REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, AUGUST 2006
All films from U.S.A. unless
(- seen on video; [v] video
piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade
changed upon repeat viewing)
I assume that my tiny readership is well-versed in the ways of Film Comment, Cinema Scope, The Village Voice, and all things cine-indie. I assume you follow the reports out of film festivals such as Rotterdam and Sundance, and if you're reading this and don't fit that description, I thank you kindly, because you're almost certainly my mother-in-law. (Hi, Linda!) But, assuming that you aren't, you'll need little introduction to Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, already lauded as one of the year's finest films, and one of the most patient, insightful American indies in ages. Such descriptions are without a doubt true. Old Joy is a cinematic miniature with a deft, literary attention to the minutiae of human behavior, the awkward hesitancies and interstitial silences that accrue between friends as time and distance wear away at who we are. It's jewel-like in its construction, bursting with the verdant flora of the Oregon forest yet meticulously fashioned and arranged, a rare, effortless-seeming union of the natural and the manmade. Reichardt and cinematographer Peter Sillen (himself no slouch as an avant-garde documentarian) masterfully log the transition from manicured suburbia into the dense thicket around the Cascade Mountains. The film eventually arrives at the Bagby Hot Springs, a transitional space where human intervention has clearly been kept to an absolute minimum. As a pure landscape film, Old Joy yields vast sensual rewards.
But there's quite a bit more going on in Old Joy, and while some of it adds a layer of plangency and depth, other aspects are less formally resolved. Adapted by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond from Raymond's own short story, Old Joy examines the brief re-encounter of two old friends, Mark (Daniel London), a seemingly settled man whose wife is expecting their first child, and Kurt (alt-country artist Will Oldham), an itinerantly hippie who has fallen out of touch with Mark. The emotional crux of the film is in its quiet accumulation of silences and unanswered statements, the gaps between these two men and who they've become. (Or perhaps more accurately, who Mark has become; the implication is that Kurt hasn't . . . evolved? No, that implies a greater sympathy with Mark's newer commitments, and although I certainly identify with Mark's character more -- I used to live in communal situations, had lots of hippie friends, and now I'm kind of a low-rent yuppified professional, and one of the few men in my circle of friends to have gotten married -- Old Joy is careful to withhold judgment on either Kurt or Mark.) Reichardt teases perfectly downcast performances from her two leads, although periodically Oldham turns up the intensity, revealing Kurt's manic, needy side. (The ambiguous conclusion implies that more could be riding on this reunion for Kurt than Mark or the viewer realizes.) Compared to the mute presence of nature, Kurt and Mark are as verbose as any Rohmer or Bergman protagonists, but rarely does "conversation" take place. Rather, both men issue brief, ejaculatory statements of purpose, waiting in vain for the other man to pick up the ball, waiting for "connection." Instead, replies tend to consist of "No shit," or "Tell me about it," empty tokens of strained empathy. The loss of connection is the vacuum that Old Joy catalogs but doesn't fill, and even nature, big as life, proves inadequate to the task.
Upon first viewing Old Joy, I was gently nudged into a deep sense of personal loss. I wondered how I might even compose a review that did much more than issue a blanket apology to all those who have moved in and out of my life over the years. A second viewing lowered my estimation of the film ever so slightly, despite retaining its emotional valence. Some aspects of Old Joy feel over-written, too perfectly constructed to achieve its intended impact. If cinema and theatre are media best suited to the power of things unsaid, of the unrelieved tension of hanging pauses, then perhaps some of Old Joy's overdeterminations are the result of its literary provenance. When, during the restaurant scene, Kurt enthuses that "now we don't have to rush, we can take our time," the waitress returns to ask if the men need more time, and Mark says, "No," shoving the menu her way. This is Reichardt and Raymond driving the point home a little too directly. Likewise, when Kurt's dream delivers the meaning of Old Joy's enigmatic title, I found myself resenting these incursions into verbal symbolism. Make no mistake; even these highly directive passages "work," just as Mark's Air America radio soundtrack economically makes its own point about the sense of leftist ennui that bedevils his (and Reichardt's) generation. Even though, compared to most other American films of the past ten or fifteen years, Old Joy is a model of subtlety and finesse, I found myself torn by them, since the film's rolling landscapes and emphasis on the ethics of listening all imply that it is committed to an experimental, open form. In fact, it's heavily controlled. This isn't a flaw in itself (although I'll gladly cop to being partial to less mannered artworks with ample room to move), but it does point to an odd inconsistency in tone. The human drama and the great outdoors promise to become objective correlatives to one another, but actually end up floating downriver side by side.
The assignment -- the moral charge, really -- was to construct a document, a memorial to the human toll of institutional indifference and its continuing aftermath. In this respect, four hours is barely enough, although Lee's film is astonishing in its scope and acuity. Most projects like this tend to serve as externalizations of memory, tools that allow the past to become History and thereby afford us the luxury of forgetting. And usually, we get unctuous myth-making in the bargain, some sort of civically enforced uplift that simplifies human tragedy into heroes and villains, mourning into some idiotic approximation of righteous anger. Instead, Lee complicates matters at every turn. Certainly the Bush administration, FEMA, and the Army Corps of Engineers are squarely held responsible, as they should be. But over the course of Lee's four acts (the hurricane, the flood, the emotional toll, and the ongoing struggle to rebuilt despite the federal government), key figures like Mayor Ray Nagin, Governor Kathleen Blanco, and former police chief Eddie Compass get a fair hearing, emerging as imperfect players caught up in a larger systemic failure. (Even disgraced FEMA chief Michael Brown catches a break, Penn Prof. Michael Eric Dyson taking care not to defend him, but making it clear that he was the government's designated scapegoat, and that Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff and President Bush should shoulder far more blame.) Lee also takes care to provide the larger context to the Katrina disaster that the majority of media outlets were (and still are) ill-equip ed to face. Yes, it's about race and class, a "Chocolate City" left to fend for itself. (Great Moment in Dark Sarcasm: one survivor's T-shirt reading, "FEMA Evacuation Plan: Run, Motherfucker, Run.") At the same time, Lee and his expert witnesses make clear that New Orleans, and Louisiana as a whole, were economically left for dead long before the storm made landfall. In the third and four hour, Lee and company make the case that with its substandard housing and educational system, and with its oil and gas revenues pilfered via governmental tax shelters and offshore accounting, Louisiana has long been America's dirty little secret, an internal colony forced to endure conditions analogous to those in the developing world. So, even if When the Levees Broke sometimes comes up short (for example, hour three's discussion of post-Katrina depression and PTSD is left as an underdeveloped drop-in), for the most part Lee has assembled the definitive record of this dark, ongoing "moment" in U.S. history. And if there's any single filmmaking strategy that seems misplaced here, it's Lee's restraint. Like Oliver Stone, Lee no doubt realizes that he's a polarizing filmmaker, someone to whom a large segment of the population won't listen, just because of who he is. Nevertheless, the film's moments of stark stylization -- Wynton Marsalis singing "St. James Infirmary," or Terrence Blanchard slowly walking down a demolished street playing the trumpet, or the disquieting final credits montage, set to Fats Domino's "Walkin' to New Orleans, which clearly owes a debt to Lars von Trier's "Young Americans" sequence at the end of Dogville -- are so powerful that I found myself wishing Lee had gone even further in using expressive filmic means to channel collective rage. Instead, he often subsumes his methods within the translucent cloak of documentary objectivity. This sometimes leads Lee's sensibility astray. (Some zoom-ins on crying interview subjects, for example, felt manipulative and intrusive.) But more often than not, When the Levees Broke reveals Lee's anger by steadily building an open-and-shut case for the prosecution. This is more than an artistic achievement; it's also a deeply humanistic one.
[MINOR SPOILERS] Making the most of a low budget, Marshall acquits himself quite well and certainly distinguishes his film from the seemingly endless bedpan of horror turds Lionsgate keeps foisting on its shit-hungry demographic. Although the opening exposition is handled with little finesse, and some of those "foreboding" aerial shots of the Appalachians find Marshall and his team a bit out of their depth (sorry bud, you are no Stanley Kubrick), things really start cooking once the six principals zip down the pipe and start spelunking in the Cavern of Destiny. I'm not completely insane and so I'll avoid gratuitous (and mutually insulting) avant-garde references. But Marshall pays considerable attention to the play of sparse light across flat black fields, the craggy textures of the cave environments, and the well-timed deployment of a colored-filter "flare." Given the specific challenge of The Descent's primary assignment -- to generate claustrophobia in a film that, for commercial reasons, has to be widescreen when a tighter aspect ratio would have worked wonders -- the first half of the film is a model of resourceful economy and deft visual shorthand. Also, the damage to the women's bodies (rope burn, jagged fractures), together with Marshall's impressive attention to the sheer arduousness of rock climbing, rappelling, and wedging through the tightest of spaces, is plenty good horror all its own. But, since most commercial filmmakers don't understand that nature is adversary enough, we get the stupid monsters. Things quickly go downhill from there, but some intra-team reckoning actually has more emotional punch than it probably should, possibly by contrast. Oh, and the final scene of the original British edition was deemed by Lionsgate to be too depressing for us Yanks, but you can watch it -- where else? -- on YouTube.
Although I'm not prepared to make any grand claims for Lie with Me, it's considerably more interesting than one would expect given its poor reception at last year's Toronto festival. Furthermore, its distributor, ThinkFilm, sent it straight-to-video in the U.S., setting expectations that much lower, but Virgo's film is worth a second look. At first glance, it appears to be little more than standard-issue softcore, but eventually it evolves into a unique (if not particularly complex) hybrid of high-toned artsploitation (Zalman King, James Toback) and poetically evocative female subjectivity. What's more, in its tone and characterization, Lie with Me melds the confrontational sexuality of Catherine Breillat with the open-form diffusion of Marguerite Duras. The opening shot is a tight close-up on what appears at first to be a dead-eyed sex doll. As the camera pulls back, we discover that it's actually our putative protagonist, Leila (Lauren Lee Smith) masturbating to porn. The first part of the film plunges us into Leila's rather blasé sexual voraciousness, and even by Skinemax standards it doesn't fail to arouse. But Leila's detached sense of control is derailed upon meeting David (Eric Balfour), a vacant young stud Leila needs to possess. If Leila is a somewhat noncommittal cipher whose obsession seems largely unmotivated (inasmuch as she's a recognizable character type, you'd imagine her to be one of those overconfident tramps who boasts about having only male friends, seeing other women as irrelevant at best, competition at worst), Virgo's directorial approach matches this anti-psychological vibe. For the most part, events and encounters just drift by, with the mark they leave on Leila's psyche hard to discern. It's high-toned trash, but at the same time Virgo, Smith, and screenwriter Tamara Berger convey the dizzy, unhinged force of Leila's hyper-corporeality. She muses on the cocks she's known, the ache on the faces of the men behind them, and the way she feels her pussy situates her in the world until, one dark day, this life strategy just doesn't work any longer. As sexual politics, it's shallow and perhaps a bit retrograde. But as filmmaking, Lie with Me possesses a tactile, enveloping quality, one unfortunately suited much more to theatrical exhibition than private, small-scale consumption. Nevertheless, this well-appointed trifle has piqued my interest in Virgo's back catalog. Lie with Me is a tough film to evaluate since, like its protagonist, it treats emotion as an embarrassment to be icily transfigured by casual prurience. Thinking, as such, has very little place, but oddly enough it won't be missed. Consider this review (scattered though it may be) a qualified recommendation.
So A.O. Scott compared this to Brakhage. He's not entirely crazy to do so; there are a few moments that could pass for milliseconds of his work (light ricocheting off a shower curtain, or a second of a shootout scene wherein the fake-blood squib splatters on the lens and Mann and DP Dion Beebe just go with it). But other parts are more like high-tech Kenneth Anger (especially the two shower scenes, yellow and blue light glinting off water