Thursday, October 28, 2010

All about my dead mother: 24 hour Psycho, Psycho, Psycho II: window, Lightbox, idiot box

24 Hour Psycho Back and Forth and To and Fro
as installed in the Tramway, Glasgow

It yielded a very, very strange and fleeting moment of tranquility when I paused on King Street one night during the Toronto International Film Festival last September to observe a teenage couple holding hands, calmly watching the two projected images nestled against one another, hovering just a few feet inside the window. We were all of us just outside the newly opened TIFF Bell Lightbox, whose gallery housed the piece, and the street was bustling with people and traffic. Line-ups were filing inside and others still forming outside for the evening’s various screenings. The couple watched Douglas Gordon’s
24 Hour Psycho Back and Forth and To and Fro. I watched them watching 24 Hour Psycho Back and Forth and To and Fro. None of us spoke for a long while. I wondered if how intimately they knew Hitchcock’s movie, what this might mean to them if they didn’t know it at all, if it was a sort of American icon you didn’t really need to experience to feel that you were already on familiar terms with, like Warhol’s soup can, the Statue of Liberty, or Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I felt tremendous satisfaction, seeing how transfixed the couple appeared, because like a million other people I love Psycho. It scares me and moves more now than when I first saw it, back when I was a little younger than the couple on the street. As for 24 Hour Psycho, I first saw that in Mexico City a few years ago at a massive Gordon retrospective, where it inhabited an enormous room, looming over its audience from a great height, and I was drawn into it for I don’t know how long. Time became slippery, both on screen and off. My first experience of it wasn’t too different from the sort of experience described in Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, which opens and closes with a man experiencing Gordon’s piece at the Museum of Modern Art. This experience, here in Toronto, was different, being outside, being in the street, not in the air-conditioned comfort of a museum. While the three of us stood there Marion Crane was alive on one screen and dead on the other. It was like the two screens were pages of a book from which many other pages had been ripped out, the pages that detailed Marion’s death. The kids walked away and I stayed on, watching. On one of the screens a pair of eyes were slowly, slowly moving in my direction, and I felt I couldn’t look away.

The story, you’ll recall, concerns a secretary living in Phoenix named Marion, who might be in love with a married man who owns a hardware store in another town—if it isn’t love it’s close enough, given her prospects. She’s entrusted with a not unsubstantial envelope filled with cash. She flees with that cash, almost gets to Fairvale, where the man lives, but she stops at a motel, meets a peculiar, lonely, yet oddly endearing young man. They sit in his parlour for a little while with sandwiches and milk, overseen by stuffed birds, and have what is easily the most intimate moment of human connection in the entire movie—what is one of my favourite scenes in
any movie. Their encounter is essentially random, and proves to be devastatingly so. From this point things are turned on their head, a detective story begins, a swamp in consulted, certain scenes become almost funny, a sister arrives and maybe she’ll eventually take Marion’s place in the arms of the man, sort of like in that other story of a missing woman that came out the same year, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura. Seeing Psycho again I recalled a terrific moment in Hal Hartley’s Simple Men. If I remember correctly (it’s been many years), it’s early in the movie, and Martin Donovan, in defense of a woman he loves, barks out “Pushy women are great!” The Crane sisters, Marion and Lila, are pushy and they are great, though it’s the far sexier and cagier one, the one played by the inimitable Janet Leigh, that exits the movie halfway through. The 50th Anniversary Restoration of Psycho opens at Lightbox today. Unlike Gordon’s installation, you can’t see it from the street—you need to buy your ticket and be nestled in the darkness of the theatre. The movie looks gorgeous, the shadows deep and dense and almost eerily immaculate, so that every wrinkle in Marion Crane’s bare feet as she lies collapsed in the bathtub could be traced with a finger. The movie also sounds tremendous, especially every time the silence is cut by Bernard Herrmann’s dynamic, electroshock therapy score, which pivots bracingly from screeching violins to what sound like low fog horns from Hades. Another digression: I recently attended a Lightbox screening of The Godfather. I enjoyed it immensely, but every time the theme music started up I found it difficult to hear it as anything other than corny and over-familiar. Herrmann’s Psycho score by contrast never seems to get old. I get excited to hear it the same way I would to hear a beloved record. If by chance you’ve never seen Psycho—and if you haven’t stop reading this and just go already—I can’t really think of a better introduction. If you know Psycho, know how chilling, psychologically rich, and formally interesting it is, do yourself a favour and see this latest re-release.

Between, I’m going to guess, the ages of about nine and fourteen, I watched
Psycho II so many times I lost count. It came out in 1983. I taped it off TV and for some reason just kept returning to it late at night when my parents were in bed and I couldn’t sleep. I just returned to it for the first time in about twenty years and it was the weirdest feeling—though most of it left my conscious memory, watching it again I could anticipate almost every line and gesture, but only about thirty seconds before it happened. I wish I could tell you that my revisiting of Psycho II after all these years was rewarding. Truth is it’s not very good. It actually opens with a bafflingly awful idea, replaying Hitchcock’s shower scene in its entirety as a sort of vestibule, as if to remind you what this sequel will never come close to living up to. Anyway, after 23 years of being locked up Norman Bates is declared “restored to sanity” and allowed to take a job in a diner and reinstate himself at the Bates Motel. It is, of course, utterly fascinating to see Tony Perkins re-inhabit the role of Norman. His speech patterns and body language and odd paucity of affect suddenly resemble those of Andy Warhol. Preposterously, a very young, vulnerable, and holy-cow-beautiful Meg Tilly comes to live with Norman in the house where he had his troubles. Rather quickly the killings begin, but it doesn’t seem like it’s Norman doing them. Could it be Mother? Is this going to be a zombie movie? Answers eventually come, though they don’t make much sense. Director Richard Franklin has studied his Hitch and echoes the master director’s swoops and close-ups, and even painstakingly quotes the shower scene—that very same one we just saw at the top of Psycho II—with nearly as much fidelity as Gus Van Sant. If Franklin and writer Tom Holland really wanted to mimic Psycho however then they would have had to have made Dennis Franz the protagonist for the first half of the movie. Incidentally, Franz turns 66 today—happy birthday, Dennis!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Language is like a drawbridge": A conversation with Joshua Ferris

photo by Nina Subin

Joshua Ferris’
Then We Came to the End chronicled the life and death of a Chicago advertising firm. Relayed in the first-person plural, it was sharp, witty and insightful about how work informs our lives. It was also a hit, and won Ferris the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Novel. Ferris’ follow-up, The Unnamed (Reagan Arthur/Black Bay Books, $15.99), is more harrowing and more moving. It concerns Tim Farnsworth, a successful lawyer stricken with a bizarre ailment that manifests in compulsive, uncontrollable walking. In the midst of whatever activity Tim can suddenly be carried far away by his own legs, trudging through sometimes punishing weather without appropriate clothing or supplies until he collapses into sleep whenever and wherever his body finally gives out. His condition gradually eats away at everything he cherishes, including his job and his marriage to Jane, whose genuine devotion to Tim is pushed to its limits. The Unnamed observes its characters’ trials with tremendous tenderness. Though fascinating, inventive, and at times extremely humorous, it’s uncompromising, even brutal in how it follows its central idea to what ultimately feels like its inevitable conclusion. I spoke with Ferris last week when he was in Toronto attending the International Festival of Authors.

JB: Your first novel took its title from a line in Don DeLillo’s
Americana. There’s a certain boldness of language and engagement with vernacular in The Unnamed that occasionally recalls DeLillo as well. Does he remain an important touchstone for you?

Joshua Ferris: DeLillo’s a giant. He’ll forever be incorruptible for me. His books are woven into my reader’s DNA. How that translates into my own writing is very hard for me to say. I think it’s important to try to not sound like DeLillo. I’ll go out of my way to strike sentences that sound too much like DeLillo or Proust or Hemingway. If I can feel the hovering presence of someone I admire within a sentence, I scratch it out.

JB: Because it gives an undesirable sense of assurance, knowing that your writing conforms to a tested model?

JF: No. It just gives me a sense of anxiety. I’d rather write a bad sentence that seems to possess authorial intent from me than write a good sentence whose authorial intent can be ascribed to someone else. That may be pride talking, but I think it’s also something deeper than that, going back to an Emersonian self-reliance that states that to borrow from someone else is to abdicate your originality. There may in fact be nothing new under the sun, but it’s important to try my best to sound like me.

JB: What does it mean to name something? Your novel implies that the difference between having and not having a name is the difference between having a place in the world and being rejected by it.

JF: I think that’s accurate. It’s also about having a set of attributes that adhere to you. There’s a tic you find sometimes in writing. You have a character named John and you’re told something is “a very John-like thing to do.” It’s a shorthand for some writers to convey an entire personality, just using the character’s name as a modifier. When you take that name away, you’re looking nakedly at the object itself—maybe you’re unable to look at it. The specific referent in the title of
The Unnamed is the unnamed disease. You can’t make anything of it. Doctors can’t rally around it. There can’t be a 5K run in benefit of it. So the result of this namelessness is a tremendous loneliness. Adam named the animals for a reason—he was lonely. By naming the animals he got closer to them. If he’d kept the animals nameless it would have been a much chillier garden. This goes back to what language can and can’t do, how it bridges certain gaps, how it breaks down. The limits of language are something I wanted to explore in the book, especially with respect to subjective experience, how you can or cannot convey to your most intimate loved ones how you’re actually feeling. To extend the metaphor, language is like a drawbridge. Sooner or later it goes up and you can’t get to the other side.

JB: Do you relate to Tim and Jane’s relationship, to how they attempt to express their feelings to each other?

JF: Yes. I think what they do in a more dramatic way what many married people do, which is come together at a moment in time, find themselves speaking the same language, and then for whatever reason fly apart. Far apart, and for a long time. Then they come back together for inexplicable reasons and do it all over again. My reading of the book is that it’s basically a love story.

JB: Has writing this novel strengthened or weakened your faith in the durability of love?

JF: That’s tough to say. I don’t think that a novel informs or comments upon its writer. The writer had those ideas somewhere in them prior to writing the book. Once written, the book might represent one-tenth of the writer’s understanding of love. There’s still that other 90% of the writer’s psyche that hasn’t been plumbed.
The Unnamed is one take regarding one couple. It can’t really teach me anything. All I taught myself in writing it was how to write the book. The finished novel is not a textbook for the future writer.

JB: But are you surprised by what you’re saying about love as you write, what you seem to believe or hold dear?

JF: Yes, quite often. I’m probably being instructed as I write, getting some clarity as to how I see things. It’s like feeling something in the dark and then suddenly shining a light on it. Pretty or not, there it is.

JB: You were saying earlier that you have a poor memory. What makes you say that?

JF: Fiction seems to be made up of three predominant branches, those being memory, imagination and language. I can do language pretty well. I can do imagination well. But memory seems to be my weak branch. I’m sure there are writers who would want more branches or fewer branches or whatever, but that’s how I see it.

The Unnamed lends itself to being read as an allegory, but I’m personally uncomfortable with that term because it seems to imply a one-to-one relationship between the ostensible metaphor and what it represents.

JF: I never in a million years would have written this with the intention of it being seen as allegory. The allegorical readings I’ve come across have surprised me. It’s obviously a metaphor for sickness because I invented the disease. I wanted to explore sickness without the baggage of a known disease. When I read Kafka, I don’t think of Josephine the Mouse as an allegory or metaphor for something else. I don’t read about K.’s travels in the castle as a metaphor for the terrible bureaucracy that overtook the 20th century and led to the systematic decimation of Jews in the Holocaust. I take it all very literally, and only later think about the allegorical possibilities surrounding the story. That eventually gives you a fuller and more interesting reading, but I think the primary work of the reader is to imagine the actual, literal situation described. That’s responsible reading. The rest is 10th grade term papers.

JB: There’s a current running through
The Unnamed that concerns religious belief, and it seems that you’ve left the door open in the novel’s final passage, with Tim suspended in this almost metaphysical space of listening and anticipation.

JF: That was always my intention. Dogmatic fiction, fiction that closes doors on possibilities, isn’t exciting for me. To go back to DeLillo, one of the great triumphs of
White Noise is that it is excoriating about technology. Technology is something to be dreaded in the book, and there’s a real nostalgia for pre-technological time. But the same sentences that cause me to arrive at those conclusions are the very same sentences that bring a tremendous Romanticism to technology. Throughout The Unnamed there are philosophical ideas presented concerning the existence of God or the difference between the mind and body. For me to have tried to close the book with clear, absolute conclusions to the explorations of those ideas would have taken the book out of the realm of fiction and into that of the essay. I don’t think that’s my job. I was always trying to tell the story, to rely on imagination, and where it landed was where it had to land.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Do you believe in Magic?

When Corky first takes the stage for Amateur Night he totally bombs. Once this hits home his habitual timidity suddenly falls away and he berates the audience for failing to appreciate his card tricks. Corky relates this story to his bedridden mentor and revises it as he goes. We see select flashbacks that could verify or contradict his narrative depending how you figure it, and so right from the start
Magic (1978) is already playing with misdirection, albeit conservatively so—you get to feeling the movie can’t bear to let Corky be truly humiliated. Next time we see Corky perform he’s got Fats in tow, and all that rage Corky couldn’t keep in check has now been channeled into Fats. This miniature version of Corky redistributes Corky’s repression, cursing and insulting everyone in the room and having them roaring with laughter. With Fats’ help Corky now gets paid for his tantrums. Fats even helps Corky win the affections of that beauty he loved from afar in high school. You might even say Fats can get away with murder. Or try, anyway. Magic is a little like Dead Ringers (88) except instead of two Jeremy Ironses you’ve got Anthony Hopkins and a dummy.

Okay, so
Magic isn’t nearly as fascinatingly perverse, chillingly sexy, or generally psychologically juicy as the Cronenberg, but it’s still pretty nifty, if a tad overlong. Adapted by William Goldman from his own novel, directed by Richard Attenborough before Gandhi (82), and starring Hopkins long before Hannibal Lecter, there’s a sense that this modest horror picture with the high-grade talent probably caught most audiences off guard. It left a number of critics sniffy and dismissive, but it’s developed something of a cult following and is available on DVD and now Blu-ray from Dark Sky.

The dummy really is creepy, but this has much to do with Hopkins’ uncanny ability to convey the clot of pettiness nurtured by the damaged child locked inside the beefy adult, something that comes across like lightning every time his face goes from slack to smiling. Hopkins is very good with the ventriloquism—a practice once suspected of being in league with the devil, and one, we should note, usually mastered before puberty—but the movie is almost better when you can see him move his lips. Burgess Meredith has a terrific supporting role as Corky’s manager, bald on top, with glasses and foot-long cigars that make him look like a Vegas Hunter S. Thompson. Eschewing camp, he’s somehow just about
Magic’s most sympathetic character, yet his affection for Corky, who he’s convinced with be the next Rich Little, is perhaps best not thought about too carefully. Corky’s clearly got a screw loose long before Fats starts to nag him like Norman Bates’ mother.

Victor Kemper’s cinematography is lovely and effective, evoking the movie’s pervading sadness through diffused light, and often playfully doubling Corky with ostentatious shadows. Breaking away from the epic for a change, Attenborough’s strengths here lie with his attention to actors and their business. Besides creating the right space for Hopkins to give his very polished but nonetheless remarkable performance, Attenborough also gets terrific work out of even the minor players, such as the cab driver who gives Corky a tour of his home town and looks like Keith Ritchie from the A-Team. But I think Magic’s most wonderful surprise is Ann-Margaret—that’s right, Anthony Hopkins gets to make out with Ann-Margaret. She’s great because she seems to understand that the teenage hottie once desired by every boy in town might grow up to be lonely, lost, and a little loopy herself. Her spastic glee upon seeing old Corky do his thing with Fats feels just a little off—most gorgeous women I’ve known don’t usually get so excited about nerds with talking dolls. Of course, we can always fantasize.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Carlos and the body politic: a conversation with Olivier Assayas

He blows something up and then retires to a quiet room to admire his handsome and chiseled naked figure in a full-length mirror. We see him seduce a colleague by placing a grenade between her teeth. “Weapons,” he explains, “are an extension of my body.” Revolution turns this guy on—or is it simply the promise of spectacular violence undertaken with whatever sort of justification? He committed acts of terror, including murder and hostage-taking, on behalf a people located half a world away from his native Venezuela, and attained a very peculiar and confused sort of celebrity doing so. The celebrity would eclipse the revolutionary until confused celebrity was all that was left. He donned a Che beret. He smoked cigars from Fidel Castro’s personal reserve. He stockpiled weapons, gave orders, made threats and lived all over Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Saddam Hussein was supposed to have been a big fan. “You’ll be hearing my name a lot,” he ensures us, though he’s referring not to his given name of Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, but rather to his more austere nom de guerre: Carlos.

Carlos is also the title of Oliver Assayas’ 333-minute bio-pic, made for French television, starring the tireless and valiant Venezuelan-born actor Édgar Ramírez, and is now playing, with two intermissions, in cinemas. It opens today in Toronto at Bell Lightbox. With its focus on action, its frenetic post punk soundtrack, its jump cuts that jump just a few frames forward, as though our storyteller is at once impatient and doesn’t want to miss a thing, the film unfolds over an engaging and surprisingly fleet-footed five hours-plus. Assayas is working in a mode entirely divorced from the complicated familial exchanges, subtle emotional nuance and passages of pastoral tranquility that characterized his previous film, the masterful and heartbreaking Summer Hours. Like its eponymous central character, the flamboyant terrorist who came to prominence in the 1970s and would eventually be dubbed “Carlos the Jackal,” Carlos is a corpulent and muscular work, carefully tracking the evolution, or rather devolution, of the mind and body of a figure that is, as Assayas explains below, both utterly singular and representative of certain ideological shifts that erupted in the wake of 1968.

It was my great honour to interview Assayas, whose body of work is so prolific and diverse, and contains a couple of my favourite films of the last 15 years or so. Slim and electric, Assayas is like a wire. We met at a Toronto hotel. He wore a smart little cardigan over a T-shirt emblazoned with the cover art for Sonic Youth’s
Goo. He’s 55 and there remains something boyish about him. But his nervous manner of speaking is countered by his confidence and convictions, his volubility countered by the precision of his answers, even when delivered in his second language. A former critic and editor of Cahiers du cinéma, Assayas has no trouble talking about movies. What follows is longer than I’d planned, but if you’ve seen Carlos or know something about Ramírez Sánchez’s life you might find the initial exchanges interesting. If you haven’t seen it or don’t know his story, you might want to scroll down just a little.

Assayas on the set of Carlos

JB: You’re only a few years younger than Carlos, which would have put you in your late teens and early 20s when he first became active. Do you retain memories of him from that period?

Olivier Assayas: The Rue Toullier killings were for me very striking, as they were for any Frenchman at the time, because of their brutality and mystery. No one knew what had really happened or why. It was like lightning striking. It was very close to home in that it occurred in the Latin Quarter, which is where all the universities were, and I was a student at the time. I would walk those streets every day.

JB: Had you formed any opinion at the time about his activities?

OA: You couldn’t have an opinion because you had no idea who he was. He was from Venezuela. He wasn’t a Palestinian militant. So who was this guy? Why was he shooting French cops? There was no apparent rationale. There was no way of feeling close to whatever the cause was because the cause was unreadable. He was a cop killer. As a teenager, you know, maybe you’re not fond of cops, so you stupidly think it’s kind of cool that he killed three of them.

The real Ilich "Carlos" Ramírez Sánchez

JB: Between that period in the 1970s and your being approached with this project, had you kept track of him?

OA: Only as much as anyone who reads the newspapers. He had been again in the news in France later, when Magdalena Kopp was arrested and with the series of bombings that followed, supposedly done with the intention to set her free, though in reality it was more connected to the ongoing war between France and Syria. But at the time this was all a blur, because it was not established that Carlos was involved in the bombings and it was not widely known that Magdalena Kopp was his wife. There were just these Germans who were arrested in connection with a car bomb. We knew that they were arrested in the parking lot, that there was supposedly weapons in the car, that they tried to escape and to shoot the cops. All of a sudden Carlos sends this menacing message saying those guys are part of my group and I want them free. We didn’t know if it was the real Carlos or what his connection was to these two. Carlos would not say at the time that Magdalena was his wife. No one knew, because if they had she would have been interrogated. They would have never let her go. So I read about these actions, but the reports available rendered them completely blurred, full of contradictions. Carlos was just a bogeyman.

JB: Did this project seem to offer an opportunity to explore and perhaps critique a political ideology?

OA: To me there was a broader arc that concerned the story of a generation, this question of whether or not to be involved in the armed struggle. After 1968, people really believed that revolution was imminent. But the years passed and nothing happened. You had unrest and activism, but ultimately this revolution did not seem like it was coming. That was when militants started asking questions. Maybe they lacked the right approach. Maybe the solution was to take up weapons, as had been done in third world countries, or in Europe in the distant past. In France the conclusion was that no, it wasn’t a good idea. But in other countries, like Germany, Italy or Japan, that was the route they chose. Carlos was just one step ahead. When he was 19 he had a gun in his hand. He was fighting with the Palestinians in Jordan. He was militant and active at a very young age. So in a sense, he went faster and further than anyone else of his generation, but acted in the background of the political mainstream of the time. So I realized how emblematic his story could be of a particular idea that this generation had lingering in their minds. He is, of course, a very unique character with an exceptional fate, but somehow I realized how connected his fate was to the story of his time.

JB: A significant part of Carlos’ story is told through the body of your lead actor, Édgar Ramírez. His is a marathon performance and required a truly exceptional commitment. Did you have to use different tactics with him than you’d used with actors in the past?

OA: Frankly, Édgar was pretty much on his own. His input in this film goes way beyond embodying Carlos. He was a partner in creating this film. He had a vision of Carlos. He understood exactly what was going on. I kind of helped him and we discussed things, but these discussions were not frequent.

JB: Were you aware from the start of just how fundamental the link would be between Carlos’ shifting physicality and his shifting philosophy, between his sense of sexual potency and his desire for violence?

OA: It was always essential. For me, the film, or at least one layer of the film, was, as you say, the story of the body of Carlos. It’s a layer that’s nourished by historical fact. It’s highly relevant that at the end of this story everything falls apart, including his body.

JB: Did it require a great deal of negotiation to find the right ways to photograph Édgar’s body?

OA: Édgar was 100% open to basically anything. He went all the way with every scene, without blinking. Sometimes it was very tough on him.

JB: I understand he underwent therapy afterwards to deal with the trauma of playing Carlos.

OA: I only discovered this when I read the interview he gave for the press notes. I was surprised. But I understood. You know, the one thing that kind of disturbed me when I started working on this film was this question: Was I ready to spend a year and a half of my life with Carlos, who’s basically a very unpleasant character? Do I want to be in touch with the darkness of that character? I did not have any kind of easy answer for that. But meeting Édgar was key to solving the problem because, frankly, he was going to take over Carlos. He was going to lift that burden from my shoulders. I was in a better position because I was able to witness Édgar struggling to make sense of Carlos, to absorb the unpleasantness of the character. I think he did an extraordinary job, but I can understand why it’s been very hard on him. He had to think like and be like Carlos, which involved damaging his own body in the process, for a very long time, much longer than what’s typically demanded of actors.


JB: Your earlier work
demonlover has certain affinities with Carlos, being an international story and a political thriller, but what I find very interesting is that demonlover is very much characterized by the absence of connective tissue—it’s inherently elliptical—while Carlos is all about the fortifying of connective tissue. Did this aspect of the project excite you? Did it intimidate you?

OA: Basically, I like to do in movies the things I’ve not done before, so the more I feel intimidated, the more stuff I have no idea how to handle, the more exciting it is. That’s what keeps you alive. It puts you in danger. You have to reinvent your ways of approaching scenes, actors, and so on. The thing too is that the connectivity you’re describing is sort of what those times were about. There was this notion of collective action, of connection through ideals. Carlos can only function through organizing a group.
Demonlover comes from another age. It tries to grasp at something that was going on 20, 25 years later, a time when people are becoming more involved in their private, imaginary worlds, when ideology and collectivity is replaced by disconnection, when economic logic overwhelms the logic of ideals. Demonlover is about a world where politics are not relevant anymore, where the fluidity of money is more important than any political ideal, where real power is bestowed upon corporations rather than politicians. Which is pretty much what the modern world is about.

JB: The formal structure of
Carlos is obviously hugely ambitious. Did you have any models that inspired or encouraged you? Was Steven Soderbergh’s Che useful to you?

OA: Yes, it was. It’s a completely different film, but it was inspiring in the sense that, first of all, I enjoyed watching this four-and-a-half-hour film. It could have gone on and I would have been game. But in terms of the texture of the film, here is a movie that uses a mythical character—that uses the star power of this character—to deal with some very interesting issues.
Che is a case study in guerilla warfare, how it can be used to win a war and lose a war. The first part is triumphant, it’s about how you move from the bush into the villages, how you win over the peasants, how you enter the city, how you negotiate an urban guerilla situation, how you then move onto the capital and eventually win the war. The second part in Bolivia shows you exactly the opposite, how you never convince the peasants, how the terrain can be unfavourable, how the local politicians don’t support your actions, how the enemy has grown stronger because it’s come to understand your tactics, and so on. So it’s really a study in strategy, and this is something very few movies can deal with because it simply requires time. Strategy is about complexities, about small details, about understanding the connection between ideas and reality. The length of the film allowed it to deal with issues that shorter films cannot. Che gave me the conviction that I could shoot for something like that.

JB: Hm. It strikes me that, in a way,
Carlos is really Che Part III, in that you’re now looking at what becomes of revolutionary actions after the precedents of Cuba, after Bolivia, and going from Latin America in the ’50s and ’60s and into the Europe of the 1970s.

OA: Absolutely. That’s a very interesting way of looking at it. It’s like that famous phrase about how history repeats itself in the form of a comedy. It’s about how Carlos uses the image of Che at a later historical moment for his own ends. You have Che, who, whatever you think of his ideas, was kind of a hero. He was a theoretician and a revolutionary. He was involved in internationalizing the Cuban Revolution. He was ready to put his life on the line and wound up dying for his ideals. He was also a good writer and left a lot of reflections on his life and times. Carlos, by contrast, is a soldier. He’s not a thinker. He’s a guy who executes missions. He was very aware of his media image and knew it was beneficial to connect it to Che’s image, but it’s somehow pathetic.

JB: Was it always obvious to you how you wanted to end Carlos?

OA: It was pretty clear that the film would end with his arrest. His story really does end where we end it. He’d already been surviving himself for years at that stage. He’s become irrelevant.

JB: Kind of a ghost.

OA: Precisely—he’s a ghost of himself. So once he’s finally arrested, it was like something that just had to happen. He hardly even resists it, and no one will help him out, not even the Sudanese. I think even Carlos knew that this was the end of the movie.

Monday, October 18, 2010

My dearest fiend: on finally reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary Shelley

There’s that moment which occurs near the halfway point in Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein when Victor Frankenstein is finally reunited with the monster. Frankenstein has entered university, dazzled his mentors and, in secret, created his artificial man through some unholy marriage of archaic magic and scientific method. He’s fallen ill following the completion of his creation, like a mother weakened by the physical torments of birth. He’s utterly neglected to determine the monster’s whereabouts, and has gradually discovered its capacity for murder. He’s wracked with guilt over having breathed life into the monster’s piecemeal flesh, yet, foreshadowing all that follows, assumes no responsibility for the crimes the monster commits, crimes which Frankenstein, one of the worst parents in Western literature, could arguably have prevented.

The monster’s return is illuminated by a flash of lightning—the same phenomenon at which the 15-year-old Frankenstein marveled so fatefully. It approaches and, to the great shock of those familiar with Boris Karloff’s famously inarticulate manifestation, it begins to speak. “Do your duty towards me,” the monster beseeches his maker, “and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you in peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends… Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed… I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”

Theodor von Holst's frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

The monster asks Frankenstein to hear his story, and so begins this landmark novel’s most astonishing and moving section, the testament of this eight-foot wretch, who begins his biography by trying to describe the memory of coming into this world fully formed, cognizant and sensitive to basic needs, yet mystified by every new occurrence, and from the start orphaned. He takes to the wilderness, eventually learns to observe and imitate humans, is stirred by music, beauty, and familial love, comprehends the importance of interdependence and the inevitability of disappointment in others, and even educates himself into literacy with the help of volumes of Milton and Goethe. By the time the monster is able to converse with Frankenstein he’s become as eloquent as any character in the novel. This might seem unlikely, even more unlikely than the fact of the monster’s creation, given what we now appear capable of producing nearly 200 years later. But eloquence of any sort can seem unlikely when weighed against the savagery that mankind continues to prove capable of. This novel itself seems unlikely, a succinct, surprising, and imminently durable masterpiece, whose ostensible flaws obey the logic of dream on which the whole is founded, whose epistolary structure of stories within stories within stories reads as so completely modern, and whose magnificence was brought into the world by someone all of 18 years of age.

The draft of Frankenstein

I’m a lot older than 18 and have only now finally gotten round to reading
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in a handsome hardbound edition (Everyman’s Library, $21), so you’ll have to forgive my rapture. Obviously, I was perfectly aware of Frankenstein’s immeasurable influence, but I somehow failed to anticipate just how fascinating and strange its structure is, how evocative and often poetic its language, and how rich and diverse its themes or motifs, which constitute the region in which Shelley conveyed her highest level of sophistication.

Walton, the Englishman who is ultimately the novel’s only (perhaps unreliable) narrator, seeks adventure and glory in the Arctic, and his letters to his sister speak repeatedly about the preciousness and rarity of friendship—a concern mirrored exactly in the confessions of Victor Frankenstein, whom he encounters during his arduous travels and whose tale he records. Walton longs for the companionship of his sister, and this longing too is mirrored, with more explicit creepiness, in Frankenstein’s story, which iterates again and again Frankenstein’s abiding love for his adoptive sister, to whom he’s inescapably betrothed. And in the story of the monster too these same themes dominate: loneliness, and the desire for a lady companion born of the same fault-laden parentage. (I had no idea that right here in Shelley’s Frankenstein lie the seeds for Hollywood’s Bride of Frankenstein.)

The Bride of Frankenstein

Frankenstein is a story of absent mothers, ineffectual fathers, men without women. But where this gets really interesting is in Frankenstein’s own participation in his undoing. The monster is the product of Frankenstein’s own hubris, yet it could also be interpreted as a whopper of an excuse for Frankenstein’s perpetuating a fearful avoidance of consummation. If Frankenstein fails to fulfill the not entirely unreasonable requests of the monster—to my eyes the novel’s most sympathetic character—to produce for him a female counterpart, the monster promises to return to ruin Frankenstein’s life precisely on the night of his wedding. What better way to prolong bachelorhood! Frankenstein’s anxiety surrounding marriage is subverted by an act of masculine immaculate conception and the brutal and terrifying incidents that accumulate as a result. There are multiple morals to be gained from Shelley’s tale, and I wonder if among them is something about the immense power of sheer procrastination, which in the hands of the wrong genius can itself prove monstrous.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Radiant Child: Tamra Davis' Basquiat portrait colours within the lines

Among the elements that distinguished the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat was its merging of text and image, or rather its use of text
as image, words crossed-out or repeated until meanings shift or dissolve, often hovering between the cryptic and the forthright. Given that the traditional documentary already embraces the incorporation of on-screen text, it wouldn’t seem too great a leap for a film about Basquiat to approach its subject with a like sense of lexicographical adventure. Tamra Davis’ Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child—kind of a condescending title the more you think about it—does in fact use lots of text—it’s a rare documentary that endeavours to give running credits for stills—but does so in a manner that’s neither mimetic nor especially enlightening. The Radiant Child is however a solid introduction to the artist, and for that reason should be widely seen.

The film was prompted by Davis’ re-discovery of video interviews she recorded with Basquiat before grief consigned them to a drawer for 20 years. Davis and Basquiat were friends, and the film was clearly undertaken with tremendous affection, which makes
The Radiant Child a very moving experience, yet prompts an approach so cautious as to fall short of offering rigorous insight into Basquiat’s art, celebrity, or private life. Basquiat was prolific, imaginative, wildly ambitious, intelligent, handsome and charismatic, but he died at 27, too young to be expected to comment meaningfully on his own work—not that any artist at any age is required to provide such commentary. So the lost interviews, in which Basquiat seems reticent and a bit self-conscious, are not enough to make The Radiant Child a revelation. An overstocked cast of interview subjects are recruited, but they’re either cut short or generalize. Poet John Giorno rightly attributes Basquiat’s textual innovations to his exposure to William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique, yet fails to mention Brion Gysin, who co-founded the technique with Burroughs and was, you know, a painter. Fellow-painter Julian Schnabel, who launched his filmmaking career with a Basquiat bio-pic, seems like he could have contributed much more but has his comments squeezed. No one says much about the implications of Basquiat’s transition from street graffiti to graffiti-infused paintings. Historian Nelson George however does manage to shed some light on the role of racial tensions in Basquiat’s work.

Basquiat by Warhol

I don’t want to get carried away itemizing what
The Radiant Child doesn’t do. What it does do is provide a vivid sense of the Lower Manhattan underground art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, probably the last time New York really mattered as a cultural vanguard—not coincidentally this was also the last time any normal person could afford to live there. Davis makes terrific use of archival tapes of Basquiat’s noise band Gray, of his appearances on TV Party, and of the artist at work. Davis also makes a case for the notion that Basquiat and Andy Warhol were, for a time at least, each other’s closest friends. In some only slightly perverse way, Warhol may have been a father figure to Basquiat, whose real father was a middle-class Haitian-American living just across the river in Brooklyn, and with whom Basquiat endured an uneasy relationship. Davis only hints at this unease, perhaps out of respect for Basquiat Sr., perhaps out of an unwillingness to psychoanalyze her dead friend. All of which is perfectly respectable, yet leaves The Radiant Child fraught with half-measures, a quality quite different from its subject who, for better or worse, threw himself headlong and devotedly into a truncated life of high art and dizzying fame.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Done with mirrors: The Magician on DVD

In the carriage we find a troupe of traveling showmen: a mute mesmerist in a corny fake beard, a beautiful woman in drag, and a bespectacled, hunched-over crone who claims to be a 200 year-old witch. Call them mystics, entertainers, or businessmen like anyone else, they’re still fugitives the lot, wanted on charges of fraud and blasphemy, which makes you wonder just what it is their audiences were expecting. It’s the middle of the 19th century and all over Europe are towns not big enough for both science and the spirit.

The troupe offers a lift to a fellow thespian found starving in a wood, an alcoholic seemingly on his deathbed. His name is Spiegel, the Swedish word for mirror, so when Vogler (Max Von Sydow) hovers over him closely, smelling the despair on the man’s breath, there’s much to imply that he might as well be looking at himself, or what he’ll become just a few more miles down the road.

The troupe arrives in Stockholm, where they’re to perform for a small, elite audience, among them the chief of police and the royal medical advisor (Gunnar Björnstrand), a righteous rationalist determined to prove irrefutably that their magic show is a sham. Though his more intimate struggles would be dramatized numerous times over the coarse of his long career,
The Magician (1958), newly available from Criterion, is probably Ingmar Bergman’s most unabashedly autobiographical film about his professional life, pitting artists and critics against each another to see who can out-humiliate who. Björnstrand’s debunker was based on the critic Harry Schein, who Bergman felt persecuted by. Schein was the husband of actress Ingrid Thulin, and this knowledge injects a delicious audacity into a scene where Björnstrand simultaneously iterates his distaste for the troupe’s hocus-pocus and confesses his attraction to Thulin, who plays Von Sydow’s wife. Björnstrand has a line here that’s terribly on-the-nose yet somehow more potent for it, as though he himself were mesmerized and felt compelled to utter some naked truth: “You represent what I despise most of all: the inexplicable.”

The Magician was made during a transitional point in Bergman’s career: between The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring; between anxiety about death and anxiety about godlessness; between collaborations with cinematographers Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist; between staging his films as, to some degree, extensions of his theatre practice, and transforming his aesthetic into something more wholly cinematic, driven as much by the characters’ internal states as their external dramas. It’s never been an especially beloved installment in Bergman’s oeuvre, and critics fret every now and then about whether it successfully adopts one genre or another, since some sections are comic, while the climax borrows conventions from horror. I can’t get too worked up about regarding any Bergman film’s genre status, but I find it tremendously interesting to see how The Magician so casually dismantles the obligatory narrative conventions used in every genre. It starts out focused on the troupe and implies that Von Sydow’s the hero. Yet we gradually become more invested in Thulin, who’s character and performance are more sympathetic and dynamic. (Von Sydow, usually so very good in Bergman, is a little hammy here, his character’s silence prompting him to overact with his face and hands. This overcompensation for silence would be memorably corrected some years later by another Vogler: Liv Ullmann in Bergman’s Persona [66].) Regardless, a third of the way into the film we abandon these characters and their adversaries both and pass an extensive digression with two younger, minor characters hungry to bring excitement to their lives: the troupe’s coachman and a servant girl, played by a very sexy yet subtly sad Bibi Andersson, who each drink from an ostensible love potion and await the results with a certain desperation. It’s as though Bergman conceived The Magician not as a propulsive drama or even a character study, but rather a sort of ensemble-driven essay on precarious ambitions under constant threat of having the rug pulled out from under.

We gradually come to the troupe’s performance, thoroughly pulled apart and laughed at, as promised, and to a series of deaths or seeming deaths, one being that of a man we already thought dead, another being a man we can’t quite believe is dead, and still another being a death already foretold by the crone, who may be the film’s one genuine mystic. These deaths set the stage for a carefully devised haunting meant to shake up Björnstrand. It’s a wonderful display of trickery, much of it dependent on mirrors, shadow and imagination, none of it ultimately capable of persuading Björnstrand that he was wrong in his initial assertions. Not that it matters. The troupe comes and goes and want only to amuse us, and perhaps move us, for the short duration of their stopover. As Bergman himself writes in his memoir
Images: My Life in Film, which is excerpted in the booklet that accompanies Criterion’s disc, “I had often felt that I was involved in a continuous, rather joyous prostitution. My job was to beguile the audience.”

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Artists incognito: books by Jean-Claude Carrière and Gabriel García Márquez

Jean-Claude Carrière

I knew Jean-Claude Carrière primarily as the scenarist for films such as
The Tin Drum, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Birth, but most especially for his collaborations with Luis Buñuel throughout the final two decades of the great director’s career, during which time the pair co-authored the scripts for Belle de jour, The Milky Way, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. The only literary work I’d ever attributed to Carrière was Buñuel’s memoir My Last Sigh—one of my all-time favourite books—which Carrière assembled from transcripts of interviews with Buñuel and no doubt had a large part in shaping. So I was surprised to discover only recently that Carrière, now in his late 70s, has written a novel, and it was no disappointment to realize in just the first few pages of Please, Mr Einstein (Vintage, $21.95), that this novel was very much informed by the dictates of cinema.

“Let’s follow that girl who’s walking down the street…” As he describes his heroine, an attractive, intelligent, and most of all curious young woman who shall remain nameless, Carrière reminds his readers that we will never learn anything about her that can’t be observed through action and dialogue. As in a film, television show or play, or whatever sort of time-based medium, we’re to be swept along, without internal voices to guide us, gathering clues only as they’re presented, ideally without inclination to ponder “subsidiary questions.” I read
Please, Mr Einstein quite pleasurably over the course of a single day, so I guess Carrière’s gambit must have worked. I wasn’t very concerned about anything except what was happening in the scenes playing out on the page, which were sufficiently extraordinary to hold one’s attention. Our heroine after all pays a visit to none other than Albert Einstein, and the fact that he’s been dead for over 50 years doesn’t keep their exchange from being lively. The great German physicist always insisted that contradictory facts can be equally true, so why not be both dead and alive, still at work in an office in an unnamed Central European city, with Sir Isaac Newton in the waiting room? (Add an appearance from Liz Taylor or Dante to this anachronistic convergence and you’ve got yourself a new verse of ‘Desolation Row.’)

Mr. Einstein

The conversation between Einstein and his visitor is intellectually playful and only slightly flirtatious, sliding from Tyro Brahe’s attempts to prove the Earth immobile to the secret life of the moustache, from the basics of relativity to lessons gleaned from Shakespeare’s Prospero, from the enduring mysteries of light to the puzzle of dark matter, from the nature of celebrity to the elusive meaning of the word “everything.” Occasionally they exit Einstein’s office through one of a series of doors concealing spectacular surprises, like in an old game show. In the last third or so they discuss Einstein’s complicated culpability for the development of the atom bomb. All the while the allure of science remains infectious. “The universe is irresistible,” Einstein says as he and his visitor gaze upon a field of stars. “It’s seduction itself… The sight of it is a cruel, permanent reminder of how diminutive we are. It crushes us. At the same time, it amplifies us by making us welcome. It opens our eyes and, even more so, our minds.”

Miguel Littín

With Carrière, my familiarity with his films led me to his book, where as in the case of Miguel Littín, a book leads me to wonder why I’ve never even heard of the guy’s movies. Littín had already made a number of features before he fled his home country of Chile in 1973 following the coup that tore apart Salvador Allende’s still young, democratically elected socialist government. Littín returned to Chile in 1985 disguised as a Uruguayan businessman, meeting with an international film crew and covertly gathering material for a documentary about life under dictator Augusto Pinochet. What became of the resulting film I’ve no idea—in his helpful and erudite introduction, even Francisco Goldman claims he’s still never met anyone who’s seen it. No matter, since it could hardly be more fascinating than the book describing the process of making the film, Gabriel García Márquez’s
Clandestine in Chile (New York Review Books, $17.95), newly back in print. Coming after a long period of silence for García Márquez, prompted by a somewhat misguided show of solidarity with Chileans living under Pinochet’s reign of terror, the book marks a return and a sort of farewell, since it could be argued that Clandestine in Chile is the last overtly political work in the author’s career, which would henceforth focus on themes of love and desire.

Gabriel García Márquez

However, García Márquez is not the author of this book in any conventional sense. As with his earlier
Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, Clandestine in Chile is a work of literary reportage, with all of the content ostensibly coming directly from conversations with Littín. Yet Littín’s adventures are such that those familiar with García Márquez could be persuaded that Littín was in fact the author’s invention. Whatever the case, this is the story of a director who perhaps imagined he might become not just an actor but the actual protagonist in his own thriller, only to find the masquerade almost unbearable. It’s a story of genuine guerilla filmmaking, of anguished nostalgia and suppressed identity, with Littín never feeling entirely comfortable with his transformed visage, particularly where grooming was concerned: “My uncles had worn beards and no doubt that increased the allure of beards for me. I had shaved mine off in Mexico a few years before but never managed to get my friends and family, much less myself, to accept my new face. All had the impression of being with an impostor…” Beardlessness renders Littín so distorted that, in what constitutes the book’s climax, his own mother doesn’t even recognize him. Whether this is the product of exaggeration on the part of Littín or García Márquez is impossible to say, but the effect holds: when your homeland has been stripped of its sense of self you really, truly can’t go home again. Or, as Littín himself puts it, “those who stayed behind are also exiles,” and not even the sudden reappearance of their loved ones can stir them from their forced internal hibernation.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Stone: do you hear what he hears?

When Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro) calls upon his pastor for spiritual advice he’s told that god speaks to us in mysterious ways, though the pastor may not have imagined the Lord being channeled through a cornrow-sporting, pornographically minded, trash-talking convicted arsonist when he offered up that old chestnut. Mabry’s a parole officer on the verge of retirement, his last case to close being the aforementioned Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Edward Norton), who for all his abrasive locker room jive seems to have a good heart and an earnest desire to get out of jail and get his shit together. Stone comes across some New Agey pamphlet in the prison library that promises spiritual awakening to those who listen for the right sound, those ready to become god’s tuning fork. Stone’s awakening comes one day during lunch while staring at a nature scene mural on the mess hall wall.

Stone was written by Angus MacLachlan, who previously wrote the script for Junebug, based on his own play. Directed by Phil Morrison, Junebug was buoyed on a warm embracing of eccentricity and subtle playfulness with form. Stone, directed by John Curran, is far more somber and downplays its characters’ quirks, though it’s very easy to imagine its premise yielding a comedy, particularly once we factor Stone’s wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) into the mix, a talented seductress who's big into the healing power of magnets and aims to boost her husband’s chances of early release by getting cozy with Mabry. As wildly different in tone as Junebug and Stone are, their similarities constitute much of what’s most fascinating in both films: an interest in the line that divides religious practice from spiritual thirst, and in the fundamental role outsiders play in shaping a given community. I settled in for Stone mildly intrigued but expecting little. I was surprised by how deftly that sense of intrigue blossomed and held on right to the end.

Curran’s previous directorial credits include
The Painted Veil and We Don’t Live Here Anymore, so it’s no wonder that he seems to take a special interest in flushing out the themes of marital disharmony in MacLachlan’s text. Stone spends much of his first encounter with Mabry boasting about how his wife’s a dime and quite possibly a nymphomaniac, while at the dame time insisting that she’s an alien—that’s the word he uses, “alien,” as in someone from another planet. (Was this picture made before or after The Fourth Kind?) Stone wants to know about Mabry’s marriage, how it works, how sexual interest is sustained over the decades, but Mabry proves to be the real stone in this relationship, refusing to disclose any personal details. The truth is that Mabry’s marriage to Madylyn (Frances Conroy), a tippling Bible thumper, appears deeply unhappy, probably sexless, and has probably been that way from the start, as the film’s disturbing prologue set in the early days of their domestic life clearly implies. This prologue is in fact utterly unnecessary—there’s no reason at all for us to know the specifics of Mabry’s dark side, and this dramatization, awkwardly using younger actors to play De Niro and Conroy, feels like something demanded by outside forces with little faith in an audience’s ability to read between the lines.

Curran doesn’t have the charm or penchant for aesthetic detours that Morrison displayed, but I wonder if his approach isn’t actually more closely aligned to MacLachlan’s intentions. In any case, I don’t think anything he does here really hurts the story’s integrity, and the device of manifesting Stone’s obsession with listening for that magic sound through an aural landscape of Christian radio broadcasts, insect buzzing, and an immersive piece of glassy ambient music from Jon Brion is accumulatively effective. As well, Curran should perhaps take some credit for bringing out the best in his leads. There’s an engrossing chemistry between De Niro and Norton, and a near palpable heat coming off of Jovovich, who imbues what could have been a one-dimensional supporting role with considerable complexity.

I'm not claiming the film is entirely successful on every front, but I worry that some viewers—most certainly some critics—might be put off by
Stone simply because it’s hard to tell what this film’s trying to be. I’ve seen it described as a thriller, which feels way off the mark, and I’ve read Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review, which tries to finger at as failed neo-noir, which seems even more off the rails. Stone doesn’t adhere to genre, not does it defy genre in any flamboyant way. I don’t know what to call it, but I think its ambitions are noble and the results substantial… if you only listen closely enough.