological support regime having nothing to do with golden memories of sporting tradition. What’s “natural,” within this infrastructure, is a meaningless line in the corporate sand. Have everyone playing naked with 50-year-old equipment and then maybe we’ll see who’s really got the inherent distance over the others.

My Kid Could Paint That

But of course I’m forgetting about The Rules. However silly and degraded the parameters of fairness may be, the consensus about their applicability remains pretty strong. There’s every reason it would of course – even a minor sputtering in the professional sports machine would be an economic cataclysm far outpacing any hurricane or wildfire. Every time a child is born into a sports nut household, a CEO kisses his stock options.

None of which matters to me because, as I said, that’s not the house I live in. I’m more of your arty type. But watching Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary My Kid Could Paint That, a film in large part about the nature of art, I found myself drifting into the distraction set out above. Because more and more, the same could apply to art and culture. Of course, art doesn’t have rules in the sense that sport does. But it’s clear that notions of an artwork’s importance and influence often depend less on any rationalized internal merit than on how well it relates to a Bigger Story. The story may be (and indeed usually is) glib or crass, but it’s Established. And once it’s out there, like an incubator, it makes mountains out of dirt.

An obvious example – the obsession with weekend box office, now dutifully reported on every other news show. Only a tiny fraction of people go to the movies on any given weekend, and everyone knows that the question of what movies get widely exposed or don’t is a revenue-driven calculation, not an aesthetic one. It's virtually exactly the same as reporting which of the sundry new arrivals in the nation’s Loblaws and Sobeys flew most quickly off the shelves (which, frankly, would probably be more immediately useful to most viewers). But the one would seem tawdry and crass, whereas the box office derby seems culturally meaningful. Not to mention of course that it’s a convenient, ever-renewing springboard for wretched jovial chitchat.

Marla Olmstead

Bar-Lev’s film tracks another kind of example. Marla Olmstead was a 4-year-old girl from New York State, who liked to splash paint around on a canvas like many kids do. Her “work” (all entirely abstract and non-representational, but very vivid and colourful and nicely balanced) came to the attention of a local dealer, and then started selling, soon for tens of thousands of dollars at a time. With a big waiting list and worldwide media coverage, Marla’s career seemed to be set, until an edition of 60 Minutes suggested she might be getting more than a little help from Daddy (it was pivotal to this that a hidden camera, set up to record the artist at work, yielded only a single painting plainly inferior to the rest of the oeuvre, along with evidence of coaching). The interest in Marla took a dive.

At this point, Bar-Lev was already spending much time in the Olmstead household, filming a documentary intended to focus on the nature of art: even if the paintings seemed to have merit, what does it mean to valorize the work of a little girl who can’t tell you the first thing about why she did what she did. But the 60 Minutes expose shook his confidence, increasing his own need for proof – because in all the time he spent hanging out there, Marla would never paint on camera, supposedly out of shyness. A further video, organized by the family, only increased his doubts, and the project soon came to an unhappy, unresolved end.

The film has been widely admired as a “meditation on truth,” but I think this gives Bar-Lev too much credit. His wavering about his project is interesting to watch, and you sort of admire his decency in going easy on the family. But the fact remains that he could have used his access to resolve the mystery beyond any reasonable doubt – he could have set up his own hidden cameras, or questioned the kid more directly during his sessions alone with her, among other things. Even given the rather wishy-washy material that Bar-Lev delivers, his film seems to me to deliver virtual certainty that Mr. Olmstead (an amateur painter making a living as a night manager at Frito-Lay) heavily refined and prettified his daughter’s efforts, at a minimum. But Bar-Lev prefers not to reach such a conclusion, nor even to think about it very rigorously (there’s a general sense through the film that the 60 Minutes piece was a scummy low-blow, although it seems to have engaged more rigorously with the specific issue than Bar-Lev ever did).

Closer To God

More interesting is why it matters. If the thing looks that good on your wall, who cares that it’s (say) 80% or even 50% Marla, rather than 100%? A couple of the collectors interviewed in the film speak almost religiously about the work, as if harking back to the old notion of the artist being a vessel of God. Perhaps only an innocent and inexpressive artist can now carry true transcendent virtue, because only she could allow a pure transcription of His guiding spirit. Any adult intervention would immediately banish God’s signature, rendering even the most beautiful work merely another technical achievement.

In that case of course, it barely matters what the painting looks like, because you’re really paying to have the sainted stigmata on your wall. The artwork becomes merely a trace, an index. The case of Marla Olmstead (who apparently is still painting by the way, with her price tags again on an upward momentum) is a particularly vivid example of this recurring prototype. Because, if you buy that analysis, swooning over a vessel of God is certainly more virtuous than capitulating to big business (or to whatever Britney or Paris represent). Maybe it’s so with sports too – maybe for all my cynicism, there are still enough people who see Floyd Landis or Marian Jones as emissaries of something elementally wonderful and whose hearts are all but broken when that virtue is compromised. I sympathize, but I think we should all be more careful about where we invest our passions.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Personal Damage

If nothing else, I’m grateful to Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours for not carrying out the implied threat of its first five minutes – to beat us over the head with frantic editing, speeded-up split screen imagery, ear-hurting music, and general compulsive jitteriness. I suppose Boyle’s intention is to have us feel how overwhelming the normal grind can be, and why a young guy like Aron Ralston (James Franco) would love escaping into America’s unspoiled grandeur. When Ralston hits the open spaces, the movie duly slows down: point made. But it’s a banal point, and a super-banal way of expressing it.

127 Hours

At this early stage, the viewer will already have Boyle’s film pegged pretty accurately. One needn’t worry about giving away spoilers in describing the plot – everyone knows Ralston’s arm got trapped by a fallen boulder and he only escaped by hacking it off with a blunt penknife and leaving it behind. The only question then is how the film will surmount the significant challenges of having only one character for most of its length, and furthermore, a character with very limited mobility (twenty years ago, there might also have been some intrigue in finding out how the movie would present the climactic self-surgery scene, but nowadays, digital effects make everything possible – initial reports suggested some viewers were fainting, but that sounds mostly like wishful thinking by marketers).

Boyle opens up the space by illustrating how Ralston’s mental space drifts between memories, self-recriminations, fantasies, ramblings. It’s all quite ably done, but to be blunt about it, he just isn’t that interesting a figure: he dredges up some dating regrets and a wish he’d returned his mother’s phone calls more diligently, and that’s about it. Franco is an engaging and resourceful actor, but achieves no more in the role than you’d expect from a competent performer – with nothing to bounce off against except rocks and his own wits, the role doesn’t really lend itself to great acting beyond a certain point.

Essential Cinema

I’ve written variations on this about a few people lately, but while Danny Boyle obviously has a talent for deploying the tools of cinema, and he’s good at keeping things peppy and colourful, that doesn’t inherently mean he’s an artist, that he has any ability to convey something we ought to give a damn about. 127 Hours reminds you at various points of films like Picnic At Hanging Rock and Walkabout, but only because Peter Weir and Nicolas Roeg were able to coax something other than pretty pictures out of all that desolation. I’m grateful too that Boyle doesn’t go in for a lot of sugary “triumph of the human spirit” uplift, but if he sees anything in this material other than a technical challenge, he fails in conveying what that is.

It’s really to the shame of the TIFF group that Boyle’s last film Slumdog Millionaire, a gaudy contrivance if there ever was one, made it onto their list of a hundred “Essential Cinema” films; I doubt anyone could rationally articulate what that movie’s “essentialness” consists of (certainly not in contributing to a meaningful sense of what it might mean to be born poor into the Indian slums, or how that might be remedied). Slumdog Millionaire isn’t actively repulsive, like Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, which could only possibly have made the list on the basis of some train of thought about holding your enemies closer than your friends. It’s just a fine piece of coordination and imagination which, nevertheless, as an ongoing contribution to your life, doesn’t amount to a teaspoon of rice.

And so it is with 127 Hours. Without resorting to the transparent reviewer tricks of describing the plot in endless detail and suchlike, I can’t think of a single other thing to say about it.

Love And Money

In 1982 or 1983, I read a review of James Toback’s Love And Money in the old UK Monthly Film Bulletin, and on that basis it’s been on my mental to-see list ever since (I guess it must have been a good review, but I don’t even remember now); I’d periodically searched for it, without a glimmer of success. Until a few weeks ago, when it was suddenly on Amazon, as part of a treasure-trove Warner Archive program offering made-on-demand bare-bones DVDs of mostly unloved movies. So, finally, I saw it.

Toback made it after his first and still most admired movie, Fingers, and it represents an apparent attempt to replicate that film’s intensity and spikiness in a more ambitious, sprawling setting. The protagonist, Byron, (played by Ray Sharkey) is a bank loan officer, approached by Stockheinz (Klaus Kinski), a wealthy businessman, to buffer his relationship with the radically-minded president of a small South American country, who happens to be his close friend. Byron turns him down, focusing instead on pursuing Mrs. Stockheinz (Ornella Muti); when she abandons him, he takes the job after all. Remarkably, the great silent-era director King Vidor plays Byron’s hopelessly confused grandfather.

That summary only hints at the extreme oddity of Love And Money. The movie’s theme, I suppose, is the corrupt and dissatisfying nature of, well, virtually everything, and yet with a persistent sense of a fix that’s not beyond reach, if you have the balls and imagination to go for it: Vidor for instance embodies a past classicism now losing its way a bit (and when Byron has trouble getting aroused with Catherine Stockheinz initially, he remedies things by having her recite “The Star Spangled Banner”). Toback gives the film a rather garish, visually un-nuanced look which, along with the once-in-a-lifetime casting and the frequently deliberately ridiculous plotting, evokes an adult cartoon. It’s all fascinating, but it’s also not hard to see how it could be taken as being somewhat clumsy.

If memory serves, his next film, Exposed (another one I can’t locate anywhere at present, although I’ve seen it a few times over the years) was a significantly more accomplished fusion of disparate strands (Nastassia Kinski! Rudolf Nureyev! Fashion! Terrorists!). Since then, Toback’s output has been sporadic and highly variable – his most recent, a documentary on Mike Tyson, came out a couple of years ago. I don’t suppose anything of his came close to making the Essential Cinema list, but if you’re drawn to directors whose films feel like the outcome of lives rather than careers, he’s a magnet (by the way, nothing of King Vidor’s made that list either).

Anyway, Love And Money is well worth seeking out, as a film of considerable if rather messy ambition, not so old in the scheme of things, but still a relic from a vanished cinematic age, in which even if you didn’t like a particular movie, at least you generally saw some point to its existence.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Deathwatch


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2006)


Last year I joined the Green Party, and I really wanted that to mean something. I went to some pub nights and donated money, and then I went to the meeting to select a candidate for my riding (I voted for the winner, me and eight others I think) and I expressed my willingness to help out. I was invited to a meeting to prep the candidate for the debates, with a view to maybe assisting with background research or something like that. And that was where the dream died for me. I was there for a couple of hours, just listening, and I was amazed by the knowledge of the participants – I certainly felt ashamed at how generic and vague my sense of Toronto is – and by the subtlety of the arguments. But it also made me angry. I didn’t want to listen to conversations, however eloquent and well informed, about immigration and public health and affordable housing – if I cared deeply about any of that I would have joined the Liberals or the NDP I guess. I was a single issue Green Party member – I wanted them to hammer that core overriding cause and leave the rest to take care of itself. Because otherwise, who will? Not the Conservatives, with Harper’s five pathetic priorities. Not the Liberals, where Ignatieff gets shot down for even musing about a carbon tax.

An Inconvenient Truth

So I left the meeting, and then I quit the party the next day – melodramatic I know, but at the time I thought a clean slate might propel me into something dynamic. I actually fleetingly thought about joining the Conservatives – something to do with the merit of converting a whore rather than a virgin – but that would just have been too disingenuous. So for now I’m confined to counting my personal virtues. Which are not bad I guess – I don’t drive at all, and I walk to work, and I recycle, and we just bought a new condo in an eco-friendly building. And I have a little project at work that may amount to something. I haven’t calculated my carbon footprint but I’d guess it’s relatively low. So that’s lots of points for me I guess. And of course it doesn’t mean a damn thing. It’s too late anyway. The planet’s basically dead and we just don’t know it yet. Isn’t that right?

Mixed in with the closing credits of An Inconvenient Truth, a film that lays out the facts and likely consequences of global warming with great precision, are various suggestions for what we can do – including the kind of stuff I’m doing already, calling your congressman, praying (for those who believe in that), oh, and urging other people to see An Inconvenient Truth (many of these tips, along with other surrounding information, are at the movie’s website at climatechange.net). All of this to a nice Melissa Ethridge tune. And the audience – a good sized audience for an afternoon – applauded, as audiences sometimes do at the Cumberland, which by the way is the only place in town that was showing the picture. You get my point, that An Inconvenient Truth might be the kind of movie that makes you feel good about feeling bad. Now I know these are not easy calculations. The movie is being seen, after all, even if primarily by Greens and yuppies and academics. And its prime mover Al Gore, for his own sanity, probably needs to maintain a sense of equanimity about life. And at this point, like so many other reviews of the film, I digress into using up space talking about Gore, who is after all one of the most fascinating figures of our time.

Evil Empire

The film is mainly a record of a presentation that he’s given to audiences all over the world, more than a thousand times he says, beautifully designed and very effectively delivered, crammed with statistics and snappy quotations and visual aids. From time to time the film deviates into anecdotes of Gore’s life, all of it familiar to anyone who’s been watching over the years – such as the death of his young son in an accident and that of his sister from lung cancer. This material is frankly trivial, set against the film’s primary purpose, and should have been left out. There are just a few references to the 2000 election, where of course Gore won the popular vote but then lost the big prize in murky circumstances. He kicks off the film with his signature line that he “used to be the next President of the United States.” Gore has nothing to gain from appearing resentful, and goes remarkably easy on the Bush administration. This is magnanimous, but I can’t believe he truly thinks it’s adequate.

Because as Gore fully knows, that closing list of small steps on the road to redemption is painfully inadequate. After 9/11, the US defined terrorism as the primary threat to civilization and, subject only to leaving enough room for various aspects of its ideological agenda, devoted itself almost exclusively (however haphazardly) to this mission. Even if one accepts that the Bush administration’s disinterest in environmental issues is based on a genuine uncertainty regarding the merit of the science (as opposed to a willful blindness fueled by the donations of corporate backers), in a situation where the risks of being wrong are so catastrophic, what rational alternative is there but to heed the downside and to act? When it’s random violence sourced from the Middle East (or that matter abortion, or vegetative women from red states), then every domestic life is precious and fundamental to the fabric of America. When it’s global warming (or that matter poverty, or the inadequacy of low-income health care) then the relative threat is rationalized away, or ignored altogether. This is more than merely inept. Whatever its underlying mentality, it’s functionally evil.

Choose Life

Gore’s statistics on the rise in carbon dioxide levels and other key indicators in recent years, and the near-term projections, are wretched, demonstrating categorically that we’re in uncharted territory. The film touches briefly on the industrialization of China, currently throwing up new coal burning power plants and wheeling out new cars onto the roads at a pace that admits no restraint or acknowledgement of limits. They’re merely catching up, of course, to what we’ve lived for fifty years. The projections are horrible, and how will this momentum be checked? Many of the phenomena he notes, such as the decline of the permafrost at the poles, are already in motion, and other writers have questioned whether they can be turned back. The need for action seems immense, unless we merely start preparing for a managed decline. In which case maybe it’s more comforting to be blind and oblivious, and functionally evil. At least that’s so for a generation like mine, which will probably be dead before the very worst is brought to bear.

As you can see, I’m dissatisfied by An Inconvenient Truth, although reviewing the movie is hardly the issue. To borrow a slogan from somewhere else, the issue is to choose life. But after seeing the film, I barely have any idea how we’re meant to do that.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Jackals Galore

I wrote last week about some of the very long movies I’ve seen this year, and then on the following Sunday, I spent just short of six hours at the Bell Lightbox watching Olivier Assayas’ Carlos. I love Assayas’ work, but it wasn’t the easiest thing to commit to; I’d pulled the plug at the eleventh hour on a couple of previous attempts to make it there. I always find on such escapades that the first hour or two is toughest – the summit is just too far away – but then you relax into an alternative reality, and the six hours ultimately don’t seem like any more than, say, five.

Carlos

Anyway, the film’s moved on now, but I’d certainly recommend getting the DVD when it arrives; one needn’t even feel guilty about breaking it into installments since it was originally shown in three parts on French TV. Carlos (sometimes called the Jackal, although not in this film) was a terrorist (or revolutionary, or mercenary, or all of these and more), achieving notoriety in the seventies, later mostly ineffective and on the run before being captured in the 90’s. The film fluidly summarizes his career (acknowledging that there’s some fictionalization involved), entailing a dazzling variety of characters, incidents, locations and shifts of mood and pacing. Assayas is completely in control throughout, although perhaps inevitably has less room here for the mind-bending leaps of insight or structure that make his work so thrilling overall.

Globalization has been a big theme of his in recent years, and Carlos boldly extends this project. It reminds you how relatively unsophisticated things were even a few decades ago – Western society often seems to be sitting there for the taking, teetering behind confused direction and minimal security, just a big target range for a thriving network of young armed insurgents. As old ideologies fade and new calculations take over, Carlos’ swaggering militancy becomes embarrassing even to his former sponsors, and while that’s no doubt for the greater good as far as he’s concerned, it also points to the broader neutering and intellectual disarmament that’s marked the last few decades. At certain points, Carlos’ activities merely seem like the ultimate turn-on; there’s less discussion of causes and justifications in this movie than there was in Steven Soderbergh’s recent film about Che Guevara. But at a time when the gun-friendly Tea Party rhetoric often posits (even in these very words) a revolution to “take back” America, throwing up a whole new cast of young, new, uncompromising political princes, Carlos’ potential relevance (at least metaphorically) seems to increase; if, as we’re always told, so much of the established order is broken and likely to remain so, then you might ask why a self-styled visionary should feel obliged to conform to it. I don’t mean to say Assayas romanticizes Carlos exactly, but he makes it easy for us to.

Inside Job

The possible launching pad for the next Carlos might be indicated by Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job: the 2008 financial crisis – why it happened, how it played out, what it means from here. Some documentaries, like last year’s Oscar-winner The Cove, show us something we’d likely never know about (other than vaguely) if the films themselves didn’t exist; Inside Job, like most of Michael Moore’s work, builds on material sitting mostly in plain sight. Of course, such films can still transform our understanding – just because something’s in plain sight doesn’t mean people have actually grasped what it is. For those who’ve been paying attention though, Ferguson’s film is much more a memory-jogger than a source of new information.

Almost none of the major figures in the crisis agreed to be interviewed for the film; Ferguson ungenerously rewards those who did agree by over-emphasizing their (relatively minor) transgressions and cruelly playing up the kinds of interview slips that can strike anyone. Coupled with a general lack of imagination (like, “Taking Care of Business” popping up on the soundtrack), a few unproductive detours (given the issues at stake, who cares, really, if the Wall Street crowd had a penchant for expensive hookers?) and an overly breezy pace (often suggesting Ferguson isn’t truly bringing the same seriousness to this as he did to his much better documentary about the Iraq war, No End In Sight), it doesn’t really coalesce to generate the intended sense of outrage. And on the big question of where we go from here, the film can offer no better than a weak invitation to battle, with narrator Matt Damon stating colourlessly over a hackneyed shot of the Statue of Liberty that “some things are worth fighting for.”

Missed Opportunity

It’s a missed opportunity to say the least, because the data in Inside Job could have contributed to a much more galvanizing treatment of the subject. One of Ferguson’s errors I think (an omission that also recurs in Moore’s work) is in focusing too much on, indeed, the “inside job” – the specific mechanisms that generated a huge housing/debt bubble and set up the subsequent collapse – and not enough on the broader ideology and culture that didn’t merely allow it to happen, but cheered it on at every step. The film has a clip of George W Bush, from early in his Presidency, defending the entitlement even of low income earners to be decent property owners. With hindsight, it’s presented as a tacit invitation for predatory mortgage lenders to descend on the poor, but it seems to me Bush was only throwing out an “American dream” platitude of the kind that continue to pepper Obama’s speeches and those of every other politician. Leaders may acknowledge the need for restraint and tough action, but a toxic mixture of gutlessness, collective stupidity and a misguided, historically outdated belief in US exceptionalism precludes making even the most obvious reforms.

It would have seemed incredible that having to bail out mismanaged private institutions with billions of dollars in public money wouldn’t have meaningfully changed the collective conversation about the place of those institutions in society, but that’s where we are. Things are so degraded that, as I write, it doesn’t even seem a Democratic President can hold the line on allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for millionaires, despite the widespread awareness that inequality of wealth and opportunity has never been so profound. If the country can’t ask for that much of a sacrifice from its most privileged citizens, then what moral right does it retain to ask for anything from anyone?

Inside Job certainly prompts a lively discussion about such matters afterwards, but that’s not exactly hard to do. That line about some things being worth fighting for glosses over the fact that real fights involve real pain and sacrifice and loss. If the US had any wherewithal, it’d be drafting the terms of that fight now, while it still has something to bargain with.