Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The bittersweet sixteen: Stranded on DVD

It was not like a shipwreck, one survivor explains. Rather, it was somehow closer to being lost at sea, the snow being just as unruly, oppressive and deadly a force. At first, some wondered if they’d awoken to find themselves in the hereafter, the vastness and blankness of their surroundings evoking some realm of heavenly purity, of desolate, austere beauty, and it was only the cries of agony, the tremendous, unimaginable suffering endured by all those who didn’t instantly perish that convinced them otherwise. This place they found themselves in was indeed very much of this world, but to listen to their testimonies you’d think they’d returned from a distant planet.

Watching Gonzalo Arijón’s Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains is an exhausting experience. And after you’ve seen it, the idea of telling this story in any other way, at least cinematically, starts to feel vulgar or insufficient in comparison. While there are well-staged and evocative re-enactments to help us visualize their narratives, so much of the film is comprised of now middle-aged men simply sitting, remembering, speaking—yet it’s absolutely riveting. Each of its subjects, articulate, vivid storytellers the lot, talk us through their memories of the incident, the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 in the Andes. Of the 45 people on board only 16 lived to see rescue some grueling 72 days later. Yet the fact that 16 survived, that any survived, is about as close to a true miracle as most of us will ever know of.

The plane carried the Old Christians, a rugby team from Montevideo, Uruguay, en route to a match in Santiago, Chile. They did not reach their ostensible destination, but the situation in which they found themselves would prove to be a defining moment in each of their lives. They shared numerous traits that one can’t help but interpret in retrospect as somehow essential to their survival: youth, nationality, physical fitness, education, class, an ethic of teamwork, and varying degrees of religious conviction. To this day they all live within a short distance of one another. The durability of their faith and sense of brotherhood would come to lend heightened meaning to their team’s moniker, seeing them through the most horrific and despairing depths of their 72-day trail. They had no outdoors training and were unfamiliar with the mountain conditions. One survivor describes how the crash gave him his very first contact with snow—which he immediately waded in up to his chest. They had little food, poor clothing, nothing to create heat with, and, despite there being two medical students among them, no medical supplies. They would eventually be forced to resort to cannibalism. Yet here, most of all, they took comfort in their religious beliefs, citing Christ’s offering of his flesh during the Last Supper as precedent and permission for the carnal communion they came to partake in. For all their lack of supplies, they did have a functioning radio—which meant that they were able to listen to broadcasts announcing that the search for them was called off due to weather conditions. The assumption was that they were surely all dead.

Many of us already know this story, through news reports of the day, through journalist Piers Paul Read’s 1974 bestseller
Alive, Frank Marshall’s 1993 adaptation of Read’s book starring Ethan Hawke, or the recent memoir by Fernando Parrado, the survivor played by Hawke. But you haven’t heard the story in a way that even approximates the power and intimacy of Arijón’s documentary. There is a scene in which a man describes speaking lovingly to his wife’s corpse as it lay in the snow, which eventually swallowed her up altogether. Parrado and Roberto Canessa eventually set out to find help, despite having no idea where they were or in which direction they should venture. After 12 days, from across a river, they finally encountered a Chilean huaso named Sergio Catalan, who they could only communicate with by writing a note in lipstick, attaching it to a rock, and tossing it across the water. There is a scene in which Catalan describes Parrado and Canessa as literally smelling of the grave. No animal would approach them, he says. These are things you can’t invent.

Arijón’s task of having to work all these incredible stories into a two-hour whole itself must have been arduous. Zeitgeist’s new DVD supplying us with scenes left out of the final cut, some of which are so rich its difficult to imagine how Arijón could bear to lose them. But I think Arijón, who grew up with some of these men, was wise to focus on making the train of disparate memories as fluid as possible, emphasizing the collective experience, since what is finally perhaps most remarkable about this story is how utterly devoid of infighting conflict it is, how unlike any of the number of ruthless tales of survival we know from novels and movies. For all its appalling, infernal details, what we’re left with by the end of Stranded is, strangely enough, a testament to optimism, love, interdependence and grace in some of the worst possible circumstances.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Heart-shaped box step: James Gray talks about Two Lovers, the dictates of desire, and the uncertain whereabouts of Joaquin Phoenix

As Leonard sinks to the bottom he looks up toward the shrinking sun shattering in the frigid water, and just when he seems resigned to his death a woman crosses his field of vision, apologizing for having to leave. So what shakes Leonard out of his suicidal calm it seems is not even the promise of the woman’s return, but rather the mere chance to caress the melancholy memory of her leaving him one more time. This is how
Two Lovers begins. This phantom woman from Leonard’s past will not reappear, but two others will take her place in his unfading desire to be swept away by some overpowering feminine force.

As depicted by Joaquin Phoenix, Leonard is at once among the most pathetic and dynamic protagonists in recent movies. He’s introduced to the lovely, kind and comforting Sandra, exquisitely and movingly played by Vinessa Shaw, by his parents. She’ll be good for him, as well as good for business, given her family’s interests in investing in Leonard’s parents’ Brighton Beach dry cleaning. She’s a too-perfect match for this depressed but sheepishly charming guy from good immigrant Jewish stock. She even works for Pfizer, the company that produces Leonard's medication. 

By accident, though it somehow feels closer to his own volition, Leonard meets Michelle, an unstable, vivacious new neighbour played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Michelle, who dates her older, married, wealthy boss, who likes designer drugs, who is not Jewish, is clearly not good for Leonard the way Sandra is. She comes to embody everything Leonard longs for, as opposed to what he can have.

The third woman in Leonard’s life is Ruth, Leonard’s mother, played by the inimitable Isabella Rossellini not as the stereotypical nasally Jewish momma, but as a concerned and outwardly conservative woman who deep inside just wants to do right by the unruly dictates of her son’s heart. Two Lovers is not so much a love triangle as an uneasy quadrant around which Leonard must box step until he builds up the courage or foolishness to break off in a single, focused direction.

As wildly distinct as the very intimate Two Lovers is from We Own the Night (2007), the large-scale crime drama director and co-scenarist James Gray made immediately before this, it’s startling how closely their thematic trajectories match up. It’s something we spoke about quite a bit when I interviewed Gray. With four films now under his belt—the others are Little Odessa (94) and The Yards (00)—Gray has developed a very particular body of work, one that combines familiar, audience friendly genres and talented stars with a flair for intricate visual poetics, but that’s arguably had a hard time finding the larger audience it deserves. Still, as Gray explains it, he’s been lucky to make these films at all, and to make him his way.

Two Lovers seems in one sense a cautionary tale against family as a force that’s antithetical to self-realization. It contradicts so many movies set in ethnic communities that strive to show family as something comforting, fortifying, and at worst frustratingly quirky.

James Gray: Absolutely. And addressing something of both these things you describe is part of what makes movies about family so intriguing. Family can be a locus of great emotional support, and also a terrible place where your dreams are killed. In
Two Lovers the family stifles Leonard, but it also saves his life.

JB: Obviously it would be deluded to blame Leonard’s problems on anything other than his own weaknesses and precarious desires, but I couldn’t help but consider how much he’s a product of this very specific environment the film carefully evokes.

JG: It was especially important to me that Leonard’s parents were very clearly not Americans, that he felt outside the mainstream from the very beginning. And that the family home itself is claustrophobic. It’s shot that way. We didn’t construct a set, so you couldn’t just move walls around. Essentially the camera was always in a place where a person could be.

JB: So when we watch Leonard in his parents’ home, even when alone with a woman, there’s always this ghost of a familial presence. Yet it’s interesting that you mention the claustrophobic scenes, because I want to ask you about another scene that feels exactly the opposite, this moment where Leonard confesses his love to Michelle on the roof. It’s a turning point that manifests very emotionally, very physically. One of the things that made it so memorable for me is the fact that it’s delivered in this slow, unbroken, gliding, nearly hypnotic overhead shot.

JG: Yeah, the camera starts about eight feet in the air while they’re in that brick gazebo and winds up becoming a two-shot in profile of the actors. The shot is about five minutes long. What happens here, what I intended, was that at about this point in the film things start to become dreamlike, more cosmic and mythic. I was trying to find a way to mirror how delusional Leonard was becoming.

JB: A number of critics describe your films as old-fashioned, but this is a highly unconventional way to cover a love scene.

JG: The old-fashioned thing comes from a lack of vocabulary, I think, from people who view things like storytelling and sincerity as old-fashioned. Some people are just anxious to categorize. Old-fashioned to me doesn’t mean anything.

JB: Your camera, if I recall correctly, takes a similar perspective in one of the most memorable and visceral scenes in
The Yards. I’m thinking of that terrifically dirty fight between Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg.

JG: That was for a different reason, but you’re very right. I wanted that fight to show how these people were struggling against an oppressive environment that was much bigger than them. But then I suppose the same thing is true of the scene we're discussing in
Two Lovers. You can see the whole neighbourhood in the distance, a whole other world that’s quite indifferent to Leonard or Michelle’s predicaments. I never shot any other coverage for that scene because anything else would have seemed bogus. Plus I had him turning away from camera for a great deal of that confession. The idea was that he would turn away from camera so the audience would understand how embarrassed he was without him having to say it, or play it even.

JB: Hm. What you’re saying reminds me of the famous shot in
Taxi Driver where the camera turns away from Travis as he speaks with Betsy on the phone...

JG: And it dollies down that empty hall. Fantastic.

JB: It’s a testament to the complexity of
Two Lovers that Sandra, while representing the safer romantic choice for Leonard, is so utterly appealing, beautiful, unpretentious, sexy and emotionally frank, while Michelle is hardly a mere vixen. The performances really defy the archetypes.

JG: I tried to steer clear of the romantic comedy version of this story. I wanted it to be that Leonard was blind, that what made Sandra unappealing was how much the family liked her, to express how elements of our desire for someone is entirely external to who the person really is or what they look like. Sandra could be the most beautiful person on earth and Leonard wouldn’t have seen it. Some feel she’s too good looking to be Leonard’s second fiddle, but that’s such a dunderheaded way of thinking about characterization. I mean, how many times in life do we find ourselves thinking, “What does she see in him?” Or, “She’s so lovely, what is his problem?”

JB: Something that defines Leonard is his inner conflict between the reassurances of traditions and the allure of recklessly breaking away from everything and venturing into new terrain. I wonder if you don’t feel something similar at times in the way you’ve developed your films, which echo previous periods of film history and yet seem poised on the vanguard of the current scene.

JG: I used to think a lot more about where I sit in the world, who likes me and who doesn’t. But one of the advantages of getting older and more decrepit is that at a certain point you don’t give a shit anymore and you do the work that feels close to you. To me, the litmus test for a work of art—and in my case I’m using the term loosely—is whether it can move you without offending you. That’s it. We’re living in a cultural scene that largely quite bereft of soul. It can be quite depressing. But I’ve been very lucky. I get to make the films I want to make. I have been denounced by some but very respected by others. You really can’t ask for more than that.

JB: Do you teach as a sideline?

JG: I taught at USC about seven years ago, but I don’t think they liked me very much. They never asked me back, anyway. I probably was not very good. You know, students would make movies and the lights would come up and I’d say, “That movie was really bad—let’s talk about why,” which is not what you’re supposed to do, I guess. You’re supposed to tell everyone that everything they do is fantastic. [Laughs]

JB: You’ve worked with Joaquin Phoenix now on three pictures, and his performances in them have been among the finest of his career. How have his contributions changed or intensified the stories you’ve been trying to tell, or perhaps the way you’ve told them?

JG: He has sharpened my sense of what constitutes my biggest interest in movies, which is the ability to depict the external and the internal conflict in hand. He’s quite brilliant in that way, very experimental, very inventive. He’s raised the bar. I’ve learned a lot from him.

JB: I wonder if when you first worked with him these were things you might have only been able to see in the cutting room, things that it took longer to learn how to detect while actually on set. After all this time, are you now better able to read each other in the moment?

JG: I don’t think we read each other at all anymore. We finish each other’s sentences. It’s become almost boring. I don’t talk to him. He doesn’t talk to me. I do another take and he says, “Yeah, I know.” Honestly, I remember being very aware of what he was doing the first time we worked together, very aware of what kind of actor he was.

JB: I guess there’s still some ambiguity regarding whether or not Phoenix will ever go back to acting, but I wonder if you have any more projects you’re hoping to tempt him with.

JG: Sure. But I’m just trying to figure out where he’s at. The bigger question is what he wants to do. I don’t know what he’s up to. I really don’t. But if he decides to act, believe me, I’ll find work for him.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A troubled, nearly transcendent duet: The Soloist

The based-on-true-story premise reads as pretty pedestrian.
LA Times staffer crashes his bike, bashes his head, runs into a homeless head case and secretly virtuosic cellist, and hits upon a knockout idea for his column. Good copy leads to friendship, which leads to second chances, increased public awareness of homelessness, and so on. But The Soloist plumbs deeper into interdependence and responsibility than such cynical synopsizing lets on. It does indeed deliver the (feel-)goods, but what it lets us feel good about is failure, fleeting victories, and unnerving ambiguities.

Nathaniel Ayers wears some crazy duds, including a jacket with a patch on it that reads VISITOR. This seems apt as Nathaniel’s P-Funk-hits-the-skids outfits and erratic, verbose behaviour can render him otherworldly to amused passersby. Yet VISITOR can also be construed as ironic, given that Nathaniel’s one of 90,000 homeless people in Greater Los Angeles, a population that may not have an address but is hardly just passing through. Jamie Foxx’s performance as Nathaniel is immersive and specific. He grants Nathaniel his rightful charisma without being needlessly ingratiating. We come to care about Nathaniel terribly, but, despite the misguided efforts of director Joe Wright—more on that in a moment—we're never fooled into thinking we can fully comprehend his wildly fraught interior world. And anyway, it’s not his story.

Steve Lopez is the journalist, a workaholic in an imploding industry, and our protagonist. As their association thickens, Steve seems to believe he can save Nathaniel from drowning in marginality and madness, and this is where
The Soloist, scripted by Susannah Grant from Lopez’s memoir, bucks against formula. Robert Downey Jr. invests Steve with layers of guilt and uncertainty that no amount of energy, column inches or phone calls can ease. With nuances that play out with wonderful clarity across his wearied face, Downey’s is a grounding presence. His desperation never makes a spectacle of itself, but rather burrows into his engaging surface cocksureness and flurry of conflicting desires.

Making a spectacle however seems to be Wright’s overriding
raison d’être. I appreciate Wright’s willingness to infuse unabashed emotionalism into his camerawork, but there are scenes in The Soloist that, recalling Wright’s cripplingly show-offy work and penchant for bathos in Atonement, suffer from a lack of trust in the material. Wright tries too hard to externalize Nathaniel’s subjective confusion and bliss, which at its worst apes the third-act psychedelic freak-out of 2001. At times Wright verges on rendering homelessness as tastefully aestheticized and numbingly maudlin. On the other hand, the film’s rhythms are immaculate. The Soloist is partly about the transcendence of music, and, in harmony with this, Paul Tothill’s taut, melodic editing feels utterly inspired.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

J.G. Ballard, 1930-2009

From the beginning he scrupulously surveyed a landscape the rest of us strive to keep at bay. He spent a pivotal portion of his youth in a Japanese internment camp, where violence, death and collapse were regularly on display. He lost the love of his life and mother of his young children while still in his early 30s. Yet despair and hopelessness seemed other to him. In his stories and novels he rendered with great precision and unfettered imagination what other writers merely drape in bathos. In his second novel
The Drowned World (1962), he described a London visible only by the tips of its tallest buildings, the remainder completely submerged following a global catastrophe spurred by melting icecaps. “Their charm and beauty lay precisely in their emptiness, in the strange junction of two extremes of nature, like a discarded crown overgrown by wild orchids.” Later in the novel we’re given a tour of an underwater planetarium, which is to say we’re given the stars far below the surface of the sea. Such gifts are common in the work of J.G. Ballard.

When characterizing Ballard’s tales, whether fantastically dystopian or chillingly realist, one’s repeatedly tempted by the term “alienating,” yet what makes the work so arresting and provocative is the fact that his protagonists aren’t really alienated at all. They witness horrors that, rather than simply deadening affect, awake a new level of fascination with phenomena far grander in scale than individual lives or even civilizations. Like the experimental plants and animals bred in the laboratory of Ballard’s ‘The Voices of Time’ (60), his characters break away from conventional responses to their environment by utilizing some dormant impulse locked inside all of us, perhaps in our very genes. To read his books is to stimulate, as Martin Amis described it, “a disused part of the reader’s brain.” Transcending genre, form and, most gleefully, taste, Ballard remains singular. He died last Sunday morning in London, following a long struggle with cancer. He was 78.

James Graham Ballard was born to British parents in Shanghai in 1930. They lived luxuriously in an enclave upon whose fringes existed a world both “extravagant and cruel,” boasting a wild assortment of exotic crime. “Anything was possible, and everything could be bought and sold,” Ballard wrote. “In many ways, it seems like a stage set, but at the time it was real, and I think a large part of fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory.” In a transformation that would echo again and again in images of abandoned buildings, empty pools and grounded aircraft, their protected world would be left a spectral cavity once the Ballards were placed in internment in 1943. Ballard received lessons in poverty, charity, starvation, solidarity and pettiness. He ate maggots for protein. And he was always curious, amazed and basically cheerful. “Seeing everything displaced and rearranged in a haphazard way gave me my first taste of the surrealism of everyday life.”

In 1946 Ballard returned to England, bombed-out and miserable, a victorious nation that behaved as though defeated, a place where “hope itself was rationed.” Ballard went to medical school, where he became transfixed by the cadavers he was assigned to dissect, seeing in their faces a palimpsest of experience. He then went to Moose Jaw with the RAF, and it was on the Canadian prairie that he discovered science fiction, the genre that would ignite his mind. He married Mary Matthews in 1955 and settled in Shepperton to have three kids and start in earnest his prolific writing career. Mary would die suddenly of pneumonia in 1963, leaving Ballard to do all the domestic and money-earning duties while still engaging in a dynamic social life in swinging London. His memoir
Miracles of Life (08) is dedicated to and named after his beloved children, who he remained close to all his life. Yet happy families, or even unhappy families, were never to be a significant subject of his work.

Apocalyptic scenarios fuelled many of the early novels, yet the more Ballard interacted with the familiar contemporary world, the more truly unnerving his fiction became. The Kennedy assassination, his wife’s death, Vietnam, his memories of wartime Shanghai, and his interest in new feats of consumerism, fetish-making and media sensationalism merged to create the image/event/prose graft of
The Atrocity Exhibition (66), aligning Ballard far more with Jean-Luc Godard or Andy Warhol at the peak of their powers than with the likes of Isaac Asimov. One of Ballard’s most infamous novels, Crash (73) encompasses the radical approach to speculation Ballard had taken, subverting our response to trauma into an obsession with configurations of modern embodiments of affluence and glamour. His characters survive car crashes only to then crave and even design more of them, erotically, wholly, seeking some psychotic communion. When David Cronenberg adapted the novel into an equally controversial film of the same name (96), it made for one of the most fruitful collaborations between two uncannily like-minded artists of the late 20th century.

Empire of the Sun (84) ushered him into the literary mainstream. A fictionalized retelling of his Shanghai experiences, it melded Ballard’s crisp, coolly poetic language with nostalgia and tenderness. From here, the bulk of remaining body of work would stick largely to the format most clearly outlined in High Rise (75), tales of cloistered, antiseptic colonies—gated communities in Running Wild (88) and Cocaine Nights (96), an elite business park in Super-Cannes (00), a giant exurban shopping mall in Kingdom Come (06)—where the deadening effects of modern life invites transgression, the promise of control invites tacit agreements to lose control, and a state of anarchy is longed for by exactly those who sought to maintain order. I reviewed most of these when they came out, and it never ceased to amaze me how these explicit variations on a theme in each case the same story could yield fresh insights.

I never met J.G. Ballard but I’ll miss him nonetheless. His voice so rarely gave comfort, but there is a sort of vertiginous exhilaration to be found in his probing of our collective psyche and precarious ambitions. His body of work is too alive with possibility to be considered fatalist. His fecund mind sought to unearth the secret contract between surrealism and social commentary. And he did his part in ensuring that the British novel would not succumb to quaintness. Like the protagonist in ‘The Garden of Time’ (61), he has felt the final crystal of life dissolve in his hands, but he’s left us a vast field of jewels to pick through and marvel at in his absence.

There's plenty more on Ballard to be found at The Daily

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Take this job and shovel: The Bastards

They wait maybe a dozen together, in ball caps and blue jeans, on a corner near a freeway in some vast, anonymous, mind-numbingly landscaped patch of American sprawl. Employers pull up in hatchbacks and trucks quickly filled with the huddled day-labourers leaping at the chance to dig ditches or collect trash. Negotiations occur in exchanges of broken English and Spanish so minimal as to be comical, never more so than when one boss improbably addresses his impromptu crew of underpaid workhorses as “amigos.” Mexican director Amat Escalante’s
The Bastards drops us into the circuit of illegal migrant work, ensuring it’s deeply tedious and, most importantly, that no matter how much these rich gringos and desperate Mexicans interact there can finally be no genuine communication. Exploitation cannot engender friendships. Not on Escalante’s clock.

The Bastards was written by Escalante and his brother Martín, who previously collaborated on their debut feature Sangre (2005). Escalante was assistant director on Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven (05), and an aesthetic kinship is clearly evident here in the lengthy shot duration, often-static camerawork, deadpan humour and dearth of events in any one scene. This is definitely not a bouncy movie, but Escalante utilizes what might feel like Latino art-house tropes with craftsmanship and purpose. When so little happens in any one sequence everything counts: gestures, fragments of dialogue or a handful of actions bloom portentously, and sometimes quite funnily. We’re given just the right amount of digestion time to consider what things might mean before the narrative moves along. And where this narrative moves may surprise you. And then after it surprises you, it suddenly doesn’t surprise you at all.

The polemical core of The Bastards is in one sense simplistic. Policies that perpetuate exploitation, crime, economic disparity, suffering and death are bad. Guns, too, are bad, perhaps especially when in the hands of the young. The final scenes ram these perfectly sympathetic sentiments home with a grand wallop. But the bluntness of the film’s thesis is tempered by the sophistication and wit brought to the shaping of the story and skeletal character development. (And here’s where you stop reading if you want to avoid potential spoilers.)

The Bastards takes the animosity toward these so-called wetbacks invading US soil and toil and compresses it down into a single case of home invasion. Jesús (Jesús Moises Rodriguez) and Fausto (Rubén Sosa), who we first see on the corner with the other guys, with nightfall break into the cozy bungalow of Karen (Nina Zavarin), the single, apparently depressed mother of an uncommunicative teen. Karen’s got a penchant for crack—itself a metaphor for unconscious bourgeois desires to “slum” it—and, alone for the night, is already slumped on the couch and lost in a foggy dream when the boys break in with a sawed-off. Rather than load up on saleables and scoot, Jesús and Fausto ask for dinner and are served by Karen in a scene that almost perfectly mirrors an earlier scene involving Karen and her son. Karen asks if they were hired by John, her presumably monstrous ex, and Jesús blankly replies, “Si. John.” It’s unclear whether or not this is in fact true, as Jesús’ response reads to me as automatic and disinterested and quite possibly a very Mexican bit of mischief. But either way it struck me as revealing, Karen’s assumption that any difficult task performed by a swarthy Mexican must surely have been financed and organized by a rich white gringo.

Jesús and Fausto continue to linger around Karen’s house, and the promise of connection between them and Karen emerges again and again in a series of increasingly intriguing situations. There is even the suggestion that while this woman is obviously terrified, she may also feel that she’s been hurled into the darkest of transgressive fantasies in which the soul-draining effects of her lifestyle are obliterated through the erotic charge of violent class confrontation. The film’s neatly wrapped resolution is unable to process all these provocative thematic threads, but still, as far as heavily politicized home invasion dramas go, this is more imaginative and slippery than Funny Games (97/07).

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Assault and batteries: Crank: High Voltage

Having been mortally poisoned at the start of
Crank, which ends with his falling from a helicopter and landing with a cartoon splat on the asphalt, we could be forgiven for assuming we’d seen the last of Chev Chelios, the indefatigable adrenaline junky and hired killer played by Jason Statham. Yet, taking implausibility and audacity as its chief criteria, Crank: High Voltage elevates Chelios from mere super-sadist to something virtually indestructible, the Terminator with a hard-on, an electric Lazarus raised from the dead to wreak havoc upon Los Angeles once more.

Chelios wakes to find himself in some seedy Oriental massage parlour. He’s had his heart ripped out and replaced with an electrical one, so, after squeezing some information from a fat thug who’s gaping anus he shoves a tar-smeared rifle into, Chelios steals a car and begins the hunt the baddies in possession of his second-most vital organ for what nefarious purposes we can only imagine. But Chelios needs fuel to stay alive, so he must regularly recharge via booster cables, Tasers, defibrillators and transformers, his hunger for juice providing ample opportunities for creative hedonism, including feats of imagination such as sexually assaulting an elderly woman to generate a little body contract friction.

More of a remake than a sequel, Crank: High Voltage essentially revisits the same territory of its predecessor but with even greater absurdity and even less focus. There is the revenge narrative that takes us on a colourful tour of the LA scumbag underground. There’s a reunion with Chelios’ beloved Eve (Amy Smart), who’s apparently become a stripper in the three months since Chelios’ ostensible death and is thus able to pass some action sequences wearing only pink hotpants and duct tape on her titties, and there is another scene of them having public sex, though this time not initiated as an act of rape. There is the open hostility to minorities, homosexuals, women and the sex trade, not to mention EMS workers and gentle gardeners. Yet because Crank: High Voltage has moved into the realm of full-on bananas, its crudity and misanthropic aggression to all beings below Statham on the food chain is somewhat tempered by pure silliness, for better or for worse.

Returning writer/directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor still can’t seem to make a movie so much as a fidgety mash-up, heavily dependent on freak-out guest appearances, spastic editing, a strained, self-conscious grindhouse aesthetic and the dumb, fleeting rush of video game nihilism. But there are vaguely inspired and entertaining bits, including an unexpected homagette to Belle de jour and a picket line of porn stars protesting low wages—surely the most implausible episode in a movie driven by implausibles. “Do you want me to fuck this car?” one of these impoverished performers asks. It is arguably a sign of the filmmakers’ subtly discriminate taste that amidst such mayhem such a potentially spectacular feat of autoeroticism fails to occur.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Born on the bayou, dumped onto home video: Bertrand Tavernier's In the Electric Mist

Dave Robicheaux is a lawman in the town of New Iberia, Louisiana.
In the Electric Mist finds him investigating multiple homicides, most committed within weeks of the discovery of the victim’s remains, but one of them, the one no one cares about, goes back over 40 years. If a few freshly mutilated prostitutes prompt a certain apathy among the locals, a decades-old case of “nigger troubles” barely elicits a shrug. But every one of these deaths means something to Dave, and something tells him that the crimes of New Iberia’s past may not be so disparate from its present. The bayou functions here a forensic palimpsest, where clues that pertain to one death can be read amidst the traces of another. Every death in this film is connected to every other, and there is the sense that these surroundings, fecund both in vegetation and irrepressible memories, conspire to aid Dave in his pursuit of justice.

I imagine the role of landscape, place and history in this story was one of the things that most attracted French director Bertrand Tavernier, for whom this is the first American film since 1986’s ’Round Midnight. Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, who also adapted Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel The Pledge for Sean Penn’s underrated 2001 film, wrote this adaptation of In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, the 1993 novel by James Lee Burke, who has a home in New Iberia and, like most good mystery writers, has made the evocation of place a pivotal element in his fiction. Tavernier’s film takes place after Hurricane Katrina, so Burke’s emphasis on the elements is only heightened by the lingering wreckage glimpsed during Dave’s commutes between New Iberia and New Orleans.

Dave is played by Tommy Lee Jones, who brings his inimitable dour authority to this tough-ass recovering alcoholic with well-oiled investigative instincts and few reservations when it comes to incorporating a little tire-slashing, police brutality or planting of evidence into his practice. The supporting roles have been taken up by a cast of equally impressive pedigree, with Mary Steenburgen as Dave’s wife; John Goodman as the wonderfully monikered “Baby Feet,” a swampland gangster branching out into movie producing; Peter Sarsgaard as a movie star on the verge of a meltdown and Kelly MacDonald as his very patient girlfriend; Ned Beatty in his stock role of the embodiment of fat, aged and affluent corruption; real-life bluesman Buddy Guy as a local sage and kick-ass guitar player and real-life filmmaker John Sayles as the bitter director of a Civil War drama; and The Band’s Levon Helm as General John Bell Hood of the Texas Cavalry. If that last character’s title reads as incongruous to the setting of this contemporary thriller, that’s because Dave, after having unwittingly drank some Dr. Pepper spiked with acid, starts to receive council from phantom Civil War vets. The dead, he explains, “can hover on the edge of our vision with the density and luminosity of mist, and their claim on the earth can be legitimate and tenacious as our own.”

Dave doesn’t talk like that in casual conversation. His musings on the spiritual realm are reserved for In the Electric Mist’s rather literary-sounding voice-over, which, while echoing Jones’ far more essential flights of disembodied philosophizing in No Country For Old Men, is one of the film’s weak points. To get an idea of just how superfluous this voice-over is you only need to watch the very first scene, where Dave sits at a bar, stares down into a glass of whiskey, then gets up and walks away. His voice-over tells us that he’s an alcoholic and is often tempted to drink, but never does—all of which is made obvious by the very well-framed and performed scene. But I suspect the voice-over may have been tacked on as someone’s idea of a rescue effort, though in the end nothing rescued this film from obscurity. In the Electric Mist screened in a slightly longer version this past February in Berlin before going directly to video. I’d like to say it’s shocking that this pretty sharp little bayou thriller brimming with such a wealth of name talent went straight to video, but these days, when a lion’s share of many critics’ yearly top ten lists feature movies most people never even get to see, nothing’s all that shocking anymore.

Tavernier is no stranger to the American South, or even to American crime fiction. Solid and recommendable as In the Electric Mist is, it’s a far cry from Coup de torchon, Tavernier’s absolutely brilliant 1981 adaptation of Jim Thompson’s deliciously sordid 1964 novel Pop. 1280, which follows the infernal trajectory of a seemingly bovine but secretly sociopathic small town sheriff. Tavernier’s blackly comic and inspired re-envisioning shifts the action from the West Texas to 1930s French West Africa and shines a dazzlingly fresh light on the story’s colonialist undercurrents. It also features masterful performances from Isabelle Huppert and the late, great Philippe Noiret. Criterion put it out on DVD some years back and it is very much worth seeking out.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Eight speakers in search of an author

Early in
Examined Life writer/director Astra Taylor appears onscreen to address the problem of approaching philosophy in a movie as opposed to a book. With a book we’re able to set our own pace, to comb over the material at will. Ideas receive more exhaustive treatment than can be granted in a movie, especially one in which eight subjects receive only ten minutes each to speak. Taylor’s wise to confess from the outset her awareness of her project’s limitations, that she can perhaps strive to, above all, as Samuel Beckett would have had it, fail better. Yet even within the constraints imposed upon Examined Life, one can’t help but consider how much more dynamically this movie could have failed.

As with Taylor’s Zizek!, what makes Examined Life a sympathetic and engaging yet finally frustrating experience is a sensibility that feels star-struck and easily sated. The problem with Taylor’s subjects—which include of course the flamboyant Slavoj Zizek—isn’t so much that they’re only given ten minutes as they’re too often speaking so generally as to provide only superficial impressions of their individual philosophical proposals. Avital Ronell for example, charged with kicking things off, gives us a good taste of her personality—she makes a cheeky comment about the injustice of her not being allowed more screen-time that her colleagues—but conveys almost nothing of the particularity of her insights or arguments. Likewise, Cornel West, a self-described “bluesman of the life of the mind,” is a rant-master flash whose championing of dissatisfaction and contagious enthusiasm for music, art and literature is hugely entertaining. But he leaves us with little more than a blur of references, and really, what the hell is a “Chekhovian Christian”?

Peter Singer by contrast turns his ten minutes into a concise mini-lecture, yet the way he addresses applied ethics, questioning consumer choices while strolling along New York’s Fifth Avenue, feels facile, using pretty flimsy analogies aimed at stimulating our guilt rather than our critical faculties while working under the assumption that what constitutes the common good is unambiguous. Zizek’s segment works much better, partly because of his knack for provocative one-liners—“We should become more artificial!” he declares, sweating furiously before a backdrop of towering trash—yet he still has a hard time approaching something like full coherence.

Examined Life is handicapped by its paucity of dialogue. Everyone’s given their podium but, with one exception, no one to interact with. Taylor appears fleetingly but, opening statement aside, is literally just smiling and nodding. For this reason, the segment featuring Judith Butler and activist Sunaura Taylor is in many regards the most successful. They wander through San Francisco, discussing body difference and interdependency, at one point entering a thrift store to buy a sweater for Sunaura—the very act of doing so going some distance to elucidating their subject. Sunaura, the director’s sister, is a high-functioning disabled person, confronted daily with the discomforts and limitations of her community.

The movie that Examined Life reminded me of most wasn’t another documentary but rather Richard Linklater’s animated feature Waking Life, and I have to say that Waking Life is in some ways more philosophically engaging for inviting not only monologues and dialogues about ideas, but also fantasy sequences that embody and dramatize these ideas. Let me say that I really love how Taylor had her subjects walking as they spoke—except for West, who does his thing in the backseat of Taylor’s car, and Michael Hardt, who rows a little boat in Central Park—evoking the timeless relationship between walking and thought. But walking also implies movement and exploration, and, for all the critical heavyweights onscreen, by the time Examined Life is over we’re left feeling like we should have gotten a little farther.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Monster's mall: Observe and Report

The first fat white man is glimpsed scampering across the vastness of the mall parking lot. He wears only a trench coat. We don’t see his face. He flashes his flabby nakedness to all available female victims. “Hey bitch!” “I’m gonna fuck you!” “See my dick!” His attacks are essentially verbal hit-and-runs, though the sight of his flapping ding-dong probably causes the more lasting trauma. The second fat white man is the mall’s self-designated head of security. Ronnie (Seth Rogen), delusional, bullying, gun-obsessed, bipolar, socially disabled, overly fond of jogging pants, and possessing violent impulses about ready to blow, is a potentially far greater threat to the general public, yet he is, in his small way, their protector. He’s the protagonist of Jody Hill’s
Observe and Report.

The two fat white men are marked from the outset as opponents. In a sense they’re mirror images of one another, and as is usually the case in tales of döppelgangers, there’s only room for one. In this case, it’s the younger, weirdly charming one. He might make racially driven threats, get trigger happy with his Taser and beat the living shit out of adolescent skaters now and then, but he never goes around showing his johnson to the world, and that apparently makes all the difference.

With Ronnie’s fixation on an unattainable blonde (Anna Faris, quite brilliant in a frustraingly underdeveloped part), his messiah complex, and his voice-over—“The world doesn’t need another scared man…”—speaking to us over images of him working out, the model for this anti-hero is quite clearly Travis Bickle, and the notion of setting a blackly comic Taxi Driver in the sunny suburbs is an inspired one. The cast seems to be beautifully aligned in their ability to fuse the necessary bleakness and mania, and Hill’s immediately apparent knack for cutting out of a scene right on the crest of a comic-shock wave invites us to settle in for something special. But Observe and Report is sadly neither here nor there. Its dementia is all surface. It’s a tease of a movie that finally doesn’t even try to follow through on its promise to probe psychosis for comic payoffs.

Part of the problem is that the world of Observe and Report is one without consequence. Sometimes, for the sake of a solid but purely short-term gag, it allows to us to recognize Ronnie as a total nutcase living in a world of puerile fantasy. At other times, especially the ending, the movie surrenders itself to Ronnie’s fantasy and rewards his insanity, though strictly in the modest ways of the mainstream lovable loser comedy, which is precisely where Feris' character, who should have been as unpredictable as Rogen's, glaringly shows itself to be a missed opportunity. Going in either direction might have resulted in something compelling, disturbing or more consistently hilarious, but Hill tries to have it both ways, going for the schadenfreude and the sentimentality at once, and winds up making something essentially incoherent.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Mark on the page: Naked Lunch 50 years on

In the 50 years since its publication
Naked Lunch has surely repelled more potential readers than it’s attracted, yet anyone compelled to work through William S. Burroughs’ seminal work knows how eerily fresh it remains, despite the novel’s refrain of putrefaction. Perhaps it endures because of its still arresting insights into the nature of addiction, a public health issue that does not seem to go away, that Burroughs renders in such a multitude of forms it becomes a multi-purpose metaphor of almost singular resonance. Perhaps it’s because the puzzle pattern of the text never yields to full cohesion, remaining tantalizingly just beyond our grasp. After all, Bill Lee, Burroughs’ alter ego and the closest Naked Lunch has to a protagonist, seems always to be departing, always refusing to sit for his appointed interrogations. Perhaps it’s the flamboyant grotesquerie and gallows humour, since besides Swift I’m not sure of any writer who’s mixed this particular cocktail so deftly. Though he’s testified to the contrary, Burroughs was indeed an entertainer.

I used the expression “to work through,” but when I picked up Naked Lunch as a teenager it didn’t seem like work at all. Tom Clancy, John Grisham, celebrity memoirs—now those would have felt like work. By contrast, the series of “routines” that comprised Naked Lunch were so casually inflammatory and recklessly stitched together it seemed positively inviting, something to be picked up, devoured and put aside when you’ve had your fill. Returning to the book for the first time in many years however, I no longer buy the ostensible randomness of its structure at all.

Naked Lunch is a lot of things, among them memoir, satire, science-fiction, vaudeville, metaphysical travelogue, hard-boiled junky pulp, grand guignol, pharmacological dissertation, avant-garde prose poem, hardcore pornography, and, as the author attests in the final passage, “a blueprint, a How-To book,” presumably on how to generate more like material, which Burroughs energetically followed. But while we can argue over how it might be finessed in some parts— personally, I think the abrupt interruption of the ‘Hauser and O’Brien’ sequence so late in the game by the belated “preface” kind of drops the ball—Naked Lunch is not random. Burroughs was a frequently masterful storyteller, if a rigorously fragmentary one. His first editors were Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, friends as well as fellow writers who knew Burroughs probably better than anyone and would have had a keen sense of how best to—literally—collect these pages from the floor and arrange them. For so much of Naked Lunch the accumulation of story fragments follows a propulsive internal logic and thematic causality, developing associations, characters, theses and sense of place, undulating and building like some demented mock-opera.

“I can feel the heat closing in…” It begins as New York crime fiction, allowing us our genre bearings, however briefly, immediately introducing the motifs of escape and paranoia. Bill Lee is on the run, and once he gets going the fleeing from one place to another never lets up. He soon encounters Doctor Benway, the quintessential Burroughs creation, a fountain of sinister wisdom and wisecracks, a villain of vampiric brilliance who represents the most innocuous and dangerous forms of societal control. He’s also good for ribald irreverence toward the human body, bragging about how he once performed an appendectomy with a rusty sardine can. The US will bleed into Latin America, into North Africa, into the fecund and deadly “Interzone,” into the blue movie Edenic deathless adolescent orgy of bizarre intercourse and orgasmic hangings that doubles as a protest against capital punishment. We’re regaled about the man who taught his asshole to talk until the asshole took over, a hysterically funny spin on parasitism, on the habit taking control of its master. It also exemplifies the anal fixation and Naked Lunch’s deep unease with homosexuality, this novel that careens with countless scenes of oddly touching, formative homoerotic bonding between boys and exceedingly graphic and often brutally violent gay sex.

The episodes of Naked Lunch bloom and recede like persistent hallucinations. But hallucinations are not mere fancy; they reconstruct and renovate experience. “Fall asleep reading and the words take on code significance.” Burroughs deliberately blurs the perspectives of half-sleep and wakefulness, trusting that there’s something of value to be found along the frontiers. And at its most lyrical, Burroughs’ prose displays an intoxication with language itself that inevitably aligns it to Joyce, sex and all. The compression of images couples with the ache of flooding memories. Following an act of torrid sexual climax, Burroughs writes, “A train roars through him whistle blowing… boat whistle, foghorn, sky rockets burst over oily lagoons… penny arcades open into a maze of dirty pictures…” And a paragraph later: “Time jumps like a broken typewriter, the boys are old men…” Over the course of this one page we see ecstasy produce an effect most commonly attributed to death: cryptically, William Burroughs’ life is flashing before our eyes.

If you know anything about Burroughs, who died in 1997 at the age of 83, you know that his writing, ideas and biography are inextricably merged. And you probably know that in Mexico City in 1951 he accidentally shot and killed his wife Joan Vollmer while performing a drunken game of William Tell. He would eventually write about this event as forever haunting him yet ironically functioning as the catalyst for his writing career, but in Naked Lunch the only ghost of a memory of Vollmer appears and quickly disappears at the close of one of one of the more lucid autobiographical episodes. In Cuernavaca or Taxco—he can’t remember which—Lee and “Jane” smoke weed with some pimp and Lee flees in a fit of paranoia, finally catching a bus on his own back to Mexico City. “A year later in Tangier,” he then writes, “I heard she was dead.” David Cronenberg was right to make his film of Naked Lunch an overt hybrid of the novel and Burroughs’ life, with Vollmer’s death at the forefront. Burroughs’ novel has been rightfully heralded for speaking dark truths about social evils and human frailty, but in making blatant the loop that keeps Bill Lee circling back to confront the horrific event that formed the poisoned nucleus of Burroughs’ work, Cronenberg’s Lunch was the more Naked by far.