NEW RELEASES SEEN, JANUARY 2009
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)
-Afterschool (Antonio Campos)
[SOME SPOILERS] First, we shall answer the haters. Campos' exceptional debut film has already sparked ample debate in the rarefied corners of the film blogosphere, particularly following its appearance at last year's New York Film Festival. Several notable commentators have argued vociferously against Afterschool, finding it callow and misguided, even somehow opportunistic. They've claimed the film gloms on to such hot-button issues as violence and image-ethics, and the prevalence of the Internet in shaping the new generation's consciousness, without providing any significant insights. But let's back up a minute. Following a few short films (one of which, The Last 15, I've seen and admired), Campos made Afterschool as his debut feature, and it's simply one of the finest, most formally exacting debut features in recent memory. (One would have to go to Steve McQueen's Hunger to come close to finding a peer in this area, but considering McQueen's extensive background in moving visual media, it's a bit of a cheat to call Hunger a "first film" per se.) Campos exhibits striking control of the frame, particularly with respect to his deployment of negative space as a mobile sculptural obstacle mitigating all potential social intercourse. This glacial visual approach, combined with his eerie modulation of actorly tone, hovering on the brink of total abstraction a la Kubrick, has prompted some naysayers to call Campos a Michael Haneke impersonator. But Haneke, hailing as he does from the land of Freud, Schiele and the Aktionists, almost always breaks his "emotional glaciation" open at some point or another. Repression, a flimsy dam on a rushing river, always fails. Campos offers virtually nothing in the way of respite, aside from a few misjudged comic moments and some highlighter-marked passages pushing a 9/11 allegory to the foreground. (These bits usually center on the unctuous boarding school principal character, a mouthpiece for Bushisms and media pabulum.) Instead, Campos is marking the trajectory of Robert (the remarkably assured Ezra Miller) as a kind of receiver or seismograph of cultural impulses. Perhaps he's a faulty circuit in the sense that he cannot just go with the New Media flow. Images and sounds wash over him, but they don't do so unproblematically, and that is the "conflict" within Afterschool, not some mounting aggression that will, say, result in some Columbine-like outcome -- one which, all told, would reflect a much more Hanekian view on kids.
Robert is grappling with something that all those around him take for granted -- the fundamental equivalency of things under the gaze of New Media. But Campos isn't really making "an Internet movie." Although Afterschool's opening montage does place us directly inside the Mind of YouTube (catfight caught on a cellphone, cat playing the piano, Saddam Hussein's execution, etc.), the Internet merely expedites what movies and TV have been doing to our sensorium for decades. In his book Television, Raymond Williams asked us to consider the impact of TV's formal arrangement, the fact that a newscast, for example, would be interrupted by commercials, so the viewer is perceiving, in the most basic phenomenological terms, something like "Vietnam War / Watergate / buy floorwax / buy Schlitz / Yankees beat A's / buy a Chevrolet / local weather / stay tuned for Happy Days," as if these things were fundamentally equivalent. The thing that Internet communication adds to this, of course, is interactivity, but also, as a result, thinking time. We're often coached to believe that the computer is just more, more, more, and faster, faster. And the Internet does provide speed and greater access. But compared with movies or TV, the Internet is slow because it typically doesn't just keep coming. It requires decision-making, and so it inserts a self-consciousness that other media's continuous run can tend to occlude. It is this thinking time, I think, that is hanging Robert up, making him a faster perceiver than an actor, and forcing him to reflect on his own ethics in a manner to which such a young person may be ill-equipped. At any rate, it is vital to the structure and force of Afterschool's argument that Robert be someone with the time (maybe too much time) to reflect, and to lapse into eventual self-consciousness. Campos, I suspect, will take heat in some quarters for setting Afterschool in an upscale prep school, given that there is often a resistance to seeing the potential universal application for knowledges gleaned from a elite milieu. Atmospheres like the one depicted in Afterschool are typically presented in films only to be mocked. But Campos (like Haneke and, actually, Chabrol) understands that the removal of certain material wants allows for a kind of crucible for the observation of pathologies in a purer, almost scientific state. Campos' aerial shots of the prep school, to say nothing of his movement through the corridors or his slow, clinical examination of the lunchroom, make this environment resemble The Shining's Overlook Hotel. Campos is "critical" of the school's privilege without making it into an outsized cartoon, the easy way out too few filmmakers have the mettle to resist. And so we see Robert's human interactions, particularly with his friend Dave (Jeremy Allen White) and proto-girlfriend Amy (Addison Timlin), hovering between the "flow" of moment-to-moment discourse (cf. Dave's pointedly rote, hypnotized stab at playing the dozens) and the halting pauses and awkward silences of both the tentative initial encounters with Amy and the broken rhythms of Internet plenitude.
"I think I may not be a good person," Robert confides to his mother on the phone, as things begin to unravel. She blows him off, of course, another of Campos' slightly overdone dollops of adult cluelessness. (These are the times when Afterschool's willingness to assign blame veers into a simple moralism the majority of the film studiously avoids.) I think we can put some pressure on this sentence. Afterschool is concerned to some extent with whether or not Robert is "good," and with his palpations against the grain of reality as he tests himself, but Campos won't answer such a misguided question. The real issue is that Robert thinks about his ethical stance in relation to things, and how his engagement with mediated realities are shifting the perceptible patterns of "real" events, "real" time and space. Following Afterschool's pivotal event, authority figures ask Robert why he didn't "act," because they are incapable of recognizing that he did act. He moved out of the image world (where, in real life, the characters involved existed for most of the students anyway) and into the frame, to figure out what was before him. And then he offered touch, care, human connection, a clearing in the din for an absolute privacy as life evaporated. Naturally, in a uniformly scopic regime, this registers only as confounding inattention. Robert "did nothing." Robert's interactions with Amy are even more complicated, since they represent Robert's most direct laboratory for confronting the dissonances between the world as seen and as lived, between optic and haptic reality. Sadly, they don't go very well, since Robert's sensitivity is largely limited to the perception of his own feelings. (If there is an aspect of Afterschool that comes close to answering whether Robert is a "good person," possibly in the negative, the Amy trysts might fit the bill. But again, they are too strange and tonally ambiguous for us to simply label them and move on.) If there is any part of Afterschool that could be said to sum up Robert's problem, and the film's intellectual thrust, it would of course be Robert's video. A jarring, sophisticated text with just enough small flashes of innocence, in craft and approach, to resonate as genuine naive art, the video embodies the time of thought, memorializes it, captures its hesitancy and inarticulation in a manner that belies the ethical certainty and semiotic closure those around Robert carry with them, for virtually any occasion. "Are you serious?" the principal asks. (Campos' title reveals its full resonance here, since a gently uplifting "afterschool special" is what Robert's world demands, and what he, and Campos, cannot provide.) The irony, of course, is that Robert is the only one who is even remotely serious, about the effort to integrate video images into the overall fabric of a tactile life, a life that touches rather than embalms at the moment of vision. This minoritatian insight, sadly, doesn't hold. Campos, pessimistically but quite wisely, offers a final view of Robert as a changed subject, Homo Youtubicus. Now, instead of struggling to isolate the human shards within the mediated universe, Robert succumbs to the dominant malady: live your very life like an image.
-Julia (Erick Zonca, France / U.S. / Mexico / Belgium)
[SPOILERS] This film was pilloried upon its world premiere at the 2008 Berlinale, and dammit, that just wasn't even remotely fair. (Andrew "Filmbrain" Grant deserves a shout-out here for being an early responder on Julia's behalf.) But with some distance it's pretty clear that lots of folks had the wrong idea about what exactly Julia was supposed to be, so much so that I doubt they could even see and hear what was up on the screen. First of all, I suspect Zonca took a beating for waiting so long to follow up The Dreamlife of Angels, a semi-naturalistic psychological character study that has become a kind of modern classic among cinephiles. I admired Dreamlife well enough, and found Elodie Bouchez's feral-in-quotation-marks performance compelling in an actor's-studio sort of way, but since I don't share the opinion that Zonca is trapped in the shadow of a masterpiece, the about-face of Julia never threatened to offend me the way it did some. Second, somehow some commentators got the idea that Julia was supposed to be an actual remake of Cassavetes' Gloria. If any viewer goes in with expectations like those, the substantially different narrative trajectory of Zonca's film, as well as its unique formalist hiccups, will scan as incompetence. That's to say nothing of the third major stumbling block, the fact that Tilda Swinton's title character is, in most respects, a vile character, a dimwitted drunkard and scam artist operating in service of no one but herself. Now, nobody ever said a film's protagonist had to be likable, although a lot of viewers, critics included, seem to keep it in their minds as an unconscious criterion for a film's quality, even going so far to blame films which take a jaundiced view of their subjects for "lack of generosity" or inadequate "humanism." But mostly, some folks just don't find mean people to be entertaining enough. (We could call this the Dabney Coleman Rule.) And, if your foul-mouthed manipulative drunk is a woman, of course we're transgressing against many people's tired gender-bound ideas of decorum.
As I hope I'm making clear, Julia is a film that makes several strategic decisions that rankle. Of course, if a viewer can stop being irked long enough to notice that, by and large, Julia is a bone-dry comedy, one can begin to see exactly what Zonca's up to. In Julia, Swinton embodies a woman so consumed by alcoholism and the immediate need to flee responsibility that it is next to impossible to discern anything you could rightly call "personality." She is a trapped animal, bobbing and weaving her "giraffe"-like frame (as former paramour Mitch, played by Saul Rubinek, calls her) in a perpetual hustle / walk-of-shame cycle. There are hints of Chinese Bookie's Cosmo Vitelli in Julia's angling for the big score, not to mention Opening Night's Myrtle Gordon in her almost poetic commitment to boozy self-obliteration. But in fact, Zonca is directly engaging with Gloria in order to unwrite it, or take it apart (almost). Whereas Gena Rowlands' original tough broad found herself in a maternal situation by accident and immediately rose to the occasion, Julia is roped into an insane estranged mother's kidnapping scheme and seizes it as an opportunity to jack the kid for a quick ransom. The blithe cruelty with which Julia treats young Tommy (Aidan Gould) is virtually slapstick, and so unlike what we're allowed to see happen to kids onscreen that it certainly adds to the animus against this film. (Watch Julia, who stole Tom from a swimming hole, berate the child for soiling his swim trunks, the only clothes he has. But that's nothing compared to the unspecified tranquilizers she plies him with, all the better to duct tape him to the back of the couch.) What Zonca locates in Julia is a complete desperation that is matched with a fundamental stupidity. Drying out would help her only so much. (In this way, Julia is sort of a sloppy-drunk cousin to the Coens' Burn After Reading, another schemes-of-the-dimwitted parable.) And, in terms of his interest in Cassavetes, Zonca is zeroing in not on this or that character or plot, but on the instantaneous, high-wire decision-making and perpetually in-progress personality formation of Cassavetes' most emblematic protagonists. They are super-existentialists, their mental make-up on permanent "refresh." Formally, this results in plotlines that appear to lurch in random directions, but which display total coherence in retrospect. What's more, Zonca reminds us that for the French, it's difficult not to think about Cassavetes without also thinking about Pialat, and Julia contains frequent straight-cuts that elide seemingly vital information or time spans, stretches which would make behavior more "logical," but also less impulsive in the presentation that it actually would be in the doing. When Julia constantly fails, makes an ass of herself, goes beyond the pale, Zonca is in some sense challenging us to keep giving a shit, in her and the film itself. Do we want to see punishment meted out, a hail of bullets? Or do we, like Mitch and AA more generally, have an ethical devotion to never giving up? Julia, and Julia, is frequently ridiculous, but twitchy, unpredictable, and never less than human.
-Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (Stephen Kijak, U.K.)
As I have complained before, it seems that the advent of digital technology, along with the newly possible aggregation of internationally distant members of fringe cults surrounding once-obscure pop culture artifacts, has led us to the present moment, wherein each and every underground musician will have his or her feature-length "rockumentary." In principle there's nothing wrong with this. But too often, there's very little to say about (for example) Jandek or The Minutemen or The Flaming Lips or They Might Be Giants aside from tracing the artists' history and discography, introducing them as people, and having a few key talking heads describe Why They're Important. (Few musicians provide the complex backstory and ethical quandary of Daniel Johnston, for instance.) What's more, these efforts are almost always labors of love which tend toward uncritical hagiography. There is nothing inherently cinematic about this trajectory, nor is there much for anyone to learn in the process. The fans know the lineage all too well, and the uninitiated are unlikely to care. So in the final analysis, we're watching the musical equivalents of DVD supplements, and it's difficult even in the best of circumstances to grasp their overall value. As slices of music history, it's easy to imagine them being slotted into some grand vertical bin, one after the other.
In Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, Stephen Kijak (Cinemania) does not entirely avoid these pitfalls, but he and collaborator Grant Gee (Joy Division; Meeting People is Easy) have several advantages going in. For one thing, Walker's contemporary musique maudit, which has quite justifiably been hailed as some of the most significant art of the century but also, at times, some of the ugliest, is a high-modernist ur-text that requires explication. While viewing 30 Century Man, my mind kept flitting back to Jim Shedden's film Brakhage, another documentary attempting to explain, for posterity and perhaps particularly for skeptics apt to declare the emperor naked, how the artist worked, what his sources are, and what the neophyte might use as some basic interpretive strategies. Kijak does not go far enough in this direction, partly because he and his phalanx of expert witnesses (executive producer David Bowie, Jarvis Cocker, Alison Goldfrapp, Radiohead minus Thom Yorke, and even Marc Almond who's on board with Scott until the dark, dense Tilt album) take the value of Walker's music as a given. What the film does instead -- a successful alternative approach -- is to carefully show where this strange alien with the otherworldly voice came from. For Europeans, much of this background is probably redundant, but The Walker Brothers never caught on in their homeland, and so Scott Walker was never a star in the U.S. Watching his evolution from teen idol to Jacques Brel interpreter to increasingly knotty, abstruse singer-songwriter to, finally, his present incarnation as an avant-garde sound artist, creating "songs" out of blocks of sound in a manner reminiscent of the music of Iannis Xenakis or György Ligeti.
The film's other major advantage is Walker himself. He has been incredibly media shy for years, and the extensive interview would be worth the price of admission alone. Unlike most musicians, Walker is extremely deliberate and cerebral about what he does, and is capable of explicating the evolution of his own ideas about music, song, and sound in logical yet highly original ways. What's more, Kijak and Gee show us Walker and his team in the studio during the recording of 2006's The Drift. This document may not be of much interest to some, since like most of Walker's output following Scott 3, it is an acquired taste, to put it mildly. But for those of us who believe that The Drift is a enormously significant contemporary artwork, one which may end up telling future generations as much about our post-9/11 era as Ulysses, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, or Weekend tell us about the Zeitgeists from which they emerged, this footage is precious indeed. Plus, watching Scott and his producer throwingn a donkey sound into the mix, or a percussionist working on the exact rhythm with which to pound his knuckles into a side of beef, is high comedy indeed. In the end, 30 Century Man is an imperfect document. (Just because Walker wrote a song about Orpheus doesn't mean it's wise to compare him to same.) But it is rare and valuable because it traces an actual musical journey. Not one about how this or that drummer quit the band or so-and-so OD'd but then we bounced back to make our greatest album ever. 30 Century Man allows Scott Walker to show, in careful detail, how he became the artist who made Tilt and The Drift. This is like having the chance to watch Schoenberg abandon tonality, in real time.
-Cargo 200 (Alexei Balabanov, Russia)
[MAJOR SPOILERS] To say that Cargo 200 "goes off the rails" is probably wrongheaded, since it implies a fundamental sanity, "rails" for the film to jump. But clearly part of Balabanov's agenda is to put his audience through some very odd but comprehensible paces, starting out in the mundane world of niggling want and awkward social tension characteristic of echt-Sovietism's final days and moving us, eventually, into an incomprehensible nightmare, a rising pressure on reality that only massive social collapse could remedy. As the final title card informs us, "It was in the second half of 1984," the period when Chernenko was "ruling" near-comatose from a hospital bed, state thuggery was running unchecked, and the Gorbachev era, although actually right around the corner, must have felt unimaginable. Balabanov kicks things off on a well-lit balcony at morning, just off a modest but not uninviting little apartment, as two brothers, one a semi-high regional party official, the other a professor of "Scientific Atheism" at a Leningrad university, share concerns over their kids' futures, partying habits, choice of boyfriends, and of course the difficulty in securing groceries in the present acephalic-government mess. This exchange evinces exhaustion and depression, the hamstrung apathy of men who've seen their socialist dreams evaporate but still keep hope for something better and, at least semi-publicly, know that they'd better keep believing.
From here on out, things get weird. The professor's car breaks down on the way to visit his mom in Leninsk, and he wanders over to the only light in this desolate area. He finds a farmhouse, where a gruff ex-con speaks for forging a Christian utopia, offers the professor homemade vodka and soup, and debates him about Communism and the existence of God. The fact that this conversation goes on for almost ten minutes, Balabanov cutting away only briefly from the men seated across the table from one another, implies that Cargo 200 is, in some sense, laying down its ur-text. It functions like a joke (car breaks down, man finds a farmhouse, etc.) but its implications are quite serious, since the professor's encounter with the men and women at the commune will implant deep ethical doubts about the secular, scientific aetiology of conscience, and the capacity of Communism to countenance horrific deeds. In terms of Balabanov's larger moral indictment of the era, the murder and mayhem at the farmhouse, which spill out in other geographical locations courtesy of a rogue cop in disguise, essentially serve as dialectical the "here," against which the war in Afghanistan is the ever-absent, always hovering "there." The film's title, "cargo 200," refers to the Soviet police slang used to refer to the shipment of dead soldiers from the Afghan front, and once Balabanov as abjured all attempts at either realism or philosophical inquiry, and dives headlong into absurd, metaphorical horror-show territory, a "cargo 200" soldier features prominently in the plot.
A young woman kidnapped from the farmhouse by the psychotic cop, chained to his bed and forced to "play wife," warns him that her boyfriend is a tough guy and will be returning from Afghanistan soon to kick his ass and set her free. It just so happens he's the cargo 200, and the cop, charged with his burial, brings him home and leaves him rotting next to his chained would-be bride, the room filling with flies and putrefaction. It could be possible, I suppose, to recoil at the misogyny here, as though Balabanov were implicitly blaming the young woman for some Soviet necrophilic romance regarding death on the battlefield. But actually I think the opposite is true; she and her dead soldier are equals, left for dead by a zombie-state that feeds on its young. As the above should imply, Balabanov has made a film that can hardly be taken at face value. Particularly by its conclusion, Cargo 200 blares its allegorical intentions, perhaps a bit too forcefully. Nevertheless, it is a film not only of ideas but of specific idea-images that emerge from a cultural unconscious flowering inside the pressure cooker of a highly unique, phantasmagoric moment in history. Frank Zappa once remarked that when traveling to the former Soviet Union after the collapse, a poet there described Communism thus: "Imagine holding a shit for 50 years." Cargo 200, then, could best be understood as poetic seepage.
-Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, U.K.) [v]
From the toast of Cannes to the biggest shoulder-shrugger of Toronto 2008 (at least among my set), Of Time and the City hasn't been hotly contested so much as gently rebuffed in certain quarters. Although I'm generally inclined toward reversing the backlash -- it's a fine if imperfect film -- I can guarantee that Of Time is precisely the type of modest, personal work that disappoints in proportion to the degree that it's oversold. In a way it's a logical if surprising extension of Davies' early trilogy and his pair of autobiographical, para-narrative music features. Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes certainly combined popular songs, deeply individual reverie, and a fragmentary yet acutely materialist attention to the quotidian textures of English city life -- factory work, pub culture, women's communities, the washing, the ironing, the children playing hide-and-seek in the rubble of bombed-out buildings during the war. In an odd way, Of Time takes these concerns in two opposite directions. In his voiceover narration, Davies speaks more directly about his upbringing and cultural / religious fixations than ever before. Those elements of the earlier films that were conveyed with a well-chosen singalong or a bit of period detail are just divulged here in a chatty, essayistic tone. Davies' approach, his voice and cultural stance, places him squarely within the anti-realist strain of British art cinema, dovetailing with both the erudite hermeticism of a Greenaway and the religious iconology and queer cultural politics of a Jarman. Davies plunges us into high British poetry and Greek mythology right out of the gate, and in detailing his Catholic youth he explores religious iconology as an early framework for grappling with his burgeoning gay desires. In fact, Davies is quite remarkable, and has been throughout is career, in offering a distinctly "other road" for British cinema, since he has always been deeply invested in exploring working class culture, capturing (to borrow Raymond Williams' term) its "structure of feeling." He has done this through evocative, poetic means, a distinctive turn away from the Leigh / Loach commitment to post-kitchen sink naturalism.
However, Davies makes an unusual, dialectical turn in this, his first outright essay film. His most direct, honest effort on the audio track is conjoined with what are, at least in basic terms, his most impersonal images. Of Time and the City is comprised entirely of found footage. Ostensibly a tribute to his hometown of Liverpool, Of Time finds Davies recounting his childhood, his break with religion, his embrasure of the movies and his homosexuality, and the meaning that popular music had in his life until the scourge of rock & roll. All of this is illustrated with appropriate archival footage, lovingly assembled but often simply floating atop Davies' far more penetrating ruminations. (Only his description of his classical music jones, over images of the very Beatlemania he spurned, introduces actual counterpoint.) These images -- of women muddling through, hanging the washing, shellshocked men braving the Korean War, and eventually such comic extravagances as the coronation, or as Davies calls it, "The Betty Windsor Show" -- have a valence all their own, but it's only in their place in the relatively chronological, arts-and-literature-dotted movement through time of Davies' rumination that they achieve liftoff. By the conclusion of Of Time and the City, the essayistic form begins to betray Davies somewhat, since the film, and Davies, become rambling and unfocused, placing all chips on the raconteur's goodwill and seductive persona. Soon, as the sounds and images and words begin to unwind in your mind, assembling a full picture of retrospection, you notice that in fact, you've learned very little about the particulars of Liverpool, as opposed to, say, Birmingham or Kent. The single-song, no-voiceover montage sequences become longer and more prevalent, and this allows us time to notice just how uninspired some of Davies' editing choices really are, in light of the total freedom the non-narrative essay format permits him. (A late screed against modernist housing blocks, set to "The People Who Live on the Hill," is particularly maudlin.) And the conclusion strives for outright fanfare, bordering on bombast. In a project so inherently private and small, this choice borders on embarrassment. Nevertheless, this is Davies' first essay film, and much of it, in fact most of it, exploits the greatest assets of that medium: personal voice, opinion as exploration in process, and an openness to debate and ideational jostling that more closed texts tend to forbid. To paraphrase a remark made early in the film about Liverpool itself, if Terence Davies didn't exist, the cinema would have to invent him.
-Changeling (Clint Eastwood)
Having seen Changeling and Gran Torino within a very short span of time, I believe I'm ready to dismiss virtually anyone's grand claims for Eastwood the director. It's not just that his films are only as good as the scripts they're based on, a fact that in itself seems to debunk the magical-transformation arguments that so often accompany the conferral of auteur status. It's more the fact that Eastwood fails to take his time to really understand the material at hand, to work with actors to achieve nuance, to smooth out tonal inconsistencies across sequences, or really just to make sure that all aspects of a single film really are subsumed under one guiding vision. Eastwood's two latest films indicate that the man simply isn't willing to expend the effort. Gran Torino is so patently preposterous that it's hardly worth engaging with. But Changeling has some sturdy bones -- a reasonably strong script by J. Michael Straczynski which itself centers on a shocking if potboiler-lurid tale from the true-crime files of lawless 1920s L.A. The major difficulty is that Eastwood cannot manage the specifics of the period setting. Yes, the cars and phones look authentic enough; the surface aspects are tended to well enough to fool the eye. But the general attitude of the film, particularly as evinced in the scattershot tonal ranges of the performances, is so mishandled as to lapse into inadvertent presentism. That is, the internal world of Changeling is governed by contemporary values, vaguely post-feminist ones and especially a fascination with the psychological interiority of serial killers. Too many critics have already dogpiled on Angelina Jolie's tepid performance as Christine Collins, grieving mother, inconvenient woman, loony bin victim, and finally crusader for truth. But Jolie is stranded beneath a lampshade hat the entire time, the only marker Eastwood ever gave her for really understanding how a single mother of the period might have comported herself. Changeling relies on her charisma and star power, but asks her to tamp it down. But the fundamental structure of the film is so based in a politically correct avoidance of female victimhood, one that is simultaneously trying not to look hamstrung by p.c. watchwords or taboos -- i.e., a moderate Republican outlook -- that Changeling's Collins is a figure of schizophrenia who, the film hastens to tell us, is not insane. This film cannot bridge or reconcile available styles of being in the era it depicts and the era of its making, and so nothing every feels quite right. For instance, Mark Peranson recently nailed it when he described John Malkovich's mien as one which makes it impossible to know whether he's serious of kidding. Yes, but is this really called for in a film like Changeling, which actively telegraphs its ambitions of being more than a woman-in-peril matinee flick? (Why not just call Walken then?) When Amy Ryan shows up to deliver some street-Foucault, or, actually, when Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Hamer) is finally apprehended and begins impersonating Brenden Fraser's hypothetical audition tape for Hannibal Lecter, we can see the problems in boldface, the ones that have been unfairly laid at Jolie's doorstep (mostly because she's a personally unpopular tabloid fixture / publicity hound). And, well, the confession scene of young Sanford Clark (Eddie Alderson) is simply one of the worst scenes of the year. But Eastwood insists on getting it in one take and moving on. Does the old fart even try anymore? At least Manoel de Oliveira has settled on a style which affords him a degree of lassitude in camera set-ups, coaching of performers, and complex editing decisions. Eastwood, "the last of the classical Hollywood directors," just phones it in, and Cannes dutifully rolls out the red carpet.
-Taken (Pierre Morel, France)
Funny to be composing even these brief notes, since in a way Taken represents precisely the type of film I wanted to be freer to see without feeling obligated to write about it. Given its January release date and ample time on the shelf (it came out in France nearly a year ago). Morel's film, written and produced by the overextended Luc Besson, has disposability written all over it. The going line on Taken, which is not exactly false, is that its a rather rightward-leaning dystopian fantasy about the dangers of exiting the protective arms of American exceptionalism. Liam Neeson plays Brian Mills, an ex-CIA operative who is trying to reconnect with the 17-year-old daughter (Maggie Grace) he was too busy saving the world to watch grow up. His ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) is distrustful, has a fabulously wealthy new husband, etc, etc. While vacationing in France, daughter Kim and a girlfriend are kidnapped and sold into white slavery. Daddy has to go rogue, one more time, to save Kimmy from the evils of New Europe (in this case, Albanians operating with the sanction of Parisian cops on the take). Morel has been taken to task for playing along with this Yankee fantasy, but let's not forget, the man behind Banlieue 13 may not be one to sing the praises of the officially tolerant, multi-culti nation of France, especially in the Sarko era. Nothing much surprises, although some of Mills' more aggressive actions, presented as straight-ahead badassery, practically contain their own post-Cheney critique, especially when you consider [SPOILER] that Daddy only has time to save his own daughter (extract the American!), leaving the other young women to fend for themselves, wait for their own black-ops dads, or hang tight for an Interpol that may never show up. On a technical level, the film is pure junk (Mills' ability to catch assassins by hiding behind doorjambs, over and over -- such training! -- is Monty Python level nonsense), surprising since you'd figure Morel and Besson could bring the boom-boom if nothing else. The action, though, mostly feels grafted on, maybe juiced up after a bad test screening. The reason, really, that I can't completely dismiss this formulaic actioner is that Neeson brings a level of gravitas and existential sadness to Taken that is rather surprising. As with a lot of Clint Eastwood pictures (but certainly not remotely in the same class) Taken evinces a seriousness, even a weariness, that provides the best kind of showcase for what are, at base, reactionary values. When exposed to any genuine knowledge gleaned from the real world -- for example, the real facts about human trafficking, its connection to larger global immigration issues and its resultant moral and political ambiguities, piffle like Taken evaporates as U.S. vs. the World paranoia, with a dash of French self-indictment thrown in. But as a kind of allegory of its own paranoia, a forbidden father-daughter love story, and a paean to privileges under siege, Taken exhibits a weight that reveals the pain and fear behind an otherwise risible xenophobia.
-Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, Israel / France / Germany / U.S.)
What is the purpose of animation? In 2009, after both modernism and so-called postmodernism, it seems passé to the point of conservatism to demand medium-specificity, or at least the level of rigor that would ask practitioners of an artform to explore those creative avenues that only their chosen medium can express. But Folman's Waltz With Bashir is a fascinating test case, since the director's choice to use flattened, high-contrast Flash animation to explore the hidden truths and ramifications of the massacre in Sabra and Shatila, Lebanon, must serve a unique, specific purpose. Otherwise, Folman's risk of turning the documentary into what Jørgen Leth, in another context, called "a crap cartoon," would be little more than an attention-grabbing gimmick. So, what do the drawings add?
On the most literal level, they add access. One of Folman's key interviewees tells him on tape that he may not film, but he can make drawings, and so this level of remove, owing something to the craft of courtroom testimonial pictures, may have sparked Folman's decision to move in this direction. On a certain experiential level, the animation also allows Folman relative freedom to visualize the nightmares and horrific memories of the IDF soldiers who (under tacit orders, it appears) sat back and allowed Christian Phalangist forces to perpetrate the massacre. These include the opening sequence, in which a pack of 26 wild dogs essentially mow down civilization as we know it in order to tree one of the men in an apartment building, to Folman's own hallucinations of the Beirut airport as a bustling fantasy site cut to the outsized measure of his wanderlust, instead of the reality of bombed-out fuselages, broken jetways, and mortar-buckled tarmac. The instantaneous shifting from subjective inner vision to harsh reality is a tool at Folman's disposal due to the choice to work in the animated medium. However, one must recognize that this is not a specific potential of animation. Budgets notwithstanding, the nightmare sequences could have been staged as fully physical mise en scène, as one would see in the films of fantasists like Gilliam, Burton, or Gondry. All the same, the strange impact of Folman's decision to treat subjective recollection and the diegetic present with the same animated visual scheme (save a heavier reliance on monochrome yellow for the flashbacks) is to flatten out Bashir's alternate reality, to make everything all of a piece, including the straightforward, talking-head-in-a-room interviews.
What's more, the question of subjectivity as Folman raises it is much more complicated than just abstraction vs. realism, but the in-your-face stuntsmanship of the animated-documentary form obviates other issues' being addressed. Folman's internal role in Bashir is that of a semi-naïf interviewer, who claims to have no recollection about his role in the Lebanon War. The impetus for the project, then, is to glean memories from others, to try to compensate for Folman's (and of course, metonymically, Israel's) amnesia. With his own presence in the film, as a speaker, a conversant, and, when speaking with a psychotherapist, practically an analysand, Folman functions much in the same way that Nanni Moretti does in his personal essay films. In fact, I would wager that Bashir is connecting so strongly with international critics largely because of that familiarity, beneath the surface novelty of the visual style. There is an offputting disingenuousness in these moments, such as "chatting" with Boaz in the bar about the 26-dog nightmare or "disturbing" his psychologist friend Ori Sivan at home at 6:30 in the morning, since, much like Moretti in Caro Diario and Aprile, Folman is awkwardly restaging (possible) real-life encounters for the benefit of an (ostensibly) invisible camera. The big lie is that we are witnessing the very genesis of the Waltz With Bashir project right before our eyes. Moreover, we are to understand that this project springs from Folman's own mental disturbance following his meeting with Boaz, the reignited flame of memory apparently being a kind of baton passed from man to man.
This faux-sincerity is meant to somehow cement Bashir's significance as memoir and confessional. But beyond this (and again, much like the problematic Moretti), Folman proceeds from the assumption that male trauma (from the privileged subject-position at that) is the most productive place to locate a political inquiry. This assumption is bourgeois at best, a point driven home by the final minutes of Waltz With Bashir, when Folman drops the animated scrim and shows flat, videotaped news footage of dead bodies and wailing survivors of Sabra and Shatila. Just prior to this move, Folman takes us on a slow "zoom" down a bombed-out street, the image finally coming to rest on the tired, despondent visage of Folman's younger self, an overwhelmed, traumatized soldier. Reading this edit, we see that even when Bashir "goes live," it's strictly from Folman's highly subjective viewpoint. All pertinent material comes through him. But more jarring is the fact that these generically horrific images -- mutilated children, dismembered civilians, weeping mothers amidst the rubble -- have surprisingly little impact. Why is this? How has the animation, with its deep black engraved lines and 2D / 3D perspectival play and saturated color schemes, recontextualized the actual visual world? Ironically, I believe the effect is neither the one Folman presumably intended (the sudden shock of The Real), nor its crass opposite (our disgust makes us crave a retreat into the aesthetic realm). It's a draw. Waltz With Bashir has spent nearly ninety minutes experimenting with the ways in which a real-life war can be flattened into a set of relatively subjective, internal impressions. This subjective attitude, together with the minimally abstracted, declarative mode of the animated images themselves, results in a numbing equivalency, such that when the ink and paint is replaced by blood, bone, and video haze, it's all too easy for us to assimilate it as just another texture. Waltz With Bashir is a bold experiment that fails. But, unlike most other films of which I don't approve, I had an aggravating suspicion while watching it that I was staring at a dominant future for how a new generation will engage with images, an entirely different sensory register for what "engagement" even means. People are going to see miles of potential here, and that disturbs me somehow. I'm still thinking about exactly why.