REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, OCTOBER 2006

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

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

 

[NOTE: This section does not include my reviews of films seen at "Views from the Avant-Garde." For those, click click boom.]

 

[7]

 

The Departed (Martin Scorsese)

A screenwriter pal of mine, taking a jab at my auteurist tendencies, predicted that I'd be the one person on earth to review The Departed without mentioning the sizable contribution of the film's writer, William Monahan. Well boom, there you go. But honestly, most of the dialogue crackles, particularly those portions of it that Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin get to sink their teeth into. There's a gene-splice at work here between Mamet-style macho soliloquy and plain-old Fenway street talk, one that successfully achieves a sculpted literary quality without tottering into precociousness. It doesn't always work, of course, and as these things often go, it's the one major woman character whose words and deeds frequently ring false. (Vera Farmiga, however, is masterful at playing the tough hand she's dealt.) But the undeniable strengths of The Departed are, in some ways, old fashioned, genius-of-the-system kinds of pleasures -- Scorsese assembling an actorly dream-team, breathing life into Monahan's script with the help of ace d. p. Michael Ballhaus (Fassbinder's guy) and, of course, Scorsese's right-hand woman, editor Thelma Schoonmaker. (Did I forget any key personnel, Skander?) But to fall back on my auteurist habits just a bit, the perfect synergy The Departed generates also results in a slightly impersonal (or perhaps overly "professional") feel. Even though Scorsese has spun a tight, syncopated riff on Lau and Mak's Infernal Affairs, a sort of cover-version that the director-as-stylist makes uniquely his, I had this gnawing sense throughout the film that very little was at stake on an emotional level. Flawed as they are, Gangs of New York and The Aviator possess an idiosyncratic fervor to which the tres cool Departed seldom builds, even at its operatic crescendo. (The final shot is an amusing visual gag, but it sort of proves my point. Is it all a movie-lark?) Nevertheless, the formalist in me can't help but be impressed by Scorsese and Monahan's exploration of doubling and duplicity. Where Infernal Affairs was tinged with a Zen worldview, its opposing forces locked in eternal battle, Scorsese subtly sprinkles Catholicism throughout, reminding us that minor Judases are forever in our midst. But on a more structural level, the use of musical repetition underscores the theme of cloven identities. The three most prominent songs on the soundtrack (the Stones' "Gimme Shelter," a cut by Celt-punk group The Dropkick Murphys, and a live version of "Comfortably Numb" with Van Morrison on vocals) each appear twice. In fact, "Comfortably Numb" starts, stops completely, and resumes during the same long scene. Meanwhile, careful cross-cutting serves to emphasize pairings and doublings (Damon / DiCaprio, of course, but also Walhberg / Sheen, Nicholson / Baldwin, Damon / Wahlberg, etc.). So there's no shortage of rigor here. But even the much-admired first half-hour, where Scorsese and Schoonmaker are pulling out all the stops with snappy jump-cuts, dipsy-doodle crane shots, and hair-trigger music cues, in retrospect seems a little excessive, even De Palmaesque. Not a problem, per se, but again, there's a sense that Scorsese's hitting all his "pure cinema" marks partly because The Departed is built to generate impact and not much else, sort of a modern master's pitch-perfect compulsory routine. Strange how all that operatic excess can feel so preordained.

 

Everyday Bad Dream (Fred Worden) [v/s]

In so far as cartoons do any more than accustom the senses to the new tempo, they hammer into every brain the old lesson that continuous friction, the breaking down of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society. Donald Duck in the cartoons and the unfortunate in real life get their thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment.

 

--Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception"

 

After attending this year's "Views from the Avant-Garde" screenings, I was reassured that, despite some mediocre entries, experimental film (and video -- we mustn't forget video) is alive and thriving. But I find that the idea of experimental film is under fire these days. This isn't happening in any direct way; we're mostly past the age of broadsides, salvos, and manifestos, which is kind of sad in its own way. And it isn't happening through widespread neglect. That's been the general condition of experimentalism in most every artform for quite some time, and it usually doesn't do all that much damage to the work in question. No, what I mean is, "experimental film" is being replaced by a new generation of careerists and second-raters, benign, well-intentioned scoundrels for whom a new "accessibility" is the last refuge. Local and regional film festivals are full of this work, and this "movement" (more a loosely organized trend, really) even has its own emergent stars. I won't bother naming names, but you probably know what I'm talking about. Well-funded fashion spreads masquerading as evocative mood-cinema. Bruce Conner-style 40s and 50s found footage pressed into the service of one-note "essay films" and easy one-liners. Allegedly "open-form" documentaries on place that adopt the surface affectations of James Benning's films but none of the rigor or unnerving use of duration. Post-Brakhage painted works that substitute screen-saver scribbles for the force and muscularity of Abstract Expressionism. And even high-ticket commissions that lionize the logotypes of multinational corporations, under the guise of witty insouciance.

 

Isn't there anybody out there who isn't afraid of pissing off his or her audience? Of doling out what at first may seem like "punishment," but in fact is just a forceful re-education of the senses? I can't believe I need to say this in 2006, but here goes: powerful cinema must not only address our minds. It has to engage our bodies, and while sometimes that physical challenge can be lyrical and poignant, sometimes it has to pierce our eyes with a light we simply cannot shut out. Within this aggressive modernist logic, only by diving into the wreck of our previous perceptual habits can we round the corner into a new, skull-shaking version of beauty. Brakhage knew this. So did Sharits, Menken, Harry Smith. Peter Kubelka and Rose Lowder and Luther Price and Lynn Marie Kirby still know this. And by God, so does Fred Worden. Everyday Bad Dream doesn't scramble the sensorium the way Automatic Writing and The Or Cloud do, but in its own way EDB is more methodical. The video begins with its title in LED dots, with a single central pulsating dot down below, like a cursor awaiting input. The screen is then dominated for the next six minutes by a quivering black form, sometimes circular but frequently distorting itself into elastic ovals. The hot-white video field surrounding it pulses as well, but the main action is a rapid flicker between two evolving states of the black form. It dilates, it expands and contracts, it recedes to allow a wavy yellow form to emerge, anchoring the bottom of the frame. In describing EBD, Mark McElhatten wisely referenced Robert Motherwell's paintings (Ellsworth Kelly would be another apposite touchstone), but the shape, if not the color, of this yellow anchor recalls a late Frank Stella wall relief, something optically flat but suggesting spatiality. The cursor dot appears and reappears at several points throughout the piece, holding steady in a central blinking position, like a beacon, but then starting an almost imperceptible spiral. (Duchamp's Anemic Cinema, anyone?) The flicker halts a bit at around minute three, only to build a fuller head of steam. But even in these moments of visual respite, Worden's dense, pulsating soundscape keeps the anxiety quotient very high. Worden employs a flange effect to make this wall of din sound abstract but physical, a washing-machine sound that envelops the individual sonic elements of the soundtrack. But part of the frustration (and excitement) of the audio track is its refusal to become an all-over din. We hear distinct bits (an overheard conversation, Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba"), but they roll in and out of earshot like the tide on fast-forward. EBD is overpowering; it impresses its overall shape on you like some kind of structuralist acid-bath. But by the time it concludes it's also strangely relaxing since, unlike most nightmares, we can use our lucidity and cognitive capacity to acclimate to it, learn its tricks, watch its assaultive forms become pretty, a fistfight evolving into modern dance. And then, as with most bad trips, we discover the Big Bad is really rather commonplace. But in this case (and here's why I see EBD as a sort of rejoinder to Anger's Mouse Heaven -- there, I said it), Worden locates a primal fear in that which is all the more sinister for being all around you, day in, day out. Cartoons used to tap into these anxieties of the world shifting its shape beneath our feet. One man made millions paring away that dread. But as the Dialectic of Enlightenment quote above makes clear, it doesn't go anywhere. It's just pressed further and further down into the image, seeping into every facet of our lives.

 

On the new Scott Walker album, The Drift, he concludes the song "The Escape" by singing, "A lifeline of knuckles / waddles into the afternoon / Look into its eyes / It will look into your eyes." What comes next is a surprise I won't spoil for the uninitiated. But clearly, Fred Worden understands. Here comes the future. Duck.

 

-The Last Communist (Amir Muhammad, Malaysia) [v]

In a very short time, Amir Muhammad has become a master of the essay-film format, and as anyone who's done time on the festival circuit can tell you, the essay-film is a very easy genre to botch. The Last Communist is a road-movie meditation on the life and career of Chen Ping, the exiled leader of Malaysia's Communist Party, and while the majority of the video's throughline adheres to the documented facts of Chin Peng's life, these facts (mostly presented as onscreen text) bear the unmistakable voice of Muhammad -- wry, terse, but never arch. As Muhammad follows the path of Chin Peng's life journey, through Malaysia and eventually Thailand (where he lives to this day), we see the contrast between Chin's world and the present, where only the slightest physical traces persist, and ideological residue is practically nonexistent. As Muhammad travels, we meet a man running a charcoal factory, a street vendor, a lotus-bun manufacturer, and many other ordinary Malay citizens who couldn't be further removed from the political theories to which Chin devoted his life. Only upon reaching the endpoint of Chin's path, rural Thailand and a community of displaced Malay communists, do we witness any direct legacy of his armed struggle. In terms of its attempt to read the past off the present, and that attempt often resulting in a palimpsest on the verge of complete erasure, The Last Communist recalls the documentary strategies of Claude Lanzmann and especially Rithy Panh. But in a brazen and phenomenally successful formal gamble, Muhammad leaves the grim seriousness of those forebears behind. You see, The Last Communist is a "semi-musical documentary," and Muhammad, along with composer Hardesh Singh and singer Zalila Lee (who resembles a Southeast Asian Jill Scott) have staged neo-communist pop numbers to break up the factual material. Some are more successful than others (the Malaria song and the Identity Card song are the absolute highlights of the film), but as a suite they serve both to deepen our sense of the alternate world that Chin and his followers might've wanted to create, and to act as counterpoint to the reality principle that governs both the people on the street and the old comrades in the jungle. (Although Muhammad's goofy blocking and Bollywood-on-the-cheap style are highly original, I detected the influence of Tsai Ming-liang. And isn't that a wonderful thing to detect?) If The Last Communist has any flaw, it's that the documentary and musical sequences don't exactly flow together, and that one could imagine excising the songs and being left with a solid but rather conventional nonfiction feature about Malaysian political history. The experimentalism is somewhat cordoned off, but this could well be by design. What reads as a film lacking complete formal integration could in fact be an aesthetic cut to the measure of the state of exile. Chin Peng never appears in The Last Communist, and it could well be the case that Muhammad has fashioned a study in cinema dialectics whose refusal to synthesize has been ordained by history.

 

[6]

 

-The Break-Up (Peyton Reed)

Considering how tonally inconsistent The Break-Up is, it's hard to believe it was so successful. I suppose you can't underestimate the draw of two popular, appealing leads, but still, for a film marketed as a comedy, several key passages of Reed's film are painful in their unadorned honesty. The screenplay by Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender is generally impressive, but one gets the sense they knew they'd set themselves an impossible task within the context of the present-day film industry. The comic moments are usually a touch too broad, and everything with John Michael Higgins' character is like the side of a freakin' barn. The film never gels, but when it hits its groove -- unforced, observational relationship comedy that careens into unexpected cruelty and dashed hopes for repair -- it's like late 80s / early 90s Woody Allen. Reed's shifts in blocking, lighting, and camerawork in the argument sequences are bracing, and intimate that Reed's directorial talents (and his heart) might really lie elsewhere. Also, ordinarily I take a hard-line stance against altered endings, but in this case the test audiences had the right idea. The revised conclusion is poignant, whereas the original was cheap and rather cloying.

 

Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola)

Sorry, haters; this one falls squarely into the "interesting failure" column. Despite its serious flaws, Marie Antoinette is a film with some smart ideas that, unfortunately, Coppola is not mature enough as an artist to see through to completion. For example, Kirsten Dunst's Marie is, for most of the film, all surface, someone whose porcelain frivolity just mirrors back our own historical curiosity. This isn't a way for me to excuse a flaw, mind you -- Coppola drops a massive hint at interiority with Marie's dog Mops forcibly left behind at the border. Cine-literate audiences will no doubt register this as a "Rosebud" moment, the loss of a meaningful fragment of childhood identity whose absence will smart until her dying day. But nope, for the most part Marie just moves on, adjusting to the chilly climes of the Versailles court. This idea of historical impenetrability is echoed in the way Coppola alternates between establishing shots and close-ups at Versailles. From a distance, the court (and the film) look stately, respectable, like a well-behaved period piece. Once we get in there, with Rip Torn, Asia Argento, Molly Shannon, and the kid from Rushmore, the flat line readings and silly posing (right down to our introduction to Louis XVI as a weekend-warrior swordsman) pretty much make it The Max Fischer Players present The Last Days of the French Monarchy. In her willingness to set up and then puncture costume-drama niceties, Coppola's playing Peter Greenaway's game, but beating him with goofball humor and unapologetic feminine puffery. Sadly, though, Coppola is beset by some equally stupid conceits, such as making the women of the court catty high-school gossips, more Mean Girls than Dangerous Liaisons (and that's not to the better). Likewise, Coppola's seeming attempt at an insider's critique of privilege (and pace Nathan Lee's well-argued Film Comment piece, I do think that such an attempt was made) simply cannot hold, either because she's inadequately committed to it, or again, due to artistic immaturity. The dinner scenes find Louis and Marie suitably trapped in amber, but the "I Want Candy" shopping montage squanders any and all leftist goodwill by not only celebrating consumption as some sort of "girls just wanna have fun" rebellion, but doing so through the rankest filmic hackwork. (MTV would reject it as insufficiently subtle.) So yeah, about the use of post-punk music. It begins promisingly enough, with Gang of Four's "Natural's Not In It," all angular riffing against the Sex Pistols torn-banner font and the horse-drawn carriage to Marie's date with destiny. The idea seems clear enough to me: the Sex Pistols fired an opening salvo against British monarchy in the 70s, and although they don't appear on the soundtrack, their progeny represent the disaffected, angry royal subjects, those kept scrupulously off-frame in the film. That is, Gang of Four, Adam Ant, Siouxsie Sioux, and New Order are the seething mob, the gathering storm. This "idea" (or maybe just my wishful glimpse at an idea, who knows) fails spectacularly. Not only are most of the song sequences poorly chosen and negligibly integrated. (Apart from the opening sequence, the ballroom scene set to Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Hong Kong Garden" is the only one that really pops.) The whole anachronistic song motif just up and disappears for nearly 40 minutes in the middle of the film, only to make a hasty, half-assed return. By the time the conclusion rolls around, Marie's anti-humanist vacuity is replaced by desperate motherhood, frightened, wailing little girls in tow, Coppola's playing the automatic empathy card from the bottom of the deck. This forces us to pose the question a bit differently: is Marie Antoinette a film of smart ideas that crumble in the execution, or a vanity mirror for its audience, a film whose execution is always just in the offing?

 

-Ryna (Ruxandra Zenide, Romania / Switzerland)

Or, The Case of the Mysterious Romanian Film That Nearly Everybody Slept On: Could it be a simple case of arriving at the party a year too early? In the wake of last year's Cristi Puiu film The Death of Mister Lazarescu (a film that impressed me, despite my reservations), Romanian cinema's hot on the festival circuit, but this strong debut from Zenide has gone largely unnoticed. (It played in the Syracuse Film Festival, if that tells you anything.) To be honest, I can understand commercial distributors not knowing what to do with it. As a female coming-of-age story, it's highly ambivalent about the value of attaining womanhood (although the film's bitter conclusion does grant its titular protagonist a wide measure of autonomy). Ryna (pronounced "Reena," and played with stunning self-possession by newcomer Doroteea Petre, who has since gone on to star in fest-circuit darling How I Spent the End of the World) is a 16-year-old girl living in a bumfuck Romanian water town, working as a mechanic at her father's dishonest service station. for reasons that remain largely unarticulated, Dad insists that Ryna keep her hair short and dress like a boy. She's fooling no one; her small but pert breasts poke through her tanktop, and creepy adult menfolk circle her like jackals. One of the things that is intriguing, if a little offputting about Ryna is this conflation of androgyny and sex appeal, and the way it's never worked through or problematized. Zenide wisely refrains from allegorizing her protagonist or staking out a position on gender politics and then subordinating the film's every move to that thesis. But at the same time, this matter-of-fact approach results in severe cognitive dissonance, as if the story is issuing from some bizarre pre-Freudian universe where the "cigar" of forced masculinization is really just a cigar. Even though this oddness is preferable to more conventional avenues that could have made Ryna more marketable (as a "gay film," or a "woman's film"), it speaks to the thinness that ultimately undercuts Zenide's material. Plotwise, there are overdeterminations that almost fail to register as such due to the deft observational realism with which they're performed. But even this is somewhat "off," since Zenide's visual style is painterly and meticulous. Her treatment of the shoreline, of clapboard rural architecture, and the weed-strewn landscape is exacting and remarkable -- both Andrei Zvyagintsev and Kim Ki-duk came to mind -- and yet the story itself is so doggedly small that it cannot bear the nearly mythic weight invested in the mise-en-scène. Still, as rookie-errors go, "too much precision" is one we don't see committed nearly enough. Anyone interested in recent Eastern European cinema should seek Ryna out, and by all means, don't miss Zenide's next film, whatever / whenever it may be. That is, if the major festivals give us the chance next time around.

 

[5]

 

-Brothers of the Head (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, U.K.)

Kinda smart, kinda stupid. First off, there is no reason for this film to be a mockumentary. Fulton and Pepe do nothing innovative with the form, and in fact so much of their project relies on available tropes from the "seamy side" of the music business (especially the glam-rock era) that those tropes just look silly and unconvincing when placed in an ostensibly "true" framework. (Best example: the manager who wasn't afraid to beat the brothers into submission when need be. No one in a real rockumentary would ever be so nonchalantly self-damning.) The incorporation of material like the Ken Russell interviews and abandoned "Two Way Romeo" film adds nothing, other than padding a thin idea out to feature length. So in this regard, the decision to use the false nonfiction form struck me as the decision of two feature-film novices who didn't know where to begin. On the other hand, the film's evocation of the Swinging London glam-punk scene is spot-on and often electrifying, especially when the Howe brothers play. They're like the Gallaghers, only trapped in close proximity by that damned tunnel of chest skin. (Actually, in terms of spinning a tale of Euro-glam freakishness gone literal -- not just the clothes and the makeup but the body underneath -- Brothers bears comparison with Hedwig, only here the "angry inch" is a surplus rather than a deficit.) Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography is the true star throughout (the film is gorgeous, its underexposed archival look taking on a character well beyond its narrative purpose), but twins Harry and Luke Treadaway turn in effortlessly charismatic performances, mumbling sphinxes who refrain from spilling their secrets, gig after gig and pint after pint. Also, nothing sums Brothers's janus-faced results better than the treatment of the Laura Ashworth character. As written (an academic out to expose the brothers' "exploitation" who then -- surprise! -- falls for one of them), she's pure device. As a piece of cinematic trickery, it's amazing. Actress Diana Kent is actress Tania Emery plus thirty years. How Fulton and Pepe pulled off a coup de cinema like that I'll never know.

 

-Free Zone (Amos Gitai, Israel / France / Spain / Belgium)

First of all, in seeing this film I've sort of gone back on my word a little bit. After having seen four or five Gitai films, finding all but one of them clumsy, forced, and utterly unengaging as cinema, I'd planned to write the director off completely. But Free Zone's inclusion in 2005's Cannes Competition (as well as the Best Actress award going to Hanna Laszlo) piqued my curiosity, not to mention the fact that I wanted to see what Gitai would do with an international superstar like Natalie Portman. Although Free Zone in no way turned me around on Gitai, I have to admit that I'm glad I saw it. As a relative failure, this film is far more interesting that anything I've seen him do since Esther. Intentionally or not, Gitai has developed a stylistic skin graft that never exactly takes. His close-quarters camerawork, largely hand-held and favoring long takes, implies a haphazard approach to the film, an openness reminiscent of the best low-budget independent cinema. Even the much-remarked-upon opening shot, which features Portman in close-up crying for the duration of an unbroken ten-minute take, has a shambolic feel to it, as though Gitai were selecting the road-movie as a sturdy enough genre structure to accommodate improvisational filmmaking between national borders. Things soon take an adventurous but wrongheaded turn, as Gitai superimposes the memories of the recent past over his characters' present, resulting in a visual field dense with ghosts and yet oddly pedestrian nonetheless. To say that this feels like a student-film move sounds pejorative, and it's true that I don't think that it works at all. But still, there is a gutsy spirit of invention here that is laudable. Nothing I've seen in Gitai's recent work prepares a viewer for this bizarre experimentation. Alas, soon the device drops out, and the open-form visual style becomes a container for overdetermined, didactic interactions between The Israeli and The Arab, with the flummoxed American acting as a reluctant mediator. Dialogue devolves into position-paper, and I remember why I can never really get behind Amos Gitai.

 

[4]

 

The Black Dahlia (Brian De Palma)

[MAJOR SPOILERS] [ALSO A WARNING: Unlike most cinephiles these days, I am not inherently sympathetic to the De Palma project. I still have a lot of catching up to do with BDP, but what little I have seen hasn't convinced me of his vital importance as a filmmaker. So please take the following with a grain of salt. It's entirely possible I just don't "get it." And actually, that's sort of fine with me at this point.] It's been a while since I saw Black Dahlia, and in the interim I've read Stuart Klawans' persuasive take on the film in The Nation. The upshot of his semi-defense (he seems to understand that certain of the film's decisions are indefensible) is that De Palma's representation of the Elizabeth Short screen tests -- her humiliation at the hands of unseen producers and directors, her adult sexuality smacked back down into ashamed pre-pubescence by cruel fatherly imagoes -- displays her "death" as a human being at the hands of Hollywood. In this reading, her grisly death (we all know how this goes -- cut in half, bled dry, organs removed, her mouth sliced open from ear to ear, dirt and grass shoved in her vagina -- had enough?) is almost incidental, just finishing the job started by the Big Bad Machine. It's a worthy argument, but it hardly scratches the surface of De Palma's perversity, his willful occlusion of Smart in the film he named for her. For the record, Klawans is absolutely correct that Smart (played in a state of sad, crumpled damage by the usually irksome Mia Kirshner, her finest work since Exotica) lends the film its only glimmers of actual humanity.

 

The rest of the film follows its four leads, each noteworthy for successfully embodying a different variation on Plasticine vacuity, as they bob like driftwood through the increasingly preposterous whodunnit plot. (That plot, incidentally, ends on a "trademark" Freudian note that, in the context of the Black Dahlia murder case, is unconscionably obtuse in its misogyny. Um, I seriously doubt that a woman did that.) De Palma, ever on the lookout for an excuse to trot out movie-world gestures at multiple ironic removes, decides to focus his film on his two Lala-Land cops, a pair of hat racks crushed beneath the weight of their emblematically noirish fedoras. As I watchedThe Black Dahlia unfold, realizing that yes, I have now spent two reels watching Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart before, during, and after a policeman's benefit boxing match, it became clear that De Palma's plan was the leave the dead bitch in the ditch, since the real concern (and by "real," we to some extent mean genuinely self-referential, the movie-brat mode of "caring") was the way the Black Dahlia case jolted the golly-gee-whiz complacency of postwar masculinity. This contraption (naivete and its bisection) asks its audience to believe in the Bob Dobbs worldview of starry-eyed Golden State wonder, and actually care about the moment it turns into its ugly opposite. It's like Blue Velvet except that Dorothy Valens never gets a word in edgewise, the universe is teeming with Frank (and Frances) Booths, and we the viewers are never once implicated, since voyeurism is regarded as a relatively unproblematic vice in the greater scheme of things. Two bravura sequences (the body discovered and meeting the family), but they hardly compensate for a general air of rancid misanthropy, to say nothing of its sense that unspeakable violence against women is most importantly a symbolic castration of the men who failed to protect them. This is the perfect claptrap for our times, and The Black Dahlia's box office failure is likely in part attributable to its unfortunate redundancy.

 

[ADDENDUM: One of my most astute readers noted that the above review seems "moralistic" in tone, basically blaming De Palma for the film he made, rather than one dealing primarily with Elizabeth Short. He also noted that the film's focus on the two cops is lifted straight from the 1987 James Ellroy novel on which the film is based. First of all, I haven't read Ellroy's novel, but was aware that it uses the Black Dahlia murder as an inciting incident more than as subject matter in and of itself. Nevertheless, De Palma bears responsibility for issues of tone and overall attitude of the film, and, I would argue, has significant control over how he adapts and highlights Josh Friedman's screenplay adaptation of Ellroy's novel. As for the moralism issue, I have to cop to that, in part. I confess that The Black Dahlia was not the film treatment of the Short murder that I would have preferred to see. The title is misleading, but more than that, I must admit to being weary of films, books, TV shows and the like, using violent crime against women as plot devices use to set in motion a crisis in masculinity, or even worse, a Loss of National Innocence. (See Mystic River, the entire CBS police-procedural line-up, and to an extent even Brick, a film I admire greatly but that, like Dahlia, seems to want to hold onto unreconstructed noir, skipping over the "neo-" work of the 60s and 70s.) So I will freely admit that, once I gleaned what De Palma's film was up to, I was rather exasperated with it, if not at times outright offended.

 

Nevertheless, I do feel a responsibility to review the film in front of me, instead of the film I wish had been made. (This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, since it would obviate social and political criticism that, in reading films "symptomatically," asks us to envision a different way of life, and an art that would function accordingly. Still, this type of analysis is a weapon best fired infrequently, since it tends to close one's mind to aesthetic impulses as well as ideas that are not [already] one's own.) Even within the framework De Palma (following Friedman and Ellroy) creates, the film fails. Stuck in his noir hall of mirrors, De Palma asks us to identify with a cipher (Hartnett) and a slick, empty placeholder (Eckhart) who -- surprise! -- is already a dirty cop long before sullying his eyes and hands on the Dahlia. Instead of a crisis, De Palma gives us a "crisis," one that involves cinematic archetypes no one (director, writer, actors) even bothers to fill in. (Another astute reader has suggested that part of the problem is that De Palma is a director who isn't very invested in the craft of acting. This may well explain part of Dahlia's failings, but I think part of it is also that the material and De Palma's treatment of it is stranded between high-minded seriousness and the sort of unfiltered sleaze that brings out the best in his sensibility. Cf. Body Double, Raising Cain.) So I'm not going to pretend not to have been predisposed to disliking the kind of film The Black Dahlia is. (And no, I did not want some kind of Lifetime Original Movie speculating about Short's interior psychology, things no one could really know. But, how about a study of that unknowability, a la The Notorious Bettie Page? There's an assignment for someone out there to run with.) But films can go a long way toward convincing me of the correctness of their approach, simply by affording it the best possible treatment. On those terms, The Black Dahlia comes up short. The fact that, yes, I did find it sexist and offensive is a related but separate fact.

 

[W/O]

 

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (Dito Montiel) (1:20) [finished on DVD, now a 6]

No way I would've walked out of this had I had a choice. (Sadly, the clerk at the Loews Lincoln Plaza gave me the wrong running time and I had to bolt to catch the Ernie Gehr show at Views.) Obviously there are some problems in this film -- its frame story lapses into an inoffensive but rather needless brand of sentimentality, all the more noticeable since the 1980s flashback material avoids said sentiment so much of the time -- but Montiel is a born filmmaker, creating an effortless, all-enveloping ambiance of Astoria, Queens as both a masculine proving-ground and a space of funky, offhand interactions characterized by a jagged warmth. All the claims ("poetic," "deftly observational," etc.) made of behalf of the grossly overrated Raising Victor Vargas absolutely apply here. Parent / child conflict can become a little overwrought in this film, but at least it's dealt with honestly, not swept aside for liberal feel-goodism. And moments like the direct-address montage (clearly a Spike Lee homage, but actually more reminiscent of Y tu mamá también in its street-Proustian tone) are the perfect accompaniment to the unobtrusive "realist" moments. They mutually reinforce each other, making the work of memory concretely felt. Also, Shia LaBoeuf hits every note perfectly -- the anger, the hope, the self-deprecating lust, all of it. He should get some high-profile adult work after this. I hope to see the end of it soon; unless it totally blows it in the last 15 minutes, it'll get a 7. [ADDENDUM 4/24/07: The final portion of the film does indeed contain one additional sequence of considerable power (Antonio's crime), but squanders far too much attention on Adult Dito's reckoning, thereby shifting the film's emphasis onto the weakest aspect, the contemporary frame story. And although it isn't exactly fair, endings matter -- it's a question of which flavor Montiel leaves lingering in our mouths as we exit, the original Coney Island hot dog or the lukewarm chamomile tea.]