Thursday, July 29, 2010

Get Low: Putting the fun back into funerals

Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is resident the boogeyman in the woods, taciturn, bearded and ornery, living alone outside some wintry Midwestern town in the cabin he built 40 years ago, shotgun at the ready should any varmints need a fright. We’re between world wars here, not that the affairs of the world cause many ripples in Bush’s hermetic existence. Bush hires former Chicago car salesman-turned-funeral home director Frank Quinn (Bill Murray) to arrange his own funeral-party, a stab at realizing the universal fantasy of hearing what the bastard-hypocrites say about him when he’s gone without having to actually depart. Everyone is invited.

The cast is pretty great across the board. As Quinn’s protégé, Lucas Black is charged with the task of playing straight man to Murray, not necessarily an enviable position when you consider that Murray’s approach to comedy is unfailingly deadpan—he’s already his own straight man—and though sometimes at odds with the uneven tone of Get Low as a whole, Murray’s performance, watchful, allusive, and bristly as his John Waters moustache, is about the closest to understanding the real strengths of the material. Fortunately Black holds his own just fine. He plays the action, letting the comic moments simply breathe, grounding himself in his character’s moral fortitude and genuine ambition to do right by Bush.

Duvall cultivates Bush’s enigma scene by scene. He’s very comfortable here and in fact very good, unconcerned with what the others are up to since Bush is holding all the cards in every scene—in keeping with the trickstery nature of his preemptive death rites, he’s always one step ahead of everybody else. Even when
Get Low ushers him onto the climactic podium to spill his guts, Duvall understands that his vulnerability is to displayed but in no way is it to be challenged, the whole death trip steering us not toward an open forum but a one-on-one between Bush and his maker—and, okay, the wonderful Sissy Spacek with her glowing eyes—that the public is merely allowed to be present for.

Herein lies the problem with
Get Low. Based on a true story that grew into something of a folk tale, molded into a screen story by Chris Provenzano and Scott Seeke, scripted by Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, and realized by Aaron Schneider, the film ultimately betrays what was fun about its premise. The first act is filled with the promise that everyone has a story to tell about Felix Bush, yet when the funeral party finally happens and the whole town turns out not a single speaker shares the mic with Bush and Quinn. They just huddle some distance from the outdoor stage and rhubarb discreetly. The open stage turns into a one-man show, banking everything on the big reveal that by this point has pretty much already been revealed in piecemeal though a number of twists as predictable and ornamental as the story’s basic premise is intriguing. The sense of Get Low’s straying from its own path is further solidified by Schneider’s overly solemn and ominous direction, which, from the fiery opening flashback onward, too often anticipates what’s to come, and by Jan Kaczmarek’s over-used score.

There are nonetheless pleasures to be had in
Get Low, which seems at heart to want to be a humanist comedy. The slight modulations in Duvall’s expressions alone are worth the effort, and his one extended sequence with Spacek has a rhythm and a certain grace to it that would be difficult to locate in a film that would not allow for such unhurried gentleness between veteran actors. In this respect Schneider should be applauded. Duvall, now 79, seems like one of these actors who could just keep going forever. It’s been over a dozen years since he made The Apostle, a major career highlight, and I wish he would direct again. In the meantime, I’m happy to see him find young directors who know how to stand back and let him do his thing. And I’m happy to see a director smart enough to let Spacek do just about anything.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Futbolistas, pornographers, rat detectives, rabid rabbits: Two new volumes of stories by Bolaño

Photo courtesy of New Directions

A story might begin like so: “William Burns, from Ventura, California, told this story to my friend Pancho Monge, a policeman from Santa Teresa, Sonora, who passed it on to me…” There’s the suggestion that what’s about to unfurl was simply transcribed from a friendly conversation, or perhaps a drunken, wee-hour confession. Sometimes the names of the characters are the same as those of real people, such as the late porn actor John Holmes. Sometimes these names read as obvious covers for the author himself. These qualities imbue the stories in Roberto Bolaño’s
The Return (New Directions, $30) with a seductive intimacy, the allure of secrets being shared, of something once hiding in the world being excavated. But then we remember that there’s no such place as Santa Teresa in the state of Sonora, that John Holmes died in 1988, not 1990, and that it might be advisable to avoid confusing Arturo Belano with Roberto Bolaño, however compelling the illusion. Bolaño’s best stories often hover in this twilight realm where the conviction of the narrator’s voice, speaking to us softly as though over the airwaves, allows us to lose sight of the frontiers between the factual, the apocryphal, and the dream-drawn invention. A lucid voice speaking to us of obscure and illucid things. If you like spending time in this place, keep reading.

The 13 stories in
The Return, translated by Bolaño’s award-winning steady Chris Andrews, are culled from two collections already published in Spanish, 1997’s Llamadas telefónicas and 2001’s Putas asesinas. The selections seem arranged in pairs: two about Russia, two about mentally unstable women, two about the porn industry. These little diptychs make for a pleasing fluidity. They also emphasize the freedom Bolaño might have found in working within diverse milieux, that the author of such ambitious novels as 2666 and The Savage Detectives was having fun sinking his teeth into the microworlds of Russian thugs, the adult film industry, necrophile French clothing designers, and international soccer stars. Yes, death lurks in most every corner, but the titular tale assures us that dying is actually pretty much like it’s depicted in the Patrick Swayze-Demi Moore mega-hit Ghost, and that forging connections with some living person will set us free to leave our shells behind and roam the afterlife.

Dedicated to Mexican author Juan Villoro, ‘Buba,’ the soccer story, recalls a winning streak that may or may not have been the result of magic blood rituals undertaken by an African playing for Spain. It may have also been the result of a peculiar and impermanent sort of friendship between young men with their lives still ahead of them. The narrator of ‘Clara’ attempts to chronicle the life of a girl he dated in his youth. Clara remains a peripheral figure in his life—it’s only when she vanishes that he recognizes his need for her. ‘Prefiguration of Lalo Cura’ concerns the child of a renegade priest and the female star of the Olimpo Movie Production Company, now a confused adult trying to make sense of his mother’s career. Passing through life with a moniker like Lalo Cura—“la locura” means madness in Spanish; Bolaño liked the name so much he recycled it in
2666—our narrator obsesses over how names determine our fate. Lalo was born in a neighbourhood called The Impaled. “The name glows like the moon. The name opens a way through the dream with its horn and man follows that path.” It also reminds him of how many times his mother was impaled by her costars while acting in the bizarre, surrealistic blue movies authored by a mysterious German working in Latin America. Bolaño’s synopses of these movies make for some lively reading.

Coming just a month after
The Return, The Insufferable Gaucho (New Directions, $28.50), also translated by Andrews—who even has a story dedicated to him—is a somewhat slimmer collection of short work. There are fewer, longer stories, and a couple of these might just be among the finest writings available in English from Bolaño. The titular story concerns a retired lawyer and judge who, following the departure of his adult children from his Buenos Aires home and the collapse of the Argentine economy, moves to his long-abandoned ranch in las Pampas, where he very gradually sheds an entire way of life and adopts another. Along the way he becomes familiar with the local rabbit population, some of which prove to be shockingly bloodthirsty, their appearances resembling something out of Paul Bowles. Bolaño’s evocation of place is rife with typically odd details and utterly immersive. There’s something almost like optimism here, too, a sense that there are brief windows in our lives that, should we heed their invitation, will offer up the opportunity to change everything.

A sort of homage to Kafka’s final short story, the unambiguously titled ‘Rat Police’ at first glance seems like the least likely Bolaño project yet: a detective fiction set in the sewer-washed world of rats. Rats, we’re told, rarely make art and they rarely murder, so this story is about the exceptions to the rule, narrated by a rat cop whose life brushes against both phenomena. As is often the case in Bolaño’s cosmology, art and murder share something essential that’s never quite articulated but dangles brilliantly in the imagination. The rat authorities lack of interest in what appears to be serial murders could almost read as a dry run for the under-investigated killings in

The Argentine novelist at the centre of ‘Alvaro Rousselot’s Journey’ discovers he’s plagiarized by a European filmmaker. Still a minor author, perhaps vaguely flattered, he lets it slide. Time passes, Rousselot publishes another novel, the filmmaker makes another movie—and plagiarizes Rousselot
again! Not only that, the filmmaker actually kind of improves on the source material. Rousselot still doesn’t take legal action. In fact, he despairs that the filmmaker might have abandoned him, that he might lose his best reader, “the reader for whom he had really been writing, the only one who was capable of fully responding to his work.” The story is very funny, shaped by unexpected encounters, and there is a delicious irony at work here, but there’s also an allusion to the secret destinies that seem to lay waiting for everyone, should they take off the lid and peer into the burbling stew. What you see might make your blood curdle. It might also startle you with the beauty of its design.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The deliciously cinematic perpetual storytelling of a transplanted thespian: Presenting Sacha Guitry on DVD

I hadn’t heard of him either, yet the writer, director and star of everything in Eclipse’s
Presenting Sacha Guitry was Paris’ most popular and prolific playwright of the 1920s. Guitry’s reluctant turn toward the cinema—which seemed to him an inferior and technically fussy medium, one attempting to pickle the ephemeral vivacity of theatre—was initially done only as a method of reaching a larger audience. Yet the story of Sacha Guitry is as compelling a piece of evidence as I’ve seen that great things can arise when an artist is coerced to work in a form other than the one in which he or she feels most comfortable. I can imagine Guitry’s stage work as very fleet-footed, pithy and entertaining, but I’d be surprised if it had anything on the playful innovation or unbridled narrative accumulation or sense of quiet spaces within a noisy world that one finds in the quartet of movies collected here.

Far from stage-bound—it was actually based on Guitry’s only novel—
The Story of a Cheat (1936) could only have been conveyed through Guitry’s rigorous, sometimes audacious embracing of montage, voice-over, and an audiovisual dissonance unique to movies. The Cahiers crowd would dub it “pure cinema.” As Guitry’s titular grifter writes his memoirs his words summon up images from the past, or in any case his own no doubt fabulous version of it—no one in these flashbacks speaks, so no one can contradict the narrator or subvert his total control. He was born to provincial grocers and had a litter of siblings, all of them killed by a poisonous fungus dinner the child cheat was denied because he swiped change from the register. So he learned very early that crime pays, and as his biography unfolds at absurd, breakneck speed, he moves between France and Monaco, becomes a card shark, a soldier, a master of disguise and a croupier. He tries to go straight now and then, but he’s always dragged back, perhaps because the particular rules of Guitry’s universe insist that anything that happens once will happen again and again.

A chronicle of crossed destinies that traverses continents and centuries in its attempt to follow the movement of small precious objects as they’re passed between royals and thieves,
The Pearls of the Crown (37) seems ripe material for an Italo Calvino novel, but Guitry rendered it instead as a dizzying historical-apocryphal-completely made-up cinema spectacle, one incorporating over 80 locations and some 200 characters, many of them famous monarchs, three of which are played by Guitry, and another three by his spouse and regular costar Jacqueline Delubac, so witty and lovely and possessing of a smile that would later grace the visage of Brooke Adams. The Pearls of the Crown is in part a cosmic-comic study in simultaneity. The dialogue is divided between three languages—four if you count Guitry’s “Abyssinian,” which is actually French played backwards—though you need only understand one of them to get the gist of any given scene. Language lessons become grounds for seduction, half an entire conversation consists solely of adverbs, a statue comes to life—twice, lovely heads are chopped off, wars are fought, revolutions erupt, men scour the globe on wild goose chases, and those milky pearls are bequeathed from one generation to another. You feel like Guitry could keep telling the story forever, yet when it ends it ends at precisely the only place it could have.

A twisty comedy of complicated love,
Quadrille (38) is chronologically the last movie in Presenting Sacha Guitry. It’s perfectly delightful, utterly engrossing, and most obviously based on a play. I’d rather end by describing Désiré (37), which seems much more modest than its predecessors yet might be my favourite. Guitry plays the dapper and meticulous titular valet who arrives very late one night in the hope of finding work with Delubac’s Odette Cléry, a retired and obviously wealthy actress currently involved with a starchy politician. From the start Désiré’s new gig is unnervingly tenuous—Odette telephones Désiré’s previous employer and discovers that his position was terminated only on account of certain romantic tensions that arose between the two—and you get the sense that Désiré’s gift for suddenly improvising monologues that feel like resolved conversations is the only thing keeping him off the streets.

Guitry’s age and portly figure—he resembles a cross between Jean Gabin and the elderly Fritz Lang—make his assuming the role of the haplessly seductive Désiré seem comical or simply the whim of a director’s vanity, yet this bit of counter-intuitive casting makes the protagonist only more interesting, and his situation far more desperate. Meanwhile, the off-screen action and dearth of locations feel less like canned theatre than an exploration of the cloistered world of servants, and the story’s focus on erotic dreams and private conversations provide a sense of intimacy and nocturnal quietude. It all ends as simply and strangely as it began, and for all its talk there’s so much left unsaid, leaving us strangely moved. Guitry is customarily compared to Noël Coward, but something in Désiré at least reminded me of Robert Walser. Here’s hoping that we can continue to discover more from this forgotten master.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Winter's Bone: Hiding in the backwoods

Somewhere in the Ozarks, though it could be any number of places cradled beyond the fringes of modern prosperity, we can no doubt find communities just like this, where men are either absent or to be found cooking up drugs, driving trucks, or just getting wasted and mean and violent, while tough women do the grunt work, finding something to eat, holding down the fort—perhaps literally—and just generally negotiating for their family’s survival. Sometimes music is played on fiddles and guitars, and when this happens it’s just about the only time we see men and women enjoying each other’s company in
Winter’s Bone, though surely there are other unseen interactions, love-making at least, that would explain how these people keep going, how one generation follows another.

Debra Granik and her co-scenarist Anne Roselini’s adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel embraces both the harsh beauty of its setting and the utter bleakness of its portrait of life among these rural poor, their abandoned cars, muddy clothes, and burnt-down meth labs, their lack of work and surplus of weight. Unlike Ang Lee’s 1999 adaptation of Woodrell’s
Ride With the Devil, it’s a fairly humourless movie, though I think its tone is imposed less by Granik’s striving for seriousness than by the needs of story and genre. This is a thriller driven by desperation. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is only 17, but she alone is responsible for raising her much younger siblings. Her mother’s incapacitated and her father who knows where, maybe dead. She needs to find out, because he’s apparently skipped bail and the family’s property could be taken away. Ree spends the movie going from one unfriendly door to another in search of someone, anyone, who can help, even her extended family, not necessarily an advisable resource in this place where blood ties can lead to bloody conflicts and certain households maintain a mafia-like grip on the meager local economy. “Never ask for what ought to be offered,” Ree instructs her little brother, which is another way of saying steer clear of anything that feels like less than straight-ahead generosity.

Yet, while there are definitely times in
Winter’s Bone when the menace feels overcooked, generosity is not alien to this place or to this story. Though Ree gets threatened, beat-up, and abandoned, she also has a neighbour that lends her feed for her horse; a friend saddled with a small child and a dink for a husband who nonetheless gives her a ride when she needs it; an uncle’s girlfriend who gives her a joint to chill out after a terrifying encounter in the uncle’s kitchen; she meets one of her dad’s girlfriends, played by Twin Peaks’ Sheryl Lee, who tries to give her a useful lead on dad’s whereabouts (so that’s what would have become of Laura Palmer had she lived); she’s saved from possible death by that same very scary aforementioned uncle (John Hawkes, a near ghost of a man); she’s given some good advice from a US military recruiter who can see that she, like so many in her part of the country, is considering the army just for the money.

Ree’s already proven her resilience before the story even begins by caring her family and home and teaching the kids to fend for themselves, even to hunt and skin squirrels if occasion calls. “Do we eat those parts?” her little brother asks, looking at the squishy, steaming guts. “Not yet,” Ree answers flatly. Ree will prove her fortitude again and again, discovering inner resources she probably didn’t even know she had along the way, and Lawrence gives a tremendous performance, one that feels like pure adrenaline with no time to waste on ingratiating winks. But the story rewards Ree’s almost mythical testing of will, not with anything like a fantasy happy ending but with the simple reassurance that when things go from bad to worse, with a little bit of luck, someone will be there who gives a shit, and will extend any free hand they can.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Open House: The Kids Are All Right

For having been together for the better part of two decades, the ever-searching-for-organic-harmony aspiring garden designer Jules (Julianne Moore) and her no-nonsense Dr Nic (Annette Bening) are faring well. We meet them during what seems like a spell of marital routine fatigue, yet there’s a sense that neither is willing to go too long without attending to the other’s needs, whether that manifest through Nic giving Jules space to work through her spiritual issues or Jules performing cunnilingus on Nic while she watches hunky guy-on-guy porn, a quirk that makes for what’s surely the movies’ funniest lesbian love scene.

Their teenage kids, meanwhile, are more than all right. Sure, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) hasn’t yet found his calling and is into homoerotic wrestling with a homophobic moron, while seemingly straight-laced Joni (Mia Wasikowska), readying herself for college, goes behind the moms’ backs to track down the siblings’ biological dad, but such minor transgressions reveal a perfectly healthy curiosity and robust sense of good will. So the stakes in
The Kids Are All Right arise not through perilous character flaws or insurmountable familial feuds, but rather through the accumulation of smaller tensions as its story builds, specifically from the introduction of mystery sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo) into the family dynamic. A sexy, scruffy restaurateur with a habit of avoiding interpersonal commitments, Paul’s intrigued by his new friends, by the unexpected possibility of being a genuine dad, and, just maybe, by the even stranger possibility of luring Jules away.

Director/co-writer Lisa Cholodenko chronicled women shedding off stolid conventional lifestyles to explore the cultural fringe in
High Art and Laurel Canyon. With The Kids Are All Right she now seems interested in seeing what happens when seemingly unconventional lifestyles have become entirely domesticated. Make no mistake, this is a movie about family values that actually values family. Beautifully captured through sinuous, sun-soaked, hand-held photography that seems always alert to the nuances of its superb ensemble, this film’s group portrait is warm, fun, and complicated, its politics left entirely implicit so that these characters can behave like real people instead of mouthpieces—if the film can do anything to persuade its opponents that gay marriage represents any sort of scourge to society, it’s by letting this particular gay marriage simply exist up there on screen, warts and all.

Moore and Bening are so good together that they can be bad to each other without our feeling as though their conflicts are dramaturgical conceits. When called upon to explain the kick they get from guy-on-guy porn, Moore mumbles something about the inauthenticy of most ostensible lesbian porn being an unsexy distraction, but there’s no such distractions to be found in the employment of these two famous actresses, both of them married to men, playing a lesbian couple. Like Hutcherson and Wasikowska, they graciously fail to comment on their sexuality. They focus rather on enriching the storytelling by giving the fullest possible life to these characters, whose dialogue, it must be said, isn’t always very good, and occasionally slips into cliché. It’s no slight to say that Cholodenko’s casting often trumps her writing since this story’s eloquence is in the unspoken aspects of its interactions.

Ruffalo is wonderfully passive-aggressive as the interloper, soft-spoken, entirely sympathetic, yet often on the defense. “I’m a doer,” he says in response to his lack of education. “I’m funny that way, I guess.” It’s unfortunate that Paul gets sort of abandoned in the final act, because in the first two-thirds he’s treated as an equal within the film’s ensemble, developing, making discoveries, and having scenes all his own, entirely outside of those pertaining directly to the family. Moving as gracefully as it does from one busy, diverting and thorny sequence to another,
The Kids Are All Right only starts to reveal its shortcomings in this last section, when it starts to abruptly, somewhat forcedly shut all those doors it previously left wide-open as it searches for resolutions that aren’t entirely needed. So we should see this film not to anticipate closure but to bask in its transitory pleasures, which are plentiful. Kids grow up and leave home, bachelors get middle-aged and anxious, marriages get knocked around and need time to regain their senses. Sometimes you just have to enjoy the fleeting chaos before it all passes you by.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Twisted sisters: Bluebeard on DVD

Does Catherine Breillat instinctively think in pairs? There was something dizzyingly baroque to the catalogue of sexual encounters in her internationally scandalous breakout Romance (1999), while her brilliant follow-up, Fat Girl (01), felt pleasingly chamber-like by comparison. Fat Girl itself became part of a pairing, since that film was soon followed by Sex is Comedy (02), which functioned as a fascinating fictionalized meta-study of the making of a particularly arduous sex scene in its predecessor. Now comes Bluebeard (09) and, while also a period piece, it feels as lean and efficient at 80 minutes as its predecessor The Last Mistress (07) unfurled luxuriously at 115. Breillat’s films possess an unusual balance of incendiary subject matter and elegantly cool and controlled mise en scène. It’s intriguing that the sequencing of her output seems equally calculated for maximum effect. That being said, this effect only functions if people can actually see Breillat’s films. Bluebeard, which is itself another diptych, balancing one narrative within a framing device that proves to be a parallel narrative, arrives on DVD via Strand Home Video without having ever enjoyed a theatrical release in Canada. (It will actually have its Canadian premiere at this week as part of the Cinematheque Ontario's Breillat retrospective.)

The source material for Breillat’s latest is of course the familiar fairy tale first rendered into literature in the 17th century by Charles Perrault, who also delivered the beloved woman-in-peril fables
Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood into posterity. Unlike those other stories Bluebeard has failed to find itself repeatedly adapted into movies. The titular serial wife-killer can be found lurking in the DNA of a handful of nasty adult thrillers, but it doesn’t seem very malleable to the tirelessly sanitizing forces of Disney. Yet as an allegory of sexual curiosity and feminine oppression rich in enduringly strange detail it seems tailor-made for Breillat, whose work has brought continual rigour to such themes, sometimes employing scenes of explicit sex, sometimes not. If Breillat’s films are shocking it has more to do with what they imply about the crosscurrents of sex, power and gender than how they push the envelope on anatomical depictions. If you think you’ve got Breillat pegged as a feminist, you should be equally aware of the fact that she’s also labeled herself, quite accurately I think, as a Puritan. Bluebeard suggests that mortal punishment may indeed await young ladies who choose to penetrate the forbidden territories of eros. In fact, the movie makes this suggestion twice!

The dominant half of
Bluebeard, set in what appears to be 17th century France, concerns a pair of sisters, the elder Anne (Daphné Baiwir) and the younger Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton), forced to leave their convent when their father’s death leaves their mother financially unable to continue their schooling. They return home, where the furniture is being carted away by debt collectors, mom boils their wardrobes in black, and the dinner menu consists of such humble fare as grass soup—there’s an inspired black comedian behind these scenes, though humour is an aspect of Breillat’s cinema that’s often forgotten. Salvation of a most dreadful kind arrives in the form of a handsome young messenger inviting the bereaved family to a garden party held on the grounds of the wealthy and colossally corpulent Lord Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas). It’s commonly whispered about throughout the county that Bluebeard has murdered each of his wives. The sisters go anyway. Marie-Catherine is fascinated by the seemingly gentle giant, who schools her on the local flora and recalls Cocteau’s Beast more than, say, Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt. Bluebeard is equally drawn to the wide-eyed, optimistic and barely pubescent Marie-Catherine. She accepts his proposal of marriage. Among the most memorable images in Bluebeard are those of Bluebeard’s immense paw hovering over Marie-Catherine’s tiny hand, and of Marie-Catherine nestled like the tinniest sparrow in the crook of Bluebeard’s elephantine arm. Other memorable images include a trio of paper doll-like corpses suspended from a ceiling, and the arguably gratuitous close-up of a decapitated duck, a phallic spinal stump wriggling from its neck.

The other half of
Bluebeard features another pair of sisters, the elder Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti) and the younger Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites), their costumes placing the period sometime in the middle of the 20th century, making their belated appearance something of a flash-forward. They sneak into the family’s off-limits attic where Catherine finds a book and, much to her sister’s repulsion—though, crucially, not her direct refusal—she begins to read the sordid story of Bluebeard aloud. Between passages they discuss somewhat related matters, including their humorously imaginative notions of what the term “homosexual” means. What’s most interesting in these short, often sinisterly playful scenes isn’t necessarily how they reflect a reading, both literal and analytical, of the movie’s primary text, but how they contribute to a particular idea of sisterhood as a potentially volatile testing ground for the push and pull of adolescent transgression. And it is no surprise that in each case the younger, braver, potentially doomed sister is named after Bluebeard’s writer/director. The original French title of Fat Girl, incidentally, was À ma soeur! You’ve got to wonder just what it would be like to be Catherine Breillat’s sister. The final minutes of Bluebeard make you glad you don’t have first-hand experience.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Inception: Leave the dreaming to us

They move through cities that fold in on themselves, that resemble immense cemeteries, that erode into seas; through zero-gravity hotel corridors, across bridges, between skyscrapers, over arctic tundra, and into hidden chambers. The protagonists in Christopher Nolan’s
Inception are in many ways your archetypical assemblage of criminal experts convening for the perfect heist, speaking in action movie boilerplate, wearing nifty duds, yet here the crime unfolds not in some bustling metropolis but rather in the vast and intricate dream worlds of the mark… or is it the dream of the criminal? If everyone’s sharing the same dream, can the dream “belong” to only one of the dreamers? While we try to sort this all out we can marvel at the scenery. The worlds within worlds invoked here are overwhelmingly impressive in terms of scale. Nolan, a great craftsman, has been given the resources to dream, and he dreams very, very big. I’m not sure he dreams very deep.

Master infiltrator Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is normally hired to extract information from the dreams he burgles, but a vaguely sinister, unfathomably affluent new client (Ken Watanabe) wants Cobb instead to plant information in his target’s unconscious mind. The goal is to penetrate the dreams of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of a dying industrialist, and convince him to divvy up dad’s monopoly. Cobb has something ugly in his past—like all Nolan’s protagonists, he’s so ridden with guilt it’s turning toxic—and remuneration includes his hassle-free passage home to the US, where he’s a wanted man, so Cobb accepts, introducing the one-last-gig trope into
Inception’s genre touchstones. Cobb gathers his cohorts: the supporting ensemble includes an unusually stuffy Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bronson’s charismatic and dexterous Tom Hardy, Ellen Page, giving by far the film’s most natural performance, and Dileep Rao, that annoying magical guy from Drag Me to Hell. Gradually the group’s adventure becomes less about messing with Fischer’s business sense than it does staving off Cobb’s inner demons. Cobb’s been rattled by dream-encounters with his hysterical wife (Marion Cotillard), or at least his memory of her, with increasing frequency. He’s apparently in danger of slipping into this permanent, gray matter-draining REM state forever. Or, you know, something really bad, anyway.

Much time is spent establishing the rules of psychic corporate espionage—the unspecified injections used to plunge participants deep enough into sleep, the mental tricks required to navigate one’s way through another’s dreams without getting lost, the necessity of a dream architect, a sort of production designer of the future—though much of how this business really fails or functions is nonetheless left pretty sketchy. Nolan seems more concerned with the idea of inner logic than he does in its actual exploration. Still, there are enough intriguing details—the reliance on personal totems to ground the dreamers, such as Cobb’s tiny metal top, being chief among them—to satisfy one’s sense of having entered a world with some reasonably consistent chains of cause and effect, and the final scene, a cliffhanger of sorts, works to the film’s overall strengths.

More distracting is the sheer aneurotic, humourless tidiness of Nolan’s dream worlds, which bear little resemblance to the amorphous, murky, slippery dreams most of us experience, places far more vividly and idiosyncratically realized by filmmakers like David Cronenberg, Luis Buñuel, David Lynch, Richard Linklater, or Andrei Tarkovsky, a key influence on
Inception’s morbid love story. The realms Inception traverses feel closer to some science fiction novelist’s notion of virtual reality than they do to the places we visit in out sleep. But if these realms fail to resonate as a reflection of our dreams at least they provide terrain for an unusually fantastical crime thriller, one which revels in elegantly edited set pieces that each fit snugly into their respective slots in the writer-director’s intricate stratagem. Inception is an exhausting film—and I actually think it kind of needs to be—and is more problematic the more you think about it. It’s also easily the most stimulating spectacle movie you’ll find on the menu this summer.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

David Shields tries to make it real... but compared to what? Plus: Lermontov!

David Shields

I think I've underlined more passages in my copy of David Shields’
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf, $28.95) than any other book I own. This initially struck me as inherently impressive, until I noticed how many of these passages seemed familiar, those stray lines that echo Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, or W.G. Sebald, or the paragraph of dictums taken directly from another manifesto, that of the Dogme 95 movement. I make a habit of learning as little about a book before reading it as possible, so forgive me for being slow on the uptake. Though it’s no secret, I didn’t clue into the fact that not only does Shields include un-attributed quotations in Reality Hunger but that such quotes, sometimes altered by Shields, constitute the bulk of the book, which is about a lot of things—far too many things, in fact, to be a coherent manifesto—but is perhaps above all, or at its best, a defense of collage and appropriation as a fecund and arguably unavoidable MO for artists. (Shields’ sources are listed in the back of the book, though he urges us to rip those pages out and ignore their content in the spirit of… well, we’ll get to that. The problem with this isn’t that readers are such sticklers for copyright law but that we, you know, like to read, and might want to find out who wrote something especially juicy so as to follow our interests.)

Andy Kaufman: master of reality

Reality Hunger contains 618 texts, written or selected by Shields, designed to collectively argue our living in a period in which, to paraphrase Michael Moore’s Oscar acceptance speech, quoted by Shields, we hunger for reality because our daily lives are so inundated with fiction, ie: politics, advertising, junk journalism. We crave art and entertainment that responds to and interacts with the real. We embrace whatever promises to deliver it: memoirs, sample-heavy hip-hop, YouTube karaoke, reality TV. Yet Shields assures us, quite rightly, that reality, or at least randomness, has been infiltrating the artifices of art for millennia—even the Bible is a work of assemblage. Something Shields doesn’t explain is how exactly one is supposed to find their dose of unfiltered reality through programs that are painstakingly designed works of wish fulfillment, soap opera by another name. Shields is anti-narrative, but reality TV appeals to viewers precisely because of its resilience of classical narrative. Despite his inclusion of a tired reexamination of the James Frey controversy and a For Dummies history of DJ culture, Shields is obviously a smart, immensely curious guy with an impeccable radar for cultural shifts, and Reality Hunger is a fun, oddly breezy, engrossing read. But while the argument being built here—an extension of Jonathan Lethem’s landmark essay ‘The Ecstasy of Influence,’ published in Harper’s in 2007—is fascinating, it’s also a mess. Nearly everything intrigues, yet little holds up to close scrutiny.

Lil Wayne: keeping it real?

Manifestos require monsters to rally against, preferably ones long embedded in the establishment. Shields’ main monster, after copyright law, is the novel, and his criticisms of it yield this book’s most overpowering wafts of horseshit. He champions personal essayists over novelists because they “keep looking at their own lives from different angles.” Yet dozens of the authors whose work Shields upholds as helping to sate our reality hunger write books we still call novels—the list includes Proust, Joyce, and Beckett—while there’s surely no limit to the number of personal essays out there that are both crap literature and complete failures at critical self-examination. Uninterested in the fiction part of fiction, Shields wants to do away with reading “700 pages” of story—an exaggeration, since few contemporary novels are even half that length—and just get to the point already. But what
is the point of a novel, and can it be distilled without losing its resonance? What exactly is a novel anyway? What’s a memoir? And what the hell is “reality” supposed to be? Is there really more of it in The Bachelor than in Moby Dick? Is Lil Wayne more in touch with it than Gabriel García Márquez? For the record, Shields, directly or indirectly, asks similar questions. The mystery is how can he ask them and still arrive at some of the half-baked conclusions he posits. It doesn’t sound as provocative, but in many respects Reality Hunger is basically a fresh plea to continue applying rigour to the postmodern project, especially if we boil postmodernism down to staying alert to form and accident and a willingness to negotiate the fourth wall. This is no small achievement.

Lermontov: before moustache

Shields asks: “Is there a sense in which a writer’s vision gets more thoroughly and beautifully tested in a book of linked stories than it does in a collection of miscellaneous stories or in a novel? …I’m thinking of Lermontov’s
A Hero of Our Time, Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.” (You’ll note that two of Shields’ examples were called novels by their authors.) Anyway, I like this question very much and, having already read and enjoyed two of these titles I decided to read the third. I bought a dog-eared copy of A Hero of Our Time years ago, my knowledge of Lermontov limited to the facts surrounding his untimely death and references to him made by Solyony in Three Sisters. Plus, I liked his moustache.

Lermontov: with moustache

The hero in question is Pechorin, an officer and a pretty nasty piece of work: romantic, manipulative, charismatic, cynical, unable to empathize with others, exhausted by life’s disappointments: “One just goes on living out of curiosity, waiting for something new. It’s absurd and annoying.” How emblematic Pechorin is of mid-19th century Russian society I’m unsure, but regarding Shields’ question about linked stories,
A Hero of Our Time does seem to reach its heights of character development and social critique through the deployment of varied anecdotes and genres. We learn about Pechorin through stories told by a man who once knew him, by a fleeting encounter with a writer, by news of his fate, and by his (edited) journals, which describe a love affair, a duel, and, in the book’s chilling final chapter, an evening spent debating determinism and death with a man about to die. Once you’ve read this slim but rich novel it becomes impossible to imagine how this character in all his complexities could be conveyed without Lermontov’s pattern of hearsay, memory, and private rumination, of external and internal portraiture. So all credit to Shields for, however it might contradict his thesis, pointing out the links between literary works of 1992, 1979, and 1840, and for getting me to finally read a masterpiece that’s been sitting on my shelf since about 1994.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Scentless Apprentice

Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) had been searching for the “Prime Merlinian” for 1270 years and in all that time never caught wind of this invention called shampoo. He did however develop a liking for ultra-long rawhide trench coats and other such comic book Goth super-stylings and at some point wisely chose to base himself in New York City, a place where one can go out wearing such flamboyant vestments without drawing too much unwanted attention.

Balthazar was biding time running a grimy midtown antique shop when he first met Dave (Jay Baruchel) back in 2000, but Dave was just a little kid then and not quite ready to assume his duties as savior of the world. Ten years later Dave’s grown into a nerdy genius physics major at NYU, and when Balthazar’s old nemesis Horvath (Alfred Molina) is resurrected from a pillar of roaches Dave’s belated date with destiny finally arrives. He’s taken under Balthazar’s wing, is ordered to wear pointy shoes, and learns how to make molecules vibrate faster and cough up plasma bolts and fireballs, both of which, it should be said, look pretty awesome. Indeed, the fairly seamless parade of luminous special effects in Disney’s
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is by far the best thing in the movie, whose story is entirely mechanical, formulaic enough that you can take naps and not miss a thing, and whose performances range from pleasant to annoying.

Director John Turteltaub’s been making movies for all ages for ages, among them Cool Runnings, 3 Ninjas, Disney’s The Kid and both National Treasure movies, which I guess is where he became pals with Cage, who repeatedly flings his locks and trench coat but isn’t let off the leash enough here to be very interesting even as pure camp. Canada’s own Baruchel meanwhile delivers hunchy, squirmy, fidgety affectations that seemed fairly purposeful in The Trotsky but here just get distracting and oblivious to the vibe conjured by his collaborators, especially his token love interest (Teresa Palmer). You have to wonder, did they bother to ask Michael Cera?

In any case Turteltaub’s doesn’t give his actors enough space to fully play the comedy, but he keeps things jumping at least, letting our eyes roam all over as, for example, we watch a Chinese dragon careen through Chinatown or a brassy bull bash up Battery Park. Yet for all the expensive location work there isn’t a single scene in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice that actually resembles New York in the slightest. Too bad, since all that hocus-pocus would probably feel more magical if it were unleashed in settings that felt more like real life.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Fear and Desire, weird attempts at male bonding: More Columbia Film Noir on DVD

The hero is thick-necked, gravel-voiced, steely-eyed, a strapping young veteran who looks imposing yet is passive by nature. He’s lonely, in hiding, and complains of weariness, yet the most mundane gesture of kindness turns him into as bashful a boy as Tobey Maguire. There’s a scene where he’s camping somewhere near Moose, Wyoming, with an older friend, a doctor, graying, fatherly and kind, and that much more arresting in his gentleness for being recognizable as the ten-gallon hat-wearing grotesque who flirts with and is robbed by Janet Leigh in
Psycho (1960). The men settle down to lunch over a fire and the doc gets to explaining how much it means to him that the hero never put the moves on his lovely young wife. This is before they spot the car skidding off the nearby road and go to help and wind up the captives of two bank robbers, one a sadist and the other Brian Keith. The sequence is strange, haunting for its specificity and simplicity that slips so quickly into something like nightmare. It’s from a too-little known picture called Nightfall (57), directed by Jacques Tourneur, based on a novel by David Goodis, and is emblematic of what makes film noir such genuinely rich terrain. It’s not the clichés, which are false anyway—there were never half as many detectives in trench coats or femme fatales in noir as people seem to think—but the way these films cloud the frontiers of the everyday and the chimerical.

Nightfall is one of titles available on the new Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Two, which closely follows the format of its predecessor in that its selections are all from the ’50s, its weakest stars Kim Novak, its most established classic stars Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame and is directed by Fritz Lang, and its most curious entry is directed by Irving Lerner and stars Vince Edwards as a compelling yet entirely unfeeling antihero. Fortunately, for all the similarities in the line-ups of these box sets, they nonetheless each feature utterly distinctive and almost uniformly sublime works, most of them long unavailable.

Tourneur, probably most remembered for the canonical
Out of the Past (47), and for Cat People (42), I Walked with a Zombie (43) and The Leopard Man (43), the first three horror pictures produced by Val Lewton at RKO, was a very special filmmaker, one who seemed intuitively drawn to noir material. His approach was subtle and engrossing in a way that causes you to wonder what you did and did not actually see during his films once they’re done and you’re left to piece them back together in your memory. Throughout Nightfall, trusting the high drama of Goodis’ narrative to provide forward movement, Tourneur seems attuned to the small, to the behavioral, such as in a second conversational scene between two men that slyly juxtaposes the first, the one where, in an almost comically inappropriate moment, the sadistic bank robber suddenly really needs to know why Brian Keith doesn’t seem to like him much.

Such passages of seemingly non-essential exchanges also permeate Karlson’s The Brothers Rico (57), based on a story by Georges Simenon. It begins and ends scenes of domesticity and emphasizes paternal and familial concerns—rather aptly, given that it’s basically a gangster picture, and a very, very good one. Richard Conte plays a former mob accountant now running a lucrative laundry business in Florida. He receives a call from his old benefactor, a two-faced mobster eloquently embodied by the kindly doctor who turns out to be a cold-blooded alien in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (56), and is sent on an arduous cross-country errand to find his errant brother, a journey which becomes only more devastating and violent as it goes along—though all the while, Conte, convincingly tormented, keeps calling home to speak with his wife, with whom he’s trying to adopt an orphan.

The contrast between such wonderfully detailed works as
Nightfall and The Brothers Rico and something like Pushover (54), the aforementioned Kim Novak vehicle, is striking. The story is virtually a series of semaphores, a shopping list of all the noir clichés alluded to above. It even has otherwise straight-laced bachelor Fred MacMurray falling for a blonde in tight sweaters who draws him into plotting murder and theft in a limp resuscitation of Double Indemnity (44) dynamics. There’s not a single moment in which MacMurray and Novak’s chemistry feels anything more than pure artifice.

Yet it would be misleading to say that mining the essential ingredients of noir is in any way negates the possibility of invention or sheer genre mastery.
Human Desire (54), directed by Lang, based on a novel by Émile Zola, which had been adapted previously by Jean Renior as Le bête humaine (38), features a number of identifiably noir elements yet in no way depends on them to automatically supply gravity or style in and of themselves, partly because Zola wrote decades before Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain, and partly because Lang and his collaborators have crafted a work so deeply immersed in the complexities of desperation, complacency, and, well, desire.

Glenn Ford returns from Korea with no greater ambition than to return to his earlier life as a small town locomotive engineer, but chance deposits him in a lonesome passenger car at night with Gloria Grahame, only moments after Grahame’s husband kills a man in a fit of jealous rage. Bathed in industrial gloom—the cinematographer is Burnett Guffey, who also shot
Nightfall and Brothers RicoHuman Desire explores a lot of territory in a short amount of screen time, touching on postwar transience and the threat of the newly independent woman, on different kinds of marriage and urges most of us never even know we have, manifesting in Ford’s gripping Grahame’s curls with violent passion as they secretly kiss in the shacks of the train yards. Grahame is especially fascinating, sexy, and sad here, an object of erotic currency, wanted but never accepted. She seems always to have been cast as the lover of violent men, but in this case we learn things about her past that might explain her choices—only thing is, we never really know the truth about her, not even in that final, ostensibly explanatory dismal little sequence where she’s confronted by her hulking husband while Ford rides up front, willfully oblivious to all of it, dreaming of something safe and banal.

Lastly, City of Fear (58) finds Vince Edwards escaping from prison with what he believes is a canister of high-grade heroin. It’s actually a radioactive substance called “Cobat-60” that could spell doom for the entire city of Los Angeles if not disposed of quickly. Reuniting Edwards with Lerner immediately after the terrific Murder by Contract (58), City of Fear is slightly less a character study, preoccupied as it is with a larger civic canvas and authorities in heated debate about whether or not to go public with the threat of contamination and the panic it will surely incite. Lerner makes inspired use of limited resources with montages of mobilizing city officials and focuses on the handful of interesting and entertaining lowlifes with whom Edwards meets, not to mention the fragments of billboard advertising that provide subliminal commentary on the action. Excitingly scored and beautifully photographed by Lucien Ballard, it’s the most neo-noir of the noirs here, a little self-conscious, but playfully so, and just one of four very good reasons to invest in this tour of the obscure peripheries of America’s sunlit ’50s.