Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008: the year in movies

When you’re freelancing for publications with filmgoing cultures as distinctive as New York City and Edmonton, not to mention when you’re attending festivals where movies screen sometimes years in advance of their release proper, trying to sort out what counts as a 2008 release can be mind-boggling. In the end I decided to simply go with this rule: I live in Canada, so if it had a legitimate theatrical release somewhere in Canada during the calendar year, it could be considered. And the considering was surprisingly tough. There are indeed more than ten films listed in my below best of, but I did manage at least to contain them all in ten groupings. Thus it is with some fondness that I bid adieu to the most mesmerizing movies of 2008, all of which I hope to see again sometime soon.

There Will Be Blood
P.T. Anderson’s portrait of Daniel Day-Lewis’ oil baron, a lonely man of some ferocious, near-Satanic ambition, was so intensely focused as to feel like a one-man show. But think about what ingredients truly bring this strange masterwork to life, and Day-Lewis, however ingeniously outsized, becomes only the frontman for numerous superlative craftsmen: production designer Jack Fisk, cinematographer Robert Elswit, composer Johnny Greenwood. The crazy finale, the commentary on our Faustian contract with the earth’s resources, the emphasis on savagery and, indeed, bloodletting—it all adds up to something bizarre and haunting that should keep us arguing, reconsidering and celebrating for years.

Silent Light
Carlos Reygadas’ third feature, which concerns a love triangle in a Chihuahua Mennonite community, is at once a study in the most primal moral struggles and a gentle acceptance of the miraculous, whether it be found in love’s defiance of mortal boundaries or in something as quotidian as the sun’s ascent and departure. A touchingly non-judgmental film teeming with natural wonder and arresting human connections. And the question is begged: what will this guy do next?

My Winnipeg, Synecdoche, New York
The world as reflected through he self, and vice versa. In his first “docu-phantasia,” Guy Maddin profiles his hometown in audaciously hyperbolic flights of imagination and winds up contemplating the impossibility of truly breaking with his own past, embodied most potently in the late, indomitable Ann Savage, who plays Maddin’s mom. In his first time out as director, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman creates a surrogate version of himself, played with gravity and great humour by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who attempts to make a piece of theatre that contains the world, though the world it contains is of course only his, a vast simulacrum of unfulfilled desire and tenuous human connections. Both films are funny, moving, and at times sublimely surreal.

Encounters at the End of the World
While Maddin evoked cursed psychic traps mystically a-flowing beneath Winnipeg’s snowy crust, Werner Herzog whisked us to very the bottom of the world, the place where so many of its misfits gradually slip down toward as they try to find a place in the world. The title’s more than a pun—everyone working in Antarctica, watching ice caps melt up close and personal, seems acutely aware of the looming devastation of global warming—yet somehow we simultaneously get one of the warmest portraits of human nature Herzog’s ever made, a group portrait of a very oddly assembled family.

Paranoid Park
Gus Van Sant’s beguiling portrait of bewildered youth and accidental death moves in mesmerizing circles as its teen hero starts and stops his written testament. The skateboard sequences quietly dazzle and the teen performances catch you utterly off guard in this, yet another fresh variation on the director’s death trip.

Happy-Go-Lucky, Rachel Getting Married
These are sensitive, vital and enormously entertaining stories about the more elusive aspects of personal responsibility. Sally Hawkins’ unshakably perky Poppy is forced to consider the limitations of hoisting cheerfulness upon the world—or, at least, upon grumpy Londoners—while Anne Hathaway’s Kym, freshly released from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding, becomes the catalyst, or sin-eater, once again for her family’s collective neuroses. If these aren’t two of the finest female leads of 2008 then I don’t know anything about movies. And it’s equally thrilling to see both directors Mike Leigh and Jonathan Demme especially at the very top of the game.

Flight of the Red Balloon
Juliette Binoche is vivaciously batty as a single mother and voice actor living comfortably in perpetual chaos, while her son introduces his Chinese babysitter/filmmaker to Paris and to the mischievous drifting globe of the title. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first movie in French is a sublime homage to Lamorisse’s 1956 classic La Ballon Rogue and makes sweeping cinema from the most simple ingredients.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
A procedural, of sorts, in which writer/director Christian Mungiu traces the steps required by a young woman to procure an abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania. It’s gruesome, suspenseful, fascinating, and more stimulating for not actually being overtly polemical. Among other things, it’s a story of friendship’s end, with the truly remarkable Anamaria Marinca enduring some grueling trials for the sake of her drearily too-pregnant roommate.  

Man on Wire
James Marsh’s reconstruction of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers is ultimately an emotionally overwhelming experience. There’s something nearly ineffable in Petit’s feat, though the attempts made by his colleagues to recall the wonder of that day and its never-to-be-repeated crime of spectacle are deeply compelling. And Petit himself is such a marvelous storyteller that, even if there weren’t such terrific archival materials to pull from, a movie of just him talking probably would’ve been nearly as good.

La France, The Band’s Visit, Still Life
Why did I automatically think of these films as kindred spirits? Serge Bozon’s wonderful cross-dressing musical about French soldiers wandering far from their proscribed path in war-torn Europe exists in a world all its own. Meanwhile, Eran Kolirin’s tale of an Egyptian classical music group stuck in some Israeli backwater seems a million miles away from Jia Zhang-ke’s chronicle of people trying to tie up loose ends with estranged family members in villages becoming slowly submerged by China’s colossal Three Gorges Dam project. Yet there’s something about the landscapes and the desolation, the at times uneasy interaction between strangers and acquaintances alike, and the sense of, well, stillness, that binds such stories in their subtle comedy, admiration for small gestures of dignity and bone-deep dislocation. And there is finally a nomadic spirit at work in all of these that speaks to the communal spirit that can bring together wanderers astray on life’s unruly roads.

If only I could also fit:
Before I Forget, Standard Operating Procedure, The Last Mistress.

Monday, December 29, 2008

2008: the year in DVD

It’s one of my favourite parts of my job, discovering some treasure long forgotten, previously hard-to-find or crying out for reassessment. Looking over the past year’s standout DVDs I see two interesting trends: a steady stream of compelling westerns and fresh opportunities to appreciate the astonishing presence and emotional dexterity of the great actresses of Hollywood’s studio era—sometimes both in the same title.

The Furies, Day of the Outlaw
Barbara Stanwyck’s magnificent performance in Anthony Mann’s fascinatingly perverse 1950 western, a web of incest, gender reversal and land ownership, is alternately terrifying—keep your eye on those scissors—and moving. Equally scary and nearly as affecting is Robert Ryan, heartsick, vengeful and rivetingly repressed, in Andre De Toth’s wintry 1959 western, in which grotesque outlaws, led by Burl Ives, take over a farming community. 

Kid Galahad, Daisy Kenyon
The long road of high stakes and good times shared by the no-longer-young Bette Davis and Edward G. Robinson reaches its terminus in this superb 1937 boxing flick. She falls for a naïve fighter but only winds up steering him toward another woman with a fraction of her easy-going charm. Joan Crawford however can’t decide between crazy WWII vet Henry Fonda and adulterous lawyer Dana Andrews in Otto Preminger’s 1947 women’s picture—yet watching her try makes for something of profound emotional textures.

Blast of Silence
Writer/director/star Allen Baron’s ultra-low budget 1961 noir is a stark portrait of a neurotic, lonesome hitman, as well as one of the movies’ most striking portraits of New York City. Criterion's supplements heighten the film's unique position as both an inspired one-off from an unusual and little known talent in American movies, as well as supplying a sense of how the city has changed.

Dr. Renault’s Secret, Dragonwyck
Gene Tierney’s the innocent country girl swept off to Vincent Price’s lordly lair of aristocratic rot in Joseph Mankiewicz’s excellent 1946 gothic melodrama. Yet Tierney’s not as fundamentally innocent as the amazing J. Carroll Naish, who plays both the brute, inarticulate hero and monster in Harry Lachman’s 1942 post-Darwinian horror film, which was truly my B-movie discovery of the year, brimming with strangeness and fascinating supporting performances, including one from the inimitable Mike Mazurki.

Moontide, Road House
Ida Lupino is the suicidal waif who pierces the heart of Jean Gabin’s wandering longshoreman amidst murder, booze and plumes of fog in this atmospheric, creepily homoerotic 1942 proto-noir half directed and then abandoned by Fritz Lang. Lupino then manages to turn just about everybody on, including Richard Widmark and Cornell Wilde, as the traveling take-no-shit singer and pianist in this sexy, very adult 1948 noir. Both came from Fox as part of their continuing series of noir releases, a series that hopefully keep up its annual yield in 2009.

Death of a Cyclist
Juan Antonio Bardem exposes the lower depths of classism in Franco’s Spain in this 1955 noir. A secret affair is threatened with exposure after an accidental killing on a bleak country road.

Mon Oncle Antoine
There’s something ridiculous in labeling what’s been deemed the greatest Canadian film of all time a discovery, but, sadly enough, there you have it. I confess, I never saw it until Criterion, and American company, put it out. But I don't think I'm alone in undervaluing the classics of my own country. Claude Jutra’s richly evocative 1971 masterpiece captures a moment of transition in rural Quebec and a child’s developing awareness of sex, death and the trail of hidden compromises that lead to adulthood.

Larisa Shepitko, Aki Kaurismäki’s Proletariat Trilogy, The Films of Budd Boetticher
Three multi-title director showcase boxes of tremendous value. Shepitko’s films were poetic explorations of troubled Soviet memories; Kaurismäki’s are marked by a highly distinctive, minimalist comic deadpan and affection for crime stories about losers; Boetticher helmed some of the best westerns of the 50s, five of which are included here.

The Small Back Room, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1949 wartime drama features an alcoholic demolitions expert who has to both diffuse a bomb and keep alive an old flame. Martin Ritt’s 1964 spy story plunges us headfirst into the Cold War and the chilling lengths governments traverse for the sake of secrecy. It features a terrifically brooding turn from Richard Burton that seems like it must have been study material for Daniel Craig. Two brilliant British films about the toll of war on ordinary lives.

The Ballad of Narayama, Mishima
With the death of Ken Ogata last October, Japan lost one of its great film actors. In Shohei Imamura’s 1983 epic Palme d’Or-winner, set in a backward rural community, Ogata played the son of an old woman who must be taken up a mountain to die. In Paul Schrader’s 1985 biopic, Ogata embodied legendary writer Yukio Mishima, who suicided in 1970 after a failed military coup, and remains a controversial figure to this day... Okay, so
Mishima was anything but a discovery for me, but it deserves extra recognition here as some sort of milestone in the biopic, as a beautifully put together DVD package with commentary from the always articulate Schrader and as an extraordinary showcase for Ogata.  

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Spiritual vacancy

The fantasy is hardly new, but there’s a novelty to its veneer that holds a certain initial thrill. The hero, a murdered cop raised from the grave, exists beyond death. The villain, too, is invincible. There’s the suggestion they could fight for all eternity, like Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, with no limit to the cartoony extremes of meaningless violence they can exact on each other. The women are uniformly astonishing objects, every one untouched by age, imperfection, gravity. Even the rookie cop wears a uniform revealing luscious cleavage. There’s a climactic four-way showdown in some part of town called “the projects,” yet not a single person seems to live there. So we have a world without poverty, pain or unattractive women. Or death. Or even, it would seem, colour, beyond red. Yet there’s no limit to the diversity of weaponry, so rest assured we get plenty of noise. Yes, it’s beautiful in its limited way. But is that enough?

I suppose
The Spirit, written and directed by Frank Miller, inspired by Will Eisner’s comic, shot on the same digital backlot that produced the stylistically akin Sin City, represents the future, or maybe just the sluggish-to-catch-on present, of movies. But I dearly hope it’s not the only future, this hermetically sealed world that eschews what some of us love about movies: actual places, sunlight, spontaneity, interaction, evocations of sensual experience. The titular super hero (Gabriel Macht) is a ghost of sorts. Fittingly, he inhabits a city where everything’s the vaguest suggestion of something that might have once breathed. It’s a twist on the texture of film noir, but this twist squeezes out all of noir’s pathos and sweat.

“My city needs me,” the Spirit soliloquizes. “She is my love. She is my life.” There’s no mistaking this for anything but unabashed melodrama, and that’s fine—there’s plenty of room in the movies these days for alternatives to the standard of supposed naturalism. But characters speak exclusively in shopworn hard-boiled patter, expository monologues, or declamatory statements that extinguish subtext. There are flourishes of visual expressionism: an automaton created by evil genetic scientist the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) commits ritual seppuku, and the background’s consumed with the blood-red rays of the Japanese flag; characters swim in waters so murky they could be drifting through gaseous portals in space. But all the eye candy, from the misty skies of fluttering snow to Eva Mendes’ immaculate ass, begins to wear as the story proves itself bereft of feeling. The characters are stereotypes. Their stories get very boring.

There’s not much point in talking performances here, though Jackson seems to have a good time. And I am kind of fascinated by the Octopus’ emphatic dislike of eggs, which seems counterintuitive given that, besides being a beloved breakfast staple, eggs are a symbol of rebirth, and Octopus is singularly obsessed with immortality. And they’re luminescent white, one of few colours Miller permits. They’re also as thin and fragile as Miller’s story, which threatens to grow into a franchise where hero and villain just keep beating the, er, living shit out of each other in the presence of fawning babes, against a backdrop of absolutely nothing.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Mountains, war, vocation: three by Herzog

Central to the ongoing thematic concerns of Werner Herzog’s cinema is the question of vocation, of what activities, often wildly ambitious, seemingly pathological or downright peculiar, call out to certain, often-eccentric individuals, giving their lives a sense of almost divinely inspired purpose. It’s one of the things that allows the not un-eccentric Herzog to connect to so many subjects he might otherwise feel unable to relate with, from the tyrannical conquistador in Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972) to the delusional would-be bear savior Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man (05).

Legendary mountain climber Reinhold Messner—whose ‘My Quest for the Yeti,’ much to my friends’ amusement, occupies a permanent spot on my bookshelf—is surely not a guy Herzog would find completely simpatico, given the filmmaker’s outspoken aversion to all things New Age. But Messner possesses at least one characteristic with which Herzog’s in complete alignment: a fierce impulse to test both the limits of human endurance and the benevolence of nature. And it surely scores points in Messner’s favour that he openly acknowledges the loopiness of his pursuit, calling the desire to climb mountains a “degeneration” of the human psyche.

Herzog’s ‘The Dark Glow of the Mountains’ (85) profiles Messner before and after he and Hans Kammerlander’s unprecedented excursion over a pair of 8000-metre high Himalayan peaks. The strength of Messner’s resolve is beyond doubt—he confesses that he has only four toes left, the remainder presumably lost to frostbite. He continues to climb even after the death of his brother on a previous ascent. Herzog clearly reveres Messner’s obsessiveness, something Messner refers to as a form of creativity. Yet one of the most fascinating moments in the film comes when Herzog questions Messner about what else he could imagine doing with his life besides climbing. Messner confesses that he’s love to walk, without itinerary, “until the world stops.” Herzog, off-camera, admits to maintaining precisely the same fantasy: “I like the idea of just disappearing, walking away, turning down the path and carrying on until there is no path to follow. I would like to have huskies with leather saddle bags and just walk and walk until there is no road left.”

This desire to slip away into the infinite is beautifully mirrored by the camerawork: the tracing of majestic peaks in the upward gaze of a pilgrim, circling a full 360º as if to announce full enclosure in this forbidding environment; the tracing of a narrow, equally jagged crevasse with its rushing waters frothing far below; the static image of Messner and Kammerlander slowly vanishing into a field of rock and snow. Not that every scene in ‘The Dark Glow’ is composed solely of reverie and awe. There’s a sublimely comic interlude where Messner gets this unusually expressive massage from one of his porters, a little guy wearing giant mirror aviator shades, who dances his hands all over Messner’s head while Messner goes on about something I couldn’t concentrate on for doubling-over in laughter.

‘The Dark Glow’ can be found on New Yorker’s Herzog Shorts Vol. 2, a nice collection of relatively obscure works, and a package for which I have only one, albeit sizable, complaint. ‘The Dark Glow’ has no subtitles! Instead it offers supremely lame English-language dubbing over of both the narration and Messner and Kammerlander’s comments. Anyone familiar with Herzog’s distinctive oratorical style will surely be distracted by this, though if for some reason the original German soundtrack was unavailable I guess I’m just grateful to be able to see the film at all, as well as the other two others featured here.

‘Ballad of the Little Soldier’ (84) begins with the image of a child in a jungle singing merrily along to ‘La Niña de la mochila azul,’ a Mexican ranchera playing on a portable cassette player. He’s also wielding what if I’m not mistaken is an AK-47. Co-directed with Denis Reichle, who was himself a soldier in the German national militia at the age of 14, this investigation into the proliferation of Miskito child resistance fighters in Nicaragua seems at first blush the most didactic work in Herzog’s oeuvre.

But while Herzog’s sober voice-over strives to educate viewers on the plight of the Miskitos, who allegedly suffered tremendous losses at the hands of Sandinistas, leaving countless children without parents and hungry for justice, ‘Ballad’ clearly divorces itself from any polemical arguments for or against the Sandinista cause. It’s a truly heart-rending, nerve-wracking film—with Herzog himself apparently filming under fire—that, like Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (64), reveals just how disturbingly devoted children in warfare can be. Robbed of family, familiar with death yet regarding their future as something altogether abstract, they lack the sort of fear that can paralyze adults in certain decisive moments.

The final short on the disc is ‘Precautions Against Fanatics’ (69), a wonderfully bizarre, 11-minute film sculpted like an avant-garde poem. There is a man—perhaps a precursor to Treadwell—who’s appointed himself a guardian of racehorses. He demonstrates his capabilities by karate chopping pieces of wood. There is another man, older, moustahced, with one arm tucked inside his clothing, who says only he understands the horses and demands that the first man should go away. Which of these is the real guardian of the horses is a genuine mystery, though I must say I never sensed the horses were in any grave danger.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Church and state of uncertainty

If, like me, you’ve never seen John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, you may want to avoid learning too much about
Doubt, the new film version adapted and directed by Shanley himself. Set strictly within the confines of a Bronx Catholic School in 1964, it’s a dramatic meditation on the dichotomy of ambiguity and faith, or as two characters put it, proof and certainty. There’s pleasure to be had in watching the events unfold blind, learning the facts to be debated only as they arise, piece by carefully doled-out piece.

Having said that, many of you will catch on to where this is heading from the outset, in a scene where each of the central players are present and the conflict, in its way, is spelled right out for us. Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) gives a sermon on the theme of doubt and how it might bring us together rather than leave us in lonely despair. As Flynn gives examples of internal sources of unease, little things “no one knows” about us, Shanley cuts to individuals in the congregation, listening with rapt attention and recognition. It’s as though Flynn’s speaking directly to them, as though he’s somehow looked into their souls and diagnosed their unspoken suffering. But when Flynn offers his last example of secret turmoil—“No one knows I’ve done something wrong”—the camera rests firmly on Flynn himself. The moment is not exactly subtle, but it is elegant.

The evidence against Flynn, in a superbly amiable, layered performance from Hoffman, racks up swiftly. Flynn smiles a lot, and offers physical affection to his kids. He takes an unseemly amount of sugar in his tea, makes unseemly jokes with his fellow priests. He likes his nails kinda long. He keeps little flowers in his Bible. Most importantly, he singles out Donald Miller (Joseph Foster, perfect), the school’s only black student, and an alter boy, for special attention. He becomes, in the words of one character, Donald’s “protector.” When Sister James (Amy Adams) eventually sees something that suggests an “unhealthy” bond being forged between Flynn and Donald, she brings the issue to the attention of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the fearsome, ultra-stern school principal half-jokingly referred to by Flynn as a dragon. Very quietly and methodically, a campaign’s undertaken to get rid of Father Flynn, preferably following a full confession.

Much has been made about Shanley’s tip-toeing around the truth with regards to what unfolds behind closed doors in Doubt, but in all honestly I think the truth’s pretty damned clear, though more time with Donald, who’s conspicuously absent for much of the movie, might have shifted our reading of the scenario either way. The exact actions Flynn is guilty of are not so important to the story as the disturbing polarities of entitlement and genuine compassion he exudes. Admittedly, my reading probably says as much about my regard for the priesthood as it does Shanley’s intended subtext.

Personally, I’m more than fine with ambiguity—hell, Rashomon’s one of my favourite movies—if it yields something resonant or provocative about the subject being considered, and Doubt is absolutely engaging in this sense, thick with portent, psychological struggle, dynamic characterizations, uncomfortable questions. Yet, if anything, Shanley’s directorial style isn’t ambiguous enough. His is a strained sort of classicism, with ostentatiously skewed angles in moments fraught with paranoia. (A chamber drama about spiritual unease and all-too earthly temptations that relies on tight shots of faces negotiating how much can or cannot be reveled: we are very much in Ingmar Bergman territory here, and there were moments while watching Doubt that I really missed the late master.) Shanley’s approach is an odd mix of conservatism and flamboyance, and feels neither here not here. Still, the dialogues really grab you, the silences chill you, the photography, courtesy of Roger Deakins, is crisp, contained and magnificent. And the actors are most often brilliantly nuanced, even if one in particular, for better of for worse, really stands out from the others.

Streep’s is a fussed-over performance, featuring the broadest accent and most severe facial mask of the ensemble, a pale pinched pout under red-rimmed eyes that peers out from under that black bonnet in a way that renders Aloysius a spinster sucking on some holy lemon that she proudly refuses to reject. Yet I don’t think Streep’s detractors are going to convince anyone who’s actually seen this movie that her performance is anything less than riveting, driving every scene right to its precipice of tension—you can call her affected, but every affectation is loaded with purpose, and nothing is wasted.

The sole moment where Streep genuinely falters would have to be the film’s final one, a brief, sudden emotional thaw pitched to function as the sort of transcendental release perfected by Robert Bresson in Pickpocket (1959), and emulated in numerous movies since, most notably, and most effectively, in American Gigolo (80) and L’Enfant (05). But I think Shanley should probably be the one to ultimately take the heat for this limpid finale. Where he could have left us with a devastating whisper and fade, with another disarming close-up, he’s opted for weepy collapse, rising music and crane shot. Instead of drawing us in he casts out of the emotion, giving us no room to feel anything on our own. He may argue that he’s simply giving the audience the sort of big closing uplift they need, but what can I say? I have my doubts.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Devil in the details: Margaret Atwood's Payback

Margaret Atwood is nothing if not an irreverent polemicist. In the final days of a federal election so abysmally superfluous, inconsequential and lacking in dynamic options that fewer Canadians bothered to vote than during any previous election in history, Atwood announced her advocacy for the Bloq Québécois, a party that, besides not actually appearing on the ballots of the vast majority of the country’s ridings, including Atwood’s, is fundamentally committed to removing the entire province of Quebec from Canada. The point? At least they gave a shit about the arts.

To be sure, as complimented by her intelligence, curiosity and wit, Atwood’s irreverence is something to be grateful for. Her sounding off on whatever is a welcome element in the national discourse, her particular irreverence speaking to a healthy skepticism not only on the author’s part but also on that of her readers, who are encouraged to consider the merits of each of Atwood’s arguments and arrive at their own conclusion. This is especially the case with the eerily well-timed Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (House of Anansi, $18.95), Atwood’s contribution to the CBC Massey Lecture Series. It is a relatively slim volume, jam-packed with facts, proposals and surprising, insightful connections between extant myths and notions on its central topic. But if it’s final chapter feels a bit slight after all the hearty build-up, I think it’s mainly because the ball has finally been tossed in our court. It is difficult to look at a ball just sitting there, inert and waiting to be picked up.

Payback goes way back. In searching for the origins of debt, of balances and exchanges, Atwood ultimately suggests that it may be primal, citing experiments on monkeys that reveal innate tendencies resembling credit and trade negotiations. With an inevitable emphasis on literary sources however—Atwood is above all a novelist and poet, and she’s ever mindful of the practical uses of literature—she gets the best mileage out of the Devil and the myriad Fausts who’ve accepted his always popular buy-now, pay-later schemes over the years. Mephistopheles has a knack for bookkeeping, it would seem, and a dependence on the sort of binding legalities that’s been mystified everyone from illiterate farmers suffering a bad yield to gambling addicts on the lam to ordinary homebuyers from time immemorial. Debt requires an account, which is to say a narrative, and the accumulation of debt, Atwood posits, is so precariously seductive because it helps give our lives a story. Debt is drama. We are what we owe, and our stories are sometimes defined by the settling and unsettling of accounts. The great body of 19th century Western literature, as Atwood smartly observes, was always very much concerned with money and class, and in a memorable survey of some of its most famous protagonists Atwood declares that Emma Bovary in the end wasn’t punished for sex but “shopaholicism.”

It’s important to note that in exploring the idea of debt in stories, ones often featuring transactions involving spiritual, supernatural or in any case non-monetary properties, money itself is never the real issue. Currency, as the “current” part of that word implies, is fluid and merely representational. Considerations of what items we place fundamental value on are thus duly approached, especially in the final, most problematic chapter, which finds a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge realizing how closely his fortunes, both literal and figurative, are dependent on the dictates of environmental devastation. But Atwood’s engagement with the more shaded characteristics of debt collectors and their clients reaches its most satisfying depths in her analysis of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which takes into account religious and ethnic differences—Antonio, she points out, didn’t charge interest on his loans not because he was a good guy but because as a Christian interest was actually outlawed at the time—and views Antonio and Shylock as uncomfortably codependent in the development of their own stories. Antonio “has projected onto Shylock—as his Shadow—the malice and the greediness that he himself possesses but can’t acknowledge. He’s made Shylock his whipping boy.” It’s a major highlight.

Looming over Payback is the question of debt as sin, and who of the two parties it requires is the more sinful. I’m not sure this is resolved, but the question is most interestingly complicated by Atwood’s discussion of sin eaters, with Christ’s martyrdom embodying one grandiose redemption of the huge Original Sin debt. It takes time, but by the final chapter this does all slowly bring us to the fraught idea of forgiving debts, of social justice, and of one of the most troubling conundrums of the globalized economy. Atwood wastes few words on the issue, directing our attention to the “shadow side” of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, whose money-lending practices have fostered such abominable overspending by irresponsible leaders, leaving their desperate citizens with a bill they have no hope of being able to pay off. In the end Atwood actually says very little about the big issues we expect, mostly because the conclusions to be drawn from her study are so self-evident.

But many readers will still feel let down by Atwood’s parting tale, that new, corporate Scrooge taken on a magical mystery tour by the Spirits of Earth Day Past, Present and Future. Seriously, Earth Day. The frustrating part of this little revamp on Dickens isn’t that Atwood goes all hippy-dippy on us—her sense of humour remains firmly intact when dryly describing Scrooge’s coveting of hemp suits—but that her only prescription for resolving our economic-ecological crisis lies in dreams of sweeping, rather idealistic social change. The cynicism can be read quite easily between the lines, and our hopes of leveling our massive collective debts are left in danger of feeling all the more in vain. I guess it depends on how you read the last lines, as challenge or resignation: How do I even begin to pay back what I owe? Where should I start?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

High-minded themes fall disappointingly flat In Delgo... not that anyone noticed

With their natural resources evaporating, the winged Nohrins immigrated to Jhamora, the country long settled by the lizard-like, mystically inclined Lockni, and were initially welcomed warmly. But the Nohrins got greedy and took more than their share and things got ugly, ending only when the Nohrin evil schemer Sedessa was banished to some awful place inhabited by gargoyle-like creatures with digestion problems. All this is relayed in the swiftly paced prelude to
Delgo and, though parallels to real life histories of colonialism—including recent misadventures in the Middle East—are admirably conveyed, the deluge of exposition may prove a bit much for the little ones to absorb. Me, I had more trouble keeping the goofy names straight. Who comes up with this stuff?

The exploration of the perils of empire, the inclusion of a character with a gambling addiction, and the forbidden interracial romance that drives the narrative give Delgo some nice, timely shading, but I’m not certain if that all these efforts finally play out to any great effect. The first third intrigues well enough, but once the action starts the character development essentially stops and there’s an awful lot of over-long fights and chases that lack excitement. It doesn’t help that several characters are drearily flat, while potentially more dynamic characters are either shelved early on or suffer deeply uninspired vocal performances from the Freddie Prinze, Jr., Jennifer Love Hewitt or especially Chris Kattan, who voices the hero’s grating fop sidekick.

The best thing in Delgo is in fact the worst thing in Delgo, at least in moral terms, which is to say the villain predictably steals the show. Anne Bancroft may have died three and a half years ago, but her sultry voice makes one final and highly pleasurable contribution here as Sedessa, by far the most eroticized creature on display in this otherwise largely neutered fantasy realm. In one scene she slinks about in a crimson, skin-tight, crushed velvet dress and some sort of corset, or at least a push-up bra. In another she dons thigh-high boots and ass-hugging pants. She uses her sexuality to mystify and manipulate those whom she figures can advance her plot to provoke a new war between the Nohrins and Lockni on false terms in yet another unspoken link to the invasion of Iraq. Again, I wonder how much a six-year-old will respond to such undertones, but for parents a little taste of Mrs. Robinson should help to pass the time.

As I post this I've just learned that Delgo now possesses the unhappy distinction of having experienced the worst wide release opening ever, earning only half a million bucks on over 2000 screens on its first weekend. Can't say I was shocked to learn this since I watched it in a theatre with one adults and two kids. It is by no means a great movie of any kind, but it makes you wonder just how hopeless it is trying to put a kid's cartoon out these days that doesn't have the stamp of Disney or one of its imprints on it. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Liv Ullman at 70: a look back at Saraband

Liv Ullman turns 70 today. Her strangely angular, deeply sensual beauty; her tremendous presence even, perhaps especially, when silent; her worry, joy and wonder; her sometimes near-palpable warmth; her sometimes fearsome wrath: all of these qualities have kept me more or less spellbound since my teens, when I first saw her withhold words, incite confessions, and move ghostily toward that climactic merger of mind and spirit in
Persona (1966) . 

She's truly one of the greatest of them all, and nearly as formidable a director as she is an actress. She's all the more admirable, too, for her ardent humanitarian work, though the greedy movielover in me would like nothing more than to see her return far more often to the screen, where she still radiates so much emotional texture, more so, in fact, with the force of familiarity. For this reason I figured I'd mark the occasion by posting my review of her final performance for her great collaborator and one-time husband, the late Ingmar Bergman. I wrote the piece before Bergman's death, not to mention that of cinematographer Sven Nykvist's, and have left references to the artists' former status among the living as is. 

Ullman's Norwegian, I realize, but since she's most familiar to us in Swedish, I'll opt to say på födelsedagen!

In the realm of art, the inextricable conspiracy between mortality and the photographic image is probably made most palpable and immediate in our relationship to seeing actors age in film. Watch a retrospective of any actor with a long, prolific career, and you soon notice that the way time makes its mark upon that actor causes the work to resonate more deeply. The almost spectral, larger-than-life presence becomes fused with the gradually dispersed pieces of evidence that reveal the all-too-human vulnerability to time’s passage. This betrayal of the myth of youth in the movies is one of the phenomena that make the medium uniquely powerful.

The mere illusion of time’s passage was one of the pivotal elements in our relationship to the characters in Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 television series
Scenes From a Marriage. Over six episodes, Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) endure the most tumultuous years of their relationship, finally winding up in, perhaps, their last embrace that literally seems to exist outside of time and the laws that govern every other part of their ultimately separate lives. The illusion is masterfully created through the intimate collaboration between Bergman, cinematographer Sven Nykvist and the two main actors, already familiar to viewers from previous roles in several prominent Bergman films, and the result is extremely moving.

But with
Saraband (2003), also made for television and which Bergman has announced as his final work, time is no longer an illusion: Ullman and Josephson really are 30 years older now and their age is not only noticeable but an intrinsic feature in the affectionate but no less unwavering gaze of Bergman’s camera. What’s impressive about this is not simply that we, for example, notice the disquieting involuntary tremor in Josephson’s hands (he’s 82), but that he and Ullman, two of the world’s most accomplished living actors, have somehow managed to completely integrate their own ageing process with those of their characters. As with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy’s characters in Before Sunset (04), the actors have managed to, with utterly convincing nuance, evoke the same characters they played previously and to do so in a way that manages to account for all the messy life these characters have lived in the interim. What’s more, they make it look organic and easy.

Bergman, however, is not revisiting a previous incarnation but simply delivering the work he’s compelled to at this stage, breaking away from nearly all of the conventions of
Scenes that don’t suit his current temperament. Nothing stinks of excess sentimentality or gimmickry here (aside perhaps from a slightly winky reference to 1968's Hour of the Wolf early in the film), but it’s played out like business as usual in the pared-down aesthetic characteristic of all Bergman’s television work undertaken after his last cinematic feature, 1982’s Fanny and Alexander. It begins, rather disarmingly, with Marianne addressing us directly, looking through old photos, giving a brief recap of her perfectly ordinary life since Scenes, and explaining the impulse to end her 30-year estrangement from Johan that sets Saraband in motion.

Marianne and Johan’s reunion anchors
Saraband, but, wisely, it’s not made the whole of the film’s content. In fact, the more dramatic conflict isn’t between those two at all but between Johan’s son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) and his daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), both of them cellists living off Johan’s considerable wealth and alongside the phantom of Karin’s long-deceased mother, who remains as beloved to all involved as Henrik is resented. The complicated, tormented (and clearly incestuous) nature of the relationship between Henrik and Karin certainly complies with the intense skepticism of family values that informed Scenes, but is offset by Karin’s youthful luminosity in a superb performance that implies the fruitful collaboration Dufvenius and Bergman might have shared if her career wasn’t just starting as his apparently reaches its end.

As observed in Time Out’s review,
Saraband is “less a sequel than an expansive coda,” and while the psychodrama plays itself out in the foreground, the story of Marianne and Johan quietly re-blooms and then fades before once again becoming some densely potent image in their past. The reconfirmation of their love isn’t a magical remembering and correcting of love, as in movies like Random Harvest (1942), but a reminder of the genuine enigma of a love that cannot be managed. The combined effect of seeing both Scenes and Saraband leads us to the notion that while we’re helpless to control or predict the sudden shifts of love, we must stay attuned to that voice within us that might some day compel us to just reach out toward others regardless of what may happen. In short, it urges us to not let time just slip away.

Imitation of Life: Synecdoche, New York

His body is doing strange things, any of which may cradle some indefinable kernel of death waiting to metastasize. He is attacked by his own sink. His wife is becoming distant, dissatisfied and resentful. He aspires toward some startling innovation for the stage, yet he’s directing Death of a Salesman at an amateur theatre for small town blue-hairs, the incongruently young actors and deluge of lighting cues being his meager concessions to formalist provocation. His lead actress and the sultry box office attendant both make advances, yet he’s too paralyzed and conflicted to respond. His daughter’s poo is green. As mystery ailments mount and relationships collapse, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) develops an acute case of Sisyphus syndrome. Everything seems to bear down on him. So when out of the blue he becomes the unlikely recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, he does the only logical thing: he makes a play about everything. Or everything as can be conveyed through the very peculiar, very funny and very sad experiences of Caden Cotard. He lives in Schenectady, New York, but he’s about to move somewhere you won’t find on a map.

Synecdoche, New York is not as ambitious as Caden’s play. We can say this for the simple reason that the movie was finished—or, if you’d rather, abandoned—whereas the play stays in rehearsal for decades. But screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut is nonetheless mightily impressive, and, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it’s genuinely like nothing you’ve seen. It teems with metaphor, is sprawling in scope, dense with so many kinds of heartache and is playfully, boundlessly alive with the absurd. It should be far too much for any one movie to hold, but here it is nonetheless, running two hours, and fronted, all too appropriately, by one of the most imminently melancholic and corpulent actors working in interesting movies. Hoffman does Kaufman, thankfully. I’m not sure anyone else could.

After Philip K. Dick, who never made a movie but probably spawned more of them than any late-20th century American writer, Charlie Kaufman must surely be the most influential author of neurological disorder-driven storytelling in current pop culture. What other body of work, from Being John Malkovich to Adaptation to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has so directly, imaginatively and often perversely addressed the puzzle nature of identity? Selfhood is ever fluid, restless and delightfully insubordinate in Kaufman’s stories, diasporic in its tendencies, spreading out amidst the individual bearer’s surroundings until what you consider uniquely “you” is either infiltrated by another—or many others, if you happen to be John Malkovich—or appropriated by another, ie: the two Kaufmans of Adaptation. Bizarre as it may be, Synecdoche, New York is, in hindsight at least, the inevitable product of the Kaufman project thus far.

While the impossibility of lasting connection between people looms over the film, everything in it thematically connects to everything else. Caden’s wife (Catherine Keener), in a direct reversal of Caden’s attempt to create something massive, makes highly nuanced paintings the size of postage stamps, while his daughter grows up to be literally art-damaged, the confused victim of her parents’ reckless expression. Those closest to Caden exist in some permanent state of metaphor-manifest, most notably Hazel (Samantha Morton, especially wonderful), who, in one of the film’s most inspired conceits, lives in a house that’s perpetually on fire. Caden’s therapist (Hope Davis) writes books that literally speak directly to him. And all of this demands to be woven into Caden’s play. Countless actors are employed. Eventually new actors are hired to play the original actors, because the original actors become part of the story, even threatening to take it over. Vast sets are constructed to contain it all. The whole thing is finally infinite, Borgesian. It’s an attempt to generate authenticity through artifice, to address life through art until art is all that’s left. And perhaps this is why the ending’s so damned blue. The thrill of art is always in the making; the result finally just a eulogy for a process.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Die, another Day

A famous American once said there’s nothing to fear but fear itself, but fear itself can be pretty goddamned scary. Apparently when Americans feels fear they instinctively resort to blowing shit up, no matter how unbelievably stupid such actions may be. In the new, longer, dumber and duller version of
The Day the Earth Stood Still poor old Klaatu the alien gets pumped with lead before he can even get a word out. His people have studied long to understand our earthly ways, but I guess no one ever told them it was dangerous to be in Central Park at night.

Klaatu arrives in a big misty sphere to serve mankind its eviction notice. We’ve abused this planet long enough it seems, and interplanetary real estate’s at a premium, so out we go in a plague of metallic locusts that can chomp through baseball stadiums without stopping for a breather. Unless of course, like Ebenezer Scrooge, we can convince our executioner of our capacity for change.

After Klaatu busts out of his placenta suit and absconds, rather implausibly, from the military facility where he’s being prodded, he spends a little time on our company. Disguised as Keanu Reeves in a suit—is this really the most inconspicuous shape he could think to assume?—he liaisons with astrophysicist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly). She gives him a lift to some state park where more alien spheres lay waiting to get their Armageddon on. From there it’s off to the home of a Nobel-prize winning biologist (John Cleese) where Klaatu hears Bach. It’s beautiful, he says with genuine awe. Somebody take this guy to a record store! We could speed things along with some Procol Harum.

If the aliens really do come and threaten to kill us all it would certainly not be advisable to show them this movie. Klaatu can resuscitate the dead, make helicopters smash into each other, create ear-piercing noises and get tuna sandwiches out of the vending machines for free—he’s not going to be impressed by these lame special effects, the pointless artificial camera swoops around cars and poorly matched green-screening. He might have a soft spot for kids, granted, but Helen’s stepson is so relentlessly annoying that such a gambit seems doomed to backfire. Helen herself is a total fox, but Klaatu’s libido has apparently been Zenned into submission. So yeah, it’s pretty much hopeless.

The new Day is just as didactic as the old one while lacking all of its fun. Yet director Scott Derrickson seems uninterested in fun anyway. His apocalypse is boring, the overwhelming loss flatly abstract, the menace bland, the story needlessly padded. The original film’s spectral spookiness has been traded in for murky imagery and boilerplate design. Reeves doesn’t help much either. The single thing he needs to do here is change his mind, yet he can’t quite manage it. If they needed a supernaturally handsome, seemingly enlightened but nonetheless otherly-looking famous person to play Klaatu couldn’t they have got Richard Gere? How about David Byrne? Better yet, why not Al Gore? Give him a little software, set him up in Times Square and Bob’s your uncle.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Killer pacifism: The Day the Earth Stood Still lands again on DVD

The premise, however mimicked over the years, still intrigues. The spacecraft descends upon Washington DC, the stoic alien emerges from within, the gasping crowds look on, the rifles, canons and tanks are at the ready. Before he can get a word out, before he can offer his enigmatic little metallic flower/toilet cleaner thingee, the alien’s preemptively shot in the chest by jittery US military. He’s taken to hospital, is examined, and recovers completely. In appearance and mode of expression he seems one of us, more or less—he’s played by English actor Michael Rennie—but is very emphatically an Other. He speaks of “your months,” “your miles” and “your Walter Reade Hospital.” He speaks to his robot in a language that sounds like Japanese. He’s a chameleon. His name is Klaatu. He’s come a long way to give us some sobering advice. He seems unshakably civil, but if his words aren’t heeded, he promises to exact an apocalyptic wrath beyond comprehension.

Though made during those first tender years of the Cold War and wielding an overt message in response to the proliferation of nuclear arms, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) pulsates with age-old anxieties. It’s a religious impulse, perhaps, this desire to be visited by some colossal vision, illuminated by some transcendent Word, chastised and threatened with awesome punishment. There’s a desperate longing for oblivion blended deftly into this entertainment. We are rendered small by it. But the eagerness to repent and defer to a higher authority deserves some serious consideration.

Directed by Robert Wise, written by Edmund North, beautifully photographed by Leo Tover, mesmerizingly scored with double Theremin in the mix by Bernard Herrmann, the film is far too superbly crafted to be dismissed as period kitsch, even if he appearance of Gort, Klaatu’s mostly immobile giant robot, its featureless visage the subject of many creepily inert close-ups, locates it firmly within the imaginative limits of contemporaneous science fiction. Following Klaatu’s unmet demands to confer with ambassadors from every country in the world, the story slides from the grandiose to the intimate and back again, with some of the most memorable scenes occurring during Klaatu’s escape from captivity and quiet immersion in everyday American life, his spooky arrival at the rooming house bathed in shadow, or his final taxi ride with Helen (Patricia Neal), a single mom who along with her happy little boy represents our best hopes for betterment. The fact that Klaatu mixes in so easily is of course the point—the Other we fear so is really not so Otherly after all. It’s a fable in service of tolerance and multiculturalism.

Yet if we allow ourselves to play devil’s advocate, to set to one side the supposed moral clarity of Klaatu’s call for the cessation of violence, if we look carefully at this offer we can’t refuse, there’s a most contradictory nature to it that feels ironically akin to recent US foreign policy and the clash of civilizations. I come from a distant place where we know better, Klaatu declares, and your earthly ways don’t jive with ours. Frankly, we can’t tolerate it anymore. Change, Klaatu instructs. Be like we are, and make peace. Or we’ll kill you all. Hegemony rules, and whether international or interplanetary, whether the subjects of the new empire are in the Middle East or the Midwest, the ostensible simplicity and benevolence of this proposal is compromised by the condescension and threat behind it.

So Klaatu is the enlightened alien Other, yet is also quintessentially American, or, if you prefer, human, doing what humans are wont to do when granted immense power. While this reading may very well counter the intentions of Wise, North, et al, addressing this aspect of The Day the Earth Stood Still isn’t meant to belittle it but rather reveal just how complex and durable its proven to be. It’s a virtue of the best science fiction that its value to audiences will shift with time and revelation.

Fox’s new two-disc special edition of The Day the Earth Stood Still, presumably prompted by the theatrical release of the remake, may not offer alternative readings, but it is loaded with supplements to help appreciate the film’s gestation and legacy. A making-of featurette has amusing testimony from Neal—who apparently couldn’t stop laughing during the filming—insights into the film’s technical innovations, and some terrific weird facts, such as Gort’s later life as a performance accessory for Bozo the Clown. There’s also a fun little doc on flying saucers that covers the basic territory—Kenneth Arnold, Betty and Barney Hill, Roswell, et cetera—and equally welcome profiles of North and of Harry Bates, the forgotten magazine editor and author of the course material. These docs are annoyingly cutty, with too many commentators and not enough content from each of them to justify their appearances, but they still give you a flavour of the conditions of the film’s development. There’s also a new audio commentary from Nick Redman, John Morgan, Steven Smith and William Stromberg that, like their commentary for Fox’s recent release of Garden of Evil, focuses exclusively on Herrmann’s music.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Navigating the Milky way: the fertile tension between Gus Van Sant and the gay mainstream

Gus Van Sant and Harvey Milk were always destined to seem either an ideal hook-up or a sort of studio-contrived shotgun wedding. That the most famed and acclaimed openly gay filmmaker in the US should helm the long-in-development biopic about the first openly gay man to herald the gay cause in US politics seems obvious until you start to consider the complicated nature of Van Sant’s previous contributions to gay cinema.

I more or less grew up with Van Sant’s early features, enthralled by their visual poetics and oddball humour, their nipple-twisted Americana and palpable affection for all the world’s lost boys. By the time of
My Own Private Idaho Van Sant’s rendering of Portland’s runaway male hustler scene—centered as it was around the tenderly compelling and, it would appear, not so gay River Phoenix—practically made me want to be gay. Van Sant’s gay boys were antiheroes, outlaws, non-conformists, vulnerable adventurers, their sexuality tied directly to their outsider status. I found them cool beyond measure.

But what, by contrast, really matters in the story of Harvey Milk? Today more than ever, the core of Milk’s accomplishment is the very antithesis of Van Sant’s outsider chic. Milk’s bold and perilous first steps as San Francisco city supervisor, his nationally recognized efforts to stake out an unabashedly gay presence in the era of Anita Bryant reactionism, were designed to lead the community into the light of the mainstream, and the recent defeat of gay marriage in California feels like a direct attack on that legacy. To have same-sex partnership legally recognized should be a fundamental right, but such an ethos of normalization should not be confused with the sort of romance or shadow side of gay culture so beguilingly evoked in
Mala Noche, Van Sant’s debut, or Idaho.

This tension between sensibilities may explain why, rather than aligning itself to his more experimentally-minded, equally death-haunted quartet of
Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park, Milk feels more akin to Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, Van Sant’s earlier stabs at multiplex acceptance. Yet I think this is finally a more effective movie than either. Milk needed to be made for the biggest possible audience—to do otherwise would be to miss the entire point of this story—and Van Sant deserves credit for recognizing this. His flexibility as a filmmaker is in my books something to admire.

Written by Dustin Lance Black, the movie is structured around audio recordings Milk made when he began to fear for his life—threats of assassination had been made for some time. It’s a useful convention, allowing us to cut to the chase more often than not, and allowing the voice of Sean Penn, in pleasingly nasal-fey Noo-Yawk, to invitingly guide us in. The movie’s concerned solely with the final eight years or so of Milk’s life, the period that begins with his picking up of the attractive, much younger Scott Smith (James Franco) in an NYC subway station on the night of Milk’s 40th birthday.

Falling love with Smith was the catalyst that allowed Milk to give up his semi-closeted financial sector existence and go west to a rainbow wonderland waiting to erupt from under a blanket of stale conservatism. A Republican and late-blooming hippy of sorts, Milk goes from suited to shaggy, sees opportunities for gay consumers to gain foothold in his new community, and opens a little camera shop on Castro Street. This section of the movie ends with a magnificent crane shot of Milk and Smith necking in broad daylight. It’s glorious, the first crest of a wave of enthrallment over new hopes. It also features a telling detail: as in the subway pick-up scene, Milk is conspicuously positioned below Smith. His affection for his boyfriends tends toward the adulatory.

Smith doesn’t stick around, leaving Milk to exercise his generally poor judgment with regards to lovers, culminating in a disastrous partnership with a needy Chicano played by Diego Luna. But buoyed by San Fran’s brimming gay underground, Milk is already well on his way to triumph and that fateful retribution. His ascent into municipal politics is highly fraught and makes for superb drama. He’s trying always to bond gays together, controversially declaring privacy, ie: the closet, an antiquated luxury in times of violent bigotry. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” was his clever rallying cry. And his charisma is awesome, his arguments persuasive, his sense of populism shrewd—he gained his supervisor position as much through the promise of legislating against abandoned dog shit as through gay rights.

Van Sant collaborates again here with cinematographer Harris Savides, who previously wrought San Francisco in the 70s to great effect in
Zodiac. Milk’s dynamic use of archival footage serves it well, making the spirit of the times come alive. But the decisive force in this project, what will make or break it for audiences, are the performances, and Penn is on fire here. The role of Milk grants the volatile actor and activist permission to express his moral fervor in a fresh, invigorating context. He mimics Milk’s peculiar fist shaking with a goofy sort of grace, milking it, so to speak, with great aplomb. He speechifies with great emotional dexterity, yet brings a wonderfully conspiratorial glee to quieter scenes of political negotiation. He’s also very funny. Josh Brolin’s Dan White challenges him with the tired old theological arguments against homosexuality. “Can two men reproduce?” White asks. “No,” Milk replies, with the warmest and slyest of smiles. “But god knows we keep trying.”

In a superlative and teeming supporting cast that includes lovingly realized turns from Franco, very sexy and subtle in his grudging support, and from Emile Hirsch and Alison Pill, Brolin demands special mention. His embodiment of profoundly conflicted homophobia swings from sympathetic to repulsive with an absolute minimum of fuss. In a grim, sobering way he grounds the picture. Which is to say he represents an element that doubtlessly still lingers in
Milk’s audience, a prejudice and resentment that can’t be quelled by the comforts of increasing familiarity with gay culture alone. And it’s because of this that I sincerely hope the Dan Whites of the world see this movie.