REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JULY 2010
All films from U.S.A. unless
piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade
changed upon repeat viewing)
Also, when considered alongside Baumbach's recent spate of smothering and/or hateful female protagonists (Kidman's Margot, Laura Linney's mother character in The Squid and the Whale), Florence really does become a more pivotal figure in Greenberg, someone we're forced to consider as more than just Roger's foil. One of the first things that ingratiated Greenberg to me was its opening sequence, with Gerwig in profile driving around suburban L.A. running errands for her employer, Roger's brother. The shot, from the passengers' side, is dusky against the bright backlighting of the California sunshine, the familiar landscapes in motion behind a contemplative, subtly reactive Gerwig. In fact, the opening shots of Greenberg reminded me of many scenes of Vincent Gallo driving around in The Brown Bunny or the aimlessness of certain parts of other California films like Model Shop. Compared to what I consider the rather flat, generic-indie visual mode of Baumbach's other efforts (graininess does not equal style), Greenberg was downright seductive right out of the gate. But I would be lying if I didn't acknowledge that part of that seductiveness came from Gerwig herself. Slightly plumper as Florence than she has been in her signature mumblecore roles, Gerwig's natural beauty finally seemed to open into actual vulnerability, instead of the passive-aggressive archness or the self-conscious approximations of emotional nakedness that I've felt to be characteristic of her work with the Duplass brothers and especially Joe Swanberg. The arc of Florence's character, however, raises a definite red flag in terms of proffering a definitive interpretation of Baumbach's film. So maybe Roger is an exaggerated joke, the obnoxious loser who can't stop deconstructing the 20-somethings who just gave him a bump of coke (Korn vs. Duran Duran? Really?) or tries to rekindle an abortive romance with an old acquaintance / single mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by possibly making himself sound even crazier than he really is. But is Florence his opposite number on the female side, the "low self esteem girl" (to borrow Blaine Thurier's title) who is attracted to assholes to the point of self-abasing comedy? Is Baumbach exploding an alleged "classic female flaw" to the point of equal implausibility?
Not really, I'm afraid. As grossly negligent as Florence is to her own well-being, she remains Greenberg's moral center, and so the film seems to imply that, even though she does exhibit significant character flaws by staying with the cruel, abusive Roger, she is also kind and noble for doing so all the same. There is absolutely no reason why it should be Florence's job to "redeem" Roger (or Greenberg the movie), but that's ultimately what she does, in a sort of driftery, shambling, what-the-hell-else-am-I-gonnna-do version of a Lars von Trier "heroine." (As if solidifying her as a woman in distress or even a kind of inverse-earth-mother, she requires Roger's help after her abortion. Her need allows him the opportunity to "step up," thus she fundamentally gives birth to his adult competence.) I fear that I missed a lot of this the first time around, focused as I was on the pure spectacle of Roger and his exploding Listen. Little Man! hatred. But it's possible that Baumbach pulled a fast one on me. Seeing women characters depicted as being mean and judgmental, as they have been in many of his other films, can seem rather patently misogynist. But regrettably, it's possible that seeing a woman occupying the role of punching bag just seems like business as usual. Oh shit. Maybe I'm a sexist.
[This review is excerpted from a forthcoming article to be published in German in Cargo 7.] Despite the fact that In The Shadows marks a major departure from his previous film Vacation (which itself marked a turn away from non-professional actors), this is indeed a film that only Arslan could have made. Masterly yet not without a certain 70s shagginess, tight as a drum but not without a significant degree of ambiguity, totally committed to the crime / gangster genre but also keeping a certain aloof distance from its time-honored codes, In The Shadows is a breakthrough for Arslan's cinema. Even if I do prefer his earlier work, with its more outwardly pensive tone, the dialectician in me stands in awe of Arslan's achievement here. He has created a work of art so polished and vacuum-sealed that it stands as a kind of mirror to its audience's expectations. On the level of pure entertainment, In The Shadows is "slick," but never to a degree which implies the slightest hint of pandering. Trojan (Misel Maticevic, oozing effortless charisma) gets out of prison, tries to claim an old debt, and is suddenly a hunted man. A dirty cop, a girlfriend in the state bureaucracy, an old partner, one last job… None of these elements is new, but Arslan orchestrates them with sincerity as well as a willingness, through editing and pacing, to keep it very clear at all times where all the players are on the chessboard. (This is a supremely legible film.) Midnight blue interiors, slate gray street-level facades, and Trojan’s rumpled, 1970s demeanor, are Arslan’s patterned visual dominants, providing both a self-effacing “realist” style and a subtle minor-key musicality underpinning the grim determinism of the road that lay ahead of Trojan. (At the same time, Arslan showcases his fair share of non-spaces as well. The pivotal heist takes place in an empty parking lot behind an IKEA, and an ingenious money drop is situated within a gas station car wash.) Despite In The Shadows’s embrasure of classic genre codes and basic cinematic pleasures, the film also provides the possibility for a more distanced, self-conscious reading, a strange byproduct of its extreme professional veneer. Many Berlin Schoolers have emphasized social and spatial divisions over the years by slicing their films’ mise-en-scène with reflective windowpanes, glass doors, frames within frames. (Ulrich Köhler’s second feature, Windows on Monday, pretty much thematized this tic explicitly.) In The Shadows is no exception. Its opening five minutes in particular are so replete with refracted light, it’s almost as though we’re watching a gangster flick made by an avant-gardist like Nathaniel Dorsky. But if you read the notices In The Shadows has garnered (almost universally positive), Jean-Pierre Melville is the point of comparison cited again and again. This is fundamentally correct, but this too-keen sheen of ideality, this glass-and-chrome perfection that Arslan has generated may ask us to consider the very plausibility of a Melvillian man like Trojan, a would-be existential hero in a world with no center.
I haven't got a great deal to add to my Nashville Scene piece, which I've been holding back. However, I will say that Wild Grass is such a fascinating, borderline-schizophrenic formalist experiment that I almost feel guilty for forwarding an interpretation of it (despite the evidence up on the screen supporting it), because it somehow seems like foreclosure on this object that will indeed have multiple afterlives. If I ultimately have any problems with Resnais's film, they have to do with an almost episodic treatment of visual construction, color and shape, as opposed to the gorgeous, lock-step rigor of Private Fears in Public Places. Different films, of course, but I think more of that top-down control might've served Resnais well here, especially as regards the paranoia and vague motivations of Georges. But serious, I'm quibbling.
And so, I find myself grappling with a new turn in the work of Tsai Ming-liang, one of my favorite directors of the previous decade. Films like The River, The Hole and Vive L'Amour explored fissures in domestic and urban space, sexual identity and the body, and the endless metaphorical potential of water -- gushing from pipes, held inside aquariums, falling torrentially from the sky. In retrospect, the film that seemed like a rather tame continuation of these ideas, What Time is it There?, proved to be transitional, and not only because this French / Taiwanese co-production allowed Tsai to work on a more sprawling, international canvas. (I firmly believe that hybridity has as much to offer, if not more, than "purity.") No, What Time marks a subtle shift wherein Tsai's work, by and large, started being organized according to more literary or symbolic ideas, and less by the sheer force of visual logic. He became more of a narrative experimentalist at this point, moving slightly, imperceptibly to some, away from his more avant-garde roots. Even a film as daring as Goodbye Dragon Inn, which is extraordinarily experimental in many respects, ultimately undercuts itself, because its contained exploration of space, sexuality and nostalgia is circumscribed by a conceptual logic that consistently subordinates its purely cinematic invention. It remains "illustrative" in certain fundamental ways. The last film of Tsai's in which I see the visual (and sonic) imperatives trumping, or at least equaling, the narrative / conceptual ones is The Wayward Cloud. This film has certain flaws -- the compositions are not quite as sharp as they had been in 90s Tsai, and there is a slight hesitancy with regard to pacing -- but with each passing year, and each new effort from Tsai, those minor quibbles seem to matter less and less. I need to see The Wayward Cloud again. I suspect, pace its prim humanist detractors, that it is Tsai's last outright masterpiece. (By contrast, the perfectly agreeable I Don't Want to Sleep Alone represents a kind of apex of achievement in Tsai's illustrative / conceptual mode. As such, it found massive favor with the critical establishment.)
This brings us at long last to Face, the first Tsai film (aside from Goodbye Dragon Inn) that mostly left me utterly dispassionate. Aside from a few exquisite moments -- the double-window shot in Fanny Ardant's hotel room, with the reflection of the highway; the long mahogany dinner table of French powerhouse actresses, one of whom pops up unexpectedly -- most of Face could be chalked up as either empty pageantry, or the dry husk of recycled Tsai-isms (flooded kitchen, Lu Yi-ching as the dead mother, anonymous gay trysts). Added into this mix, rather sloppily, are aspects of an ostensible "homage to Truffaut," which include a film-within-a-film (Day For Night?) of Salome, as directed by Lee Kang-sheng's character, Ardant serving as the main producer, Jean-Pierre Léaud playing a difficult, possibly senile French mega-star of old, and Laetitia Casta portraying the ingenue, sometimes naked, always primarily functioning as more of a model than an actress, and seldom given very much to say. The production takes place in and around the Louvre. Shots that should be clever, such as Léaud crawling out of gallery air ducts beneath a triptych of Renaissance masterworks, are sluggish and overdetermined, as though Tsai were at pains to incorporate both the Louvre and his own sense of humor into the finished film. But above all, the portions of Face where it is evident Tsai has complete control over the look and mise en scène, which do comprise the vast majority of the film, simply don't hang together in any meaningful way. There is a repeated sequence of Casta blotting out a window with duct tape, like some performance art cum civil defense exercise that, over time, becomes a running gag with an airless payoff. Lee's directorial scenes in the snow with Casta and Ardant (and eventually a doddering Léaud and a white horse), maneuvering through a bank of mirrors in a sparse forest setting, becomes one of the predominant visual motifs of the film, but it never carries any real charge of spatial ambiguity or conceptual resonance. Like so much of Face, it just feels like a half-assed, underarticulated idea, Tsai and company trying and failing to riff on "home and away," "Paris and Taipei," "urban and sylvan," and a lot of other bland, inactive dialectics. There are moments in Tsai's "second French film" that indicate the director's interests and curiosities, and I feel a bit guilty for not being able to access them. But I'm finding it harder to read Tsai, except as a kind of grand, master text, wherein no single film matters all that much, but perhaps, when all is said and done, the whole project will contain numerous moments that speak across films, years and decades, forming the metalogic that Face adamantly refuses. This is the first time I watched a Tsai film thinking all the while about some hypothetical academic monograph ten years from now, parsing everything I was watching even before it had left the screen. Thing is, when that happens, I'll still be there.
Goodbye, Modernism, Goodbye (Part Two): Virtually from the beginning, I have not just disliked, but actively despised the cinema of Todd Solondz. Although like most filmgoers I missed out on his actual debut feature, Fear, Anxiety & Depression (1989), I followed the buzz and got myself to the theatre to watch "The Degradation of Dawn Weiner" (Heather Matarazzo)
I relented and saw Solondz's latest, and as it turns out, I'm very glad I did. Overall, I did not like very much of Life During Wartime, but I think I have a new perspective on some of the things that Solondz is attempting as a filmmaker. I still don't find them altogether successful -- in fact, some of them are flawed in the extreme -- but I at least have a new cognitive map for the Solondz project apart from my previous one, the ultimately unenlightening "misanthrope." In both Storytelling and Palindromes, Solondz was introducing some significant formal tropes in terms of performance and the representation of both identity and what we call "open" vs. "close" diegesis. That is, how are we expected to take the story-worlds in Solondz's as "real," or suspend our disbelief with respect to their on-screen representation? While most contemporary world filmmakers concerned to any extent with "the means of representation" tend to highlight those problems either through editing schemes or through highly articulated visual style / mise en scène, Solondz chose macrostructures instead. Storytelling adopted a "fiction" and "nonfiction" diptych approach; Palindromes borrowed and expanded an old Buñuel maneuver by having its protagonist, pregnant 13-year-old Aviva, portrayed by seven different performers of varying race, sex and age. Others had adopted this strategy before, including Yvonne Rainer in The Man Who Envied Women (a film with which hardcore cinephile Solondz was no doubt familiar) and, more recently, Todd Haynes has done it again in his Bob Dylan film I'm Not There. In a key scene in Life During Wartime, during which Bill (Ciarán Hinds), just released from prison, visits his oldest son Billy (Chris Marquette) in his college dorm room, we spy a well-placed movie poster for I'm Not There on the wall. Movie posters within films as internal shout-outs are kind of an out of control fad at the moment. (Cf. Gaspar Noé's Irreversible ; Xavier Beauvois's Le petit lieutenant .) But despite the claim by one critic Who Shall Not Be Named that Solondz is citing Haynes in order to call him out for "stealing," what is really going on is the forging of a connection. And this is Life During Wartime's artistic "dominant," just like Storytelling foregrounding its status as diptych and Palindromes (despite its title) relied on internal multiplicity. Wartime is less a sequel to Happiness as it is its touchstone, an anchor point against which everything in the text has to be evaluated. This goes beyond simple "doubling," because the connections frequently exceed the boundaries of both films. By casting Michael K. Williams as the "new" Allen, we're not just asked to compare him to Hoffman in Happiness, although we certainly do. Solondz is also activating our intertextual knowledge of Williams as "Omar" from "The Wire," a black gay outlaw and loner defined by both his code of ethics and his inability to find a place within the present social order. ("Wire" fans also know that, in the end, Omar himself was also "doubled.") Paul Reubens is the "new" Andy, no doubt, because of everything Reubens represents: "Pee Wee Herman" and his sad, pointless fall from grace at the hands of a judgmental society. And by the same token, Shirley Henderson, who now replaces Jane Adams as "Joy," could be said to be relieving Adams who, it could be argued, went on to portray a variation of the "Joy" role in Todd Field's Little Children (2006), but without a shred of humor, bitter or otherwise. Looking at Adams in the same role would be too ugly, even for a Solondz film.
And this is how it goes. Rather than presenting a closed diegetic world in which all relationships are internally linked and any problems posed are solved within its own parameters, Life During Wartime is a film that consistently gestures outward. Unlike the self-sufficient modernist texts of the past, Solondz's films refer back and forth to one another, to other films, to their actors' lives and images, and to common social typology. This is mostly accomplished, of course, by Solondz asking us to remember Happiness and interpret what we see in Wartime as its dialectical antithesis. Bill, the peppy, plastered-grin psychologist / child molester once embodied by Dylan Baker is now a near-silent, slumped hulk of a man. Hinds plays Bill as a husk of memory and appetite, a spectral presence practically haunting himself. When he meets a stranger (Charlotte Rampling) in a hotel bar and the two of them engage in cold, functional sex, Solondz is showing us raw biology in action, but a different "Bill," a rapist's aggression rather than a pedophile's perversion -- a subtle but significant shift. Likewise, Joy's sister Helen has changed from a poet (Lara Flynn Boyle) to a playwright (Ally Sheedy). Her treatment of Joy is still just as high-handed and nasty. But Solondz is reminding us both that Boyle's Helen possessed a secret Joy-like self-degradation streak, now replaced with utter self-assurance, and that, extra-textually, these two actresses have themselves shifted positions in the world. Boyle, a David Lynch discovery, has moved toward more mainstream material, whereas Sheedy, a former Brat Packer, has taken a more adventurous mid-career path. In a way, the entire cast Solondz has assembled for Wartime exists in this way, both as the characters they play, and as "themselves," or as types or representatives of an actorly or performative mode. (This is exactly what Richard Kelly was attempting in Southland Tales, but no actual effect was achieved.) And this inner / outer aesthetic relates quite directly to Solondz's major themes in the film. Life During Wartime is in part a treatise on the meaning and possibility of forgiveness. By giving us examples from well beyond the pale -- child molesters, or in the question posed by young Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder), the 9/11 terrorists -- Solondz asks whether real forgiveness can only be proffered in the face of the unforgivable. As a secondary but related theme, Wartime shows us the dual-layered reality of a material world and a "ghost world," the absent and the vanquished still making demands of the living. For most of the film, this ghost problem resides with one character, locating it safely within the realm of insanity, but in the final shot, "ghostliness" infects the open / closed diegesis of Life During Wartime, as Bill, who had been conveniently "made" dead through a fiction, now joins the procession of spirits.
Sadly, Life During Wartime articulates this worthy question in the baldest, most philosophically naive terms imaginable. Timmy throws down the productive challenge as to whether terrorists and perverts are the same, but the characters in the film and even Solondz are unprepared to tackle this conundrum. Post-colonial scholar Jasbir Puar, actually, has written about this very topic, claiming a very real connection, in that both "queer" the body politic and so must be cast out as the abject. Nevertheless, Wartime finds Solondz again thumping the timid fools who tamp down existential dread with mindless conformity, but doing so with a crass, tin-eared type of satire that gesticulates far beyond any Brechtian "gest" or early-Dylan finger-pointing song. The ideas just come across as immature and hollow, and the obvious value in Solondz's overall project is pretty much scuttled by the cheap shots he almost reflexively takes at the easy targets he himself puts in place. When Trish (Allison Janney), the separated wife of Bill (who has told Timmy that his imprisoned father is dead) comes home from a date with new beau Harvey (Michael Lerner), and, all atwitter, tells Timmy, her seven or eight year old son, that Harvey has made her "all wet," we can only shake our heads in disbelief. Does Solondz think this is funny? Are we supposed to be pricked by the filmmaker's brazenness, and pausing to contemplate our own prudishness? (When Timmy asks his mom about being wet, she snaps out of it and mutters something about getting a towel and being fine.) Dialogue like this, or Helen monologuing to Joy about how so many people leech off of her emotional generosity because [this obviously self-absorbed numbskull] is so hopelessly giving, is just embarrassing. It smacks of high school fiction class. And it destroys Solondz's credibility. What's frustrating in all of this is that, even in the midst of his sneering at the suburban dimwits, now in Florida (and incidentally, cinematographer Ed Lachman knows how to light a strip mall or capture an amber hotel interior), Solondz zeroes in on a truth. Trish, like some others we witness in Wartime, has become so fearful of perversion, both sexual and sociopolitical, that they have made normalcy into a twisted fetish. ("We had sex and it was so . . . normal! Trish enthuses to Joy, regarding Harvey's prowess.) This messed-up state of affairs results in the film's best scene, in which a genuine act of tenderness -- one of the few in the entire film -- paradoxically becomes misread as something perverse, which, "during wartime," it quite possibly is.