REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, NOVEMBER 2009

All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)

 

 

[8]

 

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, U.S. / U.K.)

I'm someone who has never been able to get on board 100% with Wes Anderson. Every critic has personal biases, and the trick is knowing which ones inform your aesthetic in a meaningful, enlightening way, and which ones just hold you back. I think my biases against Anderson have been about half and half. In some respects his youth and sensibility reflects one that I understood tracking alongside mine when I was young. He and I were both growing up in Houston at around the same time, and I knew a lot of Andersonian types in my high school, although I was nowhere near the Anderson / Wilson circle. But I wasn't so far away, in my public school for the arts, where I was usually only one degree of separation from the extraordinarily well-heeled private school boys. In fact, many of them took me under their wing at various points, as the cool poor kid who seemed remarkably capable despite my lowly station. So I think some part of me, despite my best efforts, will always instinctively recoil at the patrician airs of The Royal Tenenbaums or even certain aspects of Rushmore (where scholarship kid Max Fischer is frequently the butt of the joke, because he has everything but the cool savoir faire that an upper-crust upbringing can provide), and this is simply not a very productive response to the works at hand. Much more valid, I think, is my equally intuitive sense that Anderson is a filmmaker who regards the medium as a colossal toybox, his actors frequently coming off as elaborate dress-up figurines and fussy, overdressed sets resembling precious, polychromatic dollhouses. While there is always something truly intriguing and even seductive about Anderson's all-encompassing visual style -- largely, I think, due to its utter perfection, the jewellike creation of a funky, benevolent god -- I have never quite gotten over the fact that Anderson's world ends at the frameline. At its most claustrophobic (e.g. several tableaux in Tenenbaums and Life Aquatic), it feels as though all breath has been sucked from the film. It's like we're watching an agoraphobe's vacuum-packed approximation of life.

 

Anderson's most recent films have divided the faithful. They are messy and imperfect; the frame roves the world without the dictatorial rule of mise-en-scène. In some senses The Life Aquatic was the turning point, since it found Anderson taking his hermeticism to a logical endpoint -- life in a submarine -- and coming out on the other side. It replicating the giant, multilevel cutaway set that Jerry Lewis built for The Ladies' Man (also adopted by Godard and Gorin for Tout va Bien), spatial containment is paradoxically opened up, even as its artifice is laid bare. But as the film progresses, we see handheld camera and general sense of looseness and discombobulation take hold. The Life Aquatic remains Anderson's least composed feature, and it set the stage for The Darjeeling Limited, and altogether more controlled effort, but again, one that used motion (the train, but also the unstable rush of a river) to unmoor its human protagonists, and its director. In both of these films, Anderson could not resist the frequent frontal shot or staged tableau. But above all, the films convey an artist's push and pull with the outer world, a desire to impose order and a recognition that any imposition will be tentative at best.

 

This brings us to Anderson's latest film, and his very best to date. Need I say it? Wes Anderson's early signature style was predicated on using live actors as puppets, so this was sort of the film he was born to make. Add to this the decision to employ old-school, Rankin-Bass style claymation, and a few fascinating things occur. One, we find ourselves at an odd juncture of advanced and obsolete technology. The fact that Fantastic Mr. Fox largely eschews time-saving CGI and digital effects calls attention to the painstaking physicality of the world Anderson and his collaborators have created, but eventually we forget about this. But more significantly (and I think we could take a lesson from our old friend Walter Benjamin here), the revival of something dead or obsolete can and should transcend mere nostalgia. Doing claymation now, when Pixar and Dreamworks have computerized all of animation, has a meaning all its own. It is about flagrant expenditure of resources, the wasteful profligacy of the aesthetic realm. Just as Mr. Fox (George Clooney) leaves behind his life as a newspaper man to resume thievery, in order to feel alive again ("I'm a wild animal."), Anderson and crew are stealing studio funds to achieve something outrageous, meticulous, and beautiful. And ironically, this exacting, time-consuming approach, moving each "performer" millimeter by millimeter, has resulted in Anderson's freest work to date. When he was lining actors up against the wall, his control was absolute, his professional actors all too willing to comply. However, as Anderson dictates micro-movements to his animation team by remote, every aspect is slowed down to such a degree that Anderson must have discovered something between the frames that his previous efforts didn't provide: time between the frames. This time for consideration allowed for tiny shrugs, minute gestures, itty bitty throwaway gags, all enriching the final product. Anderson's decision to sculp with clay meant that he faced a material that resisted his whims, just by being its own inert "stuff." The slow food movement has been gaining international acceptance for well over a decade. But are we ready for "slow film"? [More here.]

 

[7]

 

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)

When so-called "hipster" directors are under attack by critics, Spike Jonze inevitably comes under fire. It's easy to bludgeon the guy with the fact that he made his name with Beastie Boys videos and skater prank tapes. But hipsters by and large arejust the children of baby boomers, and as the post-boomer generation hits middle age, some of us becoming parents, one witnesses an interesting effect. Searching for a way to create meaningful childhoods for our kids, without reflexively falling back on all the shopworn ideological tropes according to which we were reared (or think we were reared, with hindsight and years of therapy) so-called "childbearing hipsters" (yeah, I know) end up staking out some perceived middleground between progressivism and nostalgia, taking the signifiers of our own youth and recoding them. Many lukewarm responses to Jonze and Dave Eggers's WTWTA have taken issue with the film's blatant infusion of Sendak's picturebook with a psychological subtext -- childhood alienation, particularly in the face of divorce. Max (Max Records) plays alone, waits impatiently for his single mom (Catherine Keener) to come home or finish her late-night paperwork, and he eventually abandons reality to seek refuge with the Wild Things. While (fortunately) the monsters are not one-to-one representations of fragments of Max's psyche, the relationships between these psychologica elements, and the interactions Max has with each of them, are indicative of the struggles kids undergo as they negotiate the inconsistencies and inconstancies of the social realm. His bond with Carol (James Gandolfini), of course, is the most obvious in this regard -- Max learning to navigate anger, his own and others'. While I suppose it's understandable that some would find this Freudian / Jungian fabulism irksome, almost like a kids' movie without the courage of its own convictions, I think it's actually rather radical. WTWTA takes childhood seriously, exploring it, as it were, like another country, a thicket of conflicting impulses and half-comprehended clues, a webwork woven through an adult world to which the youngest among us have only limited access. The very architecture of the island conveys this. Grand and imposing from a distance, porous and twisty up close, Max and the monsters build titanic modernist forms from twigs, interior and exterior, solidity and light, all merging into one. In turn, Max's mental and emotional life is interwoven with an semi-objective lifeworld, one that is ostensibly his, but only within certain parameters. [I go into more detail on all this in my upcoming Cinema Scope piece, which I will link to here.]

 

[6]

 

Red Cliff [USA] (John Woo, China)

My brief review for the Nashville Scene is here. I haven't got much to add, except to say that what is there, in this fairly butchered edit, is still so fundamentally handsome and impressive, I really want nothing more than to find the time to watch my downloads of Red Cliff I and II. And I say this as someone who has over half the NYFF and Views slate, along with many major auteurist goodies from 2009, still in queue. As old masters' bigtime battle sellouts go, this is definitely on the Hero side of things, not anywhere near The Promise.

 

[4]

 

(Untitled) (Jonathan Parker)

NO YOU SHUT UP. A canvas bearing the preceding phrase, stenciled in black on white, hangs in the private home / atelier of Madeleine Gray (Marley Shelton), the Manhattan gallery owner / poseur at the center of Jonathan Parker's second film. The piece is a clear homage / parody / who- knows-what to the work of Christopher Wool, an artist of some renown in the mid to late 90s. (He's still around, but -- how do I put this diplomatically? -- at present he isn't much of a force.) At another point in the film, Parker shows us a pair of disembodied wax legs and buttocks in slacks, sticking out of the gallery wall at floor level. This is quite similar to the sculptures of Robert Gober, except for the fact that Parker's 2009 comic version has three arrows sticking out of it. Such wit! One of the artists Madeleine represents, Ray Barco (Guy Ritchie staple / former bastard footballer Vinnie Jones) is an drunken primitive and wannabe mystic whose hideous dead-animal machines appear to be unholy hybrids of Bruce Nauman and Damien Hirst. I could go on, but let me stop here, because these three examples are sufficient to demonstrate the incoherent diarrhea spray of Parker and co-writer Catherine DiNapoli's satire of "the New York art world." Let's work backwards. Despite surface similarity, Hirst and Nauman could hardly have more distinct aesthetic agendas. Hirst's work thrives on shock, a kind of absolute defeat of metaphor by its bald display of the "real thing" in exaggerated, almost cinematic circumstances. This is not a pejorative description, and in its own way, Hirst's art shares with high modernism an immediacy of apprehension, the instantaneous"getting it" that suspends time for the spectator almost as dramatically as for the sculptures' formaldehyde-suspended subjects. Nauman, by contrast, is a post-minimalist whose work, while never exactly metaphorical, always entails substantial conceptual baggage. Nauman's art extends the specific parameters of minimalism ever so slightly by following it, and its spectatorial / museum interrelationships, to their logical conclusions. Early Nauman drew primary structures from his own body, and so taxidermy molds were a next step toward grounding "objective" sculptural form to a processed form of the organic. Not the same.

 

Gober, one of the few artists from the 1990s art boom whose work has retained historical and aesthetic relevance, is an odd choice for Parker to mock. One of (Untitled)'s "laughably bad" artists, Monroe (Ptolemy Slocum), is a Zen recontextualizer whose barely-visible art consists of the isolation and labeling of ordinary objects in a gallery. (E.g., "Pushpin;" "Lightbulb Flashing On and Off;" "Chair," etc.) An obvious charlatan, right? (Whether or not Parker would give a pass to Duchamp for "doing it first," I cannot say.) But by contrast, Gober meticulously fabricated sculptural simulacra of ordinary objects, such as a sack of doughnuts, patterned wallpaper, a stack of newspapers, and a bag of kitty litter. He handcrafted and painted these objects, and although these works are quite different from the wax legs, there's a total coherence to Gober's career. A queer sculptor, Gober's art joins the handicraft tradition (often denigrated as "feminine" or low art) with a tactile consideration of the male body. In working with common materials to produce ordinary-looking objects through very unusual means -- wax legs with real body hair, or a molded plaster bag of cat litter -- Gober "queers" the everyday. The overall feel and texture of the quotidian is diverted through a zone of the uncanny. Similarly, Wool's black on white paintings of the period Parker is mocking were not all text. Some used the same black alkyd on white metal format to produce decorative patterns like fleur-de-lys. Like other artists of the postmodern 90s, Wool returned to the "dead" art of painting by striking a comparison between the flat, expansive all-over techniques of the Abstract Expressionists and the popularized flatness of wallpapers and fabrics. In a way, Wool's texts were functioning more as foils to the "visual" works, since their presentation in a series implicitly introduced decorative painting as a kind of text. It must be said, many other artists covered similar terrain with much richer results. Ross Bleckner and Sigmar Polke generated postmodern painterly work which dramatized the difficulties of a return to flatness and the specter of the decorative or the automatic patterning of the industrial age, and they did it with much more sophistication and beauty. On the other side of the divide, David Gatten's cinema is an object lesson in the treatment of text itself as a flattened pool of painterly abstraction.

 

For their part, Parker and DiNapoli aren't interested in history, interpretation, or even distinctions. It's all just a bunch of huckster hooey to them. And in the midst of it, we have two equally deluded brothers from opposite sides of a phony aesthetic divide that's the only engine making (Untitled) go. Our protagonist, Adrian Jacobs (Adam Goldberg), is a bitter, humorless composer / performer of New Music. (Adrian's name, is no doubt a reference to Adrian Leverkuhn, the avant-garde composer who sells his soul to the devil in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus. Parker, whose last film was the Crispin Glover adaptation of Bartleby, is nothing if not well-read.) He and his ensemble perform work that contains a slight theatrical element -- exaggerated female vocal swoops, for instance, and, most notably, Jacobs's signature musical move, the percussive dropping of chains in a metal bucket, which is then strategically kicked. Despite this visual component, Adrian's work is interesting in that it falls between chairs in terms of tradition. This "fake" music pulls in the pound and screech of avant-jazz from Cecil Taylor to John Zorn, but really falls squarely within the more whimsical, theatrical side of 20th century symphonic music. Luciano Berio and Mauricio Kagel would be fairly obvious forebears for what Jacobs is doing, and although these men weren't exactly considered visual acts, their work did often entail unusual instrumentation and staging. But even closer to Parker's "comic" vision would be compositions such as Roger Marsh's Dum or Kenneth Gaburo's Maledetto. These compositions incorporate the musical and the theatrical, and that the composers go so far as to develop alternative score notation to accommodate those unconventional elements, in much the same way that Adrian does. Things like the bucket and the dramatic piano work in Adrian's piece would make it reasonable that Gray would attempt to bring his work into a gallery setting as "sound art," particularly in a conservative moment for the concert hall. (Parker might even be vaguely recalling the early concerts of filmmaker / performance artist Raphael Montañez Ortíz, who "played" the piano by attacking it with an axe.) As with the art depicted, Adrian's music suffers for being a bit of a hodgepodge, but despite what Parker and DiNapoli may think, these compositions are perfectly plausible works of avant-garde music.

 

What isn't really plausible, in either the performances or in Adrian's overall manner, is the humorlessness and imperious demeanor with which they are conducted. During the performance in Madeleine's gallery, everyone giggles at the bucket-kicking, and Adrian storms off in a huff. Yokels! Don't they know they must genuflect at the altar of Great Art? This was the moment at which it became painfully apparent that (Untitled) had nothing to say, because it's a film completely immersed in worlds about which it is painfully unqualified to opine. Has Parker ever met a New Music composer? With the possible exception of Pierre Boulez, just about any composer or musician who deployed metal buckets and semi-Sprechstimme yowling in a work would be delighted by laughter, or any genuine response from an engaged audience. It's possible that Parker the alleged satirist is just showing us that Adrian still has a lot to learn. (The closest (Untitled) comes to a voice of reason is Morton Cabot [Ben Hammer], a grand old modernist in the Elliott Carter / Milton Babbitt mold, who gently advises Adrian to stop kicking against the pricks and enjoy his own creative process.) But this is just a stain of sanity on an otherwise incoherent tapestry of jabs and caricatures designed to make anyone involved in the production of experimental art look simultaneously narcissistic and socially Machiavellian. They all want total acceptance, but haven't the decency to make "real" (read: normal) art, and so they hang out in a pretentious bubble with its own preposterous mores and jargon, venturing outside of the circle-jerk only long enough to court big money. To draw any parallels to the independent film world would be redundant, but Pot's indictment of Kettle does seem more than a little disingenuous. Through Adrian's privileged point of view, (Untitled) "catches" Ray Barco in the studio, having assistants do his taxidermy for him while he attends to other aspects of the artmaking process. Only a nincompoop with no understanding of the art world could be shocked by this, but shall we recriminate? Did Parker edit his own film? (No.) Did he shoot it? (No.) Did he develop it in his bathtub? Etc.

 

Also worth noting is the absence of any women artists, aside from Adrian's sorta-girlfriend violinist / shrieker. This is problematic since that leaves Madeleine as (Untitled)'s primary placeholder for women -- a self-serving shrew who uses the creative output of others to garner popularity for herself. Basically, a Chelsea cheerleader in hornrims. Anyway, I've been arguing more around the film that with it, I suppose. But (Untitled)'s unexamined margins are actually far meatier than any of the "ideas" the film actually manages to take on. Nevertheless, I'd be remiss if I didn't make one thing clear. If you're someone who believes that Art became a complete con game somewhere around 1900 and you're dying to see those turtleneck-wearing beatniks get what's coming to them, by all means, get in line. Parker serves it up, gravy, boat and ladle.