Archive for the Film Reviews Category

Film: Ken Russell: The Devils (1971)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on July 31, 2010 by baker

A few weeks ago I saw Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone and gave serious thought to writing it up, but I couldn’t find something to really grapple with in it.  It’s a perfectly respectable movie, clearly written and directed, if unevenly acted and photographed.  Around the same time I saw Nicholas Stoller’s Get Him to the Greek – in exactly the right frame of mind: a bit drunk, surrounded by friends – and felt pretty much the same.  I wasn’t really bored, but neither of these provided a lot of fodder for thought.  They’re both well-intended, breaking no new ground and offering little by way of a unique perspective on the universe.  It’s the case with most films.  Last night I saw a 35mm print of Ken Russell’s The Devils at the Walter Reade, and felt what I felt watching There Will Be Blood or Sátántangó: that I was in the presence of something really, really wonderful, overflowing with ambition, made with a fierce grasp of technique, designed and performed as if it were the first and last film on earth.  To see a film so ferociously executed, so bloated with its maker’s personality as to be seeping at its seams – where most filmmakers retreat, in fear of the sin of self-awareness – well, I mean…this is why I keep watching movies.  I want to see films made by people so sure of their purpose as storytellers and craftsmen that they make new rules for themselves, and for us as we watch.  I want to feel the precipitous vertigo – freed from genre conventions, with anchors aweigh and sails trimmed on a course straight out to sea – of calamitous failure averted.  And not by accident, but because the captain knows his ship and the channel as though they’re both equally a part of him.

Prior to this screening, the film has only been available on a muddy bootleg DVD that includes several scenes censored from the American release.  I’ve watched the film many times, and while it’s always been clear from the bootleg that The Devils is some kind of masterwork, the archival print borrowed from Harvard for the screening reveals its depth of detail and shocking graphic beauty.  Aside from its content, discussion of The Devils tends to go first to Derek Jarman’s set design – and it is awesome.  He’s built an entire walled city of white tiles and black columns; structures, especially interiors, are formally nebulous, but imbue the place with a sort of sterile austerity.  The nunnery always reminds me of a bathhouse – I feel submerged in the blues and whites, among the flowing robes; or perhaps a sewer, trapped behind the bars that open into the grimy street. But for me the film’s crowning achievement lies somewhere amid Russell’s obsessive chaos and David Watkin’s photography of it.  The Devils contains cinematography as texturally cohesive and head-spinningly expressive as anything Bertolucci or Ophuls ever did, not just on the level of exposure and imagery and so forth, but also in its intimation of something like inertia or velocity, of self-perpetuating motion within the film.  There’s a subcategory of kinetics called kinematics, having to do with the motion of objects without consideration of the causes leading to the motion, which seems as close to the sense of intuitive cinematic movement as anything I’ve come across.  A camera need not follow action to justify movement; it has the capacity to whisper in your ear with a swoop or a nod of its own volition, a ruleless extension of the filmmaker’s intuitions.  Like the best of them, Russell has a way of wielding Watkin’s camera as if it were slung straight out from his subconscious, a jib swinging with private precision to snag up visual grace notes we’ll have to feel our way through.  Some find this sort of thing indulgent.  I find it to be the surest sign of a human being at work behind the clothesline for thought and feeling that is, and will always be, a cinematic story.

All the better for The Devils, which is preposterous as a narrative film and full of the sort of historical and philosophical banter that would otherwise sink it in abject silliness.  Oliver Reed is as hammy an actor as Joaquin Phoenix, quickly outgrowing the drama of his characters with flourishes more befitting comedy, but Russell puts him in a film broad enough to contain him, and offsets him with spookily direct and giddy performances by Vanessa Redgrave and Michael Gothard.  The whole thing reeks of Grand Guignol excess, as startling in its carefully sustained chaos as in its carefree combination of naturalism and flamboyance – anything can happen in The Devils, from stuffed crocodiles and 1960s spectacles in a 17th-century French city to nuns masturbating on a crucifix or a piece of charred bone (both deleted from the print shown at Lincoln Center).  I suspect Russell has serious intentions buried deep, deep down inside the making of this film, but he’s happy to swing the rope as far around his head as he can, and let fly with abandon.  The end result is an absolutely mesmerizing cacophony of sound and motion in service of a Salem-like witch hunt.  If The Devils begins in formal precision and a disconcerting moral ambiguity, by its end it has essentially reversed those qualities, rooting its morality firmly within Reed’s priest while the physical world around him dissolves into formal anarchy.  To see and feel this transition over the course of the film is to experience a controlled rattling of the senses and jangling of the nerves for which, in my opinion, Russell and his collaborators deserve enormous credit.  Films like this deserve attention, in their ostentatious obstinance, just for having come to be.

Filmmakers like Russell can be hard to assess.  One the one hand, he worked with apparent freedom all through the ’70s on films with major distribution – by the time he made The Devils (released in 1971) he’d already scored an Oscar nomination for directing Women in Love in 1969.  From the pathetically few films of his I’ve been able to see (Song of Summer: Frederick Delius (1968), a 73-minute episode of the “Omnibus” series; Mahler (1974), Tommy (1975), Altered States (1980), and Whore (1991)), what’s clear is that he doesn’t quite seem to have a fixed style (not a terrible thing for a director who wants to keep working), and the craftsmanship he does bring each time is easily swayed by the peculiarities of each film.  So on the other hand, Altered States is a gloriously beautiful thing to watch, even as you’re shaking your head in dismay at how sentimentally hollow it becomes in its second half.  Song of Summer and Mahler display much of the formality he mastered in The Devils, but Mahler in particular is painful to watch, so stilted in its performances and precious in its self-regard.  He’s at his best when he’s building a rhythm – there’s certainly nothing unimaginative or visually dull about the Pinball Wizard in Tommy, or any sequence you can think of in The Devils – but then there’s always the nagging question of taste: sometimes he just doesn’t display a whole lot (he does his films no favors by casting blank and uncharismatic rock stars like Roger Daltrey…the point of Tommy is mysterious).  A real emptiness tends to creep up around the edges of his energetic showmanship, suggesting it’s all at the service of remarkably little.  The Devils is his loopy exception.  It’s not much of an intellectual exercise, but the frenzy common to his other work feels an intrinsic part of the story here rather than the arbitrary frosting it sometimes is.

The great thing about seeing it, then, at Walter Reade – aside from a reliably good projection – is that you’re surrounded by an appreciative audience, one that will pay attention, and know better for the most part than to yak during the movie.  It’s also a venue that respects the filmmaker; Ken Russell and Vanessa Redgrave were in attendance for a Q&A and general worship.  This was the second time I’ve been in a screening of a Russell film with him there – the first was at Telluride in 2001, which screened Song of Summer along with fragments of his other films – including The Devils, where I made a mental note to catch the whole film one day.  I didn’t recognize him at the time, so when he was introduced a few seats away from me, I hardly expected the rotund old man with the feathery voice.  He’s noticeably older now, and frailer, and has endearingly run out of things to say about his own films.  Which leads me to the downside of a Lincoln Center screening.  The audiences tend to think of themselves as cinephiles, and in the presence of an idol want to impress him with lofty praise and worldly insight into his work.  The sort of comments that first arose after the screening (following Russell’s agonizingly slow shuffle to the stage) had to do with questions of evil and finding hope in the world – something I don’t feel The Devils, tonally, endorses at all.  Nor do I think Russell really thinks so either.  He graciously replied vaguely to this line of thought, then left it to Redgrave to pontificate.

At risk of sounding cagey or curmudgeonly, the tone of this Q&A was all wrong.  I felt like I’d just watched a completely different film than these folks.  Russell had made such a fiercely idiosyncratic picture, one that wasn’t quite reducible to such moralistic inanity.  I suppose there will always be this debate about whether a film ought to be about its story above all, or whether it ought first and foremost to be about its maker’s personal expression, but I began to feel like this audience wanted an experience closer to Winter’s Bone or even Get Him to the Greek: one where we’re all meant to feel included in the experience, as a collective approaching from the same frame of mind, with the same expectations.  One in which a feeling of bewilderment demands mollification.  A Q&A immediately after a film is a tough prospect, because you haven’t had time to process your own response to what you’ve just seen.  It seems to me they should be about hearing a filmmaker’s thoughts, and then asking him how it was to direct a notoriously temperamental guy like Oliver Reed (the one good question, and a fantastic answer from Russell: “Moody 1, Moody 2, or Moody 3.  We usually did Moody 2”).  I badly wish we could all have sat quietly, audience and filmmaker, and regarded each other in silence for a few minutes with our own thoughts.  In my imagination, Russell would have dug that.

Film: Giorgos Lanthimos: Dogtooth (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on July 29, 2010 by baker

I might be wrong, but with the exception of a brazen handheld shot toward the end, I only recall one camera move in all of Dogtooth – somewhere in the last third, a dolly across the surface of a pool from one character to two others, discussing the various kinds of sharks one could expect to encounter [out in the world].  And it’d be awfully hard, if that were the case, not to reference Tokyo Story, Ozu’s meticulously crafted meditation on the generational rifts between elderly parents and their grown children.  Assuming I’ve made a mistake and there are others, Giorgos Lanthimos still seems to be riffing on a familiar formal style, one in which the camera is not merely a passive observer, but is not even afforded the right to look where it (we) wants.  Lanthimos’ frames are all somehow off, looking beyond or underneath or askew at the action proper.  Eventually even the formal frames feel wrong – as the one in which the two sisters dance like marionettes to their brother’s guitar – because they’re breaking the film’s formal rigor.  Normal shots start to feel very weird and discomforting in this quiet, creepy little film about a profoundly dysfunctional Greek family cocooned since the children were born, presumably, in a gated house that doesn’t seem to have changed since the ’70s.

Lanthimos provides no further background except to imply that the father, who works in a curiously dental-shaped warehouse, makes excuses to his coworkers for his family’s social absence.  There is also an episode late in the film involving Rocky on videotape that hints at a more distinct social criticism, although it seems a facile explanation for just how subtly totalitarian the parents have chosen to raise their three children, now in their teens or twenties.  They know nothing of the world beyond the fence – planes passing overhead are regarded as toys that may fall into the backyard, cats are the most vicious creatures on earth, and a Frank Sinatra record is the voice of their grandfather, singing, as the father translates, a paean to strong family unity (“Fly Me to the Moon”).  There is no connection between sex and violence, although sex, as a family institution, is a privilege of the men, with whichever woman he chooses, and violence – against the flesh, against the mind – is essentially necessary and tolerated.

The only way out of this Orwellian, anti-Ozu, THX-1138 dreamscape of a nightmare is in the teeth: a child can leave the nest when his or her dog’s teeth fall out.  Those canines, the ones that help you rip meat and defend yourself – as soon as you lose them, you can leave the protection of the home.  There might be a deeper complexity lurking in Lanthimos’ film, but primarily he plays it all for comedy: dark, quiet, funky comedy, the kind that crawls up on you while you’re trying to figure out how the film works.  He neither explains anything nor lets the characters – particularly the children – behave like self-conscious individuals, at least not right away.  How they got to be near-adults without rejecting this sort of control by default, as maturing teenagers, is not important.  And to an extent, I applaud that.  Lanthimos posits a situation and runs with it.  But I also think he’s got a frailer touch, at least as a storyteller, than this film deserves; Roy Andersson built You, the Living (2007) of essentially the same self-contained lunacy, but let it focus in purpose as he went along into a beautifully funny discussion of loneliness – the funnier it got, the greater sadness it registered.

Not that predictability is in any particular way a measure of film’s worth, but I had the closing scenes of Dogtooth pretty well presumed after a while, and I’m not sure Lanthimos wanted that, or cared very much.  At a certain point movies like these start running on autopilot as narrative devices, committed to wrapping out a story for us without breaking its own rules.  Give Lanthimos credit for leaving us on a shot that answers nothing but implies several possible outcomes, each of which work for the film – although none lend it greater depth as a focused work of intellect or art.  Actually, the film’s best scene comes a bit earlier, in an exchange between the parents spoken with the children just outside the room, with exaggerated mouthing but without voices, so as not to be heard.  For a moment there is a sense that one of the parents recognizes this hellish environment for what it is, but the other kills any hope for escape with a decision of monstrous dimensions.

The short scene is very dark, and very funny, and lends a comic bent to what comes next, but stuff like this needs either greater consequences or none at all to fully flower, and I think Lanthimos takes the middle road.  Which is sort of where his film has been going all along.  If he’s really riffing off Tokyo Story, he’s kind of done everything right: the formal framing, the vignettish narration, the completely consistent performances, the reversed family dynamics.  Lanthimos, I believe, knows what movie he’s trying to make.  The French have done well to award it at Cannes with the prize for Un certain regard – with what regard, I’m not certain, but un for sure.

Plastic Day 4

Posted in Film Reviews on July 28, 2010 by baker

July 26, 2010.  Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Film: Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger: Restrepo (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , , on July 6, 2010 by baker

If we ever expect to “win” the “war in Afghanistan”, men like CPT Dan Kearney need to be swiftly relieved of duty.  As shown in Restrepo, leading meetings with local village elders in the Korengal Valley, Kearney displays nothing but the broadly stereotypical American military tone of command, condescending to a roomful of rural Afghans twice his age with comments like “Remember when I told you guys…?” as though they’re children in need of firmness.  Afghans are in need of firmness – they just don’t need it from an occupying army who show little (or, in Kearney’s case, no) respect for their customs.  If you emasculate these guys, deserved or otherwise, you will make enemies of them.  It’s stunning to me that the United States military sends men like him to regions like that, and fails to remind him what backwoods rednecks surely all know: you cain’t come in here and tell me what to do in mah own bayckyard.  No, instead they indoctrinate him with the greatest willpower in the western hemisphere: good old American self-righteousness.

That the filmmakers do not interfere, and never in the film question Kearney’s tactics – even while plainly living with the platoon in the same outpost, named for a medic killed in Korengal in the summer of 2007 – raises a quite different debate: are films like this really helping anything?  It should be said at once that Restrepo is an engrossing film, so close to the action that there’s no attempt to clean the often dirty lens; when the sound cuts out, a scene continues in silence with the occasional RF hit, as though we’re watching the raw footage along with the filmmakers, stunned to be in one piece and eager to see what they got.  In the heat of battle, the camera huddles under trees watching soldiers rush past, looking this way and that before hauling ass directly behind them, low in the weeds.  Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger – both veteran war correspondents – place themselves firmly inside the platoon, just as surely forming a bond with its 20-somethings warriors as refusing to draw conclusions about what they see.

For a documentary, it’s an admirable strategy, but… When I was there in the spring of 2009 – with Iranian photographer Reza Deghati, who accompanied Junger in 2000 in their National Geographic project with the late Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud – extraordinary attention went into social graces.  There’s a tenderness to it, a calm series of exchanges showing respect and friendship.  Basic courtesy aside, it’s how you got around – and it’s how you showed deference to the Afghani tradition of greeting guests without reservation.  And even then, we sometimes ran into trouble.  We once spent a night in the home of Massoud’s father-in-law.  Our fixers had failed to call ahead, and we showed up unannounced, an embarrassment to Reza and a bad way to begin our time in the Panjshir Valley.  But Reza was a friend; we were shown to the guest room – a big space, empty except for the ubiquitous large, flat cushions found in every such room – and given a dinner of stale bread and fried eggs.  All forgiven; we spent the evening in the presence of a man of humbling grace, wit, and temperance, listening to stories between the two men (with only the occasional translation).  The next morning, over a breakfast of watermelon, an Afghani-American woman showed up, leading a pair of Americans learning the local traditions for the training of contractors.  She marched into the room without removing her boots – the most basic of hospitalities – bade speedy introductions and hurried out again, leaving her bewildered-looking American clients sitting awkwardly in the corner of the room.  We left soon thereafter.

It left a bad taste, and things were awkward – but at least we weren’t carrying machine guns and dropping bombs that killed local children.  Junger, at least, must understand how this works, as he must know that the Afghans’ traditions, like our own, mask deep distrust of outsiders and a degree of fluid loyalties.  My guess is that behind his camera sat a set of gritted teeth.  No, he cannot interfere.  It would be impractical in the moment, disrespectful of his military hosts, and a useless subversion of its authority if Junger’s objective is to make a dispassionate film.  Yet he was there, and we see nothing in Restrepo of an attempt to correct the cringe-inducing boorish behavior directly contributing, I am quite certain, to our inability to weed out our mortal enemies, in a nation built of rock and regional alliances predicated less on ideology than on temporal power shifts.  I find this hard to reconcile.

Which is where Restrepo operates, on a broader level: none of this really makes sense.  When three tribal elders show up at Outpost Restrepo demanding payment for a cow killed by the soldiers when it strayed – according to the soldiers – into their wire, it’s clear that the dead livestock carries economic and opportunistic significance for the locals, who inform the military that killing the animal was illegal and claim they’re owed $500.  The CO offers them the cow’s weight in rice, beans, and sugar instead; Junger and Hetherington show the elders leaving, the matter unresolved.  In separate sequences, American soldiers are shown reveling in violent video games, then in their vertiginous high following a firefight that leaves them giggling like drunk teenagers, then in the confirmed obliteration of a combatant with a high-caliber weapon that tears the man apart.  And then, in a sequence that blows past sobering into some kind of delirium, an American is killed during an ambush, and things become dead-quiet serious for all but one of them, who dissolves in waves of helpless weeping.  The ambush hasn’t even ended.  The soldiers themselves, in interviews shot in Italy after their deployment in Korengal, have little to say about what they accomplished there; mostly, they’re happy to be gone and confused about how to handle what they saw and felt.  There’s mention of the “extra thousand dollars” they would have stood to make if their deployment had lasted until September instead of August 2008; our guards and fixers in Afghanistan greeted their brothers and friends in Panjshir and told stories about hiding in caves for weeks at a time, shooting down Russian helicopters whose remains still litter the valley floor like outsized fossilized insects.  Tank treads have become speed bumps in the road; artillery shells line the tops of walls in which bricks have been replaced with used ammunition canisters.

Hetherington and Junger know there’s so little to conclude in Restrepo beyond futility.  Mercifully, they make no effort to heroize or eulogize – they just watch.  And they listen: the film contains a marvelous soundtrack, constructed mostly of idle bullshitting among the troops, the clicks and thunks of their weaponry, the crunch of their boots in gravel (and little ethnic music to appeal to a foreigner’s sense of exoticism).  Faceless voices over the radio direct aerial attacks on tree-covered spurs across the valley; explosions appear well before the distant boom that’s killed the screams of the men hiding there – or not.  All we know of the local perspective is what comes in pieces via the shuras with the elders, so the only suggestion of meaning to the whole goddamned endeavor is what the filmmakers show the Americans creating.  They name their outpost after one of their own KIAs.  Their Dan Kearneys evoke duty, and give the men momentary permission to “go ahead and mourn” so they can get back to work (his response to a meeting with villagers in which he’s shown the bodies of five local farmers killed by American bombings: “Dammit, dammit, dammit!”).  None of the soldiers, Kearney included, come across as bad men; they’re good old boys and die-hard patriots, doing their part to make God and mama proud.  Belief in their mission – to provide security for relief flowing into the valley – seems cursory.  In the American military – in any non-conscript army – you do as you’re told first, and think about it when you’re home.

So in an odd way – and this is the sort of documentary I would like to have made myself, so clear in its design and so lacking in sentimentality – I’m not sure what the purpose of Restrepo really is.  Those who feel we need to be in Afghanistan will nod and think how brave these boys are, sacrificing their freedom to preserve it for others.  Those who feel we don’t will shake their heads in disdain, wondering how on earth we got to be sending our boys to spurs of land in remote Afghan valleys to achieve almost nothing.  Anyone whose mind hasn’t leaned one way or another on the Afghanistan war – and I believe there are plenty in this land of ours, the ones who don’t feel the cost and don’t really care about the outcome – may find this a strange film, so full of sound and fury, etc.  If you can take a war film to mean whatever you already believe, does it help or hinder a filmmaker’s cause?  And if his cause is pure apolitical objectivity – however beautifully achieved – what the hell is his point?  The situation is so fragile these days that its commanding officer – who by all accounts maintained the best relationships with the local leadership, including Karzai, of anyone in the U.S. military – can be replaced for speaking his mind in Rolling Stone, hardly a bastion of potent political exchange.  I deeply admire this film as a film, but we need bolder debates at this point.

Film: Michael Haneke: The White Ribbon (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on July 2, 2010 by baker

In lieu of explicit storytelling, Michael Haneke blows smoke in front of your eyes, and then sculpts the air in such a way as to cut shapes out of the smoke.  His images are not in and of themselves the point.  They carry the ability to wield tremendous visceral weight, but they do it after the fact, in relation to each other, upon reflection.  I don’t know how he does this.  It’s the absolute essence of using the medium, as opposed to fashioning a story with its lumbering, tangible parts, and what you see is only a tiny fraction of what you eventually get.  Very often I feel lost in a Haneke film right up until the end, when the smoke takes shape and his intentions become boldly, shockingly visible.  If there was ever a filmmaker so deserving of a substance-versus-style analysis, it is Haneke – more than David Lynch, more than Wes Anderson, more than Almodóvar; Haneke is on their par as a consummate craftsman, but there is nothing showy about his filmmaking.  His is rigorously, illusorily simple, and requires that you look all the way through it.

It’s a style that will frustrate literal-minded viewers, in particular because it’s so concrete in form, seeming to indicate that he will eventually show you what he’s talking about.  His frames are studies in clean formal precision, his subjects almost always in the center, the camera never allowed a mind of its own.  His shots appear to make so much classical sense that it becomes disconcerting when – as is so frequently the case in The White Ribbon – scenes cut without an obvious conclusion.  In one extended shot, Haneke watches a puritanical pastor’s wife prepare the titular items to tie to their two eldest children’s arms, and then hustle them into the pastor’s study for a cane beating – and then, in the same shot, one of the children leaving the room and entering another to fetch the cane.  Such extended observance implies a bigger conclusion to the sequence, but Haneke cuts out quickly as the beatings begin offscreen.  There is a ritual at work here, both onscreen and through Haneke’s camera: an inevitability of behavior leading to a cold certainty about the outcome.

A calculated, cerebral directness has always played a heavy role in Haneke’s work – from the Grand Guignol horror shows that are Funny Games (1997, and its pointless, shot-for-shot 2007 remake) and Caché (2005) to the explosive psychological maneuverings of Benny’s Video (1992) and The Piano Teacher (2001) – but he has never carried out the natural logic of his own oblique style to the extent that he does in The White Ribbon.  As always, his storytelling is circuitous almost to a fault: after the opening shot, in which a tripwire sends a galloping horse and its rider crashing to the ground with sickening speed, he engages with an evasive, elliptical structure, lopping off the heads and tails of scenes and circumventing narrative logic with apparent oblivion.  For a while, he seems to be making a bad film, deliberately avoiding the slightest suggestion of the most basic dramatic resolution in order to irritate or inflame.  Worse, the damage begins to mount, in beaten children and death by murder or suicide (it’s never clear which), but it all happens between scenes, to be discovered or discussed later.

I have to admit that, although conscious that I was in the presence of some kind of artwork, I didn’t find my footing in The White Ribbon until I’d seen it three times.  Haneke’s formalism has a way of throwing you off – nobody makes films quite so intellectually stringent, and yet so loaded with mortal tension – but there is always a character-based behavioral logic adhered to with a conviction most filmmakers barely consider valuable; life is too full of whim.  Part of his logic this time around is to include the scenes his colder films have always left out: the warm and comic human moments between innocents, narrative threads that contradict Haneke’s standard-issue trajectory.  I expected there to be a darkness buried within, and there is, but not as a result of these scenes so much as in opposition to them – humanity can still be quite lovely.  Somewhere during my third viewing the whole thing came swooping together for me in a sudden rush of recognition, and I began to love this film all over again, and more deeply.

With unnerving depth and focus, The White Ribbon is about children’s absorption of their parents’ ideals, in one of the worst cases known yet to man.  Narrated by the voice of an elderly man who appears as a 31-year-old schoolteacher in the film’s pre-World War I Northern German village, the story watches the town’s leadership structure – its doctor, its priest, its baron and his steward – lash out in a series of self-succoring punishments in response to a slew of perverse crime.  There are injuries and deaths; the children all seem involved, but they could just be curious observers.  Deep uncertainty settles over the village, but quietly.  One doesn’t disrupt the natural order of this community by pointing out its rampaging disharmony.  One barely acknowledges disharmony at all, not when a vicious slap, a casual beat-down, or a cursory embarrassment will do.  The film comes in waves of social degeneration, to the point where crime and punishment become indistinguishable, the decent locked out of rational discussion with the powerful by self-erected walls of self-protective self-flagellation.

With Cache and this film, Haneke has probably become the world’s greatest horror filmmaker of existential dimensions.  Bad shit happens to complicated people, with no prayer for resolution or catharsis.  David Edelstein complained in New York Magazine that, on that front, Haneke “doesn’t deign to deliver the genre goods”, leaving audiences behind in their expectations and “yet still giv[ing] the bourgeois audience the finger”, which sounds more like the whining of a jilted child than a mature film critic.  Frustratingly, this stingy need of people to cling to generic satisfaction is far more disturbing than anything Michael Haneke put on film, as it speaks of a fierce disjoint in these folks’ minds between film and any unique perspective on life – nothing shown on the screen need reflect the mysteries and vagaries of real experience if it hampers that Aristotelian dramatic arc.  Real horror in film comes in the shock of sudden recognition that the world is not what we make of it, that it contains almost unfathomable darkness, and that the evil festering therein will in all likelihood carry itself through to the very, very end.

We need not see any of this evil – and Haneke shows virtually none – as long as there can be no doubt of any kind that it exists and will self-perpetuate.  A measure of Haneke’s thorough precision, the last shot of The White Ribbon begins with resplendent banality and gradually takes on, in details that upend what we believe is going on, absolutely monstrous implications – not only for the immediate future, but for the next generation.  Haneke has always included at least one moment in his films of pure white shock – a shriek of immutable, head-spinning violence.  He saves that moment in The White Ribbon until after the last shot has faded, ever so slowly, to black.  There is no question where this is going, and it is horrifying.


Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2010 by baker

Dad explained in his curt way that he didn’t like going swimming very much.  If he came along at all, he’d sit in a chair under the trees on the shore.  My brother would swim laps up and down the buoys, but the twelve or fifteen feet of comparatively murky water out there encroached a little too far into Jaws territory for me; I hung out in belly depth.  Now I feel roughly the same way about going to the movies as my dad does about swimming, and probably for similar reasons.  It’s crowded.  I don’t like to get wet for its own sake, and the sense of exposure is…I don’t know, it’s awkward (although I’d rather be submerged far beyond the buoys, as it were).  The impetus to feel at movies isn’t always what I’m looking for, at least not in the collective sense, the communal sense – and tapping so much treacle from clunky Hollywood machinery is generally beneath us all.  Like it or not, we tend to taste a lot more, and with greater complexity, than most films acknowledge.  To shift metaphors, it’s disheartening at best to find oneself scarfing Jim Beam instead of sipping Laphraoig; the top shelf is often a little light at the art houses, let alone the cineplex.

There’s the noise, too: the talking, the cell phones, the popcorn, the wrappers, the cups and bottles, the creaking seats.  We don’t live in a world where images are watched instead of merely seen, and sound is listened to instead of heard, but at least we can close our eyes.  The ear was clearly designed for pure self-preservation in a time of imminent bear attack, not for discerning savory soundscapes under the crippling thunder of ignorant human cacophony.  The ideal film screening is still, and always, in a darkened theater, but with a crowd of co-conspirators who want to partake of a good film.

As the summer stifle squats down upon New York City, the good theaters grow particularly flaky (or resort to retrospectives and niche festivals – not always a bad thing), and I’m finding myself hunkering down at home.  It’s quiet here.  This Blu-ray contraption is the greatest invention since the film strip (though still second to it), and the sheer number and quality of recent transfers makes a trip to the UA Court Street Stadium 12 to see Iron Man 2 sound like a trek through Death Valley in search of snowflakes.  So barring that: a few of the wonderful films I’ve discovered – or rediscovered – on Blu-ray.

1. Lola Montès (1955). Years ago I picked up a bootleg DVD of Max Ophüls symphony of color and motion, and found it ugly and tedious beyond measure; I never got through the first twenty minutes.  But Criterion has cleaned it up and slapped it on Blu-ray, and it’s become a real film again for those of us who dig a fine dolly and kinky performances of variable fluidity.  The whole thing is a catalogue of cinematic control, in everything from its gloriously choreographed circus tent sequences to the little flourishes between the actors in period costume (visible, finally, on HD) – all designed for camera, for film, not the other way around.  Films like these completely transcend story very quickly, and become experiences for the eyes (if less for the ears), and consequently for the mind, in Ophüls’ hands.  Look, maybe it’s splitting too fine a hair to separate this visual extravaganza from that one, but there are Michael Bay films and there are Max Ophüls films – only one of them requires you to be there.

2. A pair of Ang Lee joints: Ride with the Devil and Hulk.  I wasn’t Brokeback Mountain‘s biggest fan, but it’s clear Lee has a rigorous sense of pace and structure, and a shooting style to match.  He goes too far sometimes; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon makes your head spin in its action sequences, but then demands that you give a damn about the mystical horseshit in between.  These two earlier films, however, released in 1999 and 2003 respectively, reveal his precision at their dramatic and intellectual finest.

Criterion got their hands on Lee’s director’s cut of Ride with the Devil, and it’s sort of wonderful in its stylistic simplicity – a classical sculpture in Lee’s quirky, unpredictable mold.  The story doesn’t go where you’d expect, and on a first viewing, it can be disappointing in places.  But it’s filled with magnificent, unexpected performances from Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Jim Caviezel, Skeet Ulrich, Simon Baker, and Jeffrey Wright (Jewel and Tobey Maguire don’t hurt anything), and there’s a jarring quality to the storytelling that abolishes our expectations: anything could happen, to anybody, for anyone’s reasons.  Lee’s at his best in his setpieces, his scenes crammed with immersive young talent, each actor on his own trajectory, the frame filled with vigor, the dialogue spat off the tongue in dialects grounded in physical habit.  Seen twice, Ride with the Devil seems to sprout directly from the wayward behavior of a handful of characters – it contains virtually no other arc.  A lovely film.

Hulk, made between Crouching Tiger and Brokeback, seemed hampered at its release for not being enough of an action film – I see the argument, but it’s foolish.  Lee takes incredible pains to characterize the Hulk from a human perspective – the film is more about children damaged by their parents than about an action figure – and when the Hulk appears, two things happen: the comic book fantasy springs campily to life, and, in Hulk’s unquenchable fury, the film suddenly takes on enormous pathos.  Wrath has never been so formally brought to term in a film; the kitschy fun in the few, relatively brief action sequences coexists, deliriously, with the high-pitched tenor of pure animal rage.  Watching Hulk tear a tank to pieces runs a far second to understanding and feeling why he does it.

3. Close-Up (1990). I understand Abbas Kiarostami considers it a compliment if you fall asleep in some of his recent films, like The Wind Will Carry Us.  I’m not completely sure why.  The film, built essentially of repetitive long shots following a car across sun-blasted evening landscapes, rides that precarious line in cinema between mesmerizing and narcoleptic with, it turns out, the filmmaker’s blessing.  I found it monumentally dull, but I found his prior film, Taste of Cherry, seductive in its sameness.  His frames don’t vary much.  His soundscape is natural.  He gets low-key, unmannered performances out of his actors (and non-actors).  It should all be tedious beyond measure, but Kiarostami has a masterful sense of rhythm, and he never breaks it – if you can fall into his films, you can fall into a trance.

I think it’s because he’s an incurably patient watcher of human behavior.  He’s made entire films with digital cameras hung inside cars, watching the occupants (Ten, Cherry) as they troll through ochre urban, suburban, and rural landscapes.  Close-Up opens in a car, winds up in a courtroom, forever wielding endless sequences of faces – watching, listening, thinking, feeling, accepting, rejecting, rebelling, grappling, laughing, realizing….It may be something of a cliché by now that the film also deals with the process of making a film (it blends documentary, uhm, casting, with fictionalized recreations), but it’s rarely done this articulately.  Close-Up is maybe less about seeing than about the thought that goes on during seeing, from the responses of characters (all played by their real-life selves) to what they’re seeing around them, to the sense of a camera operator following what he sees through his viewfinder.

4. Bigger Than Life (1956). A recent article in the Village Voice interviewed the makers of a handful of up-and-coming low-budget features, most of them in their twenties, who at one point descended into softcore mockery of Nicholas Ray’s film, mostly for James Mason’s acting.  These filmmakers had a lot to say about “realism”; I haven’t seen their films, but they had nothing to say in the article about context – I wonder whether they’d appreciate any performance pre-mumblecore.  I’ve often had trouble watching older films, sometimes finding performances stilted, and camerawork stolid, for my taste, but as I’ve crawled into my 30s, watching films as, let’s say, time capsules has started to make a lot more sense (a la Close-Up).  Every film works that way anyway, as a fossil of a filmmaker’s immediate sensibilities in the process of making his film.  Any other argument seems to suggests that films exist without their creators.

It’s not a screaming work of art, but Bigger Than Life reflects a social environment that’s hard for those of us who never lived there to imagine (although Mad Men has given us a good primer).  There’s something about these films, these Advise and Consents, these Lost Weekends, that’s doubly unsettling under modern scrutiny.  They stand so outside the topical norm in their treatment of homosexuality, drug and alcohol addiction, that in retrospect we wonder what the hell everyone was so worried about – why was this stuff taboo to begin with?  The truth is that Bigger Than Life would look awfully timid if it had been made ten years ago, loaded with obvious symbolism and a relatively static visual approach – but then, it was not, any more than “Beowulf” was written during the Civil War.  That counts, that’s all.

5. Happy Together (1997).  Between them, Wong Kar-Wai and his cinematographer Chris Doyle have perfected the slapdash-jumpcutty style of filmmaking, sculpting films out of fragments of images and vaguely incomplete shots that perfectly complement each other in sequence.  Most filmmakers don this approach in lieu of naturalism, hoping an imprecise camera will lend a sense of spontaneity, but Kar-Wai breathes through his camera.  Like all great filmmakers, there is the feeling that he sees the world in no other way than the way he shoots.

There’s also the sense that his stories are as cobbled as his visual style; they don’t really matter anyway.  In the Mood for Love is not just a great film, it’s a great title for a film – nothing else can capture mood in quite the same way, in honed snatches of looks and gestures, in tones of voice, in music.  Happy Together is sort of a lovely comma in Kar-Wai’s career, bridging the handheld flash of Fallen Angels and Chungking Express and his latter-day composure in Mood for Love and 2046.  Socially bold in its vigorous treatment of a gay Chinese couple in the dregs of their relationship in Buenos Aires, Kar-Wai eventually zeros in on the same constrained emotional turmoil that absolutely ruins you in the following two films.  He seems constantly to be making a film as a dry run for the next one.  Or just repeating himself.  As artists tend to do.

Film: Jason Spingarn-Koff: Life 2.0 (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on May 12, 2010 by baker

Ideally, this sort of write-up can serve as publicity for a film like Life 2.0, which screened at Tribeca this spring and again last night at IFC, with director Jason Spingarn-Koff in attendance.  A three-year endeavor, the film radiates a calm certainty about its own agenda: a study of people engaging in Second Life, a do-it-yourself cyberworld, as a way of avoiding – or discovering – their own identities.  In the process of making the film, Spingarn-Koff has swallowed and digested this theme whole, and emerged with a first feature of disconcerting presence and grace.  At the very least, he deserves here a few words of unmitigated esteem, but ultimately he has made an exceptional documentary of extraordinary access, patience, and depth.

As a conceptual exploration – of the avatar and its potential purposes – James Cameron could take from Life 2.0 a lesson in empathetic stewardship.  Spingarn-Koff is a vastly superior thinker, and digs far enough into the idea of creating and using an avatar to bring it back full circle to the humanity that initially employed it.  Avatars are a masked projection of one’s self, sure, but they are also a method of grasping for what makes one terribly, complicatedly human: our wants, our needs, the calculus of self-examination that bears no binary notation and makes us uniquely, frustratingly unquantifiable.  There it is, a face: it says all we care to say about ourselves, and in this sexy age of virtually limitless interconnected ephemera, Spingarn-Koff implies, it can lift you up and carry you afloat so far beyond your 1.0 existence that it can’t help, from drag or push, but crack open rifts – some welcome, some profoundly not – in your real world.  Luck or divine intervention supplied Spingarn-Koff with a handful of Second Lifers of startling dimensions.  A screenwriter couldn’t craft better material, all the more so for its economy and restraint.

There is the couple who begins an affair in Second Life, carries it into the real world, leaves their respective families, and in short order discovers a few of the many distinctions between these worlds.  There’s the fashion designer who opens her own boutique in Second Life and makes a flabbergasting living at it – all out of her parents’ basement, wearing pajamas, at night.  And there is the 20-something fiancé whose 11-year-old female avatar dances her way into the lives of other men doing the same, as well as into a facet of his past that might otherwise, he thinks, have remained buried in his subconscious.  The arcs of these threads are defiantly dramatic; there’s the suspicion, moving along, that perhaps Spingarn-Koff has fabricated at least parts of them.  He seems to have too much access to these people, capturing too much blunt behavior too well to be real.  But this is the kind of documentary that feels impervious to that sort of criticism; even if he’d hired skilled actors to invent roles for his film, he’s still woven the parts into a complete tapestry, of astonishing moral complexity.  Life 2.0 is far less about its specific subjects than its musings on the ways in which they’ve orchestrated change in their lives, without passing judgment on the method or the outcome.

Indeed, much of the film’s footage is taken directly from Second Life, in sequences following the avatars through their homespun idylls (Spingarn-Koff’s own filmmaker avatar sits idly by, observing without comment).  The lovers meditate on lily pads, then transition, on their own time, into lovemaking on a canopy bed.  Their voices are their own, spoken on headsets in real time, as their 2.0s caress each other in stilted CG affection.  The scene, like much of the film, is curiously mesmerizing, a gorgeously self-contained dream sequence; it’s not hard to see the fascination with this thing.  Elsewhere, we drift across glimmering seas, through skyscrapers in the act of being created, across landscapes as thinking minds give them shape and physical properties.  It’s glorious, but it’s also tinged with the towering prospect of disappointment, as is a dream in the moment, still dreaming, when the dreamer begins to wake.  Imagination gradually gives way to self-delusion, at least in the viewer’s mind; Spingarn-Koff’s Lifers rarely seem to feel this.  In the brief moments when the illusion crumbles – the lovers, attempting a real relationship at her home in Westchester, dissolve into a petty squabble over the gardening (nicely shattering the tremulous suggestion of a “planting the seeds” metaphor) – these Lifers tend to quickly evade the problem, so invested are they in justifying the transition of their needs from one universe to another.

Other scenes suggest a legitimate solution in Second Life to real-life problems.  The woman in the basement revels in her idealized physical form online, but finds that in Second Life, theft is real and requires a flesh-and-blood lawyer.  What is property in Second Life?  Does intellectual property count if it has no real-world commercial counterpart other than the owner’s bank account (and if so, while we’re at it, wouldn’t a lawyer avatar suffice)?  To a certain extent, my disdain for Second Life began to fall apart as this story developed.  As unsettling as it is to see a person ignoring vast swaths of real life in favor of a perfected virtual life (Spingarn-Koff’s camera roams through her cluttered living space, lingers on her ashtrays, her disheveled bed, her girth), her tenacity seems to rule out the vaguely hopeless nature of Second Life.  It can still be what you want it to be, as long as you’re finding satisfaction in it.  We only see a few fragments, but the woman’s real life – including the parts that stem directly from her involvement in Second Life, such as a bewildering rendezvous with her new Second Life friends in Las Vegas 1.0 – appears to work.  Not for me, but for her.  Judgment is beside the point.

And then there’s the bittersweet and sobering aspect of Second Life.  It’s easy to suspect that the 20-something might be gay; he’s effeminate, his interviews are frequently in shadow, and his fiancée frets to Spingarn-Koff of his obsessive, closeted relationship with Second Life, holed up in his office for all-night virtual benders.  What emerges instead, when the 11-year-old avatar dons guns and explosives and starts a shooting spree and multiple self-detonations in dance clubs, is sadder, and revealing in a way that Spingarn-Koff might have exploited for its Hallmark potential.  He doesn’t; the thread suggests that behavior of any kind, fantasy or otherwise, is girded with psychological underpinnings we’re only superficially conscious of.  The fantasy life carried into Westchester is borderline tragic in its evasion of personal responsibility – on the part of both lovers – but the fiancé here makes a series of real-life choices based on the self-discoveries he encounters via Second Life.  I won’t say the whole thing doesn’t strike me as pathetic, but Life 2.0 makes a powerful case against judgment at all.  Second Life may be simple, but we are not, and can make use of its illusions.  As do painters, writers, filmmakers, musicians, advertisers…hell, anyone who uses Instant Messenger.

Spingarn-Koff captures everything with a steady and patient visual sensibility, his camera content to watch, to show us the ordinary details of the Lifers’ lives.  Street lights, tire tracks in the snow, cigarette smoke, cheap carpeting, poor soil, air travel, oblivious relatives, cell phones, sunsets, and all their attendant gestures and usages.  This unsentimental place is the world we inhabit, and in his accumulated real-world textures, juxtaposed with those of Second Life, Spingarn-Koff achieves a heartbreaking grandeur in the final passages of Life 2.0, one composed of the brick and mortar of human desire, in all its rough imperfection.

Film: Jacques Audiard: A Prophet (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on March 28, 2010 by baker

The epic gangster film is by no means a new genre; recent entries like City of God (2002) and Gomorra (2008) infused it with a sort of pop hipness that was never anything less than keeping with the wannabe grandeur of the punk kids stretching their limits. These films flaunt their handheld bravura in a vibrant avalanche of violence and disorder, and probably owe more, stylistically, to a Spike Lee joint, an Amélie (2001), or a La haine (1995) than to the two films Coppola made that defined the modern form. The word that comes to mind is pastiche: an international, multilingual plot confection of rigorously woven story threads, a hip hop soundtrack, and endless references to the likes of Tony Montana. A Prophet falls neatly into the category, and this isn’t exactly a criticism. These are pretty good films, valuing a sort of gangland palace intrigue over complex thematic development, but so what? If Audiard’s film owes a certain stylistic debt to “The Wire” or Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), there are certainly far worse points of departure for a film so determined to push its characters to their respective fates.

The danger in these films is that their overt style might obliterate any depth they may be reaching for; a French film featuring Corsican and Arabic, and the occasional de rigeur American hip hop track, raises hairy red flags of pomp over meaning. And the “We Are the World” overtones of Babel or Slumdog Millionaireladen with blaring ethnic scores, a pop star or two (or one in the apparent making), and a buffed sheen for its own sake – are disingenuous at best, and offensively naive at worst, signifying essentially the same righteous, simplistic perspective that got us into, but frustratingly not out of, Helmand province or Sadr City. But Gomorra, and now A Prophet, show gratifyingly different interests. Audiard may be too in love with the pastiche, but he’s absolutely set on the Wagnerian scope and tenor of his film, and once you’re settled into it, it is mesmerizing.

It took me a while to find my rhythm in the film, and while I dig Audiard’s meticulously circuitous route, I think he shoots himself in the foot a bit by not providing his lead – a young French-Arab thrown in prison for unspecified crimes – with a back story. Normally I think back stories are vastly overrated, but in this case, we’re meant to accept Malik as a kid with no sense of who he is when he arrives, but this feels wrong to me in some abstract way, more a plot device than a character trait (particularly in a film that continues to build, inexorably, on character traits). Malik barely registers onscreen in the opening scenes, showing up beaten and cowed. It’s only when he’s offered hash in exchange for a blowjob in the shower that he shows his first sign of a personality, in a predictable expression of mortified outrage. I don’t argue that a teenager’s imprisonment doesn’t muffle him across the board, at least for a while, but nowhere in the film’s 2 1/2 hours do we get a sense of who Malik was before, or how that shapes who he becomes while inside.

Maybe that’s Audiard’s point. Malik’s basically a cypher in the first hour, a weakling conscribed to murder for the Corsican inmate mob that runs the show. The victim is the man who offered the hash, a fellow Arab with bleached blond hair who attracts the attention of the gang and its draconian ringleader, César, before he even gets in the gate. His offense, like everyone’s, remains obscured; Audiard isn’t interested in the past – it just got us here, that’s all. César presents his cypher with a blunt and extraordinarily clear offer: kill the Arab, and we won’t kill you. Thus Malik begins to train, hiding a razor in his cheek and miming fellatio on a Corsican stand-in. Malik’s moral objections don’t stand long in his way – although we’re lead to understand he hardly got his six years for murder – and the killing, messy and awkward, is numbingly visceral. It’s clear that to Audiard we are little more, in the end, than heavy sacks of blood and tissue. César seems to agree, and quickly makes Malik his pet Arab errand boy.

What follows is a meticulous delineation of Malik’s time in prison, his influences and his gradual crawl up the Corsican food chain toward César’s throne at the top, in an endless series of stunningly fluid sequences. A Prophet should feel much, much longer than it is; it never takes a moment to circle back on itself, to build on an idea longer than it takes to move on to the next one. Audiard has a jokester’s sense of timing, stacking the deck firmly against his cypher to see how long it takes him to make a man out of himself (in French prison terms, of course), and he punctuates his setpieces – the Arab’s murder, Malik’s day pass trips outside the prison on brutally exposed odd jobs for César, the various power shake-ups within the prison walls – with a hammy bravado. For every haunting shot of Malik’s Arab kill spinning in Sufi ecstasy, his throat slit and bloodless, there’s a throwaway joke between them; Audiard lacks a certain conviction to take his own audacity seriously.

Look, I like A Prophet very much. It’s tight, and achieves what it sets out to do. Audiard’s writing and direction are sort of wonderful, and he’s cast the film with magnificently present actors, men with articulate stares who can turn on a dime into bestial scrappers. If I shuffle at the sentencing, it’s because Gomorra had a self-conscious quality, aware of how big it was going to get and letting a perverse sense of catastrophic dread creep into the works – as do The Godfathers, and Scarface, and Goodfellas. For all his flourishes, nothing about director Matteo Garrone’s camerawork or editing feels superfluous – their swoop and punch lend exactly the right vertiginous shock across the film’s highs and lows. Audiard behaves a little like a kid with a ton of great ideas who can’t wait to drop them all into his first feature (this is his sixth): the perfect track, the fantastically sobering executions, the visual playfulness. He handles them all with deft precision, but for all the pretenses of religious overtones (the title comes up in a scene that feels tacked on, excessive), he doesn’t seem quite aware of the dimensions his gangster saga might have enjoyed if it had looked inward at itself. I don’t know, I suppose it takes a certain unseemly grandiloquence to present a lot of great storytelling without letting the hokey self-awareness take over; it’s a quality that makes Amélie feel both vibrant and strangely unmoored, adrift in its own abandon. These films can be extraordinary fun, but they feel to me like the friend you can’t quite get a handle on: the one who tells great stories, makes you laugh and stare with dropped jaw in equal measure, but never says anything you think about later.

Film: Criticism on criticism: Film

Posted in Film Reviews with tags on March 24, 2010 by baker

I find this whole film criticism business appealing to my sense of analytical reflection, not only on my own feelings about a film, but on a certain filmmaker’s expressed thoughts and opinions.  Which is what a film is, regardless of the impersonal sheen any number of contemporary films might employ (“It’s not my fault you see indifference to historical dilemma in District 9!” chimes Neill Blomkamp, in my head).  Michael Bay says as much about his willful bitchhood to the Hollywood System in Transformers 2 as Ross McElwee says about himself in Sherman’s March: Bay is as content to be a salesman as is McElwee to self-analyze.  That’s all there is to it.  Why do we even bother to critique, then?

Well, I probably wouldn’t bother writing on Transformers 2 on its own (I haven’t seen it, but I will admit I found Transformers an amusing, well-proportioned Hershey bar).  For every soulless action movie he makes, Bay gives critics a progressively firmer paradigm by which to judge a very particular brand of filmmaking, one predicated on noise and market research.  He’s far more interesting as a figure in the system than as a voice, easily evoked as representative of the least personable kind of cinema.  McElwee – this is probably the very first time he’s ever been mentioned in the same paragraph as Bay – demands attention; nothing about Bright Leaves (2003) lends itself to your needs or expectations.  What he wants you to think about he gives you, and backs it up with precise narrative circuitry of his own design.  These guys aren’t really diametrically opposed in terms of craftsmanship – Bay isn’t an incompetent filmmaker; I think he executes exactly the films he wants to make – and I think you understand roughly as much about each of them from their respective films, about their attitude toward communication and introspection, their regard for art as an act of principled self-expression, and their perceptions of the force of the tools of their trade.  Let us assume McElwee lands on the more diligent end of the spectrum.

So what does a critic get out of this?  To read a good critic – a Pauline Kael, a David Edelstein – it’s clear that it’s a mixture of receptivity and taste, an open-mindedness tempered by, let’s say, objective subjectivity (they both know when they’re being assholes; they can admit when they might be wrong, even as they plow ahead with a ruthless attack).  The point is not to be right or wrong, but to dive into a film’s river and mull over the pace and eddies of its current.  Too cold here?  Only because it was so warm there, and slower than it ought to be now…I’m feeling rushed, or rolled over on my stomach, and I have to say, this is a bad call, it’s too shallow, you’re scraping my knees on the rocks…you could be sending me through the rapids down there with perfect clarity if only you prepared me for it now… It’s true, these critics speak with forceful voices of unerring authority, as though lording over cinematic creation with a view of its entirety.  It can send a reader running, with its distasteful scent of godlike disdain…but one second, reader, hang back a bit.  A good critic will circle back on himself, at least indirectly; however right he may feel he is, if he’s on his game, he’ll tell you why.  Implicit in his criticism is his personal sense of why film matters – not whether he likes Slumdog Millionaire, but how he values it as representative of its maker’s intentions.  And then – oh yes – he tells you how he feels about that.  On the understanding that you’re welcome to do the same.

A bad critic ignores a film’s intentions, or shrouds his criticism in his own idea of what a film should be.  Thin line?  I guess so.  It’s about grappling rather than bouncing.  In addition to an apparent compulsion to disagree with the consensus, Armond White filters all his criticism through his own preoccupations – not with film, but with pop culture and politics. His is true disdain, his professed affection for pop culture at polar odds with his verbal obscurity.  Rather than addressing a film directly for its explicit content, he buries it in sweeping, academic, obfuscating judgment – his recent review of Shutter Island proclaimed that “The time has come to ask Scorsese to move on” and stop directing films entirely.  Moreover, you are not free to disagree with his assessment; creeping through his syntax are aggressive insults and flip derision – directed frequently not toward the film or its content, but toward the consumer who may like it.

All of which makes him nothing more than an educated bully, and this snide playground drama with which he’s fully engaging with J. Hoberman and the Greenberg crowd – taking great pains to point out the “racist lynching by white critics of a black critic” – is as silly as suggesting that bad critics have no right to critique.  They have as much right to write as I have to charge him with recklessly diminishing the scant respect critics have to begin with.  The good ones are doing their damnedest to make heads or tails of a film and its creator – or to watch with awe or disappointment as the coin spins endlessly on edge, unwilling, in the critic’s mind, to lop one way or the other, in an ongoing effort to wrestle meaning and purpose out of another craftsman’s work.

The whole thing is remarkably strange and self-indulgent, full of piss and wind and body odor.  But what are you gonna do?  If you ask the critics to stop, you might as well ask the filmmakers to stop too.

Jim Emerson’s blog is responsible for this tirade.  Thank you, Jim.

Film: Martin Scorsese: Shutter Island (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , , on March 15, 2010 by baker

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are a good fit for each other, at this point.  Their best work appears well behind them, and they both now seem stuck in a perpetual state of late-term adolescence.  Scorsese has done his heavy lifting – Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), even Kundun (1997) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999) – and has been slumming comfortably in Hollywood bombast for the last decade.  Even at its most trivial, there’s never a feeling that his cinema craft has gotten beyond him, or that he’s lost his ability to see his way through visual dynamism with the easy hand of a consummate artist.  He hasn’t; his craftsmanship is now slick, effortless.  But that sort of filmmaking isn’t what made his best films work.  He’s always had greater effect when his stories, characters, and craft grappled grittily with tough, bony cuts of beef – he’s been trying pretty hard, but delectable fudge is just not on his menu as a master chef.  DiCaprio vanished into What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to an extent he’s never approximated since, surely as much a result of his limited star status in 1993 as his physical suitability to the teenage role.  He now looks half his age (he’s 35), and the harder he commits himself to a role, the more he comes across as a teenager exaggerating the behavior of a man.  I believe he puts his heart and brain into a film like Blood Diamond (2006), but I simply don’t accept him as a rough-souled Afrikaner diamond runner, or a world-weary suburban husband in Revolutionary Road (2008), or psychotic Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004), or…or…  (But he could nail, at age 28, 16-year-old Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can (2002).)  It’s not exactly his fault.  He’s just physically screwed.

A direct result of Scorsese’s and DiCaprio’s latter-day shortcomings, I think, Shutter Island is just silly.  It’s neither rich enough in texture nor oblique enough in narrative to bring to life its profoundly disturbing psychological core, and Laeta Kalogridis’ script is far too literal to be subconsciously frightening.  Instead, Scorsese has gone full-on camp in his tone, barreling through the opening passages with crippling impatience and a monstrously Hitchcockian score – which might have developed into pleasurably coked-out, high-strung excess if it weren’t for Scorsese’s unfailing inability to keep a certain humanity out of his filmmaking.  You bought Nick Nolte’s paranoia perhaps a little too well to take the insipid clumsiness of Cape Fear (1991), and, likewise, Scorsese’s commitment to trying very, very hard to make DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels a complex person instead of a melodramatic construct tempers the funky dread Shutter Island might have conjured.  Instead it feels blocky and insincere, wanting to be two incongruous films at once.

For all of its inherent vapidity, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) spent its opening sequences crafting a visual aesthetic that Jonathan Demme maintained rigorously throughout, a combination of roving perspective and unflinching stares (his actors often looking directly into the lens) that rooted the film in a constant and unsettling sense of exposure, of vulnerability.  He plays his actors like a piano, Jodie Foster in low key and Anthony Hopkins in high, the contrast between the two complementing the ham out of the core drama and leaving Ted Levine with all the room imaginable to let loose with Buffalo Bill’s near-caricatured psychoses.  The film is mathematical in its restraint; Demme wants nothing more than to creep the everloving shit out of you.  He’s certainly no less of a humanist than Scorsese – Melvin and Howard (1980) is more vibrant than anything Scorsese has ever done, which is not a judgment – but he recognizes that to make a thriller, your essential instincts as a dramatist need elicit nothing at all but effect.

It’s still hard to reconcile Scorsese’s obvious admiration for DiCaprio with his revelatory work with De Niro thirty-five years ago, as the two performers couldn’t be more divergent in their physical and vocal tactics.  But Scorsese keeps pushing DiCaprio through film after film of reasonable ambition, with a certain proclivity toward lead characters of operatic defect, and in his cover-boy prettiness and inability to convey adult emotions with an adult persona, DiCaprio’s youthful earnestness should be right for it.  Complexity doesn’t make opera fly; De Niro in his heyday would have smothered a Gangs of New York under the weight of skilled physical characterization.  Yet Scorsese still wants to speak to us, and however grand he aspires to be, he knows there’s nothing subtly articulate about opera.

Shame.  He leaps into Shutter Island with classical bravado, his swooping camera wide and appreciably glossless, his score (all of it preexisting, none original to the film) pounding inexorably toward…something creepy.  I suspect he knows how hollow the script really is, and is more than happy to get us through the cliched scenes of chatty exposition toward the twist that comes along somehow early, and develops too deeply.  The situation on Shutter Island is maniacally idiotic – I wonder whether Scorsese hoped that by diving into the twist at length he might spare us the arid thriller conceit of unraveling the twist in a sudden flash of revelation, and urge us to consider its psychological underpinnings instead, but the problem with a twist is that it’s designed to undo the world we think we know in the film.  Even Scorsese would need another half a film to give the revelation blistering psychic heat. And I don’t think he’d ever get past the absolutely bizarre behavior his supporting cast has had to perform, to justify it as anything but a storyteller’s glib trickery.

And…yes.  Fine.  I am too hard on Avatar, on Slumdog Millionaire, on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  These movies are not shooting for cosmic insight.  They want only to entertain, to lull you away from yourself for a couple hours with the promise of a good, light buzz.  And I believe that movies need only be taken as seriously as they take themselves.  But three years ago Scorsese got himself an Oscar for directing The Departed, the least lazy of this decade’s half dozen films of his, probably his most profitable, and a remake.  I wonder if he felt the odd pang of disappointment some of us experienced that evening, to see an honest-to-good-christ cinematic visionary placed in the pantheon of American film appreciation for a herky-jerky strip of celluloid pulp.  Not a bad film, not a great one – and that’s what he’s recognized for after all these years.  He used to go for a jog with lumpy but strident films like After Hours (1985) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).  The only thing he’s done in the past ten years that even hints at his prodigious dexterity with the medium is the documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), about a man who, in his youth, made some of the most radically engaging art of his generation, and who settled into retirement age with, most recently, a cover album of Christmas songs.

Footnote: lists remakes of Kurosawa’s High and Low and Michael Haneke’s Caché (starring DiCaprio) under Scorsese’s “In Development” credits.  Nevermind the pointlessness of remaking great films; the tragedy of contemporary Scorsese outhacking Hollywood numbs the brain.