REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, NOVEMBER 2011
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)
With the possible exception of Robert Bresson, I don't think there's a filmmaker whose work I have more trouble keeping in my memory than Hong. (I'm limiting my discussion to directors whose works I love; films by Kevin Smith and Eric Schaeffer tend to evaporate from my mind on the rare occasions when I encounter them, but for different reasons.) There is a cognitive slippage that tends to let only the broadest details of Hong's films remain with me, even mere hours after I see them. I can't be certain, but this seems to be similar to the experience that novices (especially students) describe to be when grappling with challenging, non-narrative avant-garde films. Skeptics regarding "the Hong project" will undoubtedly note suspect that it's the fundamental similarity of the features that keeps them from making their mark. There's one asshole guy, maybe two; an attractive young woman, who will disappear and reappear as a different character; there is soju, awkward behavior, some elements of cinematic reflex, all within a tightly controlled but self-effacing realist style. But what it has taken me a while to discover about Hong -- part of why I respond so strongly to his films, even as I sometimes find them a bit difficult to "master" -- is that his is a project that partakes equally from the customs and strategies of narrative art cinema and the structuralist avant-garde. Hong, needless to say, has no comfortable home in either milieu. Even avant-gardists given to enjoying world cinema often find Hong too drab to get excited over. Meanwhile, his unique take on minimalism -- instigating small motivic changes within the same fundamental scenario, and letting those changes ripple in unexpected ways -- has exasperated certain segments of festival / distribution / magazine circuitry. It's sad and funny, watching the excitement in some corners now that Hong has cast Isabelle Huppert in his next film. It will be wonderful, to be sure, but there will not be a "breakthrough."
So it's not just the similarity, as some might suspect, that prevents me from having firm memories of Hong's films. Like Bresson, Hong works with filmic moments, with "presents," even within a narrative format. There is movement and connectivity, but this is secondary to the on-the-spot sensation of being with his characters (in the bar, at a painful Q&A, in bed), watching them make that mistake, and hoping they don't make the logical next one. (Sometimes they do; often they make a completely surprising but equally agonizing one.) As a poet of the cringeworthy, Hong disrupts typical cognitive patterns toward futurity, instead trapping us in a squirmy comic Now. The Day He Arrives, however, is a bit different from that usual m.o. It is without a doubt one of Hong's funniest (and most accessible) films to date, but it shares with Oki's Movie an unusually unvarnished melancholy. Whereas earlier films such as Turning Gate, Virgin Stripped Bare, and A Tale of Cinema displayed unalloyed male anger as a response to social enfeeblement and sexual inadequacy, The Day He Arrives's protagonist, midlevel academic and art film director Seong-joon (Yoo Joon-sang) never summons up the ability to crank it up beyond "grump." (In the first reel, some film students see him in town, chat him up, and then after an awkward exchange he blows up at them. "Why are you following me?!") Seong-joon is trying to meet an old school friend, and when they finally do meet, going to his house gets him stranded in the boondocks, far from the festival and conference that brought him to town. In the course of straying, he repairs to the apartment of an old flame (Kim Bo-kyeong), their hook-up singularly pathetic. Later, of course, he will meet this woman "again," in the form of a barkeeper. That hook-up is, in its own way, both sadder and more hardbitten, practically a self-conscious Baudrillardian simulacrum of the first.
What makes The Day He Arrives funny, amidst all the forlorn, weary half-attempts at connection, is all the interstitial business in between. Seong-joon in film director mode, or trying to make chitchat at the late night dinner table -- all those moments when there is no script to approximate -- we are observing homo antisocialus in (in)action. But the dark humor that courses throughout Hong's latest repetition could possibly be summed up this way. In Turning Gate, the characters were learning that life was a series of iterations. In Oki's Movie, teacher and students tried to analyze and learn from the situation, through lessons and aphorisms. Now, with The Day He Arrives, it's too late. As Leonard sang, "everybody knows."
I am an auteurist at heart, and as much as this film is hand-tooled and sleekly designed as a vehicle (okay, I'll stop) for Ryan Gosling, in many respects it is Winding Refn's show. This is my second encounter with the director; most of his work, although lauded in some circles, has been rooted in genres to / for which I have no allegiance and limited patience. Little dollops of the Pusher trilogy I'd catch on the IFC channel never made me want to delve; his "Tarkovskian" (?!) medieval bloodbath Valhalla Rising just looked ponderous. And the only previous film of Winding Refn's I've seen, Bronson, was an irksome disappointment. Much like Valhalla among genre buffs and the "Game of Thrones" crowd, Bronson rode in on waves of buzz. Tom Hardy's charismatic performance as Britain's most famous career criminal was, so the story went, staged like an abstract opera of performative violence. Comparisons to Kubrick and to Derek Jarman abounded. But to me, Winding Refn, and Hardy for that matter, seemed to be stuck in a mode of second-order imitation, incapable of breaking through the stylistic aping to find the spontaneity and fresh gestures that bring a picture to life on its own terms. (The thing about tableaux vivants is that they depict violent acts that have already occurred; they can inform, but they cannot threaten or thrill.)
With Drive, Winding Refn hits the magic formula. I won't make great claims for the film, save to say that it is both stark and succulent, economical and baroque. The key is that Drive replicates a strain of cinema that, in its own way, was its own replicant. The 70s car film -- Two Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry -- but also the drive-in quickie more generally, a post-Corman recasting of the L.A. noir and the gangster flick in an urban neon key, evolved into an 80s cinema that, like our hero The Driver (Gosling), became "respectable" only in retrospect. Who, at the time, gave a shit about To Live and Die in L.A., or Thief, or Street Smart? Some hardcore auteurists were ahead of the curve. But just as gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) half-jokes to the Driver, the cheap films he used to produce in the 80s were trash, but some people considered them "European." Get it? So, unlike Tarantino, whose recombinant, hash-slung hypertexts demonstrate an active thought pattern, a maneuvering between high and low as a nonstop argument, Winding Refn can lovingly recreate a cinema that was in itself reductive, sculpted around iconicity, clipped dialogue, and velocity as a formal force.
And this is why Gosling is so perfect in this role. All he has to do is brood, look pretty and semi-tough, strike poses, help the jacket catch the light. (Drive, like so many Lynch and Scorsese films, owes so much to Kenneth Anger it's absurd.) Likewise Brooks, who delivers a miraculous turn as the ambivalent, aging Jewish crime boss who, along with his brother Nino (Ron Perlman), is stuck in the Mob equivalent of middle management. In Brooks's case, Winding Refn's shrewd against-type casting allows us to witness the swallowed, passive-aggressive rage of every schlemiel unloosed like a spring-trap. Far less successful, however, is Carey Mulligan as Irene, the designated innocent female / verboten love interest. Ordinarily I would complain about the lone woman character being so poorly fleshed out, but in truth she only needed to be an emblem like everybody else. She didn't have the presence to telegraph anything more than waifishness (which, regrettably, film executives seem to get off on). Though a shocking five (!!!!) years Gosling's senior, supporting player Christina Hendricks would've been a much stronger match for Driver.
At the same time, the very quality that serves Gosling (and Winding Refn) so well in Drive is a rapidly diminishing commodity. Gosling is a highly gifted actor in the Method mold; his versatility is, in some sense, a reversibility, a penchant for projecting masculinity as either cocksure (Murder By Numbers, Blue Valentine) or existentially uncertain (The Believer, The Slaughter Rule, Half Nelson). The key, of course, is that these are two sides of the same coin. All of this hits its apotheosis with Drive, becoming almost a Sunset Strip billboard for a faded fin de siècle doomed-romantic Quiet Man. Even though Drive wasn't the box office hit or Oscar magnet its studio (or critics) thought it would be, it has entered the vernacular in more sidelong, viral ways. Fan-produced posters dot the Internet, amateur artists all finding their own way to connect Drive and Gosling to that same gritty, disreputable movie history Winding Refn plumbs for its stoic gravitas. Gosling himself, meanwhile, has become the subject of the "Hey Girl" Internet meme, his brooding visage an all-purpose come-hither that can be jokingly tied to various unlikely messages (most of them leftist / feminist but not exclusively) in order to sex them up. What all of this means, of course, is that Gosling is in serious danger of becoming a parody of himself, something halfway between an expensive prop and an ersatz James Dean.
But the reason Drive works is because, like the incarnation of Gosling it utilizes, it is never less than immaculately composed. What's more, it does more than simply cut a sleek figure across the wide screen. It moves. (The near-silent opening getaway sequence is the best argument for Winding Refn's complete success.) It is perfectly appropriate, finally, that although our putative hero is "The Driver," he is not awarded titular status. Drive is named for an action, an imperative statement, or perhaps even one of the basic psychoanalytic forces. And what both The Driver and his final journey share at the film's conclusion is that they remain ambiguous and unknowable. Their vanishing points recede into an infinite distance.
"You Know . . . For Kids!" -- When I saw Hugo with my family in its theatrical run, and again now that it has recently been released on DVD, several people have asked me in casual conversation, "It it really for kids?" As I mentioned on Twitter in a fit of exasperated pique (and snide indelicacy), I find myself wanting to ask, "I don't know. Is Footnote really for Jews?" Point being, of course, what does it even mean for a film to be "for kids," beyond the obvious lack of sex and violence and (unless you have my kid) swear words? Some kids are going to find Hugo enthralling, wondrous, want to run out immediately and buy the beautiful Brian Selznick book on which it was based. Many (like my own daughter) will find some parts amazing, other parts kind of dull. Other kids will consider it something less than their own personal cup of tea. Just like every other movie in regards to every other demographic ever. (Damned Pixar. They're honestly convinced everyone -- parents, critics, you name it -- that there really is some post-Spielbergian cine-formula for universal enchantment.)
Now, then, Hugo taken as a work of cinema on its own terms is not simply, as some curmudgeons have curmudged, a long-form advertisement for film preservation, or a gargantuan Oscar reel extolling the Wonder of the Movies™. If we could think critically, as the film and its maker do, about why Hugo is a "children's film," in the same sense that we might ask why it is in 3D, then Scorsese's creation opens to some very suggestive readings. I assigned my students in this term's History of the Moving Image course to see Hugo before the course began (and before Hugo left theatres), and not just because its central subject -- as revealed in approximately its final third -- is the decline and rediscovery of the early cinema of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). (The film does, however, do a fine job of expressing the Méliès sensibility, both in its fabricated images from the reimagined Star Films studio and the real-life love and whimsy the thawed-out master exudes. The fact that Scorsese follows Selznick in fudging the facts -- it was the Surrealists who discovered him in the toy shop and resurrected his career -- in no way diminishes the "poetic truth" of Hugo's portrait.) What Scorsese does more generally, what he gets absolutely right, is the meticulousness, the spatial jolts and discombobulations that early cinema (and trains, and World War I, and the unflinching metallic crunch of heavy industry) delivered to European subjects who were still struggling to gain their bearings.
Hugo takes place after the war, when the childlike wonder Méliès represented -- that the Cinema of Attractions itself exemplified -- had already been tamed. What's more, as the film makes clear (via Michael Stuhlbarg's helpful film scholar), the blitzkrieg provided all the "shocks" anyone could ever hope for, and then some. So, in some very real sense, Méliès (and early cinema) had been relegated to the realm of childhood naivety, a medium's "immaturity" that had long since been overcome. In this respect, the cinema of attractions had to be rescued not by scholars or Surrealists or the avant-garde (although all these are true) but by children. (It would be easy to argue that it was the "childlike" aspect in all of these figures -- their love for the irrational, the untutored eye, the distrust of the Father's Law -- that aided and abetted their urge in the first place.) And so the task is bequeathed to uncertain Hugo (Asa Butterfield), following a frankly Spielbergian quest handed down by a loving, departed father (Jude Law), fortunately goaded by intrepid troublemaker Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz).
And of course Scorsese chose this film as his first foray into 3D. Whereas the industry is intent on using this questionable new technology simply as an artless cash-grab, Scorsese's inherent understanding of the medium, its history, and its prehistory show through with every disruption of the frame. Instead of making random things pop out, Scorsese extends and expands the image into bold receding depths (the "Vertigo" shot in the clock tower) or manipulates peripheral and lateral movement (the passage of gears in front of each other; the shifting of planes in the Méliès sets). What Hugo does with 3D is, in many ways, merely an elaboration on the latent depth effects that Ken Jacobs, for example, can bring out of an early Lumière brothers' filmstrip with the aid of a Pulfrich filter. (To say "merely" implies no cheap imitation; rather, Scorsese knows that "3D" has always been there for the taking.) Hugo is a film that breaks the fourth wall while respecting the boundaries of the frame. Unlike so much Hollywood claptrap, this film is composed. And it demonstrates that Méliès's patently fake theatrical flats, with their painterly chiaroscuro, always exhibited a depth and "motion" of the sort one finds in the finest baroque canvases. Like Méliès himself, Hugo is both childlike and deeply sophisticated.
Is Hugo a kids' film? More to the point, Hugo is a loving evocation of a time when everything you could do with a movie camera was, in the most philosophical sense, kids' stuff.
Looking back at the Cinema Scope piece I wrote about Gatten's films several months ago, I'm disappointed but not entirely surprised to find that I did not go very much in depth at all regarding his 2011 film. I found myself in the strange and quite wonderful position of trying to take in as many of Gatten's films in a three-day period as I could. (The results are here.) A relatively short film (13 minutes), and somewhat unique in its "straightforward" presentation of text (I'll explain in a minute), The Matter Propounded strikes me in retrospect as either a transitional film, indicating a possible new path for Gatten (somewhat unlikely, given that he has already announced several more years of continued work on the Byrd series) or (to my mind a much more likely explanation) one of a number of deliberately small, personally oriented works that Gatten periodically generates, which have very direct relationships to his oeuvre and his broader intellectual and aesthetic project, but are "single" and "complete" unto themselves. (How to Conduct a Love Affair is another such film.) The Matter Propounded is dedicated to
Gatten's dear friend, filmmaker Phil Solomon, and what is most interesting about the film on a formal level is the fact that, while it consists of an arrangement of time-based text -- in this case, a 19th century tome detailing a fortune-telling system -- that materializes and dissipates, there is none of the tape-lifting, soaking, blurring or worrying of the text that we see in Gatten's other films (particularly the Byrd films). In fact, the presentation of the phrases from the book are crystal clear, white serif letters floating in a sea of black. (Four such phrases can be seen here.) If Gatten's films are typically far rougher, denser and more tactile than this, Solomon, to whom The Matter Propounded is dedicated, makes films (and videos) whose images are even more given to impasto and superimposition. So one could hardly be faulted for detecting a slight irony at work here. As for the text itself, Gatten breaks it apart into the four constituent parts of his full title: Instructions, Questions, Answers, and Conclusions. If we are to presume that these four elements bore some degree of unity, or at least proximity, within the original text, we can further presume to understand The Matter Propounded (and, by extension, "luck" and "fortune," and certainly any attempted logic thereof) to be a broken taxonomy, a "system without a code" in Roland Barthes's words. However, what Gatten's dispersal of the former taxonomy provides us is not chaos of gibberish, but poetry, and temporalized poetry at that. The unpredictable tenor of the statements in isolation -- sometimes forlorn, sometimes comic, often poignant -- can actually allow them to serve as micro-talismans gesturing toward a future, perhaps not the future, in the sense of the grand questions (will I find love, when will I die, why are we here), but the as-yet-undiscovered, to-be-cherished moments that scoot us along, frame by frame and day by day.
UPDATE: Well, what do you know: the perils of "bulk viewing" rear their ugly head, resulting not only in a grievous error (present, sadly, in my printed Cinema Scope article as well, jeopardizing whatever long-term value it might've otherwise had) but in the above interpretation as well. I made a mistake in my notes from that long weekend of viewing. It is Abbreviation for Dead Winter that is dedicated to Solomon; The Matter Propounded is actually dedicated to Mark McElhatten and the late Mark LaPore. (I owe a great deal of thanks to my friend Chris Stults for catching the mistake almost immediately. Having organized the first traveling retrospective of Gatten's films, he has spent a great deal of time in their company.) So although the above interpretation does not rely all that much on the film's connection to Solomon, it certainly recasts Gatten's work when, with Chris's help, I make the proper attribution. (I hate being wrong, by the way. It's embarrassing. But there's not much more I can do about it than try to turn it into a productive opportunity for [re]thinking.) The two Marks, just like Phil, are very dear people in David's life; there's obviously a straightforward element in the dedication of a work of such plainspoken beauty as The Matter Propounded. And yet, taking my previous feelings for / about the film in somewhat tangential directions prompted by the possibly more direct relationship to Marks M. and L., one can identify other reverberations. The question of taxonomies, organizations and the like -- those which both break down from the systematized to the porous and semi-subjective, or which (as pertaining to an intangible, like luck) possessed only a phantom objectivity in the first place -- could be a very poeticized, even humorous way of considering the work of the dedicated film programmer. McElhatten is the rare individual whose curation, his ability to deeply think and position the work of others, takes on the qualities of art. It is an irony of this process that his art must contend with scheduling, print traffic, electric bills, and in some ways the perception of objective periodization, yoking and trending. It's a "system" that unmakes itself in the very making. By contrast, to say too much about LaPore's place in this constellation would be to dabble in rank speculation. However, there are fairly clear implications within a film like The Matter Propounded, which is at least overtly about the futility of mastering the future through speculation, that a man gone too young is a future unwritten, and for those left behind, each day is a new manifestation of inscribed loss.
With a title like Familiar Grounds (sometimes in English I've seen the "s" appended at the end, sometimes not, but I'm going with it since that's how it was on the print I saw), Lefleur is practically daring audiences to file his film away as "just another one of those festival films," and to do so would be half correct. The  above is misleading. I mostly appreciated Grounds while I had it creeping past my eyes, but a mere couple of weeks after seeing it (much less the five months between then and writing about it now), it had almost completely evaporated from my mind. I remembered a road trip and a backhoe. That was it. As for the "familiar" part, Lefleur absolutely works in the stock-still-camera, deadpan-drone mode, where wacky family doings are unremarked upon (think Alain Guiraudie, another oddball who mostly exists now as an obscure, sub-Ruizian point of reference). Not to pigeonhole the guy in terms purely restricted to Quebecois cinema, but Familiar Grounds has the aroma of a less accomplished Denis Côté wafting around it like spring thaw in the city. This one has some Curling aspects to it, but played out without psychopathology -- it's the HBO sitcom version, essentially. Looking over some other reviews and synopses, I'd forgotten about (for example) the guy from the future and the shattered jar of marinara. Those are two really big parts of Familiar Grounds, and they just went --> POOF<-- out of my head like last week's "tweets." A lot of folks remain really high on this guy's first film, Continental, so perhaps I'll check that out but I'm really not understanding that . Did I nod off? What.
One of these days I really need to make myself sit down and watch Citizen Ruth. Granted, just from the looks of it, it's the sort of Coensish comedy of political manners I almost never like, but considering that I have liked Payne's Election best of all the films of his I've seen, perhaps in his case the old saw is correct -- he had an "edge," which got progressively sanded down as his brow migrated toward the middle. Then again, my mixed response to The Descendants has everything to do with its more earnest moments. When it lunges for "relieving" humor (whackity schmackity doo!), I threw up a little in my mouth. As usual these days, you can read all about it in the Nashville Scene!
[NOTE: If you zoom in really tight, you can probably read my review of this film here at Cargo. Oh yeah, and you'll need to be fluent in German. (Thanks as usual to Ekkehard Knörer for translating my piece.) But, since it's been a while and I'm pretty sure their site isn't planning to post my English original, I'll do it here. Enjoy.]
Even before the lights went down on Clint Eastwood’s biopic on J. Edgar Hoover, the infamously paranoid founder of America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, I knew I was in for something a bit more polarizing than the filmmaker’s recent efforts. In most corners 2009’s Invictus was met with polite nods of approbation, if not the occasional lapse into awards-season drowsiness. By contrast Hereafter, from last year, seemed to generate a universal critical opinion almost instantly. Eastwood and his team crafted an impressive movieland replica of the 2004 Thailand tsunami as a prologue to a laughable sub-Shyamalan exercise in ghost-schmaltz. The drubbing Hereafter received on the autumn festival circuit no doubt influenced Warner Bros.’ decision to skip that route completely for J. Edgar. Nevertheless, after an initial wave of highly negative reviews, opinion of the new Eastwood has proven to be deeply split. It would be inaccurate to say that the divisions break down strictly along generational lines, but there has been more than a bit of that. Where Manohla Dargis, for example, praised J. Edgar for its sympathetic gay love story, James Rocchi lambasted it as “a Wikipedia page dipped in makeup."
What is actually up there on the screen is something of an amalgam of the two, a meandering concatenation of historical inferences from a half-digested but never-fully-acknowledged point of view that Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) can rely on an American audience to stitch together with whatever ideology happens to be dominant at the moment of the film’s unspooling. J. Edgar is a perfect example of a dehistoricized history film, a virtual Rorschach blot for a nation presently divided between Tea Party Republicans, Occupy Wall Street leftists, self-appointed “common sense” (i.e. status quo) moderates, and a vast sea of apathy. Leonardo DiCaprio, in an awkward performance some are going so far as to call “Brechtian” (sorry, no dice), a wee young man in old man latex, doddering about the fading halls of power, shrouded in customary Eastwoodian twilight. He dictates a memoir to a series of young FBI agents, “his side of the story,” that of the “heroes,” as Hoover puts it, as opposed to the “villains.” Such on-the-nose writing is nothing usual in an Eastwood film – these thudding moments are part and parcel of the “classical virtues” for which his auteurist champions laud him – but this statement of purpose is startlingly bold, its irony flashing like a Bruce Nauman neon.
J. Edgar Hoover was, to say the least, a complex figure in American political history, a highly efficient bureaucrat who, exploiting loopholes and power vacuums in the Justice Department and federal law enforcement structures of the 1920s, managed to organize a flexible fiefdom of increasingly centralized power around himself and “his” FBI. Seldom in democracies are major organs of government so patently driven by charismatic authority as was Hoover’s FBI. Part of this was timing; Calvin Coolidge was a notoriously laissez-faire president in all respects, willing to let strong men within his administration take bold initiatives. How J. Edgar’s opening act expounds this period says as much about Eastwood and Black’s faulty dialectics with respect to 1920s and 30s U.S. history as it does about their fundamental reliance on an audience systematically unschooled in American radicalism. Voiceover narration gives us Hoover intoning hoary Red Scare homilies: “Communism is not a political party. It is a disease.” We see young Hoover’s participation in the 1919 Palmer Raids against American anarchists, and eventually his successful deportation of Emma Goldmann (Jessica Hecht).
What are we to make of this? Part of J. Edgar’s grand design, its marrow-deep political ambivalence, comes in the fact that we are given no real perspective on these major historical events. The film, adhering to the biopic template, only engages them to the extent that they affect Hoover and his personal fortunes. The rest of us can just mentally staple our own convictions onto the screen. Leftist viewers will see a Howard Zinn Hall of Shame, with J. Edgar Hoover as one of a series of craven cowards, flouting the rule of law and subverting the people’s will. Those on the right will most likely shrug and admit, as one of Hoover’s loyal agents does, that yes, the G-Men of this era were combatting “not crimes, but ideas,” but that in the interest of the greater good, a little profiling and a whole lot of probable cause is a small price to pay. Anyone else who’s watching, unfamiliar or largely unconcerned with this chapter in U.S. history, or History of any sort, or any question broader than “Was J. Edgar Hoover a closet homosexual?” will find it quite easy to simply tap into the bourgeois individualist model of narrative J. Edgar promotes.
After all, if “great man” biopics tend to reduce historical events to a series of items on a clothesline, then the purportedly deconstructionist or revisionist J. Edgar subsumes Hoover’s Red Scare paranoia within certain key psychological factors. The bombing of the home of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson) is a traumatic political scar, but mostly the film places the roots of Hoover’s social discontent squarely within the sexual realm. That it does so with deep compassion and empathy is, to be sure, J. Edgar’s most salutary feature. Dargis is correct that Eastwood and Black display a surprisingly rich, complicated long-term love affair between Hoover and his number two man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). We see immediate flirting when they meet in Hoover’s favorite restaurant; the younger, more dapper Tolson takes Edgar shopping and the two of them compare ties like any gay couple in any department store anywhere in the world; and, at a pivotal scene that is actually notable for its carefully shifting tonalities (this is, by and large, a film of flat declarations), Clyde finally demands that Edgar’s love speak its name, to violent effect.
The relationship with Tolson serves both as Hoover’s pillar of strength and the driving impulse behind his bully-boy fascism, with some mommy issues thrown in for good measure. (Judy Dench tells her Edgar, in not so many words, better dead than lavender.) But all of this begs the question of whether it is productive to reduce social, political, or criminological history to, as it were, a private investigation. Hoover was infamous for his “secret files,” the off-the-books dossiers on the likes of the Kennedys, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King. We learn, respectively, that Hoover caught all of them in numerous affairs. (J. Edgar officially “outs” Roosevelt, just as it outs Hoover, I suppose.) King, who Hoover insisted was yet another domestic Communist, is a phantom presence, a voice on a recording, a shadow under a hotel room door, intimating that “the Negro” was really Hoover’s deepest fear.
So what? Are we intended to take J. Edgar as a cautionary tale, showing that the contemporary right wing in America will destroy this country based on its psychoanalytic attraction / repulsion to gay sex and an irrational fear of a black planet? That very same constituency could look deep into the burnished shadows of Eastwood’s film and see a troubled but righteous American hero, plagued by unnatural desires but decent enough to keep them discreet, relentless in his battle against those cancerous forces within our land working to destroy our way of life. From that perspective, J. Edgar Hoover didn’t need to be perfect, just as those combatting the Occupy movement may cross the line here and there. You can, say, put Iraq War veteran Scott Olson in the hospital with a gas canister in Oakland, or pepper-spray 84-year-old Dorli Rainey in the face in New York’s Zuccotti Park. But you’re fundamentally decent, and you’re doing the best you can. And who knows? Maybe you had a domineering mother.
At the end of the day, not even a time machine could save Carnage, even if you used it to send the film back to Billy Wilder for a retool, providing him with Hepburn and Tracy, Cary Grant and Claudette Colbert to boot. This is because, pace the title, Carnage's problem lay not in its flesh but deep in its bones. Adapted by Yasmina Reza from her own play "The God of Carnage" (where "adapted" means a wordless prologue and epilogue out of doors is tacked on for supposed cinematicity), Carnage retains every excruciating tic and mannerism of the contemporary stage at its most facile. It's not just the winking po-mo obviousness of deployed theatrical convention, although this is a huge problem. Taking a page from Buñuel's great The Exterminating Angel, wadding it up and lobbing it into an unflushed toilet, Polanski and Reza concoct ever more preposterous excuses for the Cowans -- Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet) -- not to leave the apartment of the Longstreets -- Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope (Jodie Foster) -- no matter how much their fighting escalates, no matter how much it dawns on them (and us) that it is absurd to spend hours in the apartment of total strangers getting insulted or worse. But wait! Have another piece of cobbler! Let me break out the good Scotch! Let's try and resolve our differences, one last time!
The premise, that the Cowans' son hit the Longstreets' son in the park with a tree branch and knocked out a tooth, is one that might have the potential to expose somewhat humorous class-and-gender based assumptions about bullying, a hot button topic if ever there was one. Big Pharma lawyer Alan, by far the most complex character, is granted one such insight (the only one Carnage has to offer, really): his son is an asshole, one who he doesn't like very much. (Only the fact that he dislikes the Longstreets more prods him to even partially defend his son's unacceptable behavior.) Waltz's character is primarily scripted as the distant, workaholic dad who compensates for his inattention with bursts of aggression. In short, he is a cliché. But only Waltz is able to successfully subvert Reza's rotten script and characterization through parody and, yes, distance. Playing a man who literally phones it in, Waltz displays such pleasure in riding out the patent nonsense that what could've been mere damage control actually becomes infectious fun. The same cannot be said for Winslet ("uptight rich woman drinking through a miserable life") or Reilly ("Good Time Charlie concealing deep-seated conservatism and constant unspoken judgment"), both stranded on this godforsaken archipelago of sophomoric "social observation." But at least they aren't Foster, who actually seems to believe in her Darfur-hectoring, granola-shrapnel Amy Goodman From Hell. (This performance is just another exhibit in the case against Foster's long-trumpeted "Intelligent Actor" reputation. Leave her to Beaver.)
And, well, okay, auteurists. Your move. Somewhere in the midst of this maelstrom of scattershot, adolescent venom is Polanski, whose finest attributes as a director (the building of tension; the construction of oppression through space and looking) are incapable of materializing just due to the constraints of the project. What's more, one of the thematic concerns Polanski is most successful at articulating again and again -- individuals as coherent and viable metonyms for larger social structures -- is not just absent here. It is recast as a kind of travesty. In Carnage, we have a puppet show with cuss words, all about how liberals are stupid and conservatives as buttholes. This, from the director of Repulsion, Chinatown, The Pianist and The Ghost Writer.