Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Island in the stream: The Invention of Morel

Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1968

In his prologue for the original 1940 edition of The Invention of Morel, Jorge Luis Borges makes an impassioned and, unsurprisingly, hugely articulate defense of fantastic literature. He laments its denigration, citing Robert Louis Stevenson’s reports on the British reading public’s scorn for the fantastic back in 1880 before continuing to note the disapproval it drew through the ensuing decades. I wonder what would Borges think of today’s climate, where the fantastic has gained considerable acceptance both among the general public and the literati, yet is so often employed either ironically, as an ingratiating nostalgic device, or in works of juvenile fiction that cross over into an adult reading public for reasons that may have much to do with a longing for the sort of strong narrative many fear has been forsaken by the authors of what we bizarrely choose to call literary fiction. (As opposed to non-literary fiction?) Of course, even now, in the year of the death of J.G. Ballard, the adult-geared, diverting yet thematically rich fantastic abides—most excitingly in the work of Spanish novelist Albert Sanchez Piñol, whose first two novels I'll be writing about later.

But among the attributes that remain so extraordinary about
The Invention of Morel is this short novel’s simultaneous homage to its forebears and its tremendous prescience. It looks backward, most openly to Clemente Palma’s XYZ and to H.G. Wells and The Island of Dr Moreau, and forward, most especially to the ontologically vertiginous novels and stories of Philip K. Dick, with which it shares a special gift for scenarios so resonant as to inspire a kind of terror that never really leaves you, and most recently to the game Myst and the television show Lost. It’s author, Adolfo Bioy Casares, was only 26 at the time of its publication, yet his prose reveals a precocious blend of ambition and humility (“I don’t strive to make a big hit,” he wrote of the novel’s genesis, “just to avoid errors”), the result being vivid clarity in constant tension with near-baffling mystery.

Avoiding a prison sentence, a man flees to an apparently uninhabited island. A small group constructed a museum, a chapel, and a pool there in 1924 and then vanished—the island is said to host a grotesque, fatal disease. The fugitive is, we’ll learn, Venezuelan, though he seems to have traveled widely. We never learn the precise nature of his crimes. He is writing two books: Apology for Survivors and Tribute to Malthus. He’s also developing theories about immortality. He’s smart, smart enough to actually interpret the strange events he’ll soon encounter, but of the fact that he’s evading one kind of prison for another he seems not entirely cognizant. Much to his initial alarm, he’ll be joined by a group of tourists, including a woman, possibly Quebecoise, with whom he falls hopelessly in love. Yet rather than threaten his liberty, they seem not to notice him at all. What’s more, they seem to be repeating the same actions over and over. The repetition, combined with the apparently unbreachable distance that separates him from the woman he’ll learn to call Faustine, only intensifies the fugitive’s longing. (Bioy Casares was apparently drawing upon his own fascination-from-afar with the actress Louise Brooks.) As Ocatvio Paz would later characterize it, the novel conveys how in our longing for what we cannot touch “we bow to the tyranny of a phantom… not only do we traverse a realm of shadows, we ourselves are shadows.”

Bioy Casares with Borges

Bioy Casares with Silvina Ocampo

Even if he had never written a word, Bioy Casares would have a hallowed place in the literary pantheon of Latin America, and his home country of Argentina especially, by mere association: he befriended Borges in 1931, and the pair would go on to collaborate on a number of ventures, beginning with a pamphlet on the virtues of yogurt; and in 1940 he married Silvina Ocampo, another magnificent author of peculiar and bewitching imaginative powers. (Their complimentary yet distinctive styles and subjects, as well as the unusual conditions of their romantic relationship, align them to another sublime pairing of 20th century talents, that of US authors Paul and Jane Bowles.) My fear that Bioy Casares may be forgotten by much of the non-Latin world seems confirmed by the fact that for all of the wonderful supplementary essays, testimonies and documentaries on the Criterion Collection’s new deluxe two-disc edition of Last Year at Marienbad, mention of the pivotal influence of The Invention of Morel on that film is nowhere to be found. It’s a shame, since knowledge of one only enhances the reading of the other.

As with Marienbad, the “rotating eternity” that streams through the fugitive’s experience on the island, the sense of moments that always build toward a point that can never come to fruition, create a fusion of elements that penetrate the emotions as deeply as they do the intellect. That says something. And we’re so much closer to actually living the fantasy of The Invention of Morel; to the merging of the fugitive’s dreams of immortality with that of the scientist who visits his island—and who the fugitive fears may be be wooing his beloved Faustine; to the synthetic duplication of experience that in allowing us to, in some sense, live forever, is also draining us of life. But don’t let me spell all of this out for you—Bioy Casares does such a perfect, surprisingly lucid job of guiding us through this labyrinth. Go back to him. There’s a wonderful edition of the book still in print from New York Review Books Classics ($12.95 US/$16,95 Can.), translated by Ruth L.C. Simms and complete with Borges’ prologue, a very informative introduction from Suzanne Jill Levine, and the original illustrations by Borges’ sister, Norah Borges de Torre.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The eternal return: Last Year at Marienbad

For all its ostensible chilly formalism, for all its legendary difficulty, in the slowly shifting dynamic of suggestion, resistance and surrender that underlies every moment of
Last Year at Marienbad (1961) there are things that, to my mind, can’t help but worm their way into the most tenebrous corners of the psyche. Memory, to paraphrase a character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, is a language we all (mistakenly) believe we speak. But its malleability, its essential formlessness holds the key to our deepest fears and desires. The seduction at the heart of Marienbad is that of having someone recount to you all that you can’t recall about some moment that’s either dissolved into the fog of your past or, your strongly suspect, never happened. The seducer wants you to believe in that romance you never had, telling it to you over and over until this miracle happens and you begin to complete the memory yourself. And if you can be persuaded of the verity of this memory—of not only the romance but also the possibility of its revival—you may still have the chance at freedom you thought lost.

The promise of Marienbad is right there in a narrative as utterly simple as its realization is labyrinthine, a variation on a thousand other movies—in short, a love triangle. At a vast luxury country resort populated by well-heeled guests, X (Italian heartthrob Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to convince A (Delphine Seyrig, virtually unknown at the time) that they met in this same place the year previous, fell in love, and planned to run away together. Away from prying eyes and oppressive décor; from M (Sacha Pitoëff), A’s pale, vaguely vampiric husband, who always wins at the impenetrable table games he plays with the other guests; from “this edifice of a bygone era, this sprawling, sumptuous, baroque, gloomy hotel where one endless corridor follows another,” a place where people seem to always be returning out of sheer habit, where statues seem to move when no one looks, and people often resemble statues, a place where even shadows reveal discrepancies and whose boundaries are never breached at any point in the movie. As the camera continually surveys the place, adrift like a listless ghost, you start to wonder if the only “true” memories are to be found within its moldings, chandeliers and sculpted doorways.

Director Alain Resnais and novelist-turned-screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet never let on. Robe-Grillet was inspired by Adolfo Bioy Casares’ fantastical masterwork
The Invention of Morel, and his script shares the late Argentine author’s design of a narrative logic that remains partially hidden from the audience while providing a solid foundation for all that transpires. Sacha Vierny’s weightless camerawork and Jacques Saulnier’s production design—the hotel’s interiors were all constructed—convey an absolute elegance that would imbue countless perfume adverts and inspire Stanley Kubrick’s wandering through the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (80). In the flamboyantly elliptical editing patterns of Resnais and editors Henri Colpi and Jasmine Chasney, the film’s baffling yet most explicit expression of its interplay of memory and fantasy, we find the blueprint for the most mesmerizing sequences in Wong Kar-Wai. In Seyrig’s marvelous performance, aided by a dizzying array of costume changes furnished by Coco Chanel, bewitching make-up and sweep of bangs that seem to invite her being swept off her feet, we’re given a beguiling balance of cool opacity and near-palpable anxiety. She’s in danger. She proves just how many expressions one face can give to uncertainty and unease, while still every bit the embodiment of useless glamour and the elusive promise of sex. She’d soon play the central role in Resnais’ still more intricate investigation into the same core themes—plus a bracing political subtext—in Muriel (63), and moodily inhabit another similarly memory-haunted house in Marguerite Duras’ India Song (75).

Watching Criterion’s well-endowed and gorgeous new director-approved DVD edition—also available in Blu-ray—I fell under the spell of
Marienbad all over again. Which is to say I got totally lost in the thing, its details, repetitions, infinite mirrors and strange echoes, the shattered glass and collapsing marble rail, the sexual assault that reads as clown show. And even after having just seen it again I question my memory of it, small moments that may have happened, or maybe just alluded to, maybe only suggested in some subtle way. Maybe I just invented them, as we sometimes do with movies that consume us. I’ll happily re-watch it and try to confirm whether this or that memory is true, though I suspect I’ll just get lost all over again. Either way, these memories are worth holding onto, even if they lead me astray.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Detrimental education: Whatever Works

Its title alone, the verbal equivalent of a shrug, evokes creative lethargy, and indeed the script was dug out of a desk drawer caked in 30 years of dust. But no one ever accused Woody Allen of trying to be up-to-date—not even Woody Allen. So if the stray signs of contemporary life spied in the margins of the Manhattan Chinatown locations are just about the only things that keep
Whatever Works from feeling like 1979, well, the comic sensibility driving the film is of a considerably elder vintage anyway. And if we like Woody, we’re hardly bothered by his tending to the flame of old-old school humour accompanied by a soundtrack of even older records. “They really don’t write them like they used to,” says our protagonist Boris Yellnikoff. Though he has exclusive knowledge of his being watched by an audience and repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, Boris seems somehow oblivious to the fact the movie he lives inside of is being written very much like they used to.

So another old curmudgeon strikes up an unlikely but not inconceivable romance with a nubile innocent, the pair enacting a variation on Pygmalion
in which the professor provides lessons not so much in sophistication as cynicism. Boris is a windbag, a stupendously voluble misanthrope, the self-described intellectual superior of the vast majority of the human race, a fact he’s able to confirm regularly by teaching chess to talentless children who, naturally, he chastises mercilessly. At one point, he suggests that all parents should send their kids to concentration camp. He’s a total prick and makes no bones about it. But he has his vulnerable side: he’s deeply paranoid and superstitious, a failed suicide attempt has left him with a permanent limp, and he has regular middle-of-the-night panic attacks. He's also one of the worst-dressed people in a movie full of people who dress really, really bad.

He’s also got some sort of a soft spot, however small, one massaged by Melodie St. Ann Celestine, an absurdly cheerful Southern elf who Boris grudgingly takes into his home. She talks like an endearing idiot, though we assume must have sort of edge to her given that she had the gumption to leave a stable home and starve it out in the Big Apple all alone with nothing more than the near-uniformly pink clothes on her back. And we know she must possess some sense of discretion when she comes home disappointed after hearing a concert by some band called Anal Sphincter. We might suspect Boris of lecherous intentions but he makes it perfectly clear that he’s uninterested in sex. How these two manage to connect seems to have more to do with desperation and sublime timing.

The casting of Larry David as Boris seems inspired, the star of Curb Your Enthusiasm being a garrulous ranter of singular ability. It’s no stretch whatsoever to imagine David in the role of resident Allen stand-in. But maybe that’s the problem. Had David been forced to stretch a little more he may have been better able to play stakes convincingly, thus making the comedy more urgent and, we hope, funnier. (A few choice moments really fly, but more of them fall flat.) And he may have been able to convey more of a sense of Boris’ inner life, the house of all those kooky contradictions that Allen loves to play with. Boris finally seems like he should really have just been played by Allen, who, no matter how droopy the material, can virtually always make us believe that he’s truly falling in love. Or at the very least, lust.

Rounding out the cast, Even Rachel Wood does a pretty remarkable job of giving Melodie some sort of journey of self-discovery, and if the guy she inevitably leaves Boris for is complete tool—he’s a handsome actor who lives on a houseboat and plays the flute for Christ’s sake—well, perhaps there’s some truth to that sort of match. Patricia Clarkson plays Melodie’s mom and Ed Begley Jr. plays her dad, and they too manage to breathe a little life into their corny types, ie: Jesus-lovin’ Southern conservatives that only need a sojourn in funky ol’ New York with frank atheists like Boris to realize how much richer life can actually be when you redefine yourselves as pseudo-cultured bohemians. But regardless of the cast’s efforts, the unmistakable thinness of these characters, each of them essentially background players in a one-man show, combined with the limits of the story’s dynamics, dependent as it is on cliché plot twists, renders Whatever Works into passable Woody, but hardly must-see. At least it makes an effort to be genuinely optimistic in the end, which is surely not the easiest thing for Woody Allen and, for that alone, I confess I left the theatre with my cockles a little warmer than when I entered.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Pros and cons: The Brothers Bloom

Wayfaring grifters, the brothers Stephen Bloom and just plain old Bloom—the latter presumably having lost his given name in a Polynesian poker game, or perhaps while convalescing from ennui in some Alpine hospice—have toured the world in search of ever-more risk-courting and inventive cons, but the lifestyle’s no good anymore for Little Bloom and hasn’t been for some time. He wants out, but is persuaded into the proverbial one-last-big-score by his tireless elder. Their ultimate mark is a lonesome and preposterously wealthy heiress with a fantastical, perhaps autistic penchant for collecting and perfecting hobbies, making her something like all of the Tenenbaum children rolled into one. Over the course of our story she’ll inevitably move from being a surprisingly formidable victim to a brilliant accomplice.

That reference to
The Royal Tenenbaums just sort of slipped out, but it’s tough not to let such references accumulate when trying to describe Brick writer/director Rian Johnson’s second feature, which has been crafted top to bottom with the sort of cutesy comic pageantry and fraternal drama which Wes Anderson has made his domain for well over a decade now and with considerable success. The Brothers Bloom has been craftily titled so that it ends with both a surname and a verb, though, despite the avalanche of plot and the truly magnificent efforts of its actors, it’s hard to say if anyone or anything truly blooms here since the movie itself is often so stiflingly manicured as to preempt anything so spontaneous as discovery. Right from the prologue, which finds the Blooms as children already working elaborate ruses and dressing themselves as Amish undertakers, which ends with a prematurely cathartic slow-motion climax, replete with exultant Rod Stewart bursting through the speakers and an explosive announcement of the film’s title spelled out in lights, we’re meant to feel really excited about what we’re seeing –even before its even properly begun!

The casting is ideal. Maybe too ideal. Adrien Brody brings the same melancholic amiability, uncertainty and romantic longing to Bloom as he did to Peter Whitman in… Wes Anderson’s
The Darjeeling Limited. His scarecrow physique seems custom-built for heroes who wilt like a frail weed when they suffer but are just as easily swept up in the winds of an exuberant game plan. As Stephen, Mark Ruffalo is all charm, and I mean all. He’s so charming it seems he could con himself right out of existence. (He’s also one of my favourite screen actors to watch eat.) Rachel Weisz as Penelope, the mark, is so damn good that she frequently makes what should be an annoying artifice of a character into a gas, walking with the gait of a 12-year-old who hasn’t yet figured out she has the body of a rather fetching and shapely thirtysomething woman. Robby Coltrane arrives on the scene to ham it up with absolute mastery. Sadly, Rinko Kikuchi, who didn’t get to talk in her Oscar-nominated performance as a deaf teen in Babel, still doesn’t get to talk while playing Stephen’s sidekick, a demolitions nut rendered as a tired stereotype of mute Japanese cool.

So we’ve got terrific actors, a dazzling and diverse array of locations, and a little Asian girl who wears kooky costumes and lives to blow shit up. We’re having fun! Or so we’re often reminded. With it’s deluge of sight gags—Penelope’s casual smashing of her car into a brick wall is admittedly a real winner—and shower of winky literary nods, there’s an eagerness to impress on display throughout The Brothers Bloom that most of us can’t help but feel kindly to, the way we might indulge some precocious kid who just can’t wait to show you her entire collection of rare stamps or, more fittingly, magic tricks. Narrated by magician Ricky Jay, The Brothers Bloom is finally an ode to the pleasures of getting fooled, of slight of hand and fast fingers. But the hand guiding this tale is too slight by half, giving us a good enough time when its all just a lark, but fumbling things up when he expects us to invest more deeply in the emotional journeys. I’d have been content with mere showmanship.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bruising my religion: Year One shows daring, lacks bite

It’s left ambiguous as to whether the forbidden fruit consumed by portly Paleolithic hunter Zed (Jack Black) near the start of
Year One actually bestow its eaters with divine knowledge. But it’s worth noting that after gobbling these honey-dipped orbs, which resemble Christmas tree ornaments and seem to possess hallucinogenic properties, Zed will question his people’s most deeply rooted beliefs, invent applause, and resolve a riot that threatens to topple Sodom. (He’ll also, apparently, travel through time.) Zed’s exile from his brethren may not lead him to found his promised “Muscle Tribe of Danger and Excellence,” but with the aid of his slight young sidekick Oh (Michael Cera), he will be present for a numerous quasi-historical events such as Cain’s slaying of Abel, the ideation of circumcision, and Abraham’s near-slaying of Isaac, the sacrifice prevented not by God’s intervention but Zed’s. It’s no wonder Oh, encouraged by Zed’s precocious doubts, begins questioning the existence of God altogether.

If Year One focused more on Zed and Oh’s pursuit of skepticism and heresy it may have been more satisfying as a narrative while maintaining it’s good natured, amusingly picaresque tone. (Maybe we could have had a smarter, more entertaining and less condescending version of Religulous.) But writer/director Harold Ramis and co-scripters Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg have opted to shuffle almost aimlessly from gag to gag, and few of these gags would work at all were it not for the fun duo of Black and Cera, whose pairing invokes a sort of reverse Quixote and Panza, though neither of them seem to break a sweat here. (Maybe they should have let Black sing something. He's got metal hair and everything.) Whether eating shit, nearly getting sodomized by Sodomites, or getting car sick from riding in a donkey-drawn cart that goes slower than pedestrians, there’s a lot that’s almost funny.

Comedy, especially of the dopier variety, is dependent on timing, and I think if Year One fails to generate the desired number of laughs—the audience I watched it with certainly seemed more sedate than one would expect for such fare—it may also simply come down to basic directorial and editorial choices. Judging from the number of scenes that cut out just as something spectacular is ostensibly about to happen—such as Oh getting rescued by Zed from becoming lunch for snakes or cougars—its possible Ramis, rather than being willfully elliptical, simply lacked coverage. Yet it’s just as likely that the coverage he did get just didn’t serve the scenes. There are numerous dialogue sequences comprised of far too many close-ups, and as Ramis keeps cutting from one to another it seemed to me that something in the comedy was getting lost, or at least severely dissipated in the lack of interplay. But its equally true that the brand of comedy that distinguishes Year One may just be too stale for 2009, a sensibility, replete with casual homophobia, so outdated they actually resorted to putting a blooper reel over the credits, a technique that even Jackie Chan has surely abandoned.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Running down a dreamhome: Race with the Devil

After reading Susan Compo’s
Warren Oates: A Wild Life I found myself hungry for more Oates and tracked down a copy of Race with the Devil (1975). Written by Wes Bishop and Lee Frost, who had collaborated before on some fabulously intriguing genetic thriller called The Thing with Two Heads (72), and directed by Jack Starrett, who cut his teeth on Hell Angels on Wheels (67) and would later helm First Blood (82), this road action-heavy variation on the hillbilly horror flick finds Oates on holiday with his pal Peter Fonda, their lady friends Loretta Swit and Lara Parker, and a little pooch. On the maiden voyage of their newly purchased recreational vehicle, with Fonda’s requisite dirt bikes in tow, the happy campers cruise un-abused until an unfortunate choice of parking spot puts them in harm’s way. All hell breaks loose, and soon they’re careening down tumultuous stretches of Texas highway with Satan hot on their heels.

“It’s not a barbecue,” Oates deliciously quips as he and Fonda spy innocently on some exotically groomed strangers mingling around an enormous bonfire and wearing a conspicuous lack of clothing for a January night sufficiently frigid to inspire Oates to don a toque. Oates’ face lights up under his goofy headgear as he and Fonda get to figuring they’ve stumbled across some crazed hippies having an orgy, but any hopes of enjoying a free show are dashed when a dagger is crammed into the torso of one of the coven’s supply of naked and nubile blonde automatons. The crafty coven of rural Devil worshipers quickly realize they’re being watched and a chase ensues that will consume much of Race with the Devil’s remaining 70 or so minutes, though a sequence where the girls finish vacuuming up the first act’s damage and opt to hit the local library to do a little research into human sacrifice makes a pretty delightful detour in the otherwise driving narrative.

Surprisingly well-crafted and featuring utterly game performances from all involved—including R.G. Armstrong as a placating mustachioed sheriff—the Scooby-Doo premise makes for solid, often eccentric entertainment, with the relentless—and shirtless!—Southern Satanists leaping onto the exterior of the protagonists’ speeding fortress with Cirque du Soleil prowess and flamboyant Mexican wrestler garb. Setting some sort of precedence in sub-subgenre, Race with the Devil is surely among the few home invasion thrillers where the home in question is mobile. The novelty takes on extra resonance in early scenes where Oates’ character, with disarming earnestness, takes pains to establish just what this RV means to him, which is pretty much everything. Things are further imbued with meaning when you account for the extra-filmic factor that the geographically restless Oates was himself deeply enamored with his own RV, which he christened the Roach Coach. It must have pained him to have to witness the accumulative wear and tear done to the deluxe model they used for the movie.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Those satisfactions are permanent": Susan Compo traces the wild life and enduring work of Warren Oates

Tom McGuane said he had the all-time greatest squint in movies. David Thomson suggested that part of his singular appeal came from his being that rare actor willing to look genuinely dumb. (Thomson also fantasized a production of
Waiting for Godot where he'd play opposite Harry Dean Stanton, an actor with whom he shared a distinct kinship and, often enough, screen time.) “At first, I played the neurotic hillbilly son or the third man on the horse,” Warren Oates once said, “then worked my way up with tremendous success to being the second heavy on a horse.”

He did countless hours of TV before finding a niche in the New Hollywood of the 60s and 70s, a memorable presence in whatever crazy project in whichever genre was being turned on its head, and was not infrequently the best thing in the movie. He received only a few shots at being something like a leading man—
Dillinger (1973), Cockfighter (74), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (74)—but each time filled the screen with cockeyed charisma and a vulnerability that always caught you off guard, made you feel you knew him for real. You may or may not recognize Warren Oates from many films. You surely recognize he face. But if you do know him and his work well, there’s a 50/50 chance he’s one of your favourite actors.

Actress Lee Purcell had another, rather intriguing theory regarding Oates’ peculiar allure: “Warren always had what the best actors had: Warren always had a secret.” If Oates’ secrets were indeed key to his magnetism, then Susan Compo’s Warren Oates: A Wild Life (University Press of Kentucky, $34.95) is for the most careful to keep the allure intact. It’s not that Compo’s especially shy about detailing Oates’ considerable appetites for liquor, women, drugs and the company of Sam Peckinpah; on the contrary, it’s rather that A Wild Life remains largely a work of reportage without too much in the way of analysis, conjecture or reverie. The prose is on the pedestrian side, the use of quotations to verify simple points sometimes excessive, and, while contradictions are duly addressed—Oates the gentle country boy obsessed with the stock market, the Zen-loving pacifist by nature who also described himself as an anarchist—Oates the man is kept at a certain distance.

Still, it needs to be said that Compo has done admirers—and anyone with serious interest in films of the era—a great service. If solid research can be described as loving, Compo’s book deserves the tag. Taking us from Oates’ Kentucky roots through his early struggles in New York and ambling ascent to character actor stardom in Los Angeles, with many wives and many, many riotous and often famous drinking buddies along the way, A Wild Life compresses a life’s trajectory with a balance of tidiness and detours into some terrific anecdotes—after the first few rather stiff chapters are out of the way, Compo offers a very fun read. And if it feels like less than a fully realized portrait, maybe that’s okay. Oates spent his whole career letting us take long hard looks into his rumpled soul.

Something I hope A Wild Life will help remedy is the almost exclusive association of Oates with Peckinpah, who cast the actor so brilliantly in westerns like Ride the High Country (62) and The Wild Bunch (68), not to mention the sublimely demented Alfredo Garcia. As Compo makes clear, Oates’ collaborations with lesser-known Monte Hellman were just as important. Hellman arguably did more to allow the full breadth of Oates' persona to bloom onscreen, developing leading roles that, even when rendering Oates mute (!), would flush out a rich blend of endearing affectation, innocence, curiosity, orneriness, and desperation. Perhaps the increased availability of Hellman-Oates films like Cockfighter, The Shooting (67) and Two-Lane Blacktop (71) especially will also help generate greater interest in their legacy.

I knew how A Wild Life was going to end, obviously, but it still choked me up. No matter how many times Oates was killed in the movies, no one seemed prepared for his actual death, which occurred off-screen, one afternoon while his lunch was being prepared. He was 53. Despite vague concerns about his general health, there were few alarms preceding the event, though the day before the doctor-phobic Oates phoned up Hellman and told him he’d had a heart attack—before chuckling and saying it was actually just indigestion. No one could ever replace Oates, but there is one great little story in here that reminds us that at least one contemporary American performer has taken up the baton. Oates saw Tom Waits on TV in 1976, fumbling through an interview, erratically searching through his pockets for his lighter. as Compo writes, “Oates took one look at the disheveled singer’s predicament and pronounced, ‘That guy stole my act.’”

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The novel as autopsy: Alexander Ahndoril's The Director dissects Ingmar Bergman circa 1961

Ingmar Bergman with cinematographer Sven Nykvist

Speaking of Ingmar Bergman... Swedish author Alexander Ahndoril’s The Director (Portobello Books, $15.95) concerns Bergman and the apparently tumultuous creation of his 1962 film Winter Light. The Director is a novel, though it is a meticulously researched one that reads very much like an impressionistic biography, leaving the frontiers of what constitutes fact and fiction ambiguous for all but those few in the know and still alive to testify. It was written and published in Sweden while Bergman, who died in 2007, was still alive and was initially given the legendary filmmaker’s approval before he changed his mind and publicly condemned it. Regardless, the Swedes made it a bestseller.

Joyce Carol Oates, who last year published a decidedly unflattering collection of novellas about episodes in the lives of Poe, Twain, Henry James and Hemingway, wrote that Ahndoril’s book “arrests our attention like an autopsy performed on a living man.” It’s a very astute observation, even if I’m not sure many readers, especially non-Bergmaniacs, are likely to feel all that arrested by this poetic and image-laden yet deeply ponderous tale of an artist still grappling with his crippling need for a stubborn father’s approval. The Director is indeed morbid, narrow, a little cruel, and as sequestered from the larger, messier world as a pathologist’s quarters. I love that the English translation was performed by someone named Sarah Death.

A scene from Winter Light

Bergman was often very articulate about the enigmatic images that would obsess him until they finally yielded a complete idea for a film. In keeping with this, The Director begins with a vision, caught within a glass jar, that carries inside of it the germ of Winter Light: “A man of his own age walks toward him, quivers and al at once is twenty paces closer. He seems to be dressed as a priest.” Bergman’s father was a priest, and this film—a major turning point in Bergman’s work, largely putting to rest the filmmaker’s interest in dealing directly with religious faith—was conceived as a hypothesis as to how Bergman would have felt by this point in his life—he was in his early 40s—had he followed his father into the clergy. His father never considered the cinema a suitable career for Ingmar and much of the novel finds its protagonist childishly preoccupied with earning his father’s praise, even while the old man falls ill and is hospitalized.

Alexander Ahndoril

The most impressive bits of writing here find Ahndoril, in a concise, very Bergmanesque style, allowing fantasy, dream and memory to slip into objective reality, with ghosts from the past entering and strange discoveries being made, such as a missive from Bergman’s troubled mind that’s somehow been inscribed onto the sole of an artificial foot. The more captivating fully-fledged scenes in The Director however concern the film’s production, even if Ahndoril emphasizes the tension between Bergman and certain actors and crewmembers who considered the project too dreary. When interviewed, Bergman’s collaborators have resoundingly testified to the general cheerfulness on Bergman’s sets, though such generalizations no doubt fail to supply the whole picture, and in any case liberties must be granted when a writer’s intentions are made explicit. The larger question here is to what purpose all of this slippage between fact and fiction has been crafted.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The triumph of Death: The Seventh Seal on DVD

Clouds clothe the dawn, a terrified chorus trembles unseen, an eagle hangs so black and still as to seem stenciled out of the sky, a disembodied voice reads from the Revelation of John, horses wade ankle-deep in the sea. Death (Bengt Ekerot) appears on these rocky shores before the knight Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), newly returned from the Crusades to a plague-ravaged Scandinavia. When the reaper raises his cloak he might as well be ripping open a black hole, but the gaunt, blue-eyed, deceptively young Antonius does not succumb so easily. He challenges Death to a round of chess. He’s seen paintings and heard ballads and knows he’s met a willing adversary. He doesn’t expect to win but merely buy time, hoping to use his reprieve to perform one meaningful act. If in the meantime he could also glean some evidence of God’s existence he wouldn’t complain.

Did such a chillingly seductive embodiment of death appear before Ingmar Bergman before he departed from this world on his beloved island of Fårö nearly two years ago at the age of 89? Did he bargain, propose a game to play, or merely smile knowing that he’d staged all this before? It’s worth evoking the establishing moments of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) as a reminder that there is here a thoughtful, personal, richly detailed and diversely populated movie, and not just still images so oppressively iconic as to discourage actual engagement. Its impact on international film culture was paradigm shifting, but it’s also an entertainment, an apocalyptic road movie as witty, bawdy and playful as it is gloomy. (“A skull is more interesting than a naked woman,” a painter quips. Bergman was shrewd enough that over the course of his career he often gave us both.) It’s a parable of doubt and regeneration, set in a slyly modern Middle Ages; a nimbly acted, gorgeously staged and photographed tale of disillusioned yet resilient figures—the knight and his squire, a company of traveling players, a cuckolded smith and his juicy wife—traversing a world wracked with violence wrought by the twin terrors of metastasizing civilization and religious piety. (Need we say more about its relevance to our world today?)

I first saw The Seventh Seal half a lifetime ago, thanks, however improbably, to the programmers at faith-based Vision TV, who aired it a few times when I was in my teens. I’m pretty sure it changed my life. Truthfully, I’ve never felt compelled to herald it my favourite Bergman—in just a few years the director’s succeeding, more mysterious, erotic, neurotic and naturalistically photographed films would render certain farcical aspects of Seal pretty corny—but those images, moments, atmospheres, and lingering questions remain singular to me. I’ve never doubted the depth of the film’s impression on my psyche. Or its conduciveness to replay. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it on screens big and small, but it’s every time been an immersive, even haunting pleasure.

Criterion’s new special edition, available both in Standard and Blue-ray, complete with well chosen special features and a new, digitally enhanced transfer so sumptuous that even on my piece-of-shit 30-year-old TV I marvel at the difference, offers another excellent excuse to revisit the film. It ages very well. When I see it now I appreciate different details: the fleeting flirtation between Von Sydow and the arrestingly lovely Bibi Andersson at the start of that scene where Antonius and the squire share fresh strawberries and milk with the players; the series of individual portraits Bergman creates as his characters watch the moaning flagellants parade into a square, preaching fire and brimstone to an already fearful village; or the serenity in the face of Gunnel Lindblom when she finally meets Death after a last breakfast and speaks her one line in the entire film: “It is finished.”

The highlight of Criterion’s new package, also available as a separate disc, is Bergman Island (06), Marie Nyreröd’s documentary portrait of Bergman made just a few years before his death. Shot primarily on Fårö, where, following his wife Ingrid’s death, Bergman had lived alone for years, sometimes speaking to no one for days at a time, Nyrerod’s interviews yield unprecedented candour from the filmmaker on topics such as his predilection for love affairs with actresses and his neglectful fathering. Bergman also speaks eloquently about topics as familiar as his parents, his thanatophobia, and his sense that his best work was done in the theatre. The film overall is very moving, its subject in good spirits. There’s startling 16mm footage from the shoots for Seventh Seal and Persona, and a pretty funny little story about getting invited to a pool party by Barbara Streisand. (He declined, and promptly picked up and moved back home after a brief time in Los Angeles.) But what sticks with me most after seeing it is the image of Bergman’s aged hands, narrow, a little shaky, but still so alive as he speaks, and reconsiders.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The road to parturition: Away We Go

A welcome entry into the surely under-explored subgenre of the bulgingly pregnant road movie,
Away We Go begins with considerable brio, its first act’s chain of clipped, zingy, well-sculpted scenes just bouncing along, unburdened by preciousness or ponderousness. There is, initially, so much here to like. The dinner scene featuring a fizzy Catherine O’Hara as doting hippy grandma-to-be and a hilariously over-boisterous Jeff Daniels as the absent-minded old dad who’s really big of affirmative adjectives. The warm, inviting photography, courtesy of Ellen Kuras. The final line in the establishing scene of comic cunnilingus, which begins “From what I’ve read about vaginal flavour…”

As Burt and Verona, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are exceptionally relaxed, lived-in, and appealing as the shaggy thirtysomething couple setting out via plane, train and rusted-out Volvo on a slightly loopy quest for an ideal family upon which to model their impending one, for a new place to call home, or, shit, maybe even a new country. Their first stop is Phoenix, where Allison Janney sparkles as Lily, Verona’s old workmate, recently condemned to middle America’s desert suburbs with her shrunken, paranoid husband and pudgy, tormented children. Loud, crass and funny as all hell, Lily, in an especially memorable scene, completes with the PA at the dog track to describe how her children slowly drained the life from her once tremendous tits. I believe “old man’s hairy nut sack,” was how she described their current state. But Janney’s brief appearance in Away We Go finally constitutes, however prematurely, all that’s best in the film. She offers both its comic peak and its most elegantly rendered moment of pathos, a wordless exchange where she lingers too long over a goodnight kiss to Burt. The moment billows with sad desperation in the arid Arizona night, playing out beautifully in a single, uncut wide-shot. From here, it’s all downhill.

Janney, to be sure, gives a broad performance, but she still manages to bring specificity and nuance to a stereotype. Despite some valiant efforts, the same cannot be said of the grotesque Wisconsinite New Age shrew and her sniveling pony-tailed husband played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton. Their characters are so simultaneously imbecilic and condescending that it’s all too easy for us to go along with Burt when he finally explodes and insults them. There’s no real tension building in the scene because nothing’s at stake. Things get only worse when our errant heroes visit old friends now living in Montreal, a handsome, happy couple with a gaggle of adorable and conspicuously adopted tykes running free in their warmly messy house. Everything seems peachy until the four adults go to amateur strip night at some hipster joint and, in what must be the most dreadfully gag-inducing scene of the year if not the decade, the barren matriarch of the clan suddenly takes the stage to perform a painfully mopey pole dance while her husband explains to Burt how devastated the couple feel because she can’t seem to bear children. All of this to the decidedly unsubtle tune of ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin.’’ (You remember the one, the closer both to Loaded and the Velvet Underground’s career? The one where Lou Reed sings “She ain’t got nuthin’ at all” about 90 times?) And she doesn’t even strip!

This is probably a good time to mention that
Away We Go was directed by Sam Mendes, who even when helming material far breezier than the likes of Revolutionary Road or The Road to Perdition still manages to display a heavy hand, one made more leaden still by his irritatingly reverent use of songs by Alex Murdoch, which sound like they were designed for long distance commercials and sap the juice from scene after scene by turning it into some lame-ass precession. I had to rush home and slap ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’’ on the turntable just to squeeze the stuff out. It’s hard to know whether to lay more blame for the film’s weaker passages on Mendes or his screenwriters, novelists/spouses Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, though its easy to imagine how another director less inclined to pomp and more trusting of his actors to carry a scene could have kept things relatively buoyant. Either way, Away We Go winds up frustratingly uneven, a patchwork of some nearly sublime humour and some genuinely touching moments laced with too many clichés for its sometimes superior air and to many scenes that are facile and over-explanatory.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Off the rails: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

Based on the 1973 novel by Morton Freedgood (writing as John Godfrey), this thriller, filmed previously in 1974 and 1998, finds an NYC subway car hijacked by thugs threatening to kill a passenger a minute if they don’t get $10,000,000 in an hour. Brian Helgeland’s new, gizmo-heavy script has alpha thug Ryder (John Travolta, with conspicuously dyed hair, brows and handlebar) striking up a strangely chatty repartee with Garber (Denzel Washington, paunchy, bespectacled, stubbornly handsome), the MTA employee who first takes Ryder’s demands and thereafter becomes the only negotiator Ryder’s willing to deal with. Discovering that Garber stands accused of accepting a bribe, Ryder apparently identifies with what he views as Garber’s victimization at the hands of an unjust corporate and/or social hierarchy. At one point Ryder gets especially vulnerable and shares a traumatic memory of getting shit on by an Icelandic sled dog while on a date with an ass model. Their interplay and its macho—at times homoerotic—sense of connection are, needless to say, deeply silly.

But Tony Scott is, to say the very least, a deeply silly filmmaker. “I never get excited by coincidence,” Garber says in an early scene, but Scott clearly get excited by absolutely everything, regardless of how inane or pointless it might be. His spastic editing and love of blaring soundtracks, his inability to settle upon anything for more than half a second or keep his camera from aimlessly circling his subjects: all these habits combine to make a monstrously glossy cocktail that in its way something to behold. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is as undeniably diverting as it is stupid, though it gets less diverting and more stupid as it goes—see the superfluous faux-suspense sequence where a subway car hurtles toward a destruction we've already been told isn't going to occur, or the nonsensical showdown/show-off/suicidal finale.

However, Pelham 1 2 3 also holds a certain interest simply as a broad portrait of contemporary Manhattan, strikingly contrasting the dinginess of the 74 version with its high-tech transit management, its police force as virtual standby army, and its surprisingly complex characterization of its municipal leaders, with James Gandolfini giving a fun performance as Hizzonor. Garber seems the avatar of this whole vision of a city that’s equally culturally diverse, overwhelming in terms of busyness and bureaucracy, and somehow cozy. The final image of Garber cheerfully bringing a full gallon of milk home to his apparently lactose-starved wife (Aunjanue Ellis, lovely and totally game in a goofy bit part) rather audaciously leaves his guilt in the bribery scandal totally ambiguous. And there’s something oddly charming, if absurd, about the sense that for all the extra drama, this was all just another day at the office for this hard-working New Yorker.