Friday, July 29, 2011

Certified Copy: Stranger things have happened

An English writer (William Shimell) arrives late for his own book launch in Arezzo, Tuscany. The book (like the film we're watching) is called Certified Copy. It seems primarily concerned with art history, and its proposal, from what we can gather (the content of the writer's lecture is deliberately overshadowed by whispers and gestures exchanged between a woman in the audience and her son), addresses the slippery nature of authenticity and the inherent value of copies, or reproductions. It’s a subject at least as old as the essays of Walter Benjamin, yet technology has marched furiously ahead in such directions as to keep it from ever becoming dated. The writer is perhaps 50; he’s tall, thin and handsome, chilly yet charismatic; he has a dry sense of humour and a healthy contrarian streak; he seems the antithesis of an academic while writing on subjects that are commonly the stock and trade of the academy. (Could the model for this character be Geoff Dyer?)

The woman having such trouble concentrating on the writer’s lecture (Juliette Binoche) is French but lives in Arezzo, where she runs an antique shop. She seems only slightly younger than the writer, and is very attractive, endearingly nervous, seductive yet moody; she’s alternately flirtatious and argumentative, intelligent yet capable of emotional impulsiveness. She’s purchased multiple copies of Certified Copy for the writer to sign—that is, to certify. Her mischievous adolescent son (Adrian Moore) notes that she seems very drawn to the writer, even while she expresses serious doubts about the validity of his book’s thesis. The day after the lecture, the writer arrives at the woman’s shop and they go for a drive. (This is where you stop reading should you want to enter the film’s second half without a net.) They find themselves in Lucignano, a medieval village where people go to get married, and it’s here, in a moment of transformation so elegant, subtle and carefully graded, that the writer and the woman, who seemed in every way strangers, undergo a drama of re-marriage. A café proprietor assumes they’re a couple, and so a couple is what they become, the parents to the woman’s son, 15 years married, though apparently living apart.

How we shifted from one sort of relationship to another is fascinating and mysterious (though a second viewing reveals certain hints in the film’s first half regarding what will transpire in the second), yet once that shift occurs there’s nothing vague or under-nourished about the ways in which the writer and the woman express their frustrations, argue, reminisce or negotiate their disparate needs as a married couple. In fact, for a film so draped in ambiguity, Certified Copy boasts one of the most resonant and deeply moving—and at times very amusing—portraits of marriage I’ve came upon in a very long while. This is partly due to the precision and unobtrusiveness of the director’s hand, and partly to the seeming transparency of the acting. Shimell is an opera singer and has never acted before, and he seems all the better for it, giving a convincingly re-active performance. Binoche seems to have immersed herself fully into the role (she’s joked that she was merely playing herself); she’s unapologetic about her contradictions; she’s an actress who understands her craft so thoroughly that her craft has merged completely with her being. There are moments in this film that make a strong case for Binoche as one of the finest living masters of the close-up; there is so much going on when the camera isolates her, and none of it feels forced.

Certified Copy is Abbas Kiarostami’s first dramatic feature made outside of his native Iran. It’s both easily recognizable as a Kiarostami film (the layers of performance especially) and as a European art film. Certain points of reference will quickly announce themselves to the cinephiles in the audience—the premise recalls Voyage to Italy and Last Year in Marienbad, while the temporal structure (the writer has to make an evening train), the emotional build, and the final moments recall Before Sunset—yet Certified Copy feels like the epitome of an organically developed story, something that emerged fluidly from a stray notion that must have initially seemed an improbable idea for a film. In that sense, we can locate within Certified Copy a sort of talisman: amongst all the mirrors, the various spoken languages and the inadequate translations that so clearly contribute to the film’s themes, there is also a small part played by none other than Jean-Claude Carrière, who co-authored the scripts for the latter films of Luis Buñuel (so many of them founded in something illogical, yet nonetheless comment brilliantly on human behaviour). Carrière shows up to give a little marital advice to the writer, and you wonder if in some non-verbal way he was also present as a reminder to Binoche, Shimell, and Kiarostami that strange things happen every day. That people fall in love and try to forge lives together is only one of them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Trigger: the song has ended, but the memory lingers on

Trigger opens with a series of brief clips from a rock and roll show: two women on stage, chugging through tunes, the guitar player all shaggy hair and finger-fumbling grace, the singer preening. They exchange licks, both figuratively and literally. These excerpts unfold in a staccato rhythm that suggests something of the visceral, choppy energy of the music we imagine they’re playing, though we can’t hear it. The images are bathed in a soft string-laden drone peppered with stray notes from a piano; they’re over-exposed, the women’s skin bleached out, masking age, bringing things closer to a feeling of timelessness.

The dissonance between the sound and images evokes the distance between an event and its oft-replayed memory. This wordless montage is one of the strongest sequences in the film, cutting to the heart of this story that’s rather less about the music life than it is about friendship, recovery and time. Trigger is a love story of sorts, between two old collaborator-antagonists who reunite uneasily in middle-age, years after they called it quits. It’s now available on DVD from Entertainment One.

Trigger is also the last screen performance from Tracy Wright, who died shortly after the production wrapped from pancreatic cancer. Her ghost looms heavily over the film, not only because she was such a wonderful, sadly under-used talent, but because she really is the heart and soul of this project. Molly Parker as Kat, the aforementioned preener, gives a performance that’s typically precise and even heartfelt, but Wright’s Vic is the more convincing as a veteran rock and roller struggling to stay clean. She comes across as someone who’s burned out more than once, or, as she puts it, someone who’s had mornings where she’s woken up disappointed to still be alive.

Director Bruce McDonald seems to be in his element here, a maker of feature films (among them Highway 61 and the mighty Hard Core Logo) who sometimes seems to long for movies that can skip that story stuff and just cut to the rock show parts (i.e.: This Movie is Broken). But Trigger has its awkward moments (the evil twin bits, the longer monologues), partly because the script from the great playwright, filmmaker and actor Daniel MacIvor is at times too eloquent, too theatrical-sounding, in the words it gives its actors to speak. It’s a cliché to think of rock and roll as inarticulate and crude, but I still think Trigger could have used a few rougher edges--though let it be said that I’ll take flowery MacIvor over the prose of most screenwriters any day.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Music Room: palatial trance

Satyajit Ray made
The Music Room (1958) between the second and third instalments of his beloved Apu Trilogy (1955, 56, 59), the films that launched the great Bengali director’s career and convinced the world—if not quite the Indian public—that Indian movies could occasionally stray from the dictates of the flamboyant song and dance cinema that we instantly associate with “Bollywood” to this day. With The Music Room, Ray in fact did incorporate musical performance into his work, but rather than doing so in the old stop-everything-and-sing fashion, he made the music integral to the story and texture of the film, which turns out to be the very opposite of baroque-bombastic melodrama. This is a sombre, meditative, crepuscular film, about pleasure, devastation, and aristocracy in slow decline. Its gorgeous musical performances are given plenty of space to luxuriate, but they entrance rather than excite the listener. I’m not sure I’ve seen—or heard—anything quite like The Music Room, and once it was over I’d felt like I’d woken from a dream. The film is now available on blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Opening credits appear over an image of a hovering chandelier which looms closer and closer, until we cut to an arresting close-up of Biswambhar Roy (the great Chhabi Biswas), a middle-aged
zamindar, or land-owning nobleman, who sits in a big chair on the roof of his crumbling palace, which stands isolated in a vast, hazy landscape that feels like it’s a world away from anyplace. Its flat surroundings reveal vestiges of a regal past: a lone elephant, a starved horse, traces of a road now seldom used, the skeleton of a ship. The Music Room takes place entirely within this landscape; you get to feeling like Roy is somehow sequestered here, in this place where tragedy befalls him during the film’s extensive flashback; and when he attempts to leave it, it’s as though some force buried in the earth has determined to keep him there. Throughout, Ray’s camera explores this landscape, the palace, and everything in it with steady, mesmerizing grace. This is a film founded in music, but also in magisterial spaces, from a sky full of lightning to the immense high ceilings of the titular room to the surface of a glass of tea from which an insect portentously struggles to escape.

It’s no slight on
The Music Room to say that it might lull you asleep if you watch it when you’re tired—it’s literally spellbinding. The musical sections, in which gifted musicians perform in Roy’s music room (even when the expense of having them perform threatens to exhaust his dwindling funds) are deliciously drowsy: dudes lying around in their pyjamas on carpets and big pillows, smoking hookah pipes while sitars and tablas vibrate and patter, singers sing of love and desire, and dancers, their legs strewn with bells, move in seductive rhythms that only add to the warm complexity of the music. And it’s a good thing too, that the music and atmospheres of The Music Room so effortlessly carry the picture, because (and here’s my only complaint about the disc) with the white subtitles on the black-and-white images I couldn’t read half of the dialogue. Movies have been around for over a century now; they’ve seen advances in sound, colour and depth that the mediums forefathers could never have imagined. But we still haven’t figured out how to make subtitles legible.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The milky way: Louis Malle's Black Moon

Black Moon (1975) opens with the initially serene image of a badger innocently snuffling its way across a quiet rural road… only to meet sudden death under the wheels of our heroine’s smart little orange Euro-hatchback. The badger’s shocking accidental demise is our entrée into this film’s distinctively violent world, violent in the literal sense—there’s some sort of war going on, apparently between the sexes, with early scenes involving young men executing a line-up of young women by firing squad, and young women tormenting and molesting some young men—and violent in the figurative sense, with its almost total absence of exposition, its dearth of intelligible dialogue (though there is a conspicuous quote from Macbeth), and its succession of bizarre images and encounters that never accumulate into anything so pedestrian as coherent causality. Black Moon proved to be something of a bête noir in Louis Malle’s formidable oeuvre, a fantastical, anti-allegorical, sumptuously photographed (by Ingmar Bergman’s long-time collaborator Sven Nykvist) work that greatly rewards those viewers inclined to shrug off things like narrative logic in favour of sustained fascination, beauty, and mystery. It’s now available on DVD and blu-ray from Criterion, who’ve made a special project of heralding Malle’s legacy.

Our protagonist, Lily (Cathryn Harrison), is an Alice-figure hovering somewhere between adolescence and womanhood, apparently oblivious to her nascent sex appeal. She finds herself at a country manor inhabited by a small, elderly woman (Therese Giehse) confined to a bed and two young, mute adults (Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey “superstar” Joe Dallesandro and Canadian actress Alexandra Stewart), each of whom seem to communicate primarily through telepathic touch, and a gang of rowdy naked kids who vanish at random. There are a great many non-human inhabitants of this house and its surroundings as well, including pigs, turkeys, a unicorn, a snake, a chorus of sheep, and flowers with feelings to hurt. Lily’s central action throughout is to look at things, most often astonishing or alarming things, and Malle and Nykvist manage again and again to render the images of her looking captivatingly. The most notable shift in
Black Moon finds Lily gradually coming to understand that the old woman’s survival, and perhaps that of others she meets, is dependent on breast milk, and the film draws to its close with Lily resolving to offer her breast up to one in need.

Malle’s work frequently concerned sexual development in children, most obviously in films such as
Murmur of the Heart (1971) and Pretty Baby (1978), and while its tempting to regard Black Moon as purely surrealist—especially given that one of the script’s co-authors is Joyce Buñuel, daughter-in-law of filmmaker and one-time card-carrying surrealist Luis Buñuel—there are a number of elements that prompt an interpretation in keeping with this over-arcing Mallesque theme. Many of Lily’s encounters impart a heightened awareness of gender, sensuality and the body as a site of numerous forms of erotic interest, hidden threat, and corporeal need. Not to mention the scenes where Lily reaches across a table for a giant-sized glass of fresh milk or the fairly straightforward symbolic possibilities generated from the aforementioned snake and unicorn. I don’t want to pigeonhole Black Moon so much as address some of its fecund multiple readings. It’s a delightfully perplexing film. It’s a bestiary. And it’s one of the most beguiling weirdo-discoveries on home video this year.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Closed marriage: Eyes Wide Shut

I hadn’t seen
Eyes Wide Shut (1999) since it opened, though in the years since—the years that found me stumbling into criticism—countless friends and colleagues have urged me to revisit the film, Stanley Kubrick’s last and, on the surface, least obviously “Kubrickian.” Films have a way of changing on us while we’re off doing other things, and indeed, coming back to Eyes Wide Shut after 12 years—on the occasion of Warner’s new Stanley Kubrick: Limited Edition Collection blu-ray box—yielded a tremendous amount of interesting detail that I’d either not noticed the first time around or had forgotten. Yet my overall response was exactly the same: Eyes Wide Shut is a fascinating failure, more fun to think about or argue over than to actually sit through, though you’ve really got to sit through it to think or argue about it.

Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella
Traumnovelle, or Dream Story, Eyes Wide Shut—its title evoking both the wilful blindness of marital complacency and the dream state—is a story of re-marriage in which the apparently harmonious coexistence of Bill and Alice, a handsome upper class couple (real-life handsome upper class couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), is disrupted by Alice’s confession of erotic fantasies involving a naval officer. Just as Alice completes her confession, Doctor Bill, now thoroughly tormented, gets called away to attend to the death of an elderly patient. While paying his respects, Bill becomes audience to a second, equally disorienting confession, this one coming from the deceased’s daughter, who explains that she’s always been in love with Bill. Bill flees, eventually finding himself at a jazz club where an old friend plays piano. The friend accidentally lets slip that he’s playing another gig that same night for some clandestine masquerade/sex party and, having learned the password needed to gain entry (Fidelio, or “fidelity”), Bill rents a costume from some pervert who whores out his teenage daughter and attends the event, which seems to be organized by a wealthy cult—the same cult from The 7th Victim (1943)?—and proves more dangerous than he’d anticipated.

Brimming with blemish-free, perfectly groomed, fresh-from-the-gym naked bodies and a parade of women who inexplicably can’t keep their hands off Cruise,
Eyes Wide Shut, at times like David Lynch without the flights of imagination, at others like Roman Polanski without the genuine perversity, is not a very sexy movie. It cautions us to the potentially mortal dangers of sexual adventure, dangers that Bill evades partly through the seemingly clairvoyant protective powers of Alice, who, for example, calls Bill on his mobile just as he’s about to engage a prostitute, prompting him to abort the arrangement. The next day Bill finds out that the prostitute is HIV positive; moments later he buys a newspaper bearing the headline LUCKY TO BE ALIVE. Similarly, while Bill’s at the sex party Alice has a dream that nearly parallels his experience, something which, along with the film’s curiously artificial-looking Manhattan, its cryptic coincidences and pervasive use of blue gels and Christmas lights, alludes to the source material’s dreamlike quality without quite ever fully surrendering to it.

There’s something uncertain about the tone of Eyes Wide Shut, and this, along with a preposterously flabby script by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael—a script that finds nearly every question followed by someone repeating the question back to the questioner—and the pause-laden, alternately stiff, strained, or distracted performances from Cruise and, far more surprisingly, Kidman, renders the film turgid and tiring and over two-and-a-half hours long. Not even his champions would characterize Kubrick as a director especially sensitive to eros or love, and one suspects he may have hoped that having a real couple, a celebrity couple, together onscreen would carry its own special charge. But Cruise and Kidman, who divorced in 2001, seem strangely awkward, comfortable with each other’s bodies but not with each other’s presence, and reveal nothing of the particular nature of their relationship—other than, perhaps, this rigid unease—through Bill and Alice. Whatever brought them together or tore them apart, they kept it to themselves.