Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A book as daunting as this beard: War and Peace, Part One

The signs preceded the announcement of the book’s publication. I moved house in July, and my new neighbours turned out to be Russians, a whole shwack of them whom I could watch go about their yard work and endless renovations through a series of large windows as though they were the subjects of some Bruegelesque panorama. They’re cute. They shout a lot. Later on I attended a normal party that my friend Peter mistook for a costume party. He came dressed as Napoleon, brought with him a bottle of brandy, sort of sulked much of the night. Finally, I got talking to this homeless guy who camps out front of a coffee shop I frequent. He never says much, just leaves out a collection plate and hunches over a book. I decided to ask him what he was reading. It was a dog-eared copy of War and Peace.

I’m not especially superstitious but I am fond of coincidence. Mere days after my chat with homeless guy I saw it on Amazon: a brand new translation of War and Peace by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the Sonny and Cher of Russian-into-English translation, superstars in their field, and rightly so. The new hardcover edition looked regal, enormous, glorious. Its appearance was accompanied by trumpets in my mind, a proclamation that now, now the time has come for me to finally read Leo Tolstoy’s gargantuan magnum opus about Russian society during the Napoleonic era. I felt a surge of readiness and ordered a review copy.

Full disclosure: I am not qualified to be a books columnist. Among my chief deficiencies are two items that apply directly to this column: 1) I haven’t read all the classics of world literature, I mean like not even the top five. 2) I have a problem with big books. Now, the first deficiency might come down to my lack of education or, more self-flatteringly, my diversity of interests that keep me from pursuing any sort of regimented reading program. The second deficiency however I consider to be a professional hazard. I review books. I read slow. There’s a lot of books out there. So tell me how a guy’s supposed to pay the bills reviewing all these new books and still have time to catch up on every literary doorstop in the Everyman’s Library?

But enough excuses. The moment had come, and along with it the holidays. Surely Christmas in Cowtown with the folks would provide ample time for Tolstoy. Yet it proved impossible. There were visits. There were sudden meals occurring at strange hours. There were walks in need of shoveling. There was booze. More problematically, every time I endeavoured to dig in my heels and just get going already I found the book unexpectedly forbidding. The entire first paragraph is in French for god’s sake. I’m a bad, bad Canadian. Je ne parle pas francias. I’m from Alberta. Okay, so there’s footnotes with all the English, but still…

This pathetic farce continued. I spent a promising night in the mountains, but got sidelined by two books I purchased at The Banff Book and Art Den –F. González-Crussi’s On Seeing and John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed, both of which are really good. Then came my Christmas gifts –Brad Pager’s critical study of Werner Herzog and some long out-of-print volume with the delicious title of Sex and the Occult– which added further, enormously pleasurable distraction from what I was now thinking of as my War and Peace self-betterment project. Then January came, deadlines were looming. I was, it seemed, an utter failure.

Then a funny thing happened. This time, not a coincidence exactly, but a sort of accidental gift. Having finished with writing for the day, I decided to hike over to a quiet coffee shop a good half-hour’s walk away to get in some reading. I scooped up my satchel and left, not realizing until I got there and ordered something hot that I scooped the wrong satchel, not the one containing whatever book I should be reading for work but the one with, you guessed it, War and Peace. Fuck it, I thought, and settled into it.

…And having made it past the first few pages this time, I realized something: it’s terrific, even fun. The French bits began to feel rhythmically appealing, of a piece within the social pretensions of the many characters, who gradually didn’t seem so difficult to keep track of but rather came vibrantly to life through sly descriptions –“Being an enthusiast had become her social position”– and even more so through the dialogue –“Opinions are opinions, but you see what a good and nice fellow I am,” says Pierre, not long before we find him tying a police officer to a bear and tossing them into the Moika. “Precisely because you’re father is rich, I don’t consider myself his relation,” Boris tells Pierre –as Pierre’s father lays dying and Boris’ mom is hanging around making an embarrassingly desperate play for the gasping man’s pity cash.

I’ve still barley cut into War and Peace’s 1224 pages, but I am now officially under its spell. I’m equally aware of course that it’ll probably take me a while to get through it, to truly savour it, and so I will report on my progress in future columns. For now, adieu, mon petit liseur. And please feel free to correct my miserable, condescending French.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Unwatchable? Almost, but not quite...

While keeping vampire hours for the feds’ cyber-crime division, Portland, Oregon single mom Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) discovers killwithme.com, a locally-authored site rigged up in such as way that as viewership increases so does the rate at which a captive, onscreen victim’s torture hurries him toward miserable death. The first victim’s just a kitty, but Jennifer, unlike her dismissive superiors, smartly deduces that this is only the beginning.

Next in line is a hockey dad being slowly dosed with anti-coagulant, soon to be followed by a handsome broadcaster, hands and feet locked in cement, trapped under heat lamps that cook him alive as worldwide death porn junkies turn up the heat. Who will be next? And for the love of god why does the scumbag do it? And hey, look at those numbers logging on to witness the torment –doesn’t that mean we’re all somehow accountable?

Director Gregory Hoblit, who most recently helmed Fracture, has a soft spot for one of the most tiresome Hollywood tropes: the murderous genius. With Untraceable, Hoblit’s trio of scribes supply him with an evil mastermind that, while only 20 and afflicted with what would seem considerable emotional retardation, is clearly a prodigy of chemistry, communications, structural engineering and even carpentry. Instead of feeding YouTube with sleaze, this kid should be working for the space program. Jennifer meanwhile is marked as our hero because, despite her interweb expertise, her whole life is decidedly anti-tech: her butch live-in mom’s into extreme gardening, her little girl just wants to ride her bike, and Jennifer’s choice for a kiddie birthday party is a roller rink complete with live organ music.

Especially once we get past the mid-point hump, Untraceable just gets stupider and stupider, right up until the sad, risible final shot that reads like an ad for the long arm of the FBI (don’t even think about pirating this movie). Yet it should be said that, its failures in cinematic storytelling aside, the film is an interesting barometer of the times, an age where technology has made morbid voyeurism completely anonymous, comfortable and safe, facilitating our ability to participate in the suffering of others by rendering it utterly abstract. It also indirectly –okay, clumsily– questions the varying degrees to which we tacitly participate in suffering and torture, ie: voting for an administration that contrives wars that, perhaps inevitably, lead to torture.

Undoubtedly, Untraceable’s problems lie not in any lack of meaty themes to play with. Yet the horror of torture by anonymous remote control has already been mined far more elegantly and confrontationally in Olivier Assayas’ woefully underrated 2002 film demonlover. And it’s a shame then that, thanks to sheer advertising dollars, more people will have seen Untraceable in its opening weekend than probably saw demonlover during its entire theatrical run.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Looking for lineage on The Orphanage

The marketing for The Orphanage (El Orfanato) is, unsurprisingly, making much of Guillermo Del Toro's role as executive producer, a fact that no doubt prompted whichever dunderheaded critic it was who declared it "This year's Pan's Labyrinth!" Irksome hyperbole aside, I still enjoyed the film when I caught it on a whim at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, and I went back to see it again this afternoon at a downtown multiplex. It takes little reflection to realize that the story, crammed with innuendo, is of course full of holes, yet none of them seem to actually burrow into the morbidly romantic heart of the material, or take anything away from Belén Rueda's engagingly desperate, sympathetically neurotic performance as Laura, the mother haunted by her missing child long after everyone else has resigned themselves to his almost certain death. Laura and her son Simón share the determining attribute of having both been orphans, and the fidelity and solidarity this imposes on their bond is probably of a nature most of us who've grown up with the security of knowing our birth parents can't truly comprehend. It's this aspect of The Orphanage that I immediately found strangely moving in spite of the film being a bit overcooked by its young director Juan Carlos Bayona.

What drew Del Toro to the film however only became obvious to me after my second viewing. In the largely pedestrian documentary that accompanies Warner's wonderful Val Lewton box set, Del Toro articulates his deep admiration for Lewton, and in The Orphanage we can detect a number of traits that connect directly to Lewton's themes (and in discussing them, there will follow MAJOR SPOILERS). In particular, the film is fundamentally controlled by a very relatable tragedy grounded in reality, while its potentially supernatural elements are finally left ambiguous. As well, the film basically imparts upon the viewer the idea that suicide is a good thing, at the very least a way to resolve an insurmountable emotional wound and make amends with a troubled past. The film's ending is unfathomably gloomy, yet it does imply that the heroine reunites with her son and finds a peace that was otherwise obscure to her. 

But as much as the film benefits from its evocation of Lewton's enduringly seductive horror classics, it also works away at the same creeping psychological schisms found at the heart of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, perhaps my favourite horror story ever, one that found its finest cinematic adaptation in 1961's The Innocents. Frustrated maternal urges, isolation and obsession, the veneration if not fetishization of children: all of these factors figure into the mental landscape of The Orphanage (not to mention Guy Maddin's  Brand Upon the Brain! to which The Orphanage bears several curious resemblances). Perhaps this calls for the delineation of a subgenre: manic surrogate mother and child chillers? ...Let me work on that one.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Love in the round: the tightrope world of Sawdust and Tinsel

Before we witness lulling images of a circus caravan wobbling under a dim, rainy Scandinavian sky, before we’re privy to the ongoing love affair between the plump circus owner and his beguiling horseback-riding mistress, before we’re drawn into the rotunda of humiliations and grappling with the impossibility of love, the fanciful opening titles of Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel describe what proceeds as “a broadside ballad on film.” It brings into question the true nature of broad entertainment, what tumultuous personas prop it up, and why, perhaps above all, we’re attracted to their grotesque faces, gaudy spectacle and hysterical laughter. In escapism there is always the shadow of whatever it is we’re trying to escape.

Released in 1953, Sawdust and Tinsel, written and directed by a young filmmaker still struggling for respect in his native Sweden and waiting for that crucial applause from abroad, drifts through the floating world of nomadic entertainers to observe their own particular brand of ordinary madness. The first event is a flashback set on a beach pebbled with soldiers, the image overexposed to evoke the blasted-out feeling of a painful memory. It features an elder member of the circus, the striking but already middle-aged Alma, swimming naked for the amusement of the grunts. Her husband, a gawky clown, comes to remove her from this salacious audience but, when he returns from the sea with his naked spouse cradled awkwardly in his skinny arms, their clothes have been hidden, and he must stumble along the rocky shore to a chorus of laughter.

The scene introduces only minor characters but announcing the major theme: the shame that befalls couples seeking the attention and desires of outsiders yet unable to part from each other. The actual protagonists, Albert (Åke Grönberg) and Anne (the delectable Harriet Andersson), both want to run away from the circus, not to mention each other. Having set up in the town where his abandoned wife and kids reside, Albert will be compelled to return to them and embrace domestic bliss, while Anne will retaliate by courting the local theatre and submitting to the sexual proposition of its lead actor. Yet they cannot escape the circus ring, where marriage must play itself out for better or for worse. Theirs is a poetic, resonant dance of love and its inherent unease, set to seductive images, particularly of mirrors and faces, which Bergman would here begin to close in on with increasingly obsessive focus.

Criterion’s DVD of Sawdust and Tinsel is a highly significant release for enthusiasts whose knowledge of the late master’s work doesn’t predate his initial triumphs Smiles on a Summer Night or The Seventh Seal. Here, we see an auteur finding his mature voice, not to mention the cinematographer who would come to be his greatest stylistic collaborator, Sven Nykvist. The disc features an excellent commentary from Peter Cowie, a short intro from Bergman, and essays from John Simon and Catherine Breillat.

Deadpan ache: Lights in the Dusk

The Helsinki of Aki Kaurismäki’s Lights in the Dusk (Laitakaupungin valot) is a permanently overcast city possessing what should rightfully be deemed one very, very particular power of seduction, one that probably speaks directly to the hearts of some of us while making little impression on others. Seemingly dusted with melancholy, the cityscape is an apparition of earth tones and dim reflections in anonymous glass towers, expansive alleyways, skeletal industrial structures looming over shipyards.

Caught in the generally crepuscular Nordic glow, the setting, like the story, could be from today or 60 years ago. People gather to drink and hover, some arguing the diverse merits of Russian literary giants, some standing in clumps to throb before an almost comically earnest hard rock act. Whatever their numbers, alliances or activities, these Fins are all of them captured within compositions that strongly summon up Edward Hopper paintings nursing a Technicolor hangover, imparting an unmistakable loneliness only heightened by the quiet beauty of their surroundings.

Kaurismäki’s camera however will quickly focus its attention on the solitary figures: a homeless kid, a neglected pooch, and an anachronistically handsome, painfully awkward security guard named Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), the sympathetic schmuck of the center of this exquisitely gloomy neo-noir. Lights in the Dusk is the third installment in Kaurismäki’s ‘Loser Trilogy,’ following 2002’s The Man Without a Past. While the film as a whole arguably adds little novelty to the writer/director’s exploration of the theme, Koistinen is doubtlessly the biggest loser of the lot. And though conveyed entirely in Kaurismäki’s characteristically –some might say perversely– rigorous deadpan, Koistinen’s tale is also quite possibly the most moving of them all, too. Okay, so long as one can be moved by something like a simple gesture, an implication, or the placement of a quartet of fresh bagels before the object of one’s deepest affections.

The plot of Lights in the Dusk is made of pared-down essence, tropes selected and renovated with great affection but precious little gratuitous indulgence. Koistinen is an outsider even among his scant workmates. He boasts to the kind woman who tends the all-night food stand that he’ll be heading his own security operation some day soon, his business aspirations simultaneously humble and hapless, a spiritual cousin to the barber who seeks a new career in dry cleaning in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Truth is Koistinen has few prospects of any kind, and lives in almost total isolation –that is until he’s approached out of the blue one day by Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), a mysterious woman with the most beguiling lips and obscure agenda. His hungry heart is hers from first blush, which means his fate is sealed from here onward.

Mirja is a Mata Hari Hitchcock blonde, a fame fatale working for some antiseptic mobster type who knows a real sucker when he sees one. When she first appears, the normally still camera pushes in on her the same way it does the mobster, an elegant move that binds the two in our memories and exemplifies the austerity of Kaurismäki’s approach, which crafts a distinctive style from economy itself. (The whole thing’s over in 74 minutes.) No shot is too long, no pan uncalled for, no facial muscle moved that isn’t fundamentally necessary here, though so much of it is nonetheless eccentric –a guy sharpens a steak knife with the base of a mug– often dryly funny, and shot through with repressed emotion and plenty of terrific zingers. If you know this guy’s movies you know exactly what I mean: Kaurismäki’s is the comic Bresson.

Mirja’s discomfort with shamelessly using Koistinen as a way of helping the mobsters steal some jewels from one of the properties under his watch is palpable, in an inferred sort of way. Early on in their non-love affair it’s already clear to both that everything’s a ruse –Mirja gets to a point she doesn’t even make the slightest effort to fool him anymore– but Koistinen can’t help but do anything other than obey Mirja’s will, even when it spells out complete ruin. It’s all so strange, even frustrating, on the surface but perfectly heartbreaking underneath. This stuff works on me, even more with repeated viewings.

The title evokes twilit haziness, a moment when signs of life or signs of hope blur into the day’s fading embers. The film’s complimentary story and tone meanwhile do provide us with some consolation, acts of solidarity, will, and enduring love that linger in the margins of its milieu, waiting for our hero to see past the haze and embrace what’s really present and attainable. So even though Kaurismäki lets his loser take a licking, and flashes it all past our eyes with merciless efficiency, there’s a warmth waiting at the end of all this, a candle in the window that should charm and reward each of us predisposed to such subtle delights.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Signals of wonder, despair and genius in Tree of Smoke

Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $31) begins with a pair of deaths, one being that of a US president, the other a monkey somewhere deep in the perspiring tangle of Filipino jungle. It is somehow indicative of the peculiar and complex moral concerns of this novel that the monkey’s demise is the more affecting. As is the fact that both of these deaths are assassinations by rifle, executed by American boys with American military training, boys caught up in some scheme far greater than they’re capable of comprehending.

Denis Johnson’s new novel, the most deserving winner of the National Book Award, is sprawling, ambitious, at times delirious, as labyrinthine as the Southeast Asian jungles it regularly returns to. It is a messy, profound and vehemently imperfect sort of masterpiece that attempts to grapple with the Vietnam War, the whole damned thing, in one monolithic block of text, arguably making it akin to Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which selected The Cold War as its one massive historical essence to conjure, and grapple with. It is as huge and demanding in every way as Johnson’s previously most famous novel Jesus’ Son (1992) was intimate, oneiric and diminutive. It’s the sort of novel that generates incredible excitement, and will likely come to be resented by readers who prefer their Emperors naked, and reduce Johnson’s brick of prose to an unruly, disorganized and inordinately defiant stunt. Me? I was enthralled.

Though it’s tricky to pin down a single protagonist in Tree of Smoke, I guess it must be Skip Sands, an idealistic young man from Kansas developing a career in intelligence. Yet in reading the book I became so attached to the Houston brothers, two shaggily likable guys –one of whom was first seen in Johnson’s Angels (1983)– whisked from a most arid Arizona and dropped into alien fields of blood, chaos, decay, cheap beer and prostitutes. There’s also an aid worker from Winnipeg, and a couple of Vietnamese military men who charge Johnson’s grand wash of a narrative with palpable feeling, personality and much humour as it rattles its way from 1963 all the way to 1983.

On display here are many of the idiosyncratic rhetorical jewels that have made Johnson’s voice such a witty, memorable one. He writes terrific dialogue in broken English, a skill that gives a special potency and pointed humour to moments of despair. There are countless character descriptions like this one: “He was both barrel-chested and pot-bellied, also bowlegged, also sunburned… He wore a silver flattop haircut on a head like an anvil.” Yet there are also passages of character development deftly handled through ribald, well-chosen juxtaposition: “Skip was afraid of women. The pork chops came, succulent, moist.” And there is the constant undercurrent of rationalizations for the imposition of force and ideology, and the hows and whys of the US in Vietnam: “The land is their myth. We penetrate the land, we penetrate their national soul.”

Considering the many correlations to be made between the US-led war addressed in Tree of Smoke and the one going on today in Iraq, it might be useful to boil it all down to one of Johnson’s pet themes, the power of karma. Karma mounts like a terrible, out of control mass, feeding on brutality, delusion and betrayal, as the novel lurches toward its devastating finale. But karma is also considered eloquently right in the opening pages, following that seemingly incidental slaying of a monkey: “He had expected to be made to see it again; so he was relieved to be walking back to the club without having to look at what he’d done. Yet he understood, without much alarm or unease, that he wouldn’t be spared this sight forever.”

(This review originally appeared in The Edmonton Journal.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Joshua: The kid slays in the picture

When Joshua received its lamentably minor theatrical release last summer, the artwork for the film showed a giant framed portrait of the film’s 9-year-old bad seed with his anchorman hair and eerily innocuous expression hanging before the actual Joshua, looking diminutive against it, his back facing us. I found the image intriguing and looked forward to the film. I seemed to have been in the minority.

The revised artwork gracing the cover of Maple’s Joshua DVD, bathed in deep red and featuring the shadowy figure of Joshua’s mother looking vulnerable below a looming, more obviously sinister Joshua, is far less ambiguous in conveying the film’s place within the horror genre. I’m sympathetic to the marketing division –this cover will probably generate more pick-ups– yet this sort of Omen fan baiting hardly represents the true merits of this terrifically unnerving, subtle and complex chiller, which works not through violent imagery or apocalyptic prophesies but through banal family dynamics.

Directed by George Ratliff and written by Ratliff and David Gilbert, Joshua opens with the birth of the second child of Brad (Sam Rockwell) and Abby (Vera Farmiga), parents to the titular piano prodigy (Jacob Kogan). One suspects that, like most kids, the emotionally repressed Joshua feels threatened by the bald, wiggling, wailing intruder. One also suspects that Brad and Abby, perfectly likable yuppies eager to uphold an air of normalcy, are basically content to be distracted from their stuffy, introspective first-born, who occupies himself playing Bartók and reading about Egyptian funerary practices.

What gradually develops through the tightly constructed script, bold editing, creeping camerawork and superlative ensemble cast, is a series of blows to the family order, fed by forces every parent understands: postpartum depression, issues of identity linked to birth order, occupational instability, meddlesome grandparents, hormonal havoc, parental duty sharing. Strategically exploiting these forces is Joshua, whose increasingly apparent malice is, right up into the third act, consistently undercut by his sympathetic position as the neglected weird one vying for attention and favour. Whether the kid’s an evil little bastard or his elders had it coming should make for interesting debate afterwards.

In the disc’s supplementary interviews Ratliff expresses frustration over comparisons between Joshua and Rosemary’s Baby. The crucial difference between the films, Ratliff explains, is that Polanski’s classic depends on supernatural elements to invoke chills. These protests are both inaccurate and unneeded. Joshua stands on its own just fine, and aligning it with Rosemary’s Baby only enhances the viewer’s pleasure is tracing its rich lineage. However you read the Satanic elements in Rosemary’s Baby, its deeper resonance comes from precisely the same place as Joshua’s: recognizable bourgeois familial anxieties enveloped by the hothouse of Manhattan’s upper east side. And like Rosemary’s Baby, Joshua has the distinction of being a movie that no new parents want to see –but they probably should.

"You'd laugh like it was the end of the world": Daniil Kharms

If we’re to take his testaments at face value, it would seem that the rather strange Russian writer known as Daniil Kharms was born twice. Actually, make that three times. Mmm… okay, maybe four. He emerged from the womb four months ahead of schedule. His father, very concerned that the child should be born precisely on New Year’s Day, was so enraged with this premature arrival that he pushed the boy back in the womb. When next little Daniil entered the world he was immediately placed in an incubator. Was his eventual emergence from the incubator his final, proper birth? Or was it many years later, when, drawing upon with the English words “charms” and “harms,” the adult Daniil adopted the surname by which we refer to him?

The entire notion of face value is questioned tirelessly throughout the work of Daniil Kharms. A literary artist and fixture of the salons aligned with a number of radical movements, he was a devout terrorist in the battle against causality and common sense. In his writings, not even the sequence of prime numbers is to be taken for granted. By the time you’ve read just a handful of his mostly very short, spare, often cruel and poetic texts, his words have so effectively cleansed the imagination’s palate that each new phrase seems to invent the world one object at a time, giving birth to it piece by piece like some baffled, amnesiac God trying to familiarize Himself with each and every tool in his workshop.

Kharms sought not ambiguity but a certain aesthetic “correctness” that could only be achieved through the destructive mastering of language, along with the consistent insertion of some sort of error to set his proposed truths in stark relief. Nevertheless, certainty is indeed a rare thing in Kharms’ worldview. And he did indeed live in particularly uncertain times. The one thing we do know for sure is that Daniil Kharms –or at least the man born as Daniil Yuvachev– starved to death in the psychiatric ward of a Soviet hospital during the siege of Leningrad having only ever seen his children’s prose published in his lifetime. He was 36. And apparently, he hated children.

Frequently, if quite misleadingly, linked to the Absurdists and their ilk, Kharms is very much the sort of writer I should have discovered in my teens, when my appetite for forthright nonsense and heroic madness was probably at its all-time peak. Fortunately, coming to it now, Kharms’ work strikes me as possessing a richness that would have likely gone underappreciated by my younger self. In any case I’m only now aware of him thanks to the recent publication of
Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Overlook/Duckworth, $35), a superb introduction to Kharms’ work edited and translated by Matvei Yankelevich.

Chains of destruction proliferate. In ‘Events’ a man dies from gluttony, another from bad news, a woman perishes after falling from a cupboard, children drown in a pond, an old woman takes to drinking and wanders the highways. “All good people,” Kharms laments, “But they don’t know how to hold their ground.” In another piece old women tumble from windows one after the other, until the author tires of witness them. In ‘Lynch Law’ our collective desire for blood is coolly surveyed. In other pieces people disappear into woods or even one body part at a time. Reading these works as having been written in defiance of Stalinist purges is tempting, interesting in its own right, but also limiting. Kharms’ imaginings are too wild and resonant to be contained purely within their political context.

The darkly compelling, very funny, and altogether remarkable story ‘The Old Woman,’ one of the only pieces in Today I Wrote Nothing that exceeds a few pages in length, conveys a strong sense of the diverse forms of dream logic Kharms employs. An old woman –a archetype always to be feared in Kharms– enters the house of the protagonist and dies, or rather seems to die, upsetting his plans to write, to pursue a budding romance, to simply relax in his home. He fears that her death, thought owing nothing to any action of his, will be blamed on him, perhaps because he loathes her so. In this and other works, Kharms shares something with Kafka in his chilling distribution of guilt.

Kafka, and even more so Gogol –who he proudly points to as a major influence– are perhaps the writers most readily comparable to Kharms. Though, in terms of his troubling equations of cause and effect, of things appearing and disappearing, of things living and dying –see ‘Father and Daughter’ for a haunting example– one could argue he outdoes both of them. He reveals both the humour and the wonder in things that fail to fully materialize, in events that disrupt order only to pass by and be shrugged off. There is always this fear of proceeding, of ambition itself –the world is so dangerous, after all. It’s a terrifying perspective that feels more real the more it screws with our agreed upon reality. It’s like what Kharms himself promises at the end of one of the pieces included here: “You’d laugh like it was the end of the world.”

Monday, January 14, 2008

There Will Be Blood: Paul Thomas Anderson's geyser of black and sticky dreams

Epic in scale and theme while intimate in cast, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, the writer/director’s fifth and finest feature, is something fiery and looming, controlled and eccentric, and fully deserving of the superlatives it continues to attract. Based, rather tenuously, on prolific muckraker Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, the film zeroes in from the start on a single, fascinating figure whom it will monitor for the entirety of its mesmerizing two-and-a-half-hours, one Daniel Plainview, a capitalist of fearsome, tireless ambition and great daring, seeking power for its own sake, setting upon a thrilling trajectory that will inevitably lead back to a hollow center.

Set at the dawn of the 20th century, the shape of the still virginal American frontier in There Will Be Blood is being dictated by pretty much the same forces that will dominate American life at the dawn on the next: oil and religion. Perhaps we should add family into the mix. Rest assured the film’s title foreshadows the spilling of blood, but the place from which it springs is a wounded psyche where genuine blood ties are sorrowfully lacking in this tale of obscurely formed and violently broken families.

The opening scenes are precariously compelling. Plainview, solitary, with everything still ahead of him, is found burrowing deep into the earth, carving the first niche in his tunnel to hell. Ostensibly mining for silver, he strikes black gold. Soon after he’s seen working his first derrick where a fatal injury to a co-labourer makes Plainview the unexpected father to an orphaned infant. Years after that, we encounter Plainview the established oilman, his little boy H.W. beside him in dark suit and parted hair, the quiet, attentive partner in his father’s estimable enterprise.

The extensive sequence that yields these developments sucks us into the tale with raw, muscular physicality, virtually no dialogue, and music provided by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, alternately drawing tension to a single unnerving point or creating an ominous insectile flurry of activity with low strings. Rarely are so many components so much of a piece, the space and texture evoked in the production design by Jack Fisk (Days of Heaven) beautifully lining Anderson’s catalogue of striking images: the exploding geyser that blasts H.W.’s hearing away, the vast puddle of crude that reflects the desert sky, which itself represents the limit of Plainview’s potential wealth. While the barren landscape on display in There Will Be Blood might seem to limit Anderson’s palate, the film never falls short on arresting spectacle.

The dramatic core takes hold with the coming of Paul Sunday, a goat farmer’s son who approaches Plainview one night to announce the discovery of oil on his father’s otherwise worthless hardscrabble. Plainview offers a trifling up front and Paul thence vanishes for the rest of the movie, only to be replaced by his far more imposing twin brother Eli once Plainview arrives on their land under false pretences. Plainview acquires the property for a song, but Eli, whose aspirations are to become a charismatic preacher and founder of The Church of the Third Revelation, has Plainview’s number. A line is drawn in the sand between these opponents, one representing business, the other religion, each eventually needing to align however uneasily with the other.

Both Paul and Eli are played by the terrifically unlikely star Paul Dano, who made a distinct impression as the nihilistic teen in Little Miss Sunshine. He has a girlish manner that props up the considerable rage he generates here as a slight, chinless youth easily underestimated. His Eli is a talented performer, shaking the arthritis from an old lady’s shriveled hands and tossing invisible Satan out on his ass before an admiring rural congregation. He works himself into impressive fits of hysteria, which will pay off intriguingly in the film’s bravura –if somewhat overcooked– finale.

But the film belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis, lording over the proceedings as the brilliant and monstrous Plainview. I can’t come up with another actor who could do quite what Day-Lewis has done here. Larger than life, yet so very tangible a presence, his Plainview has a sparkle of the dreamer in his eye, and a lovingly protected ruthlessness that only fully falls away when he no longer has anyone left to convince, when accident and destiny determine his absolute loneliness. (Among these determining circumstances is the arrival of a mysterious half-brother, marvelously played by Kevin J. O’Connor with the weathered calm of a weary chameleon.)

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Day-Lewis’ performance lies in his voice, its folksy oratorical nuances marked by an overt homage to the memorable modulations of John Huston. And like Noah Cross, Huston’s wondrously evil cameo in Chinatown, Day-Lewis’ Plainview has tethered himself like some mad proprietor to a natural resource. His hubris writ-large is a symbol of American arrogance, avarice and a sort of appalling beauty, a personality so grand and weirdly inviting, even as it festers the basest of needs. If anyone can sell our earth’s riches to us as though he invented it in his basement workshop, it’s this guy. And for the duration of There Will Be Blood, we are his stunned, happily bamboozled customers.

Friday, January 11, 2008

I'm Not There: A mosaic of persona, with each of us in the mix

Save the imminently memorable closing image fade-out, Bob Dylan, or any direct representation of Bob Dylan, is, strictly speaking, nowhere to be found, nor ever mentioned, in Todd Haynes’ new movie, a biopic –or is it perhaps an anti-biopic– about Bob Dylan. Rather, we get a slyly assembled sextet of Dylanesques and Dylanguises: Dylan as a riddle-smith Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), Dylan as Woody Guthrie as a black little kid (Marcus Carl Franklin), Dylan as one Jack Rollins, the remote avatar of troubled social conscience who later finds God and polyester suits (Christian Bale), Dylan as an actor playing Jack Rollins in a mid-60s biopic (Heath Ledger), Dylan as a drug-addled, gender-blending provocateur on tour in England (Cate Blanchett, in the role closest to a recognizable Dylan, circa
Don’t Look Back), Dylan as Billy the Kid in hiding after faking his death (Richard Gere). Among the countless conceptual marvels on display here is the forming of a mosaic of personas that collectively embody our collective Dylan, with not a single one of them staking any claims on any sort of definitive biographical portrait. I’m Not There, indeed.

It sounds like a radical exercise in semiotics. It is. (Godard looms over the film as much as Dylan.) It’s about the paradox of a popular artist’s obligation to speak only for himself while also speaking for all of us, and the accompanying schisms this incites between his private and public life. Crucially, it’s about the unavoidability of politics playing into personal expression. But can I please ensure you that it’s also wild and vibrant, often giddily entertaining and funny, and, at it’s very best, absolutely heartbreaking and unexpectedly cathartic. It is also, like anything hoisted up with such vision and audacity, flawed –some parts just work better than others– yet to remove any of its individual parts would render it far more flawed. All this is to say I’m Not There ain’t no Ray or Walk the Line. This isn’t your Auntie Linda’s biopic. But for god’s sake see it already. And take your Auntie Linda along with you. After all, it’s about the 1960s.

Did I mention the tremendous music? I’m Not There is of course not only bursting with it but guided by it. Dylan’s songs, many of his very best, supply the soundtrack just as they inform the shape and tone and playfully baffling hairpin turns of the story. Just like Chronicles Volume One, Dylan’s recent memoir, the film flows along with the restless, associational, merrily anachronistic funk of Dylan’s verse. Thus each of Haynes’ Dylans appear and reappear throughout, prompting one and other, conspiring toward a strangely coherent narrative thread that’s not at all apparent while we’re in the thick of it.

Early on, Franklin’s Woody, at once a reincarnation and a throwback, is taken to task for singing folk songs tinged with nostalgia for the Depression instead of facing up to the problems of the day. Much later, Gere’s Billy will see flashes of Vietnam in the rolling wooded hills he inhabits like some horseback Unabomber. In between, Blanchett assaults audiences with machine gun rock and fends off journalists with razor sharp witticisms, while, in what for me is the film’s most compelling, beguiling and deeply moving section, Ledger copes with romance, marriage (to a marvelous Charlotte Gainsbourg) and family life while trying to maintain a role in the outside world that may just be coming to define himself. Along the way there are concerts, commentaries (by Julianne Moore as Joan Baez!), cocktail parties, and more than one ominous scene of fumbling with motorcycles.

“You never know how the past will turn out,” is one more gem of a line one of these Dylans tosses off, yet it’s at the heart of Haynes’ stratagems. The caveat in the title of Pennebaker’s classic Dylan doc implies a consequence: if you look back, what lies behind you will change, and the path you’re following will change along with it. I’m Not There looks to and reconfigures the past as a way of discovering ecstatic truths about the culture we share as emblemized by this tremendous individual who means something different to everyone. It’s one hell of a hall of mirrors, and one in which you just might find yourself gazing back.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Reverie under rubber, walking through fire: Metro Cinema visits four films by David Lynch

With the labyrinthine billowing video miasma of Inland Empire now marking a new point of departure in his ever-shifting approach to filmmaking, the time seems about right for a fresh survey of David Lynch’s always strange, sinuous and stimulating body of work. This weekend Edmonton's finest venue Metro Cinema is doing just that, screening a mini-retrospective as well as the Edmonton premiere of the anonymously authored documentary Lynch. The quartet of features screened may represent only a fraction of the Lynch canon, yet it’s an intriguing and diverse selection that includes his defining debut, an indisputable classic, as well as two other titles, both of which I’ll look at more closely, that help flesh out a sense of the distinctive filmmaker’s considerable adaptability as well as the extent to which he can follow his most single-minded tangents into utter weirdness.

After making one of the most startling debuts of the decade with Eraserhead (1977), an endlessly wondrous, deeply oneiric odyssey into paternal anxiety, deadpan humour, painterly grotesquerie and mechanical subjugation, Lynch could have followed any number of paths. How curious that the one he’d eventually take would lead him to a Hollywood biopic, albeit one entirely in keeping with Lynch’s aesthetic and thematic concerns, and one that would allow him to have his cake and eat it: an unapologetically humanist, prestige-laden, Oscar-nominated film that’s also drenched in phantasmagorical imagery and the faux-naïve poeticism that would become his stock in trade.

The Elephant Man (80) tells the tragic story of John Merrick, the astoundingly disfigured man that would gradually go from thrilling the Victorian working class as a sideshow freak bar none to titillating the Victorian upper class as the pet project of the well-intentioned Dr Frederick Treves. A nightmarish montage reveals a photograph, a parade of elephants, and a woman twisting her head back and forth in agony in an ashen blur, a low bestial moan standing in for her silent screams: the film’s haunting opening alone is as indicative of Lynch’s tack as anything in Eraserhead.
Photographed by Freddie Francis in silvery hues that seem to coat the sinister industrial landscapes, patterned floors and cobblestones in mercury, with Lynch marveling at Merrick’s collection of talismans with the same awe as their owner, the film is as elegant as it is harrowing. John Hurt, unrecognizable beneath a masterful coat of prosthetics, brings a dignity and attentiveness to Merrick that’s deeply affecting. Anthony Hopkins gives what I consider to be among his absolute finest performances as Treves, carrying that weary face that, however guarded or reserved, seems never at ease but rather conveys the character’s mounting feeling that he may be just as guilty of exploitation as Merrick’s previous “proprietor.”

Blue Velvet (86), which I wrote about the last time Metro screened it, is nothing less than Lynch’s most eloquent synthesis of Edward Hopper and Francis Bacon, an unforgettable vision of the hidden darkness and madness in postcard America, a small town noir seething with desire, degradation, beauty, obsession, and the loss of innocence. (If you’ve never seen it: SEE THIS MOVIE. If you’ve already seen it: SEE THIS MOVIE.) It also features the best ensemble cast Lynch has ever assembled, one of whom, Kyle MacLachlan, would go on to be the star of Twin Peaks (90-91), Lynch’s tremendously successful foray into television –which leads us to the last film in Metro’s quartet.

There’s a section in the superb book
Lynch on Lynch where Lynch explains to interviewer Chris Rodley his mind-set post-Twin Peaks. “At the end of the series, I felt sad. I couldn’t get myself to leave the world of Twin Peaks. I was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside. I wanted to see her live, move and talk.”
This longing to resurrect the dead in a tender embrace, this sort of artistic necrophilia if you will, permeates and, some would say, plagues Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (92). It is at once a tormented, death-haunted, funereal thing and an otherwise straightforward, linear story of sexual abuse escalating to filicide that is continually subverted by wildly eccentric digressions and fragments of minutia left over from a complicated and much beloved television series. Somehow, for all its problems it’s also finally tremendously moving.
An extensive prequel, which itself has a rather amusing prelude that consumes the first half-hour, Fire Walk With Me would, admittedly, be the last film I’d ever tell a Lynch neophyte to see. Its heroine, Laura Palmer, whose death kicked off the series, is most often in a state of agitation if not hysteria, a precariously static emotional plateau that does no favours for actress Sheryl Lee. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast –conspicuously disaffected rural folk, pouty 28-year-old teens, the hoser clientele of an extravagantly art directed bar owned by a salacious French Canadian– is so uniformly quirky that the more inspired and significant oddities find it difficult to stand-out. The film also ranks as the unholiest collaboration between Lynch and regular composer Angelo Badalamenti, whose score is by far the most gratingly soapiest of a distinctly soapy body of work.

Yet there are moments of absolute terror and palpable discovery in
Fire Walk With Me, as well as a number of ingenious set pieces, and more than a hint of the grasping in the darkness for narrative cohesion that made elements of Inland Empire so electrifying. It’s the most frustrating work from a visionary and enduring filmmaker, but its visionary nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Body trouble: a short piece on the conflicted aesthetic pretentions and elegant alienation of Peter Greenaway

Peter Greenaway at the very least deserves to be considered a special case. Not only does Greenaway bring the distinct sensibility of the painter to (more or less) mainstream cinema, not only does he subvert the vocabulary of narrative film to make essentially associational structural explorations: Peter Greenaway is a grand cinematic alienator, wildly prolific and without peer. He doesn’t seem to even want you to like his films, which is fortunate.

I started hating Greenaway with
8 1/2 Women (1999), which I saw at Edmonton's Metro Cinema years ago. It’s Metro again who’ve prompted me to revisit Greenaway’s work for the first time since. Making up one half of their weekend Greenaway double bill, Metro’s screening A Zed & Two Noughts (85), perhaps the coldest movie about grief ever made. A clinically elegant approach to design and symmetry permeates the film from the surface down to its core. A car accident outside the Rotterdam Zoo, on a road titled Swan Way, is caused by a swan. Two women perish, each one spouse to one of a pair of Siamese twins. The widowers soon become lovers to the accident’s sole survivor, the driver of the car, who lost one leg in the violence and, urged by the surgeon brother of a famous forger of Vermeer paintings, is considering getting rid of the other. The twins also console themselves with documentaries about the origins of life and by monitoring of decomposition in various organic subjects: an apple, some prawns, a swan. The march of bloat, bubble and rot whizzes by in time-lapse images set to hyper-speed music.

Seen at the close of the opening credits, the image of the dead wives, leaning almost sensuously against one and other as sparks cascade behind them, possesses a certain perverse pageantry that determines the tone of what proceeds. The spectacle owes something to Warhol and JG Ballard in its transfixing power: morbid, telegraphic, flat, yet layered with meaning. It matches the highly theatrical quality of the film’s lighting, composition, production design and even dialogue. In Greenaway’s theatre, civilization is a sort of catastrophe waiting to happen, where genes dictate destiny and personality melts into base needs and the useless accumulation of knowledge. Incidentally, I don’t recall a single close-up in the whole thing: humans are to be observed from a distance sufficient for erasing the possibility of character identification.

Greenaway has stated that cinema doesn’t connect with the body the way painting has. The two mediums behave so differently that I don’t doubt for a moment that he’s right. Yet, while Greenaway has frequently condemned films for clinging to the aesthetics of the novel, I wonder if he’s aware of just how equally limiting his appropriation of the aesthetics of painting is. The body is often most palpably felt in films that fully exploit the medium’s particular sense of movement and urgency -elements Greenaway frequently avoids. In any case,  A Zed & Two Noughts is compelling precisely for its use of static or virtually static imagery. This is something worth praising, even if it’s a far cry from its creator’s ostensible goals.