Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Seeing Belief: a visual aid to a brilliant book

There’s a moment in Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Disbelief when Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigate journalist who authored Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Disbelief, explains, “My goal wasn’t to write an exposé. It was simply to understand Scientology, to understand what people get out of it, you know, why do they go into it in the first place.” That’s pretty much the difference between Gibney and Wright, between this new HBO documentary and Wright’s masterfully calibrated, sensitive and expansive 2013 book: Gibney’s in it for the exposé. His approach is far more blunt than Wright’s. Which, it turns out, is just fine, because the documentary, though its title is inexplicably foreshortened, forms a welcome audio-visual aid to the book, and because, frankly, there is sooooo much to expose. 

Mr. Hubbard

Where to begin? I’d suggest you begin with the book, of course, which wasn’t released in Canada (I ordered mine from the US), but perhaps the reverse will work just as well: think of the doc as a teaser. The basic trajectory of doc and book are in any case the same, using the highly publicized 2011 resignation of Canadian filmmaker Paul Haggis from the Church of Scientology as a framing device, tracing the batshit crazy life of galactically prolific science fiction writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and examining the transformation Scientology undertook when Hubbard died and an equally crazy if less creepily charismatic man named David Miscavige took the celestial reigns and conquered the Internal Revenue Service, who has been demanding millions from Scientology and finally had to cry uncle when Scientology finally managed to get classified as a religion, thus apprehending their financial holy grail: tax exemption! Along the way we hear testimonies from various former Scientologists, such as actor Jason Beghe, John Travolta’s liaison Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, and Mark Rathbun and Mike Rinder, who both worked their way to Scientology’s upper echelons. They confirm every litigious thing you’ve ever heard about Scientology, the kidnapping and child labour, the coercion and torture, the billion-year contracts and other elements of the Church’s risible mythos. Along the way we also, through archival footage, meet a gentleman by the name of Tom Cruise, the all-powerful evil robot with the eerily strained laughter, who, after shedding his infidel spouse Nicole Kidman, became Scientology’s favourite son and reaped all the benefits. 

Mr. Haggis

Gibney makes several problematic choices in how he assembles the material, a fairly obvious example is the way he’ll make a hard cut from Miscavige giving a dumb-sounding speech at some expensively tacky Scientology event to an audience bursting into applause, creating a relationship between what’s said and its response that may not represent what really happened. Gibney focuses almost exclusively on the most sensationalistic incidents reported in Wright’s book—though there are so many jaw-dropping stories to choose from that those hungry for dirt will still find their appetites sated should they read it. You won’t leave Going Clear feeling any lack of outrage, but you may, alas, feel slighted with regards to fascination. Gibney shows less interest in the allure of Scientology holds for so many perfectly intelligent, credible, ambitious people, something Wright illuminated beautifully and respectfully. In short: see Going Clear, but also read Going Clear. There’s a far more complex—if no less damning—story to be found here. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A film for all seasons

When I think of The Merchant of Four Seasons I think of bodies that bend or extend across the frame in fleeting ecstasy or, more often, distress: the newly abandoned hero’s arm reaching across his kitchen table; his long-bodied wife straddling another man in sexual release; the hero beating his wife on a bed as her legs kick at the air; a woman collapsed on the floor of an apartment building’s foyer before a delicate crossroads of light. Arms, legs, torsos are meticulously arranged in the poses of melodrama, while emotions are tampered, bottled up or bottled down: when I think of The Merchant of Four Seasons I think of our hero, hunched drunkenly over the head of a barroom table, holding court before a huddle of drunken sycophants. This is the story of a breaking man, raised middle class but drawn by dubious sentiments to the working class, unloved and incapable, by lack or by temperament, of loving others.

The Merchant of Four Seasons was Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s breakthrough, made and released in 1971, following Fassbinder’s fateful discovery of the Hollywood films of German émigré Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life) and, along with it, the realization that his contribution to this New German Cinema could inhabit an ideal middle-ground where artifice yields deeper truths and audiences could have their hearts moved without sacrificing the stimulation of their critical faculties. The film is now available in a superb DVD or BD package from the Criterion Collection.

Hans (Hans Hirschmüller) returns home following a tour with the French Foreign Legion to an unwelcoming mother. Hans’ career as a police officer was destroyed when he was caught accepting sexual favours from a prostitute and he takes up work as a fruit vendor, the sort that roams the streets, calling out the prices of his wares, filling paper cones in exchange for coins. Rejected by the love of his life, he married Irmgard (Irm Hermann), a woman with whom there seems to be little in the way of real affection, and whom he in turn neglects and turns violent with. He has a young daughter, Renate, who seems always to be bearing witness, absorbing trauma. The film is set in the 1950s, so by the time Fassbinder made it Renate would be a woman about Fassbinder’s age. Perhaps The Merchant of Four Seasons is meant above all for Renate and all the other children of post-war Germany, a generation of fractured families and a fraught national history that no one talks about.

There’s a lot of misery and banality in all this, I suppose, but there’s also the beauty of eloquent storytelling, sudden bursts of vibrant colour, engrossing flashbacks that appear unannounced, filmed exactly the same as the present-tense scenes, collapsing time so that we realize this is all about the now, not the past. The Merchant of Four Seasons is an exquisite film, sad and bold. It’s the favourite Fassbinder film of Fassbinder’s old friend and fellow Münchner Wim Wenders, who supplies Criterion with a very good audio commentary track. Also worth checking out are new interviews with Hirchmüller and Hermann, who tell great stories of how Fassbinder swooped in and changed their lives, and an interview with scholar Eric Rentschler, who speaks well, is very smart and very passionate, and gives one of the strongest, most succinct descriptions of Sirk’s influence on Fassbinder as I’ve come across.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Let's take this lyng down

It may be the most horizontal movie I have ever seen. The teeming populace of La Ciénaga (2001), Lucrecia Martel’s beguiling feature debut, spend an inordinate amount of time lying down, usually awake, sometimes several to a bed, sometimes with limbs splayed in various positions. There are amazingly dynamic geometries composed of bodies just trying to get a little rest. The laziness on display in La Ciénaga is charming and funny, and maybe also appalling, emblematic of the liminal space La Ciénaga nimbly inhabits, as though suspended on a high-wire, scathing social commentary on one side, vivid, goofy, impressionistic sounds and images on the other. The film is idiosyncratic, utterly personal, yet riddled with the political, with class critiques suggested only in playful ways. It’s a stunningly confident work. And the great news is that it’s now available from Criterion.

“La Ciénaga.” “The Swamp.” It’s the name Martel gives to the place where she grew up in northwestern Argentina. Part of this film’s allure is also what makes it very difficult to summarize. It is about two families. It is about a summer home, with a pool, and bedrooms, and lots of wine drank with ice, and an adjoining forest where the boys go to play with guns. It is very much about the bourgeoisie, but it’s told from the inside: many of the characters are often drunk (this would make a pretty good double-feature with The Swimmer), and the camerawork is somehow brilliantly choreographed and also stumbling and tipsy too; as rough-and-tumble as the cameras of John Cassavetes, but with a precision Cassavetes’ beloved mania wasn’t designed to take on. The film is autobiographical and the camera is never editorializing. The editing, of course, is another matter. It’s elliptical, teasing. Those boys with the guns: one wants to shoot a dead, muddy cow; another stands in the way; we cut to a shot of the landscape, no figures in sight, and we hear the gunshot, not knowing if someone’s been hit. If Martel made conventional narrative films we’d call her a master manipulator. But there is nothing conventional and little that’s narrative-forward about La Ciénaga.

It begins thusly: following an atonal aria in which a chorus of the world’s noisiest, cheapest-looking lawn chairs are dragged across tile, one of our two matriarchs, totally stinko, collapses, cutting herself badly. Her daughter comes to pull pieces of glass from her chest. A lazy assessment of La Ciénaga might say that nothing happens, but the film’s gambit rests in the opposite camp: everything happens, though it happens in fragments, in shards, with scenes that start halfway-in and end before they’re resolved; with more characters—family, friends and servants, victims of racial slurs—than we can be expected to keep track of. Martel is focused on immersing us in this world and that’s exactly what she’s so devastatingly good at. The film is so funny—the blitzed characters getting so animated about the idea of shipping for school supplies in Bolivia—the dialogue so curious, the images so transfixing, we might forgot that this is also an oblique indictment of a culture of waste and sloth, snobbery and unjust disparity, of tackiness and unchecked Catholic neurosis. All these ingredients will come into play in Martel’s subsequent films, The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008), each of which feature fewer characters, or at least feature central characters, and something close to what we might call a storyline. Paragons of the New Argentine Cinema, they feel sprung from the same swamp yet each are inventive, provocative variations. Seeing La Ciénaga reminds us of how vast Martel’s powers are—and how long we’ve had to wait for more.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Assets and deficits

Let me just start by telling you what it’s about, because what it’s about is by far the most interesting thing about A Most Violent Year, J.C. Chandor’s third feature and, following Margin Call, second dissertation on the ethics of capitalism.

It’s 1981. New York’s crawling with crime. Prosperous local oil distributor Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) puts down a massive deposit on a Queens waterfront storage facility, with another $1.5-million to cough up in the next 30 days. The bank’s got Morales’ back, but he’s assailed with obstacles: crusading DA Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is indicting him on vague corruption charges and, at the same time, fuel bandits are hijacking Morales’ trucks at toll booths and on turnpikes. The teamsters want to arm Morales’ drivers and Anna (Jessica Chastain), Morales’ wife, wants to ask favours from her “Family,” but Morales says no. Actually he says something terribly articulate and verbose that’s more or less a “no.” Morales is not to be corrupted. But Morales is also not to be dissuaded from his dreams of dominating his industry. He’s the embodiment of good capitalism. “I like to own the things I use,” he says. 

He also says, “I’ve spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster.” A man presiding over a risky business, trying to avoid getting dragged into a criminal swamp: Morales is clearly modelled after Michael Corleone, and Isaac, a good actor, is, in his understated way, doing Pacino. Oddball, methody details included—he chews gum while going for a run! Isaac’s breakout performance was as the titular folksinger in Inside Llewyn Davis, and there’s a goofy little call-back to Llewyn in A Most Violent Year: on a dark road Isaac hits, not a cat this time, but a deer. Instead of stalking away into the surrounding brush, the deer is disposed of by Chastain in a laughably portentous Lady Macbeth moment. I wasn’t especially hung up on her very inconsistent Brooklyn accent, but Chastain’s talents are not well served by this overwrought yet underwritten role.

Much as I liked All is Lost, it is easy to overstate Chandor’s chops. The film’s tone benefits from an interesting if over-used Alex Ebert score, which at times echoes the early bits of ‘Shine On, You Crazy Diamond’ with hints of Ravel thrown in. But A Most Violent Year is mostly very baggy, with many needless cutaways to reaction shots that I suspect will, once you start noticing them, prompt eye-rolling reactions from you. The bagginess extends to the blunt, overemphatic dialogue—“It’s a gun. It’s a FUCKING gun” or “I don’t know. I don’t FUCKING know”—which can also be comically, redundantly on-the-nose: “You seem to be under a lot of pressure from all sides,” a highly perceptive union boss says to Morales. Of course, nothing in the writing of A Most Violent Year feels quite as ham-fisted as the naming of Abel Morales, who is both able and a man of morals. “I have always taken the path that is most right, and that is what this is.”

In broad brushstrokes, the story is a compelling reflection on a certain time and place, a certain tendency in certain industries, but scene by scene A Most Dangerous Year is poorly executed. Of course, it’s a story of poor executions—are we really supposed to believe that not one, but two hired thugs in this movie can’t hold onto their gun? And is it not a serious weakness in the writing that the drama turns on one of its characters—a driver who gets repeatedly ambushed—simply being unbelievably stupid?


Friday, January 23, 2015

Hard to get down

Cake is one of these films you might feel sort of bullied into liking, or at least respecting, because it deals with heavy themes of grief and living with chronic pain and drug addiction among the white and affluent, because it features an ostensibly unlikable heroine whom we’re meant to come to love because we witness some arduous process of redemption, because it stars an actor who became famous years ago when she was young and bubbly and had influential hair, and here she is with greasy hair, facial scars, dumpy clothes and a shit attitude. But that bullying you feel is integral to Cake’s cookie-cutter schematics. Cake chokes on its own dramaturgy, its only icing here being that, yes, Jennifer Aniston, also conspicuously on board as executive producer, is pretty good as the blunt, un-ingratiating heroine whose body was mangled in some terrible accident and whose heart became paralyzed after the devastating loss of a loved one in that same accident. Without Aniston, or someone like her, Cake would not have been made, and without Aniston you would certainly have considerably less reason to watch it.

The set-up has plenty of intrigue: Claire (Aniston) seems to be stalking Nina (Anna Kendrick), a dead woman, who was in Claire’s cartoonish chronic pain support group, perhaps because Nina suicided and Claire envies her gumption. Claire blackmails her support group leader into disclosing Nina’s address so that Claire can go snoop around Nina’s home, which is still inhabited by Nina’s little boy and—look out!—her hunky husband (Sam Worthington). Also intriguing: Claire’s only other occupation is to feed her need for Percs and Oxys, which, in one of Cake’s better sequences, she enlists her devoted Chicana housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza) to drive her down to Tijuana to procure. But the intrigue quickly dissipates once we get stuck watching the lamely written sequences in which Nina appears to Claire as some sort of bitchy ghost, or bitchy hallucination brought on by addiction and self-loathing. There’s also the issue of Claire really never seeming that unlikable a person—just one of many ways in which Cake goes soft. No doubt some will applaud Barraza, who got an Oscar nod for Babel, but those applauding surely don’t speak Spanish, because when Barraza goes to town, airing her grievances toward her employer en español, it is a flatly inflected tirade worthy of a telenovela hitting end-of-the-week exhaustion. Don’t even get me started on the ridiculous character of a would-be starlet and thief from Boise who gets conveniently and awkwardly squashed into Cake’s final act. To be sure, there are far worse movies than Cake, but the ways in which Cake is bad are really annoying.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bad shot

American Sniper is based on Chris Kyle’s memoir and I’m led to understand that it’s quite a faithful adaptation. But the problems one encounters when turning memoirs into movies are myriad. In this case, they include having a famous actor embody a real person, a military hero with a fascinating and fraught legacy (Kyle accumulated a record 160 confirmed kills during his four tours during the Iraq War), and shifting perspective from the book’s first-person to the movie’s inherent third-person, which inevitably imposes a political reading on personal reportage—and with that political reading comes an enormous moral responsibility. Whatever you might think of director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall’s personal politics, their take on American Sniper renders a thorny chapter in the history of US foreign policy as a somewhat dunderheaded white hat/black hat rah-rah western. 

It doesn't help that some scenes are the sort of thing that should land Hall in the screenwriters’ stockade. Take the early scene in which Kyle (a beefy-burly and uncharacteristically opaque Bradley Cooper) comes home to find his live-in girlfriend with another man. “I do this to get attention. Can’t you see that?!” cries the cheater, who has apparently never heard of subtext. Kyle later meets his real love interest in a bar. She acts all tough but vomits after downing shots, which is another way of saying that, unlike Kyle, she ain’t no Navy SEAL. There’s a later scene in which PTSD is invoked by having Kyle seated before his television, from which we hear, as though through his ears, the sound of a war movie, but when the camera spins around the TV isn’t even on! Much of American Sniper’s dialogue fits into the Lone Survivor model: when soldiers aren’t punctuating every word with “fuck” it’s because they’re saying nothing but “fuck.” Defenders may cry verisimilitude, but that hardly excuses redundant, unimaginative verbiage that might otherwise be used to help tell a story. 

American Sniper is one of Eastwood’s least inspired films as director; visually speaking, its incredibly boring coverage harkens back to TV movies of the ’80s. But the more troubling issues concern point of view, the way we’re invited to watch countless foreigners get shot to hell while Kyle’s tragic death at the hands of a fellow veteran is only alluded to in the film’s flat final moments, or the way Kyle’s nemesis, a dreadlocked sniper rumored to be a Syrian Olympic medalist, is provided with counter-close-ups yet still comes off as mere caricature. Perhaps this material needed Sam Fuller to inject it with manic energy instead of Eastwood’s macho solemnity. Perhaps it simply needed a screenwriter with moral vision, one capable of finding a dramatic way to grapple with the deeper questions about what Kyle’s life, career and untimely death mean to us as we survey the consequences of 9/11 and the Bush administration’s irrevocable response to that day that, one way or another, really did change everything. I think of that speech Kyle’s dad makes about how there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Kyle was one hell of a sheepdog. But let’s talk about who was his master. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Katherine Waterston on Inherent Vice

Katherine Waterston is the daughter of Sam Waterston, who rose to prominence with the New Hollywood before becoming a household name with Law & Order. Pedigree doesn’t seem to have given the younger Waterston any unfair advantages, but over the last eight years or so the Tisch School graduate has built a respected career in theatre—she played Anya in an off-Broadway revival of The Cherry Orchard—and in supporting roles in films like Michael Clayton. Her appearance as the beguiling Shasta in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice marks a significant breakthrough. We spoke a few weeks ago in a Toronto hotel when Waterston was traveling to promote the film.

JB: I want to begin by talking with you about something that’s kind of hard to talk about, which is tone. Inherent Vice basically begins with your entrance, so you set the tone. But is thinking about tone useful to you as an actor or just a distraction from playing the scene, beat by beat?

Katherine Waterston: When you work on scenes they tend to tell you what they need. When you start speaking the lines you can tell when they don’t feel right. When they do, it’s because you’ve found the tone that best serves the scene. In the way that Paul works, and the way I like to work too, we explore until the correct tone emerges. One of the fun things about working on this project is that it was based on a novel that changes tone almost constantly. It gives us permission to have a really sombre or scary scene with a joke in it. There’s physical comedy followed by very honest, intimate moments.

JB: Watching your performance I thought about Mary Astor in Maltese Falcon, but I also thought about Diane Ladd. Something about the way you direct your gaze while fingering the mouth of that beer can. Did you look to any models while developing Shasta?

KW: It can sometimes be too much pressure, to be hyperaware of what’s come before. But I did think about women of that period, particular from Southern California. I’m glad that you mentioned the gaze, because a big part of it is they way that they set their gaze. Cowboys have a similar thing, people who set their gaze on some distant landscape, or people who live by the sea. If you spend evenings watching the sun set on the ocean that does something to you. I notice it when I’ve been east for a long time and I come back to California, especially to seaside communities. I watched a lot of The Mod Squad before shooting. I thought that Peggy Lipton had something of a Shasta quality. Perhaps I took some comfort in knowing that [the actress playing] this quintessential California girl was actually an East-Coaster, like me. There was something remote about her. You think about all this before you get to work. Once you’re on set you try to forget it all.

JB: Did you feel like you always understood what Shasta wanted? Her duplicity seems to dictate certain turns in the story. I’ve seen Inherent Vice twice and I’m still not sure if I know what she’s after from beginning to end. Do you need to know?

KW: That makes me so happy that I don’t want to say a damned word. It’s been tough navigating these interviews, talking about making this movie, which is fun to talk about, while not spoiling the experience for the viewer. It’s a fine line that I had to walk, knowing what to express. When you read the novel you become closest to Doc’s experience. Reality becomes as suspicious to the reader as it is to him. I didn’t want to take away from that by being too direct.

JB: Between Shasta, Bigfoot and Doc, you’ve got three characters that in very different ways encapsulate this moment of transition in the culture. Shasta is a product of second wave feminism while also using her sexuality as capital. She seems both progressive and regressive in some way.

KW: To the degree that this is a standard detective story, she’s the femme fatale. But what surprised and challenged me was that she also had to be human, to have a warmth. There has to be more between her and Doc than this sexual hold that she has on him.

JB: Do you relate to Shasta?

KW: She’s very different from me, yet I felt I understood her before I even understood what was going on. It’s exciting to come across a female character that’s complicated and inconsistent and dynamic. So often there’s the good lady or the bad lady, the maternal force or the sex goddess. Shasta’s scared but trying to keep her chin up. She loves Doc but isn’t necessarily going to show it. There was so much in the novel and it was fun to try and cram as much in as possible.

JB: Were you told why you were cast?

KW: No. And I sure as hell didn’t ask because I didn’t want anyone to start thinking it was a bad idea.

JB: What do you think? What do you bring to Shasta that someone else might not have?

KW: It’s sort of impossible to know. Or maybe just too embarrassing to think about.

JB: Why embarrassing?

KW: It’s difficult to measure what things about you make you right for a part. When I was up for the part, I saw so clearly why it had to be me.

JB: I was going to say that when you don’t get a part, that’s when you always know what you could have brought to it.

KW: Right. When it’s about to be taken away you can see so clearly why everything in your life, every idea you’ve ever had, every book you’ve read, every personal thing that’s happened to you has all been leading up to this moment where you get to process this role and put it out in the world in a way that no one else could. Then they tell you that you’ve got the job and it’s like amnesia. All that stuff that was so clear to you becomes foggy and confusing.

JB: This seems like an interesting moment for you. In the last year you’ve had two films come out [Inherent Vice and Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves], each directed by one of the most exciting directors in the US. But I never really know if these films that mean so much to us as viewers mean the same to you the actor, if they have an effect on your growth commeasurable with our esteem for the work on screen.

KW: As an actor, being chosen by people you admire is incredibly encouraging. Because we’re just kind of these leaves blowing in the wind. You don’t know how it’s all going to shake down at any given moment. Even with people who are much more successful than me, you never really know. I was at a place in my career where I was pretty beaten down and struggling to get my hands on interesting material. So these encouraging events came when I really needed them. But what’s to be learned from getting to watch great directors at work or being around inspiring actors I feel like I probably won’t be cognizant of for a couple more years.

JB: When you see the finished product and see how your performance works as such a lynchpin in this story, do you learn anything from that?

KW: I’m so proud of this work. I feel lucky to be part of it. But I don’t think I can separate myself from the whole enough to take anything away from it. It’s a miracle that I can even watch it without running out of the room. It’s Joaquin that keeps me watching, because I know that if I look away I’ll miss him.