REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, DECEMBER 2007
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'm Not There (Todd Haynes)
Having given this film a second look, I'm now prepared to go out on a bit more of a limb on its behalf. Yes, nothing in I'm Not There is as exhilarating as Cate Blanchett's "Jude" section, for a few key reasons. Since her appearance coincides with Dylan's definitive break with the folk community by "going electric," Blanchett gets the most interesting phase in his career, plus this section's Godard / Fellini / swingin' London mash-up aesthetic plays to Haynes artistic strengths. By contrast, Haynes trying to do Peckinpah is highly awkward, but as Kent Jones correctly argued in The Nation, the Billy the Kid section is actually rather lovely and has its own formal integrity. Not only is it explicitly valedictory, bringing Haynes's film full circle. It's such a patent fabrication -- Haynes's recreation of Peckinpah's recreation of a myth in which Kris Kristofferson, not Dylan, portrayed an outlaw trying to live out / down his outsized legend in obscurity and subterfuge, operating only as a metaphor for Dylan's function in the American cultural imaginary and then only at multiple removes -- that the sheer falseness of it collides with Richard Gere's simple, earnest performance, not to mention the plaintive funeral scene. It's truly bizarre and, yes, Felliniesque -- the town of Riddle, MO is a little place where it's Halloween all the time, and the fluidity of selfhood is pretty much shoved in your face. But, with its plainspoken affect and narrative blankness (let me find my dog and escape before I get shot), this multilayered carnivale paradoxically achieves something as close to the "authentic" as I'm Not There ever allows.
By the same token, Ben Whishaw's on-trial Greek-chorus narrator, "Arthur Rimbaud," makes a lot more sense the second time around. Yes, he's aphoristic to a fault, but for Christ's sakes, he's the poet. And like any good poet, he's working with, and within, the film's margins and blank spaces; he doesn't talk to the end of the page, as it were. In a way, he's the least Dylan of the six, and it seems as though Haynes is using him as a transitional device, a kind of formal glue (like Lillian Gish rocking the cradle in Intolerance) but also as a signpost against literal meaning. Little fragments of his discourse jump out as meaningful. ("Whoever heard of a fatalistic farmer?" No shit.) But the same ones probably won't jump out twice. Whishaw's character hails from late-Godard territory, which I'm afraid will most likely convince no one but the already-sold. And this clarified for me why even the segments of the film that don't dazzle or shine are actually integral components of its structure, an ebb and flow that not surprisingly is far more musical than narrative. Sure, some of the Christian Bale earnest-Dylan material is a bit lackluster (although his "Hattie Carroll" performance is quite moving, and Julianne Moore's goof on the fully-entrenched Joan Baez-esque folkie is droll). But it's his return as the born-again Christian that his formal function becomes evident. Authenticity breaks down completely, only to return with a vengeance. Likewise, the least satisfying "Dylan," Heath Ledger's smarmy rebel-actor, is barely a Dylan at all. Look again, and it's clear that Haynes means this material as not just negative space but as soft plaster, built to take the impression left by Dylan's aggressive refusal to cohere. This segment is Charlotte Gainsbourg's, not Ledger's, and it's a huge mistake to think otherwise. (He's a cartoon, and she's the soul, the fan / lover / mother / cultural analyst struggling to assemble to pieces.) So finally, Haynes is keeping tones and resonances in orbit, holding the sustain pedal and letting it bleed. Sadly, in what can only be a failure of nerve, the final fifteen minutes finds Haynes making it all explicit, Blanchett in the limo giving straight answers to Bruce Greenwood's smug journo and each Dylan getting his grace note and finally, The Man himself. Why? This is like the fatal error that turned Godard's One Plus One into Sympathy For the Devil, giving up the goods out of misplaced generosity to an audience who's been with you all along. Sadly, I suspect Haynes has no shifty producer to punch in the face. He alone put the "there" there.
-The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin, Israel / France / U.S.)
It's odd -- this is precisely the sort of middlebrow heart-tugger at which most cinephiles (myself included) ordinarily turn up our noses. That's really not happening in this case, and I think there are a few key reasons why this is the case. For one thing, The Band's Visit is the first Israeli film to wend its way through the festival circuit in a long time to plop Middle Eastern tensions right on the table without a lot of hand wringing or allegorical bombast. (Take note, Mr. Gitai.) While it's true that the first few "bars" of this cinematic tune do play up the fish-out-of-water angle, pulling back to allow the sharp contrast of the Alexandria Police Orchestra's smart baby-blue uniforms to register as sly visual comedy, this Kaurismäki-in-the-Holy-Land mode evaporates rather quickly. In its place is a quiet multi-character study, zeroing in on gruff band leader Tawfik (Sasson Gabai), who of course is somewhat softened by the end of his unexpected stay in the Israeli hinterlands, and lonely, brassy Dina (the always sumptuous Ronit Elkabetz), whose learning curve is actually sort of the opposite of the one movies of this type usually lay out. She required a tad more decorum, rather than letting her guard down around "the Arab." It all goes pretty much exactly as you expect, but Kolirin holds it together with a perfectly judged narrative pace, slowed to the measure of mutual awkwardness and minor trepidation. Add to this the director's innate sense of space and framing, continually drawing subtle, often forlorn compositions from the exurban landscape, and voila. The Band's Visit is a lovely middlebrow entertainment, one that actually generates warmth rather than imposing it from above.
-Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, The Netherlands / Germany / Belgium)
I'm one of those lameasses who's never been on the Verhoeven bandwagon. Found Showgirls tedious instead of campy, slightly offended by Basic Instinct, tended to find Starship Troopers more an example of fascist aesthetics than a condemnation of same. I am the Humorless Left, apparently, or at least I was five to ten years ago, when I kind of stopped paying Verhoeven any mind. Based on the sterling example of Black Book, I'm hard-pressed to decide: has the director changed or have I? While I'm fairly certain it's mostly me (in growing up a bit, I have learned to appreciate the well-delivered dirty joke, gritty hard-boiled pulp cinema, and really just fun itself), Black Book finds Verhoeven in an uncharacteristically frank political mood. Perhaps it's the return to Holland, where he is both native son and voting citizen and feels he's on firmer ground in leveling critique. Of course, sociopolitical commentary is all over his Hollywood studio films, but he's always made it a tad oblique, as if he were evincing an outsider's sheepishness. But Black Book is, as I'm sure many commentators have already pointed out by now, Verhoeven's Marriage of Maria Braun, but unlike Fassbinder, Verhoeven has a slightly trickier and more ridiculous task. The Netherlands' official mythology is one of proud resistance to the Nazi occupation. Verhoeven comes right out of the gate swinging, picking at this cozy lie like a scab and never letting up.
But even more than this, Black Book is (again, like Maria Braun) a tale of thoroughgoing human venality, a world in which the smugly righteous and ostensibly brave will sell you out in a heartbeat, not even to save their own lives (that's a given), but for the nearest sack of gold. The shifting fortunes of Ellis (the phenomenal Carice van Houten, who is without question bound for superstardom) frequently turn on preposterous misinterpretations or unlikely alliances which always evaporate when their utility has ended. She goes from Jewish refugee to narrow escapee of the camps to Resistance fighter to alleged traitor. Of course, on some level Verhoeven delights in this sadism, or the irony that apart from Ellis, the most trustworthy, humane character is himself a Nazi (Sebastian Koch), an officer who displays more honor than the Resistance fighters he actually aims to protect. As a piece of cinema, Black Book is a fast-moving adventure story with a hideously delicious mean streak, one that never fails to amplify Verhoeven's disgust at his countrymen's cowardice during World War II (or more to the point, the nation's collective refusal to own up) while providing the guilty pleasures that Nazi films almost always withhold. Typically, part of the appeal, after all, is the voyeuristic consumption of unspeakable cruelty, not only from a safe moral distance but almost from a zone of superiority, as though we were edifying ourselves at great sacrifice. Verhoeven turns the tables by delivering a fun, trashy WWII flick, complete with faux-Aryan beaver shots and the sight of our heroine beaten and covered in shit. Once again, Verhoeven is implicating our spectatorship in the moral conundrum; no surprise there. The surprise -- the pleasure and the discomfort -- is in where and how he does it.
-Exodus (Pang Ho-cheung, Hong Kong)
[PRETTY MAJOR SPOILERS] This is an exceedingly dismissible film, and as such, most critics have dismissed it. It's quite silly -- during a routine collar a Hong Kong cop uncovers a secret plot whereby a cabal of women aim to rid the world of men -- and I suspect that one thing that's rubbing some viewers the wrong way is the fact that Officer Tsim (Simon Yam) isn't, as it turns out, some sort of paranoid kook, exactly. But Pang's film isn't an anti-feminist, gynophobic screed by any means. Instead, it's really kind of meaningless; there's no war between the sexes, or secret thrumming hatred suddenly bubbling to the surface. Instead, it's all surface, with a plot that hints at something sinister but turns out to be nothing much. I mean, it's really there, but it's not that big a deal, if that makes any sense. What's actually impressive about Exodus, and part of what helps it succeed as the sort of comedy that sneaks up on you -- "Oh, is this supposed to be funny?" -- is Pang's meticulous attention to surfaces and minutiae. The film is generally bathed in a sumptuous midnight blue, and Pang and cinematographer Charlie Lam employ a stunning, Constructivist approach to composition and framing, almost always displaying action from alienating, oblique angles and in medium-long to extreme-long shot. There is a tension between stillness and determinism on the one hand and a slow, pivoting spatial development and gradual revelation via the mobile frame on the other. This attitude, combined with Pang's unusual narrative rhythms, which disrupt the inevitable build of police detection with interstitial business of no direct narrative consequence, particularly minor details of Tsim's relationship with his wife Ann (Annie Liu), makes for a viewing experience that adds up to little but is never less than compelling, and certainly worthy of more attention and respect than it's received. The festival circuit regularly showcases films half as accomplished and twice as empty.
-Quiet City (Aaron Katz)
Finally! Some "mumblecore" I can get behind. Granted, I don't exactly think this cutesy, overweening publicity term, a word that virtually blares like neon off the screen with Matt Dentler's desperate need to will a movement into being, even begins to explain what makes Katz's film interesting (or Bujalski's films expertly made but irksome anti-masterworks, or some other related films such unwatchable nonentities). Perhaps one way to access Quiet City's achievement (which is both a "vibe" and something deeper, I think -- an actual worldview) is to think of it in relation to Linklater's "Before" films. Those works were uncertain, minimalist riffs on Eric Rohmer, I think, films that took hesitancy -- the against-the-clock presentation of self (Sunrise) / activation of the tenable and untenable distances of selves across time (Sunset) -- and turned it into positive space. Katz is even more of a reductivist, simmering Linklater down to gestures and awkward attempts to defuse anything resembling aggression. Jamie (Erin Fisher) and Charlie (Cris Lankenau) meet randomly in a subway station, and a question about directions and a friend's failure to show up is all that's needed to provoke a most tentative flirtation. The two share no deep philosophical inquiry, but neither do they engage in snide hipster badinage designed to deflect. Instead. Jamie and Charlie just pal around, being shy and displaying, painfully, how we are now that after our bourgeois-collegeate sensitivity training (which in my opinion has tended to be a set of assumptions substituting for communication, serving mostly to keep us out of trouble), we no longer know how to mate. But even leaving this question aside, Katz shows us how shyness finds its level from moment to moment, how two people will find ways to use their silences or their slightly shifting shoulders in unexpectedly brazen ways, only to take it back in a split second so as to keep oneself protected if the gesture threatens to go awry. This is the grand topic of so-called mumblecore, of course, but whereas Bujalski plays it for horror, keeping the tension forever unresolved both narratively and formally, and Swanberg just throws up his hands, Katz actually allows his characters and his audience to achieve incremental movement. We can see the struggle, and we can actually catch a glimpse of the other side, a vulnerability that transforms Quiet City into fully realized art instead of just another promissory note.
-Ratatouille (Brad Bird)
There's not much to say about "the best reviewed film of the year" ™, since Pixar films are so broadly-based -- classical construction, fidelity to genre, urbane wit, generosity to characters -- that they virtually defy critics not to like them. Hell, they defy critics to find anything intelligent to say about them, aside from "I grinned like an idiot from start to finish, yay Pixar." Ratatouille fits the mold, although its set pieces (especially Remy's narrow escape from Gusteau's kitchen) display a high-wire visual flair the harks back to the best of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. But thematically Ratatouille might have a bit more going on. After the dive into shameless red-state populism that was Cars, Pixar are squarely on the side of the aesthetes again, not just siding with Remy the gourmand against his All-U-Can-Eat brethren, but swapping Patton Oswalt for Larry the Cable Guy. Likewise, Ratatouille appears to stab its core defenders in the back by casting a critic ("Anton Ego"!) as its villain, but in fact the film defends criticism, in its way, as an act of love and defiance, and saves its true bile for Wolfgang Puck-style mass market mediocrity. (Read: Have you tried new Shrek cereal?) But from an auteurist standpoint, we find both Pixar and Brad Bird backing off the disturbingly right-wing libertarian stance of The Incredibles, with its implicit disdain for a world of equality. (A friend of mine quite correctly referred to the film as The Aynrandibles.) With Ratatouille, we have a near-reversal, even the prickly Ego acknowledging that "Anyone Can Cook!", so long as he or she has the drive, the passion, and, um, the natural ability that just randomly appears in one rat out of millions for no apparent reason except some bizarre genetic accident. But still! Anyone could be great, if they're bold enough. Still, Remy and that sniffer . . . Ratatouille really is sort of like Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, only with the gift turned to the good.
[ADDENDUM: Noel Murray took issue with my characterization above, and I think the problem may be one of unclear writing on my part. The muddled language above was intended to signal that Bird was complexifying the problem as raised in Incredibles, but remaining ideologically incoherent. The "anyone can cook" tagline does seem to mean different things across the film, and Ego's eventual, definitive reading of it (sort of a radical misprision of Gusteau's rather obvious Julia Child populism, but whatever) does line up with the whole Incredibles genius-as-innate stance, with a little class egalitarianism thrown in for god measure. Bird's skittering around the issue, not unlike (hardy har) a rat trapped on a frighteningly hot stove.
-We Own the Night (James Gray)
As many have already commented, it's basically The Godfather in reverse, with Joaquin Phoenix's nightclub manager Bobby Green struggling to stake out an identity as his own man, outside the overbearing influence of his police chief dad (Robert Duvall) and older brother Joe (Mark Wahlberg). It's the 80s, and so part of what Gray's doing here is opening the frame on the whole Studio 54 mystique and trying to create a context in which the false freedom that scene came to represent might, under the right circumstances, seem not just like Eden but like a second chance at self-creation, a way to lose oneself and one's past and dissipate into music, sex, and drugs. (Gray's title is stark and evocative, and it can go either way. Shockingly, it's an actual NYPD slogan from the 80s, but it sounds much more like a disco-diva anthem.) As Joe and father Bert hone in on Russian drug kingpins operating out of Bobby's club, battle lines are drawn, and the patriarch and his pitbull tell Bobby he's either with or against them. A number of dramatic narrative events thunder through the movie, many relying on hidden knowledge or circumstantial loyalties, and it becomes clear that Gray is aiming less for Coppola and Scorsese than Aeschylus and Sophocles, and to the extent that one adjusts one's vision, it actually works. This isn't a film with which to become emotionally invested; rather, one should take a long view and observe its organization since that is where its meaning lies. Still, this isn't to say that Gray doesn't reach beyond his grasp, or that Night is a fully coherent artistic statement. For the first hour I thought we had an outright masterpiece on our hands, not only because Gray's rhythms and atmosphere seemed both tighter and more fluid -- a clash of competing, fully formed worlds -- but because it looked like Gray was giving us a potent allegory for the present. The brutishness of the cops, and in particular their noxious racist comments about Bobby's Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendes, whose acting chops really impressed me for the first time here), made it seem like Gray was not only showing the multiethnic, ambisexual, hedonistic appeal of New York club life in the 80s, but positing it as a virtual utopia compared to Reaganite law-and-order bullshit. (Cue Bush 43 / Giuliani comparisons now.) Sadly, Gray doesn't follow through, and it really does become a Greek tragedy about the inexorable pull of family, and on this level it definitely works. In any other imaginable context, We Own the Night's two final lines of dialogue would be almost ridiculously uplifting. Here, they send a chill down the spine, since they affirm that destiny has quashed individual will and that once again America has eaten its young.
-XXY (Lucía Puenzo, Argentina / France / Spain)
[SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS] It would be quite easy to praise XXY for all the well-worn avenues it chooses not to travel, and in a way that restraint does characterize a substantial degree of Puenzo's triumph. There are so many shortcuts to GLBT Festival kudos and Logo Channel fabulousness for a film like this, mostly having to do with averting the messier and more unpleasant aspects of intersexed identity in favor of a 50cc shot of self-affirmation. And even as I type those previous sentences, I know that those films which do take the easy way out, providing, as it were, chicken soup for the marginalized soul, do have their place in the world, and I don't want to sound like I'm making fun. But like sly-old-British-grannie stories and triumph-of-the-ragtag-team-of-misfits yarns, those films usually end up as something other than art. XXY isn't perfect, but it is undoubtedly art. Puenzo's film is sort of a work in miniature, a character study of Alex (the phenomenal Inés Efron, also recently seen in Glue and justifiably winning awards for her performance here), captured at an awkward age. Her sexual desire is awakening, but she has also decided to figure out who she might actually be without chemical stability, throwing out her hormone pills and allowing her natural chromosomal makeup to emerge. She's a hermaphrodite, as the title lets you know, but the extent of her intersexed body is revealed only as the film progresses. Puenzo, however, does not play some sort of (kinda sick) Crying Game of cheap-shocker secret; it's just that Alex's anatomy is on a need-to-know basis, kind of like the rest of us. Inasmuch as there is a "plot," it's very simple. While Alex is hitting puberty and allowing her male traits to commingle with her female ones, her mother (Valeria Bertuccelli) has decided that it's time to bring in a plastic surgeon to stabilize her daughter's anatomy once and for all. In a welcome switch from the stereotypical depiction of Latin machismo, Alex's father (Ricardo Darín, understated but showing more life than usual) favors letting Alex alone, convinced that she is unique and wonderful as she is. As an additional wrinkle, the surgeon's young son Alvaro (Martín Piroyansky) starts to take a shine to Alex, their mutual sexual ambivalence yielding fascinating, messy results Puenzo is in no hurry to straighten out. (Their eventual sex scene, and the unexpected turn it ends up taking, is as hot as it is completely logical.) Although Puenzo's film favors observation and characterization over mise-en-scène, she does create a lovely, burnished seaside-cabin environment, a sense of provincialism closing at about the same rate as nature itself. The underbrush seems prepared to reclaim the cleared-out coastal space just as biology is rapidly rearranging Alex's body, always threatening to have the last word. I would never want to oversell a film this modest; in fact the recent work it most recalls for me in its poignant, unsimplified smallness is Yee Chin-yen's Blue Gate Crossing, which is high praise, I assure you. Do check out XXY in 2008, assuming Strand Releasing picks it up, which seems somehow inevitable. [UPDATE: Alas, it was Film Movement, and they actually released it to theatres. Good for them.]
-The Banishment (Andrei Zvygintsev, Russia)
Following Zvygintsev's stellar Golden Lion-winning debut The Return, expectations for his sophomore effort were high going into Cannes 2007. (Even Variety tipped it as one to watch.) It would be nonsense to claim that the director came close to fulfilling those expectations, but The Banishment's near-universal dismissal is rather mystifying and even a bit angering. Yes, Zvygintsev has allowed his thrall with Tarkovsky to overtake some of the more interesting, earthbound aspects of his sensibility. And yes, the film's eventual narrative resolution is somewhat preposterous, beggaring belief in order to provide something almost on the level of a late-Shyamalan gotcha but falling every bit as flat. (Think of the unfortunate moment in Dogville when Grace tells the boy's mother "he was asking for it," and the key plot points which hinge on this implausibly imprecise use of language. The Banishment's major narrative throughline, sad to say, relies on a willful misinterpretation of that sort, to about the 1,000th power.) Nevertheless, Zvygintsev's significant achievements in this film are too obvious to be ignored, or so I would think. The fact that 2007 was such a banner year for cinema almost makes me suspect that overworked critics are anxious to consign certain films to the scrapheap, just so they don't have to think about them any longer. Look again, and observe the absolute mastery with which Zvygintsev controls meaning through precise movement of framing and focus -- the hard materials of cinema. In most cases the frame begins midfield and Zvygintsev slowly opens it up to reveal something significant anchoring the foreground, often the individual doing the looking, or sometimes a windowpane or another locale or spatial framework that recontextualizes the previous vista. That is, space unfolds across time in The Banishment, as it probably should in all films. Some of the aspects of the film that many critics found overbearing or stultifying actually work quite well in the overall spatial network, and I think one's level of success or frustration with accessing The Banishment may pertain to the degree to which one holds fast or lets go of the whole 'allegory' thing. As with The Return, it is certainly not a mistake to see it there, but I also think it is an approach that limits one's access to what's physically before you on the screen, a real deficit since Zyvgintsev is an extremely physical, even materialist filmmaker. Like Tarkovsky, his mise-en-scène wavers between the naturally illuminated and the industrially decrepit, but like Tarkovsky, there is often a too-perfect, almost radiant veneer to Zvygintsev's decay.
This has no doubt led some commentators to read The Banishment as a strict religious allegory, but it could actually operate from the other side. The physical world is illuminated because of the pull it exerts on those who inhabit it, especially those like Alex (Konstantin Lavonenko) who arrogantly believe they are lord and master over such a world. This is ultimately the lesson his wife Vera (Maria Bonnevie) wants to teach him, and it is ultimately more of an object-lesson, sadly, than a theological treatise. As with Tarkovsky, or Bresson or Terrence Malick, The Banishment actually occupies less of a zone of orthodox spirituality, hovering in the uncertain space where spirit and matter are hard to disentangle -- the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger, for example. In this sense, the royal blue of Vera's bedroom could be the mark of the Madonna, but it can also simply represent painterly radiance, the life that light affords the physical world and offers to the loving eye, the eye that for Alex has apparently long since gone out. In a way, Zyvgintsev is attempting something quite complicated here, working from a Tarkovskian base to explore questions of sex and relationships better suited to Bergman or even Godard. (By the end, after all, one partner has taken her silent "contempt" stoically to the grave.) If this project doesn't quite work, this is certainly due in part to Zvygintsev's lack of control of the material and yes, his inability to speak in his own auteurial voice. But it is also due to a contradiction inherent in the project itself. The particular destructive pathology of Russian machismo (also examined elsewhere in Cannes's 2007 competition by Alexander Sokurov, but without a fraction of Zvygintsev's critique) forces the transcendental inquiries of an earlier art cinema to collide head-on with a somewhat uncontrollable self-destructive streak, one whose results are both socially and aesthetically pessimistic. Again, Zvygintsev doesn't quite pull this off, but let's give him another chance. In time, I believe his revision of Tarkovsky will be as radical and uncompromising as Bruno Dumont's revision of Bresson.
-It's a Free World . . . (Ken Loach, U.K. / Italy / Germany / Spain)
In a lot of ways this really is Loach and Laverty's least leaden, most nimbly didactic effort in years. In fact, Free World actually works as drama until L&L, never, ever able to leave well enough alone and forever fearful that someone in the cheap seats might miss some key sociological tenet, very nearly flush the whole thing down the toilet with a preposterous narrative twist. But until this silliness, the film is an unusually deft examination of hierarchies of oppression, the traffic in illegal immigrant labor, and the blinkered belief among employers, and the liberal laissez-faire state in general, that to exploit the powerless is really to do them a favor. Angie (Kierston Wareing) is an employee at a recruitment agency subject to blatant sexual harassment and demeaning behavior, mostly because she sort of looks like Pamela Anderson. She fights back by forming her own agency, and before you know it, she's a slavedrivin', tough-as-nails bosslady lowering the boom on Eastern European immigrants (legal, and in time illegal) who won't keep their heads down, work for shit pay, and accept whatever abuse their overseers capriciously choose to heap on them. Loach is careful to demonstrate that Angie is well-meaning, not a monster by any means, but part of a system (say it with me: global capitalism) that turns any individual initiative into something that operates over and above the intentions of its originating will. (As Lars von Trier says, "well-intentioned people are dangerous.") And, for a change, the official Loach /Laverty mouthpiece, Angie's Old Labour dad (Colin Coughlin) speaks the party line without sounding clunky or obvious. They got the Brechtian balance right on this one, actually starting to hint that their dream of welding the great Epic Theatre visionary's method to a meat-and-potatoes realism might not be entirely wrongheaded after all. But my God, that stupid, stupid twist. And it goes nowhere, which is actually good, overall, but formally just shows how far aground they'd run. Chill out, gentlemen. Trust your target audience. After all, who do you think we are?
No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen)
I'm beginning to think I'll never fully embrace noncomedic Coen material. There's just a hint of self-satisfaction and formal preciousness that I doubt they'll ever completely shed, although I certainly concur that with No Country they come awfully darn close. In one of those odd confluences that usually only film festivals can provide, I happened to see this film (one of the most lauded from Cannes 2007) the day after I watched The Banishment (one of the most critically reviled) and the comparison was instructive. Both the Coen brothers and Zvygintsev compose and edit and art-direct every frame of their films within an inch of their lives; despite the reliance on landscape and open space, no one would mistake either film as having much in the way of breathing room. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, although it can become claustrophobic in a case like No Country, where the themes and scripting (largely due to the highly amicable marriage with Cormac McCarthy's style, which only makes perfect sense in retrospect) give one the feeling of two hovering director-gods reading over your shoulder as you watch. But the widespread embrasure of the Coens' film, despite its often leaden determinism of both form and thematics, is no doubt due to its being heavily imbibed, if not embalmed, in the American vernacular. It's steeped in genre, using an existential crisis within certain aspects of the Western and the noir -- the collapse of male honor code, in particular, in favor of radical, erratic and incomprehensible evil -- as a basis from which to, it hopes, extrapolate a far grander existential hat trick, a philosophical treatise on the actual world outside of mere genre codes. It works, to an extent, although the resulting resonances are rather tepid and quite conservative. (Tommy Lee Jones's character is indeed No Country's designated moral center, but it works only because he is exhausted and feckless. Liberals can take comfort in avuncular conservatives only after they no longer have the pitbull energy to try to remake the world in accordance with their beliefs. Sir and Ma'am, tattoos and pink hair -- the plaints of the comically defeated.) If you want a genuine hero, the film offers one in Kelly Macdonald's sensible wife, who refuses to submit to Anton Chigurh's game of life and death. She refuses mere chance and demands that he make a choice. (Simone de Beauvoir would be proud.) But the Coens, and McCarthy, are too distracted to end here, and we have two additional codas, one for Chigurh that plays to the chaos crowd, and the last word which goes to Sheriff TLJ, as if it were all just a dream, an Oedipal struggle already fading like the sound of a horse being overtaken by a motor vehicle and left in the dust. Poignant? I'm not sure. Several years ago at Cannes, Gaspar Noé's Nietzschean pensée, "time destroys everything," drew hoots of derision. The Coens are basically providing the same final curtain, but instead of leaving us with one last jolt to the head with the cattle prod, we get one of those Clint Eastwood soto voce piano chords that signifies male melancholia. Simply by remaining open, by being allowed to hang in the air instead of being subject to another Joel and Ethan i-dotting, t-crossing pencil snap, we suddenly feel the lightness in our chests that signals poetry. I won't go so far as to call it a stunt, but I will say this: I don't trust it.
-The Savages (Tamara Jenkins)
Sometimes a film is feted simply for being the least irksome example of a tedious, immediately identifiable genre. Here we have a classic Sundance picture (not sure whether or not it germinated at the Talent Lab, but it might as well have in any case), where two shlubby middle-aged character actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) congregate in a depressing locale (Buffalo) to trade heavily sculpted bon mots and perform naturalistically depicted but narratively contrived "small" actions within the framework of a normal human event (the senility, institutionalization, and eventual passing of a parent) whose magnitude for those affected is matched only by the relative indifference of the larger world. Jenkins adds a few wrinkles (Hoffman's a Brecht scholar, Linney is an aspiring playwright), and the film attains several moments of jarring poignancy courtesy of Philip Bosco as the father. But it's the sort of film, for example, that requires a transcontinental flight with dad during which, naturally, he shits his pants as the camera stares with uninflected indie sorrow, or where Prof. Brecht speechifies to Drama Queen in the parking lot about how all nursing homes are designed to disguise the ever-present stench of rotten impending death, as an orderly slowly wheels a patient sullenly by. This film is fine, and "a cut above" within its own phylum (although its oddly cheery coda is in somewhat questionable taste), but I have nothing to say about it, just like I would have had nothing much to say about Jenkins's Slums of Beverly Hills if I'd been reviewing films back in 1998, even though I kind of liked that film, too.
-Schindler's Houses (Heinz Emigholz, Germany / Austria)
This was my long-overdue first exposure to Emigholz's "Photography and Beyond" series, of which Schindler is the twelfth installment. (It's an oversight I'll be correcting in the very near future; Goff in the Desert is now available from Netflix, fercryinoutloud, and several other films in the series can be had as region-free imports from Filmgalerie 451, same as Schindler.) I have seen two of his earlier films, but I'm hardly an Emigholz expert, and the conceptual subtleties of this film may very well be eluding me. But as a film unto itself, and as an experimental documentary detailing the California buildings of Austrian architect Rudolf Schindler, Emigholz's film is a tough nut to crack. After a voiceover prologue in which Emigholz explains that to consider architecture as a self-contained artwork, much less one with coherent autobiographical content, is an error since, social planning being what it is, any number of unintended environmental aspects (many of them outright eyesores, especially in southern California) will develop around any given building, inexorably changing its meaning. All good so far, but in the specific case of Schindler, it's hard to understand just what Emigholz means for us to notice. Most of his houses seem to interact more with natural features -- trees, climbing shrubbery, hill slope -- than with the built environment, although some, especially the storefronts such as Modern Creator Stores (1936), do become engulfed by surrounding commerce.
Is Emigholz arguing that Schindler's modernism is caught in a dialectic with nature, both having been designed to mingle with it and in jeopardy of being overrun by it? Are these highly funky, rectilinear structures, with their odd pockets of enclosed space, intended to act as though they were autonomous modernist objects in order to actively display the asymptotic, even quixotic drive of high modernism, a la Mies and Corbusier? Tough to say; the images Emigholz selects hint at this but reveal nothing definitively. What's more, as a film about architecture, Schindler's Houses is often unsatisfying to the point of perversity. Emigholz's method of stock-still framings, which ape still photography only to add the crucial time element, is a compelling one given the topic. And his strict refusal to offer straight-on elevations, of the canonical sort one would see projected from slides in a standard Architectural History survey course, is a valid decision, since it forces us to engage differently with the structures, as spaces rather than images. But what's with all the dutch angles? For most of the film Emigholz tilts his framings to provides shots that are almost wilfully at odds with Schindler's formal strategies. Granted, eventually Schindler's work enters a second phase (beginning roughly with the Yates Studio Remodel in 1938 and ending with 1946's Toole House) wherein his perpendiculars are set off by slight curves and diagonals, putting everything just ever so slightly off the 90° axis. But as we enter Schindler's final phase, the dutch angles once again seem obtrusive. Has Emigholz identified a formal approach that only makes sense for his subject's mature period, building the film accordingly and allowing the rise and fall to seem inexplicably awkward? This is either the gambit of a cracked genius, or sloppy structuralism so committed to its patterns that it fails to notice when they get in the way of deeper understanding.
-The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julien Schnabel, France / U.S.)
I've never been quite sure how to feel about Julien Schnabel. Hailing as I do from the Marx / Barthes / Foucault / October side of the art history world, I was sort of coached to loathe the guy, since his neo-Expressionist canvases and macho posturing and most-favored-nation status in the Saatchi Collection and his bon vivant persona all marked him out as the enemy. ("Go study Barbara Kruger photocollages like a good boy!") And while I did find more than a few of Schnabel's paintings almost comically overbearing ("Portrait of God," anyone? "Muhammad Ali"?), I also quite enjoyed their chutzpah a lot of the time. Their swagger was refreshing in an anti-aesthetic age, they displayed an often misunderstood sense of humor, and the broken-crockery textures struck me as a logically impoverished, look-ma American answer to various forms of European refinement, from classical Italian frescoes to the contemporaneous Teutonicisms of Anselm Kiefer. Of all the 80s art stars, it makes sense that only Schnabel has really succeeded as a film director (observe the sad crash-and-burns of Cindy Sherman, David Salle, and Robert Longo), but it's odd that his three films have been so utterly pedestrian and undistinguished, as though the film medium were nothing more than a convenient way to sell nominally visual storytelling to the high-middlebrow masses. Although Diving Bell is his most formally ambitious film, in certain ways it's also his most conservative, surveying modernist terrain in order to claim it for hackneyed narrative and received wisdom. Adapting the autobiography of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), French Elle editor felled by a massive stroke, Schnabel chooses to employ certain surface affectations of the cinema of Stan Brakhage to put his audience in Bauby's highly restrictive point of view. Bauby was fully conscious but able only to move one eye, resulting in "locked-in syndrome;" Schnabel and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski spend the first forty minutes of Diving Bell shooting from fixed camera positions, glazed superimpositions, lens flares and rapid cuts and fades mimicking the fragmented sensorium of Bauby as he attempts to regain his bearings and learn to communicate with those around him. Once he achieves a systematic mode of blink-speech, the film shifts into normal representational mode, not unlike Cast Away's resumption of shot / countershot once Tom Hanks invents "Wilson."
Schnabel's message is clear -- Brakhage's modernism is a fascinating pathology, an uncommunicative, private realm to be overcome. (One is reminded of ultra-literal physiological critics who attempt to prove that, for example, Van Gogh had extreme cataracts, and actually saw things "that way.") The remainder of the movie is tough to criticize, since Bauby's story is what it is, and no one wants to lambaste a brave man's struggle to live and create against insurmountable odds. But Schnabel hews close to the template, and there's not much to do but drum your fingers and wait for the uplift to play tediously out. But in a larger thematic frame, I do find myself wondering exactly what about the Bauby story captured Schnabel's imagination. This most physical of artists has used cinema to lionize a man whose own artistic creation, in effect, virtually argues on behalf of a Cartesian mind / body split, that a free soul is dancing inside an iron cage. This is on my mind quite a bit since my own father suffered a massive stroke several months ago, and although the work he has accomplished in his recovery is nothing short of amazing, it is also long and painful and grueling. It is an endlessly physical process, one that is (at the risk of sounding unintentionally glib about something that I feel very strongly about) much more like something Bresson would film. With his choices in depicting Bauby's particular case, however, Schnabel mostly avoid the tedious minutiae of recovery and goes straight for the poetry. (Apart from a few awkward mishaps in getting the blink-notation system off the ground, and one brief physical therapy scene, it's almost as though Schnabel thinks Bauby's filmic audience has 'suffered enough.') In a way, this takes us right back to the problem all those October materialists had with Schnabel in the first place. He was never interested in what a painting physically was, or how it circulated in the marketplace, or even in the world of things. He just behaved as though the raw force of his passion and capacity to dream would elevate any object, or even the body itself, above its own circumstances, like a gold standard of human emotion. Charles Saatchi's wife (the one before Nigella Larson) famously wrote in a catalog essay, "we need Julien Schnabel to show us how to feel." But this only makes sense as the hallmark of cultural privilege. It seems to me that Schnabel needs physical resistance -- of paint, of celluloid, of the body itself -- to show him how to think.
-My Kid Could Paint That (Amir Bar-Lev, U.S. / U.K.)
The story of Marla Olmstead -- four-year-old neo-AbEx painting sensation from Binghamton, NY -- is indeed a fascinating one. Why are people buying these (rather mediocre) canvases? Is she being cut slack as an artist due to her age? And more to the point, was she really doing the paintings, or were they mostly (or completely) the work of father / frustrated artist Mark? As Kid progresses, a "60 Minutes" profile by Charlie Rose essentially debunks the ruse, and Marla's venal dealer claims modern art itself is a hoax, and then reverses his position when Marla starts selling again. But this film asks all the wrong questions, primarily because Bar-Lev seems spectacularly unqualified to address his given topic, on any relevant front. It's not just that he allows an art critic to prattle on, ad nauseam, about why "some people" think modern art is a gigantic joke perpetrated on a gullible public, without ever offering a witness for the defense. After all, it's entirely possible to find the Olmstead story interesting if you don't know or care about art. (Why not? No one involved in the story itself seems to.) But has Bar-Lev ever met a four-year-old? The hoax can be exposed by looking at the paintings and asking simple questions about developmental dexterity. Bar-Lev speaks of "polish," or lack thereof. But the early paintings require a facility with a brush that is simply impossible for hands that young to accomplish, "prodigy" or not. Oil painting requires different musculature than playing the piano or violin, other creative acts children have been known to master. But even apart from this, Bar-Lev fails to observe the eerily familiar structure at work within the Olmstead family. Marla has trouble painting for the camera, she tells Dad to do it himself and he snaps at her. Dad says he and Marla just have fun with painting and he's not forcing her to do it. It's something she loves and would do, even without his prompting and without any financial incentive. Mom stays out of it, says it's "Mark's thing," but just hopes she's doing the right thing for her daughter. And no one but Marla even notices little brother Zane. At best, this is JonBenet II; at worst, this is a classic story of molestation, with art instead of sex. Again, Bar-Lev misses the real story, and fixates on his feeling of having betrayed the Olmsteads' trust. In short, more navel-gazing. It's certainly true that Bar-Lev starts with a timid human-interest item and concludes with something resembling a morality play. But can we award points for simply being at the right place at the right time? My Kid Could Paint That is one missed opportunity after another, not to mention a blundering oversimplification of modernism, one of the key topics of the last century's intellectual history. If one needs no special qualifications, give me a camcorder and send me to Darfur, a sweatshop, or the moon.
[ADDENDUM: After a brief discussion with Mike D'Angelo, who considers Bar-Lev's film to be one of 2007's finest, I have to revise my position a bit. As Mike explained quite accurately, Bar-Lev's primary concern -- in fact, a running throughline in the film, of which the director's final self-reflexive comments are just the summation -- is the use of narrative to construct meaning. Bluntly put, the Olmstead story caught fire, it had a "hook," and even though Marla's paintings were allegedly masterworks regardless of who painted them, the fact that they were (supposedly) made by a four-year-old provided the novelty value as well as the sense of guilelessness vital to the "purity" imputed to the paintings. As the veracity of this story came to be questioned, the seemingly secure aesthetic (and therefore market) value of the paintings began to plummet, since it turns out that it mattered very much who made them and who old she / he was. I see this now, but I think I could not wrap my brain around this "narrativity hook" in the film because Bar-Lev selects as his topic a field of inquiry, abstract painting, that is in fact supposed to exist outside narrative or even temporality itself, as per Clement Greenberg's assertions in re Modernist canvases and their pure, almost physiological opticality. Bar-Lev, not knowing anything about art, misses this crucial irony, or, depending on how you look at it, fails to see that his manner of working through the material at hand is already in essence to dismiss its power. He, like everyone else, is telling a story about Marla Olmstead's paintings. Granted, they are so much less interesting than, say, those of a Mark Rothko or a Willem de Kooning that one has to spin webs of discourse around them, just to make them stand up to the slightest scrutiny. But a filmmaker who knew more about his topic would have been able to zero in on this problem much sooner, instead of being another dazzled dupe.]
-Southland Tales (Richard Kelly)
I tried. I really did. I mean, I was an early adopter of Darko, and I still really like it, even after that god-awful Director's Cut. But this was just an excruciating slog, one that more than anything else reminded me of short fiction I used to write in high school. Back then, I thought it was cool to drop in references to, say, the Politburo or Charles Bovary or Neville Chamberlain, for no real reason other than to demonstrate that I could. If pressed on the matter, I would defend my "compositional strategy" by explaining that dropping in pre-existing fictional characters allowed me to "circumvent characterization by drawing on the reader's knowledge base," or "enfold history into an all-enveloping now." This was absolute bullshit. I was just a cocky kid, smart but not nearly as smart as I thought I was, and basically just terribly, terribly young. Southland Tales is achingly jejune in the same manner, except that it ensnares numerous B-list actors to perform not only the script itself, but as their own snarky internal self-reference. ("Hey, ha ha, it's the dude from "Night Court.") To defend Southland Tales even as a film of big ideas which fall apart in execution is far too generous; the ideas are shallow when they aren't ludicrous. It would be too easy to eviscerate Kelly's dormroom-poster understanding of Karl Marx (which is then, hardy-har, itself referenced by Wally Shawn in the film, all the better to defuse critical ammunition), or the idea that scattering Marxist signifiers across a film's cultural landscape in a superficial manner is in itself a critique of such superficial cultural appropriation. But even concepts so banal that Kelly, or any halfway conscious auteur, should have been able to make them work, like the collapse of celebrity culture and politics, or the radicalization of porn during ultraconservative times, just fall flat on their face here. Actors are adrift with no direction, mugging and indicating all over the place. There is virtually no visual style or mise-en-scène, aside from Justin Timberlake's Killers number; in fact for the most part Southland Tales is one of the most butt-ugly films I've seen in ages. And as for coherence, keep in mind, I'm no three-act stickler over here. I enjoy discombobulation and even unintentional avant-gardisms arising from choices that backfire in interesting ways. But as a thought experiment, imagine Southland Tales without the Timberlake narration, and see if it would add up to much more that seven or eight different kinds of rushes in search of some, any guiding context. And let's not even get into the sophomore-level film and literary references. Again, I don't give points for willful obscurity; a work of art shouldn't be some kind of episode of "Jeopardy!" But one should at least work to engage deeply enough with the canon so as not to indicate to your audience that your research process involved a six-pack of Bud Light and an afternoon with Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. And of course, the conclusion was just a rehash of Donnie Darko, but on a floating ice cream truck. Anyway, I guess I'm glad something this big, lunkheaded and earnest has its defenders, even if I think they're on crack.
[POSTSCRIPT: Oh, I meant to mention, this film got me to thinking about Justin Timberlake, a performer for whom I have no particular affection but whose appeal I think I finally understand. I've pretty much avoided his music, but there he is, time and again, in Black Snake Moan and "Dick in a Box" and now Southland Tales, where he's virtually the only performer to emerge not just unscathed, but nearly triumphant. And it hit me: Timberlake is innocuous enough, but his overall appeal has to do with the fact that he exemplifes the myth of American meritocracy in its equally-necessary obverse form. Instead of being the fellow who went from rags to riches based on perseverance and innovation, Timberlake is the pampered lucky stiff who took that privileged position and then earned it, through hard work and maturity. That is, he has achieved legitimacy after the fact, surviving such "hardships" as N'SYNC and Britney Spears, retroactively exculpating the machinery that annointed him in the first place. He's the puppet who became a real boy, who really does have soul (but he's not a soldier). (Rough female equivalent: Christina Aguilera.) And actually, this explains why America never really embraced Robbie Williams, despite his ample talent. We don't have the Take That backstory that makes Williams' adult persona actually mean something, the way Timberlake's does. And now, all JT has to do is take the stage in a surprise appearance with Lance Bass, give him a big kiss and sing a duet to show that he was always down with his gay homey, and that'll bring it full circle, cementing his permanent place in the pop firmament. Justified, indeed.]