NEW RELEASES SEEN, NOVEMBER 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)
On the surface, The Proposition doesn't depart all that much from the "anti-Western" template, and at bottom the film is (yet another) disquisition on the pointlessness of vengeance. But Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave actually position their film at an odd angle in terms of politics, and it's a bit hard to place, actually. (Maybe this is why The Proposition has proven to be one of the year's most divisive films.) Ray Winstone's frontier lawman seems to be a straight-up archetype, the lone gunman for "civilization" in the untamed Australian outback. The film dips into the popular mythos of lawless Australia; the Irish Burns gang -- Guy Pearce's stoic, impenetrable middle sibling, flanked by Danny Huston's poetry-spouting, psychopathic elder and Richard Wilson's unstable baby brother -- represents an uncontainable rogue force which isn't without its charismatic appeal. But Winstone's Capt. Stanley is The Proposition's moral compass because he occupies a buffer position between savage anarchy and a British colonial apparatus that demands public floggings, hang-'em-high rhetoric, and the wholesale eradication of the Aboriginals, all in the service of callous expediency. While the Stanley homestead may be a rather conventional symbol of the struggle to carve order out of chaos (the proper British home on the desolate plain, infiltrated first by dust, and eventually by the unloosed fury of the Burnses), The Proposition saturates it, and the Stanley marriage, with a unique sense of futility and sadness. The Captain's tempered conservatism tends to compel belief in part because of just how quixotic it really is. Mrs. Stanley (Emily Watson), meanwhile, requires healing through revenge, a gift her husband cannot proffer.
Much more than in other like-minded films, the stakes in this relationship serve to clarify the fact that to supplant frontier justice with bureaucratic authority (exemplified by the titular deal with Pearce's Charlie Burns), one must embrace language, structure, and (symbolic) castration over brute force and masculinity. The male body must submit to the mind at all costs, even at its own peril. (I was reminded of the way Michael Dukakis was lambasted after the 1988 Presidential Debate for his failure to respond to Bernard Shaw's lowball hypothetical -- what if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered? -- with adequate bloodlust.) The film's conclusion dramatizes this crisis with unblinking horror, and in the end Charlie's decision to intervene (on behalf of a 'third way'?) remains inscrutable. He might be an enforcer from a zone beyond good and evil, but The Proposition's characterization of Charlie withholds any discernible interiority. Likewise, this approach is echoed in the film's form. Hillcoat's direction vacillates between the stillness of vast landscapes, with their dwarfed human figures muttering incoherently to themselves and one another, and short, tremulous clusterfucks of action and violence. The soundtrack swells with semi-structured metallic noise, while dense waves of imagery surge by, yet these saturated moments prove as impenetrable as those obdurate vistas. Hillcoat creates a plastic environment in which meaning (the "law"of narrative) is constantly under assault from brutish material sounds and images, asserting themselves and verging on incoherence. The world of The Proposition is one that exceeds the sense-making, legislative capabilities of its two designated enforcers (Capt. Stanley and Hillcoat himself). It sounds insane, but I kept thinking that this is the sort of Western Leos Carax or Philippe Garrel might make. Needless to say, Hillcoat (a highly-regarded Australian auteur with a mere three films to his credit in 17 years) is a director worthy of further scrutiny.
Good news! Apparently it's possible to vote for two Pedros at once. While Rodrigues' sophomore effort unfortunately isn't as formally radical as his widely-loathed debut O Fantasma, it's every bit as brazenly, experimentally queer. You wouldn't know this by looking at the first half-hour or so in isolation, since Odete looks as though it's going to be the story of a spurned, slightly unbalanced young woman (the luscious Ana Cristina de Oliveira) appropriating a gay male identity to compensate for not having one of her own. Rodrigues has more in store, since he's really interested in the mutability of identity, sexual and otherwise. In this regard, Odete is both an embarrassment of riches, and a case of a talented young director biting off more than he can chew. The reference points explode in all directions, and they don't always add up. We have the unsettling of identity (Bergman, Rivette, and Lynch apply here), as well as the insistent, irrevocable pull that the dead have over the living (a theme as old as Aeschylus and Sophocles, and explored in the latest film by Spain's leading auteur). But Rodrigues boldly stages his ambisexual seance action in a florid, carnally frank melodramatic framework that borrows liberally from the Almodóvar playbook.
[MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW] Although I understand Strand Releasing's need to retitle the film, making its marketing more "gay-friendly" by obscuring Odete's focus on its female lead, it's still fundamentally misleading. Like Almodóvar, Rodrigues seems to tell us that under the rules of male heteronormative privilege, unbridled female desire of necessity ends up being as transgressive and "queer" as any same-sex union. At the same time, Rodrigues favors still frames, hieratic poses, and high-key lighting that turns his anguished protagonists into sculpted vessels, somehow radiant and infused with life-energy even at their most desperate. This approach is one that Rodrigues seems to be drawing from his countryman Pedro Costa, whose insistent focus on social outcasts provides them a cinematic space for hyper-visibility and monumentality. (Pedro and Costa are relatively common Portuguese names, but the fact that the dead lover Pedro [João Carreira] has a fourth name, Costa, right under 'Pedro' on the tombstone, hardly seems coincidental.) As I say above, sometimes the complexity and hairpin tonal shifts are a bit too much for Rodrigues, but what Odete cannot fully sustain structurally it more than makes up for in genderfuck rigor. Odete, the woman who fantasizes a life with Pedro she never had, and Rui (newcomer Nuno Gil), the man who actually had his love affair cut short by cruel fate, both experience their private and their shared pain as seismic ruptures upon the body. By the final shot, the dead have defiantly returned, boyfriends are bent over, and the ladies are packing and pegging, Rodrigues has miraculously brought all the free radicals together. He has yet to make his masterpiece, but he's obviously one of the brashest, most original young filmmakers in the world today. Is anyone paying Rodrigues due attention? Kind of makes you wonder whether Jean Genet would've found his audience in the present climate.
During one of the periodic online debates that crops up around the issue of auteurism, Mike D'Angelo (who's generally in the anti-auteurism camp) noted that while many script-driven films are dismissed as being "too writerly," no one ever accuses a film of being "too directorly." But as it happens, this effectively sums up Down in the Valley, David Jacobson's third film as writer-director, and the second one I've seen. From the opening credits sequences on through most of the first hour, it's clear that Jacobson has complete control of the visual aspects of the medium. We've all seen umpteen-thousand depictions of the suburban soullessness of L.A. and environs, but Jacobson condenses this knowledge, and a healthy dose of skepticism about it, into stark, sun-dappled images of freeways, commercial zones, prefab subdivision vistas. Jacobson's San Fernando Valley is saturated with a radiance and a structural power that recalls John Ford's Monument Valley, or Michelangelo Antonioni's sparsely populated modernist landscapes. While it's clear from the lens-flares that Jacobson is operating on the stylistic assumptions of American cinema of the 70s (just as Dahmer was, for all its flaws, a meticulous riff on Fassbinder), he manages to invest this now-canonized way of seeing the world with a fresh contemporary luster. (In broad daylight, and with the comic incongruity of Edward Norton sitting in the frame in his ten-gallon hat, Jacobson successfully shoots an average Unocal station is if its glistening plastic and swarm of fueling cars were heavenly bodies in a constellation. This scene should sit proudly beside Kiss Me Deadly's Sinclair sequence and the artwork of Ed Ruscha in the micro-pantheon of gas-station transcendentalism.)
[SPOILERS] A well-intentioned liberal stab at "realistically" probing the mindset of a lost, marginal figure (in this case a former junkie and incest survivor), Sherrybaby smacks of unthinking condescension. Collyer seems to take it as axiomatic that the former prisoner, the drug addict, the middle-class dropout, all function in a state of feral self-destruction, and that having done time in the system is fundamentally at odds with possessing the capacity to be anything other than a selfish twit. Sure, we're all tired of Lifetime-style portraits of women overcoming victimization or pulling themselves up from adversity. Those women tend to be self-help books come to life, with nary a character flaw in sight. Collyer, however, avoids this pitfall by racing to the opposite extreme, and the result is that Sherry (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is almost too bad to be true. I mean, sure, we've all known people in trouble who make awful choices, but Sherrybaby makes this behavior look calculated to demonstrate a grim but vital thesis about The World We Live In, and Gyllenhaal's performance is right in line with this smug illustrative mode. This kind of thing happens a lot in American cinema when very intelligent actors try to play down that intellect. Like Tim Robbins as a redneck militia nut or Sean Penn as a smirking dad with an IQ of 30, Gyllenhaal unwittingly telegraphs her distance from the role of Sherry. (The scenes in the halfway-house are a perfect example of this, and not just because Gyllenhaal's one of the only white actors. Surrounded by women who can really perform "hard-core lifer," MG's just out of her depth.) By the time Collyer shows us Sherry's dad fondling his daughter's ripe, tank-topped titties in the middle of a children's birthday party -- a lascivious comment or sidelong glance might have been too subtle for the target audience! -- it's obvious Sherrybaby is no better than standard-issue LMN claptrap. It just slathers its deterministic worldview in handheld grit.
It's hard to either praise or bury Kim Ki-duk without mentioning the Tony Rayns thing, and although his infamous Kim takedown always struck me as a little unfair (seeming at times to veer into ad hominem territory through innuendo), Kim's latest lends credence to the theory that maybe the director isn't all that far removed from the grunting primitives one finds in Bad Guy and The Isle. Primitivism isn't bad, of course, and the premise of Time could've been well-served by a sputtering, unhinged madman like Sam Fuller or Abel Ferrara. But Time finds its maker attempting an awesome feat, namely the combination of ruptured-identity psychodrama a la Persona or Hiroshima Mon Amour (the Vertigo connection kind of goes without saying) with topical political urgency. Unlike the deft but somewhat empty rigor of Spring, Summer . . . and 3-iron (two films I liked, but whose success may have been largely due to their small ideas receiving a craftsman's care), Time, as its comically pretentious title announces, is hunting big conceptual game. A fundamental human truth (namely that passion tends to cool into comfortable familiarity, and can imperceptibly ease into contempt) is worked over with (in Lee Walker's apt phrase) "mitten hands," resulting in a film that vaguely resembles a Hong Sang-soo picture as made by a team of chimps. Who can argue with blunt, near-autistic verbal gleets such as, "You are tired of my same old face!" and "I'm only human"? (These pensées are leavened with frequent strings of obscenities and a café's worth of shattered coffee service.) To really accomplish what Kim has set out to do, he would've needed to allowed for quiet moments, punctuated by halting, hesitant speech, the kind uttered when real humans are in the throes of anxious indecision or even terror. A run-of-the-mill failed film would've erred on the side of exposition, the way something like Waking Life does. Ideas are spelled out in neon, on the assumption their road-tested "depth" will compensate for the heavy hand. But here we have something altogether different, a man who perhaps achieved some uncharacteristic moment of clarity about the human dilemma, had it crystallized by current events, and then almost instantly reverted into blinkered incoherence when it came time to execute his vision. Kubrick famously described the film director as an "idea and taste machine." What can be said of Kim's incessant oh-so-symbolic use of a gaudy oceanside sculpture garden, riddled with some of the tackiest public art ever displayed? Or, to continue the earlier comparisons, how much incisive psychoanalytic (or at least psychological) groundwork would Hitchcock, Bergman, Resnais, or Lynch have laid, so that when See-hee (Hyeon-a Seong) appears wearing a photo cut-out mask of the "missing" Seh-hee (Park Ji-yeon), the effect is properly chilling, instead of risible? It's possible that the lack of depth might've been convincingly disguised by flashy filmmaking -- after all, there's a lot more, thankfully, to Irreversible than the insight that "time destroys everything" -- but Kim's flaccid pace and (apart from the god-awful sculpture scenes) negligible camera set-ups indicate that he thought this one would win the day on smarts alone. No such luck.
"Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own." -- Jonathan Swift
I barely feel like reviewing this one, since I don't want to end up representing the Humorless Left. (Too easily dismissed, plus it just makes you another of the film's stooges. As the Church Lady used to say, "How con-veeeeeen-ient.") But really, the only stuff that struck me as genuinely funny (naked wrestling / lobby chase; chicken on the subway; to a much lesser extent the destruction of Confederate antiques) could have been accomplished by the Jackass team, or by Tom Green, without all the problematic, laugh-at-the-backwards-foreigner nonsense (or, its equal and opposite number for the urban elites, laugh-at-the-racist-rednecks). Even Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd, operating in the same condscending register, made no claims for their "wild and crazy guys" as cultural criticism. Whatever Borat is, it isn't satire, because apart from the possibility of getting some bones broken, Sacha Baron Cohen isn't risking anything, nor is he making any real demands of his audience. Andy Kaufman implicated his own fanbase, and even led some people close to him to think he was actually insane. Hell, even Daisy Donovan (of the highly uneven, now-cancelled series "Daisy Does America") got whatever laughs she did at her expense alone. (If you happen to have TBS On Demand, her hip-hop episode is well worth a look.) But the Borat character embodies and exaggerates stereotypes of boorish men from underdeveloped countries, and then tries to play it off as if our reaction to his caricature says something about "our" expectations. It's called having it both ways, and it's cheap. As for the anthropological value, okay, Cohen caught some racist homophobes letting their guard down. Um, you think they wouldn't say the same thing to your face?
[ADDENDUM, WITH SPOILERS: If Juvenalian satire, as generally defined, uses "irony, sarcasm, or caustic wit to attack or expose vice, folly, or stupidity" in the contemporary world, than what exactly is Cohen attacking that he himself isn't largely instigating? The feminist stooges, for example, reveal that after spending years of their lives fighting sexism, they won't tolerate it in their midst. The redneck stooges admit they luuuuvre Jesus and hate gays, and the Southern Ladies and Gentlemen don't care for black people. Is this vice or stupidity really exposed by Borat? Moreover, if, as Cohen's proponents either argue or assume, it's precisely Borat's dumb-naive-foreigner act that affords him the necessary leeway to get into these tricky situations, why does Cohen himself use the backstory and frame material to play on the exact same sort of xenophobia (the "naughty, naughty" town rapist, his sister the award-winning prostitute, etc.)? Does this really implicate the audience, or pander to those fully prepared to find such stereotypes funny in the first place? And if the point is, as some say, to lure unsuspecting viewers into Borat's lair so as to -- bam! -- find yourself reflected in the frat boys, Pentecostals, or stentorian driving instructors, would anyone ever really discover their own face in that glass? Or is it up to the intelligentsia to laugh at you for you? Final note: the material that comes closest to the tactics of effective satire is, of course, the outlandish anti-Semitism. Seriously, in a world filled with Mel Gibson Easter epics, Syrian TV dramatizing the "Protocols of Zion," and Turkish blockbusters depicting the harvest of transplant organs for use in Tel Aviv, Cohen has some legitimate work to do here. And yet, through his failure to specify, his casual use of Kazakhstan as just some random backwater country, the fear and hatred of Jews Borat depicts is stripped of its real-world referent. (Borat, you'll recall, takes care to inform the racist at the Virginia rodeo that he is not a Muslim. "I am Kazakh, I follow the hawk." Frankly, Borat, I'd prefer that you followed through.)]