REVIEWS OF NEW
RELEASES SEEN, SEPTEMBER 2012
All films from U.S.A. unless
([v] video piece; [s] short,
under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, Austria)
Museum Hours, the latest film (and second fictional feature) from Jem Cohen, represents a major breakthrough for this veteran experimental filmmaker, and is without a doubt one of the very best films of 2012. I am not alone in this opinion by any means, but nevertheless I think I should clarify that I have had a bit of ambivalence toward Cohen's work over the years. He has been an artist whose work I've respected more than liked per se, often finding some of his trademark maneuvers -- grainy black-and-white cinematography, step-printing, a soft, light-bled frame around the image, and an occasion sepia haze or overexposure of his subjects -- to topple over into a kind of undergraduate preciousness, especially in his earliest short films. The fact that a good number of Cohen's early stylistic tics are very similar to those that have been incorporated into Instagram is quite telling. Works such as This is a History of New York (1987), Lost Book Found (1996), and his several R.E.M. videos such as"Nightswimming" (1995), tend to correspond with a notion of artistic production wherein the aesthetic coincides with nostalgia. That is, the artisanal mode of handmade things (as a conscious rebuke to industrialize expression) is confused with a wholesale valuation of "the old ways," or more simply, a contemporary fetishist's concept of the artisan's craft. Cohen's first feature, 2004's Chain, certainly represented a departure from this style. But as a debut it encountered other problems. Much like Museum Hours, Chain is in many respects a "theoretical fiction." Using two characters (a runaway teen and a Japanese shopping mall researcher) as his geographical "plants," Cohen weaves a documentary / avant-garde project about suburban American rootlessness around their characters and stories. If the film is not entirely successful, mostly due to problems of characterization and plausibility, Chain finds Cohen setting his stylistic claim definitively on the present. His subsequent documentary work, right up through 2010's lovely portrait-miniature Anne Truitt, Working, reflect this shift in Cohen's awareness, even if a few works here and there, such as 2006's Blessed Are The Dreams of Men, would find him relying too heavily on old crutches.
With Museum Hours, Cohen has created two new characters, both of whom exemplify a trait that is all too rare even in the art cinema: decency. There is nothing heroic or even particularly exceptional about Johann (Bobby Sommer), the middle-aged museum guard, or Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), the visitor from Montreal whose only contact in Vienna is, sadly, the younger cousin who has slipped into a coma. They are two individuals who meet by chance and slowly learn more about each other, partly because of their not-so-random meeting inside Johann's place of work. The Kunsthistorisches Museum (which Johann, following local custom, calls "the old museum") is a quiet place where people come and go, experience masterpieces in a brief, touristic fashion, practice their sketching skills, or on occasion come to spend quality time really contemplating the works on display. Anne's initial visit has as much to do with coming in out of the bad weather and asking for directions as it does with wanting to experience the Kunsthistorisches's collection. But "the old place" (to borrow Godard and Mieville's phrase, describing another museum) becomes both a meeting place for Anne and Johann and a locus for thoughts about images and historical moments far removed from Anne's present predicament. As a result, really thinking about the art on display, as Cohen skillfully shows, becomes a unique dialectical experience: a practical exercise of aesthetic disinterestedness.
And, in a way, Museum Hours itself mimics this aesthetic mode, if you will, in its depiction of the friendship between Anne and Johann. On the one hand, Anne is a woman in need, and befriending Johann helps her find comfort within her urban isolation. Johann, for his part, is quite happy in his work, which is a mostly silent, people-watching pursuit (we learn that earlier in life, he was a student, a punk musician, as well as having undergone other, more overtly social phases). But he too clearly enjoys having someone with whom to share his knowledge of and love for Vienna as well as the paintings which have become his "co-workers." Now, in a conventional genre-bound scenario, all of this walking and talking would clearly be leading somewhere. That's to say, Anne and Johann would fall in love. The Kunsthistorisches Museum would be a pretext for a "meet-cute," and each and every conversation (not to mention the sick cousin) would be pressed into the service of a single trajectory. Cohen so thoroughly subverts this premise that, as one watches Museum Hours, it's unlikely that the possibility even occurs to any intelligent viewer. Granted, Johann makes a brief mention of a long-term partner who died, and his gender-nonspecificity would seem to imply that he was in a gay relationship. Even were this cue not dropped, Museum Hours is summarily focused on friendship as an end in itself, not as a "prelude" to anything that our culture (and our movie culture) conditions us to consider worthier.
In this respect, Cohen's depiction of the relationship between Anne and Johann avoids "instrumental reason" (a distinctly Viennese concept, I might add, courtesy of Horkheimer and Adorno). And it is no accident that this friendship flourishes within the museum space. Much of Museum Hours consists of Johann walking his beat through the halls, as we hear him in voiceover, telling us about various artworks that mean a lot to him (especially the works of Breugel the Elder - "I always find something new in them"), his impression of the patrons, and his friendships with other guards who have come and gone. In particular, he describes his conversations with an Art History grad student who saw the portraits and still lives in vulgar-John Berger terms, as documents of plunder and booty. Yes, Johann countered, but they are something else as well. If Museum Hours can be reduced to a thesis statement, which it most certainly cannot be, this would nonetheless be a decent candidate. (And Museum Hours' end credits, unsurprisingly, reveal that Berger's Ways of Seeing is a key influence on Cohen's thinking.) Just as Cohen's depiction of the central relationship in the film is one of friendship for its own sake, and fundamental human decency, Museum Hours, after Marxist Sociology of Art and Cultural Studies and other thoroughgoing critiques of the fine arts and their institutions as little more than Privilege writ large, asks us to reconsider the possibility of Western culture's potential for edification, spiritual uplift, and preservation of future possibility. Cohen, of course, has moved through those earlier critiques, and so like many of us, he proposes a New Humanism. The first precept, of course, is that this heritage must be equally accessible to all.
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada / France)
It only fails to make sense for a little while. Cronenberg's great subject as an artist is, of course, "The Body," both as a rank physical fact (a slab of flesh with some animating electrical spark inside, one that can withstand any number of mutilations but not without, shall we say, ramifications) and as philosophical problem (our phenomenological feelers, the probe we send tenderly out into the world to figure things out, to make contact). Even his recent forays into semi-mainstream filmmaking have placed corporeality front-and-center. Some detractors have found these flourishes to be somewhat rote and pro forma -- the close-up examination of what a shotgun actually does to a human cranium in A History of Violence, or the rather bracing, pendulous display of Viggo Mortensen's nakedness in Eastern Promises -- but to me they were clear reminders of the moral vision that Cronenberg brings to bear on what, in other hands, could merely be understood as problems of genre. So, taking all this into account, why should Cronenberg be attracted to Cosmopolis, the relatively bloodless (and fleshless) future-shock novel by Don DeLillo?
Because, I think, this rolling tapestry of economic catastrophe is the dialectical inversion of "body horror." Cosmopolis is less a story than a multi-leveled series of effects, all of which unfurl on the basis of one man's bad decision. Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is a billionaire whose work entails moving unfathomable sums of money around within the highest echelons of the private sector. His choices send shockwaves throughout the global economy. However, Pattinson and Cronenberg do not really make Packer's move (a hedge against the dollar outpacing the Chinese yuan, which doesn't pan out) any sort of moment of truth. Packer is a tactician; he is not one of the risk-taking cowboys we've grown accustomed to from profiles of Enron or Lehman. He is absolutely sanguine about his impending financial ruin, and seems to comprehend only in the abstract that his mistake will have implications beyond his own personal fortune. Cosmopolis plays this with a productive ambivalence. On the one hand, Packer's bloodless money-changing gamesmanship is clearly just the tipping point for a global economy already on the brink. We see angry mobs, anarchists, Occupiers, random members of the enraged lumpen, all rioting in the streets of Manhattan, and we can presume that they were already there prior to Packer's maneuver. But on the other hand, Pattinson and Cronenberg do play "Eric Packer" as an idea, a logical consequence of the extreme abstraction of money from human life. The fact that everything hinges on the yuan, of course, is in no way accidental. In classical capitalism, Marx explained that we were stranded in the realm of the commodity fetish -- a product as congealed labor, and therefore human relationships, that we are structurally coached not to perceive. If Cosmopolis is depicting "late capitalism" (which it presumably does, since the system is clearly on the verge of collapse by film's end), the movement of pure, valueless fiat money equals jobs vs. unemployment, housing vs. homelessness, food vs. starvation. But none of this can possibly register to an Eric Packer. It can barely register to the people in the streets.
Cronenberg returns to the inversion of body-relations through his very staging of Packer's journey in Cosmopolis, as it operates as a formal principle. It's taken from DeLillo, but Cronenberg's organization of it in time and space is pure cinema: Packer is slowly traveling through Manhattan, from the relatively fortified wealthy district to an unsecured crosstown area where he grew up, to get a haircut from his old barber (George Touliatos). Packer's limo is a fully wired mobile office and a rolling tank. He is inside a true bubble of wealth which allows him to witness the rapid deterioration of civilization without having to necessarily touch it. (He does leave the car now and then, in particular to have a stilted lunch with his new wife [Sarah Gadon].)
One final thought: in its organization, the Packer picaresque remains anti-psychological to the very end. What it is, instead, is a set of screens aimed squarely at the spectator, who I believe is intended to remain conscious of his or her reading (or scanning) strategies across the film's inscription of time and space. The limo is not just an extended body, or a nexus of power. It is a sort of main hub for Cosmopolis's imparted information (narrative, philosophical, economic), with all the ancillary characters and especially the activity outside the windows as a kind of contrapuntal refrain. Cronenberg stages this as a "news crawl" playing against Eric Packer's "talking head." Cosmopolis is a film that addresses us as non-psychological viewers, processing multiple streams of data. If the film is offputting to some, it may because it understands that we have already learned how to cordon off huge swaths of our world through abstraction, and it does not presume to teach us how to care.
[SPOILERS] Falling behind on my capsule reviews has proven a bit serendipitous in this case, because although I saw Red Hook Summer in September 2012, I'm writing about it in December. Another, very different movie, Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet, is currently in select theatres, and this has prompted some debate among my friends. Planet is a film which, to put it mildly, pivots on a single, brief event. Almost inversely proportional in its duration (a half-second) and its significance (nothing can be the same afterward), The Loneliest Planet has prompted some naysayers to argue that they liked the film very much "until something happens." This represents a perfect encapsulation of my feelings regarding Lee's #18 Joint. Red Hook Summer is ostensibly a city mouse / different city mouse story in which Atlanta kid Flik (Jules Brown) has to spend the summer with his preacher grandfather (Clarke Peters) in order to get his attitude in check. (Flik isn't just a surly kid, mind you. His dad was recently killed in action in Afghanistan, something he's still working through.) This scant narrative framework permits Lee to orchestrate some fundamental "real talk" moments between a young upper-middle-class "millennial" who regards his electronics and his data plan as a God-given right, and Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Peters) who, as the joke goes, was the school they tore down to build the Old School. Naturally, Flik thinks this is about the worst thing that's ever happened to him (any kid would agree), and as a sentient moviegoer knows, Da Bishop will teach him the meaning of community, commitment, and respect.
Well yeah, about that. Something gets twisted on the way to the Genre Fulfillment Center. And by twisted, I mean both tangled up and hella perverted. At the end of the second act, a young man materializes, someone who has made an anonymous donation to keep Enoch's Little Piece of Heaven church from closing. As it turns out, he was one of many boys Enoch molested before changing his identity and setting up his Red Hook congregation. (This was a really great film until something happened.) This left-field, eleventh-hour shift cannot help but recode everything that Lee and Red Hook Summer have established beforehand, which is a real shame. The relatively plotless film had, up to this point, been a kind of laid-back city symphony, teeming with the sort of offhand, lived-in textures and rhythms that only Spike Lee, working at the height of his abilities, can provide. Red Hook Summer has passages that recall the interstitial business in Crooklyn or DTRT, but in a much subtler way, as though the community itself -- its sense of solidarity, the central role of church culture, the gentle dispensing of opinions and advice -- were the actual fabric of the film, and any narrative throughline was merely a pretext. So what, is Lee so angry about the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church and at Penn State that he opted to combine the two into a strange composite? Is there an inquiry here regarding the particular impact of sex abuse on black masculinity? Sadly, none of this is clear. So although Peters' stellar performance is able to keep all four tires on the road, as it were, Lee's maneuver feels like hollow sensationalism. What's more, it scuttles what otherwise would've been one of his very best films. Once again, cinema exhibits its boundless potential to elucidate and astonish. Until something happens.
I will be the first to admit to being somewhat baffled upon first seeing Leventhal’s new work, given that it is so stylistically different than everything else of hers that I have seen. It is practically a documentary, in that the shots do not “collide,” but rather work in tandem to depict a single location and those who occupy it. The piece takes us into the lower-middle to lower-class digs of the Russo family, Jason, Jon and Teresa. A family friend, Jason Albrechtsen, is also present. What we see and hear of them is somewhat jarring. Their yard is filled with garbage, as though cleanup were still pending following some natural disaster. They are seriously into guns. One of the young men is wielding nunchucks, then swinging around on a chain hanging from the ceiling. Who are these people? In time, we discover that Teresa is a boxer, and one of her brothers is seen taking promotional photos of her as she strikes mid-punch poses. This, in essence, is the entirety of 17 New Dam Road. On its surface, the piece hardly feels like Leventhal’s work at all.
But as I looked closer, and perhaps more importantly as I considered the piece within the context of Leventhal’s body of work, I discovered some points of entry. For one thing, I was wrong, plain and simple, not to see this piece as characteristically Leventhal’s. While it is very different, it also represents a logical expansion of the tendency toward extended portraiture sequences and para-documentary engagement that is already germinating in both Hearts Are Trump Again and Tin Pressed. What’s more, based on the manner in which Leventhal has deployed documentary / interview modes in those works, it is beyond naïve for us to simply assume that our visit with the Russos is strictly on the level. Artifice is clearly a matter of degree, but as Teresa shows us at the end of 17 New Dam Road, there is performativity at work, a self-conscious presentation of the self. But even more broadly, if we think about all of Leventhal's videos a part of a grand ongoing project, then how does that shift our perception of 17 New Dam Road? Juxtaposed like a “shot” against the likes of Hearts and Tin Pressed, it is a somewhat lengthy, elaborated rupture, not unlike the café scene or the singer’s conclusion within those single texts. In this respect, Leventhal is creating patterns and rhythms in the composition of her works, between and among shots, and even on the macro-level, between and among individual works. And so, the sensibility that we must bring to any given Leventhal video – be prepared to negotiate difference within a unifying framework – is now the same one we require when squaring off against a new work in comparison to the ones that came before.