(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2009)
Big Eyes (Uri Zohar)
The Festival kicked up some controversy by establishing a new “City to City” showcase program and putting the spotlight on Tel Aviv: cue protest letters, denunciations, op-eds, etc. Well, this may not be the weightiest contribution to that debate (not that I really think any of them were) but I’ve been to Tel Aviv and I think it’s a fine city that well deserves to be spotlighted. Much of the time there you could imagine yourself to be in the most tolerant, peaceful place in the world, and if that’s a superficial impression that ignores the underlying complexity...well, you know what, New York isn’t all Times Square and Central Park either. Are there aspects of Israeli policy that would benefit from constructive debate? – sure, but focusing so intensely on a goddamn film festival programming choice that even its detractors seemed to acknowledge was basically well-intended…I just thought it was puerile. The Tel Aviv movie I went to see, the 1974 Big Eyes, just deepened this impression, because by its very nature it’s an education: in focusing on the historically and politically charged Israel, or on one’s pre-conceived notion of what a “Jewish state” might look like, you miss the day to day reality of people just hanging out and trying to make their lives work and, of course, behaving badly.
Big Eyes stars its director Zohar, a big star at the time (who subsequently underwent a conversion and reportedly now devotes himself to the Torah), as Benny Furman, a basketball coach, married with two kids, but a compulsive chaser of other women. The movie, shot in grainy black and white, certainly mythologizes the character somewhat, lapping up the sleazy fun of his endless scheduling conflicts and lies and evasions, but it doesn’t look away from the pain he causes. Except for the names, a closing wedding sequence, and a brief news story glimpsed on TV, you could be almost anywhere. Except that knowing you’re in Israel, at a time barely removed from 1967, lends an inherent existential charge to Furman’s actions, and the hard edge to Zohar’s expressions frequently seems tinged with weary self-disgust.
Les herbes folles (Alain Resnais)
Resnais is 87 this year, and if my fantasy Nobel Prize for cinema had been instituted, he would have won it decades ago; films like Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel are central to any account of how the medium established itself as art. He’s still working at a steady pace, and it’s understandable if his films are less exacting now; astonishing though how with every new work he still manages to create a fresh cinematic space. In recent years he’s worked often with theatrical properties and with musicals, presumably stimulated by their preexisting constraints (not that you get the impression Resnais is easy to constrain). Les herbes folles is a broader creation though, with an intimate story at its centre, but for example making rich use of exteriors (his last film Coeurs never stepped outside), and it has airplanes!
He sticks to his practice of using familiar actors; his wife Sabine Azema plays a dentist whose purse is snatched; an aimless retiree played by Andre Dussollier finds her wallet and returns it to her via the police. He starts to communicate with her, to the point that she goes back to the cops to have him back off; later the dynamic shifts though, and the pursuer becomes the pursued. The canvas expands to draw in another dentist (Emmanuelle Devos), Looney Tunes references and a broken zipper (carrying huge symbolic weight here), before the action leaves the ground figuratively and ultimately, perhaps, in several other senses too. Meaning that Resnais’ ending could be seen either as being vibrantly alert to the continuing possibility of creation and reinvention, or else as being plain nuts.
Well, you won’t be surprised I subscribe more to the former interpretation, not that it’s a sure thing. I’m not sure Les herbes folles communicates any specific insight, if that’s your thing, but it overflows with alertness and affection for the idiosyncrasy and unpredictability and often-mysterious longing of human personality and the strange structures and mythologies in which it ties itself up; it’s also quite beautiful to look at, and very quirkily funny at times. Sure, you can say it’s an old man’s film, but as he and Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer and others keep on proving, cinema remains a more than welcoming country for old men. If they’re French at least.
Air Doll (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
After just six movies, Kore-eda has already made it to the Festival’s Masters bracket (although the selection criteria there often seem a bit arbitrary). My favourite movie of his, of those I’ve seen, is Nobody Knows, a chronicle of abandoned children that’s true both to the situation’s inherent abuse and cruelty and to its peculiar freedom; Kore-eda’s coolness sometimes seemed contrived there, but his film’s subtlety played in my mind for days afterwards. Air Doll is an unabashed fantasy, about a blow-up sex doll who suddenly comes to life (“finds a heart” as she puts it, Wizard of Oz-like) and starts wandering around Tokyo while her owner’s at work, even finding herself a job in a video store. Kore-eda casts off his reserve completely here, creating a film of considerable charm and poignancy. Many of us might be inclined to regard a sex life built around such an item as being, to say the least, sub-optimal, but Kore-eda is alert to the potential beauty in loneliness, in the overlooked, in the garbage, even ultimately in senseless death; to the delicacy of human interconnections; to the possibility that despite all its problems humanity might retain a mystical capacity for transmigration. The film also has some pleasantly gentle humour, a plethora of appealing details (Kore-eda’s worked out the contours of his fictional universe exceptionally well) and a very imaginative sex scene.
Some of that sounds similar to what I said about Les herbes folles, but the trouble is, you know, at the end of the day Kore-eda’s film is still about a blow-up sex doll that suddenly comes to life. I would never deny the capacity of great cinema to spring from the least obviously promising roots, but Air Doll never casts off the feeling that a definite ceiling exists on what such a concept could ever realistically achieve (the recurring metaphor, that most of us in our different ways are as empty as she is, basically doesn’t seem like a whole lot). Much as the air doll inevitably suggests an inability to find a real date, Air Doll inevitably suggests an inability (however well disguised) to find a real concept.