REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, MAY 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)
Here's a problem worth considering. When an aesthetic form hardens into cliché, it almost certainly becomes evacuated of the meaning that brought it into being in the first place. However, when an artist chooses to return to zero, as it were, in order to reclaim that form, to renew it and place it once again in the service of genuine ideas, it's often the case that that artist's efforts can be mistaken for the cliché's absolute point of exhaustion, a hopeless cul-de-sac. That's because, by this point, the very idea of actually expressing human emotion through such a shopworn form seems wrongheaded, because we've all forgotten how we got to the dead end in the first place, and how, once upon a time, the form itself signified something actual and true about certain facets of how we live. Of course, I'm talking about static-camera master shot cinema, with its tendency toward tamped-down, deadpan emotional expression. The "alienation school," if you will, has become a house style in festivals everywhere, hailing in recent years from locales as diverse as Iran, Turkey, Romania, Taiwan, Finland, and of course France and the U.S. It has various antecedents, including masters like Antonioni, Bresson, Ozu, Tarkovsky, and even Warhol, but as we know, the results are frequently, dispiritingly similar. In fact, often the main point of variance from film to film is whether or not "the stare" and "spatial play" within the fixed frame will be occasions for humor, or just depressive torpor.
A lot of good films are made this way, but many are just art school exercises, directors imbibing the zeitgeist and regurgitating it onto festival screens, after a fashion. So what would be the criteria for determining when a filmmaker can be said to have revived this mode, transformed it while taking it back to its origin as an expressive form, rather than just an easily-applied one? Naturally, Fernando Eimbcke is the filmmaker who has prodded me to think about this, not only because his second film Lake Tahoe more than delivers on the sly, clever promise of his debut Duck Season. It is also because Lake Tahoe follows the minimalist canon almost to the letter and yet, Eimbcke's is a repetition that renews the original mode, reconnecting it to the larger human questions that required its emergence. Several reviews of Lake Tahoe have placed Eimbcke alongside Tsai Ming-liang, Aki Kaurismäki, and Jim Jarmusch, three of the most unique and conscientious practitioners of minimalist narrative cinema. He more than earns this praise.
What does repetition do? Well, for one thing it establishes rhythms that differ from those of most narrative organization. It stalls forward propulsion. In the wrong hands it can become coy or mannered -- even relatively strong films such as 25 Watts and 12:08 East of Bucharest come to mind. But when skillfully applied, it emphasizes the fact that in certain psychic states, the human subject, whether consciously or not, must tread the same ground in order to work a problem through. Likewise, a good film will organize these repetitions as slightly shifting iterations or as the gradual accumulation of spectatorial knowledge, so that nothing is "merely" repeated. For those of us both inside and outside the film, Freud's law of repetition obtains. We repeat those traumas that we cannot master, those elements of life we cannot control or understand. For a viewer, ideally the lack of forward motion itself can be such a trauma, provided the film eventually offers something of at least equal value in its place.
[SPOILERS BEGIN HERE.] In Lake Tahoe, Juan (Diego Cataño) has a suspicious-looking car accident offscreen which kicks off the story. We see him wandering on foot through the outskirts of town, going from garage to garage, with no luck. His journey results in rather odd encounters with three strangers, the elderly mechanic Don Heber (Hector Herrera), young mother / car parts store receptionist Lucia (Daniela Valentine), and co-worker / Bruce Lee fan David (Juan Carlos Lara II). Every movement between their respective locales is shot in a static frontal manner, and the characters generally walk all the way across the widescreen frame before Eimbcke cuts. So there are "empty areas" -- corrugated garage walls, off-road vacant lots overgrown with weeds, the four-lane highway where Juan crashed his car -- that we observe again and again. But Eimbcke's control, along with the cinematography of Alexis Zabe (who shot Duck Season as well as Reygadas's Silent Light), insures that the light conditions, the characters' movements, and the overall ambiance is never quite the same. These vacant areas, as the cliché goes, are worth looking at, if we give them our time. But the cliché is overcome only because of the care and attention the filmmakers devote on our behalf.
Over time, Juan extricates himself from the three random individuals who have dominated his day and returns to his family. It is at this point that we learn that Juan's father has just died. His little sister plays outside in a tent, and his mother won't get out of the bathtub. (A slow, Tarkovskian zoom from Juan's POV onto his mother, her face obscured by the shower curtain, is one of Tahoe's few significant missteps. It feels forced.) But, unable to affect change in his own home, Juan initiates a second cycle of encounters with the three strangers from earlier in the day. Some are poignant, as when Juan tries to help Don Heber find his dog, who Juan lost earlier in the day while walking him. Others simply involve the mere act of reaching out, like meeting David for a screening of Enter the Dragon. But the point is, Eimbcke has used repetition in the classic Freudian sense, to depict a life out of balance, grappling for a means to put things right.
Additionally, the more we learn about Juan -- his father's death, his protective relationship with his sister, the near-complete withdrawal of his mother -- the more Lake Tahoe's overall form makes sense. These days, anyone can make a deadpan film that doesn't move. But Eimbcke reminds us that life is movement, and that, from the car wreck onward, and from the father's death before that, it is Juan's responsibility to get things moving again. Eimbcke blunders at the film's coda, when he makes this theme far too explicit by way of explaining the title of the film, referencing the trip never taken. But regardless of this, the whole of Lake Tahoe serves to reconfigure worn-out ways of seeing, by implicitly arguing that if there is a "cinema of alienation," we mustn't forget that alienation is a state to be overcome. Juan's impassivity has an etiology above and beyond cinematic fashion. He is in great pain, and feels profoundly alone. But as we move with Juan through the marginal spaces that surround him, we discover, both in the landscape itself and those who populate it, an unanticipated abundance.
We've all heard it so many times it's almost a joke. The promise of increased availability of professional-level digital video technology, coupled with the Internet's capability of providing new promotional platforms, was that a host of new visionary talents would cover the landscape like mushrooms, ushering in the 21st century with a veritable surfeit of cinematic greatness never before seen in the history of the medium. Well, yeah, that happened. But every so often some striking new filmmaker comes along who, almost right out of the gate, seems to take to the medium with such assurance and command of its language, to say nothing of his or her own unique slant on the world in front of the lens, that we can be glad that we're still paying attention. We've seen some very interesting new directors emerge in recent years (Rian Johnson, Shane Carruth, and Antonio Campos come to mind), and I'm inclined to add Alejandro Adams to that list.
Now, I still need to catch up with Around the Bay, Adams's first film. (More on that in a week or so.) And I want to make it clear, before Mike D'Angelo takes the juicy bait I laid for him in the previous paragraph, Canary doesn't exactly belong slotted alongside Brick, Primer, or Afterschool (although Primer comes closest). This is because Canary is, in its own peculiar way, much more of an avant-garde experiment than a fully-committed narrative film. Oddly enough, this can fail to be apparent while watching Canary precisely because as a director, Adams's greatest moment-to-moment strengths come from the staging and improvisational orchestration of pitch-perfect mundane scenarios. There is a grace and fluidity with which Adams generates unobtrusively realist sequences that is honestly stunning, and Canary is filled with these ordinary moments elegantly staged -- a tense discussion in a TGI Friday's booth about parenting between two adult sisters while a sick, half-distracted child colors her menu, for example, or two girlfriends hanging out on a couch watching TV and drinking wine, complaining about their boyfriends, or a father haranguing his kids in Russian to clean up their room. [Thanks to Vadim Rizov for tipping me off on that last one.] Adams' camerawork ever so slightly edges figures in and out of the frame, slicing their bodies off at odd junctures, slowly prowling through the tight interior spaces, gently employing differential focus, never providing any sort of master shot, always keeping visual and sonic knowledge partial and tentative. The easy formalism is impeccable.
But just as often, Adams will hone in on a purely abstract element of the frame, even if only for a few bobbing seconds. This is because, unlike almost every digitally-shot feature film cluttering up film festivals from here to Timbuktu, Adams is extremely attentive to subtle textures of light, to dust particles floating in the back of an Econoline van or a few stray strands of hair as they catch a random sunbeam. These sudden detours into the realm of the painterly serve as a striking contrast with, say, the flat, banal goings-on around the Canary office, where workers in nursing scrubs prattle on about locating files and who's getting lunch, loudly flirting with the cute driver and all that stuff that leavens daily tedium (but that Canary clearly finds just as compelling). Adams's attention to light, shadow and texture works to radically particularize the humans and the scenes that come before his lens. Likewise, his searching camera, his tendency to bob and weave, to truncate movements and bodies in space, and even his unusual decision to leave non-English speech unsubtitled -- all of these things work to make human beings "strange" in Canary. By "strange," I don't mean foreign or weird, but in the sense of the Russian Formalists, of using distancing devices to make the qualities of being human within the film seem strange and new, all the better to make them visible and open to consideration. Furthermore, this strangeness could be said to be paradoxical, since it points to a radical particularity and irreducible singularity (there is only one of us) that is something we all of course share. (This way of thinking could pertain to Kwame Anthony Appiah's theory of cosmopolitanism, that we do share difference from one another, but we are profoundly united in that difference.)
It should probably be evident by now that this review has said nothing about Canary's primary theme. Ordinarily this might be due to some delicacy regarding spoilers, but Adams is fairly upfront about the fact that this is, in part, a film about a business that trades in used transplant organs, and in particular focuses on the process of reposessing the organs of those who have been deemed by the Canary Company to have violated their legal agreement. But actually, this is little more than a MacGuffin. Or, better yet, a kind of void around which all of the formal exploration and observational acuity -- the true stuff of Canary -- really circulates. In one regard, Adams overplays his hand by placing too ostentatious a void at the center of the film. His lead actor, Carla Pauli, never speaks, and makes a bit of a show of lurking around the edges of the frame, a Tarkovskian stalker or a too-recessive art-cinema Hollow (wo)Man. It's true that at the film's conclusion, we learn a bit more about what's she's been doing all this time, something that recodes her activity throughout the film. Nevertheless, the organ-shuffling game is on Adams's and Canary's mind, but in a way one could imagine this film being about virtually anything. This is usually the kind of thing writers say by way of criticism, but actually this comes as high praise of Adams's superb formal capabilities. And, paradoxically, this undifferentiated cinematic tissue mirrors Canary's overt theme completely. Perhaps Adams's directorial style is so accomplished that it's the blue goo that can potentially evolve into anything.
Considering that Falling is Dutcher's most painfully, even extravagantly agnostic film -- a pivotal moment even features Dutcher's character Eric Boyle lobbing F-bombs up at the Man Upstairs, although justifiably so in context -- it's surprising to learn that it's a film he'd originally planned to make just after the rather hardline Mormonism of God's Army. Nevertheless, Falling is a 2007 film and cannot be entirely understood apart from Dutcher's break from the LDS church. Where Brigham City (still his masterwork in my opinion) slowly let doubt seep to the surface like poisoned groundwater, and States of Grace, for its notable challenges and ambivalences, is in many respects God's Army 2.0 (an older, more tolerant artist's redo in light of intervening, irreconcilable contradictions), Falling is a grim work of gutbucket artistry, a masterfully controlled atrocity exhibition that, like its protagonist, eventually flies into a million pieces. One can practically see the blood and sweat, the physical force pushing light through the celluloid in the effort to grab hold of us, and of something, in a spiritually rudderless world. One can easily picture Falling unspooling in the projection booth without a take-up reel, piling up on the floor, and the mess we and Eric are left in by film's end is all there, somewhere in that tangle. (This off-the-rails tendency originally, stupidly, led me to award Falling a 6, but I now see that the film and Dutcher have a definite job to do, and I missed it at first.) I'll have much, much more to say about Falling in my upcoming feature for Cinema Scope, but for now, I think the main point is this: Falling has its roots in the Sam Fuller / Nicholas Ray school of off-Hollywood operatics, but today, its closest cousin would have to be the Abel Ferrara of Bad Lieutenant and Mary, that is, the man in his searching, unclean renegade Catholic mode. (The only other halfway apposite point of comparison would be some early Makhmalbaf, particularly The Marriage of the Blessed, around the time his rigid Islamic belief started to give way.) If highbrow film culture can't find a place for an ex-Mormon auteur limning urgent questions of human belief in a cinematic syntax that's half-Renoir, half-timebomb, then we have a serious problem.
In an upcoming piece (auf Deutsch, at least initially) for Cargo, timed to the German release of Che, I end up harshing a bit on Steven Soderbergh, which wasn't exactly my intention. However, using Che as a leverage point, I basically argue that when one looks at his career as a whole, it's difficult to suss out precisely what, if anything, Soderbergh cares about, apart from some rather stock-in-trade liberal sympathies. It seems as though he'd just as soon make a film about anything. In a way, this level of detachment works in Soderbergh's favor, since he is an impeccable formalist, completely attuned to the subtleties of image / sound relationships, the dynamics of montage, and the visceral impact of color, light and shadow. It's just that by making narrative films, Soderbergh always seems to imply the presence of a "something more," and more often than not it's hovering just out of reach, leading his most astute champions to ascribe to his cinema an almost structuralist self-referentiality, an enclosed auto-commentary on the filmmaking process itself. (See, for example, Scott Foundas or J. Hoberman.) In some ways Soderbergh's digital quickies for Mark Cuban's HDNet have been some of his most satisfying recent efforts because they practically wear their formalism on their sleeve, hitting the streets with a deceptive modesty.
In fact, without having to employ big stars and lavish sets to justify where a bunch of investor money is going, Soderbergh can relax and just geek out on lens flares, rack focus, the burnished ambient light of a hoity-toity Manhattan steakhouse or the blown-out sunbaked visual scheme of a private jet in midday flight. The Ocean's films display Soderbergh's taste for the finer things, not just as a wealthy American man traveling the world first-class but as an artist existing at a slight remove from that world, able to observe its glossy aesthetic as something tangible and worthy of isolated exploration. His first HDNet project, Bubble, was the absolute obverse of this high-finance fetish -- the encrusted, time-worn blankness of the rural Ohio suburbs, of factory breakrooms and Kentucky Fried Chickens, and the middle-aged, polyestered, Vantage-smokers who populated them, in a sort of documentary rethink of Erin Brockovich. The Girlfriend Experience, by contrast, is a sort of Alain Resnais / Wong Kar-Wai puzzle channeled through the almost wholly absent subjectivity of Chelsea ("existentialist" porn star Sasha Grey). She is a high-end callgirl seen negotiating the whims and needs of her mostly-businessman clientele. They prattle on about their work, how great it is to have a woman who "listens," enjoy themselves as Chelsea pretends to be impressed by their wine choices, engage in chitchat following a screening of (Magnolia film) Man on Wire, etc.
[SPOILERS FOLLOW] What we actually see through this brief passage of a sex worker, her personal-trainer lover and her johns through a brief moment in time (a few days in late October, 2008 to be exact) is a subsection of the New York upper-crust coping with their own deep anxieties about the future. These fears of course can be summed up very tidily: the economic collapse, and Obama. Either amongst themselves or with Chelsea, the men ramble incessantly, as though in an extended therapy session, about their money woes, their contingency plans, and above all the necessity for McCain to pull it out. (Only Chelsea's final client, glimpsed in a post-credits scene, offers the other opinion, that McCain is a decent man who's in with the wrong crowd and that Obama is the future.) Chelsea herself does make certain failed moves in the direction of shoring up her own tits-and-assets. In addition to making plans to leave boyfriend Chris for a time to run off with an impetuous client (who bails, returning to the safety of his wife and son), Chelsea also gets involved with The Erotic Connoisseur (film critic Glenn Kenny), a web-based writer who "reviews" sex workers and promises her increased business if he posts a solid notice on her performance. These efforts fail miserably, solidifying Chelsea's status as a chit in the power-and-money milieu she occupies. She sells the "girlfriend experience," but cannot call on the privileges that designation would afford her. And so, in the end, Chelsea returns to work, trying to make rent and keep it together, like everyone else at the bottom of the economic shitheap.
But more significantly, The Girlfriend Experience displays a basic truth about this particular moment of economic crisis. There is no longer any gold standard, no solid bankable value. Not even sex. (So, in that regard, we are all truly fucked.) And, if Chelsea's work really is a metaphor for Soderbergh's, then we have to ask again, what is this man's investment in his art? The Girlfriend Experience is a smart but surface-oriented gewgaw, made with a billionaire's private funds, sent out to circulate in the world wherever it may, and then just kind of dissipate into historical non-memory. It's too well-made to be disposable, but it is also too glancing and gauzy and in-the-now to be of lasting import. And so, it gleams like the shiny interiors it depicts, made without any conviction that "art" will be of more stable, fundamental value than gold or sex or labor. So indeed, Soderbergh is the Poet Laureate of neo-liberal capital. And as such, he can teach us quite a lot, provided we're listening.
A thriller about the nefarious global doings of a European megabank is a rather ironic if not altogether surprising choice for Tom Tykwer. As a director, he's got all the personality of an ATM. But he's also pretty efficient, and he can get the job done provided he's working with halfway interesting material. (Not for nothing are this and Heaven, the two films he didn't script, his best.) The International has taken a beating from critics far and wide, and not undeservedly. The script is lousy with faux-proverbs that would sound preposterous issuing forth from anyone's mouth. ("There are bridges you cross and bridges you burn; I'm the bridge you burn," etc.) It also asks us to mistake breakneck speed for twisty Byzantine plotting. (How did it all come down to Ulrich Thomsen in the end?) But Tykwer is nothing if not a visual thinker, and from the very opening shot, The International consistently hammers home its basic concept: craggy individualist Salinger the Interpol Man (Clive Owen) plastered against neoliberal hypermodernity in the form of stark, anonymous glass-and-steel interiors and facades. Organic and inorganic, two incompatible ways of life. Tykwer presents this contrast over and over, in so many permutations, that The International verges on structuralism. And in fact, it could be argued that the failures of plotting are endemic to the failure of the IBBC to stand still and act like an ordinary villain. After all, the bank is everywhere and implicated in everything, but not in the usual paranoid sense that thrillers posit, say, the CIA or the Mafia. (By the end of the film, only a mundane bureaucratic figure like Naomi Watts' Assistant DA can make even the slightest inroads against the bank, probably because she's considered such a benign, system-integrated threat.)
As per global laissez faire economics, the megabank is a rhizomatic force, and connecting the dots into a coherent throughline (the stuff of both moviemaking and police detection) is doomed to fail. The final scene explicitly acknowledges this, and in some sense it is Tykwer's 11th-hour copout. But it's also fundamentally correct. And if the gunfight in the Guggenheim Museum is both bravado and ridiculous, cool for cool's sake and a cinematic set-piece practically set apart from the rest of the film by dotted lines, it also subtly underscores The International's theme of individualism vs. high-tech dispersal and cash-nexus anonymity. Who exemplifies the rugged modernist Lone Gunman better than Frank Lloyd Wright? The poor guy even ended up as an Ayn Rand protagonist. Meanwhile, the singularly crappy but handsomely appointed (and Saatchi-approved!) video installation art stopping bullets in the Guggenheim rotunda is the work of one Julian Rosefeldt, a "socially conscious" Berlin-based artist whose work is grandly theatrical and patently obvious in its intent. And yet by existing as scenes "out of time" rather than as fully coherent narratives, Rosefeldt's work arrogates to itself the "ambiguity" that marks it as serious art. (Read Roberta Smith's fine evisceration here.) And so, even creative resistance (like, um, The International itself) is caught in the web of late capitalist social relations. There is no way out, and Tykwer knows this. He may well be a poseur, but at least he's honest. [For more information on the actual relationships between global megabanks and corrupt international regimes, click here.]
The going line in childrearing is that kids need boundaries. Of course this is largely true, and I can tell you from anecdotal experience that it's the case. Any developing mind requires stable parameters and signposts against which to gauge the influx of stimuli bombarding him or her at any given moment. Without a buoy or a lighthouse here and there, we'd all be hopelessly lost at sea. However, this basic dictum has often been taken to extremes, especially when combined with the analytic biases of American ego-psychology, which has as its goal the comfort and integration of the subject into the culture at large, whatever its prevailing conditions may be. (The big-money pop version of this doctrine, of course, is the self-help movement.) When these half-understood doctrines lock into place and are unloosed on kids and parents alike, the dominant message tends to be something along the lines of, "good parenting equals the removal of ambiguity and the establishment of firm rules and definitions." And, in the world of child psychology, this has too often led to the present pill-pushing culture, where actual syndromes and chemical disorders, and the cultural factors that may very well contribute to them, are all simply shoved away with the flick of a pen across the prescription pad. (Yes, ADD and ADHD are real, but so are the deleterious effects of TV and videogames on the development of concentration. And so, most likely, are the effects of leeched chemicals from impure foods and industrial plastics. But are we really working on all fronts to correct the problem? And does American capitalism really want us to?)
Daniel Barnz's Phoebe in Wonderland is a film that deals with the fascinating, overdetermined psychological muck of real human children inside a recognizably human family. Phoebe (Elle Fanning) is precocious, creative, quirky, and she does in fact have several very real psychological disorders which are making her extremely unhappy. To address them directly here isn't a plot-spoiler, exactly, since Barnz makes Phoebe's struggles quite legible to the audience. She has a variety of Tourette's which manifests as several forms of OCD, along with the usual social impulse control. Phoebe frequently parrots speech back to her interlocutor for no reason, or gets stuck in endless, agonizing rituals to stave off feelings of impending doom. She is the oldest daughter of two academics, her dad Peter (Bill Pullman) still publishing, her junior-prof mom Hillary (Felicity Huffman) stalled out while trying to revise her dissertation into her first book. Before becoming a mom, Hillary's research centered on Lewis Carroll, and Alice in Wonderland in particular. And, as "luck" would have it, the odd, aloof new drama teacher at Phoebe's school (the odd, aloof Patricia Clarkson) is putting on a play of Alice, a story Hillary often told Phoebe and her sister Sally (Mackenzie Milone) when they were younger. In school, Phoebe is an anguished misfit, and at home her rituals are becoming more and more prevalent. But the play rehearsals (the world of Wonderland) serve as a psychic free-space for the girl, where she feels at home and the pressures of her illnesses abate.
There are some artificial elements and screenwriterly contrivances that drive Phoebe in Wonderland. It isn't a film immune to the pitfalls of Sundance Cinema. (In particular, the drama teacher's poor choice of metaphor comes around to seal her professional fate.) What is unique, though, about the film is that the problem the characters within it have in seeing through to Phoebe's pain (and that we, to an extent, have in sussing out exactly where Barnz is taking us) have to do precisely with the expectation that childhood, and the narratives around it, will always have clean lines. We see Phoebe talking to Wonderland characters, or envisioning her family as Carrollesque fantasy figures who fulfill the psychological needs of the moment. Phoebe lapses into a pretend world. However, this is normal. In the midst of Phoebe's actual crises, which are treatable through medication and therapy (and must be, for the sake of her well-being), she is also a fanciful little girl with a vivid imagination. The trick is, we, and her parents, have been coached to an extent -- by teachers, by film grammar, but admirably not by the child psychologist in the film (Peter Gerity) -- to read all of Phoebe's "unreal" adventures as of a piece. Not so. The dividing line is blurry. In fact, it doesn't even divide. And this problem in seeing is the real crisis of the film, since Hillary's academic connection to Lewis Carroll prompts her to radically misread Phoebe's disorder. She sees it as a psychoanalytic mutation of Phoebe's resentment toward her and her thwarted academic ambitions, a suppressed understanding of inadequate mother-love. So when Hillary, like a good liberal, refuses the doctor's diagnosis as Western medicine trying to pathologize a strange, intelligent nonconformist female child, she is missing the boat, in a way.
That is, Hillary is right, but not this time. Everyone else may have been trying to just make "the Phoebe problem" go away, but not this fellow. So part of Barnz's allowance for the messiness is, of course, the recognition that whatever afflicts Phoebe always happens somewhere, within a family. So, when we see Hillary's guilt jeopardize her daughter's mental health, or Peter thoughtlessly blame Phoebe to her face for her mom's failures, it becomes clear that psychoanalysis will always have its place. It cannot be dethroned, as the pill-pushers so desperately want it to be. But, neither do the culturalists have all the answers. We are, in fact, biological organisms, and sometimes our wiring needs tending to, as a medical issue. Phoebe in Wonderland, the most honest, complex depiction of family in an American film since The Secret Lives of Dentists, arrives very circuitously at a significant truth. All subjects operate from an ideological base, and parenting doesn't change that. But we owe our kids better; above all we have to adopt an ideology of listening, of sympathetic reading, endless flexibility, and constant correction. Fresh human beings are far too fascinating to simply reflect our worn-out philosophies, which after all were forged in the world as it was before they arrived to renew it.
[SPOILERS, SPOILERS, AND MORE SPOILERS] This viewing actually represents my one-and-a-half'th viewing of Larrain's film, since last year I employed my pathetic Spanish comprehension skills and gave Tony Manero a go without subtitles. I did get the gist of the film, and was mightily impressed. Sadly, though, this time around I discovered some "nuances" that are in fact not very nuanced at all, and actually lessen my enthusiasm ever so slightly. Granted, the major and substantial strengths remain. Larrain has created a singularly bizarre angle from which to examine the social impact of burgeoning fascism. Alfredo Castro (who also co-scripted) plays Raul, a 50-something psychopath and apparent lifelong nobody whose obsessive fixation of Saturday Night Fever provides a focal point for his deeply antisocial behavior and casual violence. What's more, Raul's over-identification with Travolta's character (and by extension, the uniquely American self-made-man mythology he embodies) permits him to falsely envision himself as morally and functionally superior to the other lowlifes in the transient dive-bar milieu he calls home. So he sexually services bar owner Wilma (Elsa Poblete) "for the use of the hall," even as he finds her repugnant. He treats his girlfriend Cony (Amparo Noguera) like a whore and even beds her barely-legal daughter (Paola Lattus) just to make the point. And he looks way down his nose at his younger, far more talented dance-troupe co-star Goyo (Héctor Morales), even though the younger man is Raul's moral better in every conceivable way.
Trouble is, Larrain overemphasizes all of this. Not only does he have Cony explicitly tell Raul, "You're just like me;" the dramatic action also takes pains to draw out the contrast between Goyo's clandestine, anti-Pinochet Communist activism and Raul's smug rightward slant. Such parallelism isn't necessary, because at heart Tony Manero is a complex, ambivalent black comedy. Such hectoring doesn't become it. In the opening ten minutes, we see Raul bash an old pensioner to death so he can pawn her TV to begin buying the necessary high-density glass to assemble a lighted dance floor, just like the one in Saturday Night Fever. And the opportunity kills keep piling up, including one that's borne simply out of immediate frustration, with little material gain. (The local movie house replaces Fever with Grease, so Raul murders the elderly projectionist and his ticket-taker wife.) There is an inherent humor when anyone obsesses over some random bit of cultural detritus. It's common to laugh at Star Trek fanatics or people who constantly quote The Simpsons in everyday conversation, or, yes, "the Cinemaniacs." But most of us generally feel mean scoffing at these harmless eccentrics, and so part of Tony Manero's pleasure-structure is its organization of a premise that makes condemnation not only safe but necessary. Thwarted masculinity is depicted as ambidextrous, equally given to political thuggery and homoerotic fanodm, but never reducible to either one. Larrain draws equally from The King of Comedy and The Conformist, while aping the conclusions of neither.
But of course, a large part of Manero's subtext (if we can even call it that) is that psychosis was somewhat redundant under Pinochet's Chile. Raul is shown ducking into alleys, scampering across rooftops, evading death squads like the rodent he is. But Larrain's "conformist" is quite unlike Bertolucci's, since there's no indication that Raul had to conform. He doesn't exactly thrive under Pinochet, but he can exist as a megalomaniacal scumbag and be brought up short only in the most pedestrian of ways. His "comeuppance" is a second-place finish. Larrain and Castro no doubt want us to observe the parallel to fascist Chile itself, which allied itself with Reagan and Thatcher, held delusions of first-world status but never stopped being a chintzy protectorate helmed by a two-bit despot. But as a tragicomic character study, Tony Manero also scores as a picture of unchecked loser desire, Raul's TV appearance (on a goofy Sabado Gigante-style variety program decked out in late Match Game decor) demonstrating the sad lack that forever haunts the real. First prize: a blender. Second prize: ride the bus until it's safe to go back home.
Embarrassing as it is to admit, Oblivion represents my long-overdue first encounter with Honigmann's work, and in many respects I'm duly impressed. An observational / poetic documentarian in the uniquely European mold -- the most pertinent points of comparison seem to me to be Honigmann's late countryman Johan Van Der Keuken and Denmark's Jørgen Leth -- Honigmann explores the anguished history of Peruvian governmental incompetence and chicanery not by tackling it head-on, but by moving through the alleys and byways, the spaces between those places where power resides. So, Peru's corrupt presidents are seen only through file footage, each one in succession taking the oath of office before the legislature, donning the presidential sash. This looping (and rather loopy) repetition, as a good minimalist like Jarmusch or Kaurismäki could tell you, underscores the buffoonery of these men and their pretense of dignity. And Pete Townshend or anyone in Lima will tell you, meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
And so instead, Honigmann learns about the troubles of Peru over the last several decades from people such as Jorge Kanashiro, a bartender who has worked at the upscale bar across the street from the legislature for over fifty years. Oblivion opens with Kanashiro in a laser-sharp dialectical audio montage, easily the film's funniest and most impressive achievement. While Honigmann's camera lovingly films Kanashiro preparing a Pisco sour, the "national cocktail of Peru," according to this man who undoubtedly knows. While describing how he has made this drink for every sitting president since he started working at the bar, in most cases on more than one occasion, an intercut secondary voiceover finds Kanashiro turning loose a lifetime of bottled-up punditry, offering an incisive critique of monetary policy, institutionally ingrained malfeasance, and the helplessness of the Peruvian citizenry to rise up against an oppressive oligarchy due to the constant potential for violence. Honigmann returns to Kanashiro several times throughout Oblivion, and he is never less than engaging. But it's the work that the two of them perform together, on the formal level, that accomplishes the critique on such a scathing level. We are watching decades of proud, honest labor in progress, only to simultaneously learn how in the opinion of the man behind them, they were really all for naught, and by the way, that goes for all of Peru as well
Oblivion lights upon many other figures in its urban tapestry who are just as compelling as Kanashiro, although Honigmann never moves beyond the confines of the wide-view, poetic documentary mode. This isn't to say that Oblivion is ineffectual or unsatisfying, but it certainly remains in a comfort zone. If Kanashiro has an opposite number, it would be restaurateur Luis Cerna, a slow-talking, dignified senior citizen who is proud to have served those in power, regardless of their shortcomings. When we meet his large family, they gush about his generosity, his humility, and Honigmann's point seems clear. Although Cerna is clearly a kind, beautiful man, he also reflects a social quietism (cultivated, clearly, in response to decades of political terror) that prevents radical social change in Peru. We also meet others considerably less well off than the entrepreneurs, such as underage street performers, a single mother living in a hovel with her mom and son, and numerous other individuals scratching out a meager living within spitting distance of Lima's federal plaza. Consistently, Honigmann finds that in the streets everyone agrees that Peruvian political culture is beyond saving, and for her part Honigmann (not unlike Fassbinder at the end of Maria Braun) brings every president since the 80s up for scrutiny.
However, in exclusively focusing her (entirely justified) sights on the systematic abuses of the dictatorial right, Honigmann flirts with intellectual dishonesty. Vague references to "the terrorists" drift hither and thither in Oblivion, and one man discusses how his cousin's throat was slit in the night by members of Shining Path. However, by essentially allowing Shining Path, the MRTA, and other leftist groups to go by without comment, Honigmann fails to provide a complete picture of what Peruvians are up against in the struggle for a truly meaningful civil society. As men and women on the left, there are myriad reasons to criticize these groups, at the very least, but there are also questions regarding the extent to which they can ever be fairly represented and tried within the very system they aim to topple. Nevertheless, Oblivion ends up purporting, by omission, that average Peruvians have no real opinions on these controversial, volatile groups. And, when you consider that the single most harrowing moment in Oblivion comes when "Henry," a 14-year-old shoeshine boy, tells Honigmann that he has no dreams. He is the future of Peru, and it sounds an awful lot like the future in Palestine, in Afghanistan, in Somalia and the Sudan. If Honigmann's humanism really doesn't know what to do with a futureless boy like Henry, Shining Path's Maoism certainly does.
It's difficult to imagine very many people outside of the narrow confines of this documentary's experience range finding it particularly interesting. In fact, I found it more of a grueling horror-show than an enlightening piece of nonfiction cinema, but felt compelled to stick with it, since it was a rare coincidence of a filmic object appearing on the scene at the precise moment of its complete and direct relevance to my own situation. It's as though you got out of bed, stubbed your toe, turned on HBO and discovered, "Coming up next: Toestubbers: Untold Tales from Five Seconds Ago." Granted, my own struggles with securing daycare for my daughter were blissfully free of the Manhattan-specific admissions hustling, which seems designed to reinforce the sense of earned entitlement among America's ultra-elite. Nevertheless, it is quite shocking when you understand that despite your best efforts, there are objective material factors, such as baby-booms and care-shortages, that may sabotage your parenting approach. That's to say nothing of, you know, having no money. At any rate, Nursery University is little more than an extended 20/20 report, following the golden-paved Spellbound template, treating an issue or phenomenon and showing its "human face" by focusing in on a few subjects. But this is a film about the future of children, and so it basically has no inherent drama, because it wouldn't get made (or have its mock-aghast, John Stosselesque tone) if everything didn't work out all right for all the tots in the end. So the poor kid gets a scholarship, the kid with a too-pushy mom gets into a perfectly lovely second-choice school, the freaked-out yuppies get their daughter into every good parochial in the borough, etc. Issues of class and race are brought up and wiped away, and the people who run these super-expensive hoity-toity preschools ("I was impressed with how well she arranged the blocks!") are let off the hook for the tough decisions they make, since we don't meet anyone who's left in the lurch. I call bullshit.
Essay films are tricky, mainly because they tend to eschew the usual rhetoric and argumentation that can provide a structure for a more conventional documentary. In deft, intellectually curious hands, this formal freedom can generate new knowledges, since ideas unaccustomed to brushing alongside one another are given the elbow room to do so. But it can also lead to sloppy thinking. In Double Take, Johan Grimonprez attempts a Borgesian riff on Hitchcock, telling a story of the director meeting his older self in order to instigate a loose set of ruminations of doubling. We meet Ron Burrage, a man who looks like Hitchcock and works as his contemporary stand-in; Grimonprez examines clips and bumper material from "Alfred Hitchcock Presents..." to consider Hitch's ambivalence toward television, cinema's evil double; we examine promotional material around The Birds, which both "doubles" the film and highlights a work of cinema that squarely examines humanity's irrational other; and Grimonprez rehearses two slightly different versions of the MacGuffin story, considering this ultimate placeholder for the Hitchcockian "double" as a double itself. Aside from the snide anti-TV jibes culled from "Presents...," none of this is particularly enlightening. Mostly it comes across as a first draft of a kernel of an idea, a basic literary concept simply trainspotted here and there across the Hitchcockian corpus. But then, there's Grimonprez's big reach, an "argument" generated solely by montage and historical concurrence. With clips of the Nixon / Khrushchev "kitchen summit," Sputnik and the space race, and various Cold War artifacts (culminating, of course, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, about which Grimonprez has nothing whatsoever new to say), Double Take "argues" that the Cold War was itself a kind of doubling of pressures applied elsewhere, perhaps in the world of psychological entertainment Hitchcock style, with its well-trod activations of the unconscious. Or, that the U.S. and the USSR were Doppelgangers of one another, Cold War hysteria plastering over a fundamental sameness. (I know! Stop the presses.) Double Take's strategy, such as it is, is to place one thing after another in a kind of "double" of televisual flow, the contemporary material with Burrage, for instance, edited into the main Hitch vs. Hitch story as though it were an episode of "Presents...," complete with multiple Folgers Coffee commercials for presumed comic relief. (Instant Folgers passes itself off as fresh-perked among Body Snatchers-looking suburban zombies obsessed with coffee flavor above all things. Ha ha ha.) Grimonprez never articulates any meaningful connection between Hitchcock and the Cold War, or really, between anything and anything else. He does show clips from Topaz, but that's just demonstrating a connection Hitchcock himself articulated. Double Take would be passable as an initial attempt at assaying some potentially compelling ideas in desperate need of further fleshing out, were it not for its rather self-satisfied tone. There is understanding, and then there is its double.
Given the unique circumstances of The Windmill Movie, it's hard to know how to begin a review, since the fact that we're essentially dealing with a posthumous work, and the excavation of one man's incomplete life-project at that, casts the kind of pall that demands a light tread. Olch was a student of Harvard film professor Richard P. Rogers, a journeyman documentary and TV director whose boxes and boxes of unedited (and in some cases undeveloped) camera rolls represented a mammoth diary film, chronicling the majority of his adult life ensconced among the Hamptons' well-to-do (he came from money) as well as his numerous art-loft love affairs with artists of the 70s and 80s counterculture demimonde, culminating in his marriage to renowned photojournalist Susan Meiselas and eventual death from multiple brain tumors. At the start of The Windmill Movie, we see footage of Rogers, camera held to bathroom mirror ("the cliché shot," he assures us in voiceover) discussing the difficulty a man of privilege has in constructing a film based on his frustrations and disappointments. Then, Olch gives us contemporary footage of Rogers' friend Wallace Shawn performing the same monologue. (Soon after, Shawn and Bob Balaban are poking around Rogers' home, ruminating.)
So, what to do with The Windmill Movie, a film that acknowledges its arrogant purposelessness then charges ahead? But then, of course it doesn't do that (!), since Rogers himself left the whole thing in the can, perhaps implicitly understanding that this diary film had meaning only in his making of it, only even in the fact of its constant, endless making permitting him to live a great deal of his narrow, self-absorbed life safely positioned behind a camera? It is Olch and producer Meiselas who have finally made the thing, and when we see all of Rogers' duplicity, philandering, dime-store philosophizing ("If I could make a perfect woman out of the best parts of all my lovers . . ." among other pearls), and flat-out cocktail-party piffle, we have to wonder whether The Windmill Movie is as much an act of revenge against Rogers as it is a loving attempt to bring his work to light. Olch reads from Rogers' diaries, and although there is obviously a temporal coincidence between the words we hear and the footage we see, some of the juxtapositions are too jarring to be guileless. Rogers notes his willingness to show himself "as he really is," while we observe a close-up of his wrinkly ass and pendulous scrotum filling the screen just prior to a bath. Rogers delights in securing work in Hollywood, "to direct a real TV show!" Cut to the opening credits of ABC's "Life Goes On," a vehicle infamous for its rare combination of sentimental simplemindedness on the level of both form and content.
But above all, even without attempting close readings of The Windmill Movie for (unconscious) malicious intent, what it provides is a portrait of the artist as a fairly competent mediocrity. Rogers emerges as a man who left his will on film, all right, but to no apparent purpose and without achieving or providing any more enlightenment than that which would dawn on just about anyone in the hour of his death. Did Rogers know this, and attempt to spare himself and us the time and trouble? If you take the creative risk to examine your life, and discover that you weren't up to the task -- that you were more Henry Jaglom than Jonas Mekas -- that would certainly be reason enough for another Scotch, another day at the beach. And maybe another undeveloped camera roll, that could expand into nearly anything as it flashes across the screen of your mind.