REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, APRIL 2007
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
[NOTE: This section does not include films seen at the Syracuse IFVF. Those little buggers are in the holding pen over here.]
There are films that I put off dealing with, for any number of reasons. And by "put off dealing with," I mean both seeing them and writing about them. Most such films fall into this category either because my seeing them is mostly an act of cinephilic duty (for example, seeing the latest film by an accepted master whose style I find personally unengaging), or because, after having seen them, it seems like everything there is to be said has already been written, with far greater eloquence, somewhere else. Which brings me to Albert Serra's Honor de cavalleria, a film I finally viewed on DVD after no fewer than five false starts. Each time, I made it to about the fifteen-minute mark and bailed. And now, after having successfully viewed the entire spellbinding, indescribable thing under some of the worst circumstances imaginable, I simply feel at a loss for words. The thing is, Serra has created a rarefied cinematic object of such delicacy that any and every negative aspect of its presentation and reception (including the viewer's ability to concentrate) will be magnified tenfold, slicing brutal gashes into the side of its tender flesh. In a recent interview in Cinema Scope, Serra (whose braggadocio has fast become the stuff of legend) twice cited Apichatpong Weerasethakul as his closest cine-intellectual colleague, and to my eyes he's exactly right. My mind flashed back to Joe's Tropical Malady which, having seen it during a botched Toronto IFF screening with an open door letting the sun bleach the screen out, I tended to feel as if I hadn't seen. Or for that matter my esteemed comrade Theo Panayides, who to this day wonders whether a celluloid object as rarefied as Malady should even be considered a "film" in the traditional sense. So, every time I started and stopped watching Serra's film on disc, be it on a TV monitor or my laptop, I felt vaguely obscene, like I was working with a mere shadow of a clearly magnificent object and, by persisting in engaging with this shadow as if it were the whole, true body, just reaching out and slapping it across the face.
Well, I got over it, sort of. I still don't feel as though I've seen Honor de cavalleria, but even in the degraded circumstances of my encounter with it I was able to glean some crucial elements of its power, dignity, and, yes, honor. Serra has restaged "minor" (that is, connective and not plot-centered) episodes from Don Quixote in order to make Cervantes's subtext a kind of text unto itself, after the fashion of Samuel Beckett. Quixote and Sancho Panza are locked in a mutual codependence and a deep love that is triangulated through codes of chivalry which have outlasted their efficacy, and, in the body of the decrepit Quixote, their plausibility. Nothing new here. Serra's revelation is his visual language, his ability to embed this homosocial struggle in a landscape that is simultaneously sublime and banal. In description it sounds so basic. Typically the cameras are low, and we see Quixote and Panza through the tall grass, against the broad and at times turbulent sky. At other times they barely register as figures in the night, incrementally blacker blotches in an overall black field. Serra uses digital video to attain both intimacy and mobility, as well as pushing the legibility of the image to bold extremes. What's more, sound design is a vital element to the overall structure of Honor. This is a quiet film, but it is filled with rustling, chirping, moving water, and unlocatable nature sounds in the distance. Although at times it appears that Serra is employing Straub / Huillet-style direct sound, it soon becomes clear that he's mixing, since unlike most other contemporary landscape filmmakers, Serra is not exclusively committed to the long take. In fact, most scenes contain semi-conventional editing, and the use of two cameras for each sequence results in an odd, at times unmotivated ping-ponging through the visual field.
And this is perhaps Serra's boldest and most significant formal decision. He knows his audience, the festival-going set who have come to expect a particular type of rigor and resplendent natural beauty in films such as these. However, just as Honor adopts neither a critical nor a reverential stance towards the Cervantes text, Serra provides neither the sumptuousness of the landscape minimalists (Joe, Kiarostami, Benning) nor the loosey-goosey style that has glutted the image market since the advent of digital video. Instead we have a hybrid style, one that features scenes of deep tenderness and stunning natural splendor and yet allows a digital artifact to pop in and break the spell. Or, a scene of figures in a landscape, engaged in sparse, concentrated dialogue about the ways of God, is bisected between two different camera views for no apparent reason. It's like Terrence Malick directing an episode of "I Love Lucy." And so then, ultimately, the question becomes, are these decisions flaws? Do we have a right (and this is both an aesthetic and an ethical question) to demand a particular standard of filmic beauty in every situation? Or is Serra correct to set up and then thwart expections, while exceeding others that we (well, I) didn't even know we had? I was overwhelmed by Honor de cavalleria, and above all overwhelmed by the sense that I am still in no real position to evaluate it. I plan to remedy this situation as soon as possible.
Gianvito's remarkable new film is as lean, poetic and rigorous as his previous film, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, was sprawling, expansive, and even a bit ramshackle. Profit motive is an experimental documentary and not a fictional feature like Hussein, and so the comparison may not be entirely fair. But it is instructive, since Gianvito's latest enters into a cultural landscape characterized by a remarkable similarity to the one into which Hussein aimed to intervene. Today, Marx's famous line from "The Eighteenth Brumaire" about history hardly applies as written. Bush 41's Iraq War was already both tragedy and farce, leaving us little option but to cast Bush 43's protracted rerun as Grand Guignol, a maniacal bloodletting orchestrated by a crazed, castrated cowboy-emperor. It's a scenario Antonin Artaud could scarcely have improved upon. In light of this, Gianvito has brilliantly, beautifully allowed the war to remain the great, hovering unsaid in his new film, partly because there's so little left to say on the topic that cannot be recuperated by our affirmative corporate culture, but also partly because to focus exclusively on our present moment, however dire it may be, is to inadvertently fall into our culture's greatest trap -- the evacuation of history.
In describing Profit motive using mere language, the film sounds simple, too straightforward -- that occasional aesthetic space wherein minimalism becomes reductive and less is actually less. In fact, nothing is further from the truth, and the experience of viewing Gianvito's film, as it patiently accumulates its sediments of history, in the earth and in the air, is a silently devastating one. Drawing clear inspiration from the film work of James Benning but absorbing that vocabulary, making it something new and entirely his own, Gianvito takes us on a tour of the United States via its cemeteries, minor monuments, and out-of-the-way historical markers. Over the course of the film, we and the film are tracing a chronological path through the American Left, paying near-silent homage to our comrades, those who fell in battle (slain by police or Pinkertons during strikes; felled by assassins) or those whose lives had simply run their natural course. Inspired by Howard Zinn's magisterial People's History of the United States, Gianvito's leftist vision is righteously ecumenical, encompassing Eugene V. Debs and Frank Little, Sojourner Truth and Malcolm X, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Cesar Chavez, and many, many others whom mainstream historical accounts have buried far more comprehensively than their undertakers. In between these sequences, which allow us as viewers the rare opportunity to pay our respects by proxy, Gianvito provides a continual filmic refrain. He tilts his camera up, capturing trees rustling in the wind, light usually peering through the branches. In addition to providing a somber objective-correlative to the film's consideration of the transience of both human life and populist politics, these sequences offer a vague inkling of a force that may still remain afoot in our world, a voice or a spirit or an idea alight on the wind. The concluding minutes of Profit motive make this restlessness explicit, in a manner that practically recodes the entire film, shifting its terms from the elegiac to the cyclotronic, a conscious harnessing of available energies. Such utterly unfashionable, completely earned optimism was a bracing, joyous surprise, and a reminder of just what cinema's political avant-garde can still contribute. In a time of hastily xeroxed leaflets, Gianvito has produced a document, one to which we will be returning for years to come.
Far and away the most historically revelatory work of art I've encountered all year, William Jones' Tearoom is an act of media defiance, an excavation and appropriation of footage generated with the most oppressive of intentions. Tearoom is a video comprised entirely of unaltered film footage shot in 1962 during a long-term sting operation by the Mansfield, OH police department. In the opening shots, the cops establish the scene (a pair of underground public bathrooms in the city square), a quasi-structuralist introductory passage detailing the number of steps down into the men's room, the height and length of the compartment behind the mirror and sink, and a waving cameraman alerting us, the viewers, to his presence. After this, the remainder of Tearoom provides just under one hour of visual documentation (with slight camera movements and some thematic / category-based groupings, presumably edited by police personnel) of virtually everything that can possibly happen in a men's bathroom. First, it's just pissing and shitting, hand-washing and checking hair in the mirror. But before long, the footage shows various men, mostly middle-aged or older, having sex: handjobs, blowjobs, anal sex, the works. As Jones' website details, the sting was successful. Based on the evidence collected on film, these men were convicted of sodomy, an offense that carried a mandatory sentence of at least one year in the Ohio state pen. The material, then, is about as close as one can get to an absolute artifact of the Foucaultian state surveillance apparatus. These representations destroyed lives. And yet, with his exposure and preservation of this footage, Jones has turned it into something almost redemptive. These men -- men who look like and may well have been our fathers and grandfathers, uncles and family friends -- are, for the most part, gone. And this footage not only captures (against their will) the sole evidence of their desires, for some of them maybe even of their entire existence. It documents their passage through a single time and place, their couplings with other men whose names they probably didn't even know. The asshole cops of Mansfield produced Tearoom (or more precisely, the found object that Jones wisely presents in its original form) because they, and the culture that authorized them, hated gay men, and perhaps held a particular hatred for those "unmarked," closeted gay men and bisexuals who walked among them, sat with them at O'Malley's Bar or next to them at a baseball game. Years later, Jones allows us to remember the particular circumstances of their entrapment. But he also allows them to come back to life, to be safe and even beautiful in a future where they, at least, are no longer under seige. Jones' Tearoom is a loving preservation of a kind of gay heaven. These angels wear Van Heusen, have beer bellies and hornrims, and never have to be afraid again. [Tearoom will premiere this month at the Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente in Buenos Aires.]
[Piece by piece, in order of appearance] "Machete" trailer (Robert Rodriguez) [s]  . . . .which sort of begs the question, why didn't he make this film? Danny Trejo as a Mexican vigilante leading a ragtag Army of the Undocumented could have been this year's Land of the Dead, if (BIG IF) Rodriguez had had the smarts to pull it off. Then again, I'm sure that if he had made Machete, instead of the one-legged stripper vs. bio-zombies flick, some exploitation purists would huff that it was a too-serious sop to political correctness and, as such, inadequately trashy. (Those purists really can get awfully moralistic, only they tend to do so in the opposite direction from the humanists.) To such an objection I'd simply retort, "Billy Jack." Oh well, instead we got Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez) , which certainly provides the requisite sleaze, and a few well-executed John Carpenter action riffs. Part of the problem with Terror is that it pulls in too many tonal directions at once, and not in the appropriately unhinged B-movie kind of way. Instead, it's like Rodriguez can't decide whether he's making a rough-and-ready action quickie, a tongue-in-cheek exploitation send-up, or (as seemingly intended) one half of a slyly self-conscious pseudo-artifact, wherein "missing reels" and narrative discombobulation as deus ex machina are hardy-har in-jokes. In short, Rodriguez is trying way too hard. He has an agreeably low-rent tragic-outlaw couple at the core; Rose McGowan has never seemed so human before, and Freddy Rodriguez plays well to his limitations here. What's more, RR's usual slapdash editing and overcaffeinated camerawork are forgivable as long as he holds on tight to the classic motley-crew-under-siege genre blueprint. There's a decent picture rattling around in there to be sure. But the hard-bitten actioner keeps butting up against smug designer outrageousness (gratuitous lesbianism, cheap-gag prosthetics) and a too-genuine pleasure in the desecration of the female form. (The wrist-breaking bit is particularly cruel). The overriding feeling is one of Rodriguez, low-iSpy Kids auteur and Texas family man, feeling so liberated by the prospect of a poker night with the boys that he lets his desperation show, throwing in a few too many titties and f-bombs just to prove he's still got a pair. That castration is a literal motif in Planet Terror, for absolutely no discernable reason, only solidifies the prosecution's case. The interstitials (presumably RR & QT) [p/s]  Considering how low the bar has been set over the years when it comes to digital approximations of film-specific textures (usually shitty fake "scratches" that recur in the same spots with an algorithmic regularity), I must admit, they really did a good job of making the thing look like a beat-up old print. Also, the old 1970s drive-in ads were spot-on. Maybe I've been in Syracuse too long, but that Mexican food didn't look half bad. "Werewolf Women of the S.S." trailer (Rob Zombie) [s]  It's odd, actually, that Zombie's contribution to Grindhouse is far and away its weakest element, since The Devil's Rejects would've made for a much stronger Grindhouse entry than Planet Terror. But instead, Zombie's chops are nowhere to be seen, and what's worse, he's displaying an uncharacteristic tin-ear for this seedy material. This looks like the old music-video David Fincher doing a Guy Maddin film as a senior-seminar assignment, then coating it in Teflon. Ugly and dumb. "Don't" trailer (Edgar Wright) [s]  Not so much a fake trailer as an experimental meditation on the metalanguage of horror trailers, Wright and his team pretty much subvert the assignment. Thing is, it's still hilarious. I'd like to think of "Don't" as a work of the post-"Shining" era, where everyone knows the rules and can now begin seriously playing with the signifiers. Oh, and for what it's worth, "Don't" is a virtual remake of a Jay Rosenblatt film called Restricted, but who cares? Wright's film's better. "Thanksgiving" trailer (Eli Roth) [s]  It's nice to see that Roth found his sense of humor again; this is considerably more Cabin Fever than Hostel, thank christ. But what makes it interesting, and honestly a little disturbing, is the ease with which Roth can turn on a dime, from giblet-gravy nonsense to an actual Friday the 13th-style deep cut. This is sort of the flipside of a 45 with the Wright trailer; both are mix-n-match DJ work, but the directors emphasize almost exactly the opposite aspects. That Eli Roth has a mean streak should surprise no one, but here at least he's found a way to make it dense, potent, and gratifyingly adolescent. The short form suits him.
And then there's Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino) , which fortunately will soon exist as an expanded stand-alone film. Not to say that it doesn't work in the context of Grindhouse -- it's the best part by far -- but it's actually so much more complex than anything else in the omnibus that it deserves some breathing room. Actually, "breathing room" goes a long way towards characterizing Death Proof in terms of Tarantino's directorial style, and in this regard it was highly satisfying to see it in the same week as Inland Empire, since both films find fussy, somewhat micromanagerial helmers loosening up and, as a result, exploring promising new directions. At the same time, Death Proof is certainly Tarantino's most explicitly formalist film, virtually bisected although not without small self-contained interludes. What's really quite amazing about Death Proof in the context of Grindhouse is its willingness to bypass a lot of the obvious fanboy pleasures of exploitation cinema and put its experimentalist balls to the wall. Even though it seems like eons ago, let's recall that one of the original reasons we were expected to pay serious attention to the likes of Edgar G. Ulmer, Samuel Fuller, George A. Romero, Monte Hellman, and other disreputable types was because their B-status gave them the freedom to explore all manner of bizarre problems in the signification of film -- disjunctive editing, unconventional temporality, or in the case of Death Proof, character identification. What Tarantino accomplishes formally and thematically can't be separated from his complex work on gender in this film, and although it may not go far enough for some (Tarantino is not now nor has he ever been a feminist, and is unlikely to be mistaken as such), it certainly points to a major shift in his thinking, and his filmmaking. [SPOILERS FOLLOW] Basically Death Proof is a kind of gendered allegory for the cinema Tarantino loves, and its conflicting impulses. On the one hand we have Stuntman Mike (welcome back, Kurt Russell!) who, as they say, is the school they tore down to build the Old School. A living relic of our father's era, taking his lumps in episodes of "The Virginian" and "Vega$," Stuntman Mike is, in a sense, the gold-standard of macho entertainment now tarnished, and gone amok. His greatest joy seems to be annihilating unsuspecting women who take him to be harmless and avuncular, and who are too young to care about who he was and what he did. Death Proof essentially drops Stuntman Mike into a nearly all-female world like a piranha, and although he gets off a few good lines here and there, he is never once positioned as our point of identification. Instead, he's vaguely alien, like something that forgot to die. A close analysis of the relationship between the two parts of the film (that is, of course, the two distinct groups of women) will have to wait for a repeat viewing which will hopefully be of the expanded edit. But the overriding concern in Death Proof (and part of the reason it makes Planet Terror look so juvenile) is the place (if there is one) for women in geek subcultures which, in an age of ever-increasing demographic fragmentation, is really a larger existential question about the place for women (if there is one) in the contemporary world. In his remarks on Death Proof, Filmbrain quipped that Tarantino needed a girlfriend, but his films seldom have very much to do with sexuality. (Call that adolescent if you will, but Tarantino's oeuvre is a metacommentary on adolescent pleasures rather than a naive symptom of them.) Really what his cinema has consistently shown is that QT needs a big sister, and has found her at the movies, in the form of Pam Grier, Tura Satana, and all the ass-kicking kung fu babes Hong Kong could throw his way. This isn't to justify his gender politics (although let's not forget, the earlier generation of movie-brats mostly ignored women altogether), but to perhaps clarify Tarantino's desire to create a sort of movie utopia where anyone can conceivably step up and play. The second section, in which Zoe Bell's "ship's mast" game goes from controlled danger to vulnerability at the hands of male aggression could be seen as a way to think about women's relationship to cinematic fantasies thirty years after Laura Mulvey claimed they couldn't exist. That is, Stuntman Mike encroaches on a space of female play (read it any way you want to) and turns it into an automotive rape. The car as phallus, the phallus as destructive of any and all non-(re)productive pleasures, it all sort of writes itself . . . But the main point is, Death Proof unmasks the phallus as a whimpering little bitch. In doing this, Tarantino takes the biggest gamble of his career: he turns exploitation cinema into arthouse cinema by castrating it, in order to allow everything he loves most about it -- the gears, the roundhouse kicks, the open road -- to circulate freely. He's still got a ways to go yet, but Tarantino is doing what few other filmmakers have the balls to do. He's letting girls in the clubhouse.
I think the closest thing to which I can accurately compare Inland Empire would be one of those late multi-disc Prince albums, like Emancipation and Crystal Ball. Only the hardcore fans even bought these, but the vast majority of music journalists noted that swimming (or drowning) within the three, four, or five discs of material was a single-disc masterpiece on par with Purple Rain or Sign O' the Times. Trouble is, by this point there was no one but Prince telling Prince what to do, so any semi-objective editorial intelligence was scrupulously kept away from these projects from conception to public issue. By the same token, Lynch's latest opus is shot through with formless excesses. This is probably attributable to the high shooting ratio cheap-ass digital video provides. But some have hinted that another culprit may be the director's new-found commitment to transcendental meditation, resulting in an ill-founded faith that the universe will shore up the fragments as it will. This latter aspect is particularly quizzical, since it's not as though earlier Lynch features were characterized by their close attention to narrative logic. But with Inland Empire, Lynch both panders and cops out, resulting in a film that is often both overly schematic and inattentive to formal issues. On the schematic side we have the silly, hideous bookending segments with Grace Zabriske, as well as the "cursed film" throughline, which is like some rejected Hideo Nakata treatment. On the sprawling, unformed, and yes, indulgent side, we have elements such as the rabbit sitcom, which really have no place in Inland Empire at all -- no thematic resonance, no formal frisson, just dime-a-dozen surrealist drop-ins from a man who should know better. (This inappropriate-laughtrack creep-out strategy was actually used much more effectively, believe it or not, by Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers.)
I take no pleasure in all this carping, because I firmly believe that Lynch's finest, most experimental and most emotionally incisive feature to date is rattling around inside Inland Empire, comprising somewhere around two hours and twenty minutes of the film as it stands. Make no mistake, I cringe as I write this, because I don't want to be on that team, calling a filmmaker out for "self-indulgence" or bemoaning a "too-long" running time. On principle alone, I am glad that Inland Empire exists just as Lynch wants it to, even if I know it could have been far more powerful had it been more judiciously edited. But in this case, Lynch isn't the sole creator, and his chief collaborator is the one who tends to suffer for his excess. The connective tissue, the heart and muscle, and eyes and lips and punctured gut of this film is Laura Dern, whose performance is easily one of the most shattering (and shattered) I have ever witnessed. Lynch wisely starts her out at her common mark, the pinched bonhomie that suited her so well in Blue Velvet and, by We Don't Live Here Anymore, had become a kind of advertisement for itself, shell-like and automatic. Inland Empire is about the fragmentation of Laura Dern's characters -- Nikki, an actress in need of a career rebound; Susan, the character she plays in "On High in Blue Tomorrows," the film-within-the-film; and combinations thereof which carry Dern from mafia thug's wife to common streetwalker. But clearly this is also about Dern herself, since part of the horror of Inland Empire pertains to the psyche of a Hollywood actress, asked to lose herself in the Method and somehow come back at the end of it all, always shelving the knowledge that as she ages she becomes less and less of a marketable commodity. Although placing undue focus on these thematic strands is to sell short the complexity that is Inland Empire -- it's also about the life and death of literal "Hollywood extras," i.e. the homeless; xenophobic anxieties around the post-Communist east; the absolute humanist conviction that our desire is singular and unique, and the Lacanian disgust at our sexual interchangeability; and much more besides. But Lynch and Dern (who also produced) have far surpassed the pie-eyed Hollywood Icarus-crash of Mulholland Dr., even though in other respects the earlier film is stronger overall owing to its lower aims.
Nevertheless, Inland Empire is a watershed for both Dern and Lynch, and its flaws are surely attributable to its being a transitional work. And nothing typifies this more perfectly than the digital-video question. Sometimes it works, such as when the scenes on the movie set make Tinseltown labor look like cheap porno, or when blown-out colors or jagged handheld night shots result in a phenomenal level of abstraction on par with Gaspar Noé or Philippe Grandrieux. But at other times it just looks half-assed and negligent. Lynch should follow Godard's example and use both media simultaneously within the same work, as thematically appropriate. (I fear, however, that Lynch's commitment to cheap DV is more ideological than aesthetic.) At any rate, even if Lynch's open text too often totters into hesitant discomposition, it cannot be dismissed. It's simply too thrilling too much of the time. Put on your waders and tramp into the murk. Oh, and one more thing: has Lynch been watching Yvonne Rainer movies? One of his direct-address bits seemed to come right out of The Man Who Envied Women, and the closing-credits extravaganza recalled the far more subdued wrap-party ending to Privilege. How odd.
I've been bouncing back and forth on this one gradewise, partly because it's tough to evaluate the film that it is without getting hung up on the film it wasn't meant to be, or the one it wasn't allowed to be. Jordan has a very particular take on the art of Jack Smith, one that in some respects is very different from my own. Her film depicts him as the ultimate romantic figure, a visionary outsider and rebel without a pause who never stopped defying authority in all its forms. So, not surprisingly, Atlantis implicitly takes Smith's side in his legendary war of words with Jonas Mekas, even going so far as to depict the ramshackle little Anthology building alongside high-rise apartment buildings and the Guggenheim Museum, all under the heading of "landlordism." The film also could have used greater nuance when evaluating Smith's influence on Warhol, basically shaking down as a dichotomy between Smith's pure rejection of capitalist culture and Warhol's infiltration of same, the latter being little more than opportunism. Nevertheless, there's no denying the value of having all this archival material and rare footage in one place, and despite substantial obstacles (I won't get into who's to blame), Jordan performed a yeoman job in tracing the firm outlines of Smith's art and philosophy. Far and away the best thing about Jordan's approach is its emphasis on contemporeity, the vitality of Jack Smith's work now, and what it can offer us by way of present-day strategies and political hope. Granted, a more adventurous documentary would have explored the ramifications of its own silences and gaps, or grappled more directly with the inherent contradictions of monumentalizing Smith in the face of his vehement distrust of any and all cultural vault-keeping. But at the end of the day, the legacy of Jack Smith will always be under contestation, forever shifting and incomplete. Atlantis cannot be as jarring as Ron Vawter's Roy Cohn / Jack Smith, nor can it approach the aching poetic righteousness of Ken Jacobs' works on Smith. But Jordan has added a vital node to the network of ideas that comprise "Jack Smith," and for that the film is indisputably valuable.
There's a strange tension that hovers around this film, one that it cannot resolve and ultimately does it in. Like many a middlebrow film, Lives is highly schematic, having a job to do and hitting its marks as cleanly and efficiently as possible. (In this regard, Agent Weisler [Ulrich Mühe] is sort of like von Donnersmarck's directorial double within the film.) The film even goes so far as to explicitly state its themes, just so no one could possibly miss them. Overpraised films such as Mystic River and The Barbarian Invasions do the same thing, but neither has its convenient homilies as brazenly tattooed on the celluloid strip as Lives does. ("Face it, people never change." "No one who really listens to this music could be a bad man." Clunk.) What's odd about this approach is that the GDR-based experimental theatre of Bertolt Brecht and, to a lesser extent, Heiner Müller, are acutely present in this film, in such a way that you could imagine that von Donnersmarck is deliberately calling attention to his themes in order to distance us from the overt melodrama taking place. And besides, we know from Sirk onward that melodrama itself has certain distancing properties, treating extreme human emotion as a malleable material for the demonstration of social entrapment. But there's nothing in The Lives of Others to indicate we're supposed to be taking these overly explicit moments as frame-breaking frankness. As with the laughably faux-poetic final line, the whole of the film plays it straight, behaving as though it considers itself an example of solid storytelling and unassuming cinematic craftsmanship. Granted, some of von Donnersmarck's simplest ideas work quite well, particularly the visual ones. The ongoing dialectic between Weisler in the dark attic with his headphones (what's become the emblematic image of the film) and the warmth and passion of the lives of Dreyman (Sebastian Hoch) and Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck, quite excellent) makes for an effective, visceral refrain. But by the time Lives unspools its final-reel machinations, which are reminiscent of the scripts of Anders Thomas Jensen with their fussy, overly demonstrative gamesmanship, it's hard not to think this film is little more than a fussy, somewhat smug soap opera, using a specific passage of history in order to soak up respectability by proximity. Moreover, Lives seems to be garnering plaudits largely because it pivots on an old humanist saw (the redemptive power of art) that both its audience and its critics really, really want to believe in, despite all available evidence to the contrary. This trump card, finally, signals von Donnersmarck's magical attempt to resolve the greater historical tension with which his film must grapple. In today's world, liberal-left critiques of the totalitarian extreme-left are dicey affairs, since you always threaten to hand a little green football to the political right. In order to condemn the GDR's "actually existing socialism" without burying its utopian leftist aspirations (as exemplified by Dreyman and the change he evokes within Weisler), von Donnersmarck must engage in intellectual sleight of hand that contradicts actually existing life.
"Michael quickly surmised that while the film was not nearly as bad as he'd been led to believe -- Will Ferrell's beady-eyed plaintiveness, when teamed with the unselfconscious life-force that is Maggie Gyllenhaal, actually proved to be moving at times, despite the obvious structural limitations of the script -- , there was no way it would score above a 5 on his ever-so-judiciously-calibrated 10-point scale. Had the film ended with its seemingly preordained tragedy (that is, had it had the courage of its convictions), Michael might have been willing to forgive certain blatant inconsistencies. (For instance, once the story's ending is resolved, does Karen Eiffel conveniently stop narrating / controlling Harold Crick's life? Was this entire episode just some sort of cosmic discombobulation?) But as it stood, Michael could scarcely shake the nagging feeling, throughout the running time and beyond, that any number of other time-wasting activities would have been infinitely more satisfying."