Monday, June 27, 2011

Love and theft: Poison turns 20 on DVD

A boy flies away from his Long Island home after killing his father; a scientist isolates the human sex drive in liquid form, accidentally ingests some and thereby transforms himself into a leper sex killer; a thief is sent to prison and its isolated world of erotic hierarchies: each of the disparate threads of
Poison (1991), titled ‘Hero’, ‘Horror’ and ‘Homo,’ are delivered in radically different, easily distinguishable forms (the investigative report-style documentary, the low-budget drive-in 1950s sci-fi melodrama, and the lyrical memoir, respectively), yet are intimately linked by themes of ostracization and longing and interwoven in such a way that each thread reappears with cyclical regularity, loping and looping, creating a kind of narrative vertigo symbolized in ‘Horror’s flashing spiral motif. Todd Haynes’ resourceful and inventive feature debut was derived in part from the novels of Jean Genet and became a landmark for the New Queer Cinema, taking a top prize at Sundance and sparking an unusual career, one that’s allowed Haynes to bring his seemingly anti-populist sensibility to a number of surprisingly commercial, studio-backed products, such as the Douglas Sirk-homage/critique Far From Heaven (2002), the Bob Dylan biographical essay-drama I’m Not There (2007), and HBO’s mini-series adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (2011).

Now available from Zeitgeist in a handsome 20th Anniversary Edition DVD,
Poison already conveys much of what would come to mark Haynes’ approach, such as a fascination with ornate structural devices as vehicles for multi-tiered storytelling and the postmodern incorporation of popular cultural iconography (a characteristic that some might argue justifies footnotes). I’ve heard Haynes referred to as an academic or cerebral filmmaker, which strikes me as unfair, though his affection for mannered or even kitschy performances and his brazenly imitative stylistics no doubt encourages such derision. What such comments fail to account for are the spikes of genuine emotional engagement that make key scenes in his movies transcend their self-reflexive strategies: the heartbreaking end of Far From Heaven, the Heath Ledger sections of I’m Not There, the sleepy hand-job or sexy scar display scenes in Poison (displays of outright homoeroticism that many admirers no doubt wish Haynes would return to). Haynes films can feel calculated, but I don’t think they’re cold. Poison reminds us of how far Haynes has come, and just how deliciously unlikely his journey has been.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Tree of Life: Rooted in experience

“Tell us a story from before we can remember.” This request, posed to his mother by one of the O’Brien boys (the one, in fact, whose death years later marks our dramatic entry point into
The Tree of Life), suffuses Terrence Malick’s new work and its elliptical, headlong exploration of memory and meaning. It’s a collage in which narrative causality bends to memory’s errant patterns and the imagination’s serpentine longings. Here we have the young Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) starting a family in Waco, Texas in the 1950s; here we have their eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) as a melancholic businessman in contemporary Houston; here we have Jack as a boy (Hunter McCracken) traipsing through the Waco suburbs with his brothers, drawing comfort from his mother or wishing violence upon his frustrated, disciplinarian father (“Do you love your father?” “Yes, sir.”); here we have fantasies of Mrs. O’Brien defying gravity, encased in a glass coffin like Sleeping Beauty, or mingling on some faraway beach that might resemble heaven, or at least a fleeting notion of one. And here we have interstellar plumes of gas, asteroids silently crashing into planets, light curving into the shape of a flame, and life rising up from the sea. All those things “from before we can remember,” our dreams of prehistory, our invented images of our parents’ childhoods, merge with haunting assemblies of things recalled. Malick’s approach makes no divisions between the present, the past and the deep past, between the living and the dead. You’ll walk away from The Tree of Life recalling the part where Mrs. O’Brien shields her son’s eyes from the man having an epileptic seizure, the part where the kids enjoyed their Halloween parade, or the old man who says, “Good night. We’ll see you in five years.” You’ll feel like there was a whole story somewhere in each of those, and then you’ll go back to see The Tree of Life again and realize that each of those parts was all of about three seconds long. At 67, five films and 40 years into his singular career, Malick has strayed farther from the familiar than ever before, giving us a (semi-autobiographical?) film made of glimpses, reveries, music, and disembodied voices.

It’s those voices, whispered, at times cringingly earnest, that can raise objections, but there’s an irreconcilable tension between voice-over and narrative in Malick’s films going all the way back to
Badlands (1973) that’s worth keeping in mind. From The Thin Red Line (1998) on, Malick has complicated his multi-character voice-overs to the point where it’s sometimes difficult to know who to even attribute them to, including characters who’ve died. There’s a case to be made for The Tree of Life being told entirely from Jack’s perspective, though to make that case you need to accept that Jack’s perspective envelops things “from before we can remember,” even that origin-of-the-universe sequence, made in collaboration with legendary special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, and which counters the voice-overs’ creationist overtones with awesome evolutionary imagery (including an exchange between dinosaurs that is for me by far the film’s goofiest risk). The intimate/specific is cast in relief against the infinite/eternal throughout The Tree of Life, so the one-way conversations with god that pervade its soundtrack should be taken as one more source of oppositional elements.

Because so much story and even character development in
The Tree of Life is conveyed through the editing, through Jack Fisk's holistic, transporting production design, and through Emmanuel Lubezki’s energized and lyrical Steadicam work, performance is often a matter of gesture and attitude. Mrs. O’Brien is an idealized, ageless, beatific mother, not unlike Tarkovsky's mother figures, so Chastain is, appropriately, a diaphanous presence. Mr. O’Brien, a source of conflict and lingering resentment for Jack, has more to do, and Pitt, who also co-produced the film, is at his best here, free of the strained mannerisms that plague so many of his other films. But the performance that sticks with me most is McCracken’s, with his wounded eyes, jug ears and quiet confusion, who in some of the most engaging sequences gets into trouble with the neighbourhood kids, torments a poor frog, and enters a stranger’s house to touch foreign things and steal a woman’s slip which he guiltily disposes of in a river. McCracken’s Jack is a branch that extends out to become Penn and, it seems, Malick, our reclusive author, facilitator and dreamer, who’s gone so far out on a limb here and yet is still able to climb down, plant his feet on solid ground and perform the cinema’s oldest, most rewarding trick: transmitting a cosmos of feeling and wonder through a single, sensitive, responsive human face.

Monday, June 20, 2011

"Va-va-voom! 3-D pow!": Kiss Me Deadly

It’s been suggested that
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) signals an end to the classic era of film noir, by conveying a retrospective/subversive knowingness of noir’s by-then familiar tropes (Dutch angles, shadows, fatales both femme and homme), by draining all pretense of romance from the private eye archetype, and by audaciously hybridizing genres, leading to a finale that literally blows its protagonist’s quest for “the great whatzit” to kingdom come. It makes sense that this ultra-modernist thriller made in the thick of the atomic age, fueled by Cold War paranoia, sexually liberated (okay, nymphomaniac) women, and rabid consumerism marks the end of something. At the halfway point in what is arguably Hollywood’s greatest decade, Kiss Me Deadly, now available from Criterion, and its new cognizance of postwar realities (packaged in a deliciously fantastical plot) draws a line in the sand that can’t be washed away—because everything behind it lies smoldering and in ruins. To quote the film’s most sympathetic character: “Va-va-voom! 3-D pow!”

It begins already in a state of agitation, with Christina (Cloris Leachman, here something of a precursor to Glenn Close), barefoot, in just a raincoat, running down a freeway at night, so desperate she plants herself in the middle of the road as our so-called hero’s Jaguar comes hurtling toward her. “You almost wrecked my car,” says Mike Hammer (the inimitable Ralph Meeker), assuming this woman’s he reluctantly picked up to be a date rape victim, though he gradually determines she’s “a fugitive from the laughing farm,” not that it makes any difference to him. Hammer’s descent into
Kiss Me Deadly’s labyrinth of secrets and spies begins when the people looking for Christina catch up with her and torture her to death with Hammer lying semi-conscious nearby. Hammer only narrowly escapes Christina’s captors yet, utterly self-interested as he is, he can’t resist investigating what happened to Christina, which demands techniques beyond those normally employed by a detective who lives off divorce cases. Hammer’s investigation bridges the architectural, geographical, aesthetic and class dichotomies of 1950s Los Angeles, leading him away from the comforts of his sleek apartment with its futuristic devices (and his always horny secretary, Velma, whom he pimps out to seduce unwanted husbands) to busy boxing gyms, dilapidated Victorian houses in Bunker Hill (a neighbourhood memorialized so eloquently just a few years later in The Exiles), and jazz clubs with all-black clientele to find the answers that can’t bring back Christina, can’t save Hammer, and can’t prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction that lay at the heart of this apocalyptic noir.

Boldly and beautifully directed by Robert Aldrich and scripted by A.I. Bezzarides,
Kiss Me Deadly takes Mickey Spillaine’s über-macho, pro-vigilante source novel and simultaneously exploits its sordid thrills and critiques its meathead ethos, particularly through its parade of women who warn Hammer of his callowness even while seducing him. Meeker’s Hammer is a misanthropic, materialistic sadist. He childishly grins while crushing a mortician’s fingers in a desk drawer. While constantly eyeballing women (or “goodies”), it’s unclear whether or not he actually likes sex. The only person he cares about is his crazy Greek-American mechanic, Nick (Nick Dennis), though fair enough, since Nick is a loveable, only slightly annoying fireball of energy and perpetual generator of nonsequiturs, the finest being a chant about his moustache family tree. In a sense Nick’s the only character to represent both the old and brave new worlds of Kiss Me Deadly, who reminds us of American ethnic diversity and antiquated male bravado while embodying its new obsession with acceleration and technology. But Nick is just one of a gallery of wonderful supporting players (the cast includes character actors like Jack Elam, Strother Martin and Juano Hernández), each of whom play their part in luring Hammer closer to the Pandora’s box waiting to be opened in a locker room or on some moonlit beach, ushering in the dawn of a new age we’re still unable to contain.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Midnight in Paris: Better living through better longing

Nostalgia is longing for a past that cannot be returned to—it’s passed. The word is used a lot in Woody Allen’s
Midnight in Paris, whose protagonist, Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a dissatisfied Hollywood screenwriter, is writing a novel about the owner of a so-called nostalgia shop and wants to move to Paris so as to bask in a dream of what it would have been like to be a writer in Paris in the 1920s. The word nostalgia has also been used, and will be used plenty more, in all the exegesis surrounding the film. But in every case it’s used incorrectly.

My point here isn’t semantic; what I want to say is that
Midnight in Paris, a great Woody Allen movie, is about something different and, in this context, more interesting than nostalgia, something that seems especially personal to Allen. It’s at the root of some of Allen’s most enduringly charming work, such as The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and if one were inclined, if could be suggested as the root of Allen’s attraction to much younger women both onscreen, as in the magisterial Manhattan (1979), and off. Midnight in Paris is about fantasy, about the life or the youth or the love you never had at all, yet somehow seems to be slipping away from you with every moment. What Gil longs for never existed, and when he somehow slips away into some realm where his fantasy’s made real, his passage from one place to another is delightfully left unexplained. What makes this very funny film resonate, what imbues its whimsy with wisdom, is its understanding that even in fantasy our longing for that distant, obscure thing must reach its terminal point, and we have to start again, negotiating with the real world, or some rough approximation of it.

Gil is engaged to Inez (Rachel McAdams). They’re “doing” Paris with her parents, and will be unexpectedly joined by Inez’s pedantic former professor Paul (Michael Sheen). Each of these characters are pragmatists who condescendingly dismiss Gil’s impulse to leave both the US and the movie business, and while they’re at it they dismiss his novel too. One night Gil goes off alone to wander the Paris streets. On a particularly lonesome bend, at the stroke of midnight, he’s picked up by a passing car and taken to someplace where everyone parties like its 1922. He’s repeatedly told he “looks lost,” so it seems he’s found the right generation. He meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, and eventually Man Ray, Buñuel, and Salvador Dalí, (Adrien Brody, who wipes the floor with Robert Pattinson and is wildly funny as he arbitrarily obsesses over the image of a rhinoceros). Gil also meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who wants to go into fashion, is mistress to the likes of Picasso and Braque, and seems drawn to Gil’s odd sort of melancholy cheerfulness (a combination perhaps only Wilson can conjure so naturally). Like Gil, she also idealizes the past—her belle époque is his 1920s. So their hypothetical romance has a hitch: neither is living in the present.

Wilson is wonderful, emotionally dexterous and taking full ownership of what might otherwise be just another Woody surrogate. Cotillard is deeply alluring. The only weak link is McAdams, though I’d guess it’s entirely Allen’s fault since he’s written Inez far too flatly, telegraphing her obvious incompatibility with Gil from scene one… Well, not quite scene one:
Midnight in Paris opens with a lovingly prolonged series of images of the Paris, shot by Darius Khondji, set to Sidney Bechet’s ‘Si tu vois ma mére’, with no close-ups of faces and, highly uncharacteristically for Allen, no voice-over. This lovely foyer to the narrative is all about place, about senses and seduction, about how time just keeps passing us by, and about projecting fantasy onto reality. Which, sometimes, is the best way to remind yourself where you really are.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Rolling sunder: Rubber on DVD

What reason does a tire need to quiver to life in the middle of the Mojave Desert and undertake a killing spree? What reason do a dozen spectators need to gather in that same desert with binoculars and sleeping bags and comment on the tire’s actions as though they were (like us) watching a movie? What reason does a pantless man need to share a cheap motel room with a wild turkey? Before we even have a chance to posit such queries to
Rubber, one of its central characters, a Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella), addresses the camera (and us) with questions of his own. “In the Steven Spielberg movie E.T., why is the alien brown?” Chad asks. “In The Pianist, by Polanski, how come this guy has to hide, and live like a bum, when he plays the piano so well?” The answer: “No reason.” (Unless of course you consider something like systematic Nazi antiSemitism to be a reason.) Every movie, Chad assures us, has an integral element of “no reason.” Which is perhaps another way of saying that the movie is the reason. So what’s the reason to see the movie—this movie? It certainly isn’t to ask more useless questions.

Rubber, out on DVD tomorrow from Mongrel Media (or on the 14th from Magnolia in the US), seems like a playful essay on artifice. (The audience-chorus, who at one point collectively launch into a feeding frenzy right out of a Living Dead movie, is reminiscent of devices seized by the American avant-garde theatre of the 1960s.) Thing is, there’s not much thesis (beyond, say, the notion that the things we discard will rise up from our collective anxiety and slaughter us in our ironic bewilderment), but there is a whole lot of playfulness. Recalling both Scanners (1981) and numerous Stephen King narratives, Rubber is a meta-horror about a telekinetic tire named Robert. His first victim is a plastic bottle, quickly followed by a scorpion, before moving on to larger and messier mammals. The tire’s got something on its mind, it seems. It’s got feelings. It’s infatuated with a lone traveler played by the pretty older sister from Fat Girl (2001). It even has memories: there is an allusion to some smoky tire genocide.

Quentin Dupieux, aka Mr. Oizo

Rubber is the second feature from French writer/director Quentin Dupieux, aka: Mr. Oizo, recording artist for Ed Banger Records, following the little seen Steak (2007). There’s much to recommend Rubber on a bit-by-bit basis, though it runs out of fuel long before the end of the road. Regardless, its audacity, resourcefulness and propulsive silliness convey an appealingly distinctive sensibility. You’re left with the impression that there’s plenty of tread left on Dupieux’s goofball imagination.

Friday, June 3, 2011

"The person’s gone, but scenes from the relationship you shared with them are still ringing in your ears": Mike Mills on Beginners

Beginners begins with an ending, with introverted thirty-something Californian illustrator Oliver (Ewan McGregor) mourning the death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer), who came out of the closet at 75, following the death of his wife, Oliver’s mother, and then died five years later. Oliver inherits Hal’s house and his dog, who’s telepathic and knows 150 words of English, and whose thoughts we glean through subtitles, which along with numerous drawings, notebooks, postcards and graffiti contribute to this film’s charming, text-heavy, scrapbook texture. Oliver falls in love with a gorgeous, funny, friendly yet oddly unknowable French girl (Mélanie Laurent, of Inglorious Basterds), who he takes rollerskating and whose smile inexplicably breaks your heart, in part because she doesn’t speak for the first part of the movie. Oliver meets Anna at a Halloween party, where he’s dressed as Freud and she suffers from laryngitis. As he falls in love he remembers Hal falling in love, or something like it, in his final years, when everything in life was new again and he enjoyed speaking to inanimate objects and trying on various forms of expressing his sexual identity the way one tries on outfits. Oliver also remembers his mother, back when he was a boy and they used to rehearse movie deaths for fun, or go to the museum and imitate the sculptures. Memory and the present are intertwined. They bleed into each other and fold into a single narrative that’s admittedly a little sketchy in some of the emotionally complicated bits yet brims overall with spontaneity and moments of truth that are touching and wry.

Beginners is the second feature from writer/director Mike Mills, who previously made Thumbsucker and many music videos and is also a graphic designer, a musician, and probably a lot of other things too. He’s a very sweet, endlessly curious man. We met for our interview in a fancy hotel in Toronto, where there’s supposedly massive televisions hiding behind the bathroom mirrors, though no one could prove this to me. Mills wore a tie and carried a small camera and was very generous.

writer/director Mike Mills

Beginners feels like a very natural progression from Thumbsucker. It also feels very personal. What prompted the film?

Mike Mills: It comes from my real dad, actually, who came out when he was 75 and passed away five years later, just as I was finishing
Thumbsucker. I started writing Beginners right after that. I think I’m always going to be writing about families and relationships and people trying to figure out who they are, trying to get the bad story out of their head and get to the better story. That’s certainly true of both films and seems to be the case with the one I’m writing now. But Beginners was a very immediate reaction to my life.

JB: Did your father know that you were planning to incorporate his story into your next movie?

MM: My dad was really having his party by then. I said to him, “I want to make something about you and mom and your whole deal.” And he was just sort of pleasantly taken aback. I interviewed him a few times, so he knew I was investigating. When he came out, he really came out. He was very politicized, very social, very involved in gay pride groups in Santa Barbara. So I felt he would be down with this idea of coming out more and more and in different ways.

JB: Having seen the film, it’s difficult to imagine it with anyone besides Christopher Plummer playing Hal, but were you ever feeling like you should cast a gay actor in the role?

MM: My first concern was with finding someone who could really get my dad right. But there’s also this fact that my dad was sort of playing a straight man, or half wanted to be a straight man, for 75 years. He didn’t really have any gay affectations. I liked the idea of taking Captain von Trapp and having him be gay. I thought about this a lot, and it wasn’t an easy decision, but this intuitively felt more natural to me.

JB: I guess you were developing the project for a fairly long period. Was it difficult to finance?

MM: It was difficult in that
Thumbsucker wasn’t a hit. Beginners is also what people call a “small” film, which I don’t know if I understand, given that it’s about things like death and love and self-discovery. Even after I got Ewan and Christopher attached the economic crisis hit and it remained an uphill battle. But the more alone or hopeless I felt about it, the more I thought this might be the last movie anyone ever lets me make, the more it made me want to invest even more of myself into the project. What makes me unique as a director? What interests me most? Those were the questions that kept me working and the answers all got thrown in.

JB: Both
Thumbsucker and Beginners develop this theme of finding one’s voice, quite literally. Did you grow up with a speech impediment or otherwise have a tough time feeling confident speaking?

MM: I’m definitely a recovering very shy person. But even if you’re not shy, I think figuring out who you are and not listening to those voices that demand that you conform or be simpler or more likable is such a common issue. It’s central to family relationships. So much of what constitutes our voice is the result of what story we inherit from out little family, or immediate family, and also from our bigger family, which seems to have to do with the place we grew up.

JB: It’s interesting to consider how your filmmaking relates to your work as a graphic designer. I think about the way you photograph empty spaces or the way you incorporate text, which is especially layered in
Beginners. Is it that your work in graphic design informs your filmmaking, or is it more that you have a particular sensibility that imbues everything you do with these motifs?

MM: I think it’s the latter. I don’t really make a big division between media in my head. I went to art school, and I think a lot of what I do just comes from an “art” context, rather than a strictly cinematic context. With this film I felt free to put all that stuff into one project, to speak through drawings or stills. But, you know, one of my favourite graphic designers is Jean-Luc Godard. The graphics in his films are cooler than anybody’s. His sense of design influenced me as a graphic designer before I was a filmmaker. A lot of my still photography is also pretty flat or proscenium. You could say that comes from graphics, but it also comes from my love of William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, or Robert Adams—it comes from the photography that I like. Also, in my family things were always vague or unexplained or confusing, so I think the way I construct images has a lot to do with trying to make things clear and expository and observable. So it’s as much an emotional sensibility as it is a purely aesthetic one.

JB: The style of
Thumbsucker felt more severe to me, more pared down. Something about Beginners by contrast feels looser, perhaps more guided by the emotional patterns of the story.

MM: Yeah,
Thumbsucker turned out to be a little more formal that I intended, partly by shooting anamorphic, which actually has a lot of restrictions.

JB: Funny you should mention that. I was really aware of the aspect ratio as I watched
Thumbsucker recently.

MM: You don’t want to totally control films. They have their own life. I knew I wanted more movement in this one. The story between Oliver and Anna is all hand-held, no marks, and hardly any lights. The story between Oliver and his dad is all locked off or tracking shots. I thought that was a good way to talk about the difference between memory and being in the present. The bottom line was that, while the film has a death at the heart of it and several sad parts, I really wanted it to be filled with life.

JB: It’s interesting the way you introduce the character of Andy, the young boyfriend. It’s a sort of snapshot. I think he says one line.

MM: That’s right. And he’s part of a much longer barrage of information.

JB: Right. From the start of the film these sorts of moments made me feel like part of what I was watching was Oliver trying to come to terms with the discrepancies in his memories. You also have these flashbacks scattered throughout that seem to respond to something happening to Oliver in the present, though the parallels are always just shy of being obvious, which makes them more fun and interesting. Were these flashbacks part of one narrative thread you had in your mind, while everything in the present tense was another thread and you then had to find ways to marry the two? Or did you just write it all in the order that it came out?

MM: I wrote it as two stories. I wanted to interweave them. That was what interested me. There’s a film called
Love Film by István Szabó that has a similar structure that I’ve always loved, and that’s kind of how I was living at the time. I was writing this right after my dad died, and when something like that happens it’s like the past just keeps flooding into the present. The person’s gone, but scenes from the relationship you shared with them are still ringing in your ears. So it felt natural and intuitive. A lot of this was derived from my own very real memories, which the more you examine the more crazy and unreliable they seem. Try and stare at a memory—I invite you to do it—some pivotal moment in your life. They’re so fragmentary and slippery. The longer you try to look at it the more it tries to slip away, and when all you have left of your parents are memories, that’s a banal but pretty earth-shattering discovery. I tried to work that feeling into the film, like when Oliver remembers his father wearing a sweater but he was really wearing a robe. I don’t think anybody notices this, but there are memories that reoccur throughout the film and each time they’re a different take, and something is slightly different.

JB: In making
Beginners did you uncover any shocking memories of your parents that you’d completely forgotten?

MM: No, but I’m glad I wrote them all down, and not just those that made it into the film. I have this big stack of 5x7 cards that I made notes on to start with, and I was just looking at them recently and already noticing how easily things slip away, things you thought you’d never forget. I didn’t unearth anything big, but it was really interesting to write from my parents’ perspective. One discovery I made was realizing that they were funny. They liked to use humour in this subversive way, maybe just out of the desire to make life more unusual or beat back unhappiness.

JB: Sounds like something you inherited from them.

MM: I guess so, but you never think of your parents as funny. There are those two main things: your parents aren’t funny and they don’t have sex…

JB: Or they’re only funny when they have sex!

MM: [Laughs] Anyway, there’s lots of stuff in the movie that didn’t actually happen to me or my family. I have two sisters that aren’t even represented in the movie. It’s not a memoir. Your parents dying is so much bigger than making a movie about it. But making this movie has been a way of hanging onto all these things.

JB: And maybe also a way of letting go of them.

MM: Yeah, that’s true. Spewing all this out into the world is a funny sort of way to burn it all up.