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)




Interstellar Lower East Side Ramble (Ken Jacobs) [p]

[At the Q&A following this multimedia performance (film and video sequences along with Nervous System light objects), Jacobs noted that in his recent formal explorations, he's been increasingly interested in velocity. How can you generate effects by making abstract forms move in space? To be honest, the forms didn't seem to be hurtling by that quickly, but I will say that my mind was definitely lagging behind my eyes and ears, so perhaps Ramble's speed-demon intent impressed itself on my body. I always want to be more eloquent when addressing Jacobs' Nervous System works, for a number of not-very-original reasons. For one thing, these pieces move me more than just about any ongoing series of film explorations. I tend to sit before them in a state of slack-jawed amazement, a sort of "oh, fuuuuuuuck" disbelief in what I am witnessing. So when work is this enthralling, I would like to have something at least nominally intelligent to say about it. For another thing, not many people write about this work, and the reasons given are usually some variations of the same basic copout -- they are so abstract, so visceral in their impact, they defy description. But I think maybe we're just not trying hard enough. So here goes. Ahem.]


Interstellar Lower East Side Ramble consists of a halting amalgam of four distinct components. The two non-Nervous System elements are projections of single-channel film works that, if you will, "interrupt" the main action of the other two components, the Nervous System "magic lantern" play and a phenomenal (in both senses -- wonderful and physically bone-rattling) electronic score performed live by Ikue Mori and John Zorn. If you've seen Jacobs' recent video completion of Star Spangled to Death, certain "remixed" portions of that piece will be familiar as they reappear here. There are moments of Jack Smith street theatre, and a long passage of Jerry Sims' apartment, studying the notes and pictures and scraps of paper stuck to his walls, perhaps a grungier version of Aby Warburg's "Mnemosyne Atlas" collages, or just stuff he liked. These reprised moments from SSTD come later, as the first long digressive insert (shown on film) is an unfinished Kodachrome portrait of Orchard Street, alive with bustling street commerce, neighborhood grocers and sidewalk sales, a vibrant scene with New Yorkers of every stripe. What these two parts have in common, apart from the Lower East Side, is their placement within the overall fabric of Ramble. Much like Star Spangled to Death, which breaks up hilarious, atmospheric footage of Smith, Sims, and friends with found footage of racist, anthropological, and pseudo-scientific stupidity, Ramble also interrupts its own program. But instead of the outside world crashing in on our very private relationship with Jacobs' world, we see this world juxtaposed with another, more cosmic way of seeing. The Nervous System portions of the program are deeply colored, bulbous forms which exceed the bounds of the screen on all sides. Like magnified soap bubbles becoming solid forms, or like parts of a metal carburetor with holes that pulsate and become convex forms over and over, these magic lantern effects (like so much of Jacobs' work) emphasize unstable relationships between positive and negative space. They also operate on multiple cognitive channels, since these forms (whirling and emerging in 3D from the screen, due to the action of the Nervous System propeller) connote a cellular-microscopic viewpoint, a heavenly-telescopic one, and neither -- something with no concrete reference to "the world" as we know it. (Nothing much looks like these forms, but the only things that come close are the paintings of Terry Winters.) The order of presentation gives us an Orchard Street of the 50s, and its dialectic between what has changed (even in NYC, the human exchange depicted is giving way to top-down global capitalism) and what remains (many of the buildings, the alleyways, the unique street life that, for me and many others, is NYC). And then we see the SSTD excerpts, the improvised thought-in-action of Jacobs' friends, their interactions and interventions in that street life, as it was and as they were. The framework, instead of being the mundane media world Jacobs and the gang were / are fighting against (as is the case in SSTD, and rightfully so), is another way of envisioning the freedom and the energy the other passages memorialize. Together with the score, which builds on musique concrete recordings of city sounds, honking cars, subway rattling, the sonic physicality of the urban, the Nervous System portions of the piece take the eye on an adventure of uncertain seeing, where forces of love and life cannot be constrained by representation. This dialectic -- between a New York that can be depicted and a bodily sensation of being in NYC, and how the two extend and communicate with one another -- is the balancing act holding the work together. At the Q&A, Jacobs also mentioned that he wanted to show that a small area like the Lower East Side is in reality an infinite space, an entire universe of perception. I've been an admirer of Jacobs' work for quite some time, but after seeing Interstellar Lower East Side Ramble I realized that, apart from his numerous other creative achievements, he is one of the pre-eminent poets of the New York City experience.




She's One of Us (Siegrid Alnoy, France)

[SPOILERS] There's a kind of cynicism that I recognize in my responses to certain works of art, a fear that I may be responding positively to effects that are present in the work not by design but due to the creator's lack of control, overreaching pretention, or worst of all, my subjective desire to bestow mastery onto those effects in the face of ample evidence to the contrary. In short, I occasionally find myself worrying about getting duped. I think this is logical in some ways; one wants to feel secure in the knowedge that we have standards for judgment, that we've been around the block enough times not to fall prey to cheap charlatanry. It becomes a question of belief, a willingness to trust the impulses the art object is creating for our sensoria or, conversely, a tendency to dismiss them as shallow flash and surface. Alnoy's film has haunted me because it confounds my usual criteria for evaluation. The easiest, most straighforward account I could give of this film -- i.e., one that, as I hope to show in a minute, is wholly inadequate -- would go something like this: the director, along with actress Sasha Andres, have created Christine Blanc, a stern, allegorical figure whose lack of any firm subjectivity serves to mirror the soullessness of her environment (numerous corporate offices in France) as well as her position within the economic hierarchy (she's a temp worker with a French subsidiary of Adecco). She has a tenuous friendship with her supervisor at the temp agency (Catherine Mouchet), who, in the course of a friendly outing, Christine murders. At this point in the film, Christine miraculously attracts the attention of her co-workers, is offered a permanent position, and is seen slowly but steadily climbing the ladder of success heretofore out of her mousy reach. Within this pat narrative structure (derided by some as a kind of Time Out meets Single White Female), Alnoy constructs a steely, corporate-De Stijl mise-en-scene, all hard laquered reds and blues, overcast exteriors through glass walls and just-so arrangements of desks and credenzas. Each composition is rigid, exacting, but slightly off-kilter, mirroring the psychic state of Christine, a woman who yearns to fit into this Mies van der Rohe world but whose Aspergeresque inability to function socially keeps her in a glass cage all her own.


This sounds ridiculous, jejune, overdetermined, precious, the epitome of an overly ambitious first film. And here is where things truly get bizarre, both in the film itself and in my reactions to it. For one thing, this overbearing physical enclosure would be nowhere nearly as disconcerting without Gabriel Scotti's glitch electronica soundtrack, so insistent and repetitive that for the first reel I mistook it for a problem with the projector's sound head. Essentially Alnoy uses this score along with the architectural claustrophobia not just to "put us inside Christine's head," but to transform the entire visual and sonic environment into something palpable, something physically transmitted to the viewer for us to contend with. There is a bodily discomfort that watching She's One of Us entails. The only valid points of comparison, in terms of generating a space with sound, are Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure (thudding bass-notes of ocean wind and unbalanced washing machines encasing the viewer's skull) and Michael Snow's Wavelength (the piercing sine-wave that enters your sinuses and nests right behind your eyeballs). And while the sound design does go a long way towards transforming Alnoy's film into something greater than the sum of its parts, this isn't the whole story either. At about the midway point, Blanc is toasted by her co-workers for passing her driving test. (The French title, Elle est des nôtres, is the name of the common drinking song the gang chants in her honor. Culturally it functions like "For She's a Jolly Good Fellow," but is altogether more ribald.) Shortly after this scene, the film goes haywire from a narrative standpoint. Minor characters come to the fore, become love interests, and then disappear into the background again. The detective investigating the murder Christine committed becomes implausibly smitten with her, treating his inquiry into the crime as an occasion for authorized stalking. And then he stops, and starts again, looking like he'll let her go, and for a time the investigation simply stops becoming a factor in the film at all. What we have here is a conundrum in evaluation. It would be easy to write off the final act's incomprehensibility as fatally flawed filmmaking, or at the very least a misguided grab at Euro-auteur ambiguity, Fellini or Bergman for lunkheads. But as a total package, even the descent into nonlinear impressionism worked for me (and on me) . She's One of Us starts out as a mathematically rational film about a woman who cannot find her place in a fully rational world. Then, this world begins to mold itself around her, making the sense for her that she cannot make for herself. In the end, the diegetic world has given itself over to her strange obsessions, her pulsions and drives. She is an improbably desired object, her complete passivity the ultimate accouterment and her psychosis the final measure of reality. And what's most unnerving for me is how she, and the film, became so persuasive, successfully insinuating themselves into my psyche, so that in the end I don't know whether I too am overvaluing this meticulously overworked Rorschach blot of a film. It scares the hell out of me.




Bad Education (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)

[SPOILERS] I haven't ever really flipped for an Almodóvar film, and haven't been unequivocally impressed since 1986's Matador. But in the years since, I have usually been equivocally impressed, and that's certainly the case with Bad Education. From a stunner of a credits sequence (sort of a ripped-poster pastiche of lurid Mexican melodrama graphics and sharply Mod graphic design) through the opening passages, in which the concrete present and the reimagined past occupy different aspect ratios (present as widescreen, past as Academy), Bad Ed succeeds at combining the jagged, discomfiting spaces and ambiance of film noir with the Pop-Arty, funkily Latino candy colors of Cinema Pedro. Gael Garcia Bernal turns in a strong performance as the homme / femme fatale, although he gets tripped up amidst the difficulty of the final acts. He's simply too likable to fully convince as a conniving murderer, and as the film's plot mechanics demand increasing levels of cynicism and cruelty, he and the rest of the cast become locked in a purely demonstrative logic, one that impresses in its iron-and-fiberglass sheen but that fails to fully engage on either an emotional or even an intellectual plane. Rather, I found myself watching Bad Ed as I would a spinning top, with a dull haze of hypnotism combined with a proleptic anticipation of its winding down. In short, it's rather forced, and yet the first act enthralled me, showing just how much more this film could be when Almodóvar allowed angry passion to hold sway, rather than irony or gamesmanship. The pure brilliance of the conceit -- placing gay men, young boys, and priests into the noir structure, allowing us to consider these permutations of desire in their own unique circumstances -- was, in these first elaborations, imbued with barely stifled rage. The scenes between young Ignacio (in an eerily knowing performance by Nacho Pérez) and Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho), particularly the voice-and-guitar duet at the swimming hole, are horrific and electrifying precisely because Almodóvar's gaze communicates the sexual appeal of Ignacio, while simultaneously castigating the system that refuses to protect him.This is the film I wanted to see, and despite my disappointment with Bad Ed, I feel fortunate to have witnessed as much of that film as Almodóvar was willing to deliver.


Ocean's Twelve (Steven Soderbergh)

The venom aimed at this frivolous throwaway (see the scathing notices at the bottom of the Metacritic page) is entirely misplaced. I hate the self-satisfaction of E! Network celebrity culture even more than the next person, but O12 is hardly the appropriate representative of smug megastar insularity. (I have two words for this crowd: The Mexican.) I, as a member of both the film's audience and the lower economic echelons, always felt included in the fun, the slackness, the hipness, and the seduction of pure surface. Soderbergh's visuals are effortless eye candy, and as with Full Frontal or Schizopolis, he's not afraid to trust his own quirky instincts. (Q: Why show Tess's plane taking off sideways? A: Because it's cool.) To mount some kind of Sontagian defense of O12's defiant lack of depth would, of course, be to perversely misread the whole enterprise, which is nothing more than fifteen or so of the most affable movie stars in cinema today (I'll even give Julia Roberts a pass here, since she was not only game but strikingly human here) goofing around in Europe, rolling their vacations into tax-deductible pseudo-work. Absolutely nothing to analyze, just grainy light and empty calories. Sorry, but that's cool with me, since the result -- a slick hybrid of Band of Outsiders and Battle of the Network Stars -- to my eyes winked, never sneered. . Also, about an hour in, I thought to myself, "Hmm, okay, they're all in Europe . . . Can't Steven make room for a European movie star?" and within seconds Vincent Cassel shows up. Awesome. If Denis Lavant had put in an appearance, I'd be revising my 2004 top ten list as we speak.


-A Trip to the Orphanage (Guy Maddin, Canada) [s]

The only one of Maddin's three Saddest Music companion shorts that remotely compares with his best short-form experimentation, Orphanage appears to consist partly of outtakes or short-end footage from Saddest Music (with Maria de Medeiros in her parka), but Maddin transforms it into something more. Instead of breakneck jump cuts and movie-geek in-jokes, we have long takes of a woman in the snow, lip-synching to a crushingly melancholy aria. Maddin textures the piece with gauzy curtains flapping into the frame, ghostly forms layered through slow fades and superimpositions. It recalls some of Janie Geiser's most plangent work, like The Fourth Watch and her recent Terrace 49. A much-needed change of pace, and a worthy addition to the Maddin oeuvre.


A Very Long Engagement (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France / U.S.)

After my tepid-to-irritated response to Amelie, I certainly never expected to like this one. As it turns out, Jeunet's precious visual style suits the historical epic quite nicely. The past, as Jeunet creates it via mise-en-scène and CGI, is a craggy yet flattened curio, a crumbling sepia photograph imbued with life by an almost petulant imagination. The impishness that was so overbearing in Amelie here serves to call forth the irretrievability of the past, but in a more complex manner than one finds in most costume dramas and war stories. It oscillates between the static and the gruesome, and manages to obviate nostalgia by dint of its weirdness. It helps that Jeunet is telling an actual story here, instead of just stringing together nifty vignettes. And remarkably, despite all this imposition of distance -- the sickly yellowed tone, the beneath-plate-glass flattening of foreground and background, the visceral ugliness of WW1, bodies not only blown to bits but not yet inured to modern warfare, redoubling the trauma -- Mathilde's romantic quest is reasonably affecting. Also -- who'd of thunk it? -- working within the vast tragic canvas of a war story actually makes Jeunet's little touches of whimsy relieving instead of cloying. They're the sugar lumps in the strong black coffee, not the treacly gingerbread walls that Amelie forced us to eat our way through. Far from perfect, lord knows, but a very pleasant surprise.




Head-On (Fatih Akin, Germany / Turkey)

Stylistically, never less than compelling, but somehow the picture addressed me as though I was supposed to be moved by it, or find its rather shallow cross-cultural collisions deeply philosophical or at least cleverly depicted. Truth is, it's a solid enough timewaster, already fading from memory. Some portions of its montage resemble slightly less caffeinated Guy Ritchie moments, and its music cues are trying way too hard. Stuart Klawans compared Head-On to a Nick Cave record, and I think that's somewhat on target. (To be more specific, this is like a cross between From Her to Eternity and Murder Ballads. Enjoy.) Perhaps the film's most noteworthy revelation for me (rather obvious in retrospect, admittedly) was that secularized Muslims in Turkey should find a home inside Goth and punk in the same way that, say, disaffected former Catholics do in American youth culture. It's a good place to channel all that blood, rage, and mortification of the flesh. I fear I'm making Head-On sound much worse than it is. It's fine, and certainly well-acted, but I'm puzzled as to how it could win so many over to its cause. Final thought: I have nothing whatsoever against Strand Releasing, a fine company who in many respects are doing the Lord's work. But I just can't shake this odd feeling that when Cahit (Birol Ünel) tells Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) "I only fuck men" at the end of reel two, the Strand team jumped out of its seats at the Berlin Film Festival and raced back to the hotel to get the checkbook, perhaps discovering only later that Cahit's just making a random joke.


In Good Company (Paul Weitz)

Probably an overly generous grade, since most of the pitfalls of mainstream middlebrow cinema rear their heads repeatedly in this film. Potential subtext is thuddingly announced for the idiotic viewer. Music cues are cheap and manipulative. Visually, the film is constructed with a negligibility that almost revels in sloppy craftsmanship. (Watch for the mismatched angles of Dennis Quaid and Scarlett Johansson's heads in the reverse-shots during their hospital heart-to-heart.) And of course, there's an almost mathematical neatness to the relationships and character arcs, elements that favor "solid" screenwriterly construction over fidelity to the messy complexities of real life. And yet, this picture aims so low that it manages to hit its mark rather often despite itself. Topher Grace, an actor I haven't responded well to in the past, turns in an ingratiating performance here, moving easily through the bobs and weaves of a character at odds with himself. Quaid is reliably Quaid (leathery, baritone, the steely version of" jus' folks"), and Johansson has little to do but be the stereotypical college girl. (The scene in her dorm room is admirably spot-on.) In short, an inoffensive, above average time-waster, a sort of Lil' Jerry Maguire.


Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood)

[SPOILERS] After the skull-thumping obviousness and faux-Sophoclean bombast of Mystic River ("Sometimes I think we all got into that car that day"), my expectations were low. Given that Eastwood's "classical" direction was allegedly one of the major points in his last film's favor, I figured all Eastwood could really do here is to take a by-the-numbers genre story and impress the irony-weary post-9/11 world by playing it straight. Much to my surprise, there is something to those bold claims on behalf of Eastwood's direction. It's not just that he underlights the picture, saturating the frame with black and blue and highlighting the chiaroscuro texture of weathered, geriatric skin. (It should be said, however, that this is a stark visual achievement, particularly in how the film underscores both the similarities and differences between Eastwood's and Morgan Freeman's bodies.) The pacing, the economical storytelling, the subtle attention to detail, all of these aspects of Million Dollar Baby do in fact live up to the unhyped hype; this is the work of a man in complete control of the medium. Trouble is, pace the auteurists, there is only so much alchemy a director can perform in the transubstantiation of a hackneyed script. Paul Haggis' "Hemingwayesque" dialogue often feels too scripted, too literarily sculpted to even feel at home in an actor's mouth. Perfect example: the Frankie / Scrap dialogue about socks. Probably great on the page, but too Abbott and Costello onscreen. Similarly, the subtlety of MDB's best details (for instance, the almost heartbreaking moment when Hilary Swank's Maggie looks for a moment while waitressing at a piece of salisbury steak, then happily walks away) are cruelly undercut by broad, cartoonish touches that gut the mood rather than lighten it. Most egregious: Danger, the mentally challenged, comic-relief non-boxer. His every appearance reminds me of what I most despise about so-called "classical" Hollywood filmmaking -- its tendency to play to the cheap seats, to implicitly insult the viewer. Mystic River was riddled with these elements; it's to MDB's credit that Eastwood keeps them to a minimum so that when they do flare up, they strike a wrong chord all over again. (And for the record, I felt the same way about the unfunny "comic touches" in The Searchers too. So I'm more than willing to consider that the problem may be my own.) But the single broadest touch in this film, and the most objectionable, is the garish, Springeresque representation of Maggie's "white trash" Missouri family. In both performance and scripting, they serve to break the film open, to offend the viewer with their tastelessness. And yet, the deck is entirely too stacked, and the class politics of MDB too deterministic, to give these characters anything remotely resembling a fair hearing. (And critics find Dogville offensively mean-spirited!) I went into MDB expecting to have qualms about Eastwood's version of female empowerment, but the result turned out to be more complicated than I had imagined. Classist presumptions, about the noble vs. the trashy poor, are the major dividing lines here, and the male / female, father / daughter plot is gently traversed by these ideologies. Maggie is a smart, complex, engaging character. But I'm troubled by what she seems to represent -- the bootstraps mythology, a Rocky story for women that doesn't really examine the class or gender divide that works to keep certain people in their place. (Eastwood, in another ham-fisted touch, places an inspirational placard behind Maggie's punching bag: "Winners are willing to do what losers aren't.") Within Eastwood's universe, poor, spunky, driven individuals who work their asses off and "always protect" themselves, will triumph, and while this does provide an undeniably inspirational fiction, it simply isn't the case. And the tragic turn of the final third of the film doesn't give the lie to this idea, either. Accidents happen, fate intervenes. No one is responsible, really, for what happens to Maggie, although I would contend that a stratified economic system is largely responsible for producing Maggie and her family in the first place. (Note to Victor: although you won't approve of MDB's conclusions, it does, I think, pay much more than lip service to religious objections to the "culture of death.") Undeniably powerful, beautifully directed and performed (I almost forgot I was watching a "training montage"!), Million Dollar Baby, like such very different films as Lost in Translation and Elephant, presses exquisite form into the service of troublingly wrongheaded ideas. It's essentially the best possible artistic expression of what Republican feminism might look like.


-La petite Lili (Claude Miller, France / Canada)

It's official: Ludivine Sagnier can't act. Actually she's been fairly strong in broad comedy from what I've seen (8 Women and Water Drops on Burning Rocks), but as was the case in Swimming Pool, her dramatic repertoire consists of looking doe-eyed, then vaguely confused, then back again, intermittantly doffing her top. It's kind of sad, really. Nevertheless, Miller's loose adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull is interesting from a directorial standpoint. Rather than the usual flaw with such projects -- a filmic translation that feels stagebound -- Lili manages, improbably, to maintain an awkward, compelling tension between cinema and theatre. Elaborate, overly self-aware dialogue more suited to the stage unfurls in spacious interiors and the woods around a beachfront chateau, never settling down into a predictable groove. Likewise, the overt theme of the film (whether youthful impetuousness equals bracing honesty or just mere delusion) gets wrapped up in some very clunky meta-film elaboration. (Filmmakers and actors abound in Lili, and the third act is a film-within-a-film reiterating much of what we've seen already.) And yet, this clunkiness feels oddly ordained, carried off with, well, clunky grace. Ultimately Miller's film isn't as revelatory as it seems to think it is; it's hard to see why it was selected for Competition at Cannes 2003 over other French product of similar bent and pedigree. Nevertheless, there's a fascinating liminality to the whole thing, lending it an improbable philosophical sturdiness, like a mathematical proof. Also, Julie Depardieu is pretty hot. And, um, she can act. Also, A HEARTFELT PLEA TO THE CINEASTES OF PLANET EARTH: enough with the Arvo frickin' Pärt.


Swades (Ashutosh Gowariker, India)

Houston has two Bollywood cinemas, and when I went to one of them a few weeks ago to see Veer-Zaara, I asked the manager about Swades, Gowariker's highly anticipated follow-up to Lagaan. "Oh, we're not booking that film," he said. "It's been a global flop. It's slow, it's boring, and it deals with all this stuff Indians don't care about, like astronauts. It's a total misfire." Needless to say, I find this characterization unduly harsh, but it has some elements of truth. Swades is nowhere near as accomplished as Lagaan. But it makes up for its awkwardness and declamatory rhetoric with a unique style and pacing that I haven't seen before in an Indian studio picture. There is a homemade, unmistakably personal aspect that runs throughout Swades, buoying it during even its most turgid passages. Shahrukh Khan plays an NRI scientist at NASA who, in the first ten minutes, learns that his application for U.S. citizenship has just been approved. He confides to his best friend that he's ambivalent about becoming an American, and wonders what became of those he left behind, particularly the elderly nanny who raised him. Soon, Khan's character is returning to India to find the rural village she live in so he can bring her back to the States. The credits sequence comes in only after this lengthy expository prologue, and I cannot recall a more subdued opening to a Bollywood film. They titles roll over still, lengthy shots of Khan on the flight to India, gazing out the window, listening to headphones (music we can't hear), and quietly sipping a Coke. It resembles the start of an Alexander Payne picture. Much of Swades behaves like this, and it's easy to see how it is regrettably falling between cinematic chairs, too genre-bound and broadly conceived to be an art film, but too leisurely and thematically single-minded to serve as high-gloss entertainment. Although there are several musical numbers, their staging is austere, and though they do feel somewhat detachable from the remainder of the film, they would be equally out of place in any other Bollywood production. Their visual texture is an uninflected realism, and even A.H. Rahman's music sounds at times like a theoretically orchestrated hybrid of Hindi and Western influences. (The opening song, "O Traveler," is a bit like Shahrukh fronting the Dave Matthews Band.) Also, whereas typically a Bollywood film will thread a number of secondary plots through its primary love story, Swades subsumes everything to one dominant trope: the responsibility that NRIs have to insure that Indians are not left underdeveloped in the face of globalization. Gowariker's treatment of this issue, while sincere, is ideologically muddled. The ultimate message seems to be one of bootstrap-ingenuity and self-reliance, of the peasantry getting off their butts, no longer making infrastructural demands of the government, and lifting themselves into the 21st century. It's a viewpoint any Republican would embrace, yet Gowariker purveys it as the height of progressive thinking. But adding to the confusion is the fact that it takes Khan's character, a man who no longer exactly belongs to this landscape, to serve as the prime mover in this uplift. Gowariker's views are significantly less muddy on the matter of women's rights and caste oppression, but regardless of the argument he is making, the writer-director states it in his characters' dialogue, plainly and didactically. Some critics have found fault with this "artlessness," but whether intentionally or not, this is when Swades' odd hybridity succeeds most. Hollywood message-pictures are clunky because they remain wedded to the conventions of realist dramaturgy. Here, the collision of Bollywood genre tics and earnest speechifying results in a kind of Brechtianism. (In fact, Swades frequently recalled Sembene's Moolaadé.) Naturally, many are finding outright failure where I see productive textual tensions. (And the final half-hour, I'll gladly admit, is a painful botch, a full-on retreat into Bollywood's worst melodramatic excesses.) But holding everything together, and keeping the film's discombobulated missteps firmly grounded, is an unassuming visual style and mode of narrative address that communicates Gowariker's firm commitment to his project and his inchoate, contrarian vision. [NOTE: The title is pronounced SWAH-dezz, not "suedes." In other words, don't be as much of a dumbass as I was at the ticket counter. You're welcome. Also, in the days since seeing this film, I've realized that it has too many flaws to ignore, and they've been nagging at me. Hence the lowered grade.]




-Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee)

I have been a McElwee partisan for quite some time, very much appreciating his medium-length diary sketches Backyard and Charleen, and considering Sherman's March to be a flat-out masterpiece. But his work has been steadily slipping since that benchmark, and now, having seen Bright Leaves after witnessing its widespread embrasure by film critics, I am beginning to understand my difficulty with latter-day McElwee. His early films were about trying to do one thing and accidentally doing another. Sherman's March is a towering testament to bumbling, laughable maleness, an filmmaker using his own film as a feeble excuse for following the whims and dictates of his carnal lust, an attempt at intellectual distance. Beginning with Time Indefinite, and especially with 6 O'Clock News and Bright Leaves, McElwee has attained "mastery" over his medium, and "maturity" with respect to his filmic persona. Instead of letting a film develop (or not) around his sometimes foolhardy curiosity, now McElwee is carefully sculpting Lopate-approved "essay films." Here, McElwee's family history (his great-grandfather was a ruined North Carolina tobacco magnate) and his hunch that the Michael Curtiz film Bright Leaf might've been a fictionalized account of that history, leads to very plodding, deliberate meditations of smoking, tobacco, and the American South. Interspersed with these passages are reminiscences about McElwee's father and meditations on his present relationship with his own son. This is the sort of stuff film critics go nuts over; the personal interwoven with the social, and especially the local color, deep accents, and traditional religiosity of the South. (Urban critics want to believe that "regional filmmaking" will reveal the South to be as distinct a culture as Iran, Taiwan, or Argentina, a little otherness so close to home. This desire, I believe, is 100% responsible for the overvaluation of David Gordon Green.) The trouble is, McElwee's essayistic narration and provision of perspective on the material at hand simply isn't all that insightful. The father / son themes are clearly straining for universality, but without a fresh perspective on the situations and emotions we all share, the universal is merely the commonplace. Bright Leaves is at its least compelling when McElwee's focus is tightest. (The appearance of film theorist Vlada Petric is a welcome jolt into vibrancy, but McElwee reduces his participation to a cheap joke at film theory's expense.) As the film gets more discursive and wide-ranging, it does improve. Footage from the final Tobacco Day Parade, for instance, dovetails with his main theme but is digressive enough to let unfiltered life seep into the mix. But at other times, as with the "spoiled shot" with the dog, the filmmaker is clumsily forcing the point of life's unpredictability, a fact so seemlessly integrated into Sherman's March's formal fabric. Overall, Bright Leaves is characterized by the firm, authoritative voice of a man whose accumulated wisdom mostly serves to point out how much more he has to learn. Greater control of his medium, the ability to manipulate it to say exactly what he wants to say -- this is the last thing Ross McElwee needs.


-Common Ground (Adolfo Aristarain, Argentina / Spain)

If Woody Allen were Latin American (impossible to even imagine, I know), he'd probably make a film a lot like this one. Fernando (Federico Luppi), a crusty leftist academic, is forcibly retired and decides to move with his wife Lili (Mercedes Sampietro) to a provincial farm, to see whether he can put his anarchist beliefs into practice. In the course of time, he visits his son in Spain (Carlos Santamaría), a failed novelist who represents Fernando's fears of selling out. Fernando's best friend Carlos (Arturo Puig) is a lawyer involved with a hot young woman decades his junior (Valentina Bassi). So, you could essentially plug in, say, Philip Baker Hall, Dianne Wiest, Stanley Tucci, Sydney Pollack, and Christina Applegate, and there you go. Aristarain, one of Argentina's major directors of the pre-New Wave old guard, has an affable, unobtrusive visual style, and his writing is mostly in the mannered, overly literate pattern of upper-middlebrow Miramax product. In fact, despite my reservations about Common Ground's filmic complacency, its obvious comfort in its own weathered skin, I was prepared to give this engaging trifle a 6. A final-reel plot "twist," however, cemented my suspicions that Aristarain's m.o. is blue-hair, middle-class-cozy and Weinstein-snuggly. No surprise, then, that Wellspring wouldn't quite know what to do with it, other than to dump in onto DVD two years late. That company is clearly more at ease with the likes of Godard and Tsai, even though there's clearly much more money to be had with this sort of film, provided you know how to market it. Despite its flaws, Common Ground is a worthy enough entertainment, and I'll certainly keep Aristarain on my mental list of directors to watch out for.


-It's All About Love (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark / Sweden / U.K. / U.S. / Japan / Germany / The Netherlands)

[SPOILERS] It's not all that bad, I mean really. What it is is a big budget unholy mess, but certainly a compelling, bizarrely unhinged mess. Imagine, if you will, the swoony romanticism of Wong Kar-Wai blended with the ice cold, all-encompassing mise-en-scène of Kubrick, pressed in the service of one of those harebrained late-Wenders projects, like Faraway, So Close! or Until the End of the World. Oh yeah, and floating Ugandans. Absolutely worth watching for anyone who cares about cinema -- not "quality entertainment" or even "good movies," but cinema as the geeky pursuit of generating some kind of mental map of the world in all its flailing embarrassment. It's All About Love is a turkey with a heart, and as such, probably deserves to be sent to bed without its supper and then snuck a sandwich after dad's gone to bed. Random thoughts: why would a massive global conspiracy be organized for the cloning of . . .figure skaters? Also, Claire Danes reportedly left the premiere in tears, so humiliated by what she saw, and Joaquin Phoenix has apparently lobbied for the film's suppression. Yes, their accents come and go; they make Kevin Costner look / sound positively Streepian. But let's not forget that Vinterberg was one of the framers of the Dogme 95 manifesto, a thundering Danish blow against bloated Hollywood excess. Perhaps he decided it was best to try to take down the beast from within? This septa-national megaproduction surely lost money for all concerned, and made its two "bankable" stars (a TV B-lister who got lucky and a late-90s up-and-comer whose hype outstripped his abilities) look like absolute idiots. Thomas Vinterberg: an anarchist knee-deep in Europudding?


The Living World (Eugène Green, France)


Two weeks prior to the screening:


HACK: I'm really excited to get the chance to catch The Living World.

STEVE ERICKSON: Yeah, I'll be interested to know what you think. I didn't like it.

HACK: Why not?

STEVE ERICKSON: Well, it's really cutesy . . . sort of like if Wes Anderson did a Bresson film . . .

HACK: Wow!

STEVE ERICKSON: Yeah, as soon as I said that, I realized that sounded like it would be really good. But it's not.


The day after the screening:


HACK: You're right, Steve. It's not. Part of the trouble is that in addition to his film's overly precious humor (e.g., Nicolas the young ogre-slayer thwarts the ogre's trap of dousing the fighting area with slug-slime, since his mother equipped him with "anti-slime shoes"), Green, to my eyes, completely misunderstands Robert Bresson's approach to cinema. He treats it like a syntax, a way to reduce shots to their basic elements of signification. Why show a whole body when you can focus on his hands, a whole room when you can convey it using only a corner, etc.? But Bresson wasn't merely interested in getting the point across in the most economical way possible, like some sort of filmic equivalent of Hemingway prose. He used unusual close-ups, visual metonymy, and especially his rigorous, poetic editing style to transform the photographed world into a new type of space, with an architectural structure all its own. Green reduces Bresson's procedures to an overall flatness, an uninflected demonstrative mode. A key example of this is his construction of shot / reverse-shots -- alternating four flat frontals, four over-the-shoulders, then four close-ups. The format is almost didactic, and while this would seem to make sense in the context Green is struggling to create (the medieval fairy tale as lesson or exemplar, combined with making the structure of film language transparent to the viewer), the director achieves this gracelessly and to no clear artistic purpose. Green's intellectual purpose, however, could scarcely be clearer. His repeated evocation of the Jules Ferry Laws (when French primary education was made officially secular), his name-check of Lacan, and the second half's non-stop iteration of the magical power of words, speech acts, verbal agreements and the like, serve to promulgate a single idea endlessly, with no evolution or interrogation. That idea, one that Green seems to have borrowed from post-structuralist re-evaluation of medieval philosophy, is that the separation of language from the represented world, its reduction to a deterministic system (like Saussure's langue, the arbitrary relationship of a "signifier" and a "signified"), has purged the world of imagination, religiosity, the magical thinking that allows us to grant words an unseen power. (Lacan is significant here, since his psychoanalysis allows a space for this magical thinking in the unconscious, particularly in that zone of subjectivity paradoxically designated as The Real.) Heady stuff, to be sure, but Green is essentially staging a human puppet show in order to demonstrate his thesis, a conclusion he has arrived at long before the cameras began rolling. What remain missing from The Living World are precisely those elements -- aesthetic discovery, uncertainty and risk -- that would serve to bring Green's imaginary world to life.


The Woodsman (Nicole Kassell)

[SPOILERS] It is certainly to this film's credit that despite its fairly obvious badness, its chainlink articulation of wrongheaded ideas, it manages to be somewhat compelling and even emotionally potent at times. But I think this is just a sign of the times, the fact that Kassell creates the character of Walter (Kevin Bacon) as not only a human being, but a perfectly average one, a sullen woodworker almost defiantly unextraordinary. To really succeed at its aims, The Woodsman would need to open its frame a little wider, to consider how present-day American culture, a sort of high-tech 24-hour Roman orgy by proxy, simultaneously sexualizes young girls and imposes the taboo against pedophilia all the more harshly. (The purpose, one presumes, is to instill outlaw desires that can never actually be fulfilled, all the better to reprogram us as fear-and-consumption machines.) "I'm not a monster," Walter protests, and the film seems to agree, but by focusing on the individual so resolutely (as traditional dramas always do), The Woodsman deprives Walter of his best possible arguments. What's more, all of this interesting potential is, as I said above, encased in ham-fisted rookie errors, like Mos Def's citation of Little Red Riding Hood, the red-ball fantasy sequences, and, worst of all, the sports-commentary voiceover narrating a pedophile's conquest of his young prey. And while on the subject of "Candy," the predator Walter watches from his inner-city window, what are we to make of the fact that Walter (molester of girls) becomes redeemed not only by having a shockingly unproblematic adult sexual relationship with Vicki (Kyra Sedgwick), but by beating the shit out of Candy, a molester of boys? This, along with Walter's carnal falsification of his hypothesis that Vicki is a "dyke," gives the vague, unsettling impression that homophobia is the road to sexual normalcy. Also, rapper Eve displays considerable potential as an actress, most of which is squandered here.




-Jesus, You Know (Ulrich Seidl, Austria) [v]

There are films whose aesthetic tack rubs me the wrong way so early out of the gate that I rush to judgment almost immediately, and even though I tend to trust those gut reactions, some part of me always feels like maybe I didn't give the work a fair shake. Not so with Jesus, You Know, which started out looking like a late-breaking top ten contender in the first fifteen minutes, and concluded as an exhausting, problematic slog. Seidl sets cameras up on (in?) church altars and videotapes the prolix Catholic faithful as they conduct monologues to God. The early prayers depict their respective speakers as sympathetic and honest, deeply troubled humans coping with difficult pasts and uncertain futures by drawing strength from their faith. And within this more sympathetic context, Seidl's invisible-camera documentation seemed less specious. The participants don't have to look into the lens to signal that, in some fundamental way, they're performing, using unusually lengthy prayer aloud to tell us something about themselves as triangulated through Jesus. (Not to make light, but it called to mind how when Jen and I speak to our pets in each other's presence, we are in some fundamental way speaking to each other even more than to the cats. The cats are a conduit for indirect discourse.) But, as the prayers became more and more self-involved and preposterous (one woman wants her stroke-afflicted husband to make better choices of TV programs; a young man confesses that he likes to pleasure himself while looking at hot actresses in the back of the TV Guide, etc.), it becomes clear that this is no different from an odious reality-TV program, other than its fixed-frame camera set-ups and symmetrical inserts. (And at what point to these set-ups become so artificial as to no longer count as documentary? How is it that all of these people pray, play ping pong, watch TV, etc., in such well-composed ways?) What at first appeared to be a stark rejoinder to the media excesses of staged "reality" and confession-porn soon revealed itself to be little more than a more pretentious version of same.


-Sombra dolorosa (Guy Maddin, Canada) [s]

Pure stupidity, and borderline racist to boot. Yeah, I know I'm probably being oversensitive, and I know that Maddin's really just riffing on Mexican melodrama in the same anarchic, free-associative way he riffs on every other morsel of cinema history. But if you didn't know Maddin's other work, this would be indistinguishable from, say, SNL parodies of Telemundo, with a slackjawed Horatio Sanz jumping around in a bumblebee suit. What's more, Sombra isn't funny or clever, just trying way too hard to do The Heart of the World over again, Mexicano style. Refried, reheated, and retarded.


-Who Killed Bambi? (Gilles Marchand, France)

A dull, textbook thriller dressed up in a faux-Badalamenti score and pretentious Marienbad corridor-tracking. I enjoyed Marchand as a screenwriter (With a Friend Like Harry is one of my favorite thrillers of recent years), but as a director he has no real feel for the medium, stringing together visual clichés and standard Laurent Lucas glowering. A waste of time.