Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rise of the nerd economy: The Social Network

If the internet sometimes feels like the crowning achievement of American rear-view myopia—a disdain for any history that isn’t myth; the quest for forms of communication that annihilate reflection via equally instantaneous responses to events banal and of the utmost gravity—then it’s that much more exhilarating to discover this very American movie that interrogates recent history—the creation of what is arguably the most colossal internet phenomenon of our century’s first decade—in a manner that’s at once deeply reflective and gloriously impatient, and through a story that forsakes virtual communities for actual ones.

Based on Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction bestseller
The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network opens with a riveting break-up scene rife with humiliation and rapid-fire banter—Todd Solondz by way of Howard Hawks—and closes with the smuggest half of this broken couple refreshing the other’s stubbornly oblivious Facebook page like a caffeinated laboratory mouse tapping his lever in vein hope of some paltry reward. Director David Fincher has described The Social Network as “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies,” and he’s not far from the mark. That young woman who left him at the bar with unflinching assurances of his asshole status will remain Mark Zuckerberg’s elusive Rosebud, the one who got away and stayed away, understandably so since only minutes after being dumped the future Facebook creator blogged about what a bitch she was before drunkenly creating a flamboyantly misogynist hotness rating site using photos of every girl on campus as the coup de gras. Unlike Orson Welles’ media giant and failed politician, Zuckerberg’s odyssey ends before he even hits 25, having already become the world’s youngest billionaire yet nonetheless still wearing plastic sandals with tube socks to his emotionally-heated legal proceedings. Kids: they grow up fast these days.

Zuckerberg is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, whose facility with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s brilliantly bracing dialogue is almost supernatural. Eisenberg is even less ingratiating here than he was in
The Squid and the Whale, far too in control of his performance to concern himself with audience sympathy. He’s beautifully matched by Andrew Garfield’s diabolically shafted Facebook CFO—Zuckerberg’s former best friend, and probably the most sympathetic character in the movie—Justin Timberlake’s absurdly confident Napster creator—it was Timberlake killed the music industry!—and most especially by Armie Hammer’s dual role as the Winklevosses, the handsome and wealthy Harvard twins and human rowing machines who recruited Zuckerberg to do the nerd labour for their proposed Harvard student dating site and watched helplessly as Zuckerberg took their fragment of an idea and turned in into the biggest virtual place in the ether. I love the fact that Sorkin gives many of the best of his smart-ass lines to these guys, the characters who could be seen as the story’s biggest schmucks: “I’m 6.5, 220, and there’s two of me.”

The completely convincing doubling of Hammer for these bits is not only the result of skillful acting but also fluid special effects, something Fincher knows his way around (even if the movie’s CGI breath during some ostensibly chilly outdoor scenes looks distracting and ridiculous). Yet one of the things that makes
The Social Network so satisfying is the sense that Fincher has almost completely shaken off the technical show-offery that plagued some of his earlier work, most notably Panic Room. Delivering on the promise of his career make-over Zodiac, he emerges here as a nimble, eloquent and precise storyteller, never hitting the themes harder than necessary, locking his focus on faces of characters whose lives are going too fast for them to fathom, and gleefully compacting extremely wordy scenes into taut matches of wit and desperation. These scenes indeed allude to contemporary issues of dissolving privacy, fractured interaction and fast money, yet they so often resonate most potently as a study of masculine psychology barely past he gates of awkward adolescence.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Inner-life during wartime: The Thin Red Line

It opens with visions of swimming in glaucous waters, rowing out to sea, familial bathing, running a wheel barrel race with the child inhabitants of this mercifully ignored Pacific paradise. But the voice-over narration wonders on the essential duality of man and nature that perpetuates conflict, and soon we’re gearing up for a long and arduous battle. Based on James Jones’ 1962 novel about the taking of Guadalcanal,
The Thin Red Line (1998) is a group portrait of men at war, underpinned by, or more aptly, given an undercurrent of daydream speculation regarding mankind as a single, multifaceted soul. The collective anxiety of these men, most of them young and relatively inexperienced, as they board the carriers that will usher so many of them to their deaths is almost palpable. Time is invested in establishing rank, but when grown men whimper and cry their hierarchies dissolve. We see men shudder with panic, men sick with fear. There are plenty of great war films, but The Thin Red Line, newly available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion, might be the only one I, who’s never been close to a war, relate to so fully. It’s because of its painstaking emphasis on brotherhood, and it’s because of the fear.

This was the first film from the reclusive maverick director Terrence Malick in 20 years, after having made only two films during the decade of the New Hollywood,
Badlands (73) and Days of Heaven (78). Only two, yet the both of them immensely memorable and immensely individual. Malick’s return to the movies would be a far bigger production than both of its predecessors combined, yet his signature would remain unmistakable: there would be a lot of voice-over, some of it playing dissonance with the images; there would be earnest philosophical questions, often posed by decidedly credulous characters; sooner or later, something would be set on fire. But the ambitions that separated The Thin Red Line from Malick’s earlier work wouldn’t be confined to questions of scale—this new, older Malick sought to locate his poeticism in collectivity. Butterflies, birds and bats oversee the carnage and ripping of earth. The film sweeps across landscapes to light down upon varied characters and their interior voices, swooping into their consciousness in search of some unuttered emotional truth, so that each of them becomes our protagonist for a time. Yet the film’s protagonist is also some presence beyond the brutal drama unfolding on-screen, some hand guiding the camera, especially when mounted on a crane, soaring through tall grass and the smoke of freshly detonated ordinance, gliding past soldiers running, screaming, being torn to shreds, propelled upward by blasts or standing in stunned silence. The camera itself becomes our narrator, the ghostly observer that brings some supra-natural coherence to so much chaos.

To realize such a sprawling narrative required an enormous and diverse cast; to finance it required stars. So Malick chose to assemble a cast split evenly between knowns and unknowns, with the latter most often playing the larger roles. (It’s astonishing to watch the audition tapes featured on Criterion’s disc and see just how many great actors
didn’t make it into the film.) If you were to make a shortlist of your favourite American actors of the last fifteen years or so there’s a good chance you’ll find a couple of them lingering somewhere in the populous canvas of The Thin Red Line. There’s Elias Koteas as the god-fearing, soft-spoken Greek captain. There’s Sean Penn, beginning by this point to look older, calmer. There’s Adrian Brody, his eyes looking wider than his narrow face. There’s John Travolta, with a ridiculous moustache. There’s John Cusack and John Savage. There’s Nick Stahl, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Ben Chaplin. Nick Nolte looms large over the central sequence concerning the taking of a hill that incurs heavy casualties. Nolte quotes Homer though it’s really just to show off. All worked up and phlegmy, his lipless mouth a frightening maw, he narrates the slaughter like a peppy football coach. But we also hear his inner thoughts: “Shut up in a tomb. Can’t lift the lid.” He’s trying to stage manage the whole thing, sculpt the most compelling narrative, the one that’ll ensure his belated promotion.

Closest to embodying a single central character is Jim Caviezel’s Witt, the boyishly handsome, blue-eyed private thrown back into action after going AWOL. A Melanesian woman tells him he “looks army,” but to me he looks like a dreamer. Where the other men remember beautiful women and inviting houses on the other side of the world, Witt’s flashbacks are to the island idyll he was taken from only days earlier. His voice-over speaks about the mystery—or lack there of—of death, and throughout the film Witt personally oversees many deaths, peering into the eyes of his comrades as they meet their demise, driven crazy with terror. He doesn’t seem the macho type, nor dies he seem suicidal. Perhaps he just thinks he’s lucky, because he keeps volunteering for the deadliest tasks. “If something bad happens” he says, “I want to be there.” Maybe he’s Malick’s avatar, which for better or for worse will make him the embodiment of a somewhat glorified naïveté.

“Who are you that lives in all these many forms?” “We. We together. One being.” “Love. Where does it come from?” These shards of reverie that emerge from the chorus of voice-overs—sometimes it’s hard to know who is who—can seem profound or pretentious depending on your mood. Yet by the time you’ve gotten say, half an hour into
The Thin Red Line’s 170 minutes, it’s hard to imagine not surrendering to it utterly. It’s a genuine war epic, elegantly staged and chillingly violent, as well as a Tarkovsky-like meditation on nature, and one of the most penetrating and immersive mega-budget movie experiences I can think of. The new sound mix on Criterion’s new edition—at least on the Blu-ray I was able to sample—is particularly enveloping, dynamic in its depth and at times bracing. The overall effect of The Thin Red Line is to leave us by its end feeling as though we’ve been pushed through something, bore witness to something grandiose that only the cinema can offer. We feel closer to a particular vision, at once infernal and beatific, at once helmed by a single and singular artist and the portrayal of a difficult to fathom experience shared by hundreds. There’s almost nothing like it.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Poor investments: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Taken as a diptych, 1987’s
Wall Street and the new Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps form a kind of documentary about New York City, computers, phones, suits, the music of David Byrne and Brian Eno—whose collaborations provide the soundtrack for both movies—and the enduring appeal of Michael Douglas, who returns as nefarious financial shark Gordon Gekko, a role for which he won an Oscar and which, to me at least, most strongly invokes the screen persona of Douglas’ legendary father. Unfortunately, watching Wall Street and its sequel back-to-back gives you the sense that as technology became faster and smaller and markets more vulnerable, the financial sector became a lot less fun, not just for Gekko, who spent many of the intervening years behind bars for insider trading, but also for director Oliver Stone and his collaborators, who seem so intent on pitching their own theories about exactly why the 2008 economic meltdown melted, on ensuring that we understand that greed is actually bad—in short, on preaching to the choir—that they forgot to invest their story with any compelling new characters.

While not a complete failure, this feels like a waste of a pretty brilliant opportunity to interrogate recent history through high stakes drama. To say that Douglas is the best thing in
Money Never Sleeps isn’t much of a compliment. Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff have written an overly talky, cliché-laden script with too many blustery speeches, and the frustrating truth is that even Douglas gets stuck with bum lines, though he handles them with a lot more grace that Shia Labeouf, the idealistic young protégé/adversary and ostensible protagonist, a character barely coherent and most often dissolving into the scenery. Carey Mulligan meanwhile has to play not only LeBeouf’s fiancée but also Gekko’s very angry daughter, which means she spends most of the movie crying. It’s never explained how exactly a young woman who runs a successful Leftist news site and loathes her arbitrageur father fell in love with this money-obsessed young trader, which makes their inevitable break-up and reunion all the more puzzling. About the only actor who gets any mileage out of Money Never Sleeps is Eli Wallach, who’s 94, which means his Federal Reserve Board executive actually lived through the crash of’29. He’s barely in the movie yet encapsulates an awful lot of Stone’s thesis simply through the creepy shifts in attitude he brings to his final two scenes. Survival on Wall Street, this old pro implies, is about knowing when to stomp someone into the carpet and when to put on a big smile for the guy with the keys to the bank.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Never Let Me Go: The children are our future

When we talk about “unfilmable” novels we’re usually talking about those deficient in the essentials of classical narrative: a single protagonist, rising action, a satisfying climax, and so on. Yet there are filmmakers who have specialized in ushering such novels onto the big screen—David Cronenberg has performed this feat at least twice, with his highly personal realizations of William s. Burroughs’
Naked Lunch and J.G. Ballard’s Crash, both of which reshape their source material to better align with the time-based dictates of movies while challenging conventional notions of how movies work. Perhaps we’re better off describing as unfilmable those novels that defy cinematic adaptation not on account of their unconventional narratives but rather for their resistance to coming alive in a cinematic context. If we consider literary adaptation thusly, I think Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go might just offer us a textbook example of the unfilmable novel.

Narrated by a young woman looking back on her childhood years at Hailsham, a rural English boarding school, the discreetly dystopian
Never Let Me Go is like so many of Ishiguro’s stories steeped in nostalgia, in a longing for an innocence that can’t be recovered. It’s a heartbreaking novel, one remarkable for its ability to sustain the reader’s total engagement while maintaining an almost relentless melancholy. It has a story with a beginning, middle and end, and it has a vividly drawn protagonist, yet these ingredients aren’t enough to keep the film version of Never Let Me Go from feeling somewhat inert. The screenplay is by Alex Garland, himself a novelist, though he claims to feel greater affinity to films than literature. Garland wrote the screenplays for the Danny Boyle films 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and Never Let Me Go follows a route similar to its predecessors, constructing an intriguing set-up, only to arrive at a flat final act, one that appears to misinterpret what intrigued us in the first place.

When I reviewed
Never Let Me Go upon its publication in 2005, I tried to assess the novel without giving away its central revelation. The film, perhaps determined to undermine the inevitable spoilers that often accompany film reviews, gets this revelation out of the way fairly early on. I still think I can talk about Never Let Me Go, both novel and film, without completely spilling the beans. Let’s say that Hailsham serves a very special and covertly sinister purpose, preparing its students for a life that’s almost completely predetermined and clouding all this in euphemism. Among the problems with the film version is that once the cat’s out of the bag, once we know what our characters are destined for, the story has virtually no place to go. There’s an attempt to generate suspense in the final act yet it’s almost laughably clear that this suspense is founded on a total sham—the “sham” in Hailsham, as it were—and the result is a deeply somber ending that, rather ironically, inadvertently mocks its own characters for actually believing they’re anything but doomed.

I’m focusing on what strikes me as a major flaw, but I still recommend seeing the film. Directed by Mark Romanek, whose previous credits include the film
One Hour Photo and a certain Björk video that in an odd way feels like something of a dry run for Never Let Me Go, the visualization of Hailsham and “the cottages,” where our central characters live for a period following graduation, is rich. There are striking images pierced with loneliness: that dress dangling in the wind, those bits of plastic clinging to a fence. The cinematography, costumes, hair and production design are dominated by dusky light, earth tones, woolen jumpers, and childlike mullets—a pervading coziness undercuts the story’s darkness with a veneer of autumnal warmth. The performances, especially that of Carey Mulligan, our heroine, are most often emotionally complex and touching, though Andrew Garfield’s love interest is a bit too lingered upon in scenes that give him nothing more to do than flip out, something he does with such abandon he might just win an Oscar. If we were to isolate any one part of Never Let Me Go it would seem a perfectly engrossing, beautifully rendered film, and one whose sociopolitical significance is so obvious you can’t even call it subtext. The problem with Never Let Me Go is how the story builds over the course of its entirety. Or rather doesn’t build.

There’s a question prompted by
Never Let Me Go that’s curious for never actually being addressed, even indirectly: if these characters know they’re doomed, why don’t they run? In the novel the answer to this is somehow implicit, yet I wonder how it would have worked if the film had used this question as a launch pad for a very different, action-oriented narrative, one less faithful to the source material yet potentially more dynamic. (Having said all this, I'd be curious to hear what someone who hasn't read the book thinks...)

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Town: Can I date a witness?

Based on a novel by Chuck Hogan, Ben Affleck’s sophomore directorial effort falls in that middle-ground between better than his detractors would presume and worse than his defenders would hope. Among the virtues common to most good heist movies is economy, sticking closely to the mechanics of the scheme while characters develop quietly in the margins.
The Town is most problematic when it lingers too long in those margins, especially the fairly preposterous love story between Affleck’s career robber and the bank manager, played by Rebecca Hall, who he and his crew just kidnapped. The crew wore masks so Hall doesn’t realize that Affleck was her kidnapper—this could have been a way more interesting movie if she did and dated him anyway—and enters into a romance with him that consists almost entirely of Dunkin Donuts dates or hanging out at her place and exchanging over-rehearsed monologues about their personal baggage. His obviously, are heavily censored.

None of the central characters feel worth investing in even after they’re ostensibly fleshed out. Jeremy Renner plays Affleck’s partner-in-crime, your token loose cannon—he thinks he’s James Cagney in White Heat, where Affleck thinks he’s James Cagney in Angels Have Dirty Faces—always sniffing around for an excuse to snuff somebody, another adrenaline junky on the heels of Renner’s acclaimed performance in The Hurt Locker, and a character blatantly constructed as a plot device. I was very excited to see Mad Men’s Jon Hamm in a meaty big screen role, but his g-man never gets to do much besides reiterate his cold determination to nail the crooks terrorizing Boston.

Which is arguably the fifth central character in
The Town, named after the Charlestown district which the opening title card describes as a Petrie dish for bank robbers, working men dutifully following in their father’s footsteps, contributing whatever small innovations are needed to maintain the family trade over changing times. That makes bank robbing sound somewhat similar to genre filmmaking, but The Town only partially feels like a solid genre exercise. Affleck’s pretty good with the action bits and his camera work shows genuine affection and sensitivity to his fellow actors, but there’s a significant miscalculation as to how many narrative clichés any one movie can carry without buckling over, including the absurd recklessness shown from both the cops and the robbers during the final shoot-out. So take this as a conditional recommendation: The Town is disappointing for its flawed and flabby script, but there’s enough energy generated in the hold-ups, stake-outs and chases to keep you from feeling completely robbed.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

TIFF '10: Life after cinema

Over the course of the picture, Jorge Jellinek loses his job, gets a haircut, abandons his luggage, and impersonates a law professor—and that’s only in the movie’s second half. By the end a sort of transformation has taken place, a change has come over his face, and he seems lighter, like a new man, or at lest trying to be. It’s a wonderful performance, among the finest I’ve seen at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival, one that's unassuming yet rippling with comic grace. Jellinek is just a pleasure to watch. He walks as though trying not to move his torso. Before the haircut he seems to be wearing a wig. Without his nerd-to-the-marrow glasses he could perhaps be Alfred Molina. His character has spent 25 years working at a Montevideo cinematheque, which is now dying. Cracked vinyl covers the seats, each of which Jellinek personally inspects. The key to the vault of reels is secreted away in the DVD case for
Ikiru. A donation campaign is underway yet it’s hard to imagine anyone’s pocketbooks being pried open from hearing a flamboyantly dull radio lecture on the finer points of developing one’s knowledge of cinema history—I wish they’d pitch in for no other reason than the promise of a Manoel de Oliveira retrospective. Shot in black and white, in 1.33 aspect ratio, with all it’s credits at the top, Federico Veiroj’s A Useful Life is nostalgically clothed and promises to be an homage to vanishing chambers of cherished cinematic discovery, something along the lines of Goodbye Dragon Inn. As far as that goes, it’s affectionate yet not all that sentimental. It’s actually about something else, and it’s very funny. At one point Jellinek is weeping on a bus when he spots someone looking at him, someone who looks suspiciously like a younger version of himself. That’s the turning point, I think. As Jellinek says in one of his recorded pleas for support, “You are both a witness and a participant…” That goes for life and the movies. I only hope that more people see this movie, in cinematheques, multiplexes, or otherwise. (Oddly enough I saw it at Jackman Hall, the theatre in the Art Gallery of Ontario, which the TIFF cinematheque called home until only a few weeks ago when they moved into their new digs.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

TIFF '10: Traversing precarious terrain

Wednesday evening’s Mavericks session at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival featured Kelly Reichardt, the American director of
Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. It was probably the most captivating and intimate session of its kind I’ve ever seen at TIFF. Reichardt was interviewed by Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, who would not have been my first choice for the role but in fact did a remarkable job, alternately supporting and gently provoking her subject. Reichardt was warm, good humoured, yet utterly frank about her particular anxieties as a filmmaker who, in the ten years between her first and second features, gradually came to realize the myriad filmmaking methods for which she was not suited and essentially refused to work. Joking somewhat painfully about the disappointingly smallish crowd that turned out for the on-stage Q&A—among them actors Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff, and composer Jeff Grace—Reichardt matter-of-factly tried to explain how she was acutely aware that her opportunities to make the sort of films she wants to make—the sort that are handmade, that use skeletal crews, that offer the talent no pampering whatsoever, that are shot on film despite tiny budgets, that grant the director genuine and complete independence, that reject diversion in favour of quietude, narrative dynamics in favour of close observation and emotional nuance—could evaporate at any moment. Reichardt is beloved and respected, especially amongst local cinephiles, and everyone there seemed to want to reassure her of this, yet honestly, I think her anxieties are perfectly valid. What makes Reichardt’s work so valuable and enduring is also what can make it seem like some sort of endangered species.

Meek’s Cut-off, Reichardt’s fourth feature, roughly approximates a western, though it forsakes widescreen vistas for square images of landscapes dissolving into other, similar landscapes. It offers a paucity of action, and is firmly committed to conveying the arduousness of settling in unmapped territory. It is distinctly immersive and may very well be the best American film of the year. Based on true events and set in 1845, it chronicles a trio of families traversing Oregon with the increasingly dubious leadership of big-talking, biker-bearded Bruce Greenwood’s Stephen Meek. Terrain proves troublesome and water progressively scarce. Henderson’s character is pregnant. A strangely moving scene finds her chasing a kerchief across parched gray earth in the mischievous wind. Washing up, repairing wheels, building a fire: drawing inspiration for Robert Flaherty’s films, Reichardt allows the group’s chores to play out in real time, and in doing so slowly changes our sense of time. From a distance we watch Michele Williams fire and then reload a musket in a state of panic and it is an unnervingly long process. At one point the men capture an Indian. Against Meek’s wishes they let him live so as to lead them to water. There are no subtitles and we have no special access to his thoughts or intentions. He isn’t ennobled or humanized any more than anyone else. He’s a man, which is enough for Williams’ character to fear him, but also to treat him with respect. She’s pragmatic first and sympathetic second. The film’s ending is sublimely well judged, resolving almost nothing yet ushering us right to the moment where our desperate convey of characters must surrender any notion of being able to control their destinies. Beautiful. But political? It’s that too, but I’d rather you discover those layers on your own.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

TIFF '10: Into the past

I’m not really sure if dreams can be either forgotten or remembered, or if the best we can do is extrapolate on some lone fragment caught in the mind’s net as we ascend from the depths of sleep. Mere shadows. Such extrapolation lies at the heart of Werner Herzog’s
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which had its world premiere last night at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival. The power went out in the entire building twice during the screening, causing the movie to suddenly vanish before our goggled eyes and only after some minutes pick up again. I don’t know that these technology-defying interruptions hurled any of us back into the Stone Age exactly, but it did somehow feel part of the show, bringing the fleeting nature of our viewing experience into relief by weighing it against Herzog’s haunting, at times unspeakably moving images of 30,000 year old cave paintings. It also gave Herzog an added opportunity to work his customary showmanship, standing up during one of the pauses to assure us all that this was the first time the deluxe, ultra-modern Bell Lightbox, which opened only the day previous, had ever projected in 3D! He was also quite proud of the fact that the movie had apparently been finished only 15 hours previous.

The 3D is actually fairly subtle in
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and I wonder if the movie wouldn’t be just as stunning without it, but it’s nevertheless the finest use of the technology I’ve seen, partly because the depth of field is already fairly limited once we’re moving through the narrow cavities. Though in many ways it picks up from where Encounters at the End of the World left off, using images of landscapes most of us never see as a way to contemplate time on an overwhelmingly vast scale, the movie feels somewhat closer to straight documentary for Herzog, perhaps because of his humbling reverence for what it is he’s been able to see and capture. He was given a very limited number of hours to work in the Chauvet Cave, which holds what are by a long shot the world’s oldest painted images, and which the French government rightfully offers few people access to. The space was such that he and his crew had to assemble their own custom-designed 3D cameras, sometimes improvising them right there on the spot. There are paintings that overlap each other that were made 5,000 years apart. There are images of bison with eight legs and rhino with multiple horns, which for Herzog resemble a kind of proto-cinema in their suggestion of movement. Not unusually for Herzog, the movie takes a decidedly meandering path, yet there’s nothing in its path that you’d want to rush. Ernst Reijseger’s gorgeous, silver-smoke music lulls us into a spell of looking, dreaming, forgotten who were are. Herzog interviews a scientist and former circus juggler who confessed that after his first experiences in the Chauvet Cave he had dreams every night of lions, both real and painted. They were so overwhelming he had to take a break from his work. Perhaps if enough of us see this landmark work we’ll all be having the same dreams, whether we remember them or not.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A singer must cry: Bird on a Wire on DVD

Leonard Cohen’s recent return to the world’s stages after a decade and a half of relative reclusion has, among other things, served to remind us just how magnetic a presence the soon-to-be 76 year old troubadour can be. Few performers combine Cohen’s particular blend of humility and authority, gravity and humour—he’s a consummate showman who seems metabolically incapable of taking his audience’s adoration for granted. Yet Cohen, who only began his career as a recording artist in his mid-30s, who insisted on singing his own material despite the limitations of his voice, whose musical styles have only intermittently dovetailed in any way with the transitory fashions of that have marked his 40+ years in music, has also at times revealed a deep personal ambivalence to touring—which might help explain the hiatus. The tension between Cohen the showman and Cohen the tender, at times mercurial poet obsessed with communion and not “cheating” his audience, his band, or himself with anything less than emotional honesty is very much a part of what makes his concerts as riveting and even transcendental. This tension is eloquently captured in Tony Palmer’s documentary
Bird on a Wire.

The 1972 European tour, which ended in Israel and was plagued by technical problems, which featured Cohen’s famed producer Bob Johnston on organ and the angelic Jennifer Warnes sharing back-up vocals with Donna Washburn, possesses a certain mythical status in Cohen’s biography. I’d read many years ago about the final concert in Jerusalem where Cohen dropped acid and wept on stage during a performance of ‘So Long, Marianne.’ The story always had this apocryphal tinge to it. I never believed I’d actually see the event on film, but here it is. It almost wasn’t. After getting a limited release in a reportedly messily assembled version unauthorized by Palmer in 1974,
Bird on a Wire vanished. It was only in 2009 that 294 rolls of original film were discovered, re-assembled and restored by Palmer for its new, first-ever DVD release from Conveyer.

Cohen was 37 then, at one of many career peaks, and clearly magnetic on a number of levels—we actually see him decline invitations from not one but two different Euro-babes who approach him after a performance. He initially seems rather serious but soon enough regains his trademark deadpan humour and sense of mischief and camaraderie. He improvises an ode to a speaker that refuses to stop emitting some galactic-sounding feedback. He invites audience members to come up on stage to hear the music better when the PA shuts down completely. He improvises a self-satirizing introduction for himself: “Leonard Cohen is going to sing songs of anguish and despair… The skulls appear… They’re lowered by wires by a man above the stage…”

Once the songs are properly begun they’re all of them magic. A rendition of ‘Suzanne’ with spectral organ and bubbling bass is especially buoyant. He and the band imbue ‘Story of Isaac’ with an extra layer of portent. ‘Please Don’t Pass Me By’ is used as a sort of call to arms. And of course there’s ‘Marianne.’ Cohen had already left the stage once that night, apologizing profusely but insisting that things just weren’t working. Yet the audience, many of them teenagers, won’t have it. At one point they offer to sing to
him if he’d just come back out. There’s a hilarious bit where, while backstage and still uncertain he can continue, Cohen convinces himself that what he really needs is to shave, and shave he does—if he can only stop laughing. Most impressively, he doesn't cut himself. It’s unclear whether or not he ever actually confessed to the audience that he was already deep in the throes of his LSD trip.

Palmer’s career as a filmmaker—he’s also worked in theatre and opera and as a critic—has been grounded in an interest not only in music but also portraiture. His eclectic range of subjects have included Cream, Maria Callas, the Beatles, Ginger Baker, and Benjamin Britten. His most famous film is probably the 1971 batty satirical rock flick
200 Motels, co-written and co-directed by its featured performer, Frank Zappa. Bird on a Wire benefits as much from Palmer’s obvious facility with gaining superb coverage of musical performances with apparently skeletal resources as it does from its wide-ranging access to off-stage business and Cohen’s personal transparency. All of the original coverage, photographed by Les Young, looks terrific, particularly for its distinctive framing of strikingly lit faces during the performances. All of what appears to be new post-production work however—the titles, the cutaways to home movies, the recycling of scenes from Don Owen’s 1965 film Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, or most especially the images of violence in Vietnam—look comparatively hokey, at times in poor taste, and, above all, unnecessary. The image and sound captured during the actual tour easily stand on their own without this additional contextualizing. Thankfully, the original material is about 95% of what we get here, which makes Bird on a Wire essential viewing for fans of Cohen and of tour documentaries in general.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

TIFF '10: Ways of dying

The 35th Toronto International Film Festival is in full swing, and I’ve finally found some time to give a few impressions. The weather’s been kind of rotten. I got soaked last night biking home from a sort of ridiculous event held at a downtown beauty salon. Everyone was waiting for Guillermo Del Toro, not the first guy you think of when you think of high-end cosmetics. Rubbery prosthetics, sure, but energizing foot moisturizers not so much. When he finally arrived the poor guy was accosted out front so insistently it took about an hour for him just to get in the door. I spoke with him only briefly. We had a very silly exchange about tacos. I guess I was hungry. It started to pour precisely when I decided to make my way home, too drunk on free wine to have the sense to take a streetcar. Halfway along my journey my complimentary bag of cosmetics became so waterlogged it burst all over Queen Street. As I parked my bike on the curb and ran out into Saturday night traffic it occurred to me that if I were hit by a cab and killed while fishing tubes of gels and creams out of puddles I would probably feel really embarrassed about it afterwards. But we’re talking about, I don’t know, $200 in beauty products here. Anyway, I didn’t die.

I have however been watching a number of movies about dying, how best to face up to it, and how best to deal with its aftermath. By far the most playful of these is Athina Rachel Tsangari’s
Attenberg, which opens with what is certainly the most awkward on-screen kiss in recent memory before unfolding its narrative through something like cinematic snapshots, brief, often wordless scenes punctured with curiosity, mischief, humour, and a subtle, creeping morbidity. Whole days in Tsangari’s expansive chronology are conveyed with just a few such enigmatic passages. Like last year’s Dogtooth, which Tsangari co-produced, Attenberg is marked by its somewhat perverse engagement in family, belated sexual development, and an extreme case of naïveté that, aggressively quirky as it may be, is mercifully and rigorously stripped of affectation—its lead actress Ariane Labed just won a much-deserved award at Venice. Dogtooth director Giorgios Lanthimos meanwhile shows up here playing a kindly, soft-spoken love interest who connects with Labed by way of their mutual fondness for the ’70s electro-punk duo Suicide. Tsangari’s approach is at once anthropological, elliptical, and surrealistically comic. The movie surprised me more than once, not the least reason being that it genuinely touched me by the time it concluded. It’s the story of a dying widower trying to prepare his adult daughter for, well, basically for he rest of her life. Like Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums, this feels like another enormously creative variation on Ozu’s Late Spring.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s
Biutiful finds a very stressed-out Javier Bardem given only weeks to live and trying his best to ensure his children will be safe after he’s gone. The Barcelona they’re inheriting is forbidding, characterized most boldly by illegal migrant labourers living in secret huddled masses and in danger of mass arrests or meaningless death. Their mother is deeply unstable and unable to see her kids as dependents rather than peers. The movie feels like a study in entropy, though there is some consolation via rather beautifully staged intimations of an afterlife. Bardem’s character has a special gift: he speaks with the recently deceased and thus knows there’s something after all this suffering and worry. His performance is marvelous, alternately fiery and calm, and there are moments, sequences, actually, of real grace—we’re dealing with a director that above all thinks in sequences—but there’s also that nagging sense that González Iñárritu is, once again, just too heavy-handed, too eager to impart upon us his own ostensible profundity. I have very mixed feelings, though nothing in Biutiful irritated me as much as that third act of Babel.

Alexei Fedorchenko’s
Silent Souls begins in the Kostroma village of Neya, “a place no one remembers anymore,” while its story deals with customs that are equally in danger of being forgotten. A woman dies, and her husband, the director of a paper mill, wants to deal with her remains in the traditional ways of the Merja, an ancient Finno-Ugric tribe from whom many of Neya’s citizens are descended. This involves, among other things, washing the body, fastening coloured ribbons to her pubic hair, and transporting her to a river, where she’s to be cremated before having her ashes deposited in the water. The ritual requires the cooperation of the paper mill’s photographer, who’s the picture of discretion, and also our narrator. Silent Souls just won the FIPRESCI prize at Venice and has already received a lot of highly enthusiastic reviews. It’s a serious, thoughtful, very respectful work, and I’m happy to see it doing well, but I just wasn’t quite as taken with it as many of my colleagues. Based on a novel by Aist Sergeyev, I am sure found it too reliant on voice-over, too overbearing in its use of music, and, even when taking the somberness of the action into account, its performances still struck me as a little more lifeless than seemed entirely necessary. Yet its story, especially as it pertains to the Merja culture, is never less than fascinating. It’s final image is truly poetic—and relayed almost entirely through voice-over.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Lost in space, dying of spiritual thirst: Looking back at Darren Aronofsky's Fountain

On the eve of the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, I thought it would be fun to look back at a review I wrote for Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, a film almost unanimously dismissed upon its appearance at TIFF 2006, and which might have torpedoed the ambitious young filmmaker's career if it weren't followed by the much celebrated The Wrestler, which had its North American premiere at TIFF 2008. Aronofsky's Black Swan is among the most anticipated films playing at this year's festival.


Six years after Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain finally arrives with a hefty load of extra-filmic baggage –an infamously protracted and tumultuous production, boos at the Venice Film Festival– and a premise so dazzlingly pretentious as to guarantee responses even more polarized that those that met its predecessor. Yet if this finds the right audience –probably small, probably fans of Ken Russell films, Herman Hesse novels, CG Jung, Joseph Campbell and psychotropic substances– it will in its peculiar way be embraced as the sort of wildly flawed, improbably ambitious gem that comes along only rarely, a phenomenon akin to a comet, the sighting of some endangered beast, or a functioning health care system.

The Fountain’s structure is tripartite and intrinsically circular. In one strand we find Thomas (Hugh Jackman), a genetic scientist desperate to shrink a tumour in a monkey’s brain while his wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) dies from some terrible illness and composes an enigmatic novel in laughably immaculate calligraphy. In the second, Tomas (again, Jackman) is a conquistador charged with finding the Mayan tree of life in the New World for the lovely Queen Isabel (Weisz). In the third, Tom (yep, Jackman) is the lone inhabitant of some hermetic ball adrift in space, haunted by voices and doing kung fu against the stars. These narratives dove-tail and are compressed into 96 minutes, an impressively taut running time that renders two of these strands, not inappropriately, into virtual cinematic haikus. Visual dynamics dominate: long-shots press up against extra-tight close-ups; gaseous portals seep through the jaundiced glow of space, recalling old sci-fi paperback covers; terrifyingly fecund jungles give way to stark wintry plains. The aesthetic is alternately seductive, chillingly lonely and somewhat oppressive.

Dialogue tends to be awkward, scenes contrived and characters more symbolic than recognizable. What’s of substance here is the fluid realization of deeply primal themes, thus Aronofsky thinks nothing of having a scene where Jackman stabs a tree and out flows the juice of immortality! Which looks suspiciously like cum. Weisz is required mostly to be beatific, yet Jackman’s unruly performance somehow ascends to operatic heights, matching Aronofsky’s lofty themes with vivid romantic fortitude. For every scene that courts ridicule there’s another that, call me crazy, is strangely, profoundly moving. In his desire for everlasting life and love, Tom sacrifices immediacy, and his is a tragedy written in glyphs, not naturalistic gestures.

Because it aspires to fuse images and music into an expression of abstract spiritual and mythical concepts, The Fountain will, for some, invite only mockery and dismissal. But against my more sober criteria, I found myself kind of swept up in it, beguiled by its preposterous beauty and over-earnest transcendentalism, its inarticulate fatalism that finally speaks to our innate sense of eternal return. I can accept or even welcome whatever jabs at its abundant silliness others might make, but I still can’t deny that I left the film feeling eerily connected to that guy sitting cross-legged in his little ball.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Citizen on patrol: A conversation with Jonathan Lethem about work, groups, genre, the movies, and the enduring power of Dick

A subterranean monster-tiger wreaks destruction upon New York below a chocolate-scented cloud that emits ear-piercing drones heard only by select citizens. Somewhere within the city’s labyrinthine clusters of living space, mystically glowing vases attract stupendous bids on eBay. The socio-geographical canvas of Jonathan Lethem’s
Chronic City (Vintage, $17.95) is teeming with the fantastic and the hilariously banal. The novel chronicles the friendship of Chase Insteadman and Perkus Tooth, the former a grown-up child star now semi-famous for being the fiancé of Janice Trumbull, an astronaut trapped indefinitely in the International Space Station, the latter a dandyish, borderline recluse, and cult-legend arts critic with a fondness for burgers, weed, and Marlon Brando. The pleasures of Lethem’s latest are derived from its relentless invention, sense of place, masterful banter, micro-hierarchies, deliciously absurd dinners with pajama-clad millionaires, and luxurious descriptions of characters that are only intermittently realistic yet nearly always suffused with truth and insight. I spoke with Lethem last November in Toronto, lost my record of our conversation, then found it again, just in time for Chronic City’s trade paperback release.

JB: Several critics have noted the unusual blend of density of incident and paucity of classical narrative structure in
Chronic City. Were you conscious of nurturing this sort of busy looseness?

Jonathan Lethem: That’s a great term for it. I think of this book as having an extremely somber, morbid background, almost like a giant Hieronymus Bosch mural of New York City in the 21st century, specifically of Manhattan between 9/11 and the financial collapse. In the foreground, it’s really an antic tangle of characters and their day-to-day hanging out. It’s behaviour. It’s not a plot in a classical sense. It’s almost more like a season of
Seinfeld. One stupid day spent with this bunch of people after the next. Their self-absorption is thematically linked to the things that are wrong with the city I’m writing about.

JB: It has a fluidity that’s dictated by the ensemble. In a sense it reminds me of certain Robert Altman films.

JL: That’s good! I like that too. That makes sense.

JB: In your last book of stories, as well as in
You Don’t Love Me Yet and Chronic City, I’ve been enjoying your sensitivity to social hierarchies and group dynamics, how different personalities negotiate their place in a rock band, a dinner party or some impromptu assembly of previously compartmentalized friends.

JL: I’m very interested in people forming groups, both useful and useless ones. I’m interested in the structures we arrange for ourselves, what we can take from them and how they can become hiding places or worlds unto themselves.

JB: It occurred to me that for all the more identifiably science-fiction genre work you’ve written,
Chronic City seems the most directly indebted to Philip K. Dick. I was recently reading A Maze of Death and Ubik and it occurred to me that Dick’s work is also often deeply concerned with group dynamics.

JL: Absolutely.
Chronic City definitely marks a return for me. Having re-read so many of Dick’s books to put together those Library of America volumes, I renewed what is a very permanent influence, a very permanent engagement for me. I got down to the root level with it again and thought, I can use this stuff, I can make more of this again. Because I’d become a very different writer from when I first set out and was very consciously influenced by Dick. I can transmute these materials in a new way because of things I’ve since learned to do and the way I’ve learned to write about New York City. So I was very aware of bringing him into this one.

JB: Has being a father changed your writing?

JL: Probably. It’s been very good on a mechanical level. It meant that I found an office outside of my house and work on a computer with no internet. So instead of indulging myself in sort of always writing and never writing, working throughout the day in this very princely way, now I go and I’m a worker. I get my job done for a few hours and then I go on to other responsibilities. I like the result of that. The deeper, thematic effects of fatherhood will likely emerge only very slowly. I’m not a journalist on ay level. I’m very slow to reflect parts of my life in my work. It took me 20 years to write about my childhood in Brooklyn.

JB: Do you always find a place for some version of yourself in your books?

JL: I feel I’m everywhere. Even before I was writing in any way autobiographically, I could see that I was turning aspects of myself into various characters. If they live at all it’s because I’ve smuggled something of myself into them. It sounds very solipsistic. The book itself is a virtual hall of mirrors. But it’s also my enthusiasms, my responses, my friends, characters from other people’s books, all of these things.

JB: I suppose writing about art is a way of giving your characters life. I’m thinking of
Fortress of Solitude and the sheer number of artists or art enthusiasts in that book.

JL: In that book especially art is a mediating way to dwell on the world. The graffiti artists, the musicians, the science-fiction convention, all of these are different ways that people try to thrive in a difficult universe through the avenue of culture. Even criticism, even Dylan Edbus’ writing about music, is an attempt to build some kind of meaningful place for himself.

Chronic City starts in the offices of the Criterion Collection and features numerous digressions into film culture. You’re obviously a film nut. Have you never entertained the notion of writing for the screen, or even directing?

JL: When I was a kid I wanted to be a director very much, but to do that would be rival commitment to the one I’ve made to writing fiction. I don’t think screenwriting is where the action is. If I cared to make film I’d have to direct it. So I’ve just decided to just enjoy this adjacent relationship where I write books that are very responsive to film and in turn tend to attract filmmakers and get me into all sorts of interesting, sticky bystander situations. That’s just enough to give me the fun of dabbling in that world without the totally intimidating prospect of actually originating something myself. I watch filmmakers. My wife is a filmmaker. It’s not an art to be a dabbler or dilettante in. It’s enormous.

JB: Are there things you’d like to convey without words?

JL: I do think about that. I was a painter for a long time, and even in a very wordy book like
Chronic City I’m interested in issues of inexpressibility, conundrums that defy language. But I’m pretty well situated where I am. I get to do a lot of what I want to do.

JB: To speak more generally of the culture-obsessive quality of your books, do you ever think about how this aspect of your work will speak to future generations? I’ve often recommended
Fortress of Solitude, but I’ve recommended it most often to people who share some of my own interests in the art, films and music referred to in the text. Do you envision a day when new editions of Fortress of Solitude will require copious footnotes?

JL: God bless that possibility. That would be cool if it rated those footnotes. People always want me to be concerned about this issue, and I sometimes try to be, but when you read Dickens you’re in Dickens’ London, with every immensity of detail, the street names, the commercial jingles that were in the air, the snippets of folk culture dialect and jokes. When you encounter Saul Bellow you’re immersed in his mid-century Chicago, and for better or worse you just have to embrace it. And you do because it’s all emotionally charged for him. I just try to meet that standard. I try to make everything matter on the terms of the book. I try not to let anything be too indulgent and extraneous. If you’re going to write about culture you have to accept that you have one.

JB: Do you read as much as you used to?

JL: Never as much as I did. When I was a teenager and through my 20s I was an insanely voracious reader. I miss that, but I could never reproduce those conditions. Forget having a family, once I really got my habit of writing going, that occupies too much of the same mental space, and even physical space, the sitting still, using your eyes. So I couldn’t read the way I used to, but I try to read a lot.

JB: Do you still have relevatory experiences reading?

JL: Yes. Again, they couldn’t come as rapidly as when one week I was discovering Kafka and the next I was discovering Stanislaw Lem and the next Shirley Jackson. I was moving through worlds so rapidly. There are fewer earth-shattering experiences, but when it happens the earth still shatters. Reading Roberto Bolaño the last couple of years did that for me.

JB: Do you read while deep into work?

JL: Yeah, I always do. There’s nothing that I’m trying to protect from influence. It’s great if I get excited about something while working. It reminds me of what it’s for.

JB: I was recently speaking with Paul Auster and was struck by his claim to not read anything, at least not fiction, while he’s working.

JL: He gets more novels written than I do, so perhaps there’s something to be said for that. [Laughs]

Friday, September 3, 2010

Machete: Knives out, but not much cutting edge

“There’s an interesting face,” Jessica Alba says upon her first glimpse of Danny Trejo in
Machete. It’s an observation that’s surely followed Trejo around his whole life. The beloved ex-con, boxer and character actor is 66 now and has been in well over 100 movies, yet, if we don’t count Champion, the documentary about Trejo’s life, Machete marks his debut as a lead. Trejo’s always been a welcome presence wherever he turns up, that distinctively weathered and initially frightening face that masks a terrifically deadpan sense of humour. He’s exactly the sort of perpetual background player film-lovers long to see promoted to the spotlight, yet thanks to largely half-assed conception, Trejo’s star moment as Machete’s eponymous ex-federale hero may just constitute the least interesting performance he’s given.

Written by Robert Rodriguez and his cousin Álvaro, and directed by Rodriguez and his longtime editor Ethan Maniquis,
Machete is the fitfully entertaining extrapolation of a trailer featured in Grindhouse, the exploitation homage collaboration between Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Predictably, Machete plays like a convoy of trailers, united by a plot crammed with corrupt Texan politicians and underground revolutionaries that’s more busy than it is cohesive or even coherent. The lack of narrative elegance is of course part of the movie’s ostensible charm, but what starts out as prankish plot holes and playful implausibilities increasingly feels like lazy screenwriting. What resembles button-pushing political commentary rapidly reveals itself to be flamboyantly irrelevant. Rodriquez uses pastiche as an opportunity to rest on cliché. Clichés can make marvelous tools when animated, but Rodriguez frequently seems content to simply prop them up as platforms for yet another set piece.

Bereft of anything like emotions, ambitions or conflicts, Trejo is left mostly with one-liners, some of them quite deftly delivered—I especially liked “Machete don’t text.” Converted to the side of the desperate migrant workers she used to deport, Alba’s immigration cop becomes the resident cheerleader: “There’s the law, and there’s what’s right!” The rest is one-joke stunt casting: Robert De Niro’s an ultra-right wing senator; Don Johnson, in aviator shades, cowboy hat and shark fin sideburns, is a cop who slaughters Mexicans for sport; Lindsay Lohan stretches out to play a rich girl with a drug problem and a hunger for publicity; Steven Segal’s a drug lord with an absurd toupee. Cheech Marin’s a priest with a penchant for weed.

Machete’s most inspired, or at least liveliest bits arrive through a creative attitude toward the human body—a lady retrieves a telephone from her vagina. The killing is gleefully rampant and mercifully cartoonish, with fountains of digital splatter and everything that vaguely resembles a sharp object eventually impaling somebody—kudos to whoever thought of the meat thermometer. Thing is, Machete’s funniest display of violence is decidedly non-lethal, with Trejo warding off a bodyguard by slapping his wrists with a weed whacker. I suppose he could have just chopped his arm off or unspoiled his intestines like he does in so many other confrontations, but in a movie that thrives on excess it’s amazing how far a little restraint can go to win you over. When Trejo and the bodyguard finally part ways the latter is left caged to a wall with pruning shears, no doubt happy just to be alive. He never knew what hit him.