Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The murderers are among us


Adi Rukun is an ophthalmologist living and working in the Indonesian province of Aceh. He’s handsome and soft-spoken and seems very patient. He embodies an ideal of the country doctor, but for many members of his community a visit from Adi comes with a heavy burden. Over the course of The Look of Silence, U.S. director Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to his 2013 film The Act of Killing, Adi calls on several neighbours, sometimes with medical equipment in tow, sometimes not, and begins to ask questions about their shared past. “You ask too many questions” and “I don’t want to remember” are common responses. On one occasion Adi is told that if people of his generation aren’t careful, if they don’t leave well enough alone and learn to “get along like the military dictatorship taught us,” what happened in the past will happen again.


What happened in the past, some 50 years ago now, was the slaughter of at least a million Indonesians, ostensible communists, in the wake of a military coup. One of those murdered was Adi’s brother Ramli, killed by the Komando Aksi. His story is not unusual. Ramli was hacked by machetes. He ran home, was stolen from his home under the pretence of being escorted to a hospital, then he was hacked some more, his intestines spilling from his torso, and thrown into Snake River. And when it seemed to his murderers that he was still alive he was fished out and dismembered and thrown back in. Those murderers became the leaders of Adi’s community, where they remain in power to this day. A scene in The Look of Silence finds a teacher explaining to schoolchildren that the slaughtered communists were evil and the government had no choice but to exterminate them. In another scene one of the leaders of an Aceh death squad declares, “We did this because the Americans taught us to hate communists.”


The Act of Killing, in which Oppenheimer, collaborating with several locals forced to remain anonymous, focused on the perpetrators of the killings, their legacy and continued self-glorification. The Act of Killing is the only film I can think of that afflicted me with prolonged nausea. Not because of the physical violence, which we don’t see (except in the bizarre, crude reenactments staged by Oppenheimer’s subjects), but because of the film’s portrait of human nature. Call it existential nausea. The Look of Silence concerns the same horrors as The Act of Killing, but it’s the reverse shot: it assumes the perspective of the victims. As he makes his rounds, Adi isn’t out for revenge. He’s too young to remember the most violent years—though he lives in a world permanently transformed by those years, one where living in fear has become the norm for much of the population. But his unwavering, silent gaze, one of this film’s most potent motifs, feels like the gaze of an entire traumatized nation’s conscience. Talking to the children and spouses of killers or to the killers themselves, Adi is out for forgiveness—this is what makes The Look of Silence one of the most moving films I’ve seen. But in order to forgive a crime the crime must be recognized, which is something almost no one Adi visits is willing to do.


The Look of Silence features no scoring, no voice-over commentary, no archival footage (save a brief NBC report from 1965, one of many videos we watch Adi watching on TV), but it is a film in which every frame is infused with context, compassion, curiosity, and over a decade of Oppenheimer’s life, doing the hard work, opening his heart, earning people’s trust, finding the story. And Oppenheimer is an inveterate storyteller. There are many images of people in repose and every one seems essential. There is a central question woven through the film, one concerning the value of remembering versus that of forgetting, and Oppenheimer conveys this question elegantly and diversely through interviews with killers who jocularly boast of their acts of torture, rape and murder, through the contrast of Adi’s mother, who remembers everything, and Adi’s father, who is severely demented, believes he’s an adolescent and sings naïve love songs, though in certain moments of confusion is overcome with panic and terror.


Taken as stand-alone films, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are masterpieces of the documentary form at its most rigorous and creative. Taken as a pair they constitute one of the most important cinematic events of our time. I had the honour of attending the Canadian premiere of The Look of Silence at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where both Oppenheimer and Adi were in attendance. After the screening they took the stage to answer questions, but Adi was overcome with emotion and, weeping, was unable to speak. Perhaps sharing this story with so many people at once yielded more feelings that he’d expected. But his presence was intensely affecting, and, as though so much of the film, his silence spoke volumes.
           

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Licking against the pricks


How many times in the history of the medium have we seen a single film rattle as many socio-cinematic paradigms—and done it with as much bio—as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)? Scripted by Hanif Kureishi—his first film credit—and directed by Stephen Frears, this incendiary entertainment made movie stars of London’s teeming South Asian community, featured a central romance that was both interracial and gay, and embraced the tenants of Thatcherite hyper-capitalism only to expose it as fundamentally corrupting and ineffectual with regards to the populace at large. Yet at no point does the film draw attention to its importance or iconoclasm. In one of the excellent supplements contained on Criterion’s new DVD and BD releases of My Beautiful Laundrette Frears claims that he initially didn’t really notice the fact that the story was queer. The film feels so utterly focued on story, character development and milieu that I’m inclined to believe him.


My Beautiful Laundrette begins with second-generation Anglo-Pakistani Omar (Gordon Warnecke) essentially trading in his former socialist journalist father, Hussein (Roshan Seth), a man seemingly broken by emigration, for his businessman uncle, Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), a man eager to assimilate—complete with white mistress—and capitalize on every carrot of opportunity life in Britain dangles before him. “You have to know how to squeeze the tits of the system,” Nasser insists, and Omar is an apt pupil, rapidly going from washing cars in a garage to refurbishing a dilapidated old laundromat in a predominantly Asian South London nieghbourhood. Omar does this with the assistance of a lanky white working-class factotum named Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis in his breakout role), who along the way becomes Omar’s lover, a development which seems perfectly natural—though its not to interfere with Omar’s single-minded fixation on making lots of money. Homophobia takes a backseat to racism in any case, with the local white thugs threatening Johnny simply for accepting a brown man as his employer. Eventually, in a sequence Frears stages like a late western, those thugs launch a vicious attack on the whole lot of them, making for a ugly climax—though that’s not the end of the story.


So few films had previously plunged a mainstream audience in what was until then an all but invisible immigrant community, with its own rules and ideals and wild contrasts. My Beautiful Laudrette launched a new wave of Asian-centered British films, not to mention Kureishi’s career—he would go on to script Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), My Son the Fanatic (1997), The Mother (2003) and Venus (2006), continuing a thread not only of immigrant representation but sexually audacity. Frears would begin a winning streak that would peak with The Grifters (1990) and Day-Lewis, having emulated Robert De Niro and Clint Eastwood here, would become like them a star of the first order, known for transforming himself through methody immersion in vocal and body work. Though one could argue that the greatest moments throughout the rest of Day-Lewis’ career, from Christy Brown to Lincoln, are only ever on par with that delicious furtive lick of Omar’s neck, a gesture Criterion has fittingly placed right on the cover of its superb new package.
                 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Let's get small


Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, also credited as co-scripter) is a burglar with a Masters in electrical engineering. He gets out of San Quentin after doing time for some sort of genius Robin Hood caper. Scott finds he can’t even hold down a Baskin & Robbins starting position with his prison record, which is a problem since he needs a job and an apartment before he can apply for shared custody of his little girl, so he gets lured back into a burgling by his buddy Luis (Michael Peña, who gets the best laughs in the movie in twin sequences involving rapid-fire flashbacks and ridiculous lip-synching). But, a-ha!, the burgling was covertly masterminded by entomologist, physicist and former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who figured out how to “change the distance between atoms.” Which, as it turns out, is dangerous! It means that you can turn normal-sized guys into super-small super-soldiers, which is something Pym’s former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), with the aid of Pym’s foxy daughter Hope (Canada’s own Evangeline Lily), is hot to develop and sell to obviously nefarious fellows in suits. Thus Pym needs Scott to become Ant-Man, right? Complications ensue.



Sound complicated? It is! But no more so than your average super hero movie, which, it always seems to me, would work better as a super hero mini-series, since there are always at least three complete three-act narratives squashed into one of these tent-pole epics. Nevertheless, Ant-Man, directed by Peyton Reed (Bring It On) with the right balance of magnitude and irreverence, feels surprisingly fleet. The film could have done without several of the requisite plot twists or the entirely superfluous Avengers cameo, but these detours are made up for by some inventive set-pieces, including on that involves a giant Thomas the Tank Engine falling out of a suburban house while two guys the size of peas duke it out in the carpet jungle. Unlike some other recent spectacle films (e.g.: Terminator: Genisys), it helps immensely that Ant-Man has experienced actors with actual personalities in the lead roles, and it helps still more to have a writing team like that of Rudd, Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish and Adam McKay fleshing out the boiler-plate plot. Also: there are lots of actual ants doing heroic things. Let’s hear it for ending the cinema’s unjust tradition of demonizing ugly insects.
                         

Monday, July 13, 2015

Dying in public


“You should be stronger than me,” goes one of numerous queasily portentous lyrics heard during Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the late British jazz and soul singer Amy Winehouse. Winehouse delivered those words with the same playful, dexterous, at times almost abstract vocal style that characterized all her music—like Billie Holiday, Winehouse had a way of rendering heavy sentiments with a disarming, sometimes teasing coo. But the words of ‘Stronger Than Me’ reverberate through this devastating film because we can’t help but wonder if things would have turned out very differently had Winehouse’s family, friends, lovers, collaborators and business partners been a little stronger. It’s not an unreasonable expectation, given that Winehouse was still a teenager when she began her career, which rocketed her to stardom before coming to a screeching halt in 2011, when Winehouse, at age 27, died from alcohol poisoning and complications arising from various addictions and bulimia.  


Amy features a running voice-over that weaves together several new interviews with those who knew and worked with her into a grand collective testimony (or port-mortem). But, echoing Kapadia’s earlier documentary Serra, Amy restricts its visual component entirely to archival materials, including a great deal of casual video made on consumer-grade cameras and cell phones—Winehouse was young enough to be a member of a generation accustomed to making videos of virtually everything they do. The result can be arrestingly intimate, as well as crappy looking, and, given the deep, morbid unease that grows over the course of the film, it is not altogether dissimilar to a found-footage horror film. We start out watching someone with tremendous talent come to realize her potential for creative and commercial success, but it’s not too long before we get wise to where this is all inevitably leading: we’re watching someone fall into a pit, grasping at loose dirt along the way. We’re watching someone devoid of coping tools struggle to navigate addiction and fame at its most oppressive. We’re watching someone die in public. 


Which is to say that Amy makes a perfect companion piece to Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, replete with the codependent and enabling addict spouse as a key character in the story. (Though in Winehouse’s case the figure in her life who appears to carry the heaviest burden of guilt in facilitating her collapse is her father, who’s actually mentioned in ‘Rehab,’ Winehouse’s brilliant, blackly comic hit, as dissuading her from seeking help.) There is, of course, an obvious difference between Amy and Montage: Montage made extremely creative use of archival materials—home movies, journals, tape recordings, et cetera—to create a film bearing a certain aesthetic kinship to its subject’s work and incorporated new material—interviews, animation—when necessary. Amy, by contrast, is slavish about its formalist conceit—other than the use of written lyrics superimposed on screen, there’s nothing visual in Amy that isn’t archival. I often admire films that apply rigour to a formal proposal, but so little of what’s on screen in Amy is compellingly cinematic and there are several scenes where the clumsily shot footage feels like a placeholder as we work through the narrative. I wonder whether or not this choice really helps the film tell its story or simply limits how that story is told. 
            

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Even robots age


“I’m old, not obsolete.” That’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 (Model 101) defending his—and Schwarzenegger’s—continuing role in saving mankind by delivering a quip so quippy it’s dispensed no less than three times over the course of Terminator: Genisys. But ol’ T-800 could just as easily be defending the entire Terminator franchise, which, in terms of narrative cohesion, has permanently guarded itself against obsolescence by incorporating a confusing series of parallel destinies generated by its characters’ ability to travel through time and alter history. No amount of time travel, however, can alter the fact that the original Terminator remains the most inspired, efficient and charming—and cheap!—of the current quintet of Terminator manifestations.


Which is not to say that Genisys is without merit. Beginning in 2029, the story follows post-apocalyptic resistance fighter Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) as he travels back to 1984—the year of the original film—to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) from killer robots so that she can give birth to John Connor (Jason Clarke), the leader of the anti-killer robot resistance. But circumstances are such that Kyle and Sarah, with the help of Schwarzenegger’s T-800, whom Sarah affectionately dubs “Pops”, then need to travel to 2017, which, now that history has been repeatedly altered, has become the year formerly known as 1997, a.k.a. the year of “Judgment Day,” when the killer robots take over and slaughter most humans. I can’t possibly explain all this here, but you’ll be glad when you make it to 2017 because that’s when some good actors—J.K. Simmons!—arrive to infuse the supporting characters with a little life. Genisys, alas, follows the original Terminator in placing the star in a supporting robot role while sticking a robotic actor in the lead, while replacing tough Linda Hamilton with baby-faced and not terribly convincing Clarke. Still, it’s fun how “Pops” assumes the role of overprotective dad to Kyle’s hubristic suitor. And it’s appealingly morbid how Kyle has spent his whole life in love with Sarah, a dead woman he knows only from a snapshot of her wearing a headband. Until, of course, he gets to meet Sarah (sans headband) in 1984 and they take a trip to 2017 together, naked and embracing in the time machine.


The film is quite entertaining, and so many things in it are almost interesting: the  nods toward La jetée and Frankenstein, the nonsensical discussions about free will—and, by the way, where do the robots keep finding the will to destroy mankind?—and the story’s overriding anti-consumerist critique. That’s right: Terminator: Genisys is critical of you buying stuff, “Genisys” being the name of a new operating system that will link every device you own—and, little do we stupid tech-mongers realize, allow the robots to crush us all in their invincible liquid metal grips! Which reminds me: do you like monster truck rallies? Because there is this larger question, looming over Transformers, Terminators and superheroes alike, about how long it takes it lose interest in machines pummeling each other without ever getting being in danger of annihilation. It’s not exactly suspenseful.


Also, speaking of boringly invincible robots, that quip—“I’m old, not obsolete”—is made because Kyle notices that Schwarzenegger’s T-800’s flesh looks less fresh than the other terminators. The logic being that, while robots stay the same inside, robot flesh is just like human flesh—which is weird because “Pops” gets his flesh ripped to shreds multiple times in Genisys and within minutes it seems to grow right back to normal 67-year-old former-governor-of-California flesh. Baffling! But I’m confident the next chapter in the interminable Terminator saga will figure out why this is, and explain it in some expository dialogue.
                       

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Two masters, building with precious time


There are collaborations and there are collaborations. In the movies, as in the theatre, collaboration is usually something that occurs over a handful of hectic weeks, often between artists who just met. The result can be brilliant or banal, but it must be arrived at under duress. Time is money, and those who can’t become galvanized by pressure enter into a life in the movies or the theatre at their peril. That stage director André Gregory and playwright-actor Wallace Shawn have been able to collaborate on projects over much longer periods—most recently a period of 15 years!—is evidence of an uncommon devotion to the vagaries of long-term creative exchange. Okay, that and, most likely, some degree of privilege. But this privilege has not been squandered. On the contrary, their collaborations have resulted in some legendary theatrical experiences and three singular, spellbinding, rule-breaking works of cinema, all of which have been collected in André Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films, Criterion’s inspired new multi-disc collection. Taken as a whole, these films not only chronicle the cinematic manifestations of Gregory and Shawn’s more than 40-year relationship; they also function as a testament to the still-untapped potential for the movies and the theatre to inform each other in aesthetic, formal and thematic terms and, perhaps most importantly, in their processes.


My Dinner With André (1981) has been around and been beloved for an awful long time now—can we all finally agree that a talky movie is not an inherently inferior thing? That listening can also provide cinematic rapture? I can’t think of a better rainy afternoon movie. Nor can I imagine many of Richard Linklater’s finest and most innovative films (Slacker, Waking Life, the Before… series) being made without this precedent. Directed by Louis Malle and written by Gregory and Shawn, who play “André Gregory” and “Wallace Shawn” respectively, Dinner unfolds almost entirely around a single table, occupied by two men and occasionally loomed over by a blinking waiter with an amusing resemblance to Samuel Beckett. Dinner is about dialogue, and thus a study in contrasts: between the opening shot of an oil barrel on an abandoned, dingy street and the refined restaurant where our characters meet, eat and converse; between the easy elegance of Gregory, speaking in mellifluous tones of strange experiences in exotic locales in search of transcendence, and the squat, chinless Shawn, dressed all in beige, mostly listening and posing questions as a way of managing his unease—until he finally reveals his mixture of fascination and contempt for what could be deemed as Gregory’s misguided mysticism, spurred by an apparent nervous breakdown.


Gregory tells of going to the Sahara with a Japanese monk; undertaking deeply ambiguous theatrical exercises with Jerzy Grotowski; tracking uncanny coincidences in old copies of Minotaur; the ostensibly fascist overtones of The Little Prince. Gregory compares a few too many things to Nazis and the Holocaust and over the course of this often very funny but also very serious film. He comes off as both a fool and a wise man. He seems above all to want to be present in the world, and the feeling of being present, of heightened senses, is exactly what Dinner offers. Every time I watch it at home I think I’m going to hit pause at some point, to watch it in parts—and every time I lose track of time and take it all in in a single uninterrupted viewing.


Where the source material for Dinner was its creators’ relationship and personal experiences, the next two films look to works from two of the 19th century’s most canonical playwrights. Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), also directed by Malle, transplants Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to a crumbling Manhattan theatre long out of use, where Gregory and a group of actors—Shawn, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, and others—invite us to a sort of open rehearsal for a project that they have been exploring, with no particular plan for production, for the preceding five years. The actors use only a handful of props and dress in their own clothes. Their transition from talking about their lives to performing the text—in an adaptation credited to David Mamet—is so seamless you might not notice they’ve started until they begin to call each other by names different from their own. These roles have been lived in. We are transported. “A hundred years from now, will they remember us with a kind word?” one characters asks. This film was made almost exactly 100 years after Chekhov wrote Uncle Vanya, and his characters, all of them stuck in the countryside, in marriages or longings or business agreements they find deeply dissatisfying, are simultaneously so specific and so universal. The camerawork is subtle, beautiful and fluid, a marriage of theatrical intimacy with cinematic intimacy, documentary immediacy with exquisite artifice.


A Master Builder (2014) is Shawn’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s strange, difficult, alluring Master Builder Solness, devleoped by Gregory and the cast over a decade and a half and finally translated to the screen by Jonathan Demme. (Malle died in 1995.) Shawn plays Solness, an aging, ferocious architect who, in Gregory and Shawn’s interpretation, is on his deathbed, visited by what we suppose is an apparition of a young woman (Lisa Joyce) who by turns seems worshipful and oddly threatening, a mischievous angel. She recounts for him an occasion ten years previous on which he erected a church in her town, climbed its spire, kissed her 12-year-old lips, and promised her that one day he would build castles in the sky for them to inhabit. Whether out of guilt, self-disgust, dementia or the story’s falseness, Solness has forgotten all of this, but then remembers it, or participates in the fantasy, as she tells it back to him. Meanwhile Solness denies a talented young assistant the praise he so deserves and requires so as to forward his own career. Solness placates his unhappy wife (Julie Haggarty), who seems to both resent his neglect and dread his demise. Employing tight close-ups, ostentatious zooms and sudden impressionistic cutaways to views from a moving car, Demme’s approach, though working with Vanya’s ace cinematographer Declan Quinn, is entirely different from those taken by Malle in the preceding films, yet it is extremely effective for this project, taut and tense, riveting even, despite the play’s endless ambiguities and lengthy conversations. Demme has described A Master Builder as a haunted house story, and this is ultimately how it feels, a medley of phantoms, palpable objects and places, and carnal experience.



Criterion’s supplements are especially superlative—and too numerous to list here. Most are interviews outlining the extremely interesting development processes that I’ve only mentioned here. But I think my favourite is a conversation between Gregory, Shawn and Fran Lebowitz, touching on topics such as the truth and myth of “playing yourself,” the importance of small theatre, how the past is never really past, and working on something long enough to explore every cliché and then throw it away.
           

Sunday, June 14, 2015

His nest of salt


“You better buckle up,” Kurt Cobain’s mother said to him upon first hearing Nirvana’s Nevermind on her living room stereo, “because you are not ready for this.” Me and however many million other kids were, of course, more than ready. We were hungry, eager to identify, with no real notion as to what despair fuels such inspired, unholy, transcendent pop cacophony. Cobain was gone before we knew what hit us.


It is the despair, above all, that is the subject of Brett Morgan’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. This is not biography in any conventional sense. Exposition is largely, smartly relayed via archival materials and the tremendous wealth of diaries, drawings, music video outtakes, home movies and audio recordings entrusted to Morgan by the keepers of the Cobain estate. There are new interviews, but they are used sparingly, photographed in low light, sometimes framed in profile, and the subjects are few in number. We don’t hear from famous friends or collaborators or cultural commentators. Morgan keeps it in the family, speaking only with Cobain’s parents and sister, his first girlfriend, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, and, yes, Courtney Love. And that’s it. Most of what we see and hear is drawn from Cobain’s personal effects, the journaling and the drawings sewn together in a highly inventive manner that feels true to the spirit in which they were originally crafted. In some places Morgan employs animated reenactments that elegantly invoke a gloom and wonder that feels particular to the Pacific Northwest. He uses Cobain’s music as interpreted by Nirvana and others in unpredictable, resonant ways. True to its name, Montage of Heck is an intricate weave chronicling a life that seems to have always been perched upon the edge of some personal abyss. It’s an often brilliant movie. It is not a fun movie.


The trajectory itself is familiar: divorce, medication for hyperactivity, an adolescence spent breaking windows, smoking weed, and stealing booze. There’s an awful story of virginity loss and a first suicide attempt. In these stories we trace not only Cobain’s psychic fragility but also something of the resources for his art and personal politics. The first half or so of Montage of Heck feels guided by a musical sensibility that’s arguably akin to the darkness and exhilaration of Nirvana’s music, but the second half is deeply mimetic of Cobain’s more private desolation, perhaps to a fault. We dive long and deep into crudely made videos of Cobain and Love in their wreck of a home, playing, babbling semi-coherently. Love seems very pleased with her breasts. Eventually Love is pregnant and still the flow of drugs appears to continue. Eventually Frances Bean is born and there are questions as to whether or not the parents should have custody. Will fatherhood save Cobain from self-destruction? We know the answer, but still brace ourselves as Cobain’s life winnows down to a space in which only he is left, and then not even he. I wonder if this last section could be too much for some viewers. It’s too much for me, and Cobain kind of meant everything to me when he killed himself. But I admire Montage of Heck, and, for all the superfluous rock star profiles in this world, I think we might need this one.