Thursday, February 23, 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 not 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 placing so much store on 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.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Different universes



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

On a recent weekend, I went to see both Todd Solondz’ Storytelling and Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days. Well, I’ve never been accused of going to movies just for the spiritual uplift, but maybe this was taking things a little too far. Each film has a caustic view of mankind; each is uncompromising in its own way. But not too unsurprisingly, the European film’s notion of uncompromising comes from an entirely different universe than that of the American one.

Dog Days (an Austrian movie) follows a few characters in a seemingly affluent suburb, suffering through a heatwave. The movie opens with a young man humiliating his girlfriend and abandoning her at the side of the highway. Then it shows a fat old man pottering around the garden in his underwear, followed (quite shockingly if you didn’t know it was coming) by some hardcore orgy footage. This turns out to be in some kind of private club beneath a shopping mall, from which one of the orgy participants (looking prim and middle-class) drives home to the house she shares with her ex-husband. He endlessly prowls the rooms bouncing a tennis ball while she lounges naked and hangs out with her paid bedmates.

Dog Days

A few more characters are introduced too, but we’ve already been exposed to the crux of Seidl’s methods. How does he get people to expose themselves like this? We perceive quickly enough that the woman at the orgy is unfulfilled, compensating for a huge void in her life (the death of a child). But we’ve also seen her in explicit, unquestionably unfaked sex acts, during which, by the way, we’ve been amply able to observer her (like almost everyone else’s in the film) tired, droopy body. Dog Days takes the voyeurism inherent in cinema and blows it up to the point that conventional pleasures quickly wither, leaving us scrambling for self-justification.

Seidl provides enough relatively easy (if never comfortable) laughs and points of identification that the film’s generally an enveloping experience, but to the extent to which it’s straightforwardly pleasurable just makes all the more uncomfortable the myriad occasions on which it isn’t that. Near the end, a dumpy old woman (let’s say maybe seventy years old) performs a striptease, which Seidl’s camera captures with his usual lack of reticence. After she’s finished, the old man watching her pronounces it very good – “Just like in the Orient.” This could be viewed as Seidl’s cruelest exploitation, and yet I think the scene should be read straight, allowing us to see the woman as a functioning sexual being.

When our concepts of sexuality are so consistently associated with beauty and conventional allure, Seidl arguably does something truly valuable here. His characters may look pathetic in a certain way, and we may wonder about the sanity of the actors, but the point is that we end up pondering a unique sexual terrain, and one that’s expansive rather than limiting.

Storytelling

Ironically, nobody is talking about the wild sex in Dog Days, whereas article after article discusses the red rectangle that, for American release purposes, blocks out the offensive bits in a certain scene from Storytelling. In Canada, we get a clean print, but everyone writes about the red rectangle anyway.

Where Seidl’s film is rough-edged and grainy, Solondz’ Storytelling is glossy and carefully composed. The film consists of two separate, although thematically connected stories. The first, titled Fiction, involves a college student who sleeps both with a disabled fellow student and then with her college professor; both these encounters generate short stories that are discussed in class. In the second, called Non-Fiction, a documentary filmmaker makes a movie about a dysfunctional suburban family, centering on the disconnected oldest son.

Storytelling has evoked quite a debate over whether Solondz is a petty, mean-spirited creep who creates characters only to abuse them, or whether he’s something more valuable than that. I think it’s the latter, but not by wide enough a margin to get excited about. He has a facility for clever plotting, for concepts and characters that tap a timeless (but essentially adolescent) cynicism about bourgeois values. Storytelling’s short ninety minutes pull in homosexuality, interracial sex, sex with the disabled, racism, Jewish self-consciousness, and much else. The effects are sometimes shocking, sometimes trite, but rarely profound or even stimulating.

This may not be clear while you’re actually watching it, for the movie does have a certain crisp earnestness. Fiction in particular has a symmetry and ambiguity that, in tandem with the segment’s daring elements, almost seem as if they must be significant. But in the end it can offer up only humiliation and evasion. Non-Fiction is more explicit about a theme that lurks below the surface of Fiction – that the creative process will almost inevitably belittle those who get caught up in its glare. But since this insight is built on a character who’s a nebbish, no-talent filmmaker with no artistic vision or talent, it’s not clear how wide an application this thesis might have. Maybe it’s not meant to have any. The film contains a leaden moment of self-reflection where the filmmaker’s editor tells him the rough-cut of his movie condescends to the characters. I guess Solondz thinks he’s being smart in anticipating his critics, but that just shows how narrow his preoccupations are.

In the Bedroom

Almost everything in Storytelling is clever, but almost nothing in it is intelligent. I have no problem accepting that Middle America is a solid bucket of banality. But Solondz just swats snidely at one thing after another, seemingly blind to the weariness that this provokes.


When I watch movies, I sometimes try to imagine the director behind the camera, watching and nodding and coaxing and shaping. If you did this while watching Storytelling, you’d imagine a precocious but whiny guy with several chips on his shoulder who seldom leaves his bedroom. Which means that rather than make the movie, maybe he should have just gone outside and got some fresh air. On the other hand, for all his film’s rampant sleaziness, Seidl comes across as a weirdly genial eccentric who’d talk your head off in the bar for hours. You wouldn’t agree with everything, and once in a while he’d probably make you wince, but it would be – not just euphemistically – an experience.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Ambiguity



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2002)

Don’t get me wrong – I love ambiguity. It’s a rare movie that’s not better off for a dose of it. But at a certain point, ambiguity turns into evasiveness, and I’m not sure that’s as productive an attribute. The greatest directors are frequently restrained to the point of mystery – they understand that the complexity of the human condition makes a mockery of over-assertiveness. Their greatness is more about how they explore than about what they find. Except, maybe, for true pessimists. It’s surely easier to be definitive about the darkness than the light. Which is maybe why Alfred Hitchcock’s films have more great endings than just about anyone else’s.

Mystery, no doubt

I liked a line that David Thomson wrote about Robert Bresson in his Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema – “Mystery there is in his work, but no doubt.” Meaning that although Bresson is “a great director…no other great director seems less intrigued by cinema itself…Bresson’s is a cinema of demonstration, so broad in its consequences that its wordly narrowness is made irrelevant.” Thomson retained that last description in the latest edition of his book, but removed the sentence about mystery and doubt – perhaps now considering it too trite a summarization of such a master. Or maybe he realized that, in a different way, it might as easily be applied to Antonioni, Godard or numerous others.

Several recent movies have been superb at sowing ambiguity, but they fail to find their shape, meaning that in the worst case their qualities come to resemble gimmicks. Some would place Mulholland Drive in this category, although as I wrote a few months ago, that film ultimately seemed to me almost more coherent than anything else released last year.

After a long delay, Francois Ozon’s Under the Sand recently opened here. The film stars Charlotte Rampling as a woman whose husband disappears while on vacation. It seems he may have drowned, but there’s no body, and she doesn’t accept his death. She continues to talk about him in the present tense, and imagines his presence when she’s alone at home. Gradually the evidence mounts that he is indeed dead, and sometimes she seems on the verge of acceptance, but then her faith, or her self-delusion, takes over again.

Under the Sand

The film is supremely poised, and takes much of its tone from Rampling’s classic, sculptured beauty. She gives a performance of great nuance, accommodating numerous interpretations with equal-minded finesse. At times, the psychological choreography of the film is quite dazzling. Towards the end there’s a moment when you think she’s finally given up, then she bursts into laughter. Moments later she’s crying on the beach, then she reverses again. When you dissect it, it has an experimental if not arbitrary aspect to it, but Rampling provides immense coherence.

But in itself, however well mounted, this doesn’t inherently amount to more than an elaborate guessing game. Beyond that, what does it all mean? The most obvious interpretation would turn on feminism. Rampling’s insistence on interpreting her own reality represents the ultimate transgression. It’s clear from the film that it’s not a matter of pining for a lost utopia – the marriage seems stable and comfortable, but also largely silent and cast in routine. Her state may not have been particularly liberated, but in insisting on maintaining it even when it’s been snatched from her, she almost makes it so. At the same time though, there’s enough genuine weakness and emotion in the film that it never seems like a theoretical exercise.

But this kind of project no longer seems particularly radical. The very same day I watched Under the Sand, I watched Carl Dreyer’s 1943 Day of Wrath – about a young woman who transgresses her strict seventeenth century society and ends up denounced as a witch. Although the film has a whole set of thematic and social concerns that Under the Sand doesn’t share, it could nevertheless be read in much the way I just described – as depicting the pitfalls of female self-determination. And that’s just the other film I saw that day – hundreds more could be read in a similar way.

Beyond this, you would have to resign yourself to the absence of explicit meaning, and take Under the Sand as purely an aesthetic construct. It has enough beauty and flair to make that viable. It’s certainly possible to regard the details of the narrative as incidental, to step back from what individual scenes might or not mean, to look at the film as a kind of meditation on doubt and memory and desire. It’s difficult though, because the film looks and smells and sounds like it’s telling a story. You can’t easily luxuriate in it in the abstract way that you might a piece of music or a sculpture – the pull of the next scene is too strong.

We were Soldiers

The very fact that the film can prompt such musings is, of course, part of its achievement. Compare it to We were Soldiers, the big movie that opened here on the same weekend as Under the Sand. We were Soldiers, a Vietnam war epic, is also well executed – the equal of Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down in the authenticity of its battle scenes. Given how bars get raised, I suspect that’s already a moot point, and that there may never again be a war movie that doesn’t equal those two films in authenticity. The grisliness of We were Soldiers (I’m thinking in particular of a depiction of a burning face) is especially chilling though in comparison to the film’s earlier piety (an unusual number of prayer scenes).



Also like those other two films, We were Soldiers treads a safe line in its attitude to war. This goes as follows: (a) war is hell on earth; (b) despite that, American soldiers are entirely admirable, and the soldiers on the other side are more to be pitied than despised; and (c) the politics of the situation are complex and not worth addressing in detail. We were Soldiers, written and directed by Randall Wallace (the writer of Braveheart) applies this formula cleanly and prototypically, and as I watched it I kept thinking there was something I was missing – some homely subtext that an urban liberal couldn’t hope to understand.

It’s been said that film aspires to the condition of music, but We were Soldiers seems to aspire more to the security and comfort of an incredibly vivid slideshow at a small town church hall. Under the Sand doesn’t quite satisfy on the highest level, but it’s conceived out of a love of cinema, and its mysteries are a fair homage to those of the medium itself.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Foreign films



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

The accepted wisdom on foreign (non-English language) films is that they hit their peak of popular acceptance in the 60s and 70s, when you just weren’t plugged in unless you were up on Fellini and Bergman and Antonioni. Those giants waned in the 70s, and the next generation never attained the same visibility. Foreign films remained a strictly marginal commodity through the 80s and most of the 90s. But in the past few years the mainstream has become more accommodating of subtitles. Life is Beautiful was a big moneymaker, and won an Oscar for best actor. Then Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon passed the psychologically important $100 million mark at the US box office, and also did well at the Oscars. This year Amelie, although not quite at the same level, has been a very steady crowd-pleaser.

This is heartening, but the resurgence shouldn’t be overstated. I still often talk to regular moviegoers who view subtitles as a general no-go area, and who ask me if it isn’t hard (meaning I guess hard on the brain) to watch so many films on that basis. The movies I mentioned are the merest tip of the iceberg – not compensating for the dozens that limp along in barely visible commercial releases, even less for the hundreds that never get released at all. And of course, when a foreign film makes it big, it tends to be because it doesn’t actually seem that foreign. Maybe it’s not coincidental that directors who’s worked in America made the three films I mentioned.

Brotherhood of the Wolf

Recently I’ve been to numerous foreign films that attracted the usual meagre audiences, and a couple in which the cinema was almost if not actually full. Brotherhood of the Wolf has been playing downtown at the Paramount – perhaps the ultimate stamp of commercial approval. When I went on a Saturday afternoon, the audience looked like it had come to see Lord of the Rings.

My sense is they had a good time. The movie is set in the 1800s, in a French town terrorized by an unseen predator. An intrepid young scientist rides into town, accompanied by his Native American sidekick. For the first ninety minutes, the film is fast-moving but relatively sane. The last hour spirals off into what seems almost like free association, yielding astounding conspiracies, characters who aren’t what they seem to be, dead people who turn out to be alive, and major mayhem. Writing this review two weeks after seeing it, I have to concentrate really hard to recall the film’s nominal plot, but I certainly remember the pace.

This is conveyed through dashing camerawork; action sequences that have a Matrix-life hi-tech, metallic choreography (incorporating martial arts, kickboxing, etc.); intensive mythmaking; an overall sensibility that’s absorbed in the intrigue of a specific time and place while also being crisply modern. The film is a similar project to last year’s Crimson Rivers – like that contemporary thriller, it progresses from coherence to complete nuttiness. Actually, although Hollywood movies are so often criticized for their dumb plotting, Crimson Rivers and Brotherhood of the Wolf both have an abandon that’s distinctly different from American movies. Maybe American movies are generally too cautious to create the kind of whirling, involved narratives that typify computer games, comic books and teenage cults. Director Christophe Gans may truly have beaten them at their own game here.

Italian for Beginners

Italian for Beginners is a very different case study. This is the latest film to be shot in the “Dogme” style that represents a return to a simpler, less contrived cinema – Dogme films have natural lighting, hand-held cameras, a generally minimal, intimate style. Most Dogme films applied this technique to material that benefits from the added “realism.” Italian for Beginners applies the style to a contrived piece of romantic wish-fulfillment. For me, this inherently didn’t make much sense. But I’m in the minority again, because for its target audience (people who saw Amelie) it looks like another big crowd-pleaser.

The film revolves around six individuals – three male, three female – so the object is to see whether they’ll resolve themselves into three couples (take a wild guess…) They all attend an Italian class once a week, which for most of them represents a rare escape from their humdrum lives. For a comedy, I was impressed by the film’s dedication to presenting the full extent of that humdrumness. There’s a lot of death in the film – three secondary characters pass away, and another is in mourning as it starts – and no one in it is at all affluent, or even comfortable. And some of the quirky character traits – like one woman’s constant clumsiness – are presented with an unusual edge of desperation. Even rarer for a comedy – one of the six is a pastor, and spiritual faith is one of the film’s secondary themes.

This is all pretty interesting, but is far outweighed by the movie’s fluff content. For example, a dumpy, unremarkable middle-aged man develops a crush on a scintillating young Italian waitress. Happily for him, but inexplicably to the rest of us, she almost simultaneously develops a crush on him. Despite the consequent total lack of suspense, the movie dawdles for an hour and a half about getting them even to take a walk together. This is hardly realistic and falls short of satisfying escapism – one can only sit back and allow time to pass.

Fluff and kickboxing

The film’s notional centre, the Italian class, counts for less than you’d expect, although it does facilitate a scenic detour to Venice toward the end of the film. But it’s funny how the Danes latch onto the Italian lessons as a window into a better life. Especially in the age of the Euro, maybe we tend to see Europe as an increasingly undifferentiated mass. And there’s one of the flaws, of course, in my broad statements about “foreign” films – it’s a category so broad as to render all generalizations meaningless. Still, it’s not as if I’m the only one who ever used it. Virtually every video store, even the most refined ones, diligently separates out the “foreign” section.


Which is crazy, because a rack that includes Bergman, Kurosawa, Godard and Eisenstein (to name just four of the staples) contains such diverse promise and challenge that no label could ever summarize them. Except that they demand an open mind and intellect – an investment they repay ten times over. If the demands made by foreign films, and their rewards, are no more or less than those of the average American film, why separate them out at all? Yet we always will, because for more people than it should, the stigma of the subtitle will always render the most innocuous of films just a little too demanding. Fluff and kickboxing notwithstanding.