Friday, January 30, 2009

The return of the Exiles

The silvery images of faces from a lost world dissolve into one another, faces with lines deep as arroyos and expressions that might suggest bitter resignation. Their gazes hint at some antagonism toward the camera. These old stills of Native Americans, taken more than a hundred years ago by Edward S. Curtis, compose the opening sequence of
The Exiles, accompanied by the steady beating of a drum. They serve as context, the first part of a jarring entrée into Kent Mackenzie’s stark yet lively portrait of Native American youth in Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill district, circa 1961. The drum and traditional grooming gives way to rock and roll and pompadours, the images of plains to multistoried apartment blocks, broad avenues, bars and gas stations, and cramped, crowded flats where a radio or television always plays. That primordial drum will return however near the end of the film, though when it does it undercuts hoots and hollers, singing and laughter, honking horns, squashed beer cans, and girls asking to be left alone.

The juxtaposition between old ways and modern cacophony is de rigueur in aboriginal histories, but it appears here absent of forced pathos, a necessary prelude to a story placed firmly in the present rather than eulogizing the past. But this narrative of change and loss works on a number of levels. The film is also a study of Bunker Hill itself, once a zone of affluence and opulence that, by the time Mackenzie and his crew of fellow film school grads arrived to capture it, had already began its descent into postwar neglect and decay. Mackenzie had already made a controversial short in the neighbourhood while still at the University of Southern California entitled ‘Bunker Hill – 1956.’ But The Exiles was something still more ambitious, a distinctive construction of voice-over testaments concerning the inner lives of three Bunker Hill Native Americans and re-enactments featuring the actual subjects. The use of non-professional actors, or rather people being asked to “play” themselves, is elegantly executed, and looks forward to other such fusions of documentary and fiction filmmaking techniques from the likes of Iranian director Moshen Makhmalbaf, to name but one prominent example.

So The Exiles is a very special film, and a landmark in the American cinema’s reflection on its own marginalized at the very least. Yet, following a triumphant premiere at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, the film failed to secure commercial distribution and became a sort of legend, a film with a reputation vastly overwhelming its viewership. It’s prominent role in Thom Anderson’s 2003 compilation documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself sparked the latest resurgence of interest, prompting a theatrical release from Milestone Films, the same company that ushered Charles Burnett’s 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep into theatres 30 years after its completion. Burnett himself, along with Sherman Alexie, supervised the restoration, courtesy of Ross Lipman at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and the belated release. The Exiles had its Canadian premiere at the Cinematheque Ontario last November, 47 years after its completion, Sadly, it was also 28 years after Mackenzie’s death.

The first disembodied voice to emerge in The Exiles is that of Yvonne (Yvonne Williams). She’s young, lovely, desperate and pregnant. The imminent child is the bright spot in her strained existence. Her husband Homer (Homer Nash) seems disinterested and cuts a dubious figure as a supporting patriarch. “He might change if he sees the baby,” she says at one point. “He likes children.” She returns home from the market and cooks up some pork chops and beans for Homer and his pals, who only vaguely acknowledge her. Soon the night comes and Yvonne is dropped at the movies while the boys go out for a long of night of drinking, gambling and wandering.

Homer himself picks up the film’s ongoing chain of voice-over once the night’s activities begin. He speaks of his restlessness and desire for some excitement, maybe get into a fight or something. How strange then, and compelling, that the Homer we see contrasts the Homer we hear, as well as the Homer Yvonne describes. While his friends become increasingly wild in their behaviour, Homer seems to get only more quiet, ending the night wrapped in a blanket and keeping to himself. At one point he discusses his upbringing back in rural Arizona, his childhood spent asking for money from white tourists snapping photos of the local Indians.

Rounding out the voice-over subjects is Tommy (Tommy Reynolds), a slick dancer and would-be ladies’ man. He figures white people have more problems than Indians, what with so much on their minds. He validates his unruly behaviour by its purity—when he parties, he parties right. He also becomes belligerent and rough with unwilling women. Yet there’s something poignant in the scene where he plays air piano on a wooden countertop in a bar along to some boogie-woogie, and the sense that this is the closest he ever comes to giving vent to a genuine talent.

The Exiles is all the more affecting and fascinating for its crispness, emphasis on observation over overt analysis, and its lack of sentimentality. Though presented with the nuance, textured imagery and rhythms of a fiction film, it gains considerable spontaneity and diversion from its documentary foundations. Especially intriguing is a strange scene where some white guy dances with a Chinese guy in a bar. But what makes the film gel so marvelously is its emphasis on people’s relationship to place. The subjects are people displaced in their own country—they are internal exiles. Mackenzie photographs them in such a way that they are never without context, without their surroundings looming over or around them, tacitly posing questions about where it is they think they belong. The scene of bleary morning stumbling home that ends the film promises renewal, but of what sort? What has changed? 50 years later, the questions linger in the air after the lights go down.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The perils of taking their word for it: Damian Thompson's Counterknowledge

I think it was the father of an ex-girlfriend who first suggested to me that we’re slipping into a new dark age. I was about as stupid as the average 20-year-old. He was a doctor, an articulate speaker, elegantly white-maned, and terribly English. He took me to some excellent restaurants. At the time, I don’t know that I really grasped what he was getting at, but I took his word for it. Years and much technological innovation and internet expansion later, the penny dropped: the proliferation and accessibility of information, and the ease with which that information is manufactured and delivered, seems to result not in a more well-informed public but rather threatens to cultivate the very opposite, a world of individuals who have to work a whole lot less to find out about a whole lot more—and that more is so overwhelmingly composed of dunderheaded trash as to boggle, or should we now say google, the mind.

The words of the wise doctor—who might I also add drove one hot little antique sports car—came back to me as I tucked into Counterknowledge (Viking, $28), the new book by Damian Thompson, who I remembered from an enormously engaging study of millennial cults he penned some years back called The End of Time, which I picked up because of a rave from my beloved English author J.G. Ballard, and who, it turns out, is yet another Englishman! The subject of Counterknowledge is what Thompson deems the current “pandemic of credulous thinking” that threatens to undermine “the greatest legacies of the European Enlightenment,” which is to say, rigorous scientific inquiry. The titular term is an invention of Thompson’s, signifying anything passed off as fact that can be proven false by more carefully scrutinized facts. Creationism, intelligent design, and “young earth” science; the satanic ritual abuse scare of the 1980s and 90s; The Da Vinci Code; radical academia’s rewriting of migration history; Scientology; the Chinese discovery of the Americas; anything purported by Rosie O’Donnell; the denial of the AIDS virus; the denial of the Holocaust; the notion that 9/11 was engineered by the US government (bizarrely, these last two conspiracy theories seem to be frequently espoused by the same parties): Thompson’s examples are diverse and make for compelling, troubling, and inevitably funny, digressions.

The real issue here is not that such ideas are proposed but that, often in the interests of commodification, they are legitimized by the establishment, be it the publishers and booksellers that print up ostensibly fact-based pseudoscience and psuedohistory and market it as actual history and science, or be it venerated institutions that offer degrees of loose or nonexistent standards that mislead consumers into believing those degree-holders offering services are credentialized with great discretion. Curiously, this means that religion in itself is essentially off the hook, since the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved. I’ve been mulling that one over and I do think that the exception holds, but it’s worth noting that one of the few breaks given to any institution based on non-science happens to be one Thompson represents—in his other life, he’s the editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald. All kinds of religious theories are skewered here, but the mere belief in a deity is let be.

Which leads me to a little bone I need to pick. Thompson is extremely knowledgeable with regards to the more dangerous interventions of religious or religiously-informed groups at work in the fields of counterknowledge, and I don’t even think we can begrudge him his special concerns about Christian fundamentalists who continually attempt to exorcise Darwinian theory from American schools, or Holocaust-denying Islamic scholars, as they do seem to carry a tremendous influence on the global community of Muslim youth. But there are other areas Thompson recklessly attacks without the same level of understanding at his disposal. In particular, Thompson throws everything that could be conceivably construed as alternative medicine into one giant pot and turns up the heat before sampling the ingredients. I’m absolutely sympathetic to his skepticism toward the hugely profitable industry built around what in some cases are, it would seem, placebos. But it seems unfair to lump the more dubious consumers of, I don’t know, bio-feedback, or hypnosis, let’s say, with someone who wants an extra boost of energy from ginseng, who wants to fight a cold with oil of oregano—and that shit works—or someone who just wants a good massage for crying out loud. What’s more, Thompson’s blanket dismissal of alternative medicine doesn’t account for the flaws in orthodox medicine, which, last I checked, contradicts itself on what is and isn’t good for you about as often as some people change their socks. But a double standard is at work here: “When a medical doctor makes a wrong assessment, that is either an honest mistake or a failure to follow diagnostic procedures.” I find Thompson’s faith in the medical community a little naïve to say the least, especially as it, too, has been thoroughly co-opted by capitalist interests.

Thompson’s attacks become so fevered if not hysterical at times that he himself teeters on coming off as a crank, or a purveyor of counterknowledge. His final chapter kicks off thus: “Credulous thinking is spreading through society as fast and silently as a virus, and no one has a clue how long the epidemic will last.” He likens this epidemic to AIDS. But, come to think of it, maybe he’s got a point there. There were fatal, difficult-to-contain diseases before AIDS, and likewise there’s always been heaps of bullshit out there being treated as fact. Which is no reason to ignore Thompson’s warnings. While he at times oversteps his boundaries and let’s what feels like a reactionary streak take control, Thompson’s lively, perhaps too concise study of modern misinformation is of enormous value and I don’t hesitate recommending it. He’s latched onto a trend that urges further examination, and the groundwork he’s laid in a number of fields has certainly enriched my own understanding of how this trend is playing itself out in new and alarming ways. Not that I’ve checked all of his facts, of course. I guess I just have to take his word for it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Snowbound, moribund, New in Town

The topography, weather and architecture could be that of almost any town in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba or, no doubt, Minnesota, the film’s setting and home state of one of its authors. (Turns out the actual location is wonderful-wonderful Winnipeg.) Nevertheless, the folks populating New Ulm feel very much of some self-consciously quirky cinematic non-place. The women of New Ulm especially twitter on like autistic munchkins over their knits and low-carb tapioca. Yet they’re no more the bi-product of some demented cliché than the arch, Miami-based corporate bunny with
Friends hair and an endless array of heels these yokels are destined to humanize through scrapbooking and sufficient exposure to a bo-hunk single dad played, in an amusing reversal of type, by a jazz singer. So this fish out of water comedy contains within it a certain irony: it’s a story about a clash of cultures in which neither culture is recognizably human.

What can I tell you? I suppose it’s cute and all but New in Town, helmed by Danish director Jonas Elmer, is pretty hard to take. Written by Ken Rance and C. Jay Cox (surely, a pseudonym), it is so deeply formulaic as to inspire in you a certain awe when you’re not banging your fist to your head whispering over and over, please, make it stop. Watching Lucy the axe-woman (Renée Zellweger) and Ted the union rep (Harry Connick, Jr.) meet-cute over meatloaf served up by the pathologically generous Blanche (Siobhan Fallon) or bond over a day of crow hunting, you might think to yourself that this is a film made by people who genuinely love people—but are these people or just caricatures? Is this romance or just cynical screenwriting handbook determinism?

Zellweger’s proven herself a deft comedienne elsewhere but
New in Town straightjackets her better impulses. Acting drunky-poo and falling face-first in a snow bank doesn’t flatter anybody. Connick, a real trooper, fares better, really selling the schmaltzier moments with striking aplomb, getting genuinely choked up in the much delayed dead wife speech telegraphed at the start of our story. It is the strange nature of this kind of movie that you get so desperate while watching it that you’re ready to weep along with the leads at the drop of a hat. But it’s hard to feel anything but impatience when the workingman-versus-the-corporate-creeps subplot kicks into full gear, mostly because rather than reflect something of the experience of real working people—which, yes, even a comedy with a happy ending can aspire to—we get a sham dreamed up by people who seem to have no idea what either factory or white-collar life is like. As we sink ever more into recession, this is just what we need, a bogus fairy tale.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Interview with the vampire: Frost/Nixon

Success in America is unlike success anywhere else, says David Frost. Failure, one assumes, achieves an equally singular stature. And so the terms are set for
Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard’s movie of Peter Morgan’s play, which was indeed successful in America, and was inspired by something that took place there in 1977, when English talk show host Frost sat with former President Richard Nixon for nearly 30 hours of interviews that made broadcast history. Both sought to redeem failures, or slumps, in their careers. The event wasn’t exactly a revelation, but it did find an underdog unsettling a formidable orator sufficiently to yield something like an apology for abuses of power. The movie then is timely, coming precisely when millions crave to see another US President confess to not dissimilar sins.

For all his monstrous associations, Nixon is often flattered by Hollywood, and Frank Langella, with his handsomeness, sonorous voice and effortless charisma, is a delight to watch even if he misses those traces of sheer weirdness that perhaps no actor need do justice to since we have the real Nixon so heavily documented for posterity. I adore Langella, but I don’t think he quite escapes the confines of impersonation. His facial mask is impressive, but it tethers him to too limited an array of expressions. Michael Sheen, playing an easy-to-dismiss puff-meister has to work harder and thus gets us more involved as Frost, the film’s actual protagonist, and one rather aligned in his obstacles with Sheen’s Tony Blair in The Queen, also written by Morgan. It’s a part that probably won’t get the same accolades but which the story absolutely hinges on, especially when the movie’s authors manage the material in less than inspired ways.

Morgan’s written his own adaptation, and while you can’t blame the guy for wanting to “open up” the play, it’s hard not to notice that the immediacy and tension of the theatre is sorely missed. The action keeps getting diluted, and the supporting roles are at times left too exposed to scrutiny, like Rebecca Hall’s Caroline Cushing, who hangs around a lot but is the epitome of arm decoration for the male lead, a way of ensuring that we know he’s not gay.

Howard for his part does nothing to spoil the entertainment value of Frost/Nixon—he’s far too safe a director for that—but he doesn’t stir it up much either, despite a Hans Zimmer score that at times sounds better suited to a spy thriller or submarine movie. There’s a compelling statement near the end where investigative journalist James Reston, played by Sam Rockwell, talks about “the reductive power of the close-up.” Howard, in his typically workmanlike but dazzlingly unreflexive way, directs Frost/Nixon as though he hadn’t read this page in the script, offering us, well, a whole lot of close-ups. And boy, are they ever reductive. It doesn’t seem like Howard considered how a movie version might offer something vital that the play—not to mention the actual televised event, with its ample number of close-ups—could not. But he’s dutifully revived a genuinely interesting media landmark and let it play as a fun drama, and that’s reason enough to check it out.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Department of youth: The Class under review

Laurent Cantet’s
The Class (Entre les murs) follows a group of racially mixed adolescent students over the course of a school year. Much of it is set in the French class of a energetic young teacher. Other scenes capture students interacting in the courtyard, teachers meeting in staff rooms, where they sometimes vent their panic, and, in some of the film’s most entertaining and unnerving scenes, parent-teacher interviews. Tensions between kids and instructors rise and fall. Khoumba, who used to be congenial, suddenly refuses to cooperate in class; Wei, A Chinese student still working on his French, has a parent deported; Souleymane acts tough and chilled but lashes out when cornered; Esmeralda, who wants to be either a rapper or a cop, talks back relentlessly—and she does so with enjoyable brio.

The modus operandi is simple and clean. The narrative is subordinate to the natural order of events. The aesthetic, somewhat reflective of the filming process, resembles documentary. There’s a deceptive veneer of artlessness to The Class that contributes greatly to its arresting charm, but the elegant rhythms, un-telegraphed bursts of insight and resonant ambiguities represents a masterfully gauged collaboration between highly alert filmmakers and an unusually large and evenly represented ensemble. (The techniques of Robert Altman or Mike Leigh come to mind, though either would have made a very different movie.) The talk is at times sublimely spontaneous, and the editing by Robin Campillo, also one of the credited screenwriters, renders it lively and fluid. You ask me, the result is a genuine masterpiece.

The students are actual students from Françoise Dolto Junior High in Paris ’ 20th arrondissement. Their parents, with one exception, are the students’ actual parents. These facts alone don’t ensure verisimilitude—not to mention entertainment or intelligence—and its telling that while improvisation around set scenarios seems to have been the approach, few of the players are “playing themselves,” as though such a thing were strictly possible. Cantet facilitated weekly workshops with the students for eight months. A key participant in these workshops was François Bégaudeau, an actual teacher and the author of the book on which the movie’s based. Bégaudeau also plays “François,” a version of himself. He’s a charming, challenging ringleader, with a policy of open, respectful exchange, encouraging students to talk about their personal interests and insecurities to the point where we’re provoked into wondering whether privacy is finally a detriment to learning and the self-realization that ideally accompanies it.

Maybe what’s most fulfilling in this is the sheer power of performance as it occurs naturally in certain social contexts. The performances by Bégaudeau, whose laid-back theatricality is clearly a major component of his talent as a teacher, and the students are not virtuosic. They are the product of a natural inclination to discover some aspect of ourselves through interaction with others, pushing boundaries, thinking out loud. It’s an inclination that’s been cultivated here beautifully. The Class looks like it was as much fun to make as it is to watch and listen to. And when its over, when the rooms are empty and the chairs left askew, there’s something just a little sad about it’s passing, yet also something exhilarating in its promise of renewal.

Saved by the Bégaudeau: Laurent Cantet discusses The Class

The films of Laurent Cantet exude that rarest of things: a sincere interest in how people relate to their work. His films explore the role, meaning and residual effects of work, as well as the ways our institutions shape our sense of who we are as individuals. In
Human Resources (1999), Franck assumes a white-collar position at the factory where his father’s been a welder for 23 years, his crossing over from one class to another ultimately symbolizing a betrayal of his roots. In Time Out (2001), Vincent is laid off by a prestigious consulting firm and cannot confess to his family that he’s unemployed, so he drives around France and Switzerland, naps a lot, reads the papers, and dabbles in crime. Work, or lack of it, defines these characters, however extraordinary their cases may be, in ways that ring alarmingly true.

Given this investment in the links between work and self, and given that both his parents were teachers, it’s perhaps inevitable that Cantet would build a film around the institution that ostensibly does more to prepare us for work, nurture our social skills, and mould our identities more than any other. Cantet was already cooking up an idea for a film about a rebellious African student named Souleymane when he discovered Entre les murs, François Bégaudeau’s acclaimed roman à clef about his experiences teaching French at a Parisian inner city school. Cantet abandoned his idea, or rather dissolved into a loose adaptation of Bégaudeau’s book. “What I immediately liked about François is the fact that he is willing to take risks,” Cantet explains. “What some people consider as provocative in his attitude is for him a matter of putting the students on the same level as himself, a way of talking as peers.” The Class is an extraordinary chronicle of one scholastic year in the lives of François and his students. It won last year’s Palme d’Or, and is now an Oscar contender.

Among The Class’ more extraordinary elements are its performances, with Bégaudeau himself playing the role of the teacher François and unseasoned kids playing each of the students. Cantet used three cameras on set, one to follow François, one to follow the central characters with whom François interacts, and one to catch spontaneous activity occurring outside the confines of the roughly established scenes. What emerges is akin to documentary, yet through its modicum of artifice it gets at truths that cinéma vérité often fails to yield. I, along with two other writers, spoke with Cantet via translator in a Toronto hotel, where he was asked about how he managed to capture such tremendous performances from his young, non-professional actors.

“By working with the students a long time, getting to know them, and respecting who they are, they came to trust me,” Cantet explains. “But it was also through creating characters on the basis of what they themselves proposed. Take Wei. Originally in the script there was a Chinese character named Ming, and he was very shy. He wouldn’t speak for fear of making mistakes. Then we met Wei Huang and he was essentially the opposite. He loves to talk, loves a good argument. There was no point in asking Wei to shut up and become something he’s not. As it happens, Wei’s a lot more interesting than Ming would have been.”

Souleymane survived the project’s evolution and, in contrast to the Ming character’s adapting to fit more fluidly with Huang’s outgoing persona, Franck Keïta was asked to reverse his normally shy demeanor. Clothes, that crucial component of teenage identity, played an enormous role in Keïta’s ability to bring out a side of himself that could plausibly behave like a bully. And the tension between Keïta’s tendencies and those of the character make Souleymane compelling, and ultimately sympathetic. As Cantet puts it, “you can see that behind this tough look is a very vulnerable sort of fragility.”

With slight exceptions, The Class unfolds entirely within the confines of the school—within the walls, as the French title states. Thus whatever we learn about these characters is gleaned through the rituals of school life. But what we learn composes not only portraits of individuals but some semblance of contemporary France’s sometimes fraught multiculturalism.

“The idea was to show that the school was neither a sanctuary not a fortress,” says Cantet. “Therefore, everything that happens in the country has an effect on the school. It does happen that people get deported as illegal aliens. It does happen that kids who don’t do well in school get sent back to their home countries. Yet classes continue.”

Running parallel to situations stemming from contemporary cultural phenomena are others that are at least as old as the pedagogical tradition. A key scene where the mischievously charming Boubacar “outs” Souleymane’s curiosity about François’ sexual preferences reveals how closely questions about sex cling to young minds attempting to bring order to their surroundings.

“The part about François’ sexuality is actually in the book,” says Cantet. “Teachers have told him they’ve often encountered similar questions in the classroom, because at that age boys are very interested by anything sexual. Homosexuality is something that intrigues them, but they tend to respond with homophobia. Many teachers refuse to deal with a question like Souleymane’s, but François sees it as an opportunity to discuss, to widen horizons, to show them what’s problematic in their homophobia.”

I asked Cantet about François’ call for openness in his classroom, exemplified in the self-portraits he assigns. François’ policies prove precarious, yet there remains a bold polemic in his story about the importance of balancing privacy with a willingness to publicly share feelings. It gets François into some trouble when he steps out of bounds, yet it also allows some students to transcend the dominant rule of repression that keeps many in their shells.

“One of the things that François has been reproached for is using too much intimacy,” says Cantet. “But it’s so much more interesting when you deal with students on the basis of what is real, what a person’s real feelings are, where they stand, rather than glossing over things. François is an idealist. He tries to create a level playing field between himself and his class, and the system can work against him. Yet perhaps between these conflicting ideologies something valuable can emerge.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Defiance: saving lives, forest wives and reversing stereotypes in this untold tale of Holocaust survival

The title sounds like some vehicle for Stallone, or maybe the Rock, but
Defiance in fact belongs to the new crop of revisionist WWII/Holocuast movies, an epic of resistance, survival and self-determination. It’s based on an astonishing and largely unknown true story, astonishing in part because its portrayal of the abysmal suffering of Europe’s Jews is given fresh dynamic in the shape of Belarusian brothers Tuvia, Zus and Asael Bielski, three handsome boys of durable Jewish peasant stock who lose everything in the German invasion save their lives and dignity. You have to marvel and just how rare it is in movies to find such a characterization of the Jews, not as a mass of helpless victims, but as tough motherfuckers.

Having fled their homes, the Bielskis original plan was, understandably, founded in self-interest. But their encounters with other Jews hiding in the Belarusian woods tugs at their sense of solidarity and purpose. Surrounded by trembling, dirt-smeared faces gnawing on scraps of petrified bread, Zus (Liev Schreiber) wonders: “So many dead. Why not us?” The movie is of course one long answer to this question. Where Zus believes the only viable moral option is to fight as partisans alongside the Russians, Tuvia (Daniel Craig) resolves to stay hidden and build a community where every last Jew, from the able-bodied to the infirm, has some chance at survival, however remote. This theme of aggression versus seclusion is given its boldest dramatization in a sequence that shifts back and forth between a Russian-Partisan ambush on a German convoy and a wedding ceremony held in the forest enclave, both effectively staged and given engaging visual arcs by director and co-scenarist Edward Zwick, who previously helmed such like fare as Glory (1989), Legends of the Fall (94), The Last Samurai (03) and Blood Diamond (06).

Other scenes in Defiance however, ones that require greater reflection, tend to be more ham-fisted. Some are entirely unnecessary, like the dumb-ass scene where Bella (Iben Hjejle) asks Zus why the women don’t get guns. Zus simply assures her that the men will protect her, and this chauvinist brush-off, rather than leading to further discussion, touches Bella so deeply that she lets Zus cop a feel. (Does that mean she's Zus' "forest wife?" Lots of the fellows take forest wives, like participants in some prototype for a Pacific Northwest commune. It might have been interesting to learn more about the postwar fates of these forest marriages.) 

With its overused and overly instructive James Newton Howard score, its declamatory, overstated dialogue—which awkwardly avoids contractions as a way of reminding us that the characters aren’t actually supposed to be speaking English—Defiance sort of plods along, very respectful and workmanlike for the most, yet at heart there remains this iconoclastic appendix to the Holocaust narrative that’s worth knowing, not to mention yet another superbly rich performance from Craig, who swings convincingly between that steely gaze that exudes Bond know-how and a sense of desperation and terrible doubt as to what to do with all these people shriveling up from hunger and despair.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The wild frontier: El Norte on DVD

Near the beginning of
El Norte (1983), a rural Guatemalan family sits around a table over which Josefina (Stella Quan) extols her practiced impressions of American life. “Even the poorest people have toilets,” she explains. “You flush it, and everything disappears.” As Guatemala is consumed by civil war, this vision of a utopia, a modern, ordered world where no one ever need look at their own shit, a world evoked most beguilingly in the images of vast antiseptic kitchens pictured in a well-thumbed Latin American edition of Good Housekeeping, plants within Josefina’s godchildren Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) and Enrique (David Villapando) the seed of a promised land, a place so longed for it blinds its pilgrims to the enormity of its shadow side.

These early scenes establish the peculiar tone of this extraordinary movie, which so flamboyantly rejected the then-dominant docudrama formula. Bookended with stark images of work, punctuated with moments that more closely resemble a horror movie, told entirely from the perspective of Rosa and Enrique, with no buffering middle-class outsider protagonist, El Norte is an epic chronicle of migration conveyed in three parts aligned to the three very different nations traversed, a tale with one foot in myth and the other in a still all-too-recognizable sociopolitical morass. Enrique bids his father farewell amidst a spectral thicket of maize. Rosa is courted by a local boy through the window of her parents’ home. Everything indoors warms in the glow of candles and kerosene, yet when Enrique, woken by spasms of gunfire, rushes from his bed into the darkness of a ruined hacienda, the eerie day-for-night photography cloaks all in ashen blues. Taking cues from both the Popul Vuh and the magical realist canon, a number of nature-derived symbols imbue the proceedings with enigmatic pathos. The uncanny resides alongside the real without pronounced differentiation or unneeded fuss. As the setting moves northward however, the real will gradually crowd out the uncanny, until the mystification, suffering and harsh electric light of the real is nearly all that remains.

El Norte is unusual in that its precarious earnestness is compellingly offset by its unannounced bursts of brutality, its mischievous, very Mexican humour, its subtle incestuous overtones, its almost pathological insistence on authenticity with regards to location, language and personae, and its unwillingness to redundantly polemicize on the injustices meted upon Rosa and Enrique as they abandon their devastated village to journey through Mexico and into the US to seek safety and work. As nurtured by director Gregory Nava, his co-scenarist Anne Thomas, and his astonishingly inventive cinematographer James Glennon; as embodied by the Mexican and American landscapes, the valiant cast and the experiences imprinted on their gallery of atypically cinematic faces; as contained and shaped by the limited budget and ideological rigour; El Norte assumes an oneiric, organic, striking and at times pleasingly oddball form.

Several scenes, some laughable in their melodrama, feel as modeled after telenovelas as the literary sources to which Nava pays homage. Yet the sincerity of Gutiérrez and Villapando, both very young and unseasoned at the time of filming, is disarming and rife with a flurry of emotions. Villapando’s silent film star saucer eyes convey such a distinctive naïveté, even when he learns to lie in English or, hilariously, talks a blue streak in Spanish in an attempt to sound like a Mexican. Rosa and Enrique are not so much incorruptible as they are perpetually stupefied, and their determination to move northwards—even when crawling through narrow, corroded drainpipes infested with rats—is fed by a pure, youthful faith in destiny.

‘In the Service of Shadows,’ the hour-long documentary on Criterion’s two-disc standard and blu-ray editions of El Norte, tells the story of the movie’s creation, which proves to be nearly as fraught with danger and buoyed by relentless resourcefulness as the movie itself. The indigenous extras who didn’t know what a movie was and subsequently were offended that they should wear costumes; the hostile Chapanecos driving the skeleton crew out of town; the Mexican military who held exposed film reels for ransom, eventually paid by Nava’s father, who smuggled $30,000 into the country in his cowboy boots—the fascinating stories connected to El Norte’s production are too numerous to recount here.

Another standout supplement is Nava’s student film ‘The Journal of Diego Rodriguez Silva’ (72), which dramatizes the final days of a poet displaced in the midst of civil war. It is graced by Nava’s attention to architectural detail and the likely influence of photographers Tina Modotti and Edward Weston. It’s an essentially meditative film, low on drama, rich with locale and haunting imagery and strange moments such the one where Rodriguez Silva comes upon his first corpse, circling it before carefully placing his hand upon its back as though to sense how much life might still linger within. From the little about Nava’s career I could glean, it seems like, despite a long-time affiliation with J-Lo, the guy was never able to fulfill the promise of these early works. Perhaps the conditions of American independent filmmaking at the time, however difficult, brought out the best in him. Or perhaps it was the simple fact that, like the dazzlingly talented Charles Burnett, Nava’s special interest in America’s marginalized failed to attract opportunities.

Friday, January 16, 2009

When darkness fails: On horror, The Strangers, terrific first acts, lousy endings, and using unlikable stars to your advantage

For all my problems with the movie—which you can read about
here—I have to give Eden Lake some credit. It did manage to kinda stick to my ribs after I rented it a couple of weeks ago. It whetted my appetite for more new horror, and I found myself deciding to give writer/director Bryan Bertino’s debut The Strangers a whirl, despite my having this lingering memory of glancing at reviews from the time of its theatrical release last year that deemed it ridiculous. Well, ridiculous it certainly is, with far more creeping-up-behind-you moments than any movie can probably sustain, a few of those turgid scenes where the actors have nothing to do but flip out, cover their faces and say oh my god a dozen times, and risibly inconsistent antagonists, a zombie-like trio who wear these stupid masks for no apparent reason, who rarely talk, and when they do they sound like morons, and who seem to suffer from some serious short term memory loss, given how often they lose track of the whereabouts of our vulnerable, desperate heroes, a young couple trapped in a cottage in the woods. Still, I find myself in this position of, on one hand, wanting to completely write-off the movie for ultimately proving itself to be so dramatically soppy and, on the other, pondering the intricacies of its highly intriguing first act. I didn’t realize just how similar the set-ups were in Eden Lake and The Strangers when I rented the latter, but let me tell you, while Eden Lake is arguably the more effective chiller of the two, The Strangers has certain elements that if reapplied could still make for a very interesting movie.

Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman), like the protagonists of
Eden Lake, venture into the woods for a romantic getaway during which the male of the couple plans to propose marriage. Unlike the unfolding of Eden Lake however, the proposal in The Strangers occurs before the couple arrive at their isolated locale. In fact, we only confirm the proposal’s occurrence in what is basically a flashback within a flashback, in a sequence of narrative fragments that serves to disarm the viewer quite effectively. And unlike the couple in Eden Lake, who seemed unambiguously in love with each other and ripe for tying the knot, essentially just tragic victims of circumstance, Kristen and James begin the story with the devastating realization that they’re not in agreement as to what they want from their relationship. Kristen, we discover, has turned James down, and in the same way that we can read the apocalyptic events of The Birds as being some sort of manifestation of Melanie Daniels’ perusal of Mitch Brenner, of the female protagonist’s sexual unconscious overwhelming that of the male’s, so can we read the horrific events that arise in The Strangers as being some similar manifestation of Kristen’s assertion of her desire to remain unwed and independent, of the intense discord it inflicts upon an event intended to be a celebratory confirmation of love and devotion.

I have to confess that I really don’t find Speedman a very appealing presence in movies. I won’t get into the quality of his acting abilities here, but, for the sake of my next point, let me just announce my entirely subjective distaste for the guy as a movie star. The point being that Speedman, for precisely the same reasons that he bugs me, is, for me at least, pretty much perfectly cast in
The Strangers. James, having been freshly rejected, comes off as a truly oppressive boyfriend, one who grows only more oppressive with every ostensibly gentlemanly act he performs, such as his insistence that Kristen take the engagement ring he bought for her regardless of her refusal of marriage. He can’t take it back, he says, so she might as well have it. So gratingly paternal is James with Kristen that even when he’s about to leave the cottage to run an errand, he lights a fire for Kristen, as though she were incapable of doing it herself. The extent of his oppressiveness can be found even in the film’s setting itself: it’s his family’s cottage they’re going to spend the night in, full of his memories, placing him into an even greater position of power, power now essentially resigned to gloating resentment and annoying self pity. (And, to return to the movie’s dumbness, this old family cottage that seems to be uninhabited most of the time somehow has this amazing collection of contemporary music from the likes of Joanna Newsom, Gillian Welch, and Billy Bragg and Wilco, and not just on vinyl, but on 45!) No wonder Kristen doesn’t quite feel comfortable marrying this guy. He’s suffocating.

So a stranger turns up at the door, asking for somebody named Tamara. James leaves on his errand and while he’s gone the stranger returns and starts to torment Kristen, even penetrating the house without Kristen’s witnessing it, only to go back outside and knock on the door again. Go figure. James returns, the strangers multiply and get noisier and more insistent and there’s a predictable but nonetheless satisfying twist in how the first real act of violence plays out. So far so good, but it’s all downhill from there. So be it. But what about that first act? Is it me or is there something to it? It seems to be a prime example of the peculiar condition of the horror genre: while things are still ambiguous and the basic elements still falling into place, a horror movie can hold so much promise that that promise itself can, for some of us, actually make the movie worth watching. Even if the ending stinks. I’m imagining a film festival somewhere that only shows the first half-hour of horror movies. Afterwards audience members gather and discuss various endings that would often be superior to the actual endings. Who knows? Could be a hit.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Make mine a double: Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances

This is probably not the right place to talk about how I once saw my own double, many years back, and about the usual trauma such events wreak, but maybe you’ve seen your double, too, or thought you did, or looked for it in a moving crowd reflected in some shop window. In any case you too might harbour some persistent fascination with doubles, especially if you’re a reader of fiction, where they crop up in the damnedest places, generally as harbingers of doom, sometimes as shocked by seeing their supposed original as the supposed original is by them, stunned by that pit-of-your-stomach feeling and that little voice that whispers, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”

In the canonical works of Hoffmann, Dostoyevsky, and Poe, in the great crime fiction of Raymond Chandler, Frederic Brown and Boileau-Narcejac, in contemporary novels and stories from the likes of Haruki Murakami, Philip K. Dick, Kazuo Ishiguro and José Saramago, doubles loom forbiddingly, (over-)populating a great number of my favourite books. So I confess that when I picked up Rivka Galchen’s debut novel Atmospheric Disturbances (HarperCollins, $29.95), I was sold on the first sentence: “Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.” That was pretty much all it took. That and the strange ink drawings that enveloped the book. But this admittedly thru-the-back-door entry into a book review is my way of trying to impart just how refreshing Galchen’s approach to a certain beloved trope is. Atmospheric Disturbances is much more than a simulacrum of the old double myth. It’s a very sly, and very entertaining spin on the blurring effects of modern life and the heights of panic that afflict those who find themselves troublingly in love.

They tell us that, at the atomic level, we supposedly regenerate ourselves every seven years or so, which means that by middle-age we’ve somehow died and been replaced, or replicated, if you will, about seven times. Somebody says to their spouse, “You’re not the person I married fourteen years ago!” Buddy, you don’t know the half of it. In Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers, the source material for the four and counting film versions, the entire populace of a Marin County town seems to suffer an epidemic that causes everyone to believe their loves ones are actually imposters—which, as it turns out, they are. In Atmospheric Disturbances, 51-year-old New York psychiatrist Dr. Leo Liebenstein finds himself in a similar scenario, yet you get to feeling that there’s probably not any alien and/or communist conspiracy behind it all. You get to feeling that Leo, for all his insight into the mind’s machinations, isn’t seeing things straight, that his own anxiety about love’s instability, about his deservingness of a woman’s love, about the incessant unknowability of others—and perhaps, his unresolved feelings about his parents, now both deceased—is clouding his ability to see Rema, his beautiful, younger, foreign-born wife, for who she is, that all he can see is a döppelganger that doesn’t correlate to his idealized or nostalgic vision.

Galchen’s prose style is concise, humorous, buoyant and inviting, but what really lifts it up off the page and lights the reader’s imagination is how daringly she eschews any of the customary distance from Leo’s apparent neurosis, writing the entire novel in first-person, so that Leo, educated, sober, skeptical and highly reflexive, can speak directly to us in relatively jargon-free language, giving us no privileged perspective. Hardly just another unreliable narrator, Leo so often seems exactly like someone you might rely on under other circumstances, and here comes some near spoilers. It’s why he can so thoroughly convince Harvey, a patient who believes he’s a psychic agent for a meteorological society who takes his orders through hidden messages on page six of The New York Post, that Leo, too, belongs to the same order and communicates regularly with it’s leader, Tzvi Gal-chen, who it turns out actually is a renown meteorologist with some fascinating theories about weather. Or rather, Gal-chen was all of the above. Turns out he died in 1994. Additionally, though it’s not made explicit anywhere in the novel, Gal-chen is also the author’s father, which begs the question, just who can we rely on here? You might be best to place your bets on the double.

Atmospheric Disturbances is funny, perplexing and full of unexpected adventures, including a journey to Patagonia, “the wild, uncultivated unconscious of Argentina,” which in some ways feels like Galchen’s equivalent to Murakami’s Hokkaido. And at certain moments, the novel is tremendously moving. Leo reasons his way through his conviction that the woman who appears to be Rema is not his wife by focusing on the sort of minutia that cohabitating lovers hold dear, and by holding to a predetermined idea of all the little things Rema wouldn’t do. Meanwhile, Rema, or “Rema,” is wont to do whatever she needs to of her own volition, replicated or not, and she tries very hard to follow Leo into his neurotic odyssey and bring him back to safety. Their struggle to cope with alienation and to return to and/or rediscover each other as individuals destined to change in a changing world is at the core of this story that bridges the seeming fantastical with the most ordinary absurdities.

At one point, Leo is communicating with Tzvi Gal-chen—I won’t bother explaining this little phenomenon here, and I don’t think I can, actually—and they begin to discuss Dante and his relationship to the dead in The Divine Comedy. The dead, Gal-chen explains, seem to know everything about the past and perhaps even the future, but nothing about the present, and for such knowledge they turn to Dante. “And that somehow is what being alive is, to be suspended in the present, to be suspended in time.” Atmospheric Disturbances generates some superb storytelling on the basis of this realization, the understanding that we are stuck always in the now, and that taking anything in this life for granted, even the love of that one nearest to us, requires nothing less than a huge, crazy leap of faith.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

All this useless beauty?: Ashes of Time Redux

Coming to
Ashes of Time only in its re-tinkered incarnation poses a challenge to those of us seeing the film in light of Wong Kar-wai’s so frequently sublime subsequent body of work. A martial arts tone-poem shot by the incomparable Christopher Doyle, featuring a heady array of Hong Kong cinematic royalty armed and in flowing robes, it was originally released in 1994, yet existed for most Wong fans as an elusive enigma, a merging of idiosyncratic auteurism and genre dynamics that promised to be dynamite, and maybe an unfulfilled box office breakthrough. But I’ve seen the new Ashes of Time Redux twice now, and I’m still not so sure what to make of it. Once we establish that any Wong film is far more exciting than most films, I think this particular film has a lot of trouble bearing up critical scrutiny.

The melancholia induced by obsession with the past permeates much of the densely woven emotional and intellectual textures of Wong’s work, perhaps most stunningly in his 2001 masterpiece In the Mood For Love. Yet memory’s stratagems can be rendered as thin a trope as anything else. The allure of oblivion in Ashes of Time Redux is announced outright in the voiceover upon which the film seems vastly over-dependent. It never assumes the weight or nuance radiating in Wong’s other explorations of the theme. I adore the sheer notion of the old friend (Tony Leung Ka-fai) who visits the lonesome swordsman-for-hire (Leslie Cheung), carrying a bottle of magical wine that makes your past dissolve. But, even after 90 minutes of flashbacks within flashbacks and various encounters in deserts and swamps, landscapes linked only by the peculiarly toned, super-saturated colour palate, I’m not sure that we wind up with anything more than notion itself.

If I seem to be avoiding story, it must be said that Ashes of Time Redux, despite the Lois Cha source novel, is decidedly unconcerned with narrative cohesion. There are characters, and there are moods. I don’t know that either shift much. There are propositions, most memorably one made by two siblings who apparently share the same body, one of whom tries to hire someone to kill the other. There’s some fighting, and Wong’s camera placement here is especially inspired, framing only sections of a teeming battle scene so that steel slashes or combatants hurl across the screen only to vanish. The poeticized action, lacking in any vivid violence, is something to see, if not feel. Its imagery is more durable than those of another character slashing a mirror-like lake—she can’t find a worthy sparring partner, so she practices against her own reflection—which gradually succumbs to aesthetic cliché through overuse. Though it’s not nearly as corny as Frankie Chan and Roel Garcia’s boilerplate score, the closest the film ever comes to bending to genre by far.

So there are many issues, of taste, of inertia, of reliance on gloss, both figurative and literal, of using immutability as a cover for lack of substance. And there are many arguments to made for the film’s purity, spectacle and meditative rigor. But let me say this, especially for anyone who makes Ashes of Time Redux their first Wong experience: It may be enough to be dazzled by the fluttering light and unearthly colours and Maggie Cheung’s cameo, but don’t buy for a minute that Wong can’t deliver all this and much more.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Road to nowhere

April thought she and Frank must be extraordinary, that they would surely lead extraordinary lives, but then April got pregnant, Frank took an office job, and they bought themselves a house deep in the suburbs, where a second child emerged as alarmingly as the first. Before you know it, it’s 1955, and Frank’s 30. He’s having a liquid lunch, commiserating with some seducable innocent from the secretarial pool over how he found himself embedded in such mediocrity. He comes home on his birthday, and April, as though under some intoxicating spell, tells him they’re going to sell the house and car. They’re going to go to Paris, that place that so dazzled Frank when he passed through during the war. There’s still time for them to be extraordinary.

But of course, there isn’t. Happiness and fulfillment are less than fleeting in Revolutionary Road. They’re abstractions, something we never catch glimpse of, even in traces. The first three minutes of the movie sweep us from April and Frank’s first encounter to bracingly resentful, belligerent arguments on the side of the freeway. We start in neatly designed domestic despair and pretty much stay there, which is to say that director Sam Mendes’ latest film, an adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 eponymous novel, stuck with theatrical, histrionic, dated sounding talk—the script’s by Justin Haythe—makes a companion to Mendes’ breakthrough, American Beauty, which was also rife with neatly designed domestic despair, yet offered flashes of revelation. Even in the crucial scene in which April and Frank resolve to start anew in Europe, there isn’t a single flashing moment of revelation here, no dreamy thrill or sense of connection between them. Nor is there any such moment when they inevitably decide not to go, no relief or resignation, no mourning for opportunities lost or delayed. These scenes, rendered at times in handsome close-ups that do little to help the dearth of chemistry, just die up there on the screen, as the movie slowly sucks the life out of us all.

What is genuinely extraordinary in Revolutionary Road is Kate Winslet’s performance, newly crowned with a Golden Globe. Her April wanted to be an actor, and there she is, acting up a storm every day of her drab life, folding napkins, making supper, cleaning the drapes, playing the role of dutiful wife. Winslet keeps a current of electricity flowing through her better scenes. She’s almost scary, sad, yet sexy, in the one where she’s abandoned at a roadhouse with a fawning neighbour. She gets drunk, and, overwhelmed with angst, looks up at him and suddenly, with a comically grave expression, says, “Come on, let’s do it.” When she's later pinned by this neighbour in the front seat of a car, the way she holds her body rigid is itself interesting and unnerving to watch. April has sex twice in this film, each time lasting all of 30 seconds, and the disappointment registers on Winslet's face in an odd way that keeps you watching and wondering about what exactly is building up inside of her, rather than having her inner landscape all splayed out to mourn over. Before we reach the hysterical climax, Winslet's is a harrowing presence.

Fine actor though he is, Leonardo DiCaprio by contrast gives one of his most fraught performances. His Frank is basically an average guy in way over his head. He's no match for April in more ways than one. There’s a brilliantly gauged scene where Frank meets with a potential new employer for lunch, and DiCaprio’s pent-up frustration, that tension held in his jaw and forehead, makes it all too clear how Frank, for all his talk about his lousy job, realizes that he might be really good at it. And that he kinda likes that. And that maybe that's right where he belongs. Just about everywhere else in Revolutionary Road however, DiCaprio squints, gesticulates and shouts to excess, unable to spend a single moment on screen with a neutral expression. A moment of repose could tell us so much here, letting us catch the character off guard instead of bracing vaguely for a new attack. So DiCaprio flails in uncertainty, yet I can’t completely hold it against him. The material, which indeed devastates, presses too tightly up against the actors, positively stifling them. And Mendes’ approach seems so decided from the start, so obviously superior to the milieu depicted. So in the end I suppose DiCaprio’s rather like Frank: he simply never had a chance.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Dying Animal

The final moments of
The Wrestler find Mickey Rourke’s Randy “the Ram” Robinson lifting himself off the canvas, crawling to the corner post, climbing wearily atop his makeshift altar, and, to the adoring clamour of his fans, jumping off the top rope into nowhere. That Randy never lands, that the moment we’re left with is one of empty space and suspended breath, speaks to Darren Aronofsky’s shrewdness, his understanding of what this movie’s really about. The basic narrative structure of Robert D. Siegel’s script is rather formulaic, the Sundance-friendly down-and-out redemption tale, if you will, with a number of threadbare contrivances, particularly when dealing with Randy’s attempted reconciliation with his estranged daughter Stephanie, who’s played at too consistently high an emotional pitch by Evan Rachel Wood.

Aronofsky seems aware of the story’s limitations and places his emphasis elsewhere. Coming after the director’s almost oppressively spectacular Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain—a film famous for being booed at the very same festival where The Wrestler later took the top prize—the visual style adopted here seems shockingly low-key, as un-flashy as the wintry Jersey locales. The camerawork, by Maryse Alberti, is hand-held, almost purely observational, willing to doggedly follow its protagonist, a technique that, echoing the Dardenne brothers, leads to an unusual number of shots of the back of Rourke’s head in the opening scenes, as though Aranofsky wants to delay our looking this wounded old animal in the eyes. It’s a brilliant tactic, because this animal, as well as the milieu he moves in, is the true subject of our fascination and our empathy.

While The Wrestler overall feels admirably workmanlike, Rourke’s performance is by contrast a masterwork, though his collaborators deserve credit for helping to cultivate it. On one level the movie’s a sort of documentary, not only about the bizarre world of exhibition wrestling, from the congenial backstage orchestrations of flamboyant combat to the drug culture to enormously entertaining scenes of beefy guys shopping for shit to smack each other with in dollar stores, but about the ways in which our bodies betray us and our movie stars age. Randy the washed-up wrestler who was a star in the 80s is played by Rourke the washed-up actor who was a star, not to mention a pretty brilliant actor, in the 80s. How character and actor align here is transfixing, disarming, and at times affectingly grotesque.

It may sound incongruently highfalutin to speak of a movie as marginal as Jacques Nolot’s Before I Forget in the same breath as The Wrestler, but the two films have something remarkable in common: each one allows us to closely view a man’s once beautiful body wearied if not positively ravaged by time and experience. Rourke’s face has been worked on in more ways than one. His frame is engorged strangely. His flesh has assumed the ruddy glow of an over-roasted turkey. Yet through this battered shell an old charisma achingly radiates, as does a desperation that’s almost palpable. I don’t mean in any way to slight Rourke’s performance or label it artless by drawing so much attention to mere presence. On the contrary, everything Rourke brings to the film is in the service of building a complex, highly specific character and telling this particular story.

Likewise, Marisa Tomei’s Cassidy, the stripper and single mother with whom Randy attempts to forge a relationship once he realizes that health issues are conspiring to end his career—and, most unnervingly, that he’s utterly alone in the world—is at once vulnerable, physically and emotionally, and sharply defined. In a sense Tomei’s efforts are even more laudable since her character is underdeveloped, a deficiency Aronofsky tries in vain to remedy with a prolonged, purposeless scene of her performing at the club. Tomei’s best moments are the ones devoted toward deepening our sense of Randy’s plight, like the scene in which Randy and Cassidy go to a bar in the afternoon and proudly declare their nostalgia for the hair metal days of their youth. Tomei fearlessly embraces the silliness of this shy bit of courtship, and Rourke, doing a little dance to the canned Ratt in his plaid shirt and duct-taped puffy coat, hair extensions swinging, is absurdly endearing.

But there’s another scene these two share that pretty much announces the most troubling theme of The Wrestler in a manner that’s in perfect sympathy with the characters’ relative lack of sophistication. Cassidy raves to Randy about The Passion of the Christ, about the unholy battery of abuse heaped upon Mel Gibson’s gladiatorial incarnation of Jesus, and Randy, though he hasn’t seen the movie, takes its appeal as a matter of course. Both Cassidy and Randy have devoted their professional lives to the exhibition and exploitation of their flesh, and theirs is a masochistic glory that delivers rewards in diminishing returns.

In the movie’s single funniest, most appalling moment, an ecstatic fan, some kid with no legs, begs Randy to beat his opponent with his artificial limb. Randy shrugs and dutifully complies. It’s proposed then that each of us craves this contact with punishment. Each of us wants to participate in the grinding down of our bodies made into theatre. And this might also explain why so many people who might not normally pay tickets for a wrestling match will part with their cash to see The Wrestler and, in some way that can’t quite be put into words, walk away satisfied, and feeling a little more alive.