REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, NOVEMBER 2007
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)
[SOME SPOILERS] No one is as surprised as I am to discover that Affleck is a skilled, subtle director. Nothing in his acting would suggest this, and perhaps what I had been reading all this time as bullet-headed smugness was genuine dissatisfaction, a Pabst-and-pretzels sensibility rankling against the demands of effete Hollywood. Gone Baby Gone is a deft, modest genre film that defies expectations but never makes a big fuss, moving beyond its basic crime story into an exploration of America's deepest divisions without the usual liberal grandstanding. It's not just that he continually exhibits restraint, even in the face of some of Dennis Lehane's more baroque narrative touches. (These pulpy spots are the very ones that Clint Eastwood lacquered into faux-epic grandeur in the inexplicably overrated Mystic River.) The first thing one notices about Gone Baby Gone, and the unobtrusive formal energy that gives the film its overall shape, is its complete saturation in the working-class Boston milieu. The opening sequence doesn't aestheticize, even as it attends to the shadows beneath the commuter train lines and the harsh squint of sunlight upon leaving a neighborhood bar at noon. Affleck is a true regionalist, and Gone is every bit as baptized in the sweaty, unadorned reality of underclass street life as Hustle & Flow, and (although I loathe this meaningless term) probably more authentic. Although the film is about our Amber Alert culture and its justification of virtually any dubious act in the name of "protecting the children," it's also pretty clearly autobiographical. It's not in the details of the plot, of course, which form a tight, incredibly bleak little crime drama, one that does eventually become needlessly bloated with incidents whose implausibility is only somewhat mitigated by their thematic import. The specifics are all Lehane's mechanics, but the interstices as well as the broader implications speak directly to the presumed experience of both Affleck brothers. A film like Chinatown is brilliant because it explores the corruption right in front of Jake's face. He can't see it, though, because he's blinkered by sexism and racism, the fundamental xenophobic privileges of noir and the dominant culture it reflects. But Patrick (Casey Affleck) is in a related but altogether tougher position. He should be able to see what's happening in his own neighborhood, because once upon a time he "belonged," had a tightly woven, organic connection to those working stiffs around him. (As the opening voiceover notes, guys take pride in where they're from, like it was something they did.) But Patrick has lost that connection, and more and more, that is what he's incapable of seeing. Right up to the climactic showdown with a Haitian druglord Patrick "knows," the college-kid private dick refuses to see just how far he's drifted from his roots, or for that matter how justified he or anyone else would be in severing some of those ties. Gone Baby Gone is about the pain, confusion, and irreconcilable conundrum of no longer being "Bennie from the Block." This anxiety, worn by Casey Affleck in this film like an ill-fitting transparent shroud, is the mark of class and masculinity in crisis, a crisis written on the body. So, in the end, Patrick assumes the mantle of defending "his people" against the would-be do-gooders who sit in judgment against them, defending unfit mother Helene (Amy Ryan, in the flawlessly embodied, 100% condescension-free performance Maggie Gyllenhaal allegedly delivered in Sherrybaby) as if she were Joan of Arc facing off against a tribunal of elders. (The issue is complicated precisely because Helene's numerous failures as a mother get all mixed up in her judges' eyes with the comfort she feels in her trashy lower-class skin. Not a trace of desire for "betterment," for herself or for Amanda. In America, this is a grievous offense.) The final shot does not provide the answer of whether Patrick's decision was right or wrong. It does make some things excruciatingly clear, however. Little Amanda's mom is gone. The ideals Patrick thought he was defending are gone. And the Patrick who had any right to defend them, if he ever really existed, is long gone. What's left just stares at the TV, waiting.
This is going to have to be one of those "up is down" moments in my criticism, but for what it's worth, it's less of a rhetorical gesture than a deeply felt, personal conviction, one that in its own weird way clarifies little stray bits of thought and perception I've had rattling around in my brain since I was a small child. The thing is, as a film and on a purely technical level, The Life of Reilly is pedestrian at best and incompetent at worst. Poltermann and Anderson often fail even to find the most logical angle from which to photograph Charles Nelson Reilly's not-very-complicatedly-blocked one-man stage show, Save It For the Stage. In most any other case, I would be incapable of overlooking flaws such as these, since as a reviewer I am addressing The Life of Reilly, the film, and not Reilly's stage show as such. However, these deep flaws, and the fact that Reilly's final performance of his poignant, frequently hilarious autobiographical monologue was both instigated and captured for posterity by two guys of middling talent as filmmakers, is not only telling. It's perfect. It sums up everything unfair and less than dignified about the career of Charles Nelson Reilly, an intelligent, erudite man of the theatre who was often forced to pay the bills by mincing like a bug-eyed nelly for Sid and Marty Krofft or teaching acting classes to insufferable little twerps who knew him only from "The Match Game," and sneered accordingly. The first thing any halfway astute viewer realizes in the first few minutes of The Life of Reilly, as CNR begins to spin the tale of his childhood (a story often told -- of being the little boy everyone knows is somehow "different" -- but seldom with this degree of wit or genuine Renoirian affection for his tormentors), is that as a monologist, Reilly is equal to the late, great Spalding Gray. But Reilly's trip through showbiz always sent him through seedier channels, kept him on that strange rung of semi-celebrity that strands you between stardom and artistic achievement. He was, in short, a "panelist." And this is unfair. It's unfair, appropriately unfair, that The Life of Reilly is not as good as it should have been, because it wasn't shot by Steven Soderbergh or Jonathan Demme. It's also appropriately unfair that many people won't bother to see this film, since even its poster gives it the vague lacquer of faux-Vegas, a preening "chat with an old queen" veneer that disguises its deeper emotional resonance.
And what is that, exactly? It's hard to quantify, but I think it has to do with unlikely dignity and the joy of friendship, of living life on your own terms and learning to be so completely comfortable in your own skin, against all odds, that many of the world's cruelties can be viewed in the light of their basic pettiness. Reilly is a case study in self-mockery as a defense mechanism in a hostile world, but there's more to it than that, which may be the film and the monologue's biggest revelation. Some reviewers (notably Noel Murray and Nick Pinkerton) have made the logical connection between Reilly and Paul Lynde, two gay performers of the same era (late 60s through the 70s), both flamboyant talk- and game-show fixtures whose sexuality was an open secret. Both were susceptible to charges of mincing or gay minstrelsy, I suppose. But Murray's got it right -- Lynde "made being gay look like torture," hence the bitchy behavior, the nervous tics and flopsweat, and a barely-concealed contempt for everything he did. Reilly was much more at home in the world. Part of this, we learn, is that being a panelist on "Match Game" is a hell of a lot better than growing up in the Reilly house. But more than that, Reilly found refuge and true community in the theatre world, a place where people valued and respected him. (Watch those old "Match Game" reruns and you'll find genuine rapport between Reilly and summer-stock vets Brett Somers and Gene Rayburn; gruff, macho Richard Dawson is the odd man out.) Reilly's hard-won sense of self -- as a comedian, as a gay man, as a sophisticate playing the goofball and a goofball playing the sophisticate -- belies any wrongheaded notion that the man somehow cheapened himself or played to stereotype as a homosexual buffoon. He was who he was, was pilloried for it, found a niche, and was eventually lambasted for that, too. So Reilly's life and career speaks to a greater crisis in celebrity. Actually doing the work, being part of a community who performs and directs and imbibes the arts, and occasionally dips into other, more public realms, will make you something of a public joke. Pinkerton's review cites Alec Baldwin and Will Ferrell's disgraceful "Inside the Actor's Studio" sketch on SNL, wherein Baldwin mocks Reilly not mercilessly but ignorantly, with no idea who the man is or what he's done. The "joke" is that the idea of Reilly being profiled as an actor is absurd. What's absurd is that people who should know better run roughshod over their elders. But the bottom line: CNR could take it, and with inordinate grace. And I think this is why I've always related to Reilly, and why he's been a totemic figure in my consciousness for as long as I can remember. Partly it's that I watched a lot of game shows as a kid. I liked the bells and buzzers, and I usually knew the answers, whereas to this day I can't tell you what's going on in a televised football game. But I, too, was a weird little boy who intuitively knew I was "different," and I was trying to figure out what that meant. (As it happens, I wasn't gay. I was just a shy, nerdy bookworm growing up in a poor redneck Texas family, which almost amounts to the same thing.) Reilly stuck with me because he was funny, he seemed suave and charming, self-effacing but not willing to suffer fools, and most important, he displayed a completely different model for how to be a man. At the time, it seemed like it might be a good one. Thirty years later, I'm certain I was right.
While watching this film I had ironic flashbacks to 2001, when I took a break from the San Francisco International Film Festival and its heavy-hitters (Tarr, Haneke, Jia, Hong) to sneak in a commercial screening of Chopper, Andrew Dominik's debut feature. It was a perfect relief, a skillful comedy with a puckish formal style and a winning, wise-ass central performance by future star Eric Bana. Although I liked quite a lot about The Assassination of Jesse James Et Cetera Et Cetera, it's striking that six years later Dominik is hellbent on making just the sort of ostentatious art object from which he'd provided respite in the past. Warner Brothers is indeed allowing this picture to die on the vine, which is a shame -- it surely should have been handled as WIP specialty product -- but let's not allow this corporate insensitivity to blind us to the film's faults. Dominik and crew are far too blatant in swinging for the rafters, trying to spin a modest tale of stymied masculinity and professional jealousy into an Epic for the Ages, and the stretchmarks show. Dialogue is tin-eared on occasion, letting the Deadwoodish aspirations shine through, but mostly it serves well as the clipped frontier poetry it aims to be. There is, however, a uniformity to the writing that tends to flatten out character distinctions, and this leaves little for the actors to do but locate a tic and telegraph it here and there, waving so as not to drown. Casey Affleck, so believably vulnerable as a blinkered wannabe in Gone Baby Gone, is reduced to hissy fits here, and Brad Pitt doesn't fare all that much better. But this speaks to a larger difficulty with Assassination and its tone. Does it want to be psychological, or an obdurate formal study in the inaccessibility of the past? Sometimes, as in the lengthy open spaces, the low-angle Malick landscapes and the sudden bursts of violence, Dominik evinces a desire to show without telling, or to display a long-gone world whose codes and comportment we can't understand at all. (This idea would make Bob Ford's adolescent cache of Jesse James comic books all the more poignant, as if the character too were stranded in a naive belief that his icon could be parsed and put away.) But Dominik, no doubt drawing on cues in Rob Hansen's novel, gives his unwieldy movie shape with an overriding DSM-IV reading on Ford that has no place in a picture devoted to the past as "another country." He's Mark Chapman with a six-gun, hero worship and self / other issues resulting in a sort of sublimated-homosexual need to destroy the object of his admiration. Affleck occupies this thankless role as best he can, but it ultimately forecloses on Assassination's greater aspirations. No genre-redefining work of art can be so cagey about abandoning simple schema that it slides back into easy-to-digest answers, and it's hard not to feel like the makers of this film hedged their bets. (A lot of good it did them!) The one area where Dominik generally succeeds is the visual level. Certain scenes, such as the study of the Jameses' cleared-out home, are enthralling displays of the piercing emotional power of light. (This is without a doubt a film to see in theatres on a 35mm print, so hurry.) But even less convincing moves, like the pinhole / stereoscope tunnel-vision around the edges ("can we really look into the past?") or the generalized sepia tone, display a position, a stylistic commitment that a viewer can adopt an attitude toward. These are the maneuvers of a true outlaw. The endless Robert Ford epilogue, however, which reeks of obligatory period-piece I-dotting and T-crossing, is indeed the work of a coward.
When confronted with experimental film or video, it's not an uncommon response for viewers to find themselves at a loss for words. This typically hasn't been a problem for me; in fact, I'd tend to say I throw rather too much verbiage at the avant-garde films I love. But for weeks now, I've been at a bit of a loss for just how to grapple with Ken Jacobs's Capitalism: Slavery, a videowork of deceptive simplicity. Like many of his recent videos, Capitalism: Slavery is a transcription of certain procedures Jacobs has adapted from his Nervous System performances. In this case, he has taken a stereoscope image of slaves in a field picking cotton, with a white overseer monitoring them on horseback, and zeroed in one certain portions of the image. Furthermore, he has once again chosen to alternate rapidly between the two parallax views, resulting in a twisting, pulsating 3D force field in which the image "moves" but does not progress. I have now seen this three-minute video three times, and only this time do I really feel prepared to comment on it in any substantive way.
The piece is quite remarkable, in part because its rather straightforward presentation of an emotionally volatile historical fact slowly reveals itself as a far more complex, more plangent work of art -- a silent threnody, if you will. At first I couldn't get past the content of what I was seeing -- the visual record of one of the most unfathomable injustices in human history. What's more, Jacobs's pairing of the piece with the longer Capitalism: Child Labor makes a larger, crucial political point, that our present New Gilded Age, and all wealth amassed since the foundation of the American nation, is borne on the backs of the oppressed, a ledger forever stamped in blood. No reparation, no monument, and no day of remembrance can change this. But Jacobs's video actually accomplishes something more. In the opening shot, we see a young woman, scarf-covered head down, in the airy, entwined tendrils of the cotton field. She is lovely, and in any other context her pose and poise would make her a candidate for immortalization by Vermeer. At this split second of the camera's click, her misery has accidentally assumed a classical pose. Jacobs allows us to admire her beauty and her dignity, and then slowly he reintroduces her surroundings -- the cotton field, the other slaves, the slavedriver. Near the middle of the film, Jacobs again isolates individuals, allowing them to come forth in their individual radiance and singularity before they are, in essence, forced to return to "the field" of visual generality. As with his other recent works, Jacobs has found abstract aesthetic means to promote a rigorous intellectual program that asks nothing less than a reimagining of our social relations. Like those earnest pamphleteers who tell us next to nothing, all he asks is a few minutes of your time. The rewards are immeasurable.
Really nothing more than pulpy, old-school genre fun in the above-average Stephen King mold, but surprisingly it strikes some emotional chords as well. Despite some phoned-in frame-story work by Samuel L. Jackson, who's had it with these motherfucking ghosts in his motherfucking hotel, this is John Cusack's show, and he brings an honest-to-goodness Aristotelian character arc to Mike Enslin, the smug, callow paranormal-travel-writer who is gradually stripped naked by Room 1408. Just like Winston Smith and Room 101, Enslin has always known what's inside Room 1408, and so have we. The one-guy-in-a-room thing is hard to pull off, and even though having the writer dictate narration into his mini-cassette may seem like a cheap out, it soon becomes natural enough to allow 1408's real formal challenge to emerge. The film's skill is in keeping its two related tracks moving at a jaunty pace. There's the personal reckoning, doled out in brief ghostly visitations and Enslin's hallucinations. And then there's the physical stuff that a mean room can actually do to you -- the blaring clock radio, the melting phone, the window that slams shut on your fingers, the surly hotel operator. The latter provides comic relief for the former, and the former seems all the richer for this strategy, such that when Enslin is finally reunited with his dead daughter, a move any attentive viewer saw coming a mile away, it is genuinely affecting. I watched about thirty minutes of Håfström's 2003 Swedish horror flick Evil and got bored, and his English debut Derailed looked far too stupid to bother with. 1408 doesn't exactly make me want to go back and do the groundwork, but I'll certainly keep an eye out for the man's next film.
No more sleeping with the anomie? If Tsai's New Crowned Hope film seems a bit off to some longtime fans, this is completely appropriate. This is a radical departure for him, and not just because the director has returned to his native Malaysia, although that's certainly part of it. Tsai's previous feature, The Wayward Cloud, was a conclusion in nearly every conceivable respect -- a final chapter in a sort of "taipei disaster cycle," a summative statement of dystopian gender relations, and a sort of end-of-humanist / end-of-cinema cri de coeur that was, in its own way, worthy of Godard. So it comes as no surprise that Tsai packed up and "went home" (not a particularly meaningful concept for such a transnational, cosmopolitan artist), but the shift in his formal style is subtle but telling. Gone for the most part are the deep, rectilinear camera set-ups, gaping maws of Antonioniesque urban alienation wherein human connection of any sort is a miracle of timing, pacing, the overcoming of distance, and possibly even the ability to see through walls. Instead of organizing the film frame with these forbidding (but compellingly modernist) geometrical vortices, I Don't Want To Sleep Alone is largely based on circles. These circles are usually human, comprised of huddled groups of urban immigrant laborers in Kuala Lumpur, scratching out a living and forging a community both by necessity and good will. These men gather around fires, makeshift communal dinner tables, stirfry stands in the street, or anything that needs to be carried back to their metal lean-to. This formal adjustment reflects a film that is about community in transition rather than individual crisis. This about-face in Tsai's concerns (which are blatantly announced in the film's title) has several consequences. For one, the individual shots don't snap together in the obvious ways they did in other of his films. Rounded forms are more forgiving when it comes to articulations and transitions, one of the reasons avant-garde "mandala" filmmakers like Jordan Belson and James Whitney tended to eschew clear edits in favor of the dissolve. But look closer and Tsai links shots on the basis of color, light and tone, as well as shifts in space and shape. Another consequence is that instead of the drama of the film being comprised of individuals struggling to find one another and forge real bonds, I Don't Want To Sleep Alone is about bonds that shift, real ones and imagined ones and the often slippery distinction between the two. Lee Kang-sheng plays a dual role in this film, since there are essentially two courses of action which are only symbolically related. In the main throughline, he plays a new immigrant who speaks none of the local languages and is robbed, beaten and left for dead. He's rescued by the workers' group, and one member in particular takes a shine to him, feeding him, washing him, helping him urinate, and bringing him into his bed. Tsai is both careful and poetic in visualizing the care that one able-bodied man can provided for an infirm man, the tenderness involved in such care, and allowing the erotics of this relationship to emerge without insistence or polemic. But as Lee's character regains consciousness, he is shown to be heterosexual and goes out cruising for women. The conflict, then, becomes one over competing claims over and to Lee's body, and by extension the foreign identity he represents, and Tsai provides a hopeful, sexual-humanistic conclusion. In contrast, the "other" Lee is somewhere else, in a bourgeois home, paralyzed and being cared for by family who have their own odd sexual fixations around his inert body. Tsai offers this B-roll subplot as a foil, implying that the nuclear family (the zone of most of his previous cinematic explorations) may be a dead end at best, and a kind of hell on earth at worst. A circle of friends, thrown together by circumstance but held together by choice, may be one way out. Tsai seems to be trying to forge a new cinematic language to convey this hope.This new language inevitably sacrifices some of the formalist pleasures of the earlier work, wherein architecture, the elements, and pure time lorded over his subjects to absurd and often frightening effect. But perhaps a Tsai Ming-liang style cut to human measure may yet afford new pleasures, even while providing an unexpected end-run around ennui.
After two viewings (both on not-so-spiffy video, so I'll absolutely cop to missing some visual nuances here), I think I'm finally beginning to wrap my brain around Paranoid Park, a film I admire a great deal but can't bring myself to love. Unlike Van Sant's recent, highly problematic muddles Elephant and Last Days, it's something of a relief to see him experimenting with the reintroduction of scenes in which characters simply converse. The interrogation-chat between Alex (the remarkable Gabe Nevins) and Detective Lu (Richard Liu), for instance, is a model of both tonal sensitivity and economy. But I think Paranoid Park has really clarified my difficulties with Van Sant precisely because it's the first film of his in a long time in which all of his cinephilic influences have been spun out, like elements getting separated in a centrifuge. We're really seeing late-period Van Sant come into his own here, no longer in thrall to Béla Tarr or Chantal Akerman or the Dardenne brothers. And I guess the real problem is, I'm not sure I like straight-up Van Sant. He's all too willing to overplay the swoony romantic gestures, never leaving well enough alone. He'll capture a breathtaking image, but always layer it with a fussy, mutedly bombastic soundtrack selection that in most cases only underlines the emotional charge of the original, unadorned image. It would be too easy to blame this overkill on Van Sant's Hollywood sojourn; I think it's just his preference for the grand, sweeping crescendo, albeit within the rigorously truncated formal parameters his recent films allow. The overt aim, it would seem, is to explore the impact of this outsized affect within the confines of modernist control, and actually Paranoid Park treats this as its underlying theme. The kids balk when Lu refers to the "Eastside Skate Park," sounding as it does as though the city benevolently ceded them some space for self-expression. ("Happy Citizenship Day!") Instead, it's Paranoid Park, a liminal, uncertain space in which self-actualization comes hand in hand with watching your back and looking out for 5-0. A key shot at the 15-minute mark expresses this beautifully: we see skater after skater swing before the camera in an aerial, against the silhouette of the girders underneath the steel highway bridge. That is, linear, architectonic structures play against the kids' loose-limbed, provisional freedom. Their agency is radically circumscribed, but they steal moments of exhilaration directly from the air around them. It's all quite smart, but in the end I can't help but feel the Van Sant overplays his hand, with the Elliott Smith and Nino Rota music and especially the Christopher Doyle cinematography pushing this well-crafted cinematic short story into the realm of grand opera, so much so that it begins to look like Van Sant does more than take teen angst seriously. He thinks inside of it. (In this regard, the humanist plaudits Van Sant has received could in part be a thank-you of sorts for being a kind of non-prurient Larry Clark.) Granted, Van Sant and company achieve stunning moments of pure luminosity: hazy headlights on a Portland highway, or the dark brown paneled texture of an underlit suburban basement rec room, shot from an almost Ozu-like low angle. Portions of the film are shockingly dark, nearly illegible, and this is in keeping with Alex's precarious moral universe. Paranoid Park is practically a "mumblecore" film, if those guys gave a fig about, you know, images and sounds. And in fact, Paranoid Park should also be thought of as a movie for teens, not just about them. It doesn't need to stay in the art ghetto. All that having been said, too often Van Sant was clearly attempting to get me caught up in something visceral, a delicate portrait of fraught psychology about to scatter like dandelion fuzz. Instead, I watched patiently from a distance, like a well-meaning guidance counselor, thinking, "I don't know what to do for this film."
I have next to nothing to say about this film. The first part was pretty tedious, although the streetlamp prelude was lovely. The talkshow segment is the real meat of the thing, and as a punchline it really delivers. Having someone take their own fabricated personal mythology public in such a manner, where it is sure to be shot full of holes, is a wonderful premise, and Porumboiu makes the most of it. A completely "solid" picture, but I could never imagine making any great claims for it, or even analyzing it beyond what I've done here. Am I just being lazy? [ADDENDUM: Theo Panayides wrote me to contend that yes, in fact I was being lazy. 12:08 is anything but "sold," since the film comes apart at the seams midway through. Didn't I notice? Well, sure. Theo, you are right, of course, and aside from "solid" being a poor choice of words in this context, I would been more specific had I not been the last person on earth to see 12:08. But even still, Porumboiu's structure seems so obvious to me that, once you get it, the film has little else to offer. "Hey, here's another ambling, Kaurismaki-lite festival film....whoops! It's Maury Povich's The Romanian Nasty Girl." It does what it does rather well, although I didn't think the first part was any great shakes. But once you observe what it does, and maybe trot out a neat little allegorical reading -- "like communism itself, 12:08 shows that any artificial structure with which to organize human life inevitably brackets life's messiest questions, and just as inevitably, it must eventually collapse" -- what is there? It reminded me of a painting by John Baldessari called A Work with One Proprerty, which is a white canvas stenciled in black with the words, "A WORK WITH ONE PROPERTY."]
Can we just agree that the Cannes Film Festival has no sense of humor? How else to explain Andersson's sharp, evocative black comedy getting shunted into Un Certain Regard? But then even some of the director's biggest supporters have damned You, the Living with faint praise, acknowledging its undeniable rigor and visual invention but judging it to be a pale imitation of 2000's Songs From the Second Floor. Well, let me just admit that I quite prefer Andersson's latest, and I'm extremely comfortable with this minority opinion. In spite of numerous stunning set-pieces and more than a handful of indelible images, Songs struck me as airless and a bit too self-important. I quite disliked it on first viewing, although I warmed to it with a second look. But Andersson's extended riff on pre-millennium tension was too in thrall to its own apocalyptic vision, one it allowed to hover as an enveloping mood without ever deigning to dip into specifics. Sometimes the results were just too blatant in their lunge for iconicity; the "crucified loser" sequence in particular bore the sweat stains of allegorical overexertion. If Songs' own best metaphor for itself was its line of baggage-burdened travelers snail's-pacing it through the airport, You, the Living is refreshingly fleet of foot. Here, Andersson just wants to fill his world with silly love songs, ones to which his heartsick protags have forgotten the lyrics but gamely hum along. Some of the film's opening gags are so blatant that their theme-and-variation structure has the ability to retroactively retract the easy joke. For instance, the fat punk-rock guy in the opening scene would seem to be "funny" because, as he reminds his girlfriend of the good times and pleads with her to come home, we're struck by the incongruity. What a sensitive, soft-spoken fat punk-rock guy! But then, as he and his manic-depressive paramour pop up throughout the film, both characters cease to be amusing just for who they are. The screen time invested on these misfits provides the opportunity for Andersson to render them palpably human. And this seems to be Andersson's guiding principle for You, the Living, dropping us into the presence of quirky individuals whose pain and confusion we witness, over time but still from a respectful distance. Andersson the grand humanist eviscerates the very idea of the "walking punchline." Instead, people have odd little hobbies like the Dixieland jazz band, or stop us mid-film to show us their bizarre dreams. And when Andersson does have an outright joke to tell, he does it visually and with virtually no comment. The tablecloth trick is the set-up, but the bare table's design is the satirical left-hook, and Andersson trusts his audience enough to just leave it there. By the conclusion, however, You, the Living has recoded itself again, and not necessarily for the better. The final few shots have a determinism and an exactitude that's both laudable and irksome -- a weird mix of War of the Worlds with Christopher Maclaine's The End, perhaps, or a glimpse of what a hypothetical Michael Haneke comedy might look like. Or, more simply, Andersson positions You, the Living at a perpendicular angle to Songs, as if the two films began in radically different places but both eventually convened at a specified rendezvous point, Ground Zero. I have reservations about this, since for me the most liberating thing about this film is its light touch, its one-of-a-kind combination of an impressionistically dour view of the human animal with an all-emcompassing structural integrity -- Jacques Tati filled to the gills with Bergmanesque rue. But I quibble. It's easily one of 2007's most accomplished films. [And we're lucky to finally get the chance to see it in commercial release in 2009!]
[MILD SPOILERS] It hardly seems fair to think this way, but pretty much throughout my viewing of Bug one nagging idea kept, well, gnawing at me like a pesky little chigger. David Cronenberg could have knocked this out of the park. And while yes, this project is almost preposterously suited to Cronenberg's skill-set, it's also possible that Bug would be too easy for him. As we know, he's a lot more interested these days in investing the seemingly ordinary world of Hollywood genre film with his subtle directorial arrhythmia. But let it be said, Hurricane Billy acquits himself quite well here, even finding certain ways to make the claustrophobia inherent in a cinematic adaptation of a three-act stage play work on the film's behalf. Bug begins on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, as does Tracy Letts' play, and although not much is made of it, the film accomplishes a bit more with this locale than just the obvious move from openness to the maniacal insularity of the hotel room. It also speaks to city vs .country as a fear of contagion, one that finds Agnes (Ashley Judd, glammed down to the point of near-untouchability) at the juncture between tendencies. She works in a lesbian bar, and the film implies she has "tendencies," but she's noncommittal. She's sort of involved in drugs but not necessarily an addict. And she takes in Peter (Michael Shannon) because she has no other plans and might as well have a man around to talk to, and maybe more. It's as though her disadvantages -- she is a poor working class woman, wracked with guilt over the disappearance of her young son, subject to an abusive husband and has seen first-hand that the law has no investment in helping her kind -- has left her radically open to anything, any possibility, any explanatory narrative. This is where Bug is at its most provocative. When Peter begins his crazy talk, we can see that for Agnes it's no crazier than, say, Jim Jones's liberation cant, or the more bigoted varieties of evangelical Christianity. Although the film stumbles by over-literalizing its dominant metaphor (sex between the two of them initiates the pestilence -- Peter plugs a hole in Agnes with his paranoid cosmology), Bug demonstrates the horror not of man eating aphids but of the vacuum left by the absence of faith. So, when Peter perpetrates his most extreme act, the one that should convince Agnes once and for all of his absolute insanity -- it sure does a number on the audience! -- it instead draws her fully and completely into his delusion. At this point, the bugs could really be anything, and although this is what makes Bug a theoretically savvy little treatise, it's also the point at which it stops compelling any conviction as art. You the viewer just plug in your own preferred allegory, Mad-Libs style: "There are millions of them!" Still, I feel pretty fortunate to be bitching that a film is too smart for its own good.
I always blanch at those hardcore auteurists who can admire or even love a film in spite of its overt thematic content. (Poor Fred Camper has taken it on the chin several times over the years for his avowed admiration for Leni Riefenstahl as a purely formalist filmmaker. But in a way, he deserves it, no?) But now I guess I understand it a little better, because to my eyes Wes Anderson's latest is by far his most exciting film on a purely formal level, even as its story veers between mere stupidity and downright offensiveness. I suppose it should come as no surprise that Anderson is going to "go to India" and just slap his own petty concerns all over the subcontinent like so many touristy bumper stickers on the side of a suitcase. Even the title sort of announces this. After all, it isn't The Kolkata Limited or The Mumbai Limited, which would entail both grappling with actual cosmopolitanism and a post-colonial attitude adjustment. Instead, Anderson attempts to give us a stereotypical anywhere-India best known for providing the West with yummy tea. (Totally consumable!) But to be fair, it isn't the smug Pagota Show / bud-bud-ding-ding minstrel show I was afraid of. Far from it, in fact; if anything, Anderson's major Indian characters are overly Westernized, which (depending on your exegetical generosity) self-consciously reveals Anderson's awareness of the problems inherent in the film's project, or displays a why-not? consciousness about the fluidity and unpredictability of post-post-colonial identity. Either way, it's far more compelling than anything I expected. Still, it's hard not to feel like this is simply the power of Indian culture defeating Anderson's myopia despite his best efforts to impose his now-utterly-rote WASPy familial dysfunction onto the scenery. That is, the margins of The Darjeeling Limited speak much louder and with far more eloquence than all the tedious crud in the foreground, most of which I've already forgotten. (Dad's dead, Francis [Owen Wilson] is the bossy brother using his wealth to impose reconciliation on his brothers Jack [Jason Schwartzman] and Peter [Adrien Brody] and go find Christian missionary incommunicado mom [Anjelica Huston], who taught Francis how to be overbearing. Whoopity doo.) Even the mere fact of Anderson making a film partially shot on a train represents a major step in the right direction, since the rocking and bumping means that his precious tight-assed compositions have life not just breathed but thrust into them. This, together with the open-frame Bazinian meandering Anderson allows to organize most of the final third of the film, result in an Anderson film that mostly functions as an organism rather than a set of cardboard cut-outs. Still, the guy's got a lot to learn. The final shot, following the train through the landscape, just ends when the credits have finished, indicating that Anderson's view of non-narrative material is purely functional. Ken Jacobs he ain't. What's more, Darjeeling's emotional pinnacle is a drowning scene which you realize, once the shock of it wears off, is nearly identical to City Slickers, and then you feel kind of nauseous. Wes Anderson is one talented little twerp.
If American cinema has any rough equivalent to France's "Tradition of Quality," the courtroom drama / legal thriller might be a candidate. It offers the opportunity for periodic cultural pulse-taking as well as hard-won redemption scenarios, and in many cases (classic Sidney Lumet, for example) the drama can be contained in a virtual pressure-cooker with a valid diegetic rationale. It's a neat little machine. Michael Clayton is considerably more spacious than the sort of "Playhouse 90" mechanics described above, although it does restrict its point of view almost entirely to George Clooney's title character, a below-the-radar fix-it man in a high-power New York law firm. Clayton is in many respects a classic example of the directorial debut by a noted screenwriter, since it not only foregrounds incident and character shading (sometimes all too neatly and at the expense of basic plausibility -- the entrapment resolution is comically cheap), but drops in tentative stabs at visual atmosphere, all conveying that firm sense of "quality," even Oscar-caliber cinema, but nevertheless permeated by the vague miasma of the second-hand. (If Clooney's directorial efforts bear the unmistakable stamp of Soderbergh, Gilroy's displays a hint of Clooney's.) What struck me as most fascinating about Michael Clayton, and in fact most enjoyable, was also the aspect that may make it "politically suspect," although I'm really not sure. It's gutsy for your film to orchestrate a massive class-action suit about corporate negligence and groundwater poisoning and, in point of fact, give less than a fig about it. It's really about the battle for Clayton's soul, and so social structures become occluded by a concern for the individual, as is the American Way. And it's odd, given Clayton's focus on character study, just how overplayed some of these characters are. Clooney is doing is subdued, square-jawed Everyman bit, the shtick that's made him not only a huge star but one of the most universally well-liked. (He's like an unlikely mix of Gary Cooper's ruggedness and Cary Grant's vulnerability, the perfect 21st century magic trick. Rock on, ya big lug!) Tom Wilkinson bats for the rafters as the unhinged senior partner who might just be the sanest man of all, and Tilda Swinton is phoning it in (Oscar buzz? whaa??), reprising her cracking-facade ice queen from Female Perversions. It's all solid, and it does enough right that it can misdirect you from its glaring flaws. The end is the best example of this. Aforementioned resolution: heinously dumb. Final long take in the cab: pure. quality. cinema.
NYFF explain. Well, unless the simple act of making a "timely" picture obviates all considerations of quality, there's no reason this half-baked effort got even the scant festival play it did (which is approximately ten times that of Femme Fatale). Granted, I'm not really on De Palma's team and never have been. I think he's at his best when he's embracing his fundamental shallowness and largely insufferable and glib when he tries to be serious. But the most frustrating thing about Redacted is that there is pretty obviously the shell of a good film here, one that simply required more time, effort, and a firmer clarity of purpose. Making our (visual / emotional) point of identification some young grunt with a camcorder who enlisted because he was rejected from USC Film School just borders on contempt for the audience, since it aligns us with slick voyeurs on the make from the get-go. Michael Haneke may be a scold (may be?), but he understands that this sort of position has to earned from film to film. What's more, De Palma's most compelling formal conceit -- the multiple levels of mediation that the Iraq War undergoes prior to home front consumption, or even prior to cognitive processing by the men and women on the ground in Iraq -- is dropped in but never developed. Giving key characters names like "Reno Flake" and "Pvt. Blix" doesn't help matters, since it implies a Juvenalian satire that De Palma never bothered to get off the ground. At the end of the day, it's as much an indictment of American cinema as of the Iraq War itself that the only truly convincing moments of Redacted are the night vision re-enactment of the rape and murder of a 15-year-old Iraqi. This is the heart and soul of De Palma's film, and clearly the real-life event that enraged him enough to generate this DV-quickie missive to his fellow citizens. [NOTE: It also bore enough similarity to the incident in Vietnam De Palma depicted in Casualties of War that it had to be tempting to attempt a remake of sorts. I didn't mention this before because I figured it was too obvious, but there you go.] But it's a squandered opportunity, since nothing else around that material has enough insight or conviction to provide the recontextualization of that sordid event that would make it something more (or less) that the random act of a "wild card." De Palma seems to be telling us that this is no isolated incident, and that the misadventure in Iraq is simply this heinous atrocity multiplied infinitely. If that's the case, Redacted would need to move from the specific outward into the general (or even the Generals), instead of adopting the fragmentary, who-knows-what's-going-on-over-here perspective of the men on the ground. Redacted needed to be laser sharp and ferocious, and instead it's just kind of inane.