(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2004)
Notes on three of the better recent films
The Triplets of Belleville
Already a contender for the best of 2004 list – and, as Letterman used to exclaim, it’s a cartoon! Sylvain Chomet’s film has a plot, but it would sound dumb if I tried to summarize it, and that’s one of the things I loved about the movie. Like Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (which quickly comes to my mind only because it’s the last animated film I saw in a theatre), it has a unique sensibility – one pitched at a previously uncharted angle to the world. It’s not quite as far-out as Miyazaki’s film though – another thing I loved about the film is that despite its brief 80-minute running time, and despite a trailer that makes the thing look like a blur of activity, it’s actually surprisingly languid (especially for a cartoon!) Perhaps half the running time is taken up merely with wonderfully precise observation – of a fat old dog’s routine while waiting for his owners to get home; of the bizarre mealtime rituals of a trio of old-time singers. In this respect and others, the closing dedication to the memory of Jacques Tati doesn’t seem at all gratuitous.
I also loved (someone stop me here before I gush) the distinct queasiness at the film’s centre. One of the notional protagonists is a Tour de France cyclist whose non-stop training has driven him to physical grotesquerie and apparent near catatonia – registering neither highs nor lows, he goes through the movie like a dazed war survivor. His mother – who sets out with the dog to find him after he’s kidnapped – is essentially a tyrant operating on a blinkered view of the world. And so on. The movie has an elongated, angular visual style that’s far more realistic than Miyazaki’s work, and it’s constantly diverting and dramatic, but it also skirts the fringes of nightmare, as if the elements of our world had been stretched slightly too far and might at any moment collapse. Sometimes, it goes in for Hanna-Barbera-type ideas (at one point the dog is used as a spare tire) but usually it’s closer to plausibility than that. Like I said, there’s no way to pass on the coordinates: you have to go there for yourself.
Spirited Away was the surprise winner of last year’s Oscar for best animated film, I don’t think Belleville can beat this year’s favourite, Finding Nemo, but it deserves to. Finding Nemo is a fine movie too, but when you compare it to Chomet’s film you see how calculated it is. Nemo has no downtime – it sweeps across you like a fresh cold wave, wearing the brightest colours you’ve ever seen. Sure, it’s not just for kids, but if it’s for adults, it’s for adults on definite downtime. The Triplets of Belleville is the real deal – a cartoon that most kids probably wouldn’t get. To me, that’s the kind of thing that could become a cult movie.
In Wayne Kramer’s debut film, William H Macy plays a Vegas loser whose luck is so bad that he can kill your winning streak just by standing next to you; he’s consequently hired by casino boss Alec Baldwin to move around the tables and keep down expenses. One day he falls in love with waitress Maria Bello and his luck turns round – now people are winning jackpots all around him. It’s a big problem for Baldwin, a Vegas traditionalist trying to keep away the modern theme park family-friendly glitz. This nostalgia is one of the film’s dominant qualities, and you could almost miss the fact that old Vegas – world capital of gangsters, hookers, etc. – wasn’t all wonderful (although Baldwin’s unashamed, utterly amoral use of violence is unflinchingly presented). Otherwise it’s all about the love story, which is presented with a lot of wistful sentimentality, introspection, and a sexual specificity that – given the musty nature of the surroundings – almost seems out of place. Nothing about The Cooler is very surprising, but most of the individual scenes play pretty well, aided by committed acting. The overall arc though seems unsophisticated. Underneath it all, it’s a transplanted fairy tale with an inevitable happy-ever-after trajectory, and fundamentally you’re never doing much more than waiting until it runs its course.
The Fog of War
Errol Morris’ Oscar-nominated documentary reviews the life and times of Vietnam-era US secretary of defense Robert McNamara, anchored around a series of interviews with the man himself, now 87. Filmed in vivid close-up, staring directly into the camera, McNamara remains a commanding presence. It’s an amazing life story – he was at the heart of the bombing strategy against Japan during WW2; he rose to the top of the Ford motor company, and later ran the World Bank. He brought to all of these roles a piercing analytical mind – a meticulous focus on objectives and processes. But such rationality might seem to verge on inhumanity, and some have seen McNamara almost as the embodiment of the devil – he admits himself that if the US had lost WW2, he might have been prosecuted as a war criminal.
Of course, Vietnam was the ultimate moral meltdown – an endeavor entered into without clarity or, it seems here, real conviction. McNamara attributes some of that now to basic misunderstandings: the Americans believed it was about global positioning; the Vietnamese thought it was about Vietnam itself. He thinks JFK would have found a way to get out before the casualties mounted, but the sobering point is that Kennedy had already let things go too far. The film has numerous extracts from the White House tapes of conversations between McNamara and Lyndon Johnson, chilling for their superficiality and sense of hopelessness. Eventually McNamara submitted a memo arguing for a fundamental change in direction, but even if he could turn back, Johnson couldn’t, and McNamara was gone a few weeks later.
Morris has a flashy visual style, including repeated use of things like dominoes falling on a map of Vietnam, and the film has an immaculate score by Philip Glass. It seems to me a bit overdone, and yet in a certain way this approach helps make the point – Morris’ towering cinematic edifice underlines McNamara’s hollow intellectualism, and the film’s over-craftedness serves as a metaphor for his tragic limitations. Ultimately, the film is a close cousin to Morris’ last documentary about Fred Leuchter, an expert in execution technology, and Holocaust denier. But Leuchter is merely a small-time buffoon next to McNamara, and you sometimes feel The Fog of War slightly unequal to its subject, yielding as if acknowledging that it will take a higher court than cinema to make him accountable. “Is it the feeling?” asks Morris, in response to another question dodged, “that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t?” “Yeah, that’s right,” McNamara responds. “And I’d rather be damned if I don’t.”