Sunday, April 9, 2017

Real war



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

The other day I was watching Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River – one of my favourite director’s best films. In the first half of the film, I always get lost in its feeling of authenticity – the stampede and the river crossing and all those epic views of the cattle traversing the desert. But of course, Red River isn’t “realistic” in the sense of aspiring to the pace and cadences of normal exchange. Hawks’ style was naturalistic in some ways, but he kept things within certain parameters of behaviour, generating a wholly distinct, recognizable stylization.

In Red River, it kicks in particularly in the last third, when a woman gets involved. She meets Montgomery Clift in the middle of an Indian attack, falls for him even though he’s brusque toward her, and by the end of the evening she’s in his arms. Then she sets the basis for a reconciliation between him and John Wayne. It’s scintillating as a study in character, but it’s clearly idealized, and in some ways it rubs oddly against the film’s more verisimilitudinous aspects. Rio Bravo, my favourite Hawks film, seems more unified – notionally a Western, but actually an almost abstract world where Hawks indulges his notions of character to the hilt.

Meaning of Right

A few days afterwards, I watched Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, and Red River came to mind in two ways. First, my wife had half-watched Red River, and when the Indians are circling the wagon train she remarked it looked like an old-fashioned view of natives – one that probably wouldn’t get put on screen today. Which may be true for the Indians, but Black Hawk Down’s portrayal of the Somalians as a similarly anonymous, gun-toting mob seemed awfully close to the same thing. And then, before going into battle, Josh Hartnett says how he “just wanna do it right today,” and I thought how much Red River cites the notion of being “good.” If you watch enough Hawks films, you figure out his meaning of “good.” The ambiguity of Black Hawk Down is whether you think it know the meaning of “right.”

Scott used to be regarded as a brilliant eye, whose visual mastery might compensate for lesser acuity in matters of character and storytelling. But the failure of 1492 and White Squall seemed to put paid to that phase, and he’s now reinvented himself as the ultimate Hollywood general – knocking out Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down in less than two years. All three can probably be seen as pure hackwork. But if Black Hawk Down is hackwork, it’s such an accomplished example as to make the term meaningless.

The film, set in Somalia in 1993, is about a failed military mission – a group of mostly young Americans in Humvees and helicopters fly into the centre of Mogadishu, to capture a bunch of warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid’s lieutenants. The mission goes astray almost immediately, leaving many of the Americans holed up, trying to hold back bloodthirsty waves of Aidid’s supporters – it’s a land where bread is scarce but guns apparently plentiful.

State of Hostility

It’s a superb recreation, exhibiting only minimal contrivance; it evokes the sad desolation of Mogadishu and the pounding chaos of battle with equal skill. But there may never have been a war film so unconcerned with the broader context, with the political and strategic rights and wrongs. The film has an unusually long series of captions at the start, fixing the time and place and the approximate state of hostility, and again at the end. But in between, we just get the event itself. To the film’s detractors, this is a key point of moral as well as artistic weakness. This is Rick Groen in The Globe and Mail:

“Without any surrounding context – without a deeper characterization of the men or a proper account of the politics that brought them there – we’re left to respond to the blood and guts viscerally but not emotionally. The edge of our seat gets a strenuous workout, yet our heart and mind go pretty much untouched…if this is artistry, it comes perilously close to the spirit and intent of propaganda – a paean to the triumph of soldierly will.”

Maybe…and yet, if the blood and guts attains such realism, what artistic prodding should we need in order to respond emotionally? Isn’t our reason for grieving inherent in what’s being shown? Maybe that sounds like moralizing on my part, but I think it’s conceivably an artistic strategy by Scott.

Triumph of will

I started wishing he had gone even further with this – that the film was an even more aggressively self-contained, claustrophobic experience. It still has many of the trappings of the conventional war movie, albeit downplayed. There’s the motley bunch of recruits (although the film is mostly reticent about their backgrounds), the theme of naivete and bluster receiving a harsh wake-up call (at the start, the men are so nonchalant about the mission that they leave behind standard pieces of equipment), the contrast between the turmoil on the frontline and the general in his high-tech bunker, the pep talks and one-liners (“It’s what you do right now that makes a difference”). Saving Private Ryan contained two or three magnificent sequences, and a lot of mundane padding. Black Hawk Down sharply reduces the mundanity ratio, but it doesn’t find a new vocabulary of war – it doesn’t have the grand vision and shocking introspection of Apocalypse Now (but then, I query how “realistic” that film really is) or the troubled poetry of The Thin Red Line (ditto). I think it might have got there, had it taken its approach even further – to the point where character and personality might virtually disappear completely.



As it is, as I mentioned, character and personality disappear only among the Somalis. This too might have been a persuasive artistic strategy, if Scott didn’t sometimes seem to be personalizing them – through shots of children carrying guns, or in which a face is picked out of the crowd (usually just before being blown away). And a scene in which a captured soldier is interrogated, providing his captor the most dialogue of any Somali in the movie, may be the most clich├ęd in the picture. This aspect of the film ends up seeming confused and a little opportunistic.

The brutal reality leaves many of the Americans dead and serves as a rite of passage for the others. I suppose that amounts to the “triumph of soldierly will” in Groen’s phrase, but what is that really saying? Ultimately, Black Hawk Down illustrates the limits of setting so much store by authenticity. I expect the film can be read to support whatever preconception the viewer brings to it. Maybe that’s an artistic evasion by Scott, but it’s sadly not untrue to its subject.

2005 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Eight


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2005)
This is the eighth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.

Les Amants reguliers (Philippe Garrel)

In my preview article I noted I'd never seen any of Garrel’s films, and was looking forward to remedying that here; the anticipation only grew after he won the Best Director award for this film at the Venice film festival (which ends during the first weekend of the Toronto fest). Regular Lovers is a long film (just under three hours) and I won’t claim that you don’t feel that length, but it’s a rewarding experience. The protagonist is a young poet (played by Garrel’s own son Louis), initially at the centre of the 1968 agitation – we see him burning cars, resisting the police, and ultimately evading capture after a long, skin-of-his-teeth chase. At this point he has every potential for cultural and political distinction, but this slowly dissipates; he lives with several like-minded friends in a large house owned by a rich friend, smoking drugs and languishing, and then he meets a woman with whom he falls in love, but whose presence only seems to increase his stasis (someone says that they are “losing the revolution indoors”). Despite the reciprocity of her love for him, her trajectory is much more familiar and coherent, leading to an inevitable outcome. The film is shot in luminous black and white, and it generally maintains a narrow tonal register; although the plot includes free love, the presentation is extremely chaste by contemporary standards (the only sex we ever see is on a package of dirty playing cards). This gives it a melancholy, repressed quality that’s effective in evoking the unfulfilled underpinnings of what might otherwise seem (as it did, for example, in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, which also starred Louis Garrel) as a lush wet dream of a lifestyle); the girl says at one point, a propos of nothing in particular, “It’s unbelievable, the solitude in every man’s heart,” and it’s this solitude, immune to all genres of revolutionary provocation, that ultimately claims the movie. Director Garrel (who lived much of this, and was in a long relationship with iconic singer Nico) certainly indulges himself here, and I find it difficult to make much of a guess as to what sense of him might emerge from viewing his more than twenty earlier works, but Regular Lovers at least was one of the highlights of the festival for me.

The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron)

This sweet-natured account of 50’s pin-up queen Page is intended as a “celebration” of her life, and so it is – it’s hard to imagine a more benign treatment of once-inflammatory material. Page was an aspiring actress who started doing glamour shots on the side and gravitated first to “tasteful” nudity and then to S&M, 50’s style (per the film at least, she was only incidentally troubled by, or even aware of, the use that male purchasers might have been making of this material). Meanwhile, she went to acting classes, using thoughts of Jesus for inner motivation. Gretchen Mol is very good as Bettie, achieving a complete immersion in the character; as someone puts it, she’s consistently successful in spending half the film nude without ever looking naked. The movie dramatizes anti-smut Senate hearings – soberly and diligently allowing the testimony of a grieving father who attributes his son’s death to the photographs’ influence – and has a vivid period flavour, but there’s not much sociological ambition on display here, and it ultimately feels like coasting for Harron (who was in more dialectical mode with her earlier films I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho) – the feminist angle is simply that regardless of what porn meant for women in the longer term, Bettie’s career made sense to her, and that’s all anyone needs to know. It’s not that I take issue with this...it’s just that it’s kind of limited. Unlike most biopics, there’s no end note on what happened to Bettie after she ended her career – the final mark of what might actually be an over-respectful treatment of her.

The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang)

When you’re seeing three or four films a day for ten days, you probably treat some of them less kindly than you should, and I’ve always thought I was too snippy two years ago about Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn. Subsequently I’ve read many great accounts of it, and the programme book at the time said it had “the shape of an entrancing, wordless vision.” I wrote it had “just the shape of one, with the feeling of an absent centre.” This was surprising since I’d loved Tsai’s previous film, What Time Is It There, which I often found virtually hypnotic. And recently I rewatched his early movie Rebels of the Neon God, a film utterly anchored in a specific time and culture, with an aching identification for the people it follows, and at the same time utterly timeless, cultivating a transcendently perverse deadpan sensibility. 

Tsai is simply a terrific director. But the journey from Rebels to Dragon Inn illustrates a diminishing interest in the contours of the real world, and this perhaps troubling trajectory takes a further leap with The Wayward Cloud. The new film also ups the ante considerably on sexual explicitness, often to the extent of seeming rather callow and tawdry, but it comes together at the end with immense, unnerving authority. It’s another desolate urban landscape, apparently with no running water (meaning that bottled water litters virtually every scene) but with a surfeit of watermelons, the erotic possibilities of which are juicily seized. The film is a triangle of sorts, with a male porn actor at the centre, his female co-actress at the other, and at the other a restrained young woman with whom he develops a tentative mutual attraction.


The film is full of images of displaced, warped sexuality, often immensely well-conceived, and also (as in Tsai’s film The Hole) incorporates various throwback musical numbers that through their colour and panache further underline the wretchedness of the real world. But the implications of all this seem familiar, circling round well-marked territory, with the new relish for sexual excess serving as the only (questionable) point of advancement. But then there’s the ending. which is gripping, horrible, sick and nihilistic, all of which in the circumstances I’m offering up as a compliment; it ensures that the film leaves more chilling an after-effect than any of his previous works. Overall, in truth, I enjoyed this garish work more than the objectively superior Goodbye Dragon Inn. But Tsai pulls it off only by the skin of his teeth, and he is desperately in need of a new preoccupation.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Memories of Quentin



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2002)

An overdue mea culpa – I used to bash Pulp Fiction fairly often in these pages, usually as an example of an overrated triviality illustrating Hollywood’s loss of direction and higher purpose. I haven’t mentioned it for a couple of years at least now – maybe a sad sign of the effect of Quentin Tarantino’s Kubrick-like deliberation over his next project (out of sight, out of mind). But I watched the film again the other day, for the first time since it came out, and felt quite ashamed of my early carping. Sure, there’s a lot in it that’s self-indulgent, wantonly brutal and violent – the sheer confidence can become grating. But I think I vastly underestimated the film’s formal intelligence. It’s a remarkable mix of fluent storytelling and of longeurs that would be deadly boring, if not for Tarantino’s amazing ability to soak in the nuances and idiosyncracies of a particular situation.

Rewatching Pulp Fiction

Time and character and normal concepts of causation and motivation seem almost infinitely mutable and extendible in Tarantino’s hands – he strips the story down to its bones and lays them bare while simultaneously investing in them a stranger and more scintillating life. And even the mythic ambitions, Jackson’s quoting from the Bible and the strange suitcase and the guy in the basement and so forth, seemed much more compelling to me this time, validated by Tarantino’s almost transcendent mood and structure.

Best of all perhaps was the film’s extreme, glowing romanticism, especially in the sequence between John Travolta and Uma Thurman: it takes two extreme, nerve-ridden personalities and forges a real connection between them – before blowing it away again. As with the relationship between Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer, there’s no question that Tarantino believes in love even under extreme pressure, but he’s also aware of how malformed and objectively crazy the resulting relationships might be. In all, a great film, and I apologize for all my cheap cracks. It may be time now to look at Fight Club again as well.

Anyway, just thought I should get that off my chest. Pulp Fiction was of course an astonishing career resurgence for Travolta – there’s a real spontaneity and emotional nakedness in his work there (as well as fine, unpredictable comedy timing) and he should probably have won the Oscar for it. Since then. He’s been as great in such works as Primary Colors, She’s so Lovely and Get Shorty. But lately his work has severely waned. He was the best thing in Battlefield Earth, but his performance made only slightly more sense than the movie as a whole. In Swordfish he seemed complacent, bloated from too many early paychecks. I didn’t see Domestic Disturbance (why would anyone?) I doubt that much of interest will come from him in the near future.

The Shipping News

For a while, Travolta was attached to the film version of The Shipping News, but it didn’t work out and the role passed to Kevin Spacey. At this point, I think we should probably be grateful. When I think of Travolta in The Shipping News, my mind keeps defaulting to Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter. But the gratitude is strictly relative, for I think the film would have been better off without Spacey too. Also without Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench and the rest of its starry cast.

I haven’t read the book, but based on all accounts and on what filters through the film, it’s a fairly raw account of a physical and emotional unfortunate. The film is generally wistful – which is exactly the adjective that best applied to director Lasse Hallstrom’s last two films, The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. The Shipping News is much better than Chocolat, which seemed to me entirely inconsequential and manipulative. But there’s a frosted quality to it that holds most emotion at length.

Spacey plays a widower, lifelong deadbeat and father of a young girl who comes with his aunt to Newfoundland, the home of his ancestors. Although he has no journalistic experience, he finds work on the local newspaper, writing the shipping news. He slowly develops a relationship with a local widow played by Moore.

The film is inevitably very pictorial, but in the manner of a travel brochure, with bits of local eccentricity and legend dotted throughout. I don’t think it conveys the feel of Newfoundland nearly as well as New Waterford Girl captured the similar feel of Cape Breton. The comparison is instructive – for New Waterford Girl was a cheap, homely film with the confidence to experiment. Hallstrom’s biggest problem as a director, by far, is his adherence to traditional notions of accessible, sensitive storytelling. He is, very likely, the polar opposite of Quentin Tarantino is just about every way possible. You don’t get the sense that Hallstrom could possibly be enjoying himself that much on the set – he makes everything feel so strenuous.

Experimentation wanted

This doesn’t create the best environment for actors to do their best work. Hallstrom’s films have done well lately on scoring Oscar nominations (and a win for Michael Caine in The Cider House Rules), so the Academy doesn’t agree with me. But he plays safely into our expectations. Spacey gives a wounded puppy kind of performance; Moore is radiant. Both actors are too intelligent to convey the tentativeness that their characters seem to require. Most everyone else in the film looks too good (the authentically drawn and worried-looking Pete Postlethwaite, as a nasty colleague of Spacey’s, being the main exception).


There are real pleasures in the film though. I liked the depiction of Spacey’s growing confidence as he learns to work with words; how he finds a real personality in conjunction with an artistic one. The ensemble acting around the local paper is usually amusing. But the romance between Spacey and Moore seems distinctly undramatic. Except for some minor disagreement at the start, they’re always moving toward each other. In general, everything seemed overly compressed to me – the film should surely have been longer.

Actually, I’d like to see Quentin Tarantino direct something like The Shipping News. That sounds crazy, but he’ll surely never top what he’s done already in the lowlife stakes – and the long creative silence suggests he knows it. Pulp Fiction’s exquisitely tender and dreamy sequences between Bruce Willis and Marta de Medeiros showed Tarantino could maintain a softer mood without losing his head. He should give that part of himself a more extensive workout. The appeal of experimentation only goes so far though, for I have no desire to see what Lasse Hallstrom does with a Pulp Fiction-kind of script.