REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, MARCH 2013
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [p] para-cinema (installation, etc.); [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
There has been some discussion "in my circles" regarding the somewhat abstract coda that Stark had composed for the version of The Realist I saw, which as far as I know was the same one he world-premiered at San Francisco's Crossroads Festival. After articulating a number of extended passages that develop rather methodically, the last few minutes go just a little bit haywire, with a sort of jagged rhythm and a somewhat more fragmented relationship between the images. I hear that Scott is showing The Realist without this coda now, and I know that some found it ill-fitting. Personally, I liked it a lot; I found that it made "musical" sense (in a kind of Milton Babbitt / Elliott Carter kind of way -- "here's a sudden bagatelle of compressed information"), even if it was arguably at odds with the rest of the work (and I do mean "arguably"). Anyway, de gustibus. The Realist is a major achievement, coda or no. In any case, I wrote about it (and made some partly-incorrect statements about an old Kubelka film I hadn't seen in years -- oops!) here at MUBI.
I've been a bit of a skeptic about Linklater's Before series, which is a stance that has left me rather lonely in cinephilic circles. I can admire the unquestionable skill and lightness of bearing that has made both previous entries in the trilogy work so well, on their own terms. I am not blind to their virtues; where so many leadfooted rom-coms and self-important indie talkfests have tried to till the fields around Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke's private Eden, most of them come a cropper even on their own terms, where the Rick / Ethan / Julie collaborations seldom hit a false note. When, in Before Sunrise, Jesse (Hawke) is young and arrogant, Linklater and Hawke apply the deftest of touches so as to let us know that they know Jesse is exhibiting those flaws. But at the same time, the filmmakers are subtle enough not to signal that any sort of applied critical distance or ironization is the film's overall purpose. These films are firmly rooted in sincerity, which I must admit is part of why I don't really find them to my liking, especially Before Sunrise. The key point of comparison for these films is always the cinema of Eric Rohmer, which I'll freely admit to admiring with the nodding approval of craftsmanship, like a Biedermeier chair, without ever really finding it beautiful. But there must be a corollary to the comparison, that Linklater is much more openly Romantic (perhaps a Truffaut influence), and ever the American optimist. Openhearted humanism -- the sort that a bourgeois phony like Cameron Crowe tries to shill like a huckster at a fly-by-night medicine show -- is Linklater's hallmark, and it can be found even in his darkest efforts (A Scanner Darkly, Tape).
So I cannot say objectively (whatever that means) whether Before Midnight is the finest film in the trilogy, or if the simple accumulation of years spent in Jesse and Celine's company has produced an unavoidable fondness for them. But this is without a doubt the one film of the three that most reflects my own sensibility. The pair are in their early forties, have a couple of young daughters, and are having to make decisions based not on the whims of their desires but on the pull of family and career. But the appeal here is not just that Linklater's runaway romantics have been pulled down to earth by the dull ballast of middle age. It's that the scales of youth have fallen from their eyes and they can now see that loving one another entails an entirely different kind of risk than before. It's not the risk of never seeing each other again, of giving themselves over to the Fates. It's risking an altogether more mundane form of emotional investment, of putting in the labor of love each and every day. Before Midnight has been compared with Abbas Kiarostami's masterpiece Certified Copy, and I think this is misleading. Kiarostami's film, yes, does share with Linklater's one distinctive trait. A couple and their often-extreme squabbling is the main event, in terms of drama and the deeper philosophical underpinnings of both films. But Certified Copy was a woven tapestry of different times and phases, a kind of horizontal time-map of a complex marriage, whereas Before Midnight is a vertical study, a core sample that can be taken and studied intensively because we have taken similar studies at key moments twice before.
What do we find? Jesse has been unfaithful; he deflects by accusing Celine of wanting to have an affair. His literary career has made him a bit of a star; she has kept her ambition to a solid middle-level for the sake of family, and now has a major opportunity in architectural planning that would involve a long-term move. Like most parents of school-aged kids or younger, they often lack time to work on their relationship, and so the "romantic getaway" given to them my family friends becomes a bitter session of recrimination and debate, the fights they've pent up for the kids' sake all spewing forth at once. But in between the frustrations and resentment, the placid familiarity is still there. When their energy flags, they relapse into the comfort zone of being friends, of forgetting to be too mad to admire the breathtaking scenery, to allow the Greek countryside to define where and who they are at this moment. That is, the bounded structure of being part of a long-term partnership is always the default setting when you have loved someone, for better and worse, for a long time. It takes a lot to break those bonds. Keeping a marriage together is a constant collective effort, but absolute divestiture -- somehow finally deciding that a life would be better lived without that hand being there when you reach for it -- is an immense effort as well. Fights and misunderstandings, particularly as Linklater stages them, are discharges of energy. We see that Celine is neurotic, and that Jesse is a selfish prick. But we see that they are so much more, and the process of Before Midnight is the refining of that communicative energy, until they can see it again too.
I wasn't exactly prepared to like The Comedy. In fact, I was kind of afraid of it. I am not a fan of Tim Heidecker's work with Dean Wareham on "Tim and Eric's Awesome Show," and before deciding to give the Alverson film a test drive, I dipped back into that particular pool, sampling the Tim & Eric feature film. I lasted about ten minutes. However, enough folks I respect both liked and loathed The Comedy that I realized it was one of the must-sees of 2012. Films this divisive don't come along every day, and when they do (Trash Humpers, Dogville, much late Godard), they are usually something special, even if I end up coming down on the 'CON' side of the divide. What I found here was a rather impressive conceptual piece, a total-commitment character study that used its myopic purview for a paradoxically broader purpose. The Comedy is a portrait of a sociopath. Swanson (Heidecker) is the rudderless trust-fund scion of a family of probably midsized wealth. The manor is edging toward disrepair, and the old man is upstairs on life support. Basically it's a waiting game. All Swanson has to do all day and night is hang with his friends (Wareham, Jeffrey Jensen, James Murphy) and / or wander around trying to get laid. In between, he finds ways to show utter contempt for random people and create highly uncomfortable situations for service employees and underlings, those tethered to his orbit by financial necessities he himself has never known. (He harasses his father's nurse by talking about anal prolapse. He gets some Spanish-speaking lawn workers in trouble by asking their uptight pseudo-liberal employers if they can swim in their pool. Stuff like that.) In particular, Swanson likes to play the "enlightened racism" card, saying and doing things that are so outlandishly inappropriate that those around him, utterly confused by his behavior, cannot exactly respond, partly because they have it in the back of their minds (as we the viewers also do) that Swanson must be engaged in some form of wrongheaded form of critique.
The underlying success of The Comedy has to do with Alverson and Heidecker's strategic use of the singular viewpoint. One point of comparison when dealing with this art (not exactly "comedy" here) of embarrassment is Larry David's work on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," but that's quite a bit different. The "Larry" character is so obviously both blinkered by privilege and driven by crusades of petty frustration. Swanson has no discernable agenda, aside from having been reared to see everything as an extension of himself -- an existence as a kind of economic / cultural amoeba. The Comedy is "about Swanson," to be sure, but it's also broadly allegorical, generalizing him as a stand-in for certain cultural and geographical markers ("Williamsburg. Represent!") and a generation that has been so ministered and marketed to that "the public sphere" is essentially one giant prostitute waiting to suck your dick, or be slapped for lack of cooperation. A lot of what happens in The Comedy appears on the surface to be racist. And it is. But the truer horror of what we're seeing is that race barely enters into it. For Swanson to even perceive "race," he'd have to see humanity first.
In my general wrap-up piece about the Images Festival, I offered these rather brief comments about Jodie Mack's first feature-length filmwork: ". . . she has gone off the deep end: Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project, a documentary featurette about her mother’s defunct rock ‘n’ roll poster business in Florida, is Mack’s most ambitious work to date. Not only does she include extensive stop-motion animation technique for the first time, resulting in a kind of grungy Svankmajer atmosphere, Mack also sets the film to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” With brand new lyrics, all about the poster warehouse. Sung live, karaoke-style, by Mack herself. With a self-deprecation and a charm that is matched only by the keen precision of her art, Mack could be just what the avant-garde needs." All of the above is accurate (although certainly I indulge in some pure opinionating as well -- how one defines experimental film's "deep end" would require more than a graduated dipstick). But in my haste, I most certainly failed to explicate the nuances that make Dusty Stacks so original, strange, and unexpectedly affecting.
Part of Mack's approach, after all, is the complicated depiction of a set of childhood impressions -- her mother's business as a place she spent time in as a girl, that she knew through an assemblage of textures, shadows and smells. The mise-en-scène of the warehouse is comprised of gray steel shelves, weathered wooden tables, concrete floors, and the dark recesses of emptied-out storage space. It is, in short, the feel of office-park America, with the incongruous faux-glamour of rock stars and movie idols puncturing the beige banality (sort of), by lending their rolled-up visages to the merchandise. Mack's stop-motion vivification of these posters, which is both whimsical and sad -- showing up their minor sparkle for the mass produced, unconvincing illusion that it is -- serves both to counterpoint the drab environment of the warehouse, and to complement its deadening Floridian mustiness. As the objects come to life, it is very much like a crepuscular last hurrah, a struggle to exert effort both over the stifling humidity that reclaims all material things in the Sunshine State, and over the posters' and files' implicit understanding of their obsolescence.
This is perhaps the crux of Mack's achievement here. This experimental documentary is both an expression of a personal loss (hers and her mother's) and a consideration of the material constraints involved when a business fails. We see Mack's mother performing labor, both that of packing and organizing posters (what she used to do) and preparing to pack it all up now that the distribution company is no more. As Mack sings (to the tune of Pink Floyd's "Time"), the widespread availability of images on the Internet made her mother's business untenable in the 21st century, even though printing out a laser image of Justin Bieber is not the same as ordering a professionally printed one-sheet. This contrast, between the professional and the amateur, is the problematic that defines Dusty Stacks. Mack, quite shrewdly, articulates this distinction formally by making a karaoke film, and performing it live. She "sings" a rendition of Pink Floyd, a group of certain significance. Like them or not, they are defined (or branded) by their musicianship and seriousness of purpose. A karaoke version is not"as good;" it is something qualitatively different, in a way that karaoke Britney Spears or Ashlee Simpson, arguably, are not. Plus, "Dark Side of the Moon" is now well known for its stoner appropriation by those who have synched it up with The Wizard of Oz. So in a sense, "Dark Side" represents a pop-modernist artifact that retains its integrity, even as it is subjected to numerous information-age uses and deformations. In other words, there is still an original text of sorts. It was just forged in the age of mechanical reproduction, and so, like quality offset printing, its degradation at the hands of fast capital was practically preordained.
I'll admit to a wee bit of bias. Would I be watching Cianfrance's film with an eye toward abstraction and romantic pathos had I not recently spent time with Phil Solomon, who informed me that both he and Stan Brakhage were Cianfrance's film school teachers? Hard to say, although I'm certain I would have stumbled upon that information eventually (just as I eventually learned that Cianfrance is married to experimental artist / performer Shannon Plumb). Nevertheless, I maintain that Pines is a film that is clearly painted with a broad, Expressionist brush. Whinges about plausibility are just plain stupid in this case. And indeed, this is a "male weepie," so if melodrama steeped in testosterone and ball-sweat are inherently offensive to your sensibility, please steer clear. Here's my positive but ambivalent notice for The Nashville Scene.
There seems to be something about Byington's latest feature that just rubs some people the wrong way. I suppose I can understand this vehemence from a distance. I only lasted about 20 minutes with Byington's last film, Harmony and Me, before I had to turn the disc off in near-disgust. And that film was only 75 minutes long, so honestly, making it to the end shouldn't have been too much to ask, considering the fact that it had garnered significant acclaim along the way. But, whereas I find that Somebody Up There Likes Me represents a major step forward in terms of Byington's control of his craft and tone, many of the reactions sound similar to the ones I had regarding Harmony. Is this indeed a film besotted with its own cleverness? One too smug to let itself get caught breaking a sweat by exerting any real emotional effort? Is the film some kind of hipster jape? To be honest, I didn't see any of these problems at work in Somebody, but with some time and perspective, I can understand quite well how someone would. This is a film that is all about detachment, both formal and, for lack of a better word, humanistic. In fact, the two are intimately connected. Byington by no means expects us to take the world (or "world") he's created for us onscreen for granted, as some kind of quasi-verisimilar universe. In fact, the rather cryptic title is actually a fundamental interpretive key to this highly bizarre film. Who is Max (Keith Poulson), and why does he drift through his own life with such pitiful impermeability? How is it that he can (sort of) fall in love, marry a woman (Jess Weixler), have a child, catch his first wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) in bed with another man, have business success (and failure), watch as his dead wife is put in the ground, and never really change one iota? And, of course, why is it that Max never gets any older, even as the years roll by, and his best friend Sal (Nick Offerman) grows gray around the temples and increasingly crotchety? The "trick" is not, as some have suggested, that Max has a glowing suitcase, a Kiss Me Deadly / Pulp Fiction prop that radicalizes the cells of his body and rejuvenates them somehow. There is no diegetic explanation. Rather, the "somebody" who likes Max is Byington, the auteur-god who can put the character through his paces while compressing time, abstracting events, and making sure that Max is always safe from real harm. He is a kind of demo model for humankind, placed in artificial approximations of extreme situations. Max remains in a perpetual state of bemusement, and the film's visual rigidity and stilted pacing (which, despite critics' continual citation of Wes Anderson, clearly owe much more to Hal Hartley) both reinforces that confusion -- situations are awkward and unnatural -- and provides a kind of reassurance. This is only a simulation of a life mired in regret. Perhaps better choices await Max (and all of us) after we leave the capsule.
This body-snatcher nonsense from the Twilight "writer" was made bearable solely by Saoirse Ronan. It's not just that she can act; she can . . . what's the active-verb form for "charisma"? She can really charism. Once again, I give you my write-up for the Mighty Scene.
[SPOILERS] I'm still trying to reserve judgment about Ben Wheatley, a young director who has been identified as a major new talent by many of the writers and critics I most respect. Just because I'm not seeing it doesn't mean it isn't there, and I haven't gone back to see his debut feature, 2009's Down Terrace. But thus far, I find that when I watch Wheatley's films, I see less actual achievement and more of a series of outlines, displaying quite clearly what the film is trying to accomplish. Wheatley's previous effort, Kill List, was far more ambitious in this regard and to my mind failed more boldly. A gene-splice of the British kitchen-sink realist mode -- working-class marriage in the process of devolving -- and the gangster picture, with an 11th hour hairpin turn into Ye Olde Celtic Paganism (a pretty direct riff on The Wicker Man), Kill List has as many tonal shifts as a late-90s / early-00s Korean film, but can't exactly pull them off. The labor is just too evident, and it's as though the fact of simply making these strange connections is some sort of accomplishment in itself.
Sightseers for its part is far less ambitious, and in its own way it's a "better" film than Kill List if only because it aims lower and hits. Posters proudly trumpet the fact that the film is executive produced by Edgar Wright, which both helps to mitigate Sightseers' lack of marquee talent and give viewers a heads-up that the new film is a less ambiguous splatter-comedy in the Shaun of the Dead /Severance vein. Unlike, say, Shawn, Sightseers has a maddeningly flat, almost retro-televisual style that I suspect has particular resonance for British audiences (old 70s BBC comedies, or Ealing films perhaps?) that really just withers on the screen, as though Wheatley couldn't be arsed to make the thing look better than an old weatherbeaten council flat. The premise: slightly nervous, introverted Tina (Alice Lowe) is going on a driving tour with her newish boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram) in his camper van. On their first stop, Chris backs over a rude, littering tourist, killing the bellend dead in the parking lot right in front of his family. And from there it begins: Chris is a fussy little serial killer, and Tina has to assess to what degree she wants to get involved with his "antics" or split the scene. This first murder, incidentally, sets up a very false expectation that Wheatley will be mining territory similar to that of Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America, in which a killing spree is half-justified as a vindication of civility on the wane. But it's a red herring; Chris's targets are opportunity kills, mostly, only some of whom he tries to ideologically rationalize after the fact. The alleged humor Wheatley builds, apart from a few unexpectedly gruesome moments, is really all about the alleged incongruity of having a dowdy faux-Bonnie and Clyde bickering about minutiae, getting turned on by violence, and then pulling their ugly turtlenecks back on. Whatever its shortcomings, Kill List was cinematically sharp and always followed a certain image logic. This just feels like a deep bow to the cheap seats. But then again, maybe you should ask someone who gets Wheatley, because clearly I do not.
This is the sort of film that I respect a great deal more than I like. I have been in the tank for Gondry for quite some time, mostly because I consider him to be one of the only individuals to have raised the music-video form above the level of industry infomercial and definitively into the realm of art. I stand by much of his feature-film output as well, even though there's no question that Gondry has never achieved in the long form anything close to what he's accomplished in shorts. This is largely because, frankly, he is a visual artist, and the demands of narrative tend to cramp his style, literally. His whizbang imagination, which is chiefly governed (if that's the word) by one aesthetic dominant -- commitment to the analog and the handmade -- can become either dulled or overbearing when yoked to longform narrative storytelling. I appreciated The Science of Sleep, for example, because it was quite explicitly about the exhaustion that all Gondry's nonstop Mélièsisms can provoke when set loose on a "real world." Be Kind Rewind was about the struggle to carve out a space in said world for what it is Gondry does. The only one that really worked in any conventional way was Eternal Sunshine, largely because the Charlie Kaufman script generated its own context, so that Gondry didn't have to.
The guy never stops experimenting, for all his dialed-in tricks and name-brand showmanship. His collaboration with Dave Chappelle was a minor-key triumph. I haven't yet caught up with The Thorn in the Heart, his documentary about his schoolteacher aunt, but by many accounts it was a deeply personal project that never quite connected, another example of Gondry being too "inside his own head," this time with a relatively naturalistic filming approach. And of course, now he's off on a dozen other tangents, including a Noam Chomsky documentary and a Boris Vian adaptation. The We and the I is another radical shift for Gondry. It emerged from a workshop that the director conducted with students at a high school in the Bronx, and in some sense the non-professional actors are playing fictionalized, scripted versions of themselves. They came up with the idea and the script collectively: the last day of school before summer break, the last bus ride home, and all the social intrigue that would go along with that scenario of not seeing each other for three months. for added drama, there's a throughline about a widely mocked kid who, it's learned, gets in trouble with the cops and is killed. The We and the I has a very strict three-act structure, which clashes in its way with the loose, unaffected goings-on. There is an impressive sense of ease and uninflected byplay between the kids, and Gondry creates an impressively decentered film that's truly about dynamics and relationships. A few key figures emerge (Michael Brodie, Teresa Lynn), but mostly it is a rare group-portrait in film. Sadly, Gondry, in the name of democracy, or liberalism, or perhaps his own sociological predilections, ceded entirely too much thematic control to these blinkered, immature kids, so the result, finally, is a film that celebrates bullying, aggression, misogyny, and general teenage assholery. Yes, there is a final act injunction to be a better person, delivered with a phony afterschool-special tone that I'm sure no one associated with the film believes in. And in the closing credits, we learn just how meaningful an experience it was for the students and their families to work with Gondry and participate in the project. But as a final product, The We and the I is a depressing look at mean, unpleasant kids who, due to their underprivileged status, have been "given voice." They didn't do much with it.
Watching this film was really more of an experiment than anything. Since I'd just seen Before Midnight, which is premised, of course, on the real-time aging of both its actors and its characters, I thought it would be instructive to compare it with Fox's exploration of very similar territory. Yossi, after all, is the sequel, ten years on, to his gay military romance Yossi & Jagger, which concludes with the death of Lior a.k.a. "Jagger" (Yehuda Levi). Yossi picks up with the surviving half of the couple (Ohad Knoller), now working in a Tel Aviv hospital but still grieving his lost love. He is shown to be an awkward, somewhat depressive figure, allowing others into his orbit mostly by being too passive to push them away -- his colleague Moti (Lior Ashkenazi) in particular, but also a shy, kindly young nurse (Ola Schur Selektar) whose hovering attention to Yossi would, shall we say, indicate a distinct lack of gaydar. Fox assembles the first half of Yossi from somewhat disconnected vignettes, the most notable among them being a stilted, rather ugly online dating encounter with a gym rat (Gil Desiano) who berates Yossi for being older and heavier IRL than he is in his profile pic. But hey! Yossi can still give the young stud a blowjob, as a consolation prize.
Fox rather patently structures Yossi with this old-gay-man shaming as its nadir, so that the steady rise can begin. Taking a trip to get away from his frustrations, Yossi stops at a gas station and encounters a group of young guys on leave from their military service; they miss their bus and Yossi gives them a lift. One of them, Tom (Oz Zehavi), is quiet and cultured. He is, indeed, the young gay man of the group, and as the boys and Yossi all end up at the same resort hotel, the question emerges. Can Yossi actually be attractive to Tom, or is the sexy young man merely pitying him? Also, on the deeper level, is Yossi's attraction something "real," or is he experiencing pangs from the never-resolved trauma of losing Jagger, so early in their lives together? (Fox's construction of the story of these lovers, understand, is tragic and thwarted. So Yossi's sexuality itself is similarly stunted, largely "killed" off with Jagger. He is, in a sense, a 40 year old virgin, but there is nothing remotely funny about his plight.) Yossi lurches from scene to scene with little grace, much the way Yossi & Jagger did. On a technical level, Fox's most accomplished effort remains Walk on Water, which also had significant problems. Since it was fundamentally an action film, however, Fox was able to elide most of those difficulties with brute propulsion.
Yossi works well in small bursts, like the final scene between Yossi and Tom, or the visit with Jagger's parents (which generates the expected tension, but in unexpected directions). But as a director, Fox consistently has trouble articulating his key moments into a fully satisfying film. What he does do, with a consistency that suggests something more than just sensibility, is take great care to depict contemporary Israel's shrugging, no-big-deal attitude toward male homosexuality, particularly within the IDF and the joshing, macho culture of mandatory service. This is perfectly positive, but the deliberate way that Fox highlights this "tolerance," as if proudly situating it in a trophy case, does make it seem as though Israeli gays are being mobilized as chits in a propaganda war, Tel Aviv's "Western urbanity" being silently, implicitly compared to the irrational, fundamentalist homophobia of you-know-who. Hard to say whether this is an intended implication, of course. But the hypervisibility of tolerance, while indubitably utopian, must be read as a representational strategy, and not as uninflected "realism." Why? Because we know what the world, everywhere, is actually like.
[EXTRA - THE BIG ONES]
Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1932)
This Fritz Lang fellow, he's really got some chops. And some other things about Mabuse that you most certainly don't need me to tell you 81 years after the fact. But here it is anyway, for my Fandor column.