Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tokyo!


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2009)

We were lucky enough to spend two weeks in Japan last year, divided between Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. It’s one of the best trips we’ve ever taken, and as with all travel, if you’re a movie watcher, it keeps on giving because I always imagine now I understand Japanese cinema a little better because of it. This is, of course, a crazy, self-aggrandizing delusion. Two weeks in Japan is enough time to start mapping the cultural differences and (from our perspective) oddities, but hardly to start resolving them. It’s a country with a remarkably distinctive set of codes and traces, from the manga comics to the pachinko bars to the bowing. If you focus on the temples and the other “spiritual aspects,” it’s easy to filter the whole thing through a reductive mystical prism, but that doesn’t get you anywhere on understanding a city as tireless and ambitious as Tokyo. Sometimes the homogeneity and order put me in mind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; sometimes I felt I’d have a more refined life there than anywhere else in the world.

Grappling With Japan

We didn’t see though, except around the edges, the famously brutal plight of the salaryman, stuck in a murderous commute and accompanying grind, and obviously we weren’t there to do economic analysis. But once you read up on that, it’s easy to regard Tokyo in particular as a fatiguing collective project in merely postponing the all-time mother of great reckonings. There’s been much talk lately of Japan’s financial “lost decade” and how their circumstances differ, or don’t, from ours; certainly they have an awful fiscal situation and awful demographics. In Kyoto, you overwhelmingly feel something enduring, but that’s the reductive mysticism again, tempered when you learn how close the US came to choosing it, rather than Hiroshima, as its first target.

Hiroshima itself is one of the sadder places I’ve been to, not just because of what it represents, but because it seems dated and under-visited, its possibility as a site of stunning moral authority shockingly slipping away. In a way that’s a sign of human renewal and pragmatism I suppose, that we can almost forget something so terrible, but aren’t we way past the point when our so-called optimism (to the extent it manifests itself through consumption and debt and privileging the ephemeral over any kind of sustainable, knowledge-based collective purpose) is more a burden than a facilitator?

Anyway, Japan has always been one of the most joyous sources of meaningful cinema. I’ve written about Ozu before. Mizoguchi’s work is equally as rich. Akira Kurosawa directly influenced American films from The Magnificent Seven to Star Wars. The country won another best foreign film Oscar this year with Departures (although it may be that no one outside the small voting group actually agrees with that decision). Coincidentally, within a few weeks earlier this year, three Toronto releases cited Tokyo in their titles: Adrift In Tokyo, Tokyo Sonata and, simply, Tokyo! The first is a pleasant trifle. The second, by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, was one of my favourites this year, and would be worth a whole article to itself.

Gondry Caraxbong

The third, now out on DVD, is one of those wacky projects that tend to end up at the margins of film history – a collection of three short films by Michel Gondry (Everlasting Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Bong Joon-ho (The Host) and Leos Carax, who seemed to have a good thing going in France twenty years ago, but hadn’t been heard of since 1999. (When it played here at the Royal cinema with its charming old-fashioned marquee, untutored passers-by might have been forgiven for assuming the film starred someone called Gondry Caraxbong, who certainly sounds like he has a future in B-movies).

Carax’s effort seemed to me some way behind the other two. Titled Merde!, it’s the rough-edged tale of a strange sewer-dwelling individual who causes panic when he enters the light. Carax seems to think this creation has significant pop-culture potential (the chapter closes with a promise of further adventures in New York), and it does have a dogged consistency of vision, but it’s pretty much entry-level satire at best.

I’m highly recommending the film’s other two episodes though. Gondry’s Interior Design works beautifully in painting Tokyo as a repository of mad dreams and possibilities pushing against the potentially crushing logistics of everyday existence; a newly-arrived would-be filmmaker (of apparent limited talent) and his more grounded but aimless girlfriend crash in a friend’s tiny apartment while looking for their own place and trying to get on their feet. In half an hour or so, Gondry presents a very compelling cross-section of real estate, bureaucratic and other perils, intermingled with intimations of ungrasped inner and outer avenues and dimensions.

The ending (as unpredictable as anything you’ll ever see) turns round the apparent direction – the kooky would-be artist makes the grade, while the girlfriend can only remove herself from the game as we know it. It’s whimsical to say the least, but makes a key point, that this cauldron just isn’t what some of us need. Cinema, of course, has an advantage over life in its access to alternate possibilities.

Shaking Tokyo

Bong’s Shaking Tokyo, in a sense, is the thematic opposite. A man who hasn’t left his apartment in a decade, living off money from his father and avoiding all news or other indicia of the world outside, starts rethinking things when a freak earthquake causes a pizza delivery girl to go into a coma on his doorstep (useful first-aid tip - he revives her by pressing the “Coma” button painted on her leg). He eventually leaves the house in search of her, discovering things have changed during those ten years.

Bong’s premise allows him a much more serene take on things than the other two episodes, because his material is forged from the idea of people withdrawing or, when they reengage, doing so incrementally and intimately. The film suggests (literally, actually) the seismic possibilities of such connections, and of the three chapters, it’s the most grounded (relatively!). But still, it allows us no sense of how to make life in Tokyo actually work, for anyone remotely average.

Which, since we’re in Toronto, not Tokyo, is probably not an immediate concern of too many people who are likely to be reading this article. But even as we sit back and enjoy the Tokyo of Tokyo! as a creative springboard, we might worry - at least a little - about the future for a city whose best narratives require overriding the laws of nature and physics.

Movies in the heat

The third week in July summed up a lot about my life. I work mostly from home, but I didn’t expect to be too busy, and my wife was away from Monday until late on Friday; consequently I thought I might achieve my endlessly delayed ambition of doing some writing, or at least of spending time coming up with ideas (since I didn’t have any). This was pretty exciting to me, I can tell you. Of course, I had a few other things to do before that. Since my wife was away, I had somewhat more dog walking and tending duties than usual. I had a social engagement one evening. I had a magazine backlog because, in the wake of the postal strike, several weeks of subscriptions all arrived at once. And I thought I’d watch a movie a day. But I figured that would still leave dozens of untapped hours.

Walking the dog

Well, I worked a few hours a day, took care of my dog (his name’s Ozu, after the wonderful director Yasujiro Ozu, not that their worldviews have much in common as yet), got through my magazines and watched a movie a day, no problem there. I got distracted one morning by the Rupert Murdoch hearing in the UK, and at other times by planning a possible trip; still, that was barely a ripple on my vast ocean of available time. I made myself dinner on the nights she would have made it, but that was merely so much chopping and heating. This was of course the week of the big heat, so sometimes after walking Ozu, it was hard not to have a nap. But I don’t sleep that much at night, so that shouldn’t have set me back too much.

It definitely took me longer to read the paper every morning – I don’t know if that’s the heat, or advancing age. I should probably cancel the paper, because its physical presence draws me into reading a bunch of stories I’d never click on if I was scanning it online. Sometimes, of course, that’s enlightening and mind-enhancing, but it also means losing a lot of time on disposable life section stuff. But I generally conclude it all nourishes me in some way, ensuring that if and when I do start writing, I’ll be that much richer and more nuanced than I would have been otherwise.

I don’t suppose my ambition is what it used to be. A lot of days, walking Ozu – and making it great! – was really my most urgent goal for the day. We often take our morning walk now on the new park at the foot of Sherbourne. It’s also a water treatment facility, and has a concrete-sided stream flowing down one side. Ozu thinks this is great, and runs up and down in the water like a maniac. The signs prohibit “wading”, but not crazy out-of-body excess, so I think it’s OK. Then we walk around the new Corus building to Sugar Beach, next to which are several artificial hills. Ozu likes to climb the biggest hill with me, then after I walk down, to stay up there and survey me like the ruler of the world. Which from his perspective, of course, is entirely how it is.

Compound interest

I’ve come to think – or at least to claim – that taking care of Ozu and making him happy is an investment not just in my physical and psychological well-being (I think I’ve seen that aspect of having a dog addressed in the life section, more than once) but also in my artistic capacity, although this latter pay-off will only come in the long term, when I seriously turn my mind to writing and find depths of perceptive mellowness I didn’t have before. It’s like compound interest – it builds up slowly for years, until you pass a critical amount and then 3% a year really means something. Right now though I only have the equivalent of around $26 in the intellectual bank. And not to stretch a metaphor, but nowadays who can even be sure of earning as much as 3%? And since Ozu is only a year old, he’s often a total brat, the frustration of which probably depletes the intellectual bank (on the other hand, if it doesn’t kill you – i.e. if it only barks incessantly at you – then it makes you stronger).

Anyway, in the end I probably spent about an hour writing/thinking, and I can’t actually remember I generated during that hour, if anything. Although of course I did get this article out of it. Lately, the way I watch movies is pretty much like the way I walk Ozu. It’s a big chunk out of the day, and sometimes it’s a bit of a grind. But it also generates wonderful moments of splashing giddily in the water and staring majestically down from the hill.


What I watched


I watched James Ivory’s The City of Your Final Destination, Jose Mojica Marins’ The Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures (and nope, I didn’t just sneak that one in because my wife was away), Vittorio De Sica’s The Children are Watching Us, Pablo Larrain’s Tony Manero and Paul Haggis’ The Next Three Days. Now, if that’s not splashing in the water, I don’t know what is. Ivory’s picture is less evocative than its title, but has some interesting ideas about the mutability of existence, about how the journey is never as linear and restricted as you might allow yourself to think. Marins’ film (available online on mubi.com) is wacky and moody, but almost convinces you it carries a serious theological purpose. De Sica’s classic, made just at the dawn of Italian neo-realism, is delicately contrived, but still claws at you with its reflection on desires and social structures in conflict.

Larrain’s film, made in Chile a few years ago, is a remarkable study of a cold-blooded killer who’s obsessed with John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever character. “Quirky” angles on amoral behaviour are commonplace in movies, but this one has real psychological and political resonance. And although just about any objective observer would have to rank Haggis’ flick at the bottom of this pile, he’s much easier to take when handling obviously silly material. And anyway, by then it was Friday.

Of course, even more than the other things I mentioned, I view watching movies as a major project of self-education and enhancement, which can’t help but pay major creative dividends down the road (note how I subtly adjusted the investing metaphor there, from compound interest to dividends – see, I’m already getting into shape!) In this sense, maybe I’m becoming the equivalent of a postgraduate student who’s perpetually signing up for more courses, never actually taking the leap into the world. But when it’s this hot, who can leap at anything?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Mostly documentaries

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2006)

Recently it’s been possible to see a pretty good new movie every week without ever having to settle for mere fiction, if that’s not your bag. Here’s something for whatever grabs you. Architecture. Music. Crosswords. Torture.

Sketches Of Frank Gehry

I'm not knowledgeable about architecture, but Bilbao, Spain is fairly high on my travel wish list, and of course that’s all about one thing only – the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry. In the new documentary Sketches Of Frank Gehry, the building appears imposed on the city as if from another world, reflecting an entirely different relationship with light and space, and yet crafting some majestic synthesis with its surroundings. It’s almost impossible to imagine what its genesis could have been – it seems impossible that such a creation could have sprung from our cautious age. But the film confirms that it’s the work of man, and a fairly unassuming man too, showing us Gehry’s initial sketches, models and computer simulations. Director Sydney Pollack is clearly enchanted by these building blocks, no doubt savouring the parallel to his own medium.

As the title accurately indicates, the film doesn’t really provide a very coherent overview of Gehry’s contribution, despite a parade of mostly laudatory talking heads. I found myself wanting more of a sense of sweat and graft and the actual work that transforms a doodle into a vast complex reality. The recent documentary My Architect was more successful I think in evoking a real feeling for the buildings of Louis Kahn. Gehry provides Pollack with much access and yet remains rather opaque (his wife, for example, doesn’t appear at all). But ultimately, Pollack surely isn’t the architect’s ideal chronicler anyway. His instincts have always been neat and linear; I can’t think of any moments of real wildness in his work. So Sketches Of Frank Gehry ends up being overly referential.

Still, the film is valuable. Unfortunately, the only reference to our own forthcoming Gehry building, at the AGO, is to quote someone who dismisses it as second-rate. I hope not, for one of the film’s distinct impacts is to sensitize you to the wretchedness of so many downtown grey slabs. OK, we’ll never be Bilbao, but we need a first-rate Frank!

Music and Words

Another famous Canadian also gets his name into the title in Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. The film alternates between performances from a 2005 Australian tribute concert, and interviews with the man himself, along with tributes from various directions, archive footage and the usual bric-a-brac. The film leaves no doubt about director Lian Lunson’s seemingly giddy enthusiasm for Cohen, but isn’t a particularly satisfying experience overall. The concert is populated mainly by second-tier performers, with no better than serviceable interpretations of Cohen’s songs (I know some people will throw this paper down in disgust when they read that), and Lunson seems overly infatuated by the whole event. We even have to sit through the introduction of all the background musicians. Meanwhile, we hardly hear any recordings by the man himself.

Cohen is allowed to ramble on though, apparently subject to no degree of interviewing rigour whatsoever, and the film provides little sense of his overall career, or of his importance – beyond the fact that people keep telling us how important he is. The presence of U2 is no doubt a coup of sorts, but their remarks about Cohen are so over the top that I suspected some kind of parody. This impression isn’t at all alleviated by the climax, in which Cohen finally gets onto a stage and performs “Tower Of Song” with U2 as his backing band. Laboured and geriatric, and horribly lit in front of a hideous red backdrop, it doesn’t exactly send the film out on a high. It’s a shame, because Cohen is a bit of a gap in my own musical knowledge – the only album of his I own is The Future, which isn’t even mentioned in the film. But I’m Your Man doesn’t provide much motivation to set aside my new Dave Frishberg disk.

I don’t do crosswords, and so Wordplay wasn’t very high on my must-see list – I was also put off by the memory of the spelling bee film Spellbound, which waved the Stars and Stripes too much for my taste. But Wordplay is a cute, unpretentious, nicely constructed little movie, deftly persuasive about the skill of the puzzle makers, and almost as convincing about the appeal of the surrounding (somewhat nerdy, obviously) subculture. It focuses on New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz (think Zeus, although modest about it), blends in such celebrities as Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart (who’s trying too hard here) and ends up at the annual tournament in Stamford, which provides a suitably nail-biting climax. At the end of all that, I still have no desire to do a crossword, although if that changes, I’ll start right here with The Outreach Connection. They tell me it’s a good one!

Prisons and Fashions

Somewhere at the intersection between documentary and fiction lies Michael Winterbottom’s The Road To Guantanamo, the story of three young British Moslems who traveled to Pakistan for a wedding in September 2001, strayed across the border into Afghanistan, and found themselves scooped up by US troops, leading all the way to the notorious interrogation base. The men tell their story direct to camera, intercut with reconstructions in Winterbottom’s familiar unprettified, chaotic but intensely direct, human manner. It’s effective from beginning to end, never less so than in evoking the grinding, soul-destroying rituals and restrictions imposed at Guantanamo.

The film only sparingly examines the broader context, through some familiar snippets of Bush and Rumsfeld, and the men’s specific case is so flagrantly abusive that the film isn’t particularly provocative as a contribution to the key underlying question – where do trade-offs of individual rights yield to a broader concept of the common good? Ultimately the men don’t express any increased anti-Americanism – they talk in more general terms about a world that’s less than they hoped. And they say they’ve become better Moslems. The film doesn’t explore further, but surely it should have.

Finally, just to mix it up a little, The Devil Wears Prada isn’t a documentary at all, although supposedly it owes a lot to Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue. David Frankel directed this version of Lauren Weisberger’s bestseller, about a young woman who becomes an assistant to the fashion industry queen bitch. The film has an entirely predictable trajectory, staying tightly within generic moral challenges and emotional ranges. It gets in some effective, although soft-centered, digs at the fashion industry’s pretensions and neuroses. This would all be fine, nothing more.

But then there’s Meryl Streep. What can I say? The material is really beneath her, but she nails the character with enormous finesse, never becoming strident or chewing the scenery, and although we know all about her versatility by now, the difference between this and her other current performance in A Prairie Home Companion is still rather astonishing. Anne Hathaway is pleasant enough in the other main role, but she seems to me like too sunny a personality to be interesting. As if she thought the world she’s living in were all wordplay, and no Guantanamo.

Road trip

I don’t end up seeing many of the big mainstream comedies; or instance, I haven’t been to Bridesmaids, The Hangover 2 or Horrible Bosses (I’ll probably catch up with the first eventually; I doubt I’ll ever see the others). I don’t have anything against the raw materials of such movies – at certain times I’ve certainly laughed as hard as anyone (well all right, maybe not as hard as anyone) at excess or inspired vulgarity. But I don’t share the mentality of those who talk about the regenerative power of a good laugh (for that I look at myself in the mirror – ha ha!); I’m usually more in need of the regenerative power of a good theory.

My comic intake

On that basis, I got a big kick out of The Ricky Gervais Show, which recently concluded on HBO – just Gervais and two others having a pointless series of studio-recorded conversations, illustrated with brash, throwback animation. The strain shows at times, but virtually every episode goes somewhere you haven’t been before. On a slightly different note, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm continues to amaze me with its daring and structural dexterity; the virtuosity almost has something of the cosmic about it at times. That’s about it for my current comic intake, always excepting the mighty David Letterman, 75% or more of whose shows I still watch (with the help of recording technology). I find Letterman overwhelmingly funny, as well as being one of the best interviewers around, but I accept it’d be hard to sell an objectively-minded novice on that. At this point, watching Letterman is as much a conceptual premise as an actual entertainment. Which is exactly how he likes it!

I’m barely at all familiar then with the work of British comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, meaning the main selling point for Michael Winterbottom’s new film The Trip should have eluded me. But I was drawn to it anyway - maybe I was just looking for the current release that sounded least like the new Harry Potter release. Coogan and Brydon, at least notionally playing themselves, set off on a week-long driving trip through the Lake District, taking in a wealth of local history and a terrific-looking series of restaurants, all bank-rolled by The Observer newspaper, for whom Coogan is supposedly going to write an article on the whole thing (although we never see any hint that he’s even thinking about this, much less working on it). The two are friends of sorts, but also endlessly competitive. Coogan perceives himself as the bigger star of the two (correctly it seems, at least if measured by his relative profile in North America – he’s appeared, although without much distinction, in the likes of Night at the Museum and Tropic Thunder), and keeps letting Brydon know it, but he’s also chronically insecure about his career and his relationships. Brydon, happily married with a new baby, doesn’t seem concerned about much of anything, except perfecting impressions of the likes of Hugh Grant and Sean Connery.

My Dinner with Andre

Coogan professes disdain for this activity, but tries to outdo Brydon at it anyway, so a big chunk of the movie ends up simply watching the two as – for example - they forensically analyze the evolution of Michael Caine’s vocal style over the years. Alternative dueling weapons include demonstrating the most plausible delivery of a hackneyed Bond villain line, or the ability to cover the greatest number of octaves (in some areas, such as one-night stands with women they meet along the way, Coogan has the terrain to himself). At such moments, The Trip simply glides: it feels entirely plausible that we’re just watching the two of them hanging out, with Winterbottom’s intermediation virtually invisible.

The film’s closest ancestor may be Louis Malle’s 1981 film My Dinner with Andre, built entirely around a dinner conversation between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. My memories of that movie were coloured by a killer line from David Thomson, who compared it unfavorably with Ivan Passer’s Cutter and Bone as a meal in which the participants don’t even eat their food, let alone each other (or words along those lines). Seeing the film again a while ago, it remained hard to regard it as much more than a comfortable indulgence, although one of their key points of discussion – whether people have grown to lack real feeling and to live in a largely robotic manner – carries additional resonance now for being articulated before the technology explosion. Gregory argues for grand actions and projects, capable of transcending or remaking this sterility. Shawn - partly at least out of necessity, lacking Gregory’s financial means and connections - argues for the simpler pleasures of his cold morning coffee and his electric blanket. Gregory pretentiously says this device kills off the real feeling of cold and constitutes another form of death. Needless to say, these disagreements don’t dictate the film’s ultimate tone, which muses on the pleasure of communion with our loved ones as providing the ultimate validation and value of experience; the dinner with Andre may finally matter less to Shawn than the fact of being able to go home and tell his girlfriend about it.

Michael Winterbottom

The Trip works its way to a broadly similar destination, contrasting Coogan’s lonely return to his expensively sterile apartment with Brydon’s return to his much homier environment, where he happily resumes doing his impressions for his wife and they agree it sucks to be separated. Maybe that information will strike some as a spoiler, but in truth it’s as predictable as, say, Harry Potter not getting killed off. This is the film’s ultimate limitation – there are hints throughout that Winterbottom hopes to unlock something more metaphysical, but he never really gets there. This is rather characteristic of his pictures – he’s worked at a furious pace across a range of genres, making some twenty movies in fifteen years, seldom screwing it up outright, but usually leaving you wishing for more. His most recent film, The Killer Inside Me, attracted minor controversy for some ultra-violent assault scenes; just as 9 Songs was notorious a while back for its hardcore sex, but none of this was too stirring once you got to see it; it’s hard for a good, industrious soul to put on the mantle of sleazebag or pornographer like you put on another jacket.

The Trip – full of little subtleties and complexities I haven’t mentioned - might be the most purely pleasurable of all his films, even if, as I mentioned, you might often forget it even had a director. This modesty of means and affect resonates nicely against the oddity of two such gifted performers continually immersing themselves into evoking the mannerisms of other people. If the film isn’t as knowingly literary and intellectually provocative as My Dinner with Andre, it’s a more satisfying meal overall. The participants plainly eat and enjoy the food, and if they don’t end up devouring each other; well, at least they made a good stab at devouring Michael Caine.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Local Heroes


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2008)

I liked Charlie Bartlett, a film directed by Jon Poll. Maybe there’s some arrested development to it – a guy like me in his 40’s, lapping up this teen-oriented stuff (albeit oriented to a much more sophisticated echelon of teens than, say, Meet The Spartans). But it’s all so damn winning. Charlie is a silver-spoon kid and congenital envelope-pusher who’s been kicked out of all the available private schools and signs up at the local high, for which he’s flagrantly unprepared. Within no time at all, the tough guy who beats him up on his first day is helping him to peddle prescription drugs to the students, and Charlie’s popularity swells. Anton Yelchin plays him as a beguiling dreamer, a mystery even to himself, in over his head and needier than he looks, yet as charismatic as a budding Obama.

He’s surrounded by an immensely pleasing cast. Is there anyone who does more with a run-of-the-mill line than Robert Downey Jr, and wow, I sure liked the lead actress Kat Dennings (now there’s some arrested development on my part). It’s not hard to criticize the movie – among other things there’s some strain in the set-up, and the wrap-up is just off-the-shelf emotional bonding. Although it has satirical elements, it’s nowhere near as strong on that score as say Election. But it’s very smooth and funny. I’ll bet you anything you’d like it. Well, OK, The New Yorker hated it. But this is Toronto!

Be Kind Rewind

I’m not so sure though how you’d react to Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind. Gondry’s last film, the sadly overlooked The Science Of Sleep, was one of my favourites of the year before last. It’s an extremely personal work about a young Mexican man living in Paris, who habitually confuses the boundaries between dream and reality. It’s an utter delight - the kind of film so packed with invention and non-linear creativity that you wonder how any human mind ever arrived at it. But it never feels like a mere jaunt, partly because the complex romantic relationship at its centre (beautifully incarnated by Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg) is so scintillatingly conceived. Gondry’s best-known film Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind had greater scope perhaps, but Science Of Sleep is the one where he really got to me.

I was rather shocked at the drabness and general clumsiness of Be Kind Rewind’s opening section. It stars Jack Black and Mos Def as a couple of low-achievers in Passaic, New Jersey, who work or hang out at the dismally rundown Be Kind Rewind video store. While the owner (Danny Glover) is away, Black becomes magnetized after a guerilla attack on the local power plant (talk of strained set-ups…), and accidentally erases all the tapes. The two hit on the idea of replacing the departed movies with their own recreations, each lasting around 20 minutes and shot on maybe $5 budgets. The stuff catches on, and the two are soon local celebrities, turning out “sweded” versions of everything from Robocop to Last Tango In Paris (sadly, we’re not shown too much of the latter). The movie also features Danny Glover (playing more or less the same role as he just did in Honeydripper, although with a dumber hairstyle) and Mia Farrow (perhaps intended to carry allusions to Purple Rose Of Cairo in particular).

New-Fangled

As many critics have pointed out, it’s very strange that the picture seems to be set in the present day rather than, say, twelve years ago – virtually all the movies referred to belong to the 80’s or early 90’s, and DVD comes across here as a new-fangled technology slowly gaining the upper hand, rather than (amazing as this is) a medium that may already be past its own best days. Coupled with the film’s strangely downbeat look and tone, and the generally uninteresting performances, it sure runs up a lot of negatives.

It’s possible however, although maybe only as a result of excessive generosity, to view this as a strategic misdirection. The film’s charm lies in its vision of a new kind of cinema, rejecting Hollywood’s strategies and production values for a more direct relevance and intimacy (albeit, in this case, of a cartoonish and superficial kind). This is more than a hypothetical idea – in an age of You-Tube and cheap technology, we commonly read about the democratization of art. Be Kind Rewind depicts that broad movement, but turns its back on the technology – I’m not sure the Internet even gets a mention in there. It’s as if Gondry, knowing that any film trying to take the temperature of its times will instantly date itself, perversely dated his own movie even while making it, trying thereby to get to something more elemental.

As in The Science Of Sleep, he’s great at conjuring up tricks and illusions out of, well, bits of crap really – where you and I would see junk to be hauled away, Gondry sees possibilities, evocations, connections. The film whizzes past some of the best of his inventions (there’s a selection available on the Internet, although I suspect for most of us that’ll sit squarely in the ‘life’s too short’ category).

Among Gondry’s previous films, Be Kind Rewind’s closest cousin is Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, a filmed record of an event staged by the comedian in his old New York neighbourhood (he’s probably best known of all for his high-concept work in music videos, but I confess I’m barely familiar with his oeuvre there). That had a similar sense of community, of momentary excitement sweeping through a neighborhood that seems generally lacking in it. Gondry was remarkably self-effacing there, but never unengaged. Elements of the new film could only be his; others are simply confounding. It would be nice to think this too is a deliberate muddying of creative identity.

Fats Waller

The film starts with a paean to the life of Fats Waller, who we’re told was born in the building now housing the video store, and it returns to the singer to find its happy ending. It’s another wacky decision of course – Waller isn’t exactly a vivid touchstone for the mass audience now. But for better or worse it’s the ultimate proof of the film’s belief in the right and power to tell the stories one wants to tell, no matter how flighty, ungrounded or questionable, and the ending is quite sweet.

Still, even if you look it that way, it’s not much of an argument for paying to see Be Kind Rewind versus, you know, doing your own thing, and the film’s weak patches prompt the sense that Gondry’s inspiration pretty much stopped here at the Big Idea itself. It’s not a bad Big Idea, and none of us should become complacent about commercial cinema, nor should we overlook how frequently it makes fools of us. But if you go to a movie this weekend, I’m guessing you’d rather just let it wash happily over you, which is why I’m still feeling good about that Charlie Bartlett recommendation.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ecstatic truth

When I was first getting into movies in the late 70s and early 80s (readers may have noticed that’s my favourite way of kicking off an article), Werner Herzog was a unique, vital figure, generating endless stories of personal eccentricity and foolhardiness, yet working too efficiently and sensitively merely to be categorized as a flake. Writing in 1980, David Thomson called him “exceptional” and “epically adventurous,” and I don’t think many would have disputed the assessment. Prophetically though, Thomson noted this: “as attention has fallen on Herzog, so his pursuit of extremism has become a little more studied; it does now seem more zealous than natural.” Soon after that, Herzog made Fitzcarraldo, a chronicle of a visionary who dreams of building an opera house in the Amazonian jungle; it’s most famous for the scene of a steamer being tugged over a mountain, which the director insisted on carrying out for real. The film received attention galore, but Herzog seemed to leave something in the jungle. He kept making pictures all over the world, but increasingly, no one cared.

Werner Herzog

Writing more recently, Thomson noted, “Going too often to extremes can turn the remoteness into a habit.” But at some point, Herzog acquired a new kind of stature, partly no doubt through longevity (he’ll be seventy next year), relentlessness and uncategorizable charisma. Writing in The Grid, Jason Anderson noted he’s become more famous than his films and warned that “trafficking in Herzog anecdotes or perfecting your impression of his accent is no substitute for making time to engage with the works themselves” (I must confess I was entirely unaware that anyone might have fallen into this, uh, trap). The works themselves have certainly become more accessible lately: Herzog even made a mainstream release, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which overall seemed to me more interesting in theory than actuality.

If the final accounting on Herzog’s career ends up somewhere near Thomson’s initial assessment, it’ll probably be because of his ongoing work as a documentarian. Herzog has always disdained the notion of tidy, notionally objective reportage, contrasting his concept of “ecstatic truth” with the presumably lamer “accountants’ truth.” Recent works like Grizzly Man and Encounters at the Edge of the World do indeed convey a kind of ecstasy; it’s not just that Herzog takes his subject and surveys them from all angles – he also looks at them upside down, and with his eyes closed, and from the moon. The result usually has a suitably cosmic feeling about it, perhaps because Herzog has actually illuminated something that others would miss, perhaps because he’s corralled the subject matter into a more stimulating kind of fiction (ironically, some would say accountants do that all the time).

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

His latest documentary film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, focuses on a subject you might say embodies a form of ecstatic truth, but that contrary to Herzog’s usual inclinations, demands a certain degree of accountants’ truth in the telling. It explores the Chauvet cave in southern France, the site of the earliest-known cave paintings, discovered only in 1994. Access to the cave is tightly controlled – it’s not open to casual visitors, and even the scientists involved in its ongoing investigation work under severe constraints; Herzog was allowed only a minimal crew and limited hours of access. Given the uniqueness of the opportunity, he decided to make the film using 3-D technology, which works very well throughout. If the film were nothing else then, it would be an important historical record, bringing us as close to the experience of the site itself as we can ever hope for (absent, that is the smell; the movie claims even this may be addressed by a future theme park which would set out to replicate the totality of the physical experience).

As much as a site of forgotten dreams, the cave is a site of lost stories. The paintings remain remarkably vivid – it’s easy to see why they’ve been suspected at times to be fakes – and even sophisticated, subtly suggesting form and contour; using such devices (which I certainly thought arose from later conventions) of using multiple legs to denote running – Herzog calls this a form of “proto-cinema.” At first glance, one might assume the paintings all reflect a common project, but carbon dating shows that a drawing juxtaposed against another might actually have been added five thousand years later. They depict an ecosystem that now seems like the stuff of fantasy – lions and rhinoceroses and mammoths. Some of the markings are hand prints, with a particular individual identifiable from one cave to another by virtue of his crooked little finger. Others seem to depict early slivers of mythology; for instance, one painting may represent a minotaur-type figure.

Gazing into the Abyss

The cave then is stunning as a present artifact, as pure art object, while also cradling the richest of mysteries about the past, perhaps the greatest unsolved and unsolvable detective story in the world (other than the one about the meaning of life). It feels as if Herzog, moved or maybe even overwhelmed by his subject, was wary of cheapening it; of all his documentaries, it’s the one you can most imagine turning out substantially the same in the hands of someone else. The main difference – the thing that no one else would have done! – comes at the very end, in an epilogue that moves to an artificial tropical sanctuary, drawing on the heat generated at a nearby nuclear plant, and home to dozens of thriving crocodiles, including a pair of albinos. Many writers have been scratching their heads over Herzog’s intentions here, and certainly I can’t lay claim to any definitive analysis. My guess would be though that he wants to reorient us, to counter the danger that we might merely walk out cooing over the pretty pictures; to remind us that the longest-established recesses of life on earth continue to intertwine with technology and modern chaos, perhaps generating mysterious new consequences and potential meanings, or perhaps restoring to us our forgotten dreams. It’s weird, but rather beautifully so.

According to the Internet Movie Database, Herzog’s next film is to be called Gazing into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life. The movie focuses on several inmates condemned to death in a Texas prison, but it’s only a slight stretch to see how its title might have been applied to Cave of Forgotten Dreams as well. Anything to do with death row is by definition an extreme application of the human condition, but perhaps through that very fact, capable of illuminating something universal and sustaining. Perhaps Herzog will see the inmates as paintings, perhaps as albino alligators. It’s impossible to anticipate, and that’s why Herzog remains such a stimulating filmmaker; whether or not you think the films are objective successes, or whether you think they’re “weird,” they leave your world a little fuller than it was before, and usually at least a little more ecstatic.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Lessons from France


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2009)

Of course education is key to our future; you can’t imagine a politician deviating from that. It’s something we all know, and as such, it’s essentially meaningless. Is any topic subject to so much grandstanding? Well, sure, health care, but health care is an easy one by comparison, at least given the superficiality of most debates on the topic (this too will have to change, as it dawns on us that we’re spending too much money patching up the sins and misfortunes of aging generations, and not enough on promoting and building the prospects of the younger one). But how best to teach? Every so often, the stats come out about the shaky grasp among young people of history and culture and other traditional “basics”. We hear that schools, or some of them anyway, are plain dangerous; attitudes are in the toilet. Private schooling, goes the prevailing wisdom among several people I know, is the only way to go, even if it bankrupts you.

How To Learn

As with so much else now, the contradictions kill you. I believe unambiguously in the value of studying the arts. I studied film and philosophy myself before swerving into accountancy, an unusual combination for sure, but I’m convinced it made me a better, more resourceful accountant than I would have been otherwise. But I also see way too many English and history graduates doing jobs asking much less than they could give. Periodically you read we’re going to need more plumbers or electricians or whatnot – a career path generating more money and no less variety than many of those under-deployed arts graduates - yet much as we might collectively like to claim otherwise, that kind of vocational training just doesn’t carry the same prestige.

Our multicultural society is a huge treasure; the source of much of our greatness. But by its nature it makes it hard to identify the core of what’s the most relevant knowledge now. And although young people may not know as much about some of the traditional cornerstones, their heads are surely fuller with what they do know than those of any previous generation. For sure, assuming we avoid complete collapse, there are far more paths now to a viable career. But how many of those open up through formal education? At least there are some basic skills, the table stakes of human interaction – English, math. But in a global economy, with calculators (or plenty of underemployed people to do the basic things for you), maybe it only really matters that you know how to work around things. And no matter how dedicated and resourceful our teachers might be, they’re only human after all, and probably underpaid – how much can we reasonably ask of them?

The Class

Lautent Cantet’s new film Entre les murs (The Class), which won the top prize at Cannes last year and is nominated for a foreign-film Oscar, is a fascinating and highly successful attempt to grapple with some of this. It takes place over a school year in what looks like a highly diverse Parisian district, focusing on a teacher of French and a specific class of 14 to 15 year olds. It’s based on a book by Francis Begaudeau, a real-life teacher, here playing a version of himself. Most of the pupils, likewise, play versions of themselves; the dialogue and situations were largely developed in extended workshops prior to filming.

This gives the film an immensely rich, engaged texture. At its best, the class becomes a tumble of untidy interactions, fascinating layers of cause and effect, with formal instruction fighting for space among a torrent of digressions. Both teacher and pupils test the limits – him to prove his relevance and to better connect, them because that’s what kids do. Sometimes, both sides go over the line, and the equilibrium’s threated (which, inevitably, has different consequences coming from the teacher versus the kids). It quickly impresses itself on you as an ongoing work of collective performance art; whether it’s over-stylized, I couldn’t say, but it’s certainly mesmerizing to watch.

But what about education? Throughout, the kids question the value of what he’s telling them, and he’s often straining for an adequate answer. In the end, they sum up their key learnings for the year, from his class and others, and it’s an almost comically barren list. But then you never know what happens outside the walls – one girl surprises him by saying she read Plato’s Republic, and then proving it. The film shows us nothing of his outside life and only as much of the pupils’ as you’d expect from a teacher’s perspective. At one point they hear one boy’s mother might be deported; it occupies the teachers for a few minutes, then never gets mentioned again. But the boy seems to be going on, much as he always did.

At the end, Cantet generates a moment of superb existential doubt, through one girl’s confession that she understands nothing of what goes on. And yet, by the measures he applies, she seems to be functioning. Maybe she’s guilty, as the phrase goes, of over-thinking. Earlier in the film, one parent worries that the school spends too little time facilitating the brightest children, potentially letting them be constrained by the demands of others; from what we see (albeit a highly fragmented view), it’s a legitimate concern. In this sense, The Class ably captures a key ambiguity – that diversity, expanded community and escalating possibility, let loose on a world already feeling its limitations, might be in conflict with attaining true, informed individuality.

Welcome To The Sticks

The Class is a delight to just about everyone who sees it, but the movie the French really liked was Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, the biggest homegrown hit of all time there. Here, that gets you one screen at the downtown AMC. The premise is a post office manager, transferred as a punishment to the country’s far north (he’d pretended to be handicapped, to get a prime job on the coast). Those northerners don’t have much of a reputation – they talk funny, they’re rough around the edges, and it’s real cold up there – but, of course, he learns to love them.

That’s as far as this movie’s pedagogical content goes. Directed and co-starring Dany Boon, it does have its moments, although a fair chunk of those consist of jokes about being drunk, or pretending to be in a wheelchair, or mistaking someone as gay (you get the idea). Even in subtitled translation, the verbal misunderstandings are entertaining in an Abbott and Costello kind of way. But I don’t think there’s a single minority face to be seen, or a remotely complicated idea to be heard, from start to finish. The huge box office response teaches us again what we knew already, about the short-term pay-off of keeping the lessons real simple.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Artistic Relevance

Terrence Malick has only made four films in almost thirty years, Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line (after a nineteen-year gap), and The New World. He’s reportedly pleasant and well-grounded, but avoids the media almost completely; he hasn’t been interviewed in decades, and is seldom photographed. He shot The Tree of Life several years ago, but editing and post-production went on interminably, causing various delays; it ultimately opened at the Cannes festival, where it won the top prize. Now in commercial release, it’s probably the most debated picture of the year.

The bulk of the film takes place in Waco, Texas in the 1950s, observing a young married couple (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and their three sons. One of the boys will be killed at the age of nineteen, and in the present day, his elder brother (Sean Penn) still feels the loss, moving despondently through a soulless world. Malick also covers, so to speak, the big picture, evoking the origins of the universe, the heyday of the dinosaurs, and the asteroid collision that wiped them out. The “meaning” of all this isn’t entirely clear – hence the volume of debate – but seems to encompass the search for a new synthesis of life experience, based on a heightened awareness of possibility and interconnection.

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is often astoundingly fluent and beautiful; it feels as if Malick had absorbed all the tools of cinema into his very being, realizing his vision without any intermediation (obviously a painstakingly crafted illusion). At times, the film utterly shimmers, losing itself in a cascade of evocation, intermingling life turning points and transcendent moments with weird randomness (or the outright imaginary, as for example in an unexplained shot of the mother floating in the air). It also constructs an impressively comprehensive treatment of the father – a man who spends his whole life trying and failing to make it big in business, pointlessly laying down the law at home while increasingly disconnected from his wife (the entire film only has a couple of direct exchanges between the two). She’s portrayed in highly spiritual, ethereal terms, living as much in communion with the undercurrents of the universe as within her confining surroundings; it’s hard to know how much of this (how much of anything in the film) can be taken as actuality, rather than a creation of memory and/or fantasy (perhaps in the mind of Penn’s character, or perhaps of God’s).

Much of the reaction to the film focuses primarily on its self-evident virtuosity as cinematic writing, with less emphasis on what’s actually being written. Michael Newton in The Guardian said: “The ultimate effect of all this is that your take on the world does expand. Leaving the cinema at 10 o'clock, I found myself staring up at the high clouds scudding across the still day-lit sky above brutal Rotterdam. Without Malick's film, would I have taken that look? For a brief instant it was as though the movie had expanded outwards into the city, that it had altered my way of seeing things. That Malick continues to make such films has to be a wonderful thing.”

Filming the phone book

Not dissimilarly, Geoffrey O’Brien in The New York Review of Books said: “Malick is neither neat nor witty nor dry the way one might want so philosophically ambitious a filmmaker to be. But while I would not rush to read a verbal summation by Malick of his philosophical views, I would burn with irresistible curiosity to see the film of any text he might care to adapt, whether it were Spinoza’s Ethics or the phone book. He does his thinking by means of cinema in its full range of possibilities, and that is at any time a rare spectacle.” I agree in a way, but it seems to me cinematic artistry is less a matter of deploying the full range of possibilities, than of knowing which possibilities to deploy or discard. Put another way, a brilliantly imaginary filming of the phone book might be a rare spectacle, but a close cousin to the diversions of the circus. And sitting through a two and a half hour movie every morning is a somewhat inefficient way of reminding you to look more vividly at clouds (especially if that only lasts for a “brief instant”).

Serious critics try to avoid this kind of admission, but ultimately The Tree of Life probably just isn’t my kind of movie. Ambitious, well-funded visionaries provide fine, transient experiences, but once it’s over, I find myself asking, well, where does that leave me now? For example, Federico Fellini, the subject of the current “Spectacular Obsessions” exhibit at the Lightbox, has never been among my favourites, and that title - although entirely apt – sums up exactly why: I’m just not that interested in someone else’s obsessions, if there’s no reason for them to become mine (some of the greatest filmmakers, like Luis Bunuel, persuade you that matters far from your focus of interest – like, in my case, Catholic dogma and the European bourgeoisie - are actually relevant to your own life). Ultimately, it’s not very productive to be left wondering what Malick’s getting at. Even if the question could ever be resolved, how would we be better off for knowing the answer? I mean, is he a prophet, a seer, someone with the capacity of leading us to another dimension of understanding and contentment but who, for whatever reason, forces us to travel this stubbornly obscure route of getting there? I truly doubt it.

Kaboom

As a counterpoint, the day after seeing The Tree of Life, I watched Gregg Araki’s Kaboom, which played at the Bell Lightbox a while back and is now available on DVD and elsewhere. This starts off as a not particularly sophisticated college sex comedy, distinguished (if at all) by an unusually pervasive gay-friendly mentality. The movie sows an odd mess of characters and encounters, raising every risk of embarrassing itself, before in the home stretch coming up with an explanation that remarkably explains just about everything that’s gone before while, by the way, encompassing the new Messiah and the end of the world. Which is structurally interesting if nothing else, but actually it is something else – it’s an audaciously kinetic expression of how a truly sexually liberated worldview would rewrite everything we think we know about ourselves and what connects us to our environment. And whether or not you agree, or share the preoccupation, it’s truly stimulating in a very topical and relevant way. I don’t suppose Araki spends as much time pondering the big, intangible questions as Malick, but I guess that’s only because he’s too busy living, and making art from, the much greater number of small, tangible ones.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Fifteen


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2004)

This is the fifteenth and last of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.

Kinsey (Bill Condon)
Condon hasn't directed in the six years since his intriguing directorial debut Gods And Monsters earned him an Oscar for original screenplay – although in the interim he picked up another Oscar nomination for the script of Chicago. Kinsey will almost certainly get him up there again.

The movie, which has already opened commercially, earns instant good service points for stirring up controversy (sight unseen, naturally) in the red states, where the very idea of a movie about the pioneering 50’s sex researcher runs contrary to the “moral values” that helped Bush back into office. The irony is delicious of course, for Kinsey’s whole work sprung from empirical need; content to carry out research on insects into his forties, his interest in studying human sexuality developed largely as a response to the ignorance among students who came to him for counseling.

Condon’s film ultimately stands as a surprisingly buoyant paean to liberalism and tolerance. Liam Neeson plays Kinsey as a paragon of benevolent integrity, which sounds prissy but isn’t – he lends the film a nicely modulated moral centre. Unlike the protestors, the movie is well aware of the situation’s inherent absurdity, and presents several ready-made establishment stuffed shirts (many of whom get pulled along by Kinsey’s enthusiasm despite themselves) but seldom goes for easy laughs – given the subject matter, the audience I saw it with was surprisingly reverent.

Later on Kinsey’s research led to extreme self-experimentation and a loss of scientific perspective, treated fairly discreetly in the film. Kinsey also shows (again lightly) how his researchers strained their marriages through similar inattention to boundaries, and Condon really pushes the audience’s tolerance with a brief portrait of an aging sex offender who reels off with relish the statistics on children, animals, and minors he’s abused. But in the end the film rests on knowledge as a gateway to love and fulfillment, and assures us of the happiness of Kinsey’s marriage for all its ups and downs. Maybe there’s something a little defensive about this, and the film definitely sets itself some limits, but overall it’s more breezy and beguiling than you’d ever think possible for such subject matter.

Steamboy (Katsuhiro Otomo)
Animated films aren’t very high on my cinematic priorities – I only see the few that rise to the top of the critical ladder. Having applied this filter, I almost inevitably enjoy every one I see – in the recent past Spirited Away and The Triplets Of Belleville were both outstanding, and Shrek and Finding Nemo highly entertaining (although I find the often-repeated statement that these films are really “meant for adults” a bit questionable, or maybe I should say depressing). Still, I find that in these cases I’m using a different mental muscle – the same one, I think, that gets a work out in museums or art galleries – and that’s terrific, but it isn’t really why I go to the movies. As a medium where everything must be created from nothing, animation may in some sense be a fuller or more demanding art form than live action, but it tends to channel an artist’s inner world rather than to reflect the one we live in. It lacks cinema’s unique and thrilling underlay of democracy – the sense that what we’re looking at is only partly the director’s vision, but also partly our own, partly a product of pure mystery.

Consequently, on first reading the program book, I turned quickly past the write-up for Steamboy, despite its calling the film “one of the most sophisticated and elaborate Japanese animated films ever made.” But as every festivalgoer knows, you always have a point in the schedule where there’s nothing to see, or you couldn’t get in to the movie you wanted, so you end up taking on a complete wild card. And in my case that was Steamboy. Actually it ended up being the very last film I saw at the festival this year.

It was a good final note, because despite the reservations I mentioned, the film is clearly a pure artistic vision – something that couldn't possibly exist without Otomo’s (apparently) bizarre sensibility and range of interests, and ten years’ investment in making the film. It’s focused on, of all things, the development of steam technology in 1860’s England, where three generations of talented inventors clash over the deployment of a new discovery. The film starts off slowly, lingering over the feel and immensity of the age’s new factories, swelling off the screen with almost three-dimensional might. Early on there’s a thrilling chase sequence, but events generally remain quirkily low-key for the first hour; then the film gradually starts to rewrite history with aplomb, destroying Tower Bridge and staging mass conflict in the streets of London.

The film’s theme is the responsibility that comes with progress – “An invention with no philosophy behind it,” says one character, “is a curse.” There’s a real sense of underlying idealism here – was it preordained that progress would be so fully appropriated by and for capitalism? Steamboy has some surprisingly meaty exposition on the subject, although the discussion is somewhat unresolved (I guess we all know already how it turned out though). I won’t deny that the film occasionally seems repetitive, but overall it’s a remarkable viewing experience.

And it belongs with the best of the festival in that it betrays little sign of commercial calculation or compromise. I’m obviously not “against” commercial cinema, but I don’t think the heart of the festival should be about celebrating that application of the medium. Cinema works its magic in many ways, but not the least of its manifestations is that one person with a cheap camera can still occasionally achieve something more illuminating and transfixing and thrilling than the entire Hollywood infrastructure. As long as that’s the case, and as long as those achievements have a chance of being celebrated, it will deserve our continuing faith.


Festival Summary
As always, seeing 10% or so of the movies hardly positions anyone to make a comment on the event as a whole, but my own little chunk of this probably went as well as it ever has. I’d say I saw five movies that make it as near-masterpieces; Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s CafĂ© Lumiere, Jia Zhang-ke’s The World, Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique, Francois Ozon’s 5 X 2 and (perhaps best of all) Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade. Last year I only had a couple in that category, and that was probably being a bit generous. And while one can’t avoid a few entries on the other side of the column, a year in which Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education – for many people a highlight – counts as one of my least favourite films clearly constitutes nothing to complain about. You know, after a year like this, I may even come back next time.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Josef von Sternberg

The Criterion Collection’s boxed set 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg was one of last year’s most notable DVD releases; I didn’t buy it for quite a few months, unsure about the return on the investment, but I’m entirely glad I eventually got past that. Von Sternberg is best known for the seven films he made with Marlene Dietrich: tightly-controlled, magnificently designed and sustained melodramas of extreme desire. Morocco has one of the most memorable final shots of all time, as Dietrich abandons all she knows to follow her Foreign Legion lover into the desert (those who only know her through clips and parodies might be amazed at the vulnerability she conveys at times). Perhaps one of the most perfectly achieved works of classical Hollywood, Shanghai Express is full of gorgeous surfaces, a hugely stylized vision of lives and identities in transition, distilling the world into a receptacle for the play of love and hate, acceptance and rejection. Like much of von Sternberg’s work, it doesn’t suggest a worldview that’s in any way transferable to any other aspect of life: it’s pure cinema, possessing a unity of purpose that even now barely seems faded.

Underworld

For the first half of the 1930’s, von Sternberg was on the top of the heap, but he faded fast. I’ve written before here about his 1935 version of Crime and Punishment, a fascinating, largely inexplicable fusion of elements that should never have been allowed in the same town, let alone the same movie. In 1941 he made The Shanghai Gesture, another remarkable piece of orchestrated madness, climaxing with some of the most transcendent excessiveness you’ll ever see. There wasn’t much to come after that, although his last film The Saga of Anatahan, made in Japan in 1953, is prized in some circles for its delicate artificiality: I haven’t seen it for almost thirty years, too long for even von Sternberg’s image-making to remain firmly in the memory.

David Thomson wrote years ago that “Sternberg now stands clear as one of the greatest directors and the first poet of underground cinema.” But although just about everyone knows about the Dietrich films, in the same way that they know about Mae West and Laurel and Hardy, I’m not sure they’re mainstream classics in the way of the most famous Hitchcock or John Ford films: as Thomson implies, they belong to the obsessives, if not the outcasts (von Sternberg was absent from last year’s TIFF top 100 “essential cinema” list). The Criterion release triggered a wave of renewed attention, somewhat ironically focused on a period in his career that had until then always seemed secondary to his primary achievements. I mean, I knew he’d made silent films, but it had never seemed particularly significant that I hadn’t seen them.

The oldest of the three, Underworld, was made in 1927: it won an award for best writing at the very first Oscar ceremony. On the surface, the film is a tough-minded gangster drama, and still retains some sociological interest in that regard. But in retrospect, it spends comparatively little time on shootouts and swaggering, and notably downplays the details of a climactic jail break to focus on sexual brooding. The main protagonist, played by George Bancroft, is as solid and prosaic as you could imagine, but you already feel von Sternberg’s affinity for the more abstracted and fetishized supporting characters. In the end, the gangster surrenders his own interests for the sake of a romantic ideal, as if the underworld in question were only secondarily that of crime and corruption, and primarily that of the burdened human psyche.

The Last Command

Underworld is great to watch, but its primary interest lies in the knowledge of who made it and what it led to. The second film, The Last Command, made in 1928, perhaps retains greater fascination on its own terms. A Hollywood director casts a fragile old bit player as a general in a Russian epic; we see in flashbacks that the actor really was a general, meeting his downfall in the Bolshevik Revolution, and that the director once crossed his path as a dissident. The film has some terrific satire on the filmmaking process, even at this early stage suggesting Hollywood’s surrender to mechanical efficiency at the expense of art (von Sternberg was famously difficult to work with, no doubt a major factor in his decline). It also feels entirely enthralled by Emil Jannings as the old man (he won the first best actor Oscar for this and other films, and went on to work with the director again in The Blue Angel) and by the grandeur of the fallen regime. In the end, the power of the general’s presence, even if ruled by delusion, all but transforms the reality on the film set; equipment and materials yield to inner visions, and again one feels von Sternberg’s growing insistence on myth and heroic self-definition. Despite his original intention of humiliating his former antagonist, the director-within-the-film ultimately acknowledges him as a great man, and there seems little doubt it’s the kind of greatness von Sternberg would have relished for himself.

The Docks of New York

The final film, The Docks of New York, is a close cousin to Underworld, with the same leading man and another climactic break-out from confinement. During his one night on shore, a tough-guy stoker gets married on a whim to a woman he pulls from the water, and must then decide the next day whether it was more than a mere night of fun. The evocation of the subculture around the docks (half the movie takes place in the same drinking hole) is still almost as compelling as that of On the Waterfront, even if conjured up in a studio; on this occasion, von Sternberg stays close to oppressive textures and challenging realities. This makes the ultimate appeal to romanticism, presented in an extremely pragmatic manner, all the more moving and compelling. The Docks of New York suggests how von Sternberg could have been a pioneer of sound-era social realism, something that helps to further appreciate the integrity (even if, as with many artists, you might consider it a crazy and ultimately self-defeating integrity) of the road he chose to travel.

The Criterion set also contains a fascinating interview (from Swedish television of all places) with the elderly von Sternberg - in which he explains, among much else, his continuing distaste for filming on real locations - and an extract from his unfinished 1937 version of I Claudius, which would have starred Charles Laughton. All in all, the new availability of these films confirms we’re living in a golden age of cinema, even if that’s based on opening up the artistic achievements of the past more than on those of the present.