Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ways of not seeing

The original Portuguese title of
Blindness, the 1995 novel that prompted José Saramago’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira, or Essay About Blindness. I think it’s worth mentioning here because those unfamiliar with Saramago’s work might glean from this specification some sense of this extraordinary novel’s tone, which, characteristically, is digressive, allegorical, and basically unconcerned with character development or the well-measured escalation of drama—the sorts of elements that conventionally make for engaging movies. It’s equally worth mentioning that Blindness the movie, as adapted by Don McKellar and directed by Fernando Meirelles, is clearly uninterested in being a conventional sort of movie. Yet in its attempts to carve out its own identity while making select concessions to the basic form and structure of a dramatic feature, the film seems to lose out in both gambits. Blindness is a deeply intriguing movie that can’t fulfill its promises, a strangely flat apocalyptic drama that rarely shows signs of knowing what it’s about.

It begins, boldly, and not unlike a horror movie, with the first victim of the mysterious disease of “white blindness” becoming afflicted while waiting behind the wheel of his car at a traffic light in the middle of an unnamed large city, the attack thus accompanied by a thunderous chorus of car horns and hollering, intensifying the sense of some terrible pestilence raining down on the masses from an angry god. The disease goes airborne, and we follow a chain of others who catch it: the thief who steals the first blind man’s car (played a little too obviously mercenary by McKellar), the doctor who treats the first blind man (Mark Ruffalo), the patients who shared the doctor’s waiting room with the first blind man (Alicia Braga’s tough, dignified prostitute, Danny Glover’s one-eyed wise man), and so on. Following the measures decided upon by a panicked government (helmed by Sandra Oh), the blind are quarantined, and much of what follows plays out in the characters’ increasingly decrepit confinement.

Saramago’s formally rigorous prose style, with its extensive, multi-page paragraphs with scant punctuation, serves Blindness more perfectly than any of his other novels because, with so few signifiers to help break up dialogue, you actually feel sort of blind while reading it, trying to keep track of who’s talking, depending largely on the nuances of their individual printed voices. Since McKellar’s script resigns itself to simply dramatizing the novel’s action and does little to evoke its refrain of philosophizing and consideration of motives, Meirelles, perhaps as a countermeasure, seems to be trying to build up a like sense of blindness in the viewer through the repeated use of rack focus, white-outs, and the blurring of the frame’s edges. Yet the white-outs look uninterestingly synthetic—imagine if that “milky whiteness” were evoked by using actual milk!—and the strategy feels like an affectation, partly because it makes no sense as a way of creating a subjective point of view: the characters are either blind or not blind, never anything in between. At the same time, the entire visual world of Blindness is so cold and steely, filtered so as to suck all warmth out, that there’s no sense of the richness of the visual world that’s been stolen from the victims, no nostalgia either suggested or displayed that might pierce the emotions.

Over the course of Blindness the quarantined exhibit both the most base and vile of human tendencies—Saramago’s Marxist leanings can be detected here in the pathetic trading of food for utterly material goods—and the most ennobling and moral. The hero of the story is the doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore), the sole character to retain her sight, a fact she wisely holds secret. In a journey not unlike those of other characters that Moore has played over the years, she seems initially to be fairly vacuous and only through crisis reveals herself as resourceful, maternal, valiant and wily—though this transformation feels a matter of course, rarely becoming something we’re able to identify with. So on one hand, Meirelles is trying, unsuccessfully, to put us in his characters’ shoes, while on the other hand the characters, each of them as anonymous as the world they inhabit, fail to assume the specificities and interior lives that might draw us to them. Where literature, which only need supply the data it desires and nothing more, can function quite well in a world without specifics, it is a tremendous challenge to create a movie, particularly one shot on location, that exists in an everyworld full of everymen.

I can’t help but wonder if the movie might have worked better if Meirelles simply opted to maintain a detached, clinical approach, a la Michael Haneke in the similarly inexplicable apocalypse wrought in his underseen Time of the Wolf, allowing us to gradually develop our own empathies through a distinctive, vivid, stark visual world in which trauma and negotiation play out fully. Indeed, how oddly appropriate it might have been if the perspective through which we watched Blindness unfold was strictly observational.

Monday, September 29, 2008

TIFF '08: Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden on Sugar, faith, language, ambition and collaboration

Half Nelson was among the most preternaturally assured indie debuts of the past decade, perhaps more so given that its singularity was the product of two fully engaged writer/directors, a rare phenomena without significant counterparts in contemporary American movies outside of the brothers Coen. It no doubt of some significance that Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden are a couple—and I can’t decide if that makes collaboration easier or more difficult. But Sugar, their follow-up to Half Nelson, is in some regards even more stylistically and tonally distinctive than its predecessor. It follows the titular Dominican pitcher (vividly embodied by first-timer Algenis Perez Soto) as he journeys from Boca Chica to play in the minors in an Indiana town. It eschews the customary ascent-to-triumph tactics of the sports genre for something far richer and more attuned to the vagaries of immigrant experience. I spoke with Fleck and Boden after Sugar’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

JB: Where the idea for Sugar came from?

Ryan Fleck: I’d read an article somewhere about a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic and eventually discovered that every major league baseball team has an academy there, where they sign players for a fraction of what they sign them for when graduating high school or college in the US. We became very interested in the kids who go through these programs, especially the ones you don’t hear about. We started our research up in the Bronx at that field that ends the movie where there’s this whole community of guys who’ve been through these programs and eventually, when they’re let go or decide to leave early, head to New York to start over.

Anna Boden: Then we went down the Dominican Republic, interviewing guys, tooling around, going to as many academies as possible, going into towns and finding players who’d been released or had gone to the US. The character of Sugar and his journey is a composite of all the different stories we heard and people we met during that time.

JB: Do either of you have friends or family with analogous experiences as immigrants?

RF: Not in our lifetimes. Maybe three generations ago.

AB: This didn’t come from that sort of personal place. We just saw this story as a vessel to explore themes we were interested in: what it means to have an American dream, then have that dream shift, to rediscover who you are, how you might fit within this system.

JB: The film handles its politics in a lovely, understated way. One subject that I thought was dealt with especially elegantly was heartland religion. There’s seems to be strong undercurrent in this Indiana town where Sugar finds himself of people wanting to wed every part of their lives to their sense of belonging to a religious community. I wonder if you felt at all anxious about dealing with this subject.

RF: We’re both very non-religious, so we kind of surprised ourselves with this gentle portrayal of these religious families. I guess it’s just that when you’re trying to tell an honest story you have to listen to what’s happening around you. All through our research we kept encountering religion—most players thank God numerous times when talking about their talent—so we knew we had to work it into our movie in a way that felt organic.

AB: We were as surprised as anyone at just how much of a spiritual journey we were telling.

JB: I actually found myself wondering if there wasn’t some spiritual, or rather mythic corollary to Sugar’s story. I understand Spanish, and found it interesting that you subtitle virtually all the Spanish dialogue in the movie with one notable exception, this Icarus-like story Sugar shares about how he got his scar as a baby, trying to grasp something beyond his reach. And of course he has this considerable hubris, this arrogance to match his talent, so the story naturally assumes allegorical dimensions.

RF: That scene was written later in the process, simply because we realized we cast somebody who has a scar. That’s Algenis telling the actual story of how he got it. What you’re saying is really interesting. Honestly, I never made that connection.

AB: I did.

RF: Really?

AB: I thought it was really important. And for me the decision to not translate it was about not necessarily having the audience make that connection—though I think it’s really lovely that you did—but rather letting this guy who’s been stuck in this place where he can’t communicate for so long finally be able to speak his own language, seeing how that changes who he is, how the process of coming to this place has changed him.

RF: Plus, it puts you in his shoes for a second, giving you some idea of what it’s like to have all these people talking and understanding almost nothing.

JB: I love how this story of self-actualization coincides with one of language acquisition—so much of how we identify ourselves has to do with the minutia of how self-expression. I also thought that Algenis, who I guess spoke more English than the character, did a knockout job of playing a guy who understands very little.

AB: I think Algenis shared a lot with the character. He understood this feeling of having to smile and nod your head a lot to get through uncomfortable scenarios.

JB: Your films possess such a distinctive style considering your sharing of writing and directing duties. Do you have a process in which you have to delegate certain elements of the work?

RF: We’ve used the same key crew both times, and when you’re working with the same people they contribute to the same part of that vision. But between us it’s actually pretty fluid. We pretty much do everything together.

JB: So often in movies the more voices you have competing for control the more fights that arise and the more diluted a distinctive voice can become.

AB: Yet it’s so much easier to fight those fights when you have a partner fighting alongside you. Making
Sugar we actually felt pretty supported by our team and our producers, but with Half Nelson we hadn’t worked with any of these people before and they didn’t have the confidence in us they have now. So I found it incredibly helpful to have someone there who I knew trusted me and who could give unwavering support and who could help to decide which fights are worth having.

JB: Were there films you guys used as models of some sort or that you could use as a shorthand with others when trying to pitch the film or get your team on board?

AB: I remember we showed Algenis
Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

JB: Not for a sense of the style of your filmmaking, I presume.

RF: Mostly just because they’re good movies and we wanted to share some of our favourites with him.

AB: And some of the best acting ever.

RF: There wasn’t really any one film that guided us, though, really, We watched all the baseball movies ever made, just to see how they shot it, as sort of a technical exercise.

JB: You were speaking at the screening last night about how one of the things that attracted you to
Sugar was that it was a story you’d never heard, so I wonder if you have plans for a next project with a similar appeal.

RF: We’re been adapting a book called
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessi, which has some similar twists. But having these sorts of twists originate in someone else's material will be a good way of keeping us on our toes. 

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The hazy frontiers of genre and genetics: the unforgettable faces of Lugosi, Price and J. Carroll Naish illuminate three new Fox classics on DVD

If the movies sometimes closely resemble our dreams, its partly because the actors, who appear and disappear in different guises, are somehow analogous to our own internal catalogue of faces, limited by the sway of memory and the mysterious dictates of unconscious imagination. The result can be a mixture of disorientation, comfortable familiarity and outright rejection when we can’t accept the grafting of a face we associate with one persona onto another, like how our bodies might reject a the introduction of a foreign organ.

An amusing case study can be found in a pair of roles played by Bela Lugosi. In Chandu the Magician (1932) he played Roxor, a villain bent on acquiring a death ray that can destroy the world. In The Return of Chandu (34), Lugosi, who dies at the end of the previous film, played… Chandu, the hero, and Roxor’s nemesis. Were the invisible forces of studio casting deliberately messing with the minds of filmgoers? Were the filmmakers trying to subliminally impart a sense of the Borgesian infinite in which good and evil alternate endlessly? I haven’t seen the latter film, but I suspect that the reasoning behind Lugosi’s audacious role reversal was simply that the first Chandu, Edmond Lowe, was so irredeemably bland next to Lugosi’s deliciously over-the-top villain, that they opted to keep the more appealing box office draw in the franchise by whatever means. Such is the sometimes banal logic of dreams.

Chandu the Magician is newly available in the three-disc Fox Horror Classics Vol. 2 box, a terrific package, if extremely misleading in its generic designation. Chandu isn’t horror at all but an adventure yarn as jam-packed with spectacular sets (one of the film’s directors was master production designer William Cameron Menzies), daring escapes, laughable implausibilities and casual racism as the Indiana Jones series that revived the tradition 50 years later. Chandu, an American who journeys east, acquires “the secrets of the yogi” and accompanying turban, has to stop Roxor’s scheme with his powers of suggestion. There are some terrific set-pieces, especially Chandu’s escape from a watery grave, but I don’t think Lowe’s mascara-lined eyes could persuade anyone to check for stains on their tie much less run in terror believing their rifle’s become a snake. Anyone who thinks this guy could be a master of mentalism is just plain mental.

Dragonwyck (46), an adaptation of Anya Seton’s novel and the directorial debut of Joseph Mankiewicz, arguably isn’t really horror either, despite the many claims of Steve Haberman to the contrary on the disc’s hugely informative audio commentary, but more fittingly labeled a Gothic romance. It’s also a much more deeply satisfying film, telling the story of a bucolic innocent (Gene Tierney) swept off to a forbidding old mansion lorded over by her cousin, a charismatic landowner (Vincent Price). Set in 1844 amidst the Anti-Rent Wars, it’s also a rather scathing indictment of the aristocracy, here characterized as alternately ignorant, gluttonous or sliding into a dementia founded in zealous faith in their own entitlement, implied inbreeding and perhaps a familial curse, which manifests in some of the film’s most haunting moments, highlighted by Alfred Newman’s ghostly music. Tierney’s lovely, of course, but also wonderfully nuanced in her journey from naïveté to bleak wisdom, while Price makes his first steps into the sort of role that would come to define his persona in the dream world of movies: articulate, haunted, elegant and slipping into darkness.

Good as Dragonwyck is however, the movie I really want to tell you about, the only bona-fide horror movie in this collection, is Dr. Renault’s Secret (42), which, at least by the standards of this lover of 40s B-movies, is one well-kept secret indeed. There are reasons for this, such as the absence of stars or acclaimed filmmakers, yet the script is based on a novel by Gaston Leroux, who once wrote a little something you might have heard of called The Phantom of the Opera, and the sensationalistic story circles around such juicy themes as genetic predisposition and Darwinism, which, let’s face it, is as controversial a topic in American discourse these days as it was 65 years ago.

Dr. Larry Forbes (John Sheppard, a likable enough type with a Kevin McCarthy overbite) turns up in rural France on the eve of Bastille Day to wed Madelon (Lynne Roberts), the daughter of the titular scientist (George Zucco). Forbes meets Renault’s chauffer Noel (J. Carroll Naish), a strange, melancholy Javanese who seems deeply attached to Forbes’ kind and fetching fiancée, and Renault’s gardener, the gruff ex-con Rogell (the terrific character actor and former wrestler Mike Mazurki, who marvelously played the brokenhearted brute Moose Malloy in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet). As France celebrates the anniversary of its first claims toward modern nationhood—and a string of murders terrorize the community—this pair will come to represent man at his most primitive, with Noel, who we discover is the recipient of Renault’s most ambitious experiments, struggling to overcome his basest urges, while Rogell’s content to surrender to the aberrant dictates of his gene pool—he comes from a long line of criminals.

Surprisingly beautifully photographed, brilliantly paced, thematically layered and clocking in at just under an hour (!), Dr. Renault’s Secret is a real diamond in the rough, with a truly weird love triangle and the even weirder surprise that the hero of the movie is actually Noel, embodied so sympathetically and with an absolute minimum of make-up by Naish, whose face I’d like to see populate my movie/dream-world a lot more often—even if those dreams are nightmares.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Lucky Ones: coming home, hitting the road, and coming to terms with the vagaries of life during wartime

For a film attempting to grapple with a contemporary phenomena—that of American soldiers coming home after serving in Iraq—there’s something decidedly old-fashioned about Neil Burger’s
The Lucky Ones, not just because the trauma, sense of displacement and strained interactions with civilians are familiar from previous films about the veterans of Vietnam, Korea or World War II, but because this story so frequently proves itself to be dependent on the sorts of implausible or at least dramatically convenient events—the guitar once owned by Elvis, the camping sex workers, the deus ex machina twister—more commonly associated with movies of old. But come to think of it, this story is actually about, among other things, the capricious nature of luck, so maybe the hokier plot twists should be respected for being somehow all of a piece, a meditation on what it means to feel overwhelmed by destiny, whether its fixed by the stars or by the stars and stripes.

Colee (Rachel McAdams) was shot in the leg. Cheever (Tim Robbins) had a Porta-potty dropped on him. TK (Michael Peña) got shrapnel in his penis, an injury he’s reluctant to discuss since it’s rendered him temporarily impotent. The younger members of this trio are only on leave while only Cheever is home for good, more than happy to say goodbye to martial life and reunite with his beloved wife. The three never met before shared a flight to JFK, but circumstances will conspire to keep them together, even hitting the road for an extended cross-country journey during which they’ll form a sort of substitute family, despite their considerable differences (and despite the fact that TK, while handsome and sometimes charming, can be really annoying, a self-proclaimed expert on everything from booze to golf to foreplay).

Sometimes The Lucky Ones can feel very predictable, especially since the characters’ weak spots are telegraphed so clearly in the first act. Sometimes it can feel sort of predictably unpredictable, such as in the scene with the aforementioned camping hookers. But as it went along and these characters—embodied superbly by all three stars—developed, I’ll be damned if the one truly unpredictable element to this thing wasn’t how funny, warm and moving it could be, sometimes in the most seemingly slight moments, like when Collee genuinely tries to comfort TK with a catalogue of alternative sex remedies, or whenever the trio quietly, pregnantly nod as yet another civilian says to them, “No, thank YOU,” the mantra of all those who can’t come close to grasping just what the hell it is these people are doing over there.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

We will not call upon the author to explain: Bart Beaty's history of A History of Violence heeds each of the film's brilliant disguises

Would you trust this man to explain his movies to you?

For my money, there are precious few filmmakers working in the popular genres these days whose movies reward repeat viewing with the same sort of intellectual/imaginative force as David Cronenberg’s. Even among those Cronenberg movies that initially strike the viewer as his weakest—perhaps especially those ones—there always lurks the promise of some rich, implied proposition, some biological, ontological, biographical or psychological notion coded to varying degrees in the many fleshy layers of filmic tissue. Crucially, these layers rarely trumpet their own significance in Cronenberg’s films but are left to be gleaned by us in our individual ways. His characters, like Cronenberg himself, are frequently articulate, yet they don’t have any privileged understanding of the full consequence of the story they’re traversing—as protagonists in good genre fare should be, they’re too busy dealing with what’s immediately at hand to give speeches explaining the movie’s themes to us.

By the same token, it is arguably precarious to invest too much authority in Cronenberg’s own statements about his work, which can be found in countless, imminently readable, often fascinating interviews—see Chris Rodley’s superb career-spanning book of conversations Cronenberg on Cronenberg for a full feast of them—and, more recently, audio commentaries. Martin Scorsese, Cronenberg’s nearly exact contemporary and an unabashed, vocal admirer, once said something to the effect of Cronenberg not knowing what his movies are about, and I think he has a good point. Cronenberg’s comments on his movies are always smart, often insightful, sometimes very witty—he’s memorably dubbed The Brood his version of Kramer vs. Kramer—but he himself is insistent on the intuitive nature of his creative work, stating that “understanding” his movies is for him a process that begins exclusively in the wake of a project’s completion. He’s an unusual artist in that he at once resists analysis and is so very compelling an analyst.

For this reason, the real lynchpin in the thesis of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (University of Toronto Press, $16.95), Bart Beaty’s captivating new monograph on the eponymous, widely acclaimed 2005 film, is Beaty’s overt skepticism regarding Cronenberg’s public statements about his work. This questioning is an elegant extension of Beaty’s thoughts on A History of Violence as a whole, a movie of proliferate disguises in which Cronenberg’s directorial role can be seen as yet one more form of clever misdirection. As Beaty states in the book’s introduction:

“The very foundation of
A History of Violence is a network of lies… Nothing here is what it seems, and all evidence points to the fact that the filmmakers are playing games when they talk about the movie. The concept of masquerade, of pretending to be something that one is not, has a long and close affinity with filmmaking, precisely because actors put on roles. Yet in A History of Violence, I would suggest, it is also Cronenberg who is playing a role: the Hollywood filmmaker.”

Indeed, the “Hollywoodness” of Cronenberg’s recent return to commercial cred after 20 years in the art house ghetto is embedded into its every intuitive/reflexive brushstroke, making it easily the most cinematically referential work in the director’s oeuvre, a movie which consistently dances between embracing and subverting filmgoers’ expectations, generating power through its always ambiguous relationship to tradition, genre and spectacle.

When I spoke with Cronenberg for Vue Weekly upon the release of Spider back in 2002, we mainly discussed his literary influences—his beloved Nabokov, and of course William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, novelists whose work he’s adapted—while he made virtually no mention of cinematic ones. Even when he mentioned Luis Buñuel, it was to cite the great Surrealist director’s memoir, not his movies. How interesting then to see in A History of Violence a movie so soaked in the history of cinema, and not art cinema, but the classical genres.

Beaty, following a great deal of critical groundwork, emphasizes throughout his book that A History of Violence is very much a genre hybrid, assuming the guise of the western, the thriller, the bully movie or serial killer movie, for as long as it serves a purpose before discarding it, usually in a dynamic, engaging, even shocking manner. I think his point is astute, yet the way Beaty arrives at his conclusion requires the reader to generalize genres to sometimes problematic degrees, like when Beaty defines the western as “the most triumphalist of genres” equating “technical proficiency with a weapon with moral superiority, justice, and righteousness.” Speaking of the western in such simplistic terms only holds water if we ignore the last 60 years or so of movies—more than half the medium’s lifespan. Westerns have been “revisionist” or dismissive of its own myths at least as far back as The Gunfighter (1950).

Likewise Beaty lists several reasons why A History of Violence isn’t a film noir, the lack of urban setting, femme fatale, expressionistic lighting and such, but besides the fact that many of the most iconic noirs also lack these same ingredients—Border Incident (49), with its rural setting, Born to Kill (47), with its homme fatale—I don’t think anyone has ever made a convincing case for noir as a genre in the first place. Crime dramas and thrillers are genres, whereas noir is alternately best labeled a style or cycle. And Cronenberg’s film, in all its ambiguity, subversion and self-consciousness, is perhaps quintessentially noir, or more precisely neo-noir.

Anyway, my nitpicking is if anything a testament to just how solid Beaty’s book is. Not once in its entirety does he survey any single established idea about what A History of Violence is really all about—especially where its thorny political subtexts are concerned—and simply accept it at face value. His a restlessly inquisitive critical mind, driven by some real passion for the possibilities of movies. Light on jargon, heavy on analysis and—especially considering that this is the product of an academic press—shot through with a real sense of voice, Beaty’s provocative take on our country’s most provocative mainstream director is pretty much exactly the sort of writing on movies we can always use more of.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sex and the pity: Sam Rockwell gets too much action, not enough love, just enough lactose, in mostly impotent Choke

It took a long time, but Sam Rockwell has finally become Edward Norton. The process was subtle at first, starting maybe with mistaking Rockwell’s face in promo materials for Norton’s, like how you might have initially mistaken Jake Gyllenhaal for Tobey Maguire. But things have now come full circle with Rockwell’s starring role in
Choke, the second movie to be made from a Chuck Palahniuk novel, the first being Fight Club, nearly ten years old now, the movie that confirmed Norton as something kind of exhilaratingly unique amongst his peers, a guy who can be an absolutely fearful thug while never seeming less than vulnerable, intelligent and spookily precise. Rockwell, an altogether shaggier leading man, of course has his own distinct traits, and that special hubris that expresses itself through chronic bad hair. Yet his vague if nagging resemblance to Norton—a resemblance certainly more rewarding to consider than the one he bears to Dana Carvey—is accentuated by his equally considerable talents, often viscerally pointed presence, and that schoolboy face that masks something invariably desperate, sinister or seedy.

If only
Choke had even the slightest chance of being the simultaneously commercial and cult success that Fight Club remains. The directorial debut of Clark Gregg—one of those actors you’ve seen a dozen times and every time wonder, where did I see that guy?—the movie reassures us that there’s no variation on transgressive behaviour that can’t be co-opted by banal rom-com convention. Choke is about a historical interpreter and rabid sex addict (Rockwell), a ruddy, glum slob of a man rarely outdone with regards to nihilistic crassness, yet with his severe Oedipal complex coming to a head just as the pretty doctor (Kelly MacDonald) looking after his increasingly demented mom (Angelica Huston) starts to come on all tenderly, the movie boils down to that slightest of concoctions: the reform-the-gigolo fable. It’s a movie you could probably take your auntie to, listen to her cluck her tongue at, and when it’s over share a hug for having seen a movie about what in the end was really just a sweet guy in need of some direction.

Gregg’s approach to the material is a mess of conflicting intentions. The opening sequence alone, with Nathan Larson’s fussy, heavily punctuated, whimsical score, the insistently overstated voice-over Rockwell does his best to dignify, the crappy digital cinematography (which, incredibly, comes courtesy of David Gordon Green regular Tim Orr, otherwise one of the finest in the business) and the little CGI “fantasy” inserts making very awkward bedfellows, conveys nothing in the vicinity of directorial assurance. Every other element seems to apologize for the story’s fundamental scuzzyness, which is problematic since most of the better gags arise from this very scuz, like the scene where Gregg himself, in a supporting role, takes consolation from Rockwell while the girl Gregg’s in love with lays asleep in a haystack with Rockwell’s dick in her fist.

Paternity, persona, identity—ostensibly meaty themes are slapped on like house paint in an effort to elevate the story from what’s essentially a Rob Schneider vehicle. Duration, too, seems tied up in the gambit for seeming legitimacy—the movie’s draggy incessant flashbacks make it feel positively Oscar-length. Yet how weird is this: Huston is kind of terrific, especially in those flashbacks, lovely, charismatic, playing another crooked and/or cracked mom (see The Grifters, Buffalo 66, The Darjeeling Limited), this one’s idea of a family outing being breaking into a zoo at night and releasing a pissed-off lynx. MacDonald is done no favours by her vacuously quirky, baldly convenient romantic interest, but Rockwell for his part, going for broke, makes you almost kinda care. It helps a lot when he’s funny, which, through no fault of his own, he often isn’t. But now that he’s fulfilled his evolutionary promise of Nortonation, maybe he’ll get the roles he deserves, instead of getting stuck in this friendly version of The Tom Sizemore Story.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The good neighbour policy: Sam Jackson does a little creative gardening on Patrick Wilson's white ass in Lakeview Terrace

The first two-thirds of Lakeview Terrace feel like Marxist propaganda, the last third like capitalist propaganda, the whole thing like some sort of distinctly American nightmare, with some surprisingly curious politics and one hell of a dunderheaded narrative. Abel (Samuel L. Jackson) is old school LAPD, a widower with two-kids, a humongous piece of carefully manicured residential property and a chip on his shoulder the size of Plymouth Rock. He’s a hard-ass with a knack for intimidation as well as flights of charm and manipulation. (The movie’s got plenty of good cop/bad cop—in the same cop!)

Abel’s also got some serious issues with racial integration and cultural appropriation—in a memorable early scene, he menacingly reassures his new next-door neighbour Chris (Patrick Wilson) that he can listen to hip-hop all night long if he wants but when he wakes up the next morning he’ll still be white. More importantly Abel’s stridently territorial—at one point he even hires some slob to piss in Chris’ shirt drawer. Chris and his conspicuously fetching black wife Lisa (Kerry Washington) are thus shamelessly sullying Abel’s suburban enclave, practically asking for the full brunt of our man Jackson’s wrath—which apparently is precisely what the very loud, obnoxious but nonetheless jovial audience at the sneak preview I attended came to gobble up. I felt like I was at a wrestling match. These guys actually talk to the screen.

Though I was initially surprised to see Neil LaBute credited as director, it’s actually not that hard to see what attracted him to this material, which, incidentally, was dreamed up by David Loughery, the guy who brought you Money Train and Passenger 57. Right from his earliest films—In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors—LaBute’s fancied himself something of a moralist and provocateur, though the results have dwindled to the point where his last movie was the outlandishly dumb remake of The Wicker Man. Yet Lakeview Terrace shares with The Wicker Man a gleeful immersion into an essentially closed community lorded over by those who would shape it into some sort of fascist paradise, and the fires consuming Southern California and creeping toward Abel and Chris’ pissing contest carry a certain apocalyptic portent that no doubt agreed with LaBute’s natural pessimism.

Of course it all goes nowhere. At least nowhere all that interesting. The prickly marital squabbles that burble up in the midst of the war-like neighbourly ones feel lazily tacked on, and Chris’ paranoia being surrounded by pushy, Alpha Male Negroes doesn’t build up to a confrontation worthy of the concept. There’s a lot of motivational overkill—like the monologue about the deceased wife’s carrying on with her whitey boss—perhaps to help us understand Abel’s little attitude problem, but in the end he still goes down in a hail of flamboyant nonsense instead of prompting further intrigue or audience implication, and—hooray!—property ownership and vague liberal values rule the day.

(For something more substantial on suburban angst, check out Gary Burns and Jim Brown's Radiant City.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The sound of the mountain: the sublime baseness of Imamura's Ballad of Narayama, now on DVD

It begins and ends with a mountainous landscape buried in snow, and it’s in between these winters that the story unfolds. Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) is 69-years-old and in superb physical and mental condition. She’s nimble, good humoured, works hard, and has an impressive mouth full of teeth that her eldest son Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata) admiringly refers to as “rock-like.” Yet Orin’s fortitude is a source of embarrassment, something her fellow villagers in fact hold against her, because, to be aligned with local custom, at her age a body should be breaking down. At her age it’s time to say farewell to one’s family and climb on up to Mt. Narayama.

My guess is it’s a mixture of things: honour, superstition, and this agrarian community’s considerable poverty and general bad luck probably all contribute in some way to this ritual that has every member of the village being taken up to neighbouring Narayama by the age of 70 to die. This Darwinian spin on the old folks’ home seems at once brutish and in its way mystically comforting, with the image of Narayama being cultivated as one of heavenly togetherness. Before Orin finally makes her journey to Narayama we’re given a series of highly engaging impressions of just what sort of life she’s leaving behind, one of hardship, struggles against the cruel dictates of nature, and base satisfactions, from hunting and fishing and eating to violence and fornication and the release of bodily waste—the very first piece of action in the film finds two brothers running out of their hovel into the cold morning to piss in the mud and snow. Yet however primitive we deem these characters lives to be, there’s never the slightest implication that they’re any different from the modern audience watching their story unfold. The camera never looks down on them but rather looks them square in the eye.

The Ballad of Narayama (1983), though based on Shichirô Fukazawa’s stories, is classic Imamura, unsentimental but rife with pathos, casually vulgar, emphatically equating man with animals, observant of ritual and absurdities in every sort of scenario. As the master filmmaker, who died in 2006, famously said, “I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure.” Of course you’d be forgiven for not even knowing who Shohei Imamura is, since his prolific body of work—multiple-award-winning, spanning some 45 years, and of enormous significance to both Japanese and world cinema—is so rarely revived and still so woefully under-represented on DVD. Fortunately Animeigo’s recent release of The Ballad of Narayama makes one of his very best works, winner of the 1983 Palme d’Or, available to a larger audience.

Dead baby litter, bestiality, thievery, vandalism, patricide: the “simple folk” in Imamura’s world are not condescended to or treated as any less corrupted than the rest of us. While the primary narrative here concerns Orin’s preparations for Narayama—preparations that include everything from teaching her daughter-in-law how to fish to secretly knocking out her own teeth!—the film is essentially about examining how a community works, a pursuit that underlies a great deal of Imamura’s films, from his documentaries to The Pornographers (1966), his celebrated porn industry chronicle, to Black Rain (89), his devastating exploration of the lives lived by survivors of the atomic bomb, to his sprawling, magnificent box office bomb The Profound Desire of the Gods (68), a film set on a backward island that’s slowly being consumed by tourist industry, which in certain ways was a rehearsal for The Ballard of Narayama. In every case, how people, however sophisticated, are driven by fear, anxiety, desire and mythical thinking was of central concern to Imamura, and a tremendous, enduring source of humour, insight and resonance.

That Orin’s younger son Risuke (Tonpei Hidari, hilarious) stinks and can’t get laid, that hawks scoop up carrion intended for the villagers, that a ghost lingers shivering behind a tree even after rifles are fired at it, that crops don’t grow or families don’t get along: these are the everyday bursts of chaos that have to be reckoned with in The Ballad of Narayama. The danger with such storytelling is that things get so dispersed it becomes hard to connect with individual characters, but each of the leads here is lovingly detailed and textured, and, in particular, the development of Orin and Tetsuhei’s bond as their days together dwindle builds to a moving conclusion in the film’s mostly wordless final passages, an effect intensified by the weary, troubled but ultimately helpless subtext of Ogata’s performance. Best known in the west for his work in films like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (85) or Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine (79), Ogata really does have one of the most expressive faces in modern Japanese film.

Monday, September 15, 2008

TIFF '08: Reeling in the afterglow, with reflections on Che, Mickey Rourke, Hoffman-Kaufman, JCVD and the wiry physique of Ben Kingsley

Lingering in film festival-land during the final days is much like being the last guest at a party after the beautiful people have left, your host has passed out in the backyard, and you’re sifting through the ashtrays from smokeable butts, bleary-eyed, waiting for dawn. The press office closes down, the hotel lobbies are being shampooed, the limo drivers start vacation. I swear I saw a tumbleweed tumble down Bay Street. It seems so desolate now, who’d have guessed only days before I was sharing an elevator with Ben Kingsley—who really is built like a ninja as it turns out.

Yet it was on the very last day of the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival—at which I saw exactly 33 movies—that I finally caught Darren Aranofsky’s The Wrestler, a very hot ticket and the only press and industry screening I couldn't get into for the crowds, the film which a week before enjoyed the coup of winning the Golden Lion at Venice, the very same festival where Aranofsky’s The Fountain was famously booed two years previous. The Wrestler was something of a disappointment though: the narrative, about spandex-clad lord of the ring reaching a very lonesome middle age, was formulaic, the dialogue flat, the visual style shockingly anonymous considering Aranofsky's history of hyper-cuts and histrionics. But Mickey Rourke, with his leathery flesh and damaged beauty, was indeed wonderful, the physical punishment wrought upon him impressively gruesome, and the real reason to see the movie anyway is the milieu under investigation, which yields tremendous riches of human strangeness. And yes, wrestling, it seems, is indeed fixed.

What wasn’t fixed was any pre-set notions of what would be the highlights of TIFF ’08. There weren’t as many new films from high-profile filmmakers, and of those that did arrive, some were less than startling, like the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading or Richard Linklater’s Me & Orson Welles, which was pleasantly corny, while others, like Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour Che, proved difficult for many. I saw Che in two parts, and was at once dazzled and mesmerized, entranced by the obsessive attention to detail. But I noted a quieter, wearier, and smaller audience for the second screening, perhaps because while ‘Part One,’ covering the Cuban revolution, functions as an instruction manual for fighting a successful armed uprising, ‘Part Two,’ covering Che Guevara (Benicio Del Toro, superb) in Bolivia, does it all over again but ends in failure and death. But this is visionary filmmaking. Exhausting? Absolutely—but exhilarating, too, in its intensity of focus. Soderbergh’s a rare artist who makes you truly believe in the continued possibilities of movies.

The turbulence and atrocities of Latin America informed several other TIFF selections, notably Pablo Larrian’s Tony Manero, which follows a 52-year-old Chilean guy weathering the terror of the Pinochet regime by endeavouring to becoming the titular protagonist from Saturday Night Fever. That he wants to be a fictional character is revealing: like something out of a Roberto Bolaño novel, Larrian’s antihero seems to have taken the violence around him as tacit consent to release his own repressed aberrant tendencies, all moral logic eroding under the weight of his absurd fantasy life. It might synopsize like a movie about dreams trumping dictatorship, but this is not the case: Tony Manero is deeply sinister stuff, concerning a very dark passage of recent history.

Gerardo Naranjo’s Voy a explotar is an altogether wilder tale of familial disintegration, class rot and teen rebellion, a very fun homage to Godard about a girl who meets a guy she says is both “invented and real,” a son of a Guanajuato congressman who harbours homicidal fantasies toward al authority figures. Unlike Che or Tony Manero, the film is set in the present and is not especially politicized, though the undercurrent of class difference and the streak of political corruption especially is impressive. The lovers on the run run away from home, only to camp out on the congressman's leaky roof, a delicious testament to the Mexican elite's willful ignorance regarding what goes on right under their own noses. And the public service video the parents watch about how to cope with a runaway child was surely the most entertaining movie within a movie in a festival with a hell of a lot of movies within movies.  

But enough with the Americas—on to Europe! I don’t think I saw anything more elegantly realized than Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums, which follows the delicate negotiations between a father (dashing Denis regular Alex Descas) and his adult daughter, cohabitants in a Paris apartment block. There are two sequences—one set in a trainyard, the other in a bar—built mainly around music and movement, that are sensuous, poetic, pleasingly aligned to the rhythms of everyday life and among the loveliest things I saw this TIFF. Yet much of the film is relatively straightforward, examining the trails of the working underclass and the knotty entanglements of urban life, something evident in both the film’s web of acquaintances and its metaphoric use of the public transit system. There’s also a scene involving a horse that, while so very brief, speaks volumes about the image-power of Denis’ singular cinema.

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys, like last year’s The Man From London, offers something pretty unusual: a modern noir delivered in a highly meditative style. It kind of reminded me of The Reckless Moment, but more overtly bleak and, you know, brooding. Spanish director Albert Serra’s Birdsong follows the three wisemen on their way to greet Jesus, a film comprised mostly of landscapes being traversed which won’t do it for many but does possess a certain velvety, chiaroscuro beauty and bone-dry humour. Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky is a nearly sublime character study, with the relentlessly cheerful Poppy (Sally Hawkins, terrific) encountering numerous fellow Londoners who challenge her to consider the hidden consequences of her flamboyant optimism. Mabrouk El Mechri’s majorly meta JCVD blurs the real and fictional Jean-Claude Van Damme as he’s held hostage in a Belgian bank heist, suffers tax problems and a child custody suit. He delivers this fucking crazy, half-coherent monologue that recalls Brando’s in Last Tango in Paris. I don’t think Mechri can cash all of the cheques he writes in this thing—It’s a comedy! It’s an action movie! It’s a Charlie Kaufman movie!—but it’s pretty fun.

Speaking of Charlie Kaufman, I assume I'm not alone among Kaufman sympathizers in feeling I should probably see Synecdoche, NY again before I pursue any elaborate commentary. It's overwhelming,truly bizarre, and defies a glib summation. The film is certainly something you have to admire even when it's grinding you down. In fact, it's actually quite an amazing piece of work, singular in its aggrandizement of self pity, sprawling in its way, with Philip Seymour Hoffman's Kaufman stand-in suffering, often terribly amusingly so, through a life of misery, illness, disappointment and isolation, with only his never-ending play-in-progress, a colossal work of theatre that simulates Hoffman-Kaufman's sad life, as some sort of soul balm. I was perplexed; I was touched; I was entertained; I was bored; I was bummed; I was drained; but I want to see it all again. 

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Like father, like son, like, could these two just get it over with and hug already?

Based on the poet Blake Morrison’s memoir of (nearly) the same name, When Did You Last See Your Father? should at least get a few extra points for never once in its duration leading us to believe it to be anything other than exactly what it is: a middlebrow tearjerker positively hell bent on getting two grown men to hug. Two Englishmen, no less. But what the hell. Hugging men aren’t so bad, you know, and most fathers that I’ve ever known really are this difficult to connect with, and, perhaps most importantly, with actors as strong as these it’s actually kind of a pleasure to be so shamelessly manipulated.

Alternating between a present-tense narrative that finds the 40ish Blake grappling with his father Arthur’s rapidly approaching death and flashbacks that show the child Blake struggling with Arthur’s always chipper verbal abuse (his nickname for his son is “fat head”), general neglect, barely concealed philandering, unnerving cheapness and baldly ingratiating ways, David Nicholls’ script works toward its catharsis through the steady building of Blake’s conflicting urges toward keeping a well-earned grudge and reconciling with an old man that everyone else seems to have been able to forgive. I haven’t read Morrison’s book, but it seems like Nicholls made some pretty sound selections of episodes to flesh out here, like the disastrous father-son camping trip that functions as a string of small betrayals while providing for a great deal of humour and character development. We learn enough about each of these guys over the course of the film to appreciate both of their perspectives regardless of how much we can sympathize with them.

Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent are in reality only 11-years apart, but Firth’s seething anger and general vitality set against Broadbent’s jowly expressiveness and decidedly old-fashioned charms go a long way toward forming a convincing generation gap. In fact they make a wonderful pair, one over-sensitive, the other gleefully oblivious, the both of them strikingly capable of casual cruelties. Broadbent kind of steals the show, making all the jokes and recklessly driving the scenes toward their necessary confrontations, but I found myself admiring Firth all the more for holding his own in spite of this. When Did You Last See Your Father? could have been deadly were some simpering, overbearingly earnest actor cast as Blake, but Firth makes no great show of his character’s resentment or self-assignation as the story’s token victim. His natural warmth makes for a lovely balance with Blake’s maturation into a sexual bully with a short fuse, a son who, however determined to do otherwise, is in danger of repeating his father’s worst mistakes, only without the fun.

If only director Anand Tucker (Hilary & Jackie) had the same light touch. His direction is fussy, suffocatingly tasteful, overly cutty and burdened with some creaky visual metaphors, especially his use of mirrors to impart the deeper similarities between father and son. I have to give Tucker credit however for not lingering over Arthur’s deathbed to soak up every last drop of pathos, something plenty of other directors would have leapt at the chance to do. The real guilty party with regards to bathetic overkill would have to be composer Barrington Pheloung, a Tucker regular, whose godawful score rushes ahead of the imagery, the actors, and us, to telegraph every last emotional cue in the film. The result is, of course, the reverse of what is presumably intended: we can’t actually feel as much because the music is too busy telling us what to feel instead of letting us find it. You might want to just sit back and pretend the music’s coming from the sound system of some annoying neighbour, and enjoy watching Firth, Broadbent, et al make the discoveries on their own.

Friday, September 12, 2008

TIFF '08: Kuroawa, Assayas, Kore-eda and others keep it all in the family

John Cale lives in a hippy commune in Patagonia. That’s really all I needed to know. A friend suggested I see Salamandra and, knowing full well of my special fondness for Cale and the Velvet Underground, he started his hard sell with the above item and I told him just to stop there. Cale’s brief, rather crazed appearances—chomping into glass, toying with a knife, singing in Spanish with a junkyard band, replete with a ragged chicken bone for percussion—comprise several of the highlights in Pablo Agüero’s feature debut, which follows a young single mother, freshly released from some sort of institution, as she uproots her six-year-old son from his established life with his grandmother and whisks him down to El Bolsón to live amongst the unwashed, the heavily bearded and the incense-drunk.

Agüero errs on the side of unimposing, his observational hand-held camera seeming to will precious little into action, counting on our connection to the protagonists, the boy in particular, and the rising absurdity of their deeply dubious attempts at roughing it in this cold, wet and largely unfriendly place to engage the viewer. The images frequently yield layers of metaphor, and the technique overall works well enough, though it’s difficult not to wonder if things couldn’t be pushed a lot farther, if the real hard work still to be done by Agüero wouldn’t involve driving his nervy, New-Agey, curly-haired mom past the point of mere constant nail-biting and deluded nattering. Still, an interesting, and certainly very sensitive picture that offers a glimpse at a most marginal life.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” so goes the famous opening sentence of Anna Karenina. Salamandra is just one of many films showing at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival that deal in some compelling manner with the grand old theme of family life, a theme that when applied to drama hardly requires the word ‘dysfunctional’ to be placed before it. Happy or unhappy, TIFF ’08 sees a number of families struggle to realize some fresh level of self-knowledge both for its parts and as a whole. And I think the finest—and funniest—example of this that I’ve managed to see came from one of the festival’s most pleasant surprises, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata.

Kurosawa is most famous for his distinctively brooding and image-centered horror films, such as Cure (1997), Charisma (00), Pulse (01), and my personal favourite, the über-creepy Séance (01). As far as I’m aware, Tokyo Sonata marks Kurosawa’s first stab at comedy, and I have to wonder if it isn’t in fact his real calling. His horror films are smart, infectious and remarkably chilling, but they can also be overly ponderous and, in the case of Pulse in particular, simply over-long and limpid. It’s difficult to describe just what a refreshing about-face this new film signals without simply seeing it for yourself. Yet it occurs to me that the film does actually have something in common with Cure: where the characters in the older film are afflicted with a disease that drives them to kill, the protagonists in this new film seem to be afflicted with one that makes them crazy to start their lives over—even the little kid.

The downsizing of Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), the result of his company’s outsourcing to cheaper China, is the catalyst. He goes home that night and begins the familiar charade, not telling his wife and children what’s happened and instead putting on the suit and pretending to go to work everyday. He mostly hangs out at the library and eats his lunch with the homeless. He meets another unemployed businessman who goes so far as to set his phone to ring every hour so can feign business calls in public—even though there’s usually no one around he could possible need to impress. It sounds pathetic, yet it actually impresses Ryuhei deeply. Ryuhei spends most of the movie looking like his head’s about to blow up, and I guess he can’t help but admire the other man’s mood-management.

We soon see that all three male members of the Sasaki clan are deceiving the family for their individual reasons, the quiet 12-year-old Kenji (Kai Inowaki) being the most sympathetic. When he’s suddenly struck one day by the lulling sounds emanating from a suburban piano class, Kenji asks his parents if he can take lessons and is brutishly denied by his newly emasculated dad, so he goes in secret, using his lunch money to pay. Meanwhile his remote older brother is secretly joining the US military just as they decide to send more troops to Iraq, and his over-burdened and under-loved mother is slowly descending into quiet desperation, nearing bottom and its accompanying implosion.

There are characteristically elegant, beautifully composed sequences here, such as the opening, in which papers blow through the empty house during a storm, or the moving finale, which manifests the title as something more than just an homage to Ozu’s classic. But much of Tokyo Sonata is sharply focused on clear, concise storytelling, terrifically goofy comic interplay, and steady character development, each strand of the narrative building to the point where there is a synchronicity of panic boiling over. It goes on for a while, but is never less than diverting and propulsive. There are moments of utter cruelty and hopelessness, yet Kurosawa somehow pulls things together in such a way that the film finally finds itself lighting upon a coda of redemption and new awakening.

If Ozu can be traced in the title and broad themes of Tokyo Sonata, from the intermediary landscape shots on down, he’s positively haunting virtually every aspect of Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest, a heartfelt, often solemn, but still vivid, sensual, lovingly detailed and warm depiction of familial differences amongst adult children and their elderly parents, most of them irreconcilable. Centered quite simply around a family reunion, this is the sort of movie where no viewer can fail to recognize some fragment of their personal experiences. Kore-eda’s film was inspired by stories he was told by his own mother in the months before she died, and his story is very much informed by the absence of a key family member.

This same sort of near-palpable absence is equally essential to Oliver Assayas’ Summer Hours, which finds three adult and nearly estranged siblings—played by the impressive trio of Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jérémie Renier—negotiating their way through what seems an inevitable complete break with the past after the death of their mother, wonderfully played by Edith Scob, the striking actress who many years ago starred as the titular victim of Eyes Without a Face (60). Marred only by a few unneeded scenes of bathetic weeping, Assayas’ survey of the increasingly rapid erosion of artifacts that bind us to our families and our collective history is at times positively biting and all-too resonant. But the film is also brimming with humour and, with its special, loving attention to its younger supporting characters, is equally invested in nurturing a sense of regeneration.

Okay, one last film before I sign off here, and one which brings us back full circle to Latin America. Dioses is Josué Méndez’s second feature, and reveals a genuinely propositive sense of camera placement and movement. Concerning an upper-class Peruvian family that includes a father, a teenage daughter and son, and the father’s new girlfriend—a dead ringer for Halle Berry, should that grad your attention—Méndez takes a series of more or less conventional dilemmas—a party girl with an unwanted pregnancy; an angry young man sick with his sinking into bourgeois rot and in love with his sister; a gold-digger painfully ashamed of her indigenous background—and frames them in such a way that we’re often able to re-examine our assumptions. Ménez has a knack with these slow zooms out and back in he uses, his juxtaposing of music and image in seemingly contradictory ways, and his fun game of having characters move in and out of frame from unexpected places.

The way Méndez conveys Diego’s inner anguish in particular is frequently tender, perverse and hilarious all at once, cutting to Diego’s amusing permanent scowl at inspired moments. The treatment of Eliza on the other hand can feel trite, especially in the very cutty scene that finds her rehearsing inane comments to make when around her new coven of snobby middle-ages wives, but the performance of Maricielo Effio, which shifts in subtle ways, goes a long way to gaining our sympathies. She’s the bridge between the worlds of wealth and poverty in Peru that Méndez seems very keen on imparting upon us, though the handful of scenes with the servants are some of the most telling of all. These women, always present and rarely visible, are in their way members of the family themselves, interlopers into a realm of elitism that, as its portrayed here, seems on the brisk of collapse under its own dead weight.