Monday, August 31, 2009

Two movies about old guys: O'Horten, Is Anybody There?

Every one of us is charged with finding our own private balance between staying on track and surrendering to the call of diversion. When we look back, which of these things will have ruled us? Which granted us that thing that we ultimately lived for? The thing about Odd Horten (Bård Owe), the thing that makes him such a wonderful character for a charming little film like the one named after him, is that he actually took as his vocation a commitment to traversing the same route over and over, taking pride in sliding back and forth with maximum efficiency and minimum discomfort. He was a railway engineer, cultivating the Oslo-Bergen line for 40 years. When we meet him he’s retiring at the age of 67. They give him a party and a little commemorative train as a parting gift. A bachelor, he seems to have nothing to do now save the maintenance of his simple pleasures, his pipe and his beer. But without explicitly indicating some inner urge toward adventure—our hero is a man of few words—he’ll use his retirement to quietly cede his destiny to the dictates of chance.

O’Horten is the third feature from Norwegian writer/director Bent Hamer. Like his period piece Kitchen Stories, in which social scientists examined the habits of bachelors, and Factotum, the melancholy comedy of dreary day jobs and career drinking based on Charles Bukowski’s novel of the same name, O’Horten moves to its own quirky and subtle sense of comic propulsion. I enjoyed the film very much. Still, after watching it I caught myself and wondered if it maybe wasn’t all a bit too slight—but that’s a self-conscious film critic talking. Hamer’s style is unassuming. His story seems threaded so loosely as to tear with the slightest force. Yet upon scrutinizing my memories of O’Horten some weeks later, I found that so many individual moments were still with me and giving me pleasure, moments that remain vivid, curious, warm, rich in detail, and finally adding up to a lot more than it might first seem. A quieter variation on About Schmidt, it’s a portrait of life a little frayed and gray but still chugging ahead, still being explored however one can still manage. And it conveys an optimism that’s pretty rare in movies this personal or this artful.

Shot by John Christian Rosenlund, who also shot Factotum as well as The Bothersome Man, another, even more peculiar Norwegian comedy, O’Horten is filled with wintry cold nights that feel strangely warm, especially in sequences like that where Odd exits a favoured watering hole to find people sliding home down newly iced-over streets. The nearly silent nights imbue Odd’s wanderings—into a strange child’s bedroom where he’s forced to spend the night, into the home of an eccentric old tippler, into a car with a blindfolded driver—with a pointed sense of possibility. Things do get precariously absurd, yet Owe, with his soft, handsome blue eyes and that mouth that burrows into moustached, rumpled cheeks whenever he smiles, makes it all seems more or less reasonable. Maybe this is how you get after four decades of train travel and dutiful service, perfectly calm and composed, and ready to go completely off the rails.


Are all only children this endearingly morbid? The kid lives with his folks in their run-down family-run old folks home somewhere in rural England, circa 1987. Surrounded by so many souls ambling around death’s threshold, he gets the idea to set up a tape recorder to try and capture the nocturnal rattle and hum of ghosts who haven’t quite found the way out. So 10-year-old Edward (Bill Milner) sets out one morning with his headphones on, hoping to hear transmissions from the land of the dead. He nearly gets his wish when the Amazing Clarence (Michael Caine) narrowly avoids running him over with his magic van.

The encounter constitutes a cross-generational meet-cute between a precocious oddball fixated on spiritualism and this ornery widower, an aging philanderer and retired stage magician driven to suicide by guilt and loneliness. It doesn’t take a psychic to see that this pair will become ostensibly unlikely pals over the course of
Is Anybody There? Edward’s bored and desperate for some paranormal action—who ya gonna call? Clarence needs someone to help redeem his tainted memories and confirm his talents, and nothing fits the bill like a young innocent easily impressed by card tricks or a phony séance. (Clarence also needs someone to give him a reason for grooming. Unshaven and under-slept, Caine looks like a werewolf suffering from hair loss.) It’s obvious these two were made for each other.

Edward’s parents however are another story. His mum (Anne-Marie Duff) works her fingers to the bone to keep their place in running order, while dad (David Morrissey) becomes increasingly negligent thanks to early onset of midlife crisis. He comes home one day with a designer mullet to help perfect his I’m-the-next-drummer-for-Maiden look. He’s aching to win the affection of their teenage employee but mostly just manages to embarrass himself and everyone else.

There’s a lot going on in
Is Anybody There? though rest assured everything fits all too neatly into the thematic thrust of Peter Harness’ script, which tries to balance the macabre with saccharine whimsy, though the latter wins out by a long shot. It’s cheerier territory for Boy A director John Crowley, but his approach simply feels more generic. The saving grace is the cast, and Caine’s elderly Alfie does have his moments, such as the lovely little scene where the old atheist whispers his dead wife’s name in the mirror with the sad flicker of a hope that she might answer. Milner’s not excessively ingratiating, yet he’s saddled with a character whose journey isn’t as compelling as his starting point, which is simply to say he was more interesting when he was just a troubled tyke and not the prop of an over-eager screenwriter. (And really, what kind of a name for a little kid is Bill Milner?) Both Duff and Morrissey shine in their surprisingly well-drawn supporting characters, yet here too, their happy ending feels annoyingly pushy. Only the quirky collection of aged residents is overwhelmingly tough to bear, though even here I blame the material over the actors. The sort of dottiness and sentimentality on display in their scenes careens between flabby farce and the sort of sap you’d expect from religious programming.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Irreconcilable differences: Rashomon

It gushes off the edges, crashes through the holes where the roof has fallen in, stabs into the puddles and washes across the whole scene in great silvery sheets. The torrential rain at the start of
Rashomon (1950) feels nearly apocalyptic, and the grandiose wreck of a city gate where it all takes place does nothing to break up the forbidding gloom. A young priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a middle-aged woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) take shelter there, seated together, not conversing, though through those thick lips encircled by an unkempt beard the woodcutter keeps muttering “I don’t understand…” A third man (Kichijiro Ueda), some guy just trying to get out of the downpour, barges in, starts a fire, gets them talking. He wants to hear a good story, and winds up with four of them, all variations on the same event, none of them matching up. That’s Rashomon, a film so persuasive in its perplexity it’s become an adjective. It won an Oscar, and the Golden Lion at Venice. It introduced Akira Kurosawa to the world—the West especially—and the world watched in fascination despite the film’s refusal to elucidate its central mysteries. It ensured us that our memories are incompatible, but through the movies at least each of them could be true for the time it takes to tell them.

Rashomon has been circulating in a newly restored print. It hits Metro Cinema this coming weekend, a place where Kurosawa’s oeuvre has always found a welcome home over the years and hopefully will for years to come. I’ve seen it more times than almost any other film, and its singular mood never fails to captivate me. An inspired amalgamation of two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (‘Rashomon’ and ‘In a Grove’), the narrative is a sort of labyrinth, a web of flashbacks within flashbacks, unreliable narrators having their individual narratives re-told by other, only slightly more reliable narrators. Yet it’s terribly entertaining, even while confusing the hell out of you.

So the woodcutter journeys deep into a sun-dappled grove. Just how deep we get a strong sense of from the multitude of angles and compositions granted us by Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who seemed to prowl through the trees and shrubs and even pointed the camera straight at the sun, a move which dazzled all his contemporaries anxious to find rules to break. Somewhere in this grove the woodcutter finds a lady’s hat, and then a dead body. There’s a trial, where a judge never seen or heard lets elicits testimonies from those connected to the incident, including the alleged killer, a known bandit (Toshiro Mifune, first seen staring into the clouds like a sick animal), the wife of the dead man (Machiko Kyo), and, in an especially chilling sequence, the dead man himself (Masayuki Mori), speaking through a medium and giving no comforting reports from the afterlife. The bandit meets the couple in the woods, tricks the husband, ties him up, and ravishes the wife. This much is basically clear. But what were the circumstances of the husband’s death? A fight? A killing? A suicide?

The performances are each compelling, varying wildly in tone—Mifune almost hysterical in his braggadocio; Kyo wounded, maybe conniving, sliding seamlessly between femme fatale and helpless victim; Mori stoic, pathetic, and in death harrowingly lonely—but united in their synchronized ambiguity. A fourth variation is given that might resolve the contradictions, but even this becomes suspect. The cry of an abandoned baby eventually brings a close to the string of irresolvable storytelling. Some find the baby’s eleventh-hour intervention sentimental, but it strikes me above all as Kurosawa’s way of imparting that life simply goes on, even when the only thing certain is infinite uncertainty. It finally doesn’t matter to us what really happened in the grove that day, and how justice is finally meted out isn’t even mentioned. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in the collective crannies of each of the stories. Everyone has their reasons for telling what they do, so it’s hard to say who to should trust. But if I had to, I’d put my money on the dead man.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tripping over clues, while dreams go up in smoke: Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice

Speaking of the end of the sixties (see preceding film review)... When we catch up with the Southern California counterculture at the start of Thomas Pynchon’s
Inherent Vice (Penguin, $35) the rust has already started to eat away at the carburetor. It must be early 1970 from the sound of things. Manson’s going to trail. Cambodia’s getting pummeled. Drugs are getting uglier. Funkier Los Angeles is well on route to becoming a grid of massive real estate developments. Permanently groovy Gordita Beach private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello, meanwhile, is getting a visit from his past that will prove more tumultuous than a mere flashback, however extended. His ex-girlfriend Shasta appears at his door one night with something like a job, something about a billionaire named Mickey Wolfmann who she appears to be in love with, who takes a lion’s share of the responsibility for the aforementioned real estate development binge, and who might just be about to get kidnapped. The whole thing makes Doc instantly nervous despite his wealth of first-hand experience with danger. “Doc had outrun souped-up Rolles full of indignant smack dealers on the Pasadena Freeway, doing a hundred in the fog and trying to steer through all those crudely engineered curves, he’s walked up back alleys east of the L.A. River with nothing but a borrowed ’fro pick in his baggies for protection, been in and out of the Hall of Justice while holding a small fortune in Vietnamese weed…” But still. If hippy telepathy counts for anything he’d better steel himself for some unusually not-so-good vibrations, a process which, like every other process in Doc’s daily doings, generally involves getting high. Perhaps a horoscope will be consulted.

Two related movies. In director Robert Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett’s iconoclastic and satirical adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s greatest novel, The Long Goodbye (1973), private detective Philip Marlowe finds himself transplanted from the 1950s to the 1970s, where his once unshakable code of ethics dissolves in a post-hippy haze. In the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (98), a wildly imaginative pastiche that leans heavily on Chandler’s legacy, a pothead bowling fanatic and relic of the 1970s who actually calls himself the Dude finds he’s roped into playing private detective after the theft of his favourite rug during the 1990s. Pynchon’s Doc exists in a curious realm somewhere between these two film-based-on-literary protagonists. He lives in nearly the same the milieu of the former while guiding his actions by what feels like virtually the same philosophy as the latter. Unlike either he’s not an anachronism but is rather perfectly in keeping with the spirit of his age, and that spirit and its sticky residue are to a considerable extent the real subject of Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s first and, to say the very least, irreverent attempt at the mystery genre. From what I could keep track of in my reading the mystery plot does basically hold together, but it’s gleefully obscured by a tangled web of cultural observation and critique manifesting in near constant digressions. It’s pleasantly meandering, obsessively detailed, probably over-written, at times poetic, and quite often extremely funny. Funny in that zany, busy, baffling, conspiracy-laden, pop culture-crazed Thomas Pynchon kind of way. (If you’ve read him—greatest hits include V. and Gravity’s Rainbow—you know what I mean.)

The elusive Mister Pynchon, circa a hell of a long time ago

Doc covers a lot of ground, not only in Los Angeles but Las Vegas, too. He visits a massage parlour called Chick Planet, where queries about certain sought after figures are responded to with counter-questions such as “Far out. Does he eat pussy?” He patronizes several disparate restaurants where the servers seem always to be warning their customers against eating the food. He visits his cousin Scott Oof, drummer in a band called Beer, and a friend who’s on the verge of discovering the internet in its nascent form. He visits a luxury home with lighting design by James Wong Howe. He gets into a car driven by an insane young woman named Japonica he was once paid to find and is pulled over by cops belonging to a special squad called Cultwatch. He enjoys a rare sighting of the Golden Fang, a schooner that miraculously survived the Halifax Explosion, was later purchased by a blacklisted Hollywood movie star, was later still used for anti-communist activities in the Third World. All the while there is this ongoing tension with regards to Doc’s autonomy—is he picking up clues or simply being led along a path designed by unseen agencies? Of course Doc’s paranoid, but often with reason. He’s a private dick—not a gumshoe but, as one character suggests, a “gumsandal”—and thus a natural outsider, and maybe a pawn of the LAPD, who’ve taken to farming out their dirty work. In any case, Doc’s being perpetually adrift in fogs both literal and figurative is the running joke of
Inherent Vice, but it’s also the meat of it. As Endless Summer turns into endless bummer Doc slowly emerges as a lonesome, damaged emblem for a generation whose dreams of fun, freedom, tolerance and respect for privacy, however wishful or misguided they may be, are exploited and finally dashed altogether by the rise of corporate power and ubiquity. Pynchon has a great old time poking fun at Doc’s lifestyle and philosophy, but under all the farce lies a genuine melancholy nostalgia for a time when such dreams could even by conceived.

By the end of Inherent Vice, even mellow old Doc might be getting hardened to the way the tide is turning. “I should trust only good people?” he asks his pal Denis (pronounced, incidentally, to rhyme with penis). “Man, good people get bought and sold every day. Might as well trust somebody evil once in a while, it makes no more or less sense.” But Pynchon at least mercilessly leaves Doc in a state of meditative suspension, of unknowingness that’s relatively comfortable, driving in yet another fog, singing along to ‘God Only Knows’ on the radio, with more than a half a tank of gas and an almost full pack of Kools, feeling ready enough for whatever might happen.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Caught in the devil's bargain: Taking Woodstock

Would-be interior designer and might-be abstract painter Elliot Tiechberg (Demetri Martin) gets starved out of New York City at the start of a very un-groovy summer of ’69. He heads back to the Catskills, where his folks run a fleabag motel and self-described resort that even at eight bucks a night can’t draw customers. Though he’s in his mid-30s Elliot looks younger. Though he’s secretly a less than straight arrow under his polyester suits he looks sufficiently trustworthy to his elders, or at least those who aren’t openly anti-Semitic. Elliot’s the youngest-ever president of the local chamber of commerce, a thankless gig whose greatest benefit is a free pass when it comes to getting permits approved. But permits and sheer desperation are all Elliot needs to help grease the wheels of history and ensure that Woodstock happens after the festival gets booted out of its original location. Elliot’s acting as middleman between the locals and the organizers also saves his family’s business and gives him an opportunity to finally break away from a vicious circle of codependence and repression. So everybody wins. At least until Altamont comes in December and bums the whole universe out.

Taking Woodstock is based on the memoir by Elliot Tiber. I’ve been wondering why his name was altered here to sound more explicitly Jewish. I can only assume it has something to do with justifying the wildly over-the-top characterization of his mom Sonia (Imelda Staunton, no holds barred), whose knee-highs, horn-rimmed goggles, incessant nagging and permanent lunge make her the most extreme overbearing Jewish matriarch the movies have seen in years. It may very well be an accurate portrait of this most unlikely midwife of one of the hippy generation’s crowning achievements, but it also makes for some broad and rather uneven comedy, which is not the strong suit of director Ang Lee, who along with his screenwriter/producer James Schamus was probably more attracted to the story’s mixture of sexual awakening and dissection of a pivotal moment in American culture. You could say Taking Woodstock is a little Brokeback and a little Ice Storm, but you wouldn’t quite do justice to the film’s own distinctions—or to the richer rewards of Brokeback Mountain or The Ice Storm, both of them movies with more focus, insight and emotional punch.

Better to just say that
Taking Woodstock is a reasonably good time, with some nice details, lots of nudity, heady nostalgia, more than a handful of freak flag clichés and a paucity of actual music, the idea being that those who in attendance who actually heard the bands were in the minority. Elliot never quite gets near the stage but he does strike up an alliance with amiable neighbour Eugene Levy, get some solid advice from a ass-kicking transvestite played by Liev Schreiber, crawl into a boogie van for a pleasantly touchy-feely acid trip with Paul Dano, and tumbles out of the closet and into bed with a hippy hunk who is quite possibly the only guy who went to Woodstock that actually likes Judy Garland records. There’s not a heap of narrative dynamics here, but like Titanic we all know how it’s going to end anyway. A psychedelic cascade of split-screen effects followed by one massive, mud-splattered hangover.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Time will break the world: Jeanne Dielman

She’s very good about shutting off the lights when she leaves a room. She coats the cutlets in flour right on the tabletop. Her adolescent son sleeps on the foldout in the living room; he asks her difficult questions while never looking at her. She has different housecoats for different tasks. She works at home, which is to say she invites her clients into her own ordinary-looking bedroom. As we sit and observe and listen to and immerse ourselves in all three hours and 21 minutes of
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), the feature debut of Belgian director Chantal Akerman, made when she was a mere 25 years old, we’re struck by overwhelming recognition. The title Belgian widow, so wholly and richly inhabited by Delphine Seyrig, is a double-archetype, at once the mother and the whore. Yet, through the careful exhibition of select banal domestic routines, playing out in real time, she’s fleshed out to the point of transcendence. Over the course of three days Jeanne’s routines will start to break down and these detours will prove traumatic, leading to a violent catharsis. Identification is rewarded with catastrophe. Jeanne Dielman is one of the most persuasive feminist gestures in cinema history, cool and formalist in its style, deeply compassionate and finally shattering in its effect. It’s now on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

To call Akerman’s approach anthropological would not be accurate. The compositions are rigorously squared, or rather, like Jeanne, contained. The camera is stationary, never tempted to follow its subject even when she exits the frame, confident, we presume, that it knows she’ll be back. There’s no attempt to create the illusion of spying or catching something by chance. Everything has been meticulously arranged. This fierce control over the mise-en-scène, as exacting as Hitchcock, is essential to the cumulative effect. As Ivone Margulies writes in the superb—and superbly illustrated—
essay that accompanies Criterion’s deluxe edition, “Jeanne Dielman works like a time bomb.” Exactitude, the anxiety of waiting and watching, impatience giving way to fascination with minutia, the revelation of seeing an aberration from routine and its effect on a character we’ve gradually come to feel that we know in a way that we never know people in the movies: all of these are intrinsic to Akerman’s achievement.

It would be a cynical error to think you can “get the idea” without actually watching Jeanne Dielman. Duration, something filmmakers typically, and for perfectly good reason, disguise with editing, scoring and spectacle, has an intensely physical effect. It interesting to note that all the directors who’ve marked my viewing experience most deeply through the use of extended shot or scene duration—Tarkovsky, Cassavetes, Dreyer, and, now that I’ve finally seen her work, Akerman—are so utterly different from each other with regards to tone, sensibility, subject matter, politics, et cetera. Yet what they all have in common is that after I’ve come out the other end of one of their films I’m consumed by an unshakable sense of having been somewhere and through something, a whole gamut of emotions, suspicions and ideas having emerged and receded along the way. These films extend a pretty loaded sort of invitation, and I don’t hold it against anyone if they might not be eager to take it up often, if at all. But if you love film and all the ways that it can reflect on our lives you need to know that this sort of work does something tremendous—something that only films can do. And the effect is unforgettable.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Let there be lightning: Jennifer Baichwal discusses Act of God

The cloud looks lonely and monstrous, cradling some dying sun inside it. Though it’s only the first of many such ominous masses of droplets to loom throughout the film it’s the one that lingers in my mind. It seems to hold an unusually potent charge of destruction and wonder, but it rests there in the sky, suspended static, all threat.
Act of God by contrast could be described as all question, an essay on chance and meaning that uses stories of being struck by lightning as a platform for meditation, without concern for hard results.

Paul Auster

Featured among the film’s subjects is novelist Paul Auster, modern literature’s custodian of chance, and musician Fred Frith, for whom improvisation forms the bedrock of his practice.
Act of God ends not with a summation of theoretical points but rather a sort of duet between these two, with Auster describing an incident from his childhood where the kid next to him was fatally struck. The interplay between narration, guitar and percussion is buoyed by the filmmakers’ reining in of atmosphere, their evocation of the electrical brooding that precedes a great storm.

Fred Frith

There’s also James O’Reilly, whose monologue about death by lightning inspired the film. There’s Dannion Brinkley, the Las Vegas Lazarus whose near-death experience spurred a career as caregiver and New Age guru. There’s Alex Hermant, who remains off-camera while his lightning museum in Marcenat, France is on curious display. There are trips to Cuba and Mexico, where reverence for lightning assumes religious properties. There’s also a trip to a lab where we get to peek inside the electrical currents flowing through Frith’s brain while he develops one of his spontaneous creations.

Jennifer Baichwal

Jennifer Baichwal’s previous films Let It Come Down, The True Meaning of Pictures and Manufactured Landscapes profiled author Paul Bowles and photographers Shelby Lee Adams and Edward Burtinsky respectively. In each case the subject served less as material for straight biography than as a launch pad for a discussion of larger themes extrapolated from their lives and work. Act of God breaks from Baichwal’s established model by using a chorus rather than a single subject to address its theme. The result—sculpted in part by Baichwal’s husband and cinematographer Nick de Pencier, not to mention editor Roland Schlimme—works quite well more often than not, and the coda is exquisite. I spoke with Baichwal during the film’s premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto last spring. Appropriately, her responses to my questions rarely leaned toward conclusions.

Act of God proceeds along these two distinct parallel thematic trajectories. It addresses a phenomenon that directly effects only a very small number of people, yet at it also invokes ontological questions that effect everyone. Which aspect sparked the film?

JBa: My background is in philosophy and theology, so I think about these sorts of questions a lot. How much meaning can you ascribe to events before becoming deterministic? How little meaning can you ascribe before becoming nihilistic? I read James O’Reilly’s monologue
Act of God, about being struck as a young man and this existential crisis that happened as a result. His description of the moment of the strike and his immediate response to it were so interesting. On one level there’s this physical event, something that can be explained by weather and science and probability, et cetera. On another it’s the perfect metaphor for this struggle between meaning and chance. So what sparked the film was really both things simultaneously. I mentioned to Michael Ondaatje that I was thinking of doing this and he suggested I talk to Paul Auster. As well, Nick has always been fascinated by lightning.

JB: Funny that someone whose medium is photography would be so fascinated by something so difficult to photograph.

JBa: Almost impossible. It’s so fleeting. But Nick taught himself to be an electrician when he was young and knows a thing or two about electricity. We wanted to shoot our own images of lightning. If you look at the existing archive, most of it’s very unsatisfying. It’s generally only about the event itself. It gives no contextual information whatsoever.

JB: Your films thus far has been to some extent profiles of artists. I wonder if
Act of God somehow also emerged from a desire to understand generative acts or creativity, accidents that bring flashes of insight or inspiration.

JBa: It’s no accident, I guess, that two people in the film are writers, and one’s a musician. I always turn to art when examining questions of the human condition. Even though Auster and O’Reilly resist ascribing meaning to what happens to them they can’t help but frame it in narrative, which you could argue is another way of doing just that. If the film’s thesis is that narrative is the most basic way we can create meaning, then the parallel of that was Frith’s improvisation, which struck me almost as an existential state of being between meaning and randomness. The fact that he embodies an electrical current somehow; to be able to see what that internal electrical storm in his brain looks like; to hear Frith’s brother explain how the brain learns by being confronted by the unexpected; to hear Auster describe his essay ‘Why Write?’ as an ars poetica but without theory, just stories—these are the essential things the film tries to address.

Plugging into Fred Frith's brain

JB: By creating these narratives we’re also attempting to free ourselves of the burden of these experiences on our consciousness.

JBa: It’s true. Why does that process allow us to be free of these experiences? Is it just because it stands in for making sense where sense can’t really be made? We tell stories about these things and it’s a way or ordering, of creating coherence.

JB: Did you ever consider a more didactic approach? Bringing in some sort of authority on meteorology, say?

JBa: I did wonder at one point if we might bring in someone to talk more about the science. The funny thing is that whenever you see TV shows about lightning, for example, the emphasis is always on demystifying it, where I really kind of wanted to do exactly the opposite. I wanted it to remain a mysterious force that precipitates all of these questions. I’m never really interested in making things didactic because I feel like if these questions we’re asking were very easy to answer then the subject wouldn’t be a very interesting thing to spend five years of your life working on. I don’t think it would be interesting for a viewer to spend 80 or 90 minutes on. Making a film like this is about opening up a space to think about something that’s not easily dismissible.

JB: There’s a significant gamble making a film like this because while it is a sort of essay film you’re entirely dependent on the quality of material you get from your subjects. How do you get them to align their statements reasonably closely to the thread of your film?

JBa: Finding the right stories is part of the process. When we went to France, for example, we didn’t know that Alex Hermant was going to say that he didn’t want to be on camera. We went a long way to interview him—the guy wasn’t in Paris, he was in the mountains. We went there with the kids and my mother, who was there to take care of them. So when Hermant laid this on us, Nick and I just looked at each other and thought, Well, this must be the essential thing about this person. This is the key to him. Let’s use it. Your relationship with our subjects is the most important element in any documentary. Unless there’s some exchange of vulnerability, some sense of authenticity, it’s not going to work. Finding a place where you can communicate can sometimes take days. Sometimes it can happen immediately. With Paul Bowles it took 30 hours to reach that place. With James O’Reilly, just the act of taking him back to this place where he hadn’t been for 30 years, watching him walking around trying to find the site for two days, watching him perform this spontaneous recreation, it seemed to find us all together in that place we needed to be. Because we didn’t set up that recreation. I could never set that up. I just don’t do that. I feel like I can always tell the directed act in a documentary. The person walking away thoughtfully, or whatever. You can always tell when it’s something they’ve been told to do.

JB: That’s something that Herzog seems to have mastered though, the created/spontaneous act. Of course he also made numerous fictional films before he was able to do that. But I was thinking that you do have one very Herzogian character in your film, this Dannion Brinkley. Were you ever concerned about the authenticity of his testimony?

JBa: There’s something completely bizarre and coincidental about him living in Las Vegas, the city of odds. When I asked him why he lived there he said it was the most spiritual place on earth. [Laughs] I don’t quite agree with that. But I absolutely believe that Dannion’s transformation is real. I’m sure there’ll be people who feel what he’s saying is untrue. But in some ways it’s not important whether you believe him or not. I wanted his story to be told the way he wanted to tell it.

Baichwal and Nick de Pencier at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival

JB: Given that
Act of God is so much about the search for meaning, I wonder if you feel like your own beliefs have made their way into the film, even if only through some unconscious process.

JBa: It’s impossible for me not to be in every frame in some way. It’s not like these stories are somehow being directly transmitted and there’s no author behind it all. There’s no question that we—Nick, our editor Roland, myself—had an enormous impact on how those stories were told. Yet despite the fact that I would disagree strenuously that objectivity is ever possible in documentary, I do think truth is possible. We tried to shape things to retain as much fidelity to how people tell their own stories as possible with the tools at our disposal. It’s the way the whole is framed that’s very much informed by my own personal questions about these things. And also my lack of an answer. I don’t mind living in that uncertain place.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Conflict of interest: Inglorious Basterds

The first chapter of
Inglorious Basterds finds SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) visiting the home of stoic French farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet). Like a vampire, Landa, in studious French, cordially requests to be let inside, where he sits and enjoys a glass of fresh milk. The rolling pastoral beauty framed by every window of LaPadite’s modest abode subtly contrasts the strange glare reflected off the heavy wooden table, offering just the faintest suggestion of interrogation—which for all the politesse is of course precisely what’s underway. Landa’s worldly, chatty, digressive. He’s like the sensitive Nazi aesthete from Jean-Pierre Melville’s La Silence de la mer, but more assured and far more menacing. He’s also a lot more entertaining. The tension escalates conspicuoulsy, buffered by diversions, like Landa’s deadpan reveal of an absurdly large accoutrement. The scene’s climax, like that of the movie as a whole, promises to be explosive.

Quentin Tarantino’s latest magnum opus is, unsurprisingly given its author, a rather wordy war movie. This scene between Landa and LaPadite is but the first of what we might call variations on the theme of double talk and games of life-or-death deceit. Tarantino’s war is fought with language, which gives the apparent advantage to Landa, in a bravura performance from Waltz, since over the course of this chamber epic we hear him speak articulately in no less than four different tongues. But linguistic Euro-sophistication isn’t everything—what of the invincibly confident Native American-imbued hillbillyisms of Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the cool British pith of Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), or the theatrically trained good-time sass of UFA starlet and secret spy for the allies Bridget van Hammersmark (Diane Kruger)? Watching these shamelessly colorful characters verbally spar is one of the great pleasures of Inglorious Basterds. The others have a lot to do with sheer audacity. The score fuses ‘Für Elise’ with Morricone. Later on we get a Riefenstahl homage set to David Bowie. Hitler appears, in a cape, like James Brown. Churchill sits in on a meeting, frozen in iconic wax museum pose. Goebbels turns up too. As things chug along, swerving vertiginously from one locale and set of players to another, some dying spectacularly, you start to notice that the Second World War isn’t going along quite as you remembered it. Tarantino’s war isn’t Spielberg’s. It isn’t even Paul Verhoven’s. Inglorious Basterds is inspired revisionist comic melodrama, and it’s absolutely fucking bananas.

Playing perversely with convention and expectation, Tarantino doesn’t introduce his one bonafide star until a good half-hour into the movie. Pitt’s outsized Raines is the leader of the so-called Basterds, a special squad of tough motherfucking Jews who, as Raines cheerfully puts it, “are in the Nazi-killing business—and business is a-booming!” Every Nazi they encounter meets with death and a scalping or is marked for life by a giant swastika carved into their foreheads. They’re less somber and a lot more Jewish-looking than the boys in Defiance. Hostel writer/director Eli Roth shows up to play “the Bear Jew,” whose specialty is clobbering Nazis to death with a baseball bat. But despite sharing their name with the movie they’re only in about a third of it. This is no reason to complain.

The lynchpin in the structure of Inglorious Basterds—as elaborate and deceptively tight as that of Pulp Fiction—is Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a survivor of a massacre overseen by Landa. He lets her flee, it seems, for pure sport. Years later she turns up in Paris with a new gentile identity and a cinema to manage. Her icy allure, combined with her respect for filmmakers and ace projectionist, snags the heartstrings of Nazi hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). He’s recently wrapped a movie about how he earned the Iron Cross—he plays himself—and he wants the film to have its gala premiere at Shosanna’s theatre. (The scene in which she begins to realize she’s in danger of becoming a Nazi collaborator plays out as she adjusts the marquee to announce Henri-George Clouzot’s German-produced Le Corbeau—it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without clever nods to a lot of other movies.) Hitler himself is to be present for the premiere, and refusal of the offer seems out of the question. But Shosanna has a plan. It involves the 350 nitrate prints stored in the cinema’s basement and a really big face. (For explication on the flammability of nitrate Tarantino gives us a quick lesson, making use of scenes from Hitchcock’s Sabotage.)

Am I giving too much away? Is it any comfort to know that there’s much, much more? I suppose those who insist on the horrors of history being handled with kid gloves, or even, you know, sensitivity, should be warned that Inglorious Basterds is wildly irreverent, and the Holocaust remains a strictly peripheral event. But the film holds our great collective fantasies of what could be as something of sacred value. It’s also among the best ensemble films of the last decade, showcasing the talents of Waltz, Kruger and yes, even Pitt, with sublime results. If there’s anything to groan over in the film it’s merely the few overt exhibitions of Tarantino’s insufferable ego. He has the impudence to close the film with Rains announcing that his latest bloody swastika may just be his masterpiece, the implication being that Tarantino wants you to know that Inglorious Basterds is his. The thing is, I feel no compulsion to argue with him.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wild men on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Cassavetes' Husbands on DVD

We first see them in a series of snapshots, four shirtless guys in their early 40s mugging for the camera in beefcake poses by the pool. We then see them in motion, whittled down to a trio now that one of them has suddenly died—we’ll never know him as more than a frozen ghost, hardly mentioned yet looming over everything that follows—and they all wear black suits, white shirts, black overcoats. Like they’re all on the same team. The funeral ends and instead of going home to their families they go out to get very drunk, staying up all night, singing in the streets and then going to a gym in the early morning to play basketball and swim, one long fury of masculine desperation to assert their aliveness. This desperation will consume the full two hours and 20 minutes and by the time its all over the exhaustion and the wreckage feel cleansing and dirty at the same time, like sweating through some arduous outdoor task on a scorching summer’s day. That’s John Cassavetes’
Husbands (1970).

Some say it’s one of the messier or more troublesome Cassavetes films, maybe not the best place for the uninitiated to start. That may be true, yet so much of what makes Cassavetes great is present and accounted for: the scenes that we crash into with no buffering transitions, that seem to go on and on with no direction until some startling emotional truth just happens before out eyes, where humour erupts out of the bursts of craziness and someone’s always shouting over someone else, often to tell that person, however dubiously or confusedly, that they love them. The only essential Cassavetes ingredient missing here might be women, that half of the human race we suspect that Cassavetes trusted in far more, a trust that can be seen as either respect and admiration or as condescension and bewilderment. Husbands is very much about men—the truly inspired combo of Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and Cassavetes himself, with those Satan eyebrows—manly men fearful of women, who treasure their male friendships and the affectations these friendships encourage, men clinging to each other like life preservers in a tempest. Men who seem hopeless with women but more hopeless without them. The fourth musketeer dies and in some loopy method of mourning his disappearance they all go to London to gamble, gallivant and sweet-talk ladies who seem as on edge as they are. That’s about it for story, so watch it for something else. Maybe consolation.

Husbands followed Faces (68), which was a big hit for Cassavetes and a milestone for independent film. Cassavetes knew he wanted Falk and Gazzara, both of them actors who made an enormous impression on the stage but were dissatisfied with what came their way in film and were gradually fazed out of the studio rolodexes. He got some money in Italy and he had a valiant producer in Al Ruban. The script, so it’s been said, was just a blueprint and there was a great deal of improvisation developed between the men, who became best friends through the process. It’s interesting to note that the male leads were all highly trained actors who got a lot of rehearsal time, while the women were mostly non-professionals who had to work on the fly—were the women genuinely that much more “natural” on screen, or did Cassavetes just want more time with the boys? There’s an interesting debate here, but in the end the results speak for themselves. Every performance is wild and immaculate. Each of these men are by turns terrifying, repellent, very moving, and insanely, almost nonsensically funny. “We’ve got five children between us,” Falk tells Cassavetes, “I hope they’re individual!” Cassavetes’ camera, wrangled by an unseasoned but very game Victor Kemper, is utterly devoted to letting the unbridled interactions play out, in bars and public bathrooms, in hotels, in terrorized living rooms, and on the street, often in close-ups that careen to catch the action, close-ups so tight that they become abstract, of faces, hair, mouths, feet, hands, hands covering faces, hands inside faces. Nearly 40 years on, Husbands, like much Cassavetes, boasts an intimacy that still feels exceptionally rare in film.

Sony’s new disc marks the first time Husbands and been on DVD, and they’re done a terrific job of it, using a version longer and reputedly much better than many of the shorter ones that have circulated in the past. The transfer is lovely and the sound mix impressively crisp given the chaotic nature of dialogue, especially in the more crowded scenes. There’s a very good half-hour documentary with enlightening comments from Ruban and Gazzara, who obviously found Cassavetes’ unorthodox and often financially foolish methods at once punishing and the most rewarding events of their careers. Marshall Fine, whose Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the American Independent Film came out a few years back, gives an informative, affectionate yet skeptical commentary track. Husbands, to be sure, can be a difficult film to digest, and the appendices in this package can help a viewer to deepen their experience of it without claiming to dissect it.