REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, MAY 2006

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)

 

[8]

 

I Am A Sex Addict (Caveh Zahedi) [v]

As Jim Ridley correctly observes, the presence of not one but two Jonathan Richman songs is a kind of passkey to Zahedi's film, a peek behind the curtain of his onscreen persona. Like Richman, Zahedi plays a faux-naïf, a sort of manchild largely oblivious to the ebb and flow of his desires, not to mention the impact they have on those around him. Since Zahedi's film is a meta-testimonial about the development and eventual overcoming of his prostitute addiction, he sets up a unique and rarely-attempted cinematic challenge. He has to perform guileless assholishness, the grip of a complete ignorance about his own motivations, from the standpoint of a retroactive interpretive framework, one constructed with the help of Sex Addicts Anonymous and its 12-step program. In short, Zahedi gives us excoriating self-analysis and brutal honesty that, in the moments of its articulation, must convey the absence of self-awareness, the exponential levels of denial that characterize addiction's pull. Anyone familiar with Zahedi's cinema will recognize this as a significant new direction, since his previous three features exist much closer to the present tense. Using the framing device of a narration delivered in the moments before he weds long-term partner Amanda Field, Zahedi plays a harshly judged past-self, someone who can take his girlfriend to a German brothel and matter-of-factly tell her that they can't afford his blowjob and her next beer. Someone who can seriously consider solving the problems his sex-worker fetish has created in his relationship by simply "get[tting] a better girlfriend." Someone who can ask to be sucked off in four different languages and is honestly concerned about what the hookers think of him. Zahedi is ruthless in his self-examination, and although Sex Addict does entail a certain degree of humor at his own expense (showing his tremulous fuck-face to the world, not to mention revealing himself as a two-minute brother), eventually the tone is one of loss and confusion.

 

Many reviews have compared Sex Addict, and Zahedi's persona more generally, to Woody Allen and Albert Brooks. You could reasonably throw Larry David in there too. While Sex Addict's first fifteen or twenty minutes do borrow from the blankly demonstrative strain of Jewish humor typified by Allen and Mel Brooks (first you say it, then you show it), we end up somewhere very different. All these comedians know they're schmucks. That's the joke. But "Caveh," the character Zahedi constructs in Sex Addict (one he sort of asks us to forget not to confuse with "the real him"), is truly self-analytical in ways none of those comics' personae ever truly are. "Caveh" is obsessed with total honesty because he mistakenly believes that it's a fast-track both to ethical living, and getting what he wants. Like most passive-aggressive types (and lord knows, I hold my hand up here), "Caveh" usually doesn't see that his way of engaging with the world is deeply manipulative. So, in a way, Sex Addict strikes me as being as much a portrait of the inadvertent tyranny of misplaced niceness as it is about obsessively needing your dick sucked by slutty hookers. They're recto / verso, really, and Zahedi is wise enough to demonstrate this interpersonal theorem without clobbering us over the head with it. Finally, if I have any lingering qualm about Sex Addict whatsoever, it has to do with its relative silence on the issue of sex work. Granted, this is "Caveh's" story, and we see the prostitutes as functions of his own compulsive behavior. And while I think it would be ill-advised and possibly condescending for the film to try to impute subjectivity to these working women, there is a difference between them and other addicts' vices. Unlike whiskey, heroin, or slot machines, sex workers are living beings, and in the larger world there is an active, unresolved political question surrounding their status. At one point, "Caveh" tells then-girlfriend Krista that sex workers have a choice. Either "everyone does, or no one does." It seems that ultimately Zahedi rejects this position as more self-justificatory cant. This rejection is an honest and rather brave stance, especially in our faux-liberal pornotopic cultural moment. But I couldn't help feel as though this position needed to be worked through a bit more before being shunted aside. And while all of Zahedi's previous features have used complex meta-autobiography in order to open more broadly onto the world, by comparison the conclusion of Sex Addict seems a little closed off. The hookers were Sirens, Amanda was Orpheus, and "Caveh" was saved. Perhaps, but all of these elements have a cultural side, with a multitude of mediated class and gender definitions. All men have struggled with macho bullshit -- either having to overcome it, or failing to sufficiently live up to it. But where does it come from? Perhaps this is can't be answered, at least within the terms Sex Addict sets for itself. A good friend of mine who was in AA for years used to tell me "analysis is paralysis." But is it? I Am A Sex Addict left me with this provocative question dumped in my lap, and it feels a bit like a chastity belt wired with a time bomb.

 

[7]

 

-Interkosmos (Jim Finn) [v]

An improbable mélange of aesthetic strategies, Jim Finn's Interkosmos defies the current moment's virulent strain of Communist kitsch by inventing its own dashed dreams and taking them seriously. A poetic film-essay held together with ultra-cheap B-movie glue (almost like an MST3K rendition of Sans Soleil shot into outer space), Interkosmos goes all counterfactual in order to discover the deep levels of belief -- a spirituality, really, although one that could hardly announce itself as such -- underpinning the last century's struggle for Marxist utopia. Finn's fabricated documentary details the East German space program and its plan, under Soviet auspice, to build Socialist entertainment colonies on the moons Ganymede and Titan. The project is manned by personnel from various Socialist and non-aligned nations, but the main focus is on the wistful, unresolved romance between East German Cosmonaut Falcon (Finn) and India's Cosmonaut Seagull (Nandini Khaund). Found footage of the rotating earth seen from space, or the edge of a space station pitched against the blackest infinite void -- in short, some of the most conventional images from our collective image bank, and ones you can see nightly on the NASA Channel if you so desire -- are redefined with melancholy juxtapositions. Seagull reads a love letter to the absent Falcon, her offbeat observations and halting emotional sense made all the more askew by her broken German. Falcon tries to explain to ground control that he has had "The Trolley Song" stuck in his head for hours, only to be gently chastised for capitulating to the seductions of a "capitalist love song." With moments such as these, Finn stages the conflicting desires that hard-line Communist attempted to mask, yet unlike so much triumphal (and yes, capitalist) pop culture, he does this without making light of the egalitarian, internationalist striving of Socialist culture. The lo-fi atmosphere of Interkosmos, with its Home Depot DIY sets and faded film stocks and a propulsive neo-Kraut-rock soundtrack, captures not the supposed inferiority of East German television or the rocket science of the Soviet bloc, but their modesty, the dogged will to persevere. (I was reminded of the late Spalding Gray's comments in Swimming to Cambodia about primitive communications technologies in Soviet submarines, how he imagined that you could still here basic human emotions coming through those flimsy tubes.) Make no mistake -- much of Interkosmos is quite droll, especially that bit about "The Trolley Song." But Finn's humor is more like the wry sadness of deeply held convictions washed away by changing times. (It's not insignificant that much of the Interkosmos program was in fact an excuse to build a Socialist library archive on a space station, far from the entropic vicissitudes of History.) Finn's invented facts, then, ultimately take on the character of a new set of dreams, a vision of a not-yet-lost utopia to come. Seem far-fetched? Well, just think about how primitive Can and Faust used to sound. Everything alt is Neu! again.

 

What is it? (Crispin Hellion Glover)

Well, I'll tell you a few things it isn't. (1) It isn't cheap provocation. Glover, in his Q&A following the screening, not only came off as articulate and intelligent, miles away from the presumed mental imbalance usually imputed to him (neatly summarized by his notorious appearance on "Letterman" -- "wanna see me kick, Dave?!"). He is clearly well-versed in the history of Dada and Surrealism, and What is it? demonstrates this awareness in every frame. Yes, there are some envelope-pushing aspects to this film, including virulently racist country music by Johnny Rebel, a performer in blackface, the summary execution of numerous invertebrates, and most notably, a cast dominated by non-professional actors with Down's Syndrome, two of whom get rather explicitly busy in the grass. So now you know. (Knee-jerk liberals may want to sit this one out, or else come equipped with an Epi-Pen.) But like his hero Luis Buñuel, Glover is attempting to confront his viewership with aspects of human psychology about which the canons of good taste require us to remain guardedly silent. Whereas in the days of L'Age d'Or and Un Chien andalou, female sexuality and blasphemous anti-clerical material was the way to excavate the bourgeois unconscious, today we're much more afraid of bodily difference. And if, as Glover's fictional world postulates, even the mentally challenged might harbor vivid racist fantasies (that is, those whom society is deeply invested in considering utterly innocent could instead be repositories for the worst sorts of unfiltered cultural detritus), Glover also shows these men and women overcoming those reactionary fears and urges. Unlike the snails which so intrigue our putative hero (Michael Blevis), all humans have the potential, and the moral imperative, to evolve. In this respect, What is it? is considerably more progressive in its Freudian politics than the recent work of David Lynch, who sometimes seems to indicate that our psyches are structured and stratified by fear and loathing, and that there's no way out other than the force of Law. (2) It isn't half-assed. Several reviews I'd read gave the impression that What is it? is inept filmmaking, and so I went in prepared for something rough, possibly amateurish but put across with a level of gonzo conviction. In fact, Glover is a born filmmaker. Although aspects of What is it? call to mind Lynch and Herzog, the film actually engages more directly with American underground cinema. The use of watermelons as problematic racist props recalls Robert Nelson, and the somewhat washed-out "reality" sequences have the twitchy looseness of Ron Rice's films. But more than anything, What is it? resembles a heterosexual Kenneth Anger film, with fetishized objects isolated in color-saturated close-ups, and naked nubiles in ritualistic masks performing vaguely Satanic rites. At times Glover's admirable attempt to fuse avant-garde aesthetics with more narrative-oriented Surrealism backfires. His use of Wagner and Bartok, for instance, reaches for the Herzogian sublime but only disrupts the uncoached quotidian power of the Down's-slowed performances. Still, anyone who views What is it? and sees unformed junk simply isn't looking very closely. (3) It isn't very easy to talk about. Glover has created a deeply archetypal film of resonances and associations, with themes and objects rhyming across the running time in a manner that deliberately eschews linear explication. As with all such film work, it's possible to reject What is it? as pretentious and empty, requiring its audience to gaze deep into the seams of the Emperor's New Clothes and, abandoning good sense, impute meaning. One fears being had, I guess. But just as Glover's hour-long slide show (based on his Max Ernst-like collage books) hints at recurrent themes and motifs without lighting decisively upon them -- these turn-of-the-century Gothic gewgaws are unintentional Poe, revealing semi-educated minds channeling the cultural anxieties of their late-Victorian moment -- What is it? hovers at the edge of intelligibility and sticks in the mind as jarring, unshakable images barely harnessed to story or logic. In the end, what it is is a leap of faith, and I found it indisputably worth taking. Crispin Glover is the real deal.

 

[6]

 

Friends With Money (Nicole Holofcener)

On the one hand it's certainly gratifying to see Holofcener evolving, for the most part eschewing the easy humor of Lovely & Amazing and operating in a subtler register. Friends offers little in the way of traditional character-arc, instead favoring an observational drop-in on four women and the men beside them. Crises arise but aren't neatly resolved (with the exception of a misjudged deus ex machina for Aniston's character), Holofcener giving as a truncated snapshot series over a bounded span of time. On the other hand there's a timidity here that belies Holofcener's prodigious talent. It's not just that he visual style hedges its bets, using a handheld camera, for example, but almost always making sure the actors land up dead-center in the frame. On a deeper level, Friends seems to get ever so close to actually broaching class issues, even within the film's relatively tame all-white, all-college-educated field of operations. But it ultimately backs away. This keeps things true to the characters and their delicate dance of engagement-and-denial, but it also implies that Holofcener isn't sure just how uncomfortable she's willing to make her audience. Still, she's an intelligent, capable artist with an admirable knack for capturing the stifled ambivalence of adult female relationships. I'm anxious to see where she goes from here.

 

-Lunacy (Jan Svankmajer, Czech Republic / Slovakia)

Not enough pleasure and too much text: Although Lunacy isn't an altogether successful film, it's certainly an interesting one. In fact, over the course of its two-hour running time, I went from actively disliking it to actually finding much in it to admire. Now, I should preface all this by saying, I'm not all that well-versed in the unique world of Svankmajer; at this point I've seen only one of his other features (Little Otik, which I quite liked) and a handful of his animated shorts. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the problem here is one of overdetermination. Lunacy adopts major themes from the writings of the Marquis de Sade, funneling them into a narrative container loosely adapted from some Poe stories ("The Premature Burial" and "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether"). I think it's fair to say that a good deal of one's reaction to Lunacy will be determined by how well the viewer thinks this integration comes off. It is, as they say, a logical enough union on paper. But to me, it was a little like putting Kafka's legalistic paranoia inside Beckett's Endgame. It's too, too much, and what ends up happening is that the Sade material is distilled into a series of cackling pontifications by the Marquis himself (played to the hilt by wild-eyed character actor Jan Triska). That is, we get all the blasphemy and excursuses on libertinism, but none of the perversity. Meanwhile, the mise-en-abyme nightmare of our bland protagonist Jean (Pavel Liska, a hangdog Everyman who manages to look both shocked and depressed throughout the film) drives the plot to and fro, shuttling us between Poe's competing nightmares of psychiatric confinement. In the end, Svankmajer is mounting a careful argument about Surrealist social theory, though not always doing so in an artistically engaging manner. (Perhaps "Sodd" could turn up as a new character on Lost, alongside Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Sayid.) Finally, as though making some sort of formal statement about the anarchist imagination confined, Svankmajer relegates his patented stop-motion grotesqueries to interstitial bumper material. Scenes are punctuated with jarring cut-aways to raw meat in various states of agitation, sometimes twirling in modern dance, other times hurling itself into the grinder, tongues, eyeballs and all. These snippets, along with Svankmajer's second-most audacious directorial decision (staging the mishmashed historical "pastness" of the Sade / Poe world in a nominally concealed present, with the Marquis' horse-carriage being passed on the highway by eighteen-wheelers, for example), are regrettably marginalized. Nevertheless, Svankmajer's film is better than I'm probably making it sound. It's an "idea" film, which ordinarily I'd heartily applaud. It's just that carnal voluptuousness probably shouldn't be something you just stand around talking about. [A longer and somewhat different version of this review appears in Cinema Scope 27.]

 

[5]

 

-Fateless (Lajos Koltai, Hungary / Germany / U.K.)

Despite being one of the most acclaimed films released so far this year, most cinephiles I know haven't even seen Fateless, Hungarian cinematographer Koltai's adaptation of Imre Kertész's autobiographical novel. Part of this, I'm sure, has to do with distributor ThinkFilm's inability to successfully parlay the good reviews into box office for this foreign-language Holocaust drama; aside from two playdates in Utica, Fateless never opened at all in Upstate New York, and I suspect that's the situation in much of the rest of the country. But perhaps more significantly, the type of praise Koltai's film has garnered marks a sort of Maginot Line between generations of film aficionados. Are we maybe witnessing the last stand of a high-minded belief among many older critics in the power of cinema to edify, to consolidate a fragile humanism? And is this a conviction that doesn't carry as much authority for younger filmgoers who (for better or worse) are possibly more capable of examining a piece of historical or politically-oriented cinema with a ruthless formalism bordering on social indifference -- particularly with respect to Holocaust cinema, a kind of "yeah, we know" effect? Now please understand, I am exaggerating this generational divide in order to rhetorically clarify a situation that is, in reality, messier and more complex. There is no simple reason why a film like Fateless should resonate so unevenly. But this messiness typically obviates discussion of the issue at all. Are younger cinephiles, as a species, so 'post-humanist' in our commitments as to remain unmoved by Koltai's and Kertész's achievement, one that places equal emphasis on witness and testimony as it does on pure filmic expression? I suspect many members of my cohort have avoided Fateless just so they wouldn't need to confront this issue. In other words, only a post-Greatest Generation whippersnapper, coddled by the postwar Pax Americana and intellectually imbibed on the visceral pleasures of New Wave cinemas, could fail to be moved by Fateless's spare, classically articulated survivor's tale. And, we can assume, such failure is, at the end of the day, both a sign of immaturity and a substantial character flaw.

 

But Fateless, like some of Hawks' or Walsh's work, isn't as classical as it might seem at first blush. Jim Hoberman is correct to note that, especially for a film about the Shoah, Fateless is unsentimental and matter-of-fact, abjuring questions of humanity's capacity for evil and fixating instead on the blunt, banal business of survival (food in particular, but also the practicalities of combating exhaustion, or stealing away to the bathroom at night). If Ennio Morricone's by-the-numbers score seems particularly out of place much of the time, it's because the music insists on blaring out the usual triumph of the human spirit -- that gift of hard-won uplift that society tends to want to extract from its victims, as a kind of tariff for making it out alive -- from doggedly quotidian situations. In Fateless, the Nazis hardly factor in at all, implying that from a worm's-eye view inside Buchenwald, bizarre regimentation and the Kafkaesque abuses of kapos overrode any concrete sense of the Final Solution's political side. In this regard, I can understand why Koltai and Kertész's peculiar aesthetic decisions might seem bracing or even revolutionary, albeit in a quiet, downcast way. But there are deeper questions that are sidestepped by the form and approach of Fateless, and they have to do with the history of Holocaust representation. Koltai has made a cinematographer's film, all meticulous compositions and carefully protracted angles. Working, it seems, from the second- and third-hand image bank of Shoah-vision (the architecture of the camps, the rickety slats of the deportation trains, the blistered skin and emaciated human frames), Koltai's film is above all a picture, an art-directed nightmare. Even going so far as to bleach the footage into the pale sepia of an overexposed photocopy, Fateless seems intent on telling Kertész's story as a story, even if it's a fragmented, docu-modernist one. The startling "twist" (if one can call it that without lapsing into poor taste) of Fateless, and of Kertész's aesthetic analysis of his own experience, is that the concentration camps weren't Hell on earth, that in many respects their order and regimentation could render power legible in a manner that, compared to postwar Hungary, could almost be characterized as comforting. A morsel of food or a few words of inspiration from a fellow inmate could yield actual happiness, a detail of the camps that smug liberals who weren't there themselves are unwilling to countenance. (I myself have some trouble with it, and wonder whether Kertész's experience is unique to Budapest's late-roundup Axis situation.) All quite daring as a goal, and unfortunately I cannot speak to how well the original novel communicates this counterintuitive truth. But Koltai, with his sudden blackouts that pithily punctuate more than they disorient, and his vast pictorial fields of men in prison stripes, resembling some sort of Daniel Buren performance piece, seems to be taking Kertész's thesis and over-literalizing it. Yes, even the grimmest chapter of human history contains flecks of fleeting beauty. But when you distill them into well-appointed costume-cinema, they are transformed into something altogether different.

 

-Imagine Me & You (Ol Parker, U.K. / Germany)

I skipped this in theatres because it looked dumb. But it was one of three in-flight options between Sacramento and JFK, and I thought to myself, What would Theo Panayides do? Take a chance on a silly romantic comedy at 35,000 ft., naturally. And in fact, on those formulaic terms, Imagine Me & You works reasonably well, even if it displays some rookie-director wobbliness in plotting and exposition. The real trouble here is that for the first thirty minutes or so, Parker shows little flashes of imagination and verve, making it all the more frustrating when shopworn conventions clamp down. Examples of the deft bits: Rachel delivering bashful Heck's wedding toast for him (touching); the marrieds running into are-they-or-aren't-they lesbian couple Luce and Evie at the supermarket, over and over (cleverly awkward); most of the stuff with Anthony Stewart Head (gravitas, Taster's Choice style). But as it grinds on, it's just about Piper Perabo's Rachel getting up the gumption to drop her Baxter (Matthew Goode) and get with the hot lady florist. And while it's admirable that Parker treats the blossoming lesbian romance just like any other rom-com fodder, this broadmindedness actually gets in his way, since he never convincingly depicts Rachel grappling with her first attraction to women. (Tentative water-cooler talk with her office mates, as well as an abortive dip into girl-girl porn, broach the topic but go nowhere.) So, in sum, a pleasant enough time-waster, and although watching Piper Perabo make out with Lena Headey is substantially better than watching Piper Perabo dance on a bar with Tyra Banks, it's still not nearly as satisfying as watching Piper Perabo make out with Jessica Paré.

 

We all have our weaknesses.

 

[4]

 

Art School Confidential (Terry Zwigoff)

Oh goody -- Mad Magazine does Artforum. Here's a film that's desperately trying to be scathing in its misanthropy, but just ends up looking kind of sad. I spent some time in art school (one useless semester, to be exact), and went to a crunchy-granola hippy school after that, so I'm well versed in ASC's attempted demonology. Hey look, there's the angry lesbian with bad skin. Oh yeah, and there's the dude who's smugly conversant with art-crit jargon. And on and on. But instead of ever feeling the pang of recognition or too-close-to-home indictment, I mostly sat through ASC thinking about who, if anyone, could actually connect with this film enough to find it funny. Granted, I don't want to get all Armond White and start attacking those individuals who seem to me to comprise the target audience of a film I don't happen to like. But I really wonder who this is for. Embittered draftsmen who equate "style" and "personality" in art with formlessness and lack of discipline? Cultural conservatives who think higher ed has been irredeemably shanghaied by limp po-mo nonsense? Comics nerds who think cinema's raison d'etre is point-and-shoot transparency, unfolding stories one set-up at a time with minimal interference? I really don't know. But this is a deeply ugly film on all levels, and although it seems to think it's mining its undergraduate stereotypes for some higher purpose -- "satire," one assumes -- a film with no artistic pretensions whatsoever like Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School actually has a lot more to say about its cultural moment, and ekes out more comedy besides. Daniel Clowes' original comic struck me as little more than a nose-thumbing amusement back in the day, and it turns out not to be much of a foundation upon which to build anything noteworthy or memorable. Only Anjelica Huston manages to retain her humanity. As for the rest? Well, here's the question you must ask yourself. Do you believe that anyone who'd spend 25 years painting triangles is, by definition, an asshole?