Friday, March 29, 2013

Abandoned children


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2005)
 
At the start of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows, a young mother and her 12-year-old son Akira introduce themselves to the landlords at their new apartment building. The movers bring in furniture and suitcases, and when two of the suitcases are opened up they reveal two younger children inside; then the older boy goes to collect another girl from the station. The mother sits down with her clan to explain the rules – except for Akira, who takes care of shopping and other basic duties, no one must go outside (let alone to school), and there must be no noise.  Subsequent scenes show that the mother is engaged with her children when she’s at home, but her absences are frequent – she comes home late, and then disappears for an entire month (she talks about a new lover who doesn’t know of her children. She returns for one night, and then takes off again, this time without coming back at all. But months later she sends more money and a brief note to Akira reminding him that she’s counting on him, indicating that from her own warped perspective she’s still watching over them and fulfilling her role.

Nobody Knows

For a while the children maintain their established routine but as the money runs out, the utilities get shut off one by one, the apartment becomes a mess, and all four become foragers. They skirt round the edges of other peoples’ lives – for a while Akira makes some friends but then they fall away, then they become friends with another marginalized girl. No one notices them – police and child welfare are mentioned only once, and Akira instantly rejects the prospect, knowing from an unspecified past experience that this will split the four of them up. But if their staying together is their preeminent motivation, it’s also an abstract one. When tragedy hits one of them, the others pause and carry on. In the last scene, the group has reached a sort of stability, but the configuration has changed.

The film is fundamentally a tragic story of neglect and abuse of course, but Kore-eda sees that the four children’s plight is also a freedom. Not that the film is a cousin of Finding Neverland – it doesn’t surrender itself to an idealistic notion of childish imagination. Occasionally the children exploit the situation (Akira goes through a phase of heavy video-game playing, until the power is cut off), but for the most part they exercise their autonomy only gently – for example by creating a garden on the balcony, growing plants in old food containers. More broadly, Akira’s role as provider and overseer contrasts with the mother’s childlike quality and the absence of fathers to posit a shifting notion of family roles. But the film isn’t heavy-handed or didactic or symbolic about this. I must confess that while watching it I was often a little disengaged, and I certainly found it to be on the long side (around 140 minutes). It’s only afterwards, turning it over in my mind, that I come to appreciate Kore-eda’s range and subtlety.

Unseen Films

The film is vague about the passage of time and logistical details – it’s cool and poised and somewhat elliptical. Apparently it’s based on a true story, but this seems relatively insignificant. It could be regarded as an indictment of society, but I doubt that’s Kore-eda’s point. The title after all isn’t Nobody Cares or Nobody Tries. There are many stories in the city, and it is futile to make too much of any one of them. In one scene Akira watches a baseball game and the coach, short one player, notices him and calls him over to join the team. There follows a briefly conventional montage of integration – normal life, it seems, isn’t so far away. But it’s at the same time, that the tragedy I mentioned earlier takes place. The juxtaposition could suggest some vague moral culpability on Akira’s part, and he responds by shoplifting some supplies (something he’s resisted doing earlier), before carrying out an action of great nobility. One could view Kore-eda’s objectivity as contrived, or even irresponsible. I do think the film lacks the analytical edge that might have made it great. But it has an almost mystical impact, and it’s clearly one of the year’s best releases so far. 

This is Kore-eda’s fourth film. I saw his second, After Life, about a counseling station where the direction of the recently dead is determined. I liked it less than the consensus, but maybe now it’s worth another look. His third film Distance made little impact generally. It’s a little strange I haven’t seen his first, Maboroshi, which I seem to remember made Roger Ebert’s top ten list when it came out. It’s about what happens to a young woman after her husband unexpectedly commits suicide.

I always feel embarrassed when I have to admit that I haven’t seen some key film, although sheer mathematics make it inevitable once in a while. I maintain a movie a day pace on average (I have a job besides this, and a wife and a dog, so that’s as much as time can possibly allow) and if you reflect on the volume of cinema history and the extent of production around the world (Variety probably reviews twenty movies a week on average), it amounts to being perpetually swept further away from the shore. Still, it does mean every year yields a crop of archival pleasures. Already this year I’ve enjoyed films I hadn’t seen before by Olmi, Pasolini, Murnau, Resnais and Wajda, not to mention Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks. And I think this might be the year to finally see some of those long-deferred Fritz Lang silent films (Metropolis aside).

Inside Deep Throat

Also on this list, although not particularly near the top, was the porn classic Deep Throat. My knowledge of this genre is exceptionally shallow, and comes mainly from various documentaries (Wadd, the documentary on John Holmes, is quite interesting; certainly better than Wonderland, the deadening dramatization of his decline), but I feel I’ve been aware of Deep Throat in some vague way for just about my entire life and it’s seemed – how shall I put this – suboptimal not to know the movie better. Still, I’ve done nothing to plug this gap in my knowledge.

This has now been taken care of by the new documentary Inside Deep Throat, which presents some of the original movie’s “key” scenes while reliving its cultural impact and tracking what happened to some of the key participants. It’s by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who made the surprisingly engaging and illuminating The Eyes of Tammy Faye. The new film is more conventional (like every conventional documentary, it features Norman Mailer) and I have to confess I learned very little from it. How I knew all this stuff already I can’t tell you. Maybe if you grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, it was in the water supply.

Are they kidding?


I dragged my heels for a long time on seeing Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, but it was hard not to succumb once he won the best director Oscar for it; the film is still playing in some theaters after five months, even though it’s now available on DVD and on-demand. As the world knows, it’s based on the novel by Yann Martel: I haven’t read it, which might have been an advantage, if it meant an ability to view the film through fresh eyes.

Life of Pi

The centerpiece of the film depicts how the teenage Pi survives for months in a lifeboat after a shipwreck, sharing the space with a Bengal tiger. Lee has talked about how long it took to get the technology to the point where the animal could be rendered convincingly, and in this regard the film’s a significant success – the tiger, along with various other animals of shorter-lived tenure, is extraordinarily convincing, seldom showing signs either of digital trickery or of soft-hearted anthropomorphism. This is no doubt Exhibit A in the case for Lee’s award.

From my perspective, it might be just about the only exhibit, because everything else about the film is mostly dire. Early on, in a framing device where the adult Pi tells his story to a visiting writer (in scenes carrying the soppy ambiance of a Lifetime flick about two guys on a tentative first date), the story is trailed, several times, as one that’ll make you “believe in God,” and the preamble to the shipwreck, recounting Pi’s formative years, is laden with intimations of significance. This starts of course with his name, short for “Piscine,” which allows both a “quirky” cultural reference, a scatalogical sounds-like detour, and then in its shortened form a mystical, canonical harmony. What it all means, I have no idea (like many things in the movie, maybe it made more sense in the book) but the film lays it out there as though covering the selection of a new Pope. Indeed, this is one of those films where no one ever just talks – everything is measured, calibrated, nuanced, and thereby dead on arrival. Lee has always been known for his supposed sensitivity to human interactions, but on this evidence that’s disintegrated into goory affectation.

Then in the end, as far as I could tell, the narrator abandons the spiritual line, and the movie becomes a short-lived meditation on the nature of storytelling, the unknowability of truth, or some such thing. This line of reflection wraps up almost as soon as it got under way, to no great end that I could see, culminating in the most unimpactful final minutes I’ve seen in quite a while.

This is not cinema

Well, I guess it wasn’t my kind of movie. So, you might say, I should just focus on the bits I liked. But even there a queasy feeling sets in, from the sense that you only like bits of Life of Pi for the same reason you like ingesting crap pumped full of processed sugar. And how could it be otherwise, given the vastly expensive commercial undertaking it represents? The cinematographer Christopher Doyle, asked in a recent interview what he thought about Life of Pi’s Claudio Miranda winning this year’s Oscar for best cinematography, exploded into a magnificently profane rant, of which the following is just one heavily cleaned-up extract: “ I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy and I’m sure he cares so much, but since 97 per cent of the film is not under his control, what..are you talking about cinematography, sorry. I’m sorry. I have to be blunt and I don’t care, you can write it. I think it’s (an) insult to cinematography. I’m sure he’s a wonderful person, I’m sure he cares so much. But what it says to the real world is it’s all about us, we have the money, we put the money in, and we control the image. And I say…Are you..kidding? That’s not cinematography. That’s control of the image by the powers that be, by the people that want to control the whole system because they’re all accountants. You’ve lost cinema. This is not cinema and it’s not cinematography. It’s not cinematography.”

Doyle admits later in the interview to not having seen the film, his point being in part one of principled opposition to digitization. Well, as someone once said, you don’t need to eat an egg to know it’s rotten. And once in a while, in matters of art as in those of human behaviour, maybe it shouldn’t be necessary to go any further than “Are you kidding?” Is this what we value and want to succumb to, irrelevant drivel about a kid with a silly name, messing round with a tiger with an even sillier name? Are we meant to be anything other than insulted when we’re fed a cheap line of calculatingly multi-denominational “spiritual” pandering, and told this might actually weigh on our metaphysical calculus? Are we meant to be such idiots that we don’t care if a film makes no visible attempt to engage with the world we actually live in?

Divine magic

Honestly, I don’t see any meaningful distinction between Life of Pi and one of those here today gone tomorrow action atrocities that invests comparable time and loving care into finding gruesome new ways to kill people. Whether we’re distracted from reality by violence and sickness, or by soothing piffle, either way we’re not spending time on anything that might actually inform and strengthen our engagement with our surroundings. Defenders of the film, like the Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen, tell us it “will definitely restore your faith in the divine magic of the movies.” But Groen, I fear, has been taken by the same con artists who undermined his “faith” in the first place – drawn back to the table with a more artful illusion, and so happily opening up his wallet of superlatives again. Start counting the days until the bubble bursts for him again, cueing a woebegone “the magic’s gone” weekend opinion piece. 

Writing briefly here about Lee’s last film Taking Woodstock, I said this: “a truly great director would never make something so shallow and slack. The film, depicting the turmoil surrounding the classic rock festival, certainly has interesting things going on in the background. But there’s not an iota of personality or texture to it. It feels like an assembly, never like a piece of cinematic writing.”  Before that he won another Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, which of course was inherently more stimulating, even if the film’s real authorial personality might almost in hindsight be Heath Ledger as much as it was Lee. Either way, Oscars for two of his last three films constitutes grotesque over-valuation. I mean, are they kidding?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

August movies


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2006)
 
In Neil Marshall’s The Descent, six young, thrill-seeking British women go caving in a remote area of Philadelphia: five of them don’t know that the sixth has switched the game plan, plunging them where no man or woman has gone before. And no wonder, once they find out what dwells down there. The Descent is a classic straight-down-the-line horror thriller. Marshall supplies a punchy beginning so we know he’s serious, then kicks back for a while, expertly establishing the quirks and tensions within the group. Everything that happens in the caves, where fun turns to irritation and then to anxiety and outright disaster, is superbly dramatized, with masterful orchestration of light and space, rock and metal, physical fragility and, eventually, monsters!

 And except for the very beginning, it all takes place among women. This allows one iconic shot in which the apparently most fragile of the group rises slowly from a pool of blood in which we might have thought she’d drowned (if we’d never seen a movie before); now ready for battle, as toned and steely as Sigourney Weaver ever was. The movie as a whole is admirably free of Fay Wray-type wailing and screaming. And its climax is a remarkably cold-blooded settling of scores between two of the women. It’s hard to imagine a film about males in jeopardy turning on quite the same dime, but The Descent takes the cliché about women being more in tune with their feelings, and extrapolates it to a giddily gruesome outcome.

World Trade Center

Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center could also have been called The Descent, to refer both to the two Port Authority cops trapped in the rubble, whose rescue the film dramatizes, and to the broader calamitous reality and implications of what happened on September 11, 2001. But such a title would already smack of “interpretation,” and Stone’s approach here is almost directly opposite to the feverish speculations of films such as JFK; instead he adopts a “right thing to do” approach paralleling the stoic professionalism of the two protagonists. I watched it in the third row, consumed by the screen and unaware of the rest of the audience, and I must say that I’ve seldom been so fully occupied by a two-hour picture. The depiction of the event itself, concentrating on the blind chaos, the sense of a world out of control, is especially effective. But even the conventional opening montage of early morning New York City has an unusual fluidity and beauty to it.

The film, concentrating on the agonized families, inevitably becomes ever more straightforward as it goes on, although the execution remains superb in all respects. The acting is all very fine too: Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena play the cops, and Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal their wives. I don’t know how it could have been carried off much better, so the question of course is whether this is the film that was actually needed. The closing voice over tells us that 9/11 reminded us of the many capabilities of man, and that it’s important to remember the good along with the evil. But this seems to me a simplistic paradigm, because we already understand the good better than we do the evil, and in any event, neither is ultimately as important as the events that were set in motion, and that continue to consume us. The film has only a brief glimpse of Bush on a TV screen, and we must rely on the briefest of remarks and reactions to suggest any broader perspective. There’s a reference to Iraq in the closing captions, which could be taken as a subtle endorsement of how 9/11 was used to justify that wretched initiative. But, if so, it’s so subtle that you can’t make anything of it. It’s often been difficult in the past to figure out exactly what Oliver Stone has been trying to say, but it’s a new experience to have him apparently so happy to say nothing.


Brothers of the Head

Keith Fulton and Louis Pena’s Brothers of the Head, a boozy, druggy, music-drenched documentary-style parable of decades past, feels closer to what an Oliver Stone movie used to be, although Stone never had this light a touch, and would surely have thought himself above such apparently inconsequential material. In one of the year’s wackier premises, the film depicts a pair of conjoined twins who front a rock-punk band in 70’s Britain, flirting with success before their psychological and physical frailties bring them down.

For a while, the film feels weighed down by logistics, with the central characters too far in the background, but it gradually comes together, perhaps working especially well as a new and fresh spin on old rock movie clichés; it’s a very poignant depiction of creativity born out of, and of course dependent on, extreme adversity. It’s also so good at evoking the unkempt lifestyle that you may need to fumigate your clothes afterwards.

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine was this year’s consensus “discovery” at the Sundance Film Festival, and for once you can see what the excitement was about. The raw material is familiar enough – a dysfunctional family squeezes into a rickety old bus for a road trip (so that 8 year old Olive can compete in a beauty pageant), and gets some of its rough edges smoothed off along the way. But this particular version has lots of raw feeling and many funny lines, even if a few too many of those come from the easy direction of a foul-mouthed grandfather (impeccably played by Alan Arkin).

What’s most surprising is the film’s portrayal of a family living under real economic constraints. Details like Olive asking her mother how much she can spend, when they stop at a diner for breakfast, are rare in movies, particularly with the naturalism we see here. The astute costume design and art direction contribute to a feeling of uncommon depth and precision. And it’s hard to deny that several of the characters really are losers, if only by the standards they’ve set themselves. The title doesn’t lend you to expect too much bite, and indeed the movie could have gone further; Greg Kinnear, as the father trying to make it as a motivational speaker, sees his dream shattered, but we don’t know where that’s going to take him. Instead, once they get to the pageant, it shifts into easy (if again very well executed) parody and subversion. It’s a funny ending, but these pageants are so flagrantly tasteless and pathetic that the target doesn’t seem very relevant to where the film’s been going. Overall though, it’s only because of the general high quality that one can raise these sorts of objections.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Promise of freedom


The Chilean director Pablo Larrain has made three fascinating films in five years, all dealing with Chile during the Pinochet years, and so constituting a trilogy of sorts. His 2008 Tony Manero, set around 1978, is a portrait of Raul, a violent criminal obsessed with John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever, and with embodying him sufficiently well to win the top prize on a TV show – his murderous path to success includes killing a movie theatre projectionist after Saturday Night Fever is replaced by Grease, which hardly seems like placing the blame where it belongs. The character barely exhibits a shred of emotion, doubt or remorse; it seems his focus on Travolta’s highly defined dance routines may represent some twisted desire for a form of structure and clarity in an environment devoid of any of it. There’s nothing so new about the notion of a violent hood with darkly quirky aspirations, but Larrain never makes it feel like a pose, and his film is quietly eloquent about the wretched environment – if Raul didn’t have this to hold him together, he’d just be another of the exploited or the preyed upon.

No

Two years later, Larrain extended this notion in Post Mortem, set in 1973, at what we gradually understand to be the exact moment of the military coup against the government. A grim functionary, who makes a living transcribing autopsy reports, obsesses over a burlesque dancer as his only apparent hope of getting anything going in his personal life, then things erupt and he’s surrounded by corpses, which however constitutes a perverse form of privilege; the film’s last scene illustrates how war and mass atrocity enables embittered men to lash out more intimately, enabling the spreading of amorality and corruption. Post Mortem is darker than the first film, and less conceptually striking, but it confirmed Larrain as a filmmaker of great resourcefulness, capable of evoking a rich engagement with a very specific history without becoming remotely didactic (indeed, viewers with more straightforward tastes might find the films too oblique).    

Neither of those two works received much widespread attention – I could be wrong, but I don’t think they ever opened commercially here. On the other hand, the third film No is one of the more prominent of recent months, and even received an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. It wouldn’t necessarily follow that it’s the least interesting of the three, but overall I think that’s the case. It’s extremely engrossing and skillful, and goes down very easily, but by the same token, the thoughts it provokes are more familiar, and it slides from your mind more quickly afterwards. In interviews, Larrain seems ready to move on to other subject matter, so maybe there’s an element of conscious artistic cleansing about it, of preparing to emerge from the darkness into the relative light.

Don’t Google the outcome

The film is set in 1988, when international pressure forced Pinochet into holding a plebiscite on his continuing rule; a victory would certainly be proclaimed as a guarantee of legitimacy, but it was unclear whether the dictator would abide with a No vote, or whether the whole process would be sufficiently rigged that this could never happen. During the run-up, each side gets a nightly fifteen minute TV window to make its case, and Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, a cutting-edge advertising man (apparently an amalgam of two real-life figures) pulled into helping to shape the No campaign; his boss meanwhile works on the Pinochet team, even as the two continue to collaborate on commercial assignments.

Larrain cannily shot the film using old video cameras from the era, so that the archival footage (including the actual campaign commercials) meshes seamlessly with the recreations. The image quality looks grotty, but that alleviates a potential sense of over-slickness, and implies a deep-rooted authenticity. The film doesn’t lack dramatic shape, but it’s primarily about process and momentum, although with a recurring sense of danger, driven by that doubt about Pinochet’s commitment to fairness, and occasional moments when that crystallizes into visible threat.

In his Star review, Peter Howell counsels: “Do yourself a favour and don’t Google the plebiscite’s real-life outcome before you see the movie.” Which somewhat sums up an ambiguity at the heart of No – does one best engage with history by artificially limiting one’s knowledge of it? In the film, the question swirls around the ethics of building a campaign around images of future happiness, rather than in denouncing Pinochet for his crimes against humanity. Gloominess, the premise goes, doesn’t sell political change any more than it sells soda. But there’s a counter-question: aren’t qualities as fundamental as freedom and justice fatally compromised, if gained through anything less than the truth? Put another way, to what extent does the end justify the means – and, even, since the same question gets asked about rebels and freedom fighters (or, if you’re on the other side, terrorists), to what extent is such media manipulation a form of strategic violence?

Chilean Mad Men

The question obviously has broad application – I’d certainly argue for instance that Rob Ford’s disregard for his responsibilities, and for any sane concept of appropriate leadership, constitutes a form of violent assault on the city, all the more offensive because it seems based more in pathology than in strategy. But ultimately, I don’t think this train of thought is central to No’s effect. Howell mentions Mad Men twice in his review, and concludes with the line: “Don Draper never had to pitch a campaign this tough, or this important.” Likewise, the British magazine Sight and Sound used the film as a jumping off point for an essay titled Mad Men in the Movies, concluding that “advertising in the movies is not so much a job as a mindset to be escaped, so that a new, more evolved human being can emerge.” Fair enough, but it seems to me a job that’s already unduly prominent in cinema compared to, you know, most normal jobs people have. And anyway, on the scale of things that should matter about the long and complex history of the Pinochet regime, I’m not sure how highly this aspect of it ranks.

Even if it might be useful to watch this particular film without knowing anything of the history, that can’t possibly be a meaningful approach to engaging with these matters more broadly. Which goes back to why I find No less gripping and less intellectually galvanizing than Larrain’s preceding films. In saying that, it might sound like I’m falling prey to a grim stereotyping whereby every film about wretched times in history is only worthwhile if it focuses morbidly and piously on that wretchedness. But my best rebuttal to that would merely be to refer back to the highly distinctive excellence of Larrain’s two previous films.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Husbands and wives


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2008)
 
Married Life, directed by Ira Sachs, is being advertised as a comedy. The title may suggest a tragedy to some readers; the fact that I’m not ultimately sure in what camp to place the film should probably count as a compliment. It’s set in 1949. Chris Cooper plays Harry, long married to Pam (Patricia Clarkson), but now in love with a much younger widow, Kay (Rachel McAdams). He confides in his best friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan), an unmarried rake who soon develops his own designs on Kay. Seeing no clear way to the new life he craves, Harry starts to dream of getting Pam out of the way. 

Other Movies

Several reviews of Married Life evoked Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, as a better evocation of approximately the same era. Haynes’ film evoked Hollywood norms (particularly as per the lush melodramas of Douglas Sirk), while updating them…or maybe making them more honest, it’s rather difficult to know which. It was at least as much about movies themselves as about “the 50’s,” much as his latest film I’m Not There isn’t exactly “about” Bob Dylan (truer to say it’s “around” Bob Dylan). Married Life looks initially as if it intends to provide a window into a vanished era – it’s plainly a man’s world, with an initial scene between Harry and Richard in one of those martini and steak watering holes. But it quickly settles into a rather abstracted mode, with the period flavour seldom fore-grounded, and with no particular apparent aesthetic ambition.

I watch movies in bits and pieces as time allows, frequently watching one while I have another in progress, and I love the accidental echoes and juxtapositions resulting from this jumble of inputs. Just before watching Married Life I’d been rewatching Edward Yang’s famous Yi Yi, and was thinking that, although still marvelous, Yang’s film might be a little more strained than I’d remembered. But then I read the fine essay by Kent Jones that accompanies the DVD and decided I was taking too much for granted. Jones eloquently highlights the grace and balance and luminosity of Yang’s film, placing any minor cavils safely back in perspective. Well, that’s all for another article. But thinking of Yi Yi helped to bring out Married Life’s extreme simplicity. Most scenes involve just two people, hardly ever more than three; still and slow and rather airless, it barely seems attuned to Life, married or otherwise.

Even more serendipitously, when I saw Sachs’ film I was in the middle of watching Richard Quine’s 1965 comedy How to Murder your Wife. This has Jack Lemmon as a rich and happy bachelor cartoonist who impulsively (i.e. drunkenly) marries a gorgeous Italian, has her take over his life, and fantasizes via his syndicated strip about killing her off; when she actually does disappear, he’s put on trial for murder. In the remarkable finale, Lemmon proclaims his guilt and pleads justifiable homicide, on the basis that acquitting him will be the one small step for man (and I don’t mean mankind) that helps the wretched male claw back some dignity. The (all-man) jury leaps to find him innocent and carries him from the courtroom in triumph (in the end, naturally, she comes back and he ends up with her regardless).

Murdering Your Wife

The film is a satire of course, but really only admits to such in its portrayal of the men (with Terry-Thomas, as Lemmon’s manservant – I told you it was a different era – literally winking at the camera). Women are categorically, shamelessly, juicily parodied, objectified, marginalized. Men and women can’t communicate – emphasized big-time here since Lemmon’s new wife doesn’t initially speak a word of English. It’s a remarkable creation – far smoother, more literate and better acted than what passes now for mainstream comedy, but astonishingly problematic. And, of course, helplessly revealing.

Which helped me to tune in to Married Life’s peculiar avoidance of revelation, or even much exploration. Any movie with “Life” in the title, though, seems to be advertising some ambition. But it’s hard here to find orientation. Early on, we hear that Pam equates love only with sex, and is skeptical of any deeper connection beyond that. We’re told several times that Harry’s marriage has left him physically satisfied but emotionally deprived. Richard suggests that this plight is ironic – that Harry might actually be in the ideal male position. But this never gets much beyond surface positioning. We don’t see anything of their sex life. Cooper gives an uninteresting, recessive performance, and Clarkson seems emotionally more alive than he does. And then Cooper doesn’t seem any more fired up with Kay than he does with Pam. And the movie seems to be going out of its way not to make Kay at all interesting either. What to make of all this?

I think in part, this is merely charting a filmmaker’s limitations (Sachs’ previous feature, Forty Shades of Blue, won a prize at Sundance – I haven’t seen it). And yet, the film unquestionably exhibits a nicely perverse, if confounding sensibility. Too consistently to be merely mis-stepping, it avoids expectations. For example, the story is told in part by Richard’s voice over, implying initially that he is to be the observer to a story centering on Harry. But without giving too much away, much less happens to Harry than seems likely, and the story ends up seeming more like Richard’s own. At the end, Richard suggests that we take something away from all this about “the things we do for love.” At face value it’s a bewildering wrap-up of what we’ve seen, unless “love” is synonymous with “just going on.”

Under the Influence

After those last few words, we watch through a window as a couple rearranges the living room furniture after their evening guests have gone home. Final association – it reminded me of the end of John Cassavetes’ Woman under the Influence, where the Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands characters, after a film’s worth of trauma, settle into their nightly routine. Love is a terrible gift in Cassavetes’ film, almost proving itself only through its ability to destroy. It’s frightening and exhilarating, whereas the end of Sachs’ film is depressing and profoundly unsatisfactory. Maybe it ought to be called Married Death.

This has elements of a fascinating ideological experiment, but you can see I’m not sure what to make of the film. I’d like to think it’s a smart exercise in perpetual misdirection, subtly toying with our expectations. Maybe so, or maybe it just means that even a rather limited and failed film about marriage will benefit from a century’s worth of filmic associations.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Hiroshima mon amour


I visited Hiroshima a few years ago, and found it almost unbearably compelling and provocative. I remember being occupied in particular by two intertwining impressions. One is that the peace museum and accompanying infrastructure seemed old and in need of some rethinking and regeneration; the second was that in focusing so specifically on an anti-nuclear message, rather than a broader one about war and other human travesties, the city seemed to limit its communicative power. Of course, these are deliberate strategies – Hiroshima’s specific experience is so vast and horrifying, it shouldn’t have to be about anything other than that (and might occasionally become a political football if it was), and it shouldn’t have to conform to modern concepts of slickness. If we can’t go there and engage directly with that experience for what it was, then what good are we? And yet, that’s the state of things. It remains among the most elusive of twentieth century tragedies – there’s no societal consensus for instance on whether dropping the bomb was a strategic necessity, the only way of forcing a Japanese surrender that might otherwise be years away, or a quasi-criminal display of force, designed primarily to assert American capacity and will as the post-war world took shape.

Legacy of Hiroshima

No doubt that’s partly because the history we know is primarily written by the winners, and yet it’s always seemed remarkable that Japan renewed itself so thoroughly after WW2, as if the psychic blast had been almost as compelling as the physical one. But maybe its capacity to move on was at the cost of embedding incoherences that would serve it poorly in the long run (leading for instance to its current demographic problems and extreme economic imbalances). If you take the country’s post-war cinema as a guide, you can certainly find evidence galore of malaise and embedded trauma (for instance in the work of Nagisa Oshima or Shohei Imamura). The works of the period’s best-known filmmakers though – Yasujro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa – rarely mention Hiroshima, although one might detect it pulsing in the subtext, adding to the tragedy for instance of some of the societally-imposed, emotionally self-destructive compromises in Ozu’s films.

How could one ever face Hiroshima head-on without causing all conventional narrative to dissolve? The question runs through Alain Resnais’ 1959 Hiroshima mon amour, an official classic of cinema. It entered my mind again recently because of the renewed attention on its star Emmanuelle Riva, with her Oscar nomination for this year’s Amour. In Hiroshima mon amour, her first film, she plays an actress, making a film on the subject of “peace,” who meets a Japanese architect (both are unnamed in the film) and goes to bed with him. She’s scheduled to leave the following day, but he follows her around, trying to persuade her to stay. She tells him that during the war she had an affair with a German soldier posted in her small French town, as a result of which she and her family were shamed. As the film ends, their fate is unresolved, and so is our relationship to them. They mesmerize us as they do each other, but there’s no reason this encounter should amount to anything: they’ve both acknowledged they’re happy with their spouses and their regular lives. And what does it matter anyway, when she’s so identified with the legacy of murderous European chaos, and he’s so identified with the recent tragedy of Japan?

Displaced love story

The film begins on a stunning evocation of their intertwined bodies, covered in what might be ash from a bomb blast, and for the first twenty minutes or so denies us any easy point of access to the story – it gives us glimpses of the lovers, but the majority of what we see is Hiroshima: the areas rebuilt and not, the museum, reenactments of the aftermath. On the soundtrack, they conduct what might be pillow talk, except that it consists of a vertiginously abstract conversation on what she did or didn’t see in and glean from Hiroshima. Resnais’ broad purpose is immediately clear – to expose the inadequacy of conventional expressions of sorrow or sympathy for the events and their victims, to demonstrate the limitations of cinematic conventions in representing its reality and legacy (all we see of the film on which the actress is working is a staged rally in which marchers parade a series of conventionally well-meaning, ineffectual slogans).

But the film is also a love story. On the one hand, it’s a very displaced one – no names, no shared past, no obvious history, no connection at all, especially when you learn that Japanese actor Eiji Okada didn’t speak French at all and learned all his lines phonetically (you’d never know it though). But at the same time, it carries a classic iconic fatalism, so that you might almost relax into it as you would into a film noir. Riva, of course, seems even more fascinating with our newly-obtained hindsight – not a great beauty necessarily (he even remarks on her ugliness at one point) and sometimes you might think somewhat over-emphatic in some of her expressions and line readings. It works though – despite the rejection of conventional realism, she conveys the sense of a human experience, with all the mild glitches, the ongoing rebalancing of perceptions and reactions.

Still going

I doubt too many viewers would feel the passion for Hiroshima mon amour that they do for their favourite films, but then this too seems necessary to its effect – passion would necessarily be rooted in a form of simplification. The film demands that we be at something of a remove, not knowing entirely how to react or what to feel, second-guessing and contradicting ourselves as the world continues to do in its engagement with war and death. It feels like a film of its time, but few films of 1959 dissolve so effectively the barrier between then and now. Especially as Riva just demonstrated so compellingly the folly of ever thinking any aspect of cinema history might be closed down.

And Resnais, now in his nineties, is still making boundary-pushing films – most recently just last year, although his focus has become less on representing history than on the ambiguities of human experience, and the boundaries between art and life. As for Hiroshima, well, how often would an average person ever hear it mentioned now? And if we were to fight that disregard, what exactly is the nature of the memory for which we’d be fighting? Even in Hiroshima mon amour, little more than a decade after the event, the lovers struggle to determine whether its backdrop to their love affair somehow elevates it, or rather renders it insignificant. The struggle is still enthralling, and noble, even if you can hardly imagine it being enacted now.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Bad food


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2004)
A proposition: the big fast food companies serve no good purpose whatsoever – their influence on society is entirely, unremittingly malign. During the 50 years or so since the rise of McDonald’s, the industry, in conjunction with its paid political hacks, has been more responsible than any other for bastardizing democratic values; for disrupting communities through unremitting, if not crazed emphasis on cost control, profit maximization and product standardization. The industry markets itself shamelessly to children, a sleepless pusher selling a brazen image of itself as some kind of non-stop fun festival. Except at the corporate executive level, everyone in the chain of supply and influence gets screwed, turned either into a minimum wage prisoner or else into a deadened borderline addict.

No one claims the food is good for you – McDonald’s itself cited its well-known health risks in defending itself against a product liability suit. Sure, it tastes pretty good up to a point, although surely not to the point that for so many people, it should so completely crowd out the alternatives. You want to think that if fast food freaks could only step outside themselves for a second, and look hard at the banality of their daily or three-times-weekly trudge to their banal overlit troughs – surely that’s all it would take to break it. But that’s easy for me to say. People only have so much in the way of mental and financial resources, and the chains prey on weakness. Worse, they set out to create it.
No good purpose

Sound pretty angry don’t I. Mark that down to my reading (during the hours spent whiling away a week on jury duty) Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, fast on the heels of Paul Hawken’s The Ecology ofCommerce. I’m not sure you could put together a more depressing pair of page turners: both books are completely convincing, completely rational, and leave no doubt that we’re on the road to hell. But you’ll note that I’m continuing with my life regardless, albeit with a bit more unformed sense that I ought to be doing something. As the recent documentary The Corporation recounts, one American CEO experienced an epiphany after reading the Hawken book, awoke to a sense of himself as an amoral plunderer, and set out to remake his company (an effort that continues). But few of us possess such a direct axis of influence; lacking an appropriate arena for our anger, we’re likely to let it soften into depression. I say this with no pleasure at myself.

Morgan Spurlock’s new documentary Super Size Me, which could almost be a movie version of Schlosser’s book (but isn’t) is getting lots of deserved attention for its take on McDonald’s, and at least amounts to doing something. Spurlock came up with a solid gimmick: for thirty days, he would eat there and nowhere else, trying everything on the menu at least once and accepting the Super Size option whenever offered. At the start a team of doctors checks him out, all of who testify to his excellent physical shape. Initially the diet makes him physically sick (one of the film’s centrepieces is its gross-out vomit scene); once he gets past that, he’s plagued by shifting feelings of malaise. The doctors are stunned at the speed of his physical decline; by the end of the month he’s gained 25 pounds, has looming liver problems, and he’s scoring worse than before on virtually every measure. Not least of all, as pointed out by his girlfriend Alex (a vegan chef), in the area of sexual functioning.
Super Size Me

Spurlock’s primary focus, obviously, is on health issues (the movie’s dominant visual image, other than the McDonald’s symbol, is the big fat American ass). He acknowledges that the experiment is exaggerated, but the basic point seems incontrovertible: the food is bad. He’s an amiable presence with a deadpan sense of humour; distinctly less hectoring than a Michael Moore. The film, interspersed with peppy graphics and an overall jaunty technique, touches on the other links in the McDonald’s chain of horror, but only briefly. Spurlock doesn’t talk to any politicians, and although in the end he’s planning a Moore-style visit to corporate headquarters, when they stall him he seems to back down.
Schlosser’s book describes the genesis of McDonald’s as an outgrowth of the can-do entrepreneurial spirit that flourished in America after WW2. The combination of new roads, new technology, mass media and an upwardly mobile public opened the door to a new spin on a low-grade food source. What could be wrong with that? McDonald’s corporate image-building, and the effort it puts behind political manna such as tax cuts and corporate subsidiaries, still return to that same ideal of industry and imagination, as though the company were still taking baby steps. But it’s a big lie. The company’s just about bled America dry. Hence the importance of global expansion, and exporting the whole pernicious agenda. It was recently reported that after just one generation of McDonald’s, Japanese men in their 30’s have the worst obesity statistics ever recorded there.
Sorrow over anger

Currently, McDonalds seems to be on the retreat, not least of all because of the film itself. The company denies Spurlock’s film had anything to do with its recent elimination of the Super Size option, but no one believes it. But this is an incremental climb-down at best, and the current fad for supposedly “healthy” food, channeled through the wretchedly weak-minded Atkins craze, doesn’t exactly seem like a revolution. In particular, buying a “healthy” meal at a fast food joint isn’t much of a step in the right direction.

Actually, even though she’s his girlfriend, Alex the vegan chef seems a bit marginal to the overall direction of Super Size Me – there’s a certain ironic distance to the depiction of the organic meal she serves on the eve of the experiment, and of the “detox” program she works out for him when it’s over. But that’s fair enough. Spurlock isn’t an idealist – he’s a pretty ordinary guy, and his film’s all the more convincing because of it. In the end, it has a “more in sorrow than in anger” kind of feeling. Having made his point, you get the impression his subsequent movies will be about something else entirely. I don’t blame him. But here’s the lousy thing. However depressing Schlosser’s book and Spurlock’s movie may be, the effect of reading The Ecology of Commerce is even worse.

Down the road twice


I’ve written here before that I wish I spent more time watching Canadian films, or more precisely perhaps, I wish I were the kind of person who wanted to spend more time watching Canadian films. I suppose I see as much of our homegrown contemporary cinema as any averagely interested viewer does (that is, very little of it) but I haven’t viewed much at all of what was made in the 70’s and earlier. I know a lot of it is widely regarded as terrible, but still, I’d like to know for myself. The reason I never get round to it I think, leaving aside the even more overwhelming histories of cinema in other countries, is that I only arrived here in 1994, and never developed that much of a sense for the Canada that preceded that. I don’t think I really even wanted to – I wanted to come in here as a new person, with as little mental baggage as possible, and maybe it suited me to regard the country in the same way, as something that only vaguely existed before I arrived.

Goin’ Down the Road

I’ve always lived in the same neighbourhood, around the St Lawrence market, and as anyone will tell you, it’s a little shocking how much has changed. Just a few years ago, you’d look in a particular direction and see just one tall(ish) building – now it’s all but crowded out by three taller ones, with more on the way. I often try to remember what was in a particular place before the Gleam Palace, or whatever might now be standing there, got built, but I usually can’t picture it; whether it was some old building, or a parking lot, or a patch of deadly quicksand, I guess to me it was all just forgettable connective material between major intersections, parks and bars. Obviously I’m pragmatic by nature, but sometimes this lack of memory feels self-defeating, too weightless, as if I’m unduly increasing my chances of waking up one day and realizing it was all just a digital simulacrum. But then I’m not sure I’d really care anyway, as long as the illusion remained satisfying. You see, I’ve always been too good at rationalizing past things and moving on, the opposite of what it takes to attain a sense of place and community.

Donald Shebib’s 1970 film Goin’ Down the Road has long been an exception to my ignorance of our cinematic heritage – I first saw it not long after arriving here I think, and then watched it again recently. It’s about two Cape Breton buddies, Joey and Pete, who drive all the way to Toronto in the hope of catching a better break. Pete, the bigger dreamer of the two, never gets anything going remotely equal to his dreams. Joey gets married and seems more inclined to settle for less, but in the end, he can’t even sustain that much.

A national right

My favourite moment in the film comes near the start, when they enter Toronto from the East, and we see the downtown core much as I’m looking at it right now from my window, except that virtually none of the high-rises (or the CN Tower) exists yet. At the time, the shot presumably embodied a sense of majestic, abundant possibility; viewed with hindsight, it’s almost quaint, a city that thought it was running but wasn’t even crawling. Of course, the same goes for much about that era – the film shows the then-new world of pop culture (Sam the Record Man!) and colour TV and suchlike, but how primitive it all seems now...

In his seminal book Mondo Canuck (which I devoured when it came out in 1996), Geoff Pevere says Shebib’s film “established the Canadian male as one of the most persistently impotent and unappealing characters in world cinema” and suggests it “promoted losing as a distinctive national right.” But at least to my eyes, the movie never seems to be reflecting on Canadian-ness, but rather on regional and economic predestination: Pete and Joey may never have had a real shot at being winners, transplanting themselves with so few resources and skills, but if they’d always been in Toronto (or if the Alberta oil boom had already started), who knows? To me it’s not so much about the national right to be a loser as the folly, for guys in their shoes, at that time, of even thinking there’s a nation.

On repeated viewing, it’s more visible how for all its impact, Goin’ Down the Road always put a premium on narrative efficiency (it was just an hour and a half long). This became all the clearer a couple of years ago, when Shebib decided to make a sequel. Paul Bradley, who played Joey, was long dead, so Down the Road Again focuses on Pete (still played by Doug McGrath), now elderly and retired in BC after making a career in the postal service, making the journey in reverse to tie up some loose ends and scatter Joey’s ashes. The film invents a whole new back story for why they left home and for what happens at the end of the first film; Pete crosses paths with Joey’s daughter, and his lost love, and the son he never knew he had, who turns out to be…oh, never mind…

Down the Road Again

 “It’s very Dickensian in how things are revealed,” said Shebib at the time, but that’s a sadly undeserved assessment – its contrivances seem largely ridiculous, especially when falling into place with such dubious ease. The film pays lip service to the weight of the past, but has little sense of real pain or regret, and the sense of place that was so fundamental to the first film is entirely absent (much of it takes place back in Nova Scotia, but it doesn’t seem any filming actually took place there). And again, for a film that traverses the country, and tries to excavate and reclaim the secrets of two lives, Shebib seems overly concerned with tidiness and concision (it runs just 84 minutes).

At the very least, you’d think seeing Down the Road Again ought to add something to one’s appreciation of the first film, but I don’t know if it really does. Would it enhance your appreciation of the memory of an esteemed old building, to visit the new condo tower erected in its place? Maybe it depends on your sensitivity to ghosts and echoes – it might only dilute the memories you’d managed to hang on to. I know cinema can’t be analogized with architecture beyond a certain point. And yet, I’ll tell you, when I watch Canadian cinema, whether good or bad, I feel a pleasant sense of gravity, as if that very act roots me a little more firmly and productively in a neighbourhood I’ve never paid enough attention to. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Women in danger



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2007)

About three quarters of the way through Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, the protagonist Otilia sits at the dinner table of her boyfriend’s parents. Her best friend is locked inside a hotel room across the city, waiting for her abortion to take effect. Preoccupied and desperate, there only because of being guilted into it, Otilia barely says a word as the parents and their guests chatter away. Her boyfriend sits silently behind her, his mind only on getting her into his bedroom. It’s a crammed frame – this is 1980’s Romania, and every interior we see is either dingy or cluttered or both. The shot goes on and on, certainly for longer than five minutes. It’s fascinating as a feat of composition and acting; immensely suspenseful; and deeply unsettling for how it crystallizes the theme of confinement that runs through the film.

4 Months, 3 Weeks…

The previous week I watched American Gangster, which is always entertaining, logistically impeccable and highly sophisticated in a host of ways. But Mungiu’s film reminds you of the essential soullessness of such behemoths. There’s nothing in American Gangster that pulls you up, makes you momentarily happy (the material’s bleakness notwithstanding) by its creative elegance; and if director Ridley Scott ever came up with anything in that vein, he’d be hard-pressed to preserve it through the layers of process surrounding him. More and more, I wonder after such movies why I don’t transfer my primary allegiance to theatre or music or something. Then I see a film like 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, and I remember.

Otilia and Gabita are roommates in a Bucharest dormitory, and in the opening scenes Mungiu traces that community’s interconnectivity – communal showers and endless small borrowings and transactions and favours. By our own notions of adequate space and privacy and resources it looks awful, but in retrospect comes to seem like a relative refuge. Gabita is pregnant, and they’ve made contact with an abortionist. Gabita can’t handle it, so Otilia takes on all the logistics – booking the necessary hotel room, going to the initial rendezvous. Often feeling almost as if shot in real time, the film sticks close to her - one could argue it focuses on the wrong person, but that comes to be an aspect of its tragedy, how individual trauma displaces itself.

As I said, the subject is abortion (illegal here, with both the practitioner and the woman facing imprisonment), and I can’t recall a film that illustrates certain aspects of this procedure more clearly. But I don’t think one can tell whether Mungiu is “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, as the terms go (needless to say, the film’s an instant indictment of the deranged U.S. debate). It’s wrenching that such a procedure should ever be necessary; but so would be the consequences of its unavailability. I mentioned the theme of confinement – it’s implicit in the desolate settings, the inadequate living spaces and personal resources, the weight of bureaucracy and scrutiny. But for women there’s the added trap of biology. We never find out how Gabita got pregnant, but Otilia later assails her boyfriend for his carelessness the last time they slept together. You get the impression that a balanced sexual relationship is barely possible in this society – the power imbalance, and the disproportionate sense of consequences, is just too great.

It’s a depressing film, but realistically so, and it’s an anthropological eye-opener. The film won the top prize at Cannes, and based on what we’ve seen so far this year would be worthy of the Oscar. I mentioned earlier the sense of suspense, and it might sound as if that would only cheapen the material, but nothing about the picture feels contrived. It’s an amazing debut for Mungiu, and afterwards I kept mulling over its subtleties. At the very end, there’s a juxtaposition between the nasty physicality of abortion and a horrible-looking plate of brains, liver and the like. You can imagine Tarantino coming up with that echo, and emphasizing it through a fancy zoom or split screen. In Mungiu’s film, it’s subtle enough that you might miss it. But if you don’t, it’s the final grace note, extending the oppression to include the food chain, suggesting how such conditions perpetuate themselves through internalization. 

More Fall Movies

James Gray’s We Own the Night, set in 1988, sets up two brothers from an NYPD family – one goes into uniform, the other manages a nightclub, until he cross paths with a Russian drug dealer and starts moving back toward the fold. The film is somewhat reminiscent of the sprawling urban dramas of someone like Sidney Lumet, but feels consistently thin and fuzzy – Gray just doesn’t manage to bring much layering to it. A few scenes have a vague poetry to them, but there’s a constant sense of thwarted ambition. Joaquin Phoenix, whose features and acting style alike seem to be getting fleshier, isn’t really an adequate focal point.

American Gangster, just to flesh my earlier comments out a bit, attracts broadly similar reservations. The gangster is real-life 70’s drug dealer Frank Lucas, played here by Denzel Washington, contrasted with Russell Crowe as the cop on his trail. Scott is one of the all-time great movie-making generals, marshalling complex and sprawling material into shape as if whipping a recalcitrant horse. But you pay a price for that, and American Gangster increasingly feels as if it’s taking place in a vacuum, with no more than passable sense of time and place and little moral complexity. Washington is always respectable of course, but doesn’t illuminate Lucas’ complicated worldview very much. At one point the movie leaps from Thanksgiving at the Lucas house to a joltingly raw montage of the junkies whose exploitation is paying for all this; it’s over in a few seconds, and as if shocked by its own daring, the film never dabbles in that mode again.

Control/Real Life

Control is about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, who killed himself in 1980 at the age of 23, on the eve of the band’s first trip to the US. Already married with a kid, and having an affair with a far more exotic Belgian journalist, epileptic and chronically short of money for all his burgeoning fame, Curtis simply couldn’t find a way to make all the pieces fit together. Directed by Anton Corbijn (a renowned rock photographer who knew Curtis well) in pristine black and white, this is a deliberately downbeat but highly skilled telling; you’ve probably never seen a rock biopic so immune to the thrill of performing and all that goes with it. It allows us a general sense of Curtis’ inspirations and frustrations, but it’s ineffably mysterious, with a sullied, thwarted hope at its centre.

Right at the other end of the spectrum, Peter Hedges’ Dan in Real Life stars Steve Carell as an advice columnist who diagnoses other people’s problems much more fluently than his own. He’s a widower with three challenging daughters, who falls in love with exotic Juliette Binoche during a family reunion, not realizing that she’s already attached to his less deserving brother (Dane Cook). So I think in four lines there I probably already mentioned three or four premises that belong solely to the world of movies, and I was just getting started. It’s all smoothly done, but that’s all it is.

Vertigo


When Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo won last year’s Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films ever made, replacing Citizen Kane (which had held the top place since 1962), it seemed to represent the triumph of a fundamentally different idea of cinema. Kane is Orson Welles’ most classically “perfect” film – naturally, one might assess its qualities higher or lower than those of other pictures, but I don’t think there’d be a lot of disagreement about the essential nature of those qualities: its technical mastery, formal innovation, crackerjack dialogue and so forth. Although the film wasn’t universally acclaimed when it came out in 1941, some people at the time instantly noted it as a new milestone in cinema, and it was nominated for many Oscars (it only won for its screenplay though). Even those who don’t venerate Welles as a director might concede Kane draws additional eerie power from the way it seems to diagnose its maker’s future trajectory (as has been told over and over, not always in a way that’s very fair to Welles subsequent achievements, he was twenty-six when he made it, and his stature in Hollywood almost immediately started to slip). Kane remains a film one bows to, and it remained at number two in the voting.

Vertigo’s rise

On the other hand, when Vertigo came out in 1958, at the height of Hitchcock’s fame and popular success, it was regarded as a disappointment, if not a complete flop, and received only a couple of minor Oscar nominations. When I was getting into movies in the early 80’s, it had many passionate followers, but lagged far behind Psycho and others of his films in mainstream awareness and acceptance. Actually, for a long while, you couldn’t even see Vertigo unless you had some privileged kind of access to it – it was withdrawn from release for over ten years, reappearing in 1984. It first appeared on the Sight and Sound top ten in 1982 (all the more impressively for being generally unavailable), climbing since then from seventh to fourth to second to first, like a rolling stone gathering converts. But I also recall seeing it with an audience – I think it was at the Cinematheque Ontario – where people laughed at it in various places, and I don’t mean the kind of boorish, self-indulgent laughter that makes you want to get up and hit them: I mean they outright didn’t get it, and thought it was corny.

I guess I’ve never fallen entirely under the film’s spell myself, because until I thought to revisit it in the wake of the poll, I hadn’t seen it for almost a decade. I can still imagine many viewers, coming to the movie cold, being mystified about the source of its stature. The plot (I don’t think it’s relevant to worry about “spoilers” in discussing such a famous work) follows Scottie (James Stewart), an ex-policeman with acrophobia, engaged by an old acquaintance to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), whom the husband suspects of being under some quasi-supernatural influence. Scottie falls in love with her, but then takes the moral blame for her death when she commits suicide by jumping off a bell tower, after his vertigo prevents him from running up after her.

Madeleine and Judy

Later on, wandering through his life like a ghost, he meets another woman, Judy, who closely resembles Madeleine, and fixates on remaking her, to embody his lost love exactly. In fact, Judy is the Madeleine he knew – the real wife was killed by her husband and thrown off the tower, with Scottie manipulated into providing perfect cover. When he realizes this at the end, it seems to mark the end of Scottie’s trauma, and to allow the start of a fully aware new love with Judy, but then a tragic accident takes her from him as well.

It’s hopelessly easy not just to criticize aspects of this basic plot, but also to list numerous gauche or unsubtle aspects of its execution. The impact of Vertigo, I think, is as the supreme example of the medium’s capacity to create a whole that’s greater than the apparent sum of its parts: it’s raw and needy and troubling to an extent that defies rational explanation. It’s common to cite it as a kind of commentary on watching films – Scottie loses himself in the illusion that’s created for him, and then all but goes mad trying to create it. But I think Peter Bradshaw is right when he says such readings “cannot account for a delirious excess that paradoxically borders on abstraction.” The film is very specifically set in San Francisco, in real locations, and is highly tangible in its details – it starts with a close-up of a hand on a rail, and demands that we focus on aspects of jewellery, hairstyles, costumes. Yet at the same time, almost nothing about it is firmly of this world – it seems to posit a state beyond the physical, of pure watching and dreaming and of movement untethered to a mundane purpose, but then almost everything it presents is based either in misapprehension or in a lie. It becomes almost religiously ritualistic, a note emphasized in its final scene, but without any simple doctrinal pay-offs or compensations. The film’s images – often so carefully composed that you can almost feel the movement deconstructing into a string of photographs - have an unusual gravity, an unnerving sense that they had to exist in this precise form, and that we might find greater self-definition in losing ourselves within them.

The greatest film?

Although the plot has an inherently erotic aspect to it, Scottie is desexualized, almost infantilized at times; he seems unaware of the extent of his friend Midge’s interest in him, and later insists to Judy that he doesn’t want anything more from her than to spend lots of time together (which she describes as “not very complimentary”).  Hitchcock in retrospect thought it a flaw that Stewart and Novak were so far apart in age (some twenty-five years), but it just serves to underscore the tragic impossibility of the whole thing. Stewart seems at times as broken and vulnerable a man as you’ve ever seen on the screen, which helps to position Vertigo as a film for broken and vulnerable times, even as Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score – one of the most striking in all of cinema – suggests the possibility of world-changing revelation.

Does that amount to the greatest film ever made? I don’t think I would be tempted to put it on my own top ten list, nor any Hitchcock film (although I haven’t thought about it carefully, Psycho may actually be my favourite of them). But it may indeed be the picture that best represents the current state of greatness in cinema, where mainstream films are mostly cold-minded commercial products, and the films that matter dwell in the margins, where technology and web communication allows localized obsessions to find nurturing and reinforcement, and to flourish, while those not in the know would merely yawn or laugh or them.