Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Off the beaten track: Riding Toward Everywhere

I live near train tracks. I hear them mostly late at night, when aching dreams of escape are given freer reign. I love trains with a childish awe, but the tracks have been made absurdly inaccessible, the fencing around them formidable. You cross over or under these fortressed tracks and the passing trains seem like some disorderly mirage, the poltergeist of some rumbling, colossal, transient machine from the distant past. It makes you wonder: do people still hitch rides on these beasts? Paying passengers hardly even use them anymore. What ever happened to that most glorious of victimless crimes, freight hopping?

William T. Vollmann has asked similar questions, but unlike me –unlike most of us these days– he’s taken it upon himself to answer them through first-hand investigation. Though he’s pushing 50 and still recovering from pelvic surgery and some minor strokes, Riding Toward Everywhere (Ecco, $31.95) finds Vollmann packing up his orange bucket and backpack, dragging along a friend or two, and riding the rails. The numbers of fellow travelers he encounters have diminished since the days of Jack London or Thomas Wolfe, or even Jack Kerouac, three among the many American writers he cites and forges a literary dialogue across the ages with here. But most of those who still practice this particular form of wandering are prompted by the same thing most trainhoppers have always been prompted by: need, desperation, lack of opportunity, poverty. Vollmann, as he makes clear right from the start, suffers from at most one of these ailments. He’s not a hobo but, as he puts it, a fauxbeau, a dilettante who when he desires need only wait for the train to slow or stop, jump off, and find himself a warm bed and a hot meal.

“Contempt for my privileged railroad follies may or may not be warranted,” Vollmann writes. “The question is what I make of them.” He points out that even Thoreau had a safety net to rescue him from any genuine peril during his submergence into Walden’s wilderness –but does that make his observations of the life left behind and the one adopted in exchange any less resonant? Vollmann’s reasons for trainhopping are many. His interest in those who live outside the dictates of the approved (if difficult to acquire) state of prosperity and ambition have informed much of his previous work, his travels to Afghanistan and the Arctic, and most notably his recent book Poor People. Much of this new book is indeed concerned with those he meets and learns from during his travels, as well as the graffiti they leave behind as traces of their vagabond musings, their frustrations and madness. But for all that, what seems to bring Vollmann to the rails is finally a much baser, more personal urge: to get out of Here -wherever Here may be– and find Everywhere.

“The lives I could have lived or at least imaged living teased me,” Vollmann writes at one point while gazing out from his perch on the iron horse, and elsewhere: “how luxurious it is to travel I care not where for no good reason!” Vollmann is a divorced parent, a man who confesses to finding his inner rage growing with age, who doesn’t own a cell phone or a credit card, who’s sick with anger over the direction his country has been taking in this new century of increasingly compromised liberties. He is a great, persuasive believer in civil disobedience. Though much older and much more practical than the likes of say, Chris McCandless, Vollmann needs to flee the grid, at least for a time. (Who doesn’t?) Vollmann searches for the same thing most artists or anyone with a wandering spirit seeks: the epiphanies granted by freedom. Why else do so many of the book’s evocative accompanying photographs feature open doors looking out on the fragmentary promise of some thrilling expanse?

Admittedly, as Riding Toward Everywhere chugs along it does get repetitive, its romantic viewpoint and Zen laughter a little hackneyed, and sometimes its existential questions begin to feel generic. Vollmann often asks what’s wrong with aimlessness, and at times the shapelessness of this book answers him back loud and clear. But Vollmann never goes too long without bringing his ramshackle narrative back to deeper, more specific questions about identity, nomadism, solitude, solidarity, and being lost in life. What works best for me here is the first essay in particular, in which Vollmann writes a great deal about his father, all the ways in which their lives, their choices and their politics conflict. But for all their differences Vollmann clearly admires his father and recognizes how much their perspectives have to do with the eras in which they reached manhood and the idea of American life that seemed possible during these times. And in one of the most touching moments in Riding Toward Everywhere Vollmann dreams that his father is riding the rails with him. In this dream Vollmann’s train crosses not only space but time, taking him through an emotional detour as revealing of his truest longings as other parts of Riding Toward Everywhere reveal Vollmann’s most fundamental flaws. Put together all of these aspects might tucker you out, but I think you’ll still be glad for taking the journey.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Boys to Men: Cidade dos Homens

Dead End Hill, the rather in- auspiciously named favela that provides the setting for much of City of Men, is a ram- shackle maze of post-urban life where anarchy and violence are indistinguishable from the banalities of everyday existence. In this grimly alluring slum of Rio de Janeiro, a city that still resembles some seaside paradise if you squint a little and regard it from a safe distance, violent death is at once terrifyingly unpredictable and a visitor so regular as to deserve its own table setting. In one of City of Men’s many memorable scenes, a conversation between two men is interrupted by the sounding of a single gunshot somewhere nearby. The men look at each other and pause for just a moment, as though waiting for more, before one matter-of-factly says the other, “One less.”

This scene gives the impression that City of Men, a sequel of sorts to Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s 2002 film City of God, as well as a feature-length follow-up to the Brazilian television series of the same name, is a film corroded with cynicism. Yet City of Men, while plunging the viewer into an infernal milieu –one representative of the sort that more and more of the world is sliding toward– finally employs despair and chaos as a method of putting the persistence of hope in greater relief. City of God drew much of its abundant exhilaration and grotesquerie from the fact that the vicious gangsters inhabiting its streets were mostly still kids; in City of Men, which Meirelles co-produced, the boys that survived the previous film are now growing into adults, and, while plagued with even more cause for resignation or madness, some of them endeavour to forge new lives for themselves and the families they’re already beginning to create. The final scene elegantly evokes their baby steps toward a brighter future.

In a rapid, rhythmical sequence of cross-cuts that set the tone for what’s to come, the story opens, somewhat confusingly at first, by introducing Dead End Hill’s dominant, heavily-armed gang, led by the Madrugadão (Jonathan Haagensen, whose deep, puffy eyes and broad face mirror the brooding handsomeness of Benicio Del Toro), and two pals each on the cusp of official manhood, the charming, thick-bodied Ace and the boyishly handsome, more innocent Wallace (Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha, both of whom played roles in City of God). Ace already has a wife and son he feels far from ready for. So oblivious to parental obligation is Ace that he actually leaves his toddler son at the beach. Wallace meanwhile searches for his own father, a man sufficiently disreputable for Wallace’s family to refuse to provide even his first name.

Co-written by director Paolo Morelli, who helmed several episodes of the series, and Elena Soarez, the film is as smartly informed by the burdens and legacies of fathers and sons as Soarez’s script for House of Sand was by the innate links between mothers and daughters. Around the same time that gang warfare breaks out in Dead End Hill, approximately half-way through the story, Wallace tracks down his dad begins a tentative relationship, one soon fraught with the revelations of his dad’s blood-soaked past and ongoing criminal activities. In a plot twist that effectively echoes classical myth, the father’s history of violence runs concurrent with that of Ace’s father, and the lifelong friends become the inheritors of a shared past of horror and tragic folly, events whose consequences threaten to determine their own futures darkly.

Not unlike the density of domiciles crammed into the hillside slum, City of Men crams an awful lot of narrative into 110 minutes, yet it does so fluidly, and often thrillingly, with a masterful interweaving of flashbacks that flesh out the present and sometimes intriguingly contradict the spoken testaments given by those who lived through the past. Morelli doesn’t infuse the film with quite the same level of stylistic flourish that Meirelles brought to City of God, but he comes pretty close, particularly in the way his camerawork conveys a striking sense of the Hill’s vertical labyrinth. What’s more, Morelli is telling a story that, with all due respect to City of God, greatly surpasses its predecessor in sheer heart. In tracing the geometries of genes, family names, and social determinism, City of Men builds to a tremendously moving series of climaxes. It might be too much to expect a third film in this cycle to be as great, but I’d be more than happy to see them give it a whirl.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A gentle push: Charlie Bartlett

An actual person resembling the titular teenage hero of Charlie Bartlett probably doesn’t exist and never could. Amiable, politically gifted, and imminently resourceful –by which I mean stinking rich– Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is the reincarnation of Ferris Bueller for a generation of kids even more image-conscious and choked by ideologies of consumerism and control than that of Bueller’s Reagan era preppies. Kicked out of several private schools, Charlie goes to public school and, devising an admirably clever scheme to accumulate hordes of prescription drugs, becomes a pusher of Prozac and Ritalin to classmates of every faction. He also turns the school’s boy’s room into a therapist’s office, offering an ear, a shoulder, and instant meds to all at cut-rate prices. And Charlie likes his work, because above all, Charlie just wants to be liked.

I don’t really mind that Charlie himself is such an artificial character. The situations he engineers are pretty fun, and the improbable scope of his powers of persuasion and appeal to the masses thanks to his pharmaceutical operation implies a sly commentary on the loathsome hypocrisies of American drug culture: the pills Charlie pedals are legal, but just as formidable as the illegal ones commonly sought by teens. He also in his daydream world has one of the most charming teen movie moms in recent memory (the lovely Hope Davis), an endearingly clueless, well-dressed tippler too far removed from everyday life to really know how what a normal parent is supposed to do.

What I find more problematic is how wildly unrealistic everything else is in Charlie Bartlett, namely the risibly innocent high schoolers that so easily band together for whatever cause, who all treat Charlie like a God, who (save Tyler Hilton’s appealing bully-for-hire with a sensitive side) each fall into some lame stereotype, who seem universally oblivious to the fact that Charlie’s advice is mostly based on common sense. Charlie’s peers are mostly just a backdrop to a air-brushed fantasy of teen life that could have packed a little more of a comic edge if injected with a dose of real risk, something absent even in the film’s quickie but blandly maudlin suicide attempt scene. It also goes on way too long and ends with one of those singing in the auditorium finales that make any self-respecting teenager gag. Still, the highlights are still more winsome than the vast majority of comedies out there right now.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Undercurrents, and then some: Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life

Hong Shen and Sanming Han, the central characters in Jia Zhang-ke’s Golden Lion-winning film Still Life, never meet. Rather, they navigate kindred routes through drowning places, each in search of an errant spouse, each bearing witness to a world in the process of a systematic vanishing. Jia, whose previous films include Platform and Unknown Pleasures, has developed a directorial perspective that, while often constructed around potent, beautiful images, is very specifically concerned with the evocation of the unseen. With Still Life, which functions in part as a documentary about the flooding of villages and the displacement of over 1,500,000 people resulting from China’s colossal Three Gorges Dam Project, the unseen takes on a new level of resonance: the lost world that once lined the Yangtze River is in a sense still there, located somewhere in Jia’s frame. It’s just that it’s underwater.

Shen, a former miner, attempts to find the bought wife who left him 16 years ago with their unborn child. Upon his arrival in Fengjie he hires a mercenary motorcyclist to take him to his wife’s address, yet all that’s left of her street is a small, grassy knoll nosing up through the water’s surface. Shen manages to track down his brother-in-law, who explains that his wife has gone down-river to find work but will eventually return. Shen procures local work and opts to wait. The main industry in the region is, unsurprisingly, demolition. Walls and buildings tumble down all around him as Shen walks from one place to another. Even the place where he’s managed to find cheap accommodation gets tagged by government officials with the dreaded line of spray paint that indicates where the water will reach next.

The performance style in Still Life, as with other Jia films, tends toward the placid, yet one of the film’s more lively exchanges finds Shen talking to a charismatic young coworker who, hearing of Shen’s search, waxes philosophical about how Shen is a nostalgic man living in very un-nostalgic times. But is he? The Three Gorges Dam Project is arguably nurturing an epidemic of nostalgia, uprooting so many families from their homes and driving them to parts unknown. Jia, too cultivates an atmosphere of melancholy through striking images of lone individuals gazing out at crumbling vistas, or through his always beguiling and surprising push-ins on endearing figures, like in the scene where a little kid in underwear enters Shen’s room, steals one of his cigarettes and lights up.

Sanming doesn’t appear until 40 minutes into Still Life, but the timing of her entrance is shrewd: a more assertive character than Shen, she raises the level of urgency in the film with her presence, coming to Fengjie not to reunite with her husband but to demand a divorce. Ultimately she and Shen function jointly as a sort of Janus-head in the scheme of Jia’s examination, two modern Chinese landing in a 2000-year-old community condemned to death in the name of industry, poised on the precipice of cataclysmic social change, one face looking back, the other forward, both momentarily transfixed with destruction. And Still Life, Jia’s poetic entry into the cinema of ecological alienation, will transfix you, too.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The case file as art: Zodiac on DVD

Watching Zodiac in its director’s cut nearly a year after the original version’s theatrical release, it feels that much more remarkable, that much more singular, this film so haunted by the unknowable, so unapologetically embracing of tracing the intricacies of laboring toward uncertainty. While seeing the film in the theatre with a captive audience unsure as to what to expect was for me at least an exhilarating happening, Warner/Paramount’s new two-disc special edition somehow completes the Zodiac experience: presenting a movie driven by obsession in a package so brimming with commentary, supplementary data and contradictory opinions, invites the viewer to obsess right along with Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the cartoonist-turned one-man investigatory team whose exhaustive books on the unsolved Zodiac murders provide the story’s foundation.

The material added by director David Fincher only fortifies the film’s slow building of character, period and engagingly banal procedural detail –not to mention humour. The scene in which Captain Lee (Dermot Mulroney) and Inspectors Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) and Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) lay out their grounds for a search warrant not to a living person but a tiny speakerphone simultaneously mounts anticipation of a new break in the case and feels vaguely like borrowed shtick from
Charlie’s Angels.

Yet it’s the same details you saw the first time around that really deepen the chilling evocation of these otherwise disparate events linked only by shared trauma: the brief exchanges, alluding to complicated, intimate relationship histories, and even an unexplained sense of imminent danger, between the Zodiac’s victims at Blue Rock Springs and Lake Barryessa; the frequency with which we see Toschi eat, this man who’s life becomes consumed by Zodiac in turn seeking to comfort himself through consumption; the hysterical woman who claims to have been abducted by Zodiac (Ione Skye), hiding her baby in some bushes off the side of the highway at night; the sheer amount of time that passes while memories fade and research accumulates and gets filed away, sucked into multi-jurisdictional limbo. Just as no single member of the tremendous ensemble cast passes through
Zodiac without making some distinct impression, everything in the film becomes equally absorbing, boggling the mind with the promise of some grand interconnectedness that may not truly exist.

Fincher’s commentary track is illuminating both technically (he seems, perhaps to a fault, a perfectionist of the first order) and with regards to the director’s own emotional involvement with the film, tied to his growing up in San Francisco during the Zodiac’s heyday. It’s fascinating how a project that mightn’t seem all that personal can finally become a filmmaker’s richest, finest, most idiosyncratic and humane work, and it’s revealing to hear how Fincher himself made a concentrated effort to avoid any kind of formal flourish that would detract from the clearest possible observance of character and action. This lack of flash becomes a vision in itself, and renders everything else in Fincher’s oeuvre, from the genuinely creepy if over-adorned
Seven to the rather tedious Panic Room, a mere warm-up for the more serious filmmaking displayed here.

A second commentary track trades off between a laid-back Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., who are consistently amusing if not especially insightful (and Gyllenhaal kind of embarrasses himself by going on this long spiel about Raymond Carver when I’m pretty sure he means Raymond Chandler), and the power team of screenwriter James Vanderbilt, producer Brad Fischer and, most welcome of all, novelist James Ellroy. In sly deadpan, Ellroy boldly introduces himself as “James Ellroy, King of American crime fiction… acknowledging that this film is one of the half-dozen greatest American crime films.” Now that’s how you kick-off a commentary! (Makes you wonder what the other five films are.) Vanderbilt and Fischer speak eloquently about all the varied choices that sprung from their resolve not to show anything that didn’t have a surviving eyewitness. They also discuss the sheer weirdness of the possibility that Zodiac murdered cabbie Paul Stine, then stole his glasses, put them on his face and walked away from the crime as though disguised as his victim. Ellroy meanwhile interjects with articulate reverie over the film and some terrific non-sequiturs, such as his bizarre anecdote that illustrates why he hates Donovan or what he considers to be the moral of Moby Dick.

The second disc features a nicely put-together making-of featurette that provides a sense of the strange balance between fact-based minutia and pure creativity that went into every aspect of the production. There’s also an extended documentary on each of the murders and all the particulars surrounding them, and, maybe best of all, a shorter doc solely about Arthur Leigh Allen, the deeply enigmatic prime suspect who died just before he was to meet with police one last time back in 1992. New interviews with the pivotal Don Cheney and several others who knew Allen alternate between strengthening the case against him and poking still more holes in it. Criminology experts make a convincing plea for a practice of fitting the evidence to a suspect instead of trying to fit a suspect to the evidence, yet even if certain aspects don’t fit the profile for Zodiac, Allen remains a compelling scapegoat even in death. His long, ovular face stares at us from a handful of obscure photographs, giving away precious little, ready to have whatever foul notions projected upon it, still the centre of a mystery that’s been arduously compacted into what is finally one of the great films of our age.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

In Bruges: Hitmen with your best shot

Few mysteries baffle like the persistence of movies about hitmen. Why we’re supposed to be so in love with those who assume this vile occupation that almost no one can relate to is beyond my critical powers. We can get philosophical about it, discuss the existential dilemma inherent in killing strangers for money or draw thematic corollaries with the glorious samurai genre, but that still wouldn’t explain why the vast majority of hitmen movies are so incredibly stupid, shallow and devoid of imagination.

I’d be curious however to question English playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh on the appeal of hitmen flicks, since McDonagh doesn’t seem stupid or shallow or content to ape Tarantino and yet has chosen to make his feature debut in just this over-harvested field. In Bruges is basically your hitmen buddies go on holidays and get sensitive movie. Among other questionable choices it stars Colin Farrell. The surprise comes only as you get well into the film: it’s not that bad.

On orders from the boss, Ray (Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) hightail it the opulent Belgian medieval village of the title to hide out and await instructions after the proverbial job gone wrong. While elder, gentler Ken yearns to kick back and sightsee the abrasive-tongued Ray just wants to booze up and forget what we gradually learn was a horrific accidental killing dealt out by Ray’s own hand. Compulsively following a perverse obsession with dwarves (I’m not making this up), Ray winds up sneaking onto the set of some godawful Euro-co-pro art film and snagging a fetching Dutch AD, who as it turns out is also heavily involved in criminal activity.

This playing as a comedy at least half of the time, the blokes do have some winning one-liners become increasingly sympathetic. Gleeson’s pretty easy to love and Farrell, despite some grating overacting of the face, gets more interesting as his character opens up about what’s really eating him. Whether or not these guys are plausible cold-blooded career killers is a question perhaps best-posed to the professionals, but when a supremely nasty Ralph Fiennes shows up in the third act and the heavy shooting starts they look comfortable enough blowing each other way, I guess.

While McDonagh remarkably manages to weave much audacity and crudity into a narrative so rife with guilt, loneliness and suicide without becoming entirely glib, the actors do a solid job of basically asking that we all agree on how totally bogus this all is and get on with splattering brains and pleading for redemption. The truth is that In Bruges never entirely redeems its flaws, but it’s a not too shabby a start for a career in movies.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Calling for an end to the End of History: John Gray's disarming critiques of apocalyptic misadventure

Reading John Gray’s 2002 book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals is rather like having some particularly gummed-up section of your brain scrubbed ruthlessly clean. With steel wool. For most readers, Gray’s taut, provocative, almost gleefully unsentimental attacks on certain venerated schools of liberal thought can initially feel both unnerving and unsavoury.

With surgical precision (and, to be sure, a few sweeping generalizations), he takes to task the Enlightenment-born notion of progress, which is to say the largely unquestioned belief that the accumulation of knowledge will inevitably make man better. More specifically, he attacks what we misleadingly call secular humanism, weaving in numerous examples of human activity at its bleakest to impart a clear sense of the impulses toward irrationality and conflict that make us basically similar to all other animals. His dismissal of the convention of dividing political outlooks into neat camps of Left and Right (a most welcome dismissal as far as I’m concerned) will no doubt enrage those who consider their allegiance to either side a badge of honour. I would recommend finding a copy in hardcover, not only because it is a book to be revisited but because you may find yourself compelled to hurl it across the room more than once before quickly resuming your reading of it. For this reason alone a more durable edition is quite useful.

Only gradually as you read Straw Dogs does it become clear that at the core of Gray’s argument is a realist diagnosis of our ongoing and increasingly destructive inability to recognize the abundant failings of Enlightenment philosophy and its reactionary, utopian undercurrents, persistent modes of thinking that, most notably, form the backbone of neo-conservatism as first popularized in Francis Fukuyama’s divisive but still hugely influential The End of History and the Last Man, which presupposes that history is one long march of progress ending with the entire human race adopting the same ideological model. With the catastrophe that is the invasion of Iraq –that all-too-perfect expression of utopian, neo-con delusions– having begun in the interim, Straw Dogs, whether you buy into all of Gray’s ideas or not, has become an even more essential text, one that nicely and succinctly sums up Gray’s post-Cold War perspective of global politics.

But if Straw Dogs is the ideal introduction to Gray’s philosophy, his new book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (Doubleday, $29.95) functions as a more finely detailed analysis of global trends that have more fully erupted since. Much of this analysis is founded in the same contention that defined Straw Dogs: that the rationale that leads a government peopled by the Christian Right into disastrous nation building –and ironically binds it to Islamic terrorists– finds its lineage in a perhaps surprisingly diverse history of unrealizable utopian exploits, including Jacobinism, Soviet and Chinese communism and, at one particularly gruesome extreme, Nazism, all of which, however indirectly, have their roots in Christianity, which Gray purports is the mother of all mankind’s dreams of apocalypse and universal redemption through righteous violence and upheaval. Granted, to arrive at this conclusion you have to view any outspoken anti-Christian view, such as atheism, as inherently and unavoidably informed by the dictates of Christianity. Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens should love that! But anyone familiar with the work of Nietzsche, who both declared God dead while never quite slipping out of God’s grip, this theory shouldn’t actually seem so far-fetched.

Harsh critics of Gray, of which there of course many, tend to misinterpret or baldly misquote his texts. He just rubs people the wrong way, to the point where they don’t seem able to read very coherently. Writing for, oddly enough, The New Humanist, Laurie Taylor for example has protested against what she deems to be Gray’s unrelenting pessimism. “Gray is literally proposing that we should do nothing to try to change our world,” she tells us. Yet this directly contradicts Gray’s explicit appeal to simply apply more reasonable models of policy-making. Politics, he writes near the close of Black Mass, “is not a vehicle for universal projects but the art of responding to the flux of circumstances.”

But let’s look for an example of Gray at his most iconoclastic. “‘Humanity’ does not exist,” he boldly announced in Straw Dogs. “There are only humans, driven by conflicting needs and illusions, and subject to every kind of infirmity of will and judgment.” Am I crazy for being able to sleep nights while more or less agreeing that people are indeed diverse, unruly, passionate, unpredictable and requiring a variety of problem-solving initiatives instead of one single ideological vision of “perfect” government for all, i.e.: American-style (and violently forced) democracy?

I didn’t grow up in an especially religious household, but I do remember that as a little kid I felt at once desirous and fearful of the notion of going to heaven. The alternative described to me seemed almost too horrible to even ponder, yet heaven seemed like this eerily static place where all the pleasures and adventures of life came to a screeching halt. I didn’t know what to make of the Promised Land, only that I was afraid not to get in. Maybe Talking Heads put it best: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”

Not to oversimplify Gray’s ideas, but I appreciate his recognition of my childhood response to the never entirely imaginable utopian state that so many religious and political parties strive to enter us unto. Accepting mortal man with all his flaws might be more useful than endeavouring toward some great social project that will deliver us all to a realm that denies us all the sorrows and joys that make real life what it is. Of course, Gray doesn’t deny that we still might dream of such a place, he just points out that it might not be the smartest foundation for government.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Brave One: This time, it's personal, or maybe it's generic, or maybe neither

When The Brave One cropped up last fall I was knee deep in TIFF and barely noticed it. It was only later that I began to notice how wildly conflicted the critical response was and my curiosity grew. The film’s genealogy as a vigilante thriller is of course impressive, with executive producer and star Jodie Foster in a sense assuming the Travis Bickle role from Taxi Driver, the film in which she played the pubescent prostitute who becomes Bickle’s personal salvation project.

The Brave One cements its kinship with Taxi Driver in its use of voice-over, the evocative New York location work, the convenience store-killing initiation scene, and, at points, even its score, which features surges of nearly atonal brass and strings. As well, there’s the protagonist’s unusual sensitivity to the ever-shifting city via the dictates of their occupation: from the cockpit of his cab, Bickle primarily saw and smelled New York, where Foster’s Erica, a public radio broadcaster who makes field recordings and comments on New York’s evolution on her show, primarily listens to it

Filmic heritage aside, what’s most interesting here is basically the cultivation of Erica’s sense of internal transfiguration. Having survived the brutal assault that killed her fiancé, her isolation and despair compounded by the apparent absence of any other friends or relatives in her life, she feels that she’s literally become someone else, someone now capable of cold retribution. This discovery of one’s basic, killer instincts was effectively mined most recently in A History of Violence, but the connection between trauma and response is more immediate in The Brave One, with Erica going from victim to vigilante in a matter of weeks. Her transformation is quickened by her sudden proximity to random acts of violence, and, while it feels like something of a baldly magical conceit, I liked this element too, the idea that once violence touches you, you suddenly start to see it everywhere.

So far so intriguing, but where everything completely falls apart is in the final act, which climaxes in one of most astoundingly stupid, most grossly misguided finales in recent memory. How could the presumably reasonably intelligent people working on The Brave One possibly agree to such a pathetic resolution? I was hoping that the making-of featurette on Warner’s new DVD might enlighten us.

Basically, the film’s producers explain how Roderick and Bruce Taylor’s screenplay was initially a straight-ahead genre piece, but when Neil Jordan signed on as director they knew it could be so much more and another writer, Cynthia Mort, was brought it to ostensibly smarten it up. Jordan himself says he actually wanted to make a genre film, something in keeping with the work of say, Sam Fuller or Don Siegel. Indeed, these testimonies finally begin to add up: in the end, The Brave One is caught between being exploitation and something more reflective, and suffers profoundly from this indecision.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I Live in Fear: Kurosawa's underrated portrait of a country with better reason to worry than most

Another forgotten work by one of the great
auteurs is Akira Kurosawa’s 1955 troubled social portrait I Live in Fear, now available in Eclipse’s Postwar Kurosawa box. As is often the case with Kurosawa, the film has been grossly underrated over the years on account of its didacticism –as though earnestness alone can kill a movie with otherwise compelling, dynamic, chilling and even touching qualities. I propose that I Live in Fear is actually something quite special, rich in atmosphere and in certain regards as revealing of the mood of the mid-50s as, say, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life or Rebel Without a Cause, films that also feature familial disintegration in a milieu of modernity and progress, as well as Cold War apocalyptic paranoia.

Elderly patriarch Kiichi Nakajima, portrayed by a heavily made-up, yet surprisingly effective Toshiro Mifune, is so consumed with anxiety over the seemingly inevitable nuclear holocaust that he’s resolved to move his entire clan –mistresses and illegitimate kids included– to a farm in Brazil, which he considers to be the safest possible locale to avoid fallout or direct attack. More concerned with the destiny of Kiichi’s finances than with the mortal destiny of Japan, the majority of his kin attempt to have a local court deem Kiichi incompetent and thus unfit to invest the family’s collective wealth in this venture that almost none want part of. As it becomes uncomfortably obvious that those pursuing the claim are chiefly concerned with their inheritance, the explosive Kiichi, whose convictions are as well-intentioned as they are impractical, wins the sympathies of one of his jurors, a dentist portrayed by Takashi Shimura, once again playing the reasonable counterpart to Mifune’s unruly protagonist. (The more I watch Shimura in these roles, the more he comes to resemble a Japanese Morgan Freeman. He’s got that aura of wisdom and kindness, yet can readily possess a daunting edge.)

Though sections are admittedly excessively talky, there are numerous scenes in I Live in Fear that, in their blend of sinuous camerawork, striking composition and percolating tension, deserve alignment with Kurosawa’s finest moments. In one, hot wind blows the pages of a book, while streetcars boom along the avenue outside: this “spooky weather,” attributed to H-bomb testing at sea, creates an unnerving air around Kiinchi as he cradles an infant grandchild while a son-in-law, drink in hand, casually goes on about the effects of radiation and the latest research into the ongoing trauma in Hiroshima.

The transfer on Eclipse’s no-frills disc is very good, and I’m grateful to finally have the film available on DVD. My only regret is that Criterion didn’t hold out for a more prestige-packaged release, because Japanese cinema expert Donald Ritchie would likely have provided a stellar commentary track.