SHORT REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, FEBRUARY 2003
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)
Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, France)
On a certain level, this film is so formally astonishing that I simply don’t care what it means, whether it is reactionary or radical or neutral. One does not often see such absolute mastery of the medium, but even less frequently is a director willing to place this mastery in the service of such an aggressive, relentless film. From the opening shots of the downtown buildings at night, to the unhinged, frenetic camera searching through the Rectum gay SM club, right down to the very last shot, Noé employs the techniques of pure cinema which almost every other narrative filmmaker leaves aside to avoid making anyone angry or nauseous. The film borrows liberally from the avant-garde – Conrad’s pure flicker, Gehr’s upended cityscapes, and especially Michael Snow, whose La région centrale is just as much of a touchstone here as 2001 – but unlike other directors who treat experimental cinema like so much window-dressing, Noé is absolutely committed to using the language of cinema to turn the world upside-down. Now then, onto more difficult territory. Of course I care whether this film is homophobic or not, and I maintain that it isn’t, exactly. What the film is afraid of, and yet simultaneously is forced to embrace, is the animalistic side of humanity. The genius of Irreversible is its backwards organization, which serves a very different purpose than that of Memento or even Betrayal. Here, the reversed chronology makes the film equally amenable to radical or reactionary readings, and in so doing, attempts a “transvaluation of values.” Alex’s rape at the hands of the gay pimp La Tenia can be seen as a violent rip in the (rectal) wall separating two very distinct worlds. Yet, both worlds are predicated upon desire. It is just that one (that of Alex, Marcus and Pierre) manages its desires by employing the structures of heterosexuality and reproduction, bracketing out as “unnatural” everything that the Rectum represents. By the same token, the violent, ritualistic queer desire on display at the club is also a cultural construction, designed to provide a framework for the exploration of carnal desires. (S/M is, among other things, a form of representation.) When these two incompatible, equally-artificial worlds collide, we see that Marcus and La Tenia are in fact equal, and that Marcus is all the more destructive on account of the privilege he assumes, believing himself to be a “normal” man lost in a world of freaks. The film is not really moving backwards from depravity to an Edenic heterosexuality. Rather it could be seen to oscillate between two different ruinations – that of Pierre, whose civilized worldview is decimated by circumstance and his loyalty to Marcus, and that of Alex, who in a way is as metaphorically “destroyed” by Marcus as she is literally crushed by La Tenia. The end of the film (the beginning of the story) equates Alex’s body with the center of the world, a boundless, creative / destructive sexual force which is eventually harnessed into the service of straight, bourgeois ideals. In a way, she is like 2001’s Bowman, who must travel beyond the infinite and cease to be, in order to attain a higher knowledge. Moving Alex backwards through time (Time, which destroys everything, usually at the hands of that part of ourselves which we emphatically deny), Noé paradoxically “saves” her. A truly Nietzschean film, Irreversible occasionally falters only because it buckles under the weight of trying to think outside of our prevailing cultural and sexual logics. An amazing achievement. [Second viewing: some of the wooden dialogue and ham-fisted articulation of themes really bugged me this time. I can see why viewers unsympathetic to Noé’s formal project might fail to recognize the film’s intelligence. Still, seen again on the first day of Gulf War II, the most obvious meaning of “irreversible” – it won’t bring her back – finally hit me.]
Gerry (Gus Van Sant)
This film contains exactly three missteps. 1) Like a lot of film dialogue which is derived from improvisation, Gerry’s opening discussions tend to suffer from preciousness. The “I conquered Thebes” riff is especially awkward. 2) I am in agreement with Susan Gerhard that GVS did not need to include his signature time-lapse shots. They break the rhythm here. 3) GVS’s inspiration from Béla Tarr goes too far in the sequence of Affleck and Damon walking in ECU. It’s directly cribbed from Werckmeister Harmonies. Everything else, however, is sublime. Damon is solid, but it’s Casey Affleck who is a revelation, slowly revealing his Gerry to be the more vulnerable one in this desert Endgame, the Clov to Damon’s Hamm. Beckett comparisons are apposite, but Gerry is capacious enough to encompass Beau Travail, Of Mice and Men, James Benning and John Ford. It is almost tempting to read Gerry as an allegory for the decay of the American Sundance indie film. These cocky, anonymous slackers slowly have their snarkiness stripped away by the punishing western landscape. In the bargain, something altogether primal is unearthed. [Note: A second viewing really improved my already-high opinion of the film. In particular I began to notice how it plays with flatness and depth. Often the desert landscapes are illegible until we have one of the Gerrys as a reference point.]
“Hurt” [music video for Johnny Cash] (Mark Romanek) [v/s]
The video examines the Man in Black in winter, surrounded by fragments of his life, all giving way to the ravages of time. In a way, it actually reminded me of In Praise of Love, another self-excoriating, summary work by an old master. Some of Romanek’s editing – usually right on the beat – is perfunctory, and the speaking clip and Christ comparisons are unnecessary. But the second half, which finds June Carter Cash standing in the background, watching over her loved one knowing she cannot protect him, is devastating. [Added note: The fact that June passed away, and Johnny followed her less than a month later, seems to demonstrate that the video-clip really is the historical document it purports to be.]
25th Hour (Spike Lee)
A second viewing really serves as a centrifuge for me, separating the brilliant from the wobbly. At first, I had serious problems with Terence Blanchard’s score, and I still do, bur for slightly different reasons. His threnody for the victims of 9/11, with his mournful horns and angry-banshee baritones, seemed a bit too simplistic and ingratiating, like the worst of Copland. Like so many stabs at “art for the people,” it affirmed its listeners where it should have challenged them, blaring its defiance rather too directly. In so doing, it lent an imaginary coherence to something utterly unrepresentable. On second listen, I still have these problems with the piece, but they now seem more like matters of taste than politics per se. However, Lee’s use of the score reveals itself as a huge part of the original problem. It saturates everything. It feels stuck on, and scenes which would have a palpable sense of loss simply by dint of Monty’s narrative are smothered by the overkill. This is the case for the first two-thirds of the film, at which point Lee wisely lets silence do the talking on occasion. I couldn’t help but think that had the score been more conservatively deployed, instead of being used as an all-pervasive analogue to the impure ground-zero air, it would have been all the more powerful, especially in the final scene. Other things: the writing is “good” but sometimes irritatingly so, in the sense that its overreaching literary quality detracts from the realism the film wants at least in part to achieve. The Elinsky / D’Annunzio subplot is useless to the purposes of the film, and went from an odd curio to a tedious distraction on repeat viewing. The film’s most superb, finely-wrought element is its creation of two “fathers” for Monty, his real dad and Frank. As a friend, Frank is removed enough to have the capacity to play the Bad Father when he needs to. He is the force which judges and punishes Monty. His dad, on the other hand, demonstrates that paternal love often means leniency and a disregard from the Law. His proposed solution to Monty’s dilemma goes against our stereotypes of a father’s duty to make his son face harsh reality head-on. In the end, both approaches are necessary, neither “right.” Finally, there is no Doyle’s Law. There is, however, a Boyle’s Law, which states that the volume of a given mass of gas is inversely proportional to its pressure at a constant temperature. The law applies only to ideal gases. The connection? Possibly that the greater the pressure you’re under, the less room you have to move? Another reference to the state of post-9/11 NYC? Not sure, but in any case it shows Kostya to be someone who’s prone to getting D’s instead of B’s.
Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach, U.K. / France / Spain)
A strong performance by Martin Compston, and a solid set of performances generally (although the abusive “stepdad” and buffoonish grandpa are a bit much), help to buoy this film. It benefits as well from Loach’s devotion to creating a sense of place, neither soft-pedalling the abjection of the projects of Glasgow nor denying them their moments of fleeting beauty and dignity. And yet, none of this is well-served by the rote Oedipal drama the film becomes. Laverty’s script is strong on particulars but very weak in the Big Picture it creates. Also, there is an odd match between the relative predictability of the plot points and Loach’s pacing, which seems to want to hurtle from event to event in hopes that we won’t notice just how little is there.
Final Destination 2 (David R. Ellis)
A tongue-in-cheek horror sequel with a little bite. All the same, it made me sad that Shattered Image was such a flop, because this is the sort of B-movie gamesmanship which Raul Ruiz could have spun into gold. The splatter could have been handled better (the boy at the dentist starts to liquify before the plate glass even hits); the fact that it’s as close to Takashi Miike as I’ve yet seen in a Hollywood film only made the distance that much more pronounced. Also, why do the teens have to be so surly, in situations which would elicit at least bemused empathy from any ordinary human being? Turn down the ‘tude, pop cinema dudes.
Regarding Penelope’s Wake (Michele Smith) [v]
Avery young work, and one showing significant promise. Given that the piece lasts two hours, and maintains a virtually unvaried rhythm – half-second flashing between two or three images for about two minutes per set – it is remarkable that it never really gets boring. This is due entirely to Smith’s facility with montage, particularly a knack for graphic and textural rhymes. Nevertheless, the formal dexterity is matched by a rather plodding conceptual base. Images are thematically juxtaposed to demonstrate the various creative, technological and scientific means we humans use to hold nature at bay. It reiterates this problem repeatedly over the course of the running time, and to my eyes doesn't develop it so much as find different formal combinations with which to make it. (In this regard, I'm tempted to compare it to permutation work like that of Sol Lewitt or Allen McCollum.) In terms of its generation of a found-footage universe of catastrophe, it recalls Leslie Thornton, although Thornton's work tends more toward ideational bombardment. Extremely pleasurable on the surface, but problematic the more I reflected on it. Some people whose opinions I respect have labeled this “major” and “a masterpiece,” so I would be willing to give it another look.
Stone Reader (Mark Moskowitz)
At first, I just thought all the sappy New Age guitar, the insipid shots of butterflies and flower gardens, and the ingratiating use of a young boy were all indicative of sadly inept filmmaking. Then it hit me. Moskowitz makes a living making sappy, insipid, ingratiating commercials for politicians, and no doubt finds these elements truly evocative. Nevertheless, the inherent interest value of the film’s subject pulls it through. Writer / professor William Cotter Murray is an amazing screen presence, and Dow Mossman himself is only slightly less compelling. As a reflexively self-exposed filmmaker / subject, Moskowitz is no Ross McElwee, and soon becomes tiresome.
He Loves Me...He Loves Me Not [Ŕ la folie...pas du tout] (Laetitia Colombani, France)
I was willing to just roll with this, as a reasonably clever and adequately distracting trifle. But then it simply refused to fucking end. Up to the 70-minute mark, this was a candy-colored, black-comedy Fatal Attraction. And it demonstrated formal chops, too. It was pretty well shot, and the strict bifurcation actually made me think of a sort of frilly Hong Sang-soo ripoff. Not great, but the world is filled with much, much worse. But instead of going out gracefully, we get an interminable 40-minute epilogue. Ridiculous genre regulations knock us upside the head, the idiot-plot points abound, and then the whole thing concludes with an attempt at seriousness in the form of a quotation by an actual mental patient. Don’t promise me Sunday afternoon Cinemax and shove Lifetime up my ass.