REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, SEPTEMBER 2005
All films from U.S.A. unless
(- seen on video; [v] video
piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade
changed upon repeat viewing)
This section does not include my capsule reviews of films seen at the Toronto
IFF. For those, look no further.]
This is an odd film to review just in terms of format, since it's not even clear that it's entirely Varda's creation. While I'm sure she had a hand in the compilation, it actually seems more like a foreign sales company's unique marketing plan. The new Varda piece is under an hour, so why don't we release it with two of her older shorts that also deal with photography? Now, this isn't to take anything away from Cinévardaphoto, an impressive collection from one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of the last fifty years. But one has to puzzle over whether to take it as one work, or three, or something in between like the Holy Trinity. And for me part of this confusion, the insistence of this question, comes from the enormous differences between the three short films. Yes, Varda's parallel career as a photographer and her facility with image analysis is a common denominator, but one may was well yoke three Chris Marker projects together based on the presence of cats. (Cinékittiemarker?) As it happens, I saw most of the latest piece, Ydessa, The Bears and Etc., at the Toronto IFF last year but had to duck out to see another film. At the time it struck me as an interesting enough work, although Varda's careful examination of the random, fugitive details in the photographs (part of a curated display by Toronto artist / collector Ydessa Hendeles) -- those once-insignificant teddy bears now invested with piercing personal meaning -- seemed like a fairly direct application of Roland Barthes' method in Camera Lucida. Having seen the whole piece, I still think this is the case, although Varda goes in the opposite direction at the same time. She isn't only prioritizing the singularity of Hendeles' images, but also foregrounding their sameness through indexing and typology (the very heuristic Hendeles refuses). Ydessa, The Bears and Etc. is a film that has certain themes in common with Varda's last major work, The Gleaners and I (refuse as cultural memory, the insignificant repurposed as the most personal form of expression), but Varda doesn't explore these issues in nearly enough depth. Parts of the video are devoted to unenlightening, off the cuff responses from gallery-goers, stilted interviews with Hendeles, and poorly articulated thoughts on the teddy bear project's relation to the larger art world. (A last-minute revelation that Hendeles has chosen to display a Maurizio Catalan sculpture of Hitler in the next room is left virtually unexplored; the piece isn't even identified as a Catalan until the end credits.) When examining the images of the European 20th century and what they still have to say to us across the historical divide, Varda is a witty, casually erudite companion, and time spent in her company is always rewarded. But Ydessa, The Bears and Etc. is an underdeveloped film-essay.
Contrary to what most reviews will tell you, Ydessa is the weakest of the three compiled films. The strongest by far, quite nearly a masterpiece, is Ulysse from 1982, a film built around an early photograph Varda took in Egypt. The image itself is lovely and formally confident but nothing groundbreaking. A nude man, a child, and a dead goat are positioned along a rocky shore, forming a disjunctively "evocative" scene pitched somewhere between moody European fashion photography and standard 1950s art damage. Varda revisits the photograph by tracking down its models (another idea borrowed from Camera Lucida, which was published two years before Varda made Ulysse). The boy, a Spaniard names Ulysse, has no recollection of the photograph and very little memory of the shoot. His mother has somewhat stronger recollections. Varda speaks with the Egyptian man, whose now very different body is once again presented naked. Varda analyzes the image through multiple critical lenses, she extemporizes about the goat, what photography meant to her at that point in her career, all of these disparate strands weaving around each other with Varda's typical effortlessness. Whereas for Ulysse the image is one of lost time, and for the old man it represents lost youth, for Varda the image documents the end of her primary identity as a photographer, since she'd begin work on her first film soon after it was taken. Ulysse is an exemplary essay-film, and finds Varda working and thinking at the height of her powers. Cinévardaphoto concludes in what at first seems like the most unlikely of places. 1963's Salut les cubains is a collaboration with Yves Montand that compiles Varda's photojournalism from Cuba, ten years after the revolution, into a celebratory ode to the island, its people and culture, and the still-very-young socialist state. The images are striking from a historical standpoint, although they don't hint quite yet at the more poetic direction toward which Varda's work will evolve. Her photo-montage style recalls both Soviet revolutionary film and the Cuban documentaries of Santiago Álvarez, whose career was just beginning at this time. But Varda's work is softer and less exacting, playful but lacking in notable rigor. Moments are poignant, such as seeing Cuban director Sara Gomez cutting up around the ICAIC studios shortly before her death. But Salut les cubains' dominant impression is one of boundless energy and the nation's great hope in trying to forge a new way of life. When Cinévardaphoto was released earlier this year, the one constant theme running through nearly every review was a sense of befuddlement at Salut les cubains. At best it was seen as quaint, a sad relic from the days when Cuba could be seen as anything other than a disaster. (Even solidly left-leaning critics like Hoberman and Dargis echo this reading, implying that in 2005 one must always be shamefaced about Cuba's "actually existing socialism.") At worst, it was decried as unconscionable naiveté, a leftover token of Western Marxist stupidity almost as wrongheaded as a poster of Stalin or a Mondale-Ferraro bumper sticker. Why was Varda allowing this jovial screed to see the light of day once again? But actually, Varda is quite shrewd to end her "new" film in the past, leaving her audience to mull over Cuba's utopian moment. One can debate endlessly about the relative failure of Castro's Cuba, to what extent it really is a cruel military dictatorship, or simply a flawed but evolving experiment whose perceived failure the U.S. could hardly be less invested in. (And isn't the secret of U.S. democracy's success just how well it disguises its egregious failures, spinning them as little more than an aggregate of individual choices?) Varda is not engaging in some exercise in leftist nostalgia here, but throwing down a challenge from the past. It isn't post-revolutionary Cuba as a finished nation that she's saluting. It's Cuba as a work in progress, utopia as an idea worth imagining, designing, and fighting for. Maybe the revolution failed to live up to its promise. All revolutions do. But like Vertov before her, Varda is showing us a people devoted to striving to live life on new, impossible terms. It's not the specifics, the geopolitics or the hindsight we need, but the recklessness, the unreasonable basis for wild new dreams. Varda is returning to her viewers a piece of our cultural legacy, something we've been systematically denied for far too long.
Herzog has been quite prolific in his late-career documentary phase, and I honestly haven't been able to keep up with him. The last film of his I managed to see was Invincible, his middling but unfairly-maligned return to feature filmmaking. I have no trouble believing what many are saying -- that this is Herzog's best film in years -- but it's hardly a flat-out masterpiece. Grizzly Man benefits from Herzog's decision to commit wholeheartedly and without irony to the life's work of Timothy Treadwell, a man so bizarre and inscrutable that even his half-assed camcorder rushes display a cockeyed charisma. As Herzog reminds us, Treadwell had talent, and often produced images of startling beauty, but this isn't what makes him fascinating. He might have been a fairly successful Animal Planet host, given the chance, since his manic, Carson Kressley-like persona almost makes sense within the specific structure of nature TV and its penchant for faux-naive boosterism. (In retrospect, I wonder if Tracy Morgan's SNL character Brian Fellow was partly inspired by the flamboyant, effeminate [but heterosexual, dammit!] Treadwell.) Herzog presents Treadwell's work with an admirable earnestness, taking what could easily be fodder for cheap laughs (Treadwell enthuses over bear poop; Treadwell has a hissy fit about the Parks Service; Treadwell verbally bitchslaps the Lord for inadequate rainfall) and mining it for both grandeur and pathos. In this regard, it's mostly great to have Herzog the essayist again in our midst, willing to argue with Treadwell post mortem via the treatment of the material. In so doing, Herzog explores the enigma of who Treadwell really was, but Grizzly Man is also a true essay-film in that Herzog, as usual, is exploring his own ideas and, in a way, his own larger-than-life persona. (Herzog's grim Teutonic existentialist is as much of a character as Treadwell's "kind warrior.")
Formally, Grizzly Man betrays its status as a Discovery Channel co-production, since much of the first half is rather conventional and somewhat dramatically inert. Herzog's aerial shots of the bear preserve are presumably meant to evoke the mysterious sublimity of Nature, but instead they're flat and wobbly, bland and televisual. (This from the director of Fitzcarraldo and Lessons of Darkness?) Likewise, a misjudged New Age guitar score implicitly works against Herzog's agenda, turning the harshness of nature into kitsch. (I was surprised to learn in the end credits that Richard Thompson was responsible for this Windham Hill noodling.) The film really comes into its own in the second half, when Herzog's chillingly awkward interview style becomes a dominant motif. (See the coroner's clearly rehearsed disquisition, an amazing bit of cinema.) Here, Herzog delves into the reality TV genre and turns it inside out. If everyone in these shows is a non-professional performer, allegedly displaying their own uninflected mannerisms, why aren't they less like second-rate soap operas and more like austere European art films? The interviewees are clearly coached, but they speak in a declarative mode bordering on physical fatigue, possibly the result of numerous iterations. Over the course of Grizzly Man, Herzog commits more completely to this dry, materialist ethos. Like Treadwell himself, Herzog finds his own artistic voice, leaving the conventional trappings of pop-documentary behind. If this is what most viewers remember from the film, rather than its initial fits and starts or Herzog's occasional lapses into over-explanation, this is certainly forgivable. As the end credits roll, a friend of Treadwell's sings along with a high-lonesome balladeer, both noting that like so much else that the modern world has failed to tame, Treadwell is gone for good. Herzog leaves us to ponder this loss.
[SPOILERS] David Cronenberg's new movie, A History of Violence, may well be a masterpiece. It's garnering stellar reviews, and many extremely perceptive critics perceive it as a timely, urgent yet controlled missive about the America's valorization of men who solve problems with a swing of the fist or, on the larger scale, a drop of a bomb. Some writers read a bit further into the film, locating a trenchant auto-critique on Cronenberg's part. Here's a director who began his career in horror, and while his work in this vein always carried a deeper philosophical charge than most entries in the genre (for one of the best explications of Cronenberg's body-politics, consult Steven Shaviro's The Cinematic Body), the success of these films was attributable in no small part of the director's visceral, painterly way with gore. As more recent works such as eXistenZ and Spider have toned down the blood and committed themselves more directly to questions of embodiment and subjectivity, A History of Violence could reasonably be understood as a film of reckoning. Cronenberg certainly stages what on the surface appear to be typical, Hollywood-style physical confrontations, drawing on the tropes of the Western and the gangster film, only to jolt the viewer into a harrowing new state of consciousness by revealing the carnage that conventional depictions keep scrupulously off-frame. Cronenberg, by this logic, is indicting not only mainstream cinema and its role in shaping our appetite for violent masculinity, but his own fascination with the human body in pieces. All of this strikes me as completely plausible, and I am pleased to be able to direct you to some highly articulate readings of the film along these lines, all of which highlight different aspects of the film, but are united in the belief that Cronenberg has delivered a masterpiece: Manohla Dargis, Steve Erickson, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Neil Young.
So, okay, you don't need me doing my Metacritic impression, right? Where do I come down on A History of Violence? I'm not exactly sure yet. I respect it more than I'm moved by it. Film Comment magazine reports that after the film's debut at Cannes, where many American critics expected it to take a prize, director Benoit Jacquot revealed that he alone among the jurors thought it was something special. Others on the jury (including Agnès Varda, Toni Morrison, and jury head Emir Kusturica) just dismissed it as a Hollywood genre piece and were puzzled as to why it was included in Competition. Various festival and industry screenings have reportedly been met with every conceivable reaction, from awestruck applause to hardy guffaws. And here I go again, paraphrasing other people's reactions. What is this film? One of the reasons I found myself duly impressed by it and yet highly ambivalent is that Cronenberg has crafted it as a kind of Rorschach blot. Some films I find masterful but a little too closed off and self-sufficient. (For me, Haneke's Hidden is a recent example.) Others can be maddeningly opaque. (If I had gone into 2046 expecting a comprehensible plot, I doubt I would have loved it as much as I did.) A History of Violence somehow strikes me as operating in both registers at once. It functions as a tight, well-plotted B-movie, but it hovers around a stilted strangeness that it never entirely commits to. Yes, the idyllic opening scenes of Millbrook, Indiana are just a little too perfect, playing like a kissing cousin to Blue Velvet. But soon, the environment and the slightly stylized performances within it (Viggo Mortensen's turn as Tom Stall, especially) begin to naturalize themselves, forming a hermetic movie-world that can be accepted at face value, or examined on a moment-to-moment basis, its little discrepancies and weirdnesses offering purchase for a counter-reading. Many of Violence's major themes are discussed explicitly -- for instance, son Jack's (Ashton Holmes) disquisition on the function of bullying, or the stern talking-to Tom gives Jack after he confronts his tormentor. In a way, the final scene summarizes the film's awkward ambivalence, since it is both evocatively open-ended (what will become of the Stall family?) and theoretically direct (the legacy of violence and its dual role, protecting as well as threatening the family unit, could scarcely be made more explicit). To one way of thinking, all of this double functioning speaks to the film's enormous power and to Cronenberg's flawless craftsmanship. At the same time, it divides my reaction against itself. A History of Violence strikes me as an object so perfectly self-contained as to render analysis redundant, and at the same time as a self-emptying artifact, embodying a kind of guilelessness and in doing so offering itself up as a blank slate for ideational projection. That this is a major achievement is beyond question. What sort of achievement, I am at present unable to say.
There's really no sense trying to praise this film within any framework other than the faint, damning one you're probably expecting. A Lot Like Love isn't especially well-written, and yet it manages a few moments of wit here and there. Its two leads, Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet, have zero chemistry, only one of them has even the most rudimentary acting chops (that'd be Peet, though she's nothing special), and the script has them playing two irritating plug-in variables from the Rom-Com Handbook. Emily (Peet) is a curt punkette-cum-bourgie artiste whose rudeness and self-absorption is supposed to make her desirable and mysterious. Oliver (Kutcher) is a dour cipher, a layabout-turned-internet entrepreneur-turned layabout again, too downcast to romantically commit. There is never a single moment during which I cared one whit about either of them. And yet, the film chugs along in the most placid, inoffensive way possible. The whole film is like a glass of warm milk before bedtime. Much of the credit goes to Cole (Saving Grace, Calendar Girls), who, now that I think about it, blocks and paces most of the film as though he were working with his customary senior citizens, and this cognitive dissonance adds a pleasant, indefinable something. Not an art film by a long shot, it's not a formulaic crowd-pleaser either. Instead, it's the sort of film we'll forget all about, only to rediscover it as a staple on TBS for the next 150 years, not a classic, just there.
[MILD SPOILERS] I value the theatrical experience immeasurably over DVD. Maybe it's my avant-garde training, but as long as there's light blaring through celluloid, I'll pay money to sit and behold its wonder. This isn't always so easy since moving to The Sticks, and sometimes home video and especially import DVDs are a compromise I'm willing to make. But generally speaking, I use DVD as a test-run for films I am fairly certain I'm not going to like. (There seems to be a wide consensus that movies that would disappoint on the big screen are often "good enough" for home viewing -- see Entertainment Weekly's DVD section and its discernable grading curve. Not me. I'll stick with most theatrical screenings, but at home I turn the sucker off, since there's so much more I could be doing.) So even though I have no doubt that Night Watch will be coming to a theatre near me whenever Focus / Rogue decides what to do with it, I ordered the disc and played it, mostly so I could watch 30 minutes or so and rule it out as anything remotely worth my time. As it happens, Night Watch is a waste of time but a seductive one, a slick but empty entertainment whose every next set-piece justifies not turning off the all-region machine. Yes, it's a silly mishmash of every moderately successful sci-fi and horror film from the last decade. I won't bother listing them all. But even on those terms, Night Watch has more of its own lopsided integrity than, say, Save the Green Planet!, a film whose Metacritic score will assuredly best Night Watch's by 20 points or better. If there's a single film that shares Night Watch's bone structure, it's Underworld, and frankly I'm not prepared to accuse any filmmaker of stealing from Underworld. That'd be like Bush and Blair to task for lying to one another -- it's a minor infraction, a victimless crime. Bekmambetov frames his Light vs Dark Forces battle of all against all with a medieval-era chainmail rattle that resembles LOTR on the cheap. But soon enough we're in Moscow, where the Light Company (yes, the electric utility is the front for the Good Team) issues permits to vampires, intercedes on behalf of potential human victims, and other business redolent of modern bureaucratic law enforcement. This is the stalemate the Great Truce has mandated, and of course it's all about to come unglued. Even the above synopsis cannot adequately convey how silly Night Watch is, but what makes it compulsively watchable is its narrative method. It's a bit like a video gaming marathon, but one in which the participants switch game cartridges every fifteen or twenty minutes. That is, unlike The Matrix with its tedious singular preoccupations, Night Watch treats each set-piece like a coherent whole unto itself. If you try to watch the film expecting them to coalesce into a narrative, you'll be frustrated. Like Amélie, Night Watch is so fixated on the image at hand that temporal motility, much less narrative, grinds to a halt, over and over again -- cinema as bricklaying. But Bekmambetov is fully aware of his method, and just as you realize that what you're now watching in no way follows from the last thing you saw, he'll have thrown so much risibly intriguing shit at you that you just let it ride. (At least I did; I literally kept thinking I'd turn off the disc, and before I knew it, it was over.) Yes, ludicrous CGI abounds, stylized violence has no purpose, and its "ideas" wouldn't pass muster in the bedside diary of a Goth kid in St. Petersburg, Florida, let alone Russia. But it's not The End of Cinema or anything, either. There's not much point in getting worked up over it, pro or con. As for a textual reading of the film, I can't improve on Eric Hynes' analysis of it as an allegory of Putinist stasis. It's mostly rock solid. But what of the rather Star Warsy conclusion, with the Warriors of Light discovering that they have innocent blood on their hands? Night Watch suggests that when you try to re-fight the Crusades in the present day (i.e. Bush's war on Islam, which Russia wisely opposes), we may be slitting the future's throat.
This is the sort of film that I take no pleasure in disliking, and not just because its maker is a noted experimentalist working with extremely limited means. I always hope that more feature films will succeed in bridging the gap between purely visual non-narrative filmmaking and the more adventurous fringes of narrative cinema. But it seems more and more as though the only way for filmmakers to "succeed" on this front -- i.e., garner critical attention, festival berths, even the smallest-scale commercial distribution -- is to treat experimentation with film form as a kind of window dressing, a surface affectation that may be jarring or unique for the majority of filmgoers but registers only as "style." The deeper roots of avant-garde practice, however, demand the rigorous application of challenging formal models which communicate on their own terms, and not solely as a dazzling husk for the transmission of a semi-independent kernel of content. Popularization in itself is often misperceived as an enemy to certain cultural elites, when the real issue is the terms on which that popularization will occur. The innovations of Kenneth Anger, for example, lead to both Blue Velvet and Tarnation, but identity politics or a glance over production budgets won't accurately indicate which film is the rightful heir. Jennifer Reeves' avant-garde credentials are beyond question, which makes it all the more frustrating that The Time We Killed sacrifices the complexity of its sources and inspirations in order to explore coherent storytelling. The film is a portrait of Robin (Lisa Jarnot), an agoraphobic writer in New York City who fears her days of direct engagement with the world are behind her. This results in a series of ruminations about past lovers (some living, some dead) and their continuing impact on her life in the present. As the subject for an art film, this exploration of private memory could evoke work as disparate as that of Resnais, Ruiz, or Varda. But the character's passivity serves as an excuse for leaving her underwritten, and her poetic reveries seldom rise above doggerel. Jarnot wrote the prose-poems "in character," and they sound as though they are intended to operate in the vein of the feminist "language" poetry of Leslie Scalapino, Lyn Hejinian, or Rae Armantrout. But while those writers problematize autobiography and the construction of "voice" through language, Jarnot relies on repetition and stasis to convey the stuckness of a troubled mind. As objective correlatives go, it's all rather obvious. Jarnot herself is a published poet whose other work I am unfamiliar with, but her writing for The Time We Killed so literalizes the inner world of Robin that there is little work left for either the film or the viewer. And whereas Jarnot and her writing construct Robin in too linear a fashion, Reeves' imagery strives for an intuitive, poetic condensation but doesn't really achieve it. Small moments of carefully crafted non-narrative filmwork are present in The Time We Killed. (Several slowly accumulating montages of birds and fire escapes out Robin's tenement window recall early Ken Jacobs; stark close-ups of sweating radiator pipes evoke fever-dreams of tense beauty.) But there is little overall structure within which those sequences can generate an internal, formal sense. More often, Reeves' succession of images feels lazy and random, as though she is relying on the film's narrative thrust to create a contrapuntal meaning for passages of free-associative editing. Generally, though, it doesn't work. The Time We Killed immediately calls to mind the films of Su Friedrich and Leslie Thornton (especially the Peggy and Fred films), but it lacks those filmmakers' formal assurance. Thornton's incorporation of found footage with original dramatic material works because her films are in part about how viewers forge cognitive connections across time, and Friedrich commits to certain visual motifs so that we can observe how their significance shifts across the body of the film. By contrast, Reeves seems to want The Time We Killed to evoke anxiety and dislocation, which isn't very hard to do when no single image has a reason to exist alongside any other. So, as a hybrid work, Reeves' film produces a stalemate. What The Time We Killed cannot convey through filmic means is spelled out through narration, and while this makes it an easier film to parse than other, more difficult avant-garde films, it also diminishes its potential richness.