(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2004)
Twelve recent movies in just over 1,000 words, and not a mainstream movie in sight. Well maybe just one. Could this happen if we were living in Thunder Bay?
Man on Fire
Tony Scott’s Mexico-set revenge thriller has style to burn, like all his films, but ultimately it’s one of those films where the technical facility underlines the mediocrity of the material to an almost depressing extent. Denzel Washington plays a troubled bodyguard (not that Washington’s good at conveying troubled, but that seems to be the idea) protecting a young girl; when she’s kidnapped and apparently killed, he goes on a roaring rampage of revenge (as Uma Thurman might put it). Washington’s behaviour is vastly over the top (he’s referred to as an artist of death) – given the ending, it seems intended as a symbolically redemptive descent into hell. Whatever.
I’m Not Scared
An Italian film, directed by Gabriele Salvatores, about a young boy in a tiny community who stumbles across a kidnapped child hidden in a cellar. The movie gets its visual and dramatic charge from the contrast between luscious golden cornfields that go on forever, and dark claustrophobic spaces charged with foreboding – the orchestration of mood compensates for the fairly straightforward plot and the somewhat thin thematic underpinnings. In many ways the film seems to evoke ET – with the kidnapped child almost resembling some ethereal alien being – and those who resist Spielberg’s film may well have a similar reaction here.
Ron Mann’s documentary follows “actor and activist” Woody Harrelson on a consciousness-raising bus tour in 2001, promoting organic living. It’s a modest endeavour, and Harrelson doesn’t seem too disingenuous when he says that the conversion of just one person would justify the whole project for him. The film, an ambling, loosely structured thing, is just about as consequential as its subject, but at least seems aware of its limitations. As an experience it’s generally more like hanging out in the hemp store than actually watching a movie, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
Cremaster 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Matthew Barney’s already semi-legendary Cremaster cycle, made over the last ten years, finally arrived at the Cinematheque, then at the Carlton. Cremaster 1 is like a gorgeous art installation that you circle round and slowly absorb – it’s strangely serene, and occasionally reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick (with hindsight it seems very much like the womb of the cycle). Cremaster 2 retains some of the first film’s visual concepts but is much more open ended and allusive – sweeping Harry Houdini, Gary Gilmore, Canadian Mounties, rodeos and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir into an alternately playful and troubled melting pot of human experience. Cremaster 3, at three hours running almost as long as the other four films put together, starts with the series’ most blatant fantasy, includes its most meticulous narratives, and then for the last half hour explodes in a delirium of weird and wonderful performance art. It has an opening quotation on the will as the generator of character, and the film can indeed be seen largely as a paean to persistence and individuality.
Cremaster 4 juxtaposes a motorcycling race on the Isle of Man with another weird (but at this point in the series, oddly affecting) narrative of creation and transcendence, and is maybe its most accessible metaphor. Cremaster 5, featuring Ursula Andress, follows a more familiar, operatic aesthetic for a while, placing the films’ preoccupations in a broader context and perhaps toying with art’s capacity to become oppressive, before returning to a summation of the cycle’s primary visual motifs. Overall it’s an amazing achievement by Barney. The films are as consciously “arty’ as anything you’ll ever see – their perversity and incredible individuality serve as a constant challenge to all preconceptions, but despite that they achieve a remarkable degree of coherence. With the director himself turning up in a variety of weird guises, the series is certainly narcissistic, but Barney’s multi-dimensional mirror also seems at times to reflect almost the entire span of creative endeavour, and it’s thrilling both to watch and to contemplate afterwards.
The Saddest Music in the World
Guy Maddin’s movies look as if they were dug up in a graveyard; the artful archaicism and visual murkiness intertwine with his odd, allusive narratives to create something highly distinctive and perhaps brilliant – outside of clearly experimental figures like Stan Brakhage, and indeed Matthew Barney, it’s hard to think of a director who makes film seem so much like a visceral object of sculpture. The new film has Isabella Rossellini as a rich double amputee who sponsors a contest in 1930’s Winnipeg to find the saddest music in the world – family intrigue, off-centre sexuality and the music itself form a delirious fetishistic parchment. It’s easier to grasp than Maddin’s other movies, which for such an idiosyncratic filmmaker might actually stand as a slight debit.
Mayor of the Sunset Strip
George Hickenlooper’s documentary about Rodney Bingenheimer, a long-standing LA DJ (since 1976) and fringe rock industry figure (one-time club owner; stand-in for Davy Jones on The Monkees; partygoer), is diverting without ever seeming particularly necessary. The film wheels on an array of celebrities from Nancy Sinatra to Courtney Love to testify to his...uh..well, it’s never clear what exactly they’re testifying to – even his stated passion for the music doesn’t come across very deeply. The movie tries to paint Bingenheimer as a poignant figure, but it’s a familiar kind of special pleading (for example, the biography of porn star Ron Jeremy took exactly the same tack).
The Far Side of the Moon
Robert Lepage’s latest film posits that space travel is primarily a form of narcissism, and then spins this somewhat obscure thesis into an odd, loosely-assembled narrative about an underachieving scientist and his weatherman brother (both played by Lepage himself), contrasting their ups and downs with childhood flashbacks. The allure of other worlds winds through the film, often generating some quite beautiful visuals even when the general quasi-magic realist approach seems fairly familiar. Like other Lepage films, it feels a bit over-calculated at times, but in the end the film finds a plausible way to allow the dream of space to infiltrate everyday life, and it (literally) defies gravity.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...and Spring
This gentle film by Korean director Kim Di-Duk begins with an aging monk and his young acolyte, living a serene life in picture book isolation, then revisits the location at four subsequent points in time, during which their lives undergo harsh disruption before circling to a new beginning. There’s nothing too surprising about this film – although it seems slow and meditative by mainstream standards, it’s a knowingly accessible and ingratiating piece of storytelling, artfully tapping a wide emotional register. The movie’s ultimate direction is predictable from quite early on, but its primary appeal - a beautifully visualized fantasy of triumphing over civilization by rejecting it – is hard to resist.