Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The King and I: on the writer-reader's reunion with his childhood boogeyman

I read the bulk of my Stephen King in those wonder years before my teens, the same period during which I collected comic books and gorged on horror movies that approximately 70% sucked. I was attracted, like most people I suppose, to the promise of something morbid, traumatic or fantastic, maybe all three. But, surprisingly, I stayed for the realism. So often with those King novels, once the mechanics of their supernatural conceits began to fully reveal themselves in all their half-baked stratagems, my interest in the undead pets or the car from hell or the apocalyptic battle royale would rapidly begin to drain away. King seemed to be this knack for taking something that seemed best shrouded in mystery and dragging it out into the light where he could overwork it at length. Yet there was something in King’s portraits of lower to middle class life in small to medium sized communities, of ordinary disappointments and frustrations with marriage and kids, health problems or booze problems, with jobs or school, that kept me caring, wondering, reading. They probably taught me something. They were greasy kid’s stuff, but they were about real adults.

I’ve rarely returned to King since. I got rid of a lot of them. My tastes just went in a very, very different direction. But every once in a while, like a whisper from some unseen entity, they call me back. I saw King give a speech last year at a festival in Toronto where he was warmly introduced by no less a heavyweight than Margaret Atwood. King was lively, bright, articulate, unpretentious as always, and totally hilarious. I forgot how funny he could be. He told a story about AC/DC and hip-hop I still repeat to friends, though without the same finesse. And I forgot how frequently he was still cranking out books, some of which were actually supposed to be good, maybe even his best. So I finally got around to it, not to revisiting King, but rather catching up with him.

Just After Sunset (Scribner, $32) is King’s latest collection of stories. Seemed like a good place to get reacquainted. I remembered how much I once loved some of the stories in Skeleton Crew, ‘Nona’ and ‘The Mist,’ or in Night Shift, ‘Grey Matter’ and ‘I Know What you Need.’ What the man could do with forbidding weather and stale beer! But I forgot however how wildly King can over-write. It all came hurtling back to me with brain-piercing clarity as I trudged through ‘The Gingerbread Girl,’ the first, soppier half of which reads like late Michener, the last half of which finds our heroine duct-taped to a chair and being chased by a one-dimensional psycho killer for what feels like an eternity. “You’re making me mad, Lady Jane!” says psycho. “No, you were already mad. As in hatter,” parries woman-in-peril, if only in her mind. At least she knows when a line stinks too bad to be spoken aloud.

Thing is, when you’re Stephen King, you pretty much publish whatever the hell you want, and if you squeezed it out on a whim but still deem it fit for print it’s hardly like some idiot editor’s going to suggest you do some trimming or even, you know, reject the story. What, do they not like money? Or readers? (‘The Gingerbread Girl’ was first published in Esquire, if you were curious.) Fortunately, for those readers patiently working through Just After Sunset, the lesser tales are fairly easy to identify in the first pages, and the better ones, it turns out, occur with greater frequency.

Logorrhea’s a funny thing. It can make fiction an endless plod through a blizzard in a T-shirt or a warm bath after a glass of wine, depending on what lies beneath the flow of words. So while I’d argue that one of Just After Sunset’s briefest stories is in fact one of its finest and most eloquent—the seven-page, crisply rendered and richly imagistic ‘Graduation Afternoon,’ in which a young woman on the cusp of adulthood finds the fleeting nature of youth reflected in an actual apocalypse—I’d still have to concede that some of the longer, more rambling stories possess an immersive quality that can arise only when the author’s allowed to luxuriate a while in his creation. I think especially of ‘N.’ In this longer story, composed of letters and transcripts, we’re gradually ushered into the apparent psychosis of an accountant suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder after visiting a hidden field that, by his own accounts, refuses to be photographed. The layering of and emphasis on counting works wonders—the accountant counts compulsively, he carefully recounts his story—while the sense of voice lulls us as it chills us, drawing us in in the tradition of some of the best 19th century tales of psychological collapse.

There’s also ‘Stationary Bike,’ another excellent description of the strange, troubling little items that can manifest and accumulate in private. After visiting a doctor who warns against obesity, a commercial artist buys a stationary bike that he rides in the basement of his apartment building while staring at a mural of a landscape he’s painted on the wall. He feels as though he's literally riding into the landscape. He buys maps... What’s most compelling is the way King makes his protagonist so down to earth and unreflective. He starts to work on strange paintings in his spare time without knowing why, and before we know it King himself is engaging in a process that’s probably hard for reader or writer to be entirely aware of as it unfolds. He’s making life on the page feel comfortably everyday before slowly allowing some corner of the frame to reveal a flaw and infect the story’s life-image as a whole. It’s a considerable gift for any author to possess, and for all his occasional indulgences, sentimentalizing or unwillingness to accept a dumb, sub-pulpy idea as just dumb sub-pulp, King seems to have this gift locked into his DNA. And I’d wager a guess that it’s this very quality that bridges the gaps between so many readers of all walks of life, and keeps calling us back.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It Couldn't Please Me More: Chris and Don on DVD

It’s among the most daunting challenges in movies, a medium saturated with romance but often adverse to romantic complication: to convey with empathy and insight the nature and functionality of different kinds of love, especially those easily dismissed or judged. That romance between men is but the least provocative kind of love considered in
Chris and Don: A Love Story is a tribute to how bravely and sensitively this documentary assumes this challenge. Its lovers shared a 35-year relationship that prodded conventional wisdom about class, monogamy, age difference, and, perhaps most interestingly, the compatibility of lovers of whose interaction incorporates parent-child or master-protégé dynamics. Directed by Tina Mascara and Guido Santi, who make elegant use of the couple's abundance of home movies, Chris and Don is a tender and thoughtful portrait of intimacy and communion finding its own pattern in a world fraught with obstacles.

Those obstacles would not however include obscurity or poverty. The titular Chris is Christopher Isherwood, the blue-blood Brit of the global literary set and author of Berlin Stories, the basis for the stage and screen phenomena known as Cabaret. Isherwood met Don Bachardy on a Santa Monica beach in 1953. He was 48, Don 18, though he looked even younger. Their relationship grew steadily but was frowned upon by even close friends. Don must have seemed so unformed, often attending parties with the likes of Auden, Stravinsky and Tennessee Williams, where his presence would register as little more than a fetching accessory, so impressionable that despite his So-Cal roots he adopted a mid-Atlantic accent and many of Isherwood’s gestures, not to mention haircut. But he stuck around. And thanks in part to Isherwood’s support and mentorship Bachardy became a renown portrait artist. (Samples of his work are featured not only in the film but in the booklet in Zeitgeist’s new DVD.)

When Isherwood died in 1986 Bachardy explains how he immediately, almost unconsciously, began to read Isherwood’s diaries, patiently working his way backwards through this extraordinary life, knowing that somewhere in the middle he would find his own first appearance. Like so many things in Chris and Don, this factoid can initially seem creepy, yet slowly becomes something very moving in its manifestation of trust and a sort of sublime exchange of ideas, body and soul. Bachardy’s our guide on this journey through the past, and his recollections and manner feel honest, calm and forthcoming. He’s also an interesting subject for a film in that film itself was so formative an influence in his youth—his mother took him to see Joan Crawford films when he was four. A pivotal moment in his maturity came when he was on the set of The Rose Tattoo and heard Anna Magnani’s fart. The fart helped him to pentrate the veneer of vacuous movie glamour and, we can assume from the development of his work, take interest on the richness of human life that lurked below. It’s but one of the irreverent, surprisingly sweet anecdotes that make Chris and Don a lively, smart, and emotionally intense experience.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Thank you, Kunio Kato

The major highlight of last night's 81st Oscars, certainly the most impressive acceptance speech in any case, came from Japanese filmmaker Kunio Kato, who took the award for Best Animated Short for 'La Maison en Petits Cubes.' Future winners may want to accept some coaching from this guy. With great concision and deadpan delivery the man managed to invoke the spirit of Styx at their most pop-savvy and thank an inanimate object, which in itself much surely constitute some sort of precedent. "Thank you, my pencil... Thank you, animation... Domo arigato, Mister Roboto..." So much more charming than the weirdly superior-sounding A.R. Rahman, who won in both the Song and Score categories and talked about how all his life he chose love over hate. I mean, what the hell does that mean?   

Anyway, considering the frustrating number of overt snubs and the ratio of genuine excellence to blandness that clogged the nominees this year, I unreservedly applaud this renovated approach to the acting categories that has five past winners come on stage and introduce each of the nominees personally, bestowing equal attention on all and taking undue emphasis away from the winner (the selection of which does so often feel like the result of a popularity contest even when the nominations sometimes convey a greater sense of adventure and observational powers on the part of the academy). Having the quintet of warm assessors play their parts made these individual moments feel far more intimate and less catty. They imparted (like Penelope Cruz's gorgeous 60-year-old gown and her heartfelt nod to Pedro Almodóvar's role in her career development) a deeper sense of tradition, and made more transparent the essence of what these awards are, or at least should be, really about, which is peer acknowledgment, a sense of community, and a love of the art. The results were far more moving than is normally the case. And Whoopi Goldberg was actually really funny! 

Of course we didn't get to see Werner Herzog win an Oscar, but I certainly can't complain about Man on Wire's taking Best Documentary or Philippe Petit's hugely enjoyable showing off. And even if I didn't feel that either The Reader or Slumdog Millionaire represented their best work, it was actually satisfying to see Kate Winslet and Anthony Dod Mantle get justly rewarded. All in all, it made the twenty minutes I spent fiddling with my rabbit ears more than worth the effort. 

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Fires were started: Day of Wrath

Though her trial is held in sparely furnished quarters composed of shafts of light, passageways and the shadows of torture devices, rooms where pale, gloomy men in enormous ruffs bend over quills and candles, the execution of Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier) is conducted outdoors on the loveliest summer day, with the sun high in the sky and a children’s choir singing a tune to drown out her cries of agony. It is the 17th century in Denmark and the burning of a frightened old woman is no cause for spoiling the afternoon. Yet Herlofs’ words linger gravely with Reverend Absalon (Thorkild Roose), whose pretty, much younger, and so terribly unsatisfied wife Anne (Lisbeth Movin) has perhaps something of the witch in her, too. Even Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), the Reverend’s son from a previous wife, who’s in love and secretly trysting with Anne, can see it. There are fires in her eyes, he tells her.

Day of Wrath (1943) shares obvious affinities with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s earlier The Passion of Joan of Arc (28), but here the corruption of the oppressive, gynophobic patriarchy is a given, the condemned woman’s disposed of at the outset, and the real drama unfolds methodically through parallel storylines that weave together several characters carefully positioned at distinct points in the social geometry. The men are resigned to a fatalistic status quo, and even Martin can only think of death, or of how things will end, whenever he’s with his beloved, who he ravishes in the woods while his father worries indoors. The women however are all mutually opposed in their disparate bids for transcending a life so fraught with limitations. Anne leaps at any chance for fulfillment, sexual or otherwise, with Martin. Herlofs, who fears not spiritual perdition but mere death, opts for assuming the very role of demonic collaborator that she’s been assigned by the clergy, so as to at the very least put the fear of God into her persecutors. Absalon’s mother (Sigrid Neiiendam), so easy to loathe, is likewise simply taking the only route she deems prudent, one of pious rivalry and maternal martyrdom. She’s always had it out for Anne, and only waits for the ideal conditions to cut her down.

As the performances and camerawork align themselves to Dreyer’s mesmerizing, somewhat theatrical style, with dialogue that’s never more loaded with subtext that when it seems most direct, Day of Wrath moves forward with classical inevitability. Fates are declared, fears announced, weather forbids. The recurring image of an apple tree looms large, reminding us just how profoundly original sin burrows into such minds, and how the real source of anxiety here stems from repressed desires the women are blamed for simply representing. Everything that will come to pass is mapped out in the early scenes with great economy, yet watching how things come to pass offers much suspense, as well as a deeper kind of dread, and that certain pleasure we feel in witnessing something realized with such structural elegance. The interplay of the dictates of flesh and spirit create as bold a dynamic here as in Joan of Arc or Ordet (55), and like those films, Day of Wrath is an absolute masterpiece.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Backflipping to a theatre near you

Ready? Okay. Two horny jocks ditch football practice to go to cheerleader camp and fish in a sea of chicks. Has this been done before or does it just feel that way? I confess to an unwillingness to do the research necessary to answer this question, and in any case
Fired Up! is hardly concerned with innovation, save perhaps the ushering of male characters to the forefront of what might be deemed the cheerleader comedy sub-subgenre, one that’s now officially gone meta: the movie features a scene where all 300-plus of the participants in hot pants attend an open-air screening of the proto-pom-pom-com Bring It On and chant along with every line of dialogue.

The first scenes of Fired Up! raise provocative questions. Why do these high school seniors look old enough for doctorates? Who is this mysterious screenwriter with the suspicious moniker of “Freedom Jones”? Shouldn’t Philip Baker Hall get a new agent? Could they, ie: “Freedom Jones,” not think of a better running gag for Baker Hall’s Coach Byrnes than having him say “shit” a lot? And, with all due respect to the great PBH, isn’t 77 a little old for a football coach? More pertinently, is it just me showing my age, or do each of the stars of Fired Up! not seem eerily modeled after older famous actors? There’s the new Ralph Macchio, the junior Kate Hudson, and this strange, troubling hybrid of Owen Wilson and Jim Carrey. Where do they breed these kids? What do they feed them?

Such questions do not distract for long however, because Fired Up! is actually fairly diverting. Seriously. Director Will Gluck displays no special finesse with the camera—unless you’re deeply impressed by spiraling crane shots that allow us to take in a maximum number of teenage tits in tight tops without cutting—but between Mr./Ms. “Jones” and the admirably game leads the dialogue often zips quite nicely. An affection for screwball comedy can be felt in these rapid-fire gags and goofball non-sequiturs. Especially in the second act, things move along very fast, and I laughed. Not one bit of the plotting felt even slightly inspired, but the repartee helped the robotic story breeze along. So perhaps it’s safest to call Fired Up! an above average teen sex comedy, which still makes it a fundementally mediocre movie, but of a sort that you can’t really feel too depressed over. I have to defer to Manohla Dargis, who pretty nailed it in her New York Times review: “kind of dumb but also kind of smart-about-being-dumb.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Would you give this man an Oscar?

It would feel like a dream, or at least an elaborate joke. Indeed, if I were to suggest a candidate for the single strangest possible moment that could transpire during next Sunday’s Academy Awards broadcast, it would have to be the vision of Werner Herzog, preferably in a tux, receiving an Oscar. Of course, Herzog’s Antarctica essay
Encounters at the End of World couldn’t be more deserving. It wasn’t merely among the best documentaries of last year but one of the best movies, period. But I still can’t quite wrap my head around the sheer weirdness of the notion of Herzog’s presence amidst the glitz, the tears and thanks-to-god, the microphone-wielding babbling ninnies. Herzog, director of Aguirre, Wrath of God, Strozek and Grizzly Man, is a living legend—but he’s an outsider’s outsider, a deeply eccentric, autodidact maverick. Since when do such people win Oscars? But then it begs the question, what is Oscar?

The official line is that Oscar rewards cinematic excellence, but everybody knows that’s far from the truth. The dismissive cynic tells us it’s all politics, advertising and self-congratulation, but this too seems a bit of an over-simplification, and hardly accounts for the fact that, in the acting categories especially, the Academy actually does single out superlative work as often as it does sentimentalist blubbery. So the Oscars are a nebulous, persistent beast, and a lot of us still watch despite it all. They satisfy a desire for summation, catharsis and unabashed glamour. And maybe it’s that last part that catches us up when we try to hold it to a certain standard.

Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy won the Toronto Film Critic’s Association Award and was nominated for an Independent Spirit, but it has yet to open in most markets in Canada at least, and its complete shut-out among the Oscar nods won’t help it circulate any faster or bigger. It stars Michelle Williams—note: a previous nominee—in the best work she’s yet done. But it is in every sense of the word a small movie, concerning America’s socio-economic fringe. Is this why Wendy and Lucy is ignored? Do recessions naturally turn people away from stories of economic hardship? At least Williams is in good company as one of the year’s most notable snubs. Sally Hawkins, the widely celebrated star of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, also failed to receive the Best Actress nod, though Happy-Go-Lucky at least managed to snag an Original Screenplay nomination, the art-house ghetto/unofficial consolation prize for any movie that fails to garner its due kudos in the ostensibly major categories.

To give credit, the Academy did acknowledge Anne Hathaway for her sublime work in Rachel Getting Married and Melissa Leo’s heart-rending turn in Frozen River. But how do we explain Angelina Jolie for Changeling, a movie that wasn’t especially embraced by audiences or critics and gave Jolie nothing especially interesting to do? Perhaps politics—ie: being insanely famous and becoming an international symbol for maternal altruism—shouldn’t be underestimated any more than glamour. Jolie’s got both on her side. And her even more famous other half also got nominated this year, but I can’t argue with that so much. I’ve never been a great admirer of Brad Pitt’s, but I submit that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button gave him the role of his life, playing a man condemned to get everything backwards, doomed to live his life as a permanent alien, watching, never fully participating. Pitt’s performance may be necessarily adorned in multiple layers of make-up and CGI, but is there any moment in its trajectory more astonishing, more strangely moving, than the one where Button finally arrives at the point in his life where he simply becomes Brad Pitt? In this sense, an actor’s beauty is as essential to performance as the tricks used to disguise it. And in the movies, folks, a well-harnessed beauty is a force to be reckoned with.

Still, Pitt has noting on Mickey Rourke, who also found the role of a lifetime in The Wrestler, and likewise elegantly exploited his distinctive physicality to embody it. Come to think of it, Richard Jenkins, whose nomination for The Visitor was among this year’s most pleasant surprises, also gave a superb performance that was heavily dependent on the actor’s appearance, that long, pock-marked face that conveys disappointment and inwardness so immediately that a simple smile emerging from it feels like some sort of miracle. To be sure, I can think of only one performance that was the equal of these guys yet excluded from their company. Benicio Del Toro’s portrayal of Ernesto Guevara falls into two of Oscar’s pet categories—the famous actor portraying the famous historical figure; the repeat nominee—but that wasn’t enough. Che, like Wendy and Lucy, is about people normally invisible in American movies. And it’s long. And it’s tough. It’s also extraordinary, iconoclastic, educational, in its way, truly revolutionary. It should have gotten Best Actor, Best Director, Best Picture and Best Cinematography.

Cinematography however is one of those categories whose nominee list most consistently lacks imagination or even sense. How could they neglect the inspired imagery of Paranoid Park? (Let's not even get into directing, where we would have to discuss the phenomena of Ron Howard.) It’s not unlike editing, an award that should most often be preceded by the word ‘Most’ rather than ‘Best.’ How else could the Academy manage to nominate Laurent Cantet’s The Class for Best Foreign Film and not notice that its lively classroom scenes, filled with comments and bits of behaviour coming from so many of its actors, are partially the result of some of the finest possible cutting? We’re talking about an editor—Robin Campillo is his name—whose contribution was so integral to the movie that he was given his own writing credit.

And what of that other remarkable Foreign Film nominee Waltz for Bashir, an ideal candidate for Best Animated Feature—not to mention Best Documentary—if there ever was one? Was it really not on par with Bolt? Need every Animated nominee be for kids, be rife with superfluous spectacle? Is this why neither of Richard Linklater’s wondrous animated movies Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly went without nominations in their respective years? Such are the mysteries of Oscar, I suppose. We mull them over, we get pissed off, we get happy and occasionally satisfied when we see work we believe in get rewarded and perhaps even reach a larger audience. In any case, we keep watching. Okay, I keep watching. Do you?

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Walken mind: Brainstorm on DVD

Christopher Walken’s brain got worked over an awful lot in the late 70s and early 80s. He was the guy from the industrial heartland who became severely traumatized as a prisoner-of-war, wound up a sort of gladiator in high stakes Russian roulette in Saigon, and won an Oscar for it. He later survived a car crash, woke from a coma after several years to find his girl had moved on, developed telepathic abilities that seemed to be draining his spirit, inching him closer to death with every use, and helped to fuse the seemingly irreconcilable sensibilities of Stephen King and David Cronenberg. It would not be long before he became an alien abductee.

What made that brain so captivating when in peril? His head did seem to weigh a lot, an effect accentuated by hair that, as years passed, seemed to want to leap off his head. The head, and those pale eyes, made him always appear off-balance, and vulnerable. He went by names as familiar as Nick, Mike and Johnny, yet he never quite registered as a recognizably normal person—admittedly, not an unusual trait amongst the new stars back then. Yet, whether breaking down or lashing out, Walken could convey a woundedness that, as with his flights of nervous charisma, could catch you off guard and become tremendously moving.

In Brainstorm (1983), newly available on DVD, he was again breaking barriers of mental communication, again testing comfortable proximities to death. But in this case he was eager to do it, in the name of science and glory. He was Dr. Michael Brace, a hyperactive, maverick scientific genius of the post-hippie variety, like William Hurt in Altered States (80). And Brainstorm was a movie that, like Altered States, spoke to a new post-hippie caveat on the psychic fallout of excess experimentation on the more nebulous zones of the mind. Along with Dr. Lillian (Louise Fletcher), Dr. Mike develops a technology that records a person’s sensory experience so that others can share it by wearing a sort of headset and pressing replay.

Of course the nefarious US military doesn’t skip a beat, already exploiting the device before it’s even finished, salivating over possibilities running the gamut from flight simulation to torture. And Mike’s coworkers, too, dig in to sample the Pandora’s box of psychedelic chocolates, with one of them finally collapsing from the equivalent of an Internet porn binge. So this is in essence a story about the price of dreaming in the Promethean sense.

Directed by Douglas Trumbull, who made Silent Running (72) and worked effects for 2001 (68), and taken from a story by Bruce Joel Rubin, who’d later script Ghost (90) and Jacob’s Ladder (90), Brainstorm becomes self-consciously trippy and intellectually flabby. It probably seemed too hokey in its time, but reading it with the benefit of hindsight, one of the ways in which it’s aged surprisingly well is in its relationship with numerous movies spawned in its wake. Its promise of artificially reconstructed experience, a virtual reality into which an individual’s memories and other sprays of subjective psychic foam can infiltrate, looks forward to the technologically-enhanced nostalgia of Strange Days (95), the virtual reality addicts in eXistenZ (99), the memory control as romantic catalyst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (04), and the pseudo-schizophrenic epidemic of A Scanner Darkly (05). We can trace in such films a dialogue on perception whose resonance with our ongoing plunge into electronic everything is so acute it hardly needs stating.

But I got us into this talking about Walken, and the pleasing array of nuance he brings to Brainstorm is surely one of the best reasons to see it. He’s an actor whose little choices intrigue. At one point he blows a fuse and rants while suddenly gobbling from a bag of Ruffles. And I find it extremely interesting that the filmmakers chose to imbue Mike with a very complicated romantic life. Perhaps this man obsessed with the cataloguing of experience has a thing for older women because they simply have more of it then he does. At the movie’s outset, he’s breaking up with Karen (Natalie Wood), his wife and the mother of his child. He seems to be romantically entangled with Lillian. Fletcher would have been pushing 50 at the time of filming, while Wood was 43. True, Walken was already in his late 30s, but he looks strikingly younger than both women on screen, and given that this is a Hollywood movie the difference makes a hell of an impression. Mike’s relationship to these women, and Walken’s different ways of expressing affection and admiration for both, deepens our sense of the character’s conflicting desires, his ruthless drive toward success and his undeniable attraction to woman of intelligence and integrity.

And, yes, Wood was beautiful. Those dark eyes stop Walken in his tracks. The finale has Wood urging Walken back from the brink of death through the sheer intensity of her love, and the scene is made poignant by extra-filmic circumstances. In November of 1981, near the end of principal photography, Wood died when she fell overboard of the yacht she shared with her husband, the actor Robert Wagner. Wagner and Walken were both on board at the time. The yacht was named Splendour.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Worldly goods, worldly bads: Clive Owen follows the money in The International

“I’m from the Bronx, so you gotta make it simple,” says a soon to be disposed of INTERPOL agent. Discreetly poisoned, he collapses only moments after his Berlin rendezvous with a representative of the evil International Bank of Business and Credit. As fellow agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) rushes to his rescue—only to himself collapse after being knocked upside the head by a truck’s side mirror—we quickly reckon that the intrigue we’re about to be plunged into will be anything but simple. Yet
The International, written by Eric Singer and directed by Tom Twyker, wants to cater to those intellectually self-effacing Bronx-dwellers and other ostensibly dopey audience members, so while the plot becomes more wildly convoluted with each passing scene, the glut of platitudes and expository dialogue will attempt counterbalance.

The IBBC trades in more than cash. They’ve cut deals with just about every multinational, hold ties with multiple government agencies, and are single-handedly backing an armed revolution in Liberia. Apt pupils of the shock doctrine, their goal is to cultivate conflicts and control incurred debt. Along the way they’ll force a few hands, if not cut them off. From a previous post at Scotland Yard to his current gig with the apparently ineffectual INTERPOL—the other International of the title—Salinger’s long been crusading to bring these jackals to justice. With the help of a Manhattan DA lawyer (Naomi Watts), Salinger may finally be closing in, valiantly following a series of brutal incidents that could lead to the top: an IBBC VP dies under questionable circumstances, an Italian arms manufacturer and presidential candidate is assassinated, a tailing operation leads to a major shootout in the Guggenheim.

There are splendid bits of character work, such as Salinger’s tendency to have his ears injured, this man who hears too much. There are riveting set pieces, the one in the Gug being especially bracing. There is a surprisingly sinister resolution implying that vigilantism maybe the only way of dealing with powers higher than governments, and there's something weirdly assuring in how it proves that criminal networks will ultimately take care of their own. There’s also an inspired cell phone gag, though elsewhere Twyker’s attempt to wring tension out of text messaging falls flat. And there’s a lot of dragging scenes out, with padded entrances and exits or yet another show-offy bird’s eye shot, even when the scenes in question aren’t very exciting or essential to the story. When it all comes together it’s a great coulda-beena-Bond part for Owen and a decent stab at exposing the perils of globalization, but the state of the dialogue doesn’t bode well for Singer’s prospects and Twyker has yet to recover from Perfume. He made his mark with Run Lola Run over a decade ago, and some—I for one haven’t kept up—argue he’s been smudging it ever since.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Walking after midnight: on Steps, sex, power, identity, and the mystery of Jerzy Kosinski

I first read
Steps ten years ago. I knew nothing about the book or its author. I’d picked it up more or less randomly in a bookstore and found I’d gotten a dozen pages in before coming up for air. It was my first Jerzy Kosinski, and looking back now, it seems it must have really hooked me, because I know that by the end of that year I was traveling through Central and Eastern Europe with a stack of books that were at least half Kosinski. It felt appropriate to be reading this body of work, so startling in its exacting perversions and flights of savagery, while moving through a part of the world where people seemed always to be consuming such tremendous amounts of meat, and while I brooded over the end of what felt like an especially bloody century. I was very young and hadn’t yet realized that all centuries are bloody. By pure chance, it was also during this trip that I first saw Being There, the movie adapted by Kosinski from his own novel, which happened to be screening at a Prague cinematheque.

I return to Steps now because I’ve been meaning to and because I’ve long wanted to direct readers to this strange and, it still seems to me, kind of forgotten Polish-American author, one who was not so long ago such a sensation, as well as a source of much controversy, particularly concerning the authorship of his most acclaimed novel The Painted Bird. For many reasons Steps seems an ideal introduction to Kosinski, though it was long after reading it that I realized just how emblematic of Kosinski’s philosophy it was.

When I first read Steps, with its many very brief first-person anecdotes and tales spanning wildly diverse places, milieus, professions and situations, I’d just assumed its narrators were many. Much later I read Passing By, a collection of Kosinski’s essays, and noted that he kept referring to “the protagonist of Steps.” It hadn’t occurred to me that all the scenarios contained within this book could happen to one person. More importantly, it hadn’t occurred to me that one person could perform such a variety of actions, some tender, some cruel, some altruistic, some murderous. Like I said, I was very young. And I wasn’t yet familiar with the novels of Jerzy Kosinski.

The protagonist of Steps begins by recounting a story in which he enters a poor village to have his laundry done. When he goes to pick up his clothes a young seamstress eyes his credit cards as he shuffles his belongings around. She asks what they are and he explains that with these plastic cards one can buy whatever ones wants without using any money. He tells her that if she meets him later in secret he’ll take her away, buy her things, and she’ll no longer be poor. The episode ends with the protagonist simply fulfilling this vaguely sinister promise. The next episode reverses the power dynamic of the first. The protagonist finds himself on a small, impoverished island with no funds. Desperate and starving, he meets some tourists, older, unattractive women, who feed him but in exchange ravish his youthful flesh. These stories set the tone for all that follows.

Steps is about power and identity, about domination and metamorphosis. Nothing is fixed. Sexual desire is most characteristically described in terms of the desire to possess another. The narration itself is rigorously dispassionate, carefully isolating memory from emotion. So if my initial inability to register the novel as being the story of one person seems naïve or unobservant, my only real defense lies in the fact that the protagonist makes no effort whatsoever to unify his memories and experience with any overt sense of self-development or emotional build. And this is what makes the book, along with all of Kosinski’s best work, so fascinating, chilling in its detachment and depiction of oppression, moving in its proposal that a person can do or become anything he or she wants to. (Should I add here that Kosinski took his own life?)

The protagonist shifts consistently between voyeur—tellingly, he was a sniper while in the army—and instigator of action. In another early episode he works as a ski instructor at a resort near a tuberculosis clinic. At night he watches some of the other male instructors tryst with some female patients in the open area between their facilities. He describes their meeting in the moonlit snow: “The silhouettes touched and merged as if they were fragments of a shadow being mended.” The night and the distance renders the people into shadows; contact renders them into a single mass. Later the protagonist conducts his own affair with a particularly ill patient. She makes love to him by touching his image in her mirror; he later makes love to her by touching her photographed image.

Kosinski is not an author who finds sexuality banal. The routes to sexual contact seem infinite under his gaze. These routes are at times abhorrent, with incidents including deception, prostitution, bestiality, incest and rape. In one of the most fully fleshed out episodes, based on a real incident, the protagonist, again traveling in the countryside, discovers a woman whose been held captive in a cage by a farmer and alerts the police. However, before he does so he confesses, “there was something very tempting in this situation, where one could become completely oneself with another human being.”

In the book’s italicized intermediary passages by contrast, conversations between two lovers, the honesty with which sexual contact and romantic love is discussed is disarming, brave and often insightful. “You only know me in a certain way,” one lover explains, imparting upon the other the unavoidable, involuntary ways we tailor our identities for the view of others. This unknowability isn’t meant to invoke despair but rather to acknowledge the ways we enter into each other’s stories, touch each other’s lives and beings, and how we change, relentlessly, in spite of the dictates of memories and people who claim to have us pegged.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ballast: death, family, responsibility, and the precarious art of aestheticizing poverty

Ballast begins with one self-inflected death, that of Lawrence’s brother Darius, and it might have been two if it weren’t for the kindly neighbour being nearby and calling in Lawrence’s suicide attempt, a gunshot to the chest that pierced his lung but failed to deliver him from this altogether bleak and newly lonesome rural Mississippi winter. Lawrence’s remaining behind after his brother’s death feels either a betrayal of some biological contract or the completion of some ruthless process of deterministic reduction. Lawrence and Darius, you see, were twins, and Darius, unamicably estranged from his wife and son, has left Lawrence alone and with much to resolve. So Ballast becomes a story of ambiguous responsibility, and forgiveness too, and, more subtly, identity asserting itself by force of fate.

The clouds hold rain and the people hold massive emotions, but the movie is, for the most part, rigorously unassuming. Writer/director/producer Lance Hammer’s valiantly self-distributed feature debut was a critical favourite at Sundance a year back, and, really, you have to figure that sheer austerity and the mere presentation of impoverished African-Americans had more than a little to do with that. The camera work, courtesy of Lol Crawley, is hand-held but shot on 35 mm, with a striking beauty to its expansive overcast landscapes and stark compositions. The rhythms are jarring and the jump cuts made even terser by the utter absence of any musical scoring. The talk is most often subdued, and at times the whispered mumbling is almost perversely obscure. This world of rattling trains and strip malls in the middle of nowhere, of wood paneling and track pants, of bottled-up despair and readily available guns, vividly evokes the lives of so many Americans that rarely make it into the movies. It all makes an impression, but I guess I just have to say that at times it also feels generic, like these characters and this approach are closer to elegantly selected tropes than to the unadorned reality that Hammer seems to be striving for.

Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.) is but one third of Ballast’s centre. James (JimMyron Ross) is his nephew and Marlee (Tarra Riggs) his sister-in-law, that is, the family Darius left him with. They mightn’t have had any reason to communicate, much less reconcile, if it weren’t for James’ involvement in the local crack-peddling scene, thus the need for Lawrence’s gun, and Marlee’s discovery that Darius bequeathed to her his half of the house and convenience store business he shared with Lawrence. Neither party initially sees any opportunity in the inheritance, but economics and, one guesses, a lingering sense of familial duty, driven by desperation, will make picking up the pieces of the business and moving into the house seem more inviting than trying to sell everything off for what will surely be a pittance.

Of course the relationships I’ve just described are in some sense spoilers. Hammer lets us in on how these characters interconnect in a strictly piecemeal fashion—this is very much in keeping with the movie’s style and doesn’t feel needlessly withholding or gimmicky—but it’s difficult to say much about Ballast without setting these bare facts straight. So many things are broken or breaking at the onset of this story, and it is these points of connection between people that provides the only traces of hope. Yet it’s in these very connection points that Ballast reveals its limitations. Some of the moments shared by Lawrence and James resonate intensely, an effect only heightened by masculine codes of reserve and by the bracing emotional residue of Darius’ departure. Moments shared by either of these guys and Marlee however prove more problematic. Riggs gets stuck with the movie’s most awkward bits of dialogue. One scene finds her coming home after losing her job, nearly hysterical as she launches into a short monologue about how being black and poor renders her invisible in the work place. This scene is an especially strong example of how Ballast, for all its understated tone, can be both overly expository and didactic.

Am I coming down too hard on this handsome, well crafted and let’s say a little too earnest independent? My intention isn’t to bully the underdog but to simply acknowledge that the careful nurturing of a sensibility isn’t quite the same thing as actually telling a story in the most honest way. I was engaged in Ballast. It certainly looks like a movie I like. (Am I too suspicious of movies that look too tailored to me tastes?) But I also felt left outside of it, as though it were more a type than a specific thing. I encourage you to see it, and to disagree.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The constant gardener: Being There on DVD

Going back to its opening scenes, especially as they read in the novel,
Being There submits itself as perhaps our most acute modern take on Plato’s allegory of the cave. Before the death of his employer, Chance (Peter Sellers) spent his whole life confined within the high walls of an affluent mansion, meeting few others, tending the old man’s garden, and experiencing the external world entirely through the shadow play of television. The catch to this spin on the allegory is that liberation from his cave doesn’t necessarily enlighten Chance but rather leads to inspired farce, one with the distinctive blend of affection and dismay for American life that marks the perspective of the observant outsider, which is exactly what the late Polish-born writer Jerzy Kosinski was.

Kosinski’s eponymous novella was published in 1970, a sharp if unusually slight work from a period marked by dark, at times positively gruesome novels, including The Painted Bird, Kosinski’s controversial 1965 semi-autobiographical chronicle of an abandoned child’s harrowing survival during World War II. As directed by Hal Ashby, the 1979 film, adapted with surprising fidelity by Kosinski himself, is leisurely, almost whimsical, and, thanks largely to Sellers’ sublimely restrained central performance—his penultimate—it’s also very funny. Chance, who due to a misunderstanding adopts the name Chauncey Gardiner, resembles a permanently sedated child. His mind is placid. He can only convey ideas through gardening metaphors, can only understand human behaviour when it echoes televised simulations. Yet, thanks to outrageous fortune, Chance befriends a wealthy, dying financier (Melvyn Douglas), influences the American President (Jack Warden), arouses the friendship of the Soviet ambassador (Richard Basehart), inflames the passions of a fetching society woman (Shirley MacLaine), and becomes a sensation, a celebrity without a past.

Being There, especially when seen in the wake of the Bush administration, speaks to the adoration of naïveté that can imperil American political discourse. Yet despite the dangers he represents, Chance himself is never rendered as anything more than benignly vacuous, an inoffensive, (literally) impotent blank, a man whose homespun wisdom and pop cultural breeding disguises what finally feels like an alien entity, no more of this world than Benjamin Button or Truman Burbank. He could have easily a creation of Philip K. Dick's. Chance’s TV-derived approximation of humanness is a satirical reflection on reflection itself, the reflection of the world through a sentimental, infantilized, implicitly racist and commercially dictated mirror. So Being There also functions as a documentary on what everybody was watching 30 years ago—remember Cheech and Chong’s star-laden ‘Basketball Jones’?

Despite a bit of unevenness—the scenes of the President in bed with the first lady feel, oddly enough, like a bad sitcom—I think Being There holds up well, and that it will continue to look different for each successive generation. And, along with his appearance in Reds, it remains one of the very few traces of Kosinski’s strange, unusual presence in the movies. 

Friday, February 6, 2009

Paradise lies on the other end of the magic intestine: Coraline

It all begins with a girl and a house. Her parents are there, too, having just transplanted the whole family, but they’re too bogged down with gardening literature projects to even bother unpacking and sprucing things up, and anyway they’re too impatient. There’s also the neighbouring boy, but he’s so sheepishly well intentioned and sort of annoying, and anyway, a boy. There’s a cat, but he’s a mangy old puss that’s kind of falling apart. There are other neighbours who will prove to be genuine eccentrics and sources of diversion, but they come a little later. So what sticks in my mind after watching it is Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and this house, looming, so empty and creaky and drab, like pretty much everything surrounding it in this permanently overcast, hilly rural Halloween setting.

Coraline and the house are a good match, even if she doesn’t recognize it at first. She’s sly and given to mischief, while the house hides a secret labyrinth. They’re both deceptively compact, she being so slight yet fiercely resilient, and the house, for all its dilapidated grandeur, holds countless inner passageways and impossible spaces. Soon she’ll discover a little door in a wall that during the day opens only onto brick but at night onto this intestinal tunnel, at the end of which is a parallel world where everything seems sort of the same yet suddenly much more fun. Precariously fun. There’s a mechanical chicken that shits out popcorn. There’s a burlesque show performed by elderly acrobats (voiced by the always lively pairing of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) for an audience of Scottish terriers.

Most importantly, there is an “Other-mother” and “Other-father,” completely devoted to their beloved little girl, cooking up delicious meals, showering Coraline with gifts and games, so attentive as to seem almost pathological. They have black buttons for eyes, rendering their every expression of servile joy a little hollow. And here, we sense, is the catch. Everybody knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch but Coraline’s going to learn it the hard way. In a way Coraline is a haunted house story, built around the protagonist’s ability to identify and drive away the demon spirits.

It would be enough to get just about anything new from Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. His stop-motion animation has such a tactile quality that feels only more enchanting now that so many mainstream animated films fuss endlessly over computer-generated whimsy. His figures each possess unique rhythms, and their transformations are so much more startling for having mass and texture. But the story of Coraline, taken from the novel by Neil Gaiman, is pretty enchanting in its own right, a throwback in the best possible way to old-fashioned stories that lure the magical out of the ordinary. The role of the döppelganger doll Coraline is given near the start is especially smart in that it adds to the richness of Selick’s world and its fascination with objects and the shadow side of just about everything. Pretty fun, overall, and probably ideally suited to kids just old enough to handle a few scenes of extended creepiness.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Two films from two Michael Powells: A Matter of Life and Death, Age of Consent on DVD

I saw my first two Michael Powell films some years ago at Edmonton's Metro Cinema.
A Canterbury Tale (1944), made with Powell’s longtime collaborator Emeric Pressburger, concerns strange criminal activities in a fictional Kent village during the Second World War, and it functions as a moving, somewhat mystical appeal to read history in landscape. Peeping Tom (60) is a thriller about a killer who films the death of his female victims. The former is an immensely charming work from the height of Powell and Pressburger’s hugely popular, very British spectacles. The former is an unremittingly grotesque portrait of psychological disease that, far from creating the sensation of the similarly sinister and voyeuristic Psycho (60), released only three months later, it essentially ended Powell’s career in the Britain, driving him to wander the wilderness of international co-production for the last 30 years of his life.

So we have two exemplary Powell films and, as it happens, films that exemplify the two Powells: the celebrated patriot and master craftsman, and the shunned maverick. As retrospectives and home video continue to introduce his legacy to a new generation of filmlovers, it’s interesting that the latest pairing of Powell films to appear on DVD in Sony’s two-disc The Films of Michael Powell also straddle the disparate halves of his career.

A Matter of Life and Death (46), re-titled Stairway to Heaven for its US, opens gazing into the celestial heavens, with a voice-over meditating briefly on stars and gases and the life and death of entire galaxies. It grounds itself in the widest possible context, one of myth, awe and whimsy. It needs to because what follows is so absurdly fantastical. The story shifts between miracle survival and radical brain surgery on earth and a court hearing in heaven overseen by an audience of thousands. The lovers at its centre meet in voice only when British Airman Peter Carter, the last living crewmember aboard a badly damaged bomber en route back to England, makes contact with June, an American radio operator. During what he assumes will be his final moments of life, Peter passionately flirts with June and she’s deeply moved. Peter then leaps from the descending bomber and falls without parachute into the sea—and lives.

Turns out the emissary of death sent to scoop Peter up couldn’t find him in the soupy English fog. Heaven, being an imposingly modern realm run as a well-oiled bureaucracy, sends the emissary back to get Peter. But Peter, having by now awoke on the achingly beautiful shore of Sceptered Isle and met his beloved June, has fallen in love, and demands clemency on grounds of romance and, as it will come to pass, UK-US diplomatic relations. All very silly but also delightful, gorgeous, endlessly imaginative, engrossingly strange and so very unabashedly a movie. And we’re asked to heed the opening voice-over’s implication that this may be best seen as the entirely interior journey of a severely brain-injured man. And it surely spoke to countless soldiers returning from a long war, weary, death-haunted and needing to believe that life really can start all over again.

There’s pleasure to be had in all the dichotomies. Heaven is black and white, while earthly life is conveyed in an astoundingly sumptuous use of Technicolor—like The Red Shoes (48), it was photographed by maestro Jack Cardiff. Peter is played by beloved British star David Niven, a veteran of the war as well as the movies, while June is played by the fresh young American Kim Hunter, basically an unknown, though she’d already played the lead in Val Lewton’s sublimely bleak The Seventh Victim (43). Their ages are visibly much farther apart than the film would have you believe, but what they represent and the strength of their chemistry, like everything else in A Matter of Life and Death, trumps verisimilitude.

From the shores of Sceptered Isle to those of Dunk Isle along the Great Barrier Reef, a Powell hero once again finds renewal begins by the primordial sea. In Age of Consent (69), successful Australian painter Brad Morahan ditches his cosmopolitan existence in New York City to go Gauguin on an Edenic beach back home with a dog named Godfrey, who nearly steals the film. I say nearly because the pooch’s costars are the great James Mason and the 22-year-old Helen Mirren in her first film role. Mirren plays Cora, a deeply uncultured island girl desperate to escape a stifling life shared with her grandma, a screeching old bag that even in a story deliberately forged in archetypes is far too gratingly one-note to suffer gladly.

Cora becomes Brad’s muse, reviving his creative vitality. Their relationship, teetering on woefully antiquated cliché—Powell himself expressed a general distaste for the “Girl Friday” theme—is above all given life by Mirren’s astonishingly immediate performance. Often naked, never able to articulate her sense of confusion, despair or discovery, her Cora is about as pure a presence as can be found in a talkie. Aspects of Age of Consent, like the gags, the music and the occasional excess of enthusiasm with the zoom, can feel corny and dated. Yet the leads, along with Powell’s characteristic sensitivity to nature, light and sound, make very worthwhile what would, sadly, prove to be Powell’s last feature film.