Thursday, January 26, 2012

"So much of life scares the shit out of me, and it’s reflected in this movie": Joe Carnahan and Frank Grillo on The Grey

A plane crashes in Alaska. The survivors are left to fend against merciless cold, hunger, and unusually hostile wildlife. This is a story of manly men in a manly place, bearded men without women, fire-lit bloody faces sticky with snow, and man-eating wolves. Resourcefulness, persistence and solidarity are their only hope for survival. But survival itself seems unlikely.

After many years of torture-laden horror films that encourage audience delight in their characters’ mortal terror, there’s something refreshingly noble in The Gray’s insistence on depicting the ways in which fear works on the psyche with a certain rugged empathy. It’s a bracing film of fast violence and existential angst, from that initial plane crash to the first wolf attack, from the crossing of a gorge along a flimsy improvised cable to the final alpha-on-alpha showdown.

Filming in Smithers, B.C., director/co-writer Joe Carnahan, finally making good on the promise of his 2002 film Narc, immerses us in the frigid milieu and ramps up tension through the pulling in and out of sound and disorienting shifts between tight and wide shots. Carnahan may prove to be that rare thing in contemporary movies: a devoted genre filmmaker, inventive but not ironic.

Carnahan’s enthusiasm for his work in certainly infectious. I spoke with both he and actor Frank Grillo last week in a Toronto hotel about the film’s themes, their process, and working with Liam Neeson, The Grey’s smartly cast star. Carnahan and Grillo are old friends. They finish each other’s sentences. Honestly, I didn’t have to do much. Most I just sat back and enjoyed the wine they kindly offered.

JB: From the outset The Grey works nicely as a visceral thriller. Then there came a point where I realized that this entire movie is going to be about facing death, preparing for death.

Joe Carnahan: When did that occur to you?

JB: Maybe it was that campfire scene where the guys are huddled round, talking about faith. I thought that if Ingmar Bergman made action films without any women in them they might look something like this.

[Carnahan gets up]

JC: Brother, that’s one of the highest compliments anybody’s ever paid me.

[Knuckle taps all around]

JB: [to Grillo] This also has much to do with the way your character develops. As we get to know these guys we see how each deals with fear differently. And gradually we start to understand that Diaz’s gut response to the terrifying situation he’s in is to act like an asshole.

Frank Grillo: Right. Angry. Very angry. It’s the way that I dealt with fear for a long time. Bluster, you know? As men, these are issues that we deal with on a daily basis. I’ve said this before and people laugh, but it’s tough to be a man in this world. We grow up with that phrase: “Be a man.” My father used to say that to me whenever I was afraid of something. But what does that mean? I’m afraid. But what does that mean? I’m afraid. Who do I tell?

JC: From a very early age we’re meant to stifle that. But you know what? So much of life scares the shit out of me, and it’s reflected in this movie. What these guys are dealing with is real.

FG: Death.

JC: Neeson says it in that campfire scene: “What’s wrong with being afraid? I’m scared shitless.”

FG: And I say to him, “That’s ’cause you’re a punk.” I went and stayed in some prisons in New York to prepare for the movie. I felt like Diaz was a guy who had his own creed, this thing that he lived by. The prison thing, where it’s about respect. If you’re afraid in jail, you’re a punk. And you’re going to get punked. It’s a survival mechanism. That’s all that Diaz is going on. As soon as he’s called on it, as soon as he realizes that these guys are going to save his life, it turned him around.

JB: I haven’t read the source material. How much of this meditation on the fear of death was in the short story?

JC: What was great about the short story was that it was an introduction to what the world could be. The prose style is very punchy, staccato. It took me four and a half years of revisiting it to get where we got with the script. Which was great. There was never a deadline. So time passed and you have this little epiphanies that life brings you and very slowly you find little things you can add. The process was like sculpture. Just working away at it, shaping it.

JB: It’s tempting to place The Grey in the tradition of Howard Hawks, but in Hawks’ films guys don’t really lose their cool. In The Grey just about everybody loses their cool.

JC: It’s more like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, except that the characters are simply clinging to life. But, brother, evoking Hawks in any way with regards to this movie, I mean, put that on the fuckin’ poster!

FG: It’s interesting to consider this in light of this terrible tragedy that just happened with the Mediterranean cruise ship. Not just the captain, but all the officers jumped ship! They were afraid to die. They didn’t care about who was still on the ship. So I’m thinking to myself, Wow, those storybook endings about heroic men—it doesn’t always happen that way.

JC: And it’s not like these guys were stranded in the middle of the North Atlantic. They could see the shore! That’s a level of cowardice that, well, God help me if I ever experience that.

FG: But, you know what? You don’t know. You just don’t know.

JC: But dude, did you hear about this Mark Wahlberg quote?

FG: He said that if he were on the flight from Boston on 9/11 things would have panned out differently, that he would have killed the terrorists and landed the plane safely. It’s that hubris of a guy who’s read too many action movie scripts.

JC: In retrospect we’re all heroic geniuses.

FG: We’re more afraid to be killed than we are to die. Dying doesn’t seem so bad. Being killed is awful.

JC: There’s some part of us that eventually makes peace with the fact that we’re not going to be here forever. To be killed is to have death imposed on you.

FG: And there’s pain involved.

JC: And there’s pain.

JB: But it’s also easier, right? If someone kills you then you don’t have time to come to terms.

JC: Right. You’re not left with your final thoughts. That’s why I wanted to put that first death scene in The Grey, the guy bleeding to death, the one Liam presides over. Because a lot of people are killed in movies, but not a lot of people die.

FG: You’re watching him die.

JC: It’s a moment where a guy shakes loose this mortal coil, and that’s that, man.

FG: In combat, in serious situations like that, friends have to watch other friends die. I thought Badge did a beautiful job of dying, of conveying that, that...

JC: Something just slipping away.

FG: Yeah.

JC: Yeah.

JB: Frank, you were signed on long before production, right?

FG: Joe just called me and said “Don’t take a job in January. I don’t care what your agents say, you’re doing this job.” Which is risky. I’m a working guy, a blue collar actor. But the advance notice afforded me time to work things out very thoroughly. I was a pain in the ass, constantly emailing and calling Joe with ideas.

JC: But also, what are you right now, brother, like, 170?

FG: 165.

JC: He was up to almost 200 pounds. He built himself up, preparing himself for this film. That’s the level of engagement I knew I’d get from Frank.

FG: But I could barely keep up with Liam Neeson. 58 years old, this guy never stopped.

JB: And he looks like a wolf.

JC: He looks like a wolf!

FG: Doesn’t he look like a wolf?

JB: After doing this project do you guys feel a little closer to knowing how to meet your maker gracefully?

JC: I think so, brother. If there’s any kind of pacification that can arise from an experience like this it’s hopefully the presence of mind to believe that whatever you hold in your heart, that’s what’s going to shepherd you through.

FG: I have three sons. I don’t mind dying, but I just want it to be pleasant. I want to know my boys are okay. I don’t want to be taken from the Earth in an instant and not have the time to do it in a way that would be beautiful.

JC: That’s great, brother, because as we sit back and admire this horrific plane crash we just put on screen we both got to get on a fuckin’ plane tomorrow!

[Both laugh]

Monday, January 23, 2012

Running into each other: Carancho

Here’s a screwball pairing you probably never imagined: ambulance chaser meets ambulance driver. He’s an older, weary looking type who lost his license and now works for a firm that rips off accident victims. She’s a young, pretty but numb-looking type who works as a paramedic to supplement her income as a doctor and buoy her burgeoning drug habit. These two inhabit a contemporary Buenos Aires where corruption surrounding insurance companies has reached an appalling low and crack-ups are staged. It’s a grimy labyrinth of a city and these two lonely, grime-covered people are desperate to survive it with some splinter of integrity left intact. He gets the shit kicked out of him more than once. She has to deal with patients who wake up on gurneys in the ER and start beating the shit out of each other. Both look like they could really use some sleep. They’re not going to get much. Carancho, the latest film from Pablo Trapero, is very much a neo-noir.

Sosa, the sleazy lawyer (“carancho” is Spanish for vulture), is played by Ricardo Darín, rumpled star of such globally popular Argentine pictures as The Secret in Their Eyes, The Aura, Nine Queens and The Son of the Bride. Luján, the junky doctor with the somnambulistic bedside manner, is played by Martina Gusman, Trapero’s wife and star of his previous films Lion’s Den and Born and Bred. Both give engrossingly detailed performances, highlighted in Carancho’s early scenes, which are composed almost exclusively of unnervingly tight close-ups (the first wide turns up somewhere after the eight-minute mark). Trapero puts the study back in character study. At times his attention to nuance comes at the expense of the bigger picture—tone is masterfully invoked but momentum becomes an issue. I confess that this is the first I’ve seen of Trapero’s work since Crane World, his knockout 1999 feature debut, and one of my favourite films of the last fifteen years or so. Oddly enough, as different as the slick, formalist, genre-friendly Carancho is from the episodic, shaggy, very funny, black and white Crane World, they share an enormously appealing emphasis on work, on how people go about their daily business. Trapero is clearly a filmmaker deserving of more attention—including mine!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Haywire: Learnin' the tropes

Haywire reunites director Steven Soderbergh with screenwriter Lem Dobbs. Though not as revelatory or formally engaged as The Limey, the pair’s 1999 sleeper, which marked a comeback for its star, Terrence Stamp, Haywire is nevertheless, like The Limey, a smart, playful vamp on old tropes: lone wolf hired muscle takes a gig that turns out to be a double-cross; she becomes a loose end; corrupt former employer now seeks to eliminate her... you know the tune. Like The Limey, Haywire is also a film unusually concerned with geographical coherence, thus we get chase scenes that work up quite a sweat ensuring that we understand exactly how we got onto the fourth floor of this particular building or down that particular alleyway—there’s even a pair of demonstrative scenes in which our heroine, Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), carefully consults a covert GPS device. Soderbergh, as always, operating as his own cinematographer, knows that one of the problems with modern action flicks is that they’re disorienting in all the wrong ways. In a film that’s all about escape, pursuit, concealment and ambush, identification is dependent on knowing where the hell we are.

That sense of where-we-are also applies to genre, and Soderbergh, though always looking for a novel twist, has a knack for letting us know just what kind of movie we’re watching: a thriller, in this case, with the emphasis on thrills, but a thriller that doesn’t insult your intelligence. While the sequences involving operations or surveillance play out in cool but propulsive montages set to David Holmes’ lightly funkified suspense score—part In a Silent Way/Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, part Shaft, part post-rock—the actual fight scenes are relatively light on cuts, feature no music whatsoever, and look pretty painful in their awkwardness. Random objects are creatively appropriated as weapons. Furniture does not always break, and such little insertions of realism add a pleasing layer of ouchiness. Yet other details, such as the tumbleweed that tumbles by during a final scene between Mallory and her new employer (Michael Douglas), allude to a certain detached sense of irreverence guiding this project.

Soderbergh has attracted his customary diverse range of acting talent, mostly recognizable stars with a little something extra to catch us off guard: Antonio Banderas with a beard, Ewan McGregor with a bad haircut (and a half-assed accent), Bill Paxton as a moustached military-fiction-writing dad. Everyone seems to be having the right amount of fun. As for the tough, terse, well-built, largely expression-free Carano, well, lets just say she’s a mixed martial arts star first and actor second. I confess that I caught myself wondering now and then whether Asia Argento was too busy. Or Michelle Rodriguez. But Carano’s gung ho/no bullshit attitude, her obvious ability to do at least some of her own stunts and her lack of over-psychologizing function fairly well in what is above all a movie meant to move, to function, to divert. “You shouldn’t think of her as a woman,” says the baddie who betrayed her. “That would be a mistake.” Indeed, Mallory is a firecracker, a killing machine with a moral compass. I guess she has feelings too. Maybe we’ll get to explore them in the sequel.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sympathy for the sadist, and other dubious teenage readings of A Clockwork Orange

As a teenage boy I suppose I was impressed by the artful brutalism of it, the audacious juxtaposition of music and image, the home invasions, gang rapes and vicious beatings set to show tunes and classical favourites. When you’re young you need dystopias, and A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s controversial 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel, more than delivered, replete with its own jive talk, ugly furniture, outfits and wigs. It re-legitimized milk-drinking for the bad kids. It also fed juvenile homophobic suspicions that parents were zombies, authority figures were buffoons, and social workers just wanted to get down your pants. It wasn’t that hard to identify with Alex. Sure, he murdered the cat lady, but he didn’t mean it. Kubrick facilitated Alex’s palatability by excising the novel’s pedophilia and making all of Alex’s victims unbelievably irritating, cartoons practically waiting to be victims. Still, I find it interesting that the prison chaplain is the sole voice of reason: “When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” (Burgess was a lapsed Catholic.)

Then there was Malcolm McDowell, a bold, intelligent actor, whose Alex is so memorable, so savage yet shamelessly sympathetic, that the role kind of haunted him, a bit like Norman Bates did for Anthony Perkins. In those early scenes of Alex and his droogs prowling city and country for the old ultraviolence, McDowell never blinks. It’s a way to assert his unflinching lust, this sadist with a soft spot for Beethoven. Which makes it that much more chilling when Alex goes to prison and gets plugged into the experimental fast-tracked rehabilitation program where they feed him drugs and force him to watch nasty movies all afternoon with his eyelids held open by metal insect legs. The result of this new crime-crushing tactic? A generation of ex-cons who get nauseous whenever confronted with bullies, young men incapable of intimate contact with the opposite sex. Once released from the pen Alex is anything but “ready for love.”

Which brings us to the third act and its chain of dramatic ironies, which possess a certain satisfying symmetry. Going back to A Clockwork Orange for the first time since my teens it was these final sequences that I realized I’d forgotten. I was pleasantly surprised to see how well they unfurl, despite the film’s stiff satire on disciplinary systems and wobbly warnings about the malleability of the mind and the persistence of aberrant urges. Whether any of this works as social commentary remains debatable. Kubrick was genuinely horrified by the copy-cat killings and avoided these themes in the future, leaving them to Michael Haneke—who would run into a whole other set of problems with his own Funny Games.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


The year is 1973, the milieu British secret service. Someone, we’re told, is a mole, a rotten apple—a red one. Retired master spook George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is charged with smoking him out. But how? Everyone has secrets. Everyone is compromised. Everyone looks a little shifty. The world, in fact, looks shifty. If you were to layer every frame of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy atop one another and shine a light through you’d get a palimpsest of grimy wallpaper, gloomy skies, nervous sweat, hairpieces and funeral parlour suits. Smiley’s bifocals rhyme with all those dirty windows, desk lamps and dull reflective surfaces of creaky old lifts with steel walls. You’d get a blur of European cities in multiple shades of shabby. This War isn’t just Cold; it’s also crepuscular, analogue and ramshackle.

Directed with a born voyeur’s gaze by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) from a ruthlessly taut script by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, Tinker Tailor thrives on atmosphere. It needs to. Because of you haven’t read John Le Carré’s source novel or seen the original 1979 UK miniseries—shit, maybe even if you have—following the tangled threads of this adaptation, which clocks in at just over two hours but could easily have been six, can be a challenge. Smiley’s no great help here as he tends to say little. One of the things necessarily lost in this truncated narrative is a fuller sense of Smiley’s own psychic wounds. But there’s something to be said for this kind of bracing, at times baffling, concision. The film is claustrophobic and never less than intriguing. And the new emphasis on the characters’ sexual proclivities is quite welcome, and beautifully handled by the stellar cast, Colin Firth especially.

Which isn’t to say that we don’t get a few clichés thrown in. “Trust no one,” “Things aren’t always what they seem”: people actually say this stuff in Tinker Tailor. But the unsaid is often what’s most compelling in this morally murky, mystery-saturated thriller. Besides Oldman and Firth, the others actors who work wonders with misdirection and withholding include Toby Jones, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds and an especially pretty Tom Hardy—probably the year’s best gallery of guilt-ridden faces.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"Repression is interesting": David Cronenberg on A Dangerous Method

It may not first seem it, but this drama about the origins of psychoanalysis, adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own play, finds its ideal interpreter in David Cronenberg, who has, after all, forged his career by studying the beast within, and has always conveyed a special knowingness about the myriad ways in which the primitive bristles and burns at the spinal-psychic base of the bourgeoise. Tracing encounters between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), his acolyte, and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), Jung’s patient and mistress and, finally, an accomplished psychoanalyst in her own right, A Dangerous Method, which opens wide across Canada this weekend, is the story of a precarious new science’s difficult development, a love affair, and a friendship fraught with conflicting expectations. It’s also about doubt, the persistence of superstition, family, clothes, gardens, interior design, shop talk, facial hair, and correspondence.

The tone is eloquent, ironic, restrained, at times epistolary. Manners matter, yet taboo triumphs. Lives are condensed in such a way that movements become dreamlike. There are numerous brilliant, often very funny hard cuts between scenes that, though time has passed, almost make us feel Jung is walking from one scene that reveals his unresolved sexual urges to another in which his wife has just given birth. The performances are each beautifully calibrated and contained, and Fassbender—whose superb, erotically charged work is far better rewarded here than it was in Shame—is especially compelling in his transmission of the delicate balance of Jung’s repressed desires, colossal ambitions, and nervous urge toward the esoteric, perhaps as a way of coping with irreconcilable needs.

I spoke with Cronenberg last month about the film. We had but a brief window of time, yet he was, as always, generous, articulate and witty.

JB: For me, an especially memorable moment in your body of work is the opening scene of The Brood, a scene that, however unconventional or sinister the treatment being administered in it may be, could be read as suspicious of psychotherapy. Before this project came to you, did you feel any particular unease with psychoanalysis?

David Cronenberg: [Laughs] No. No particular wariness. I think every really interesting thing we create has a potential downside or dangerous aspect. Obviously, this movie is called A Dangerous Method, and it was considered so in its time because it was revolutionary, subversive and volatile. Freud was attacked for it. As he said when he came to America on the boat: “Don’t they realize we’re bringing them the plague?” [Laughs] He was acknowledging the fact that this new therapy was tricky. Things could have unforeseeable repercussions. In The Brood I’m just exaggerating that. It was never meant as a blanket critique of psychotherapy.

JB: I recall something David Lynch wrote once about trying out psychoanalysis. He came in, sat down and immediately asked the doctor if treatment would effect his creativity. The doctor said yes. Lynch said thanks, got up, and left. Do you feel there’s something in psychoanalysis that’s detrimental to creativity?

DC: I think it depends on what kind of artist you are. And what kind of therapist. Some psychotherapists who have writers or directors as clients like to get screenwriting credits.

[Both laugh.]

DC: Its true. The therapist who said that to Lynch was probably feeling his oats, wanting to feel the power of analysis. But, you know, Woody Allen’s been in analysis for 40 years and he’s still pretty productive, so it really depends on the parties involved, how they interact. That’s one of the interesting things about analysis, it created a new kind of relationship. And it could be a complex, very difficult one. The boundaries always shift, because they’re contingent on the specific personalities of both analyst and patient. That’s why it can’t really be called a hard science, though Freud desperately wanted it to be. Hard science implies that an experiment can be repeated anywhere so long as you replicate the conditions. With human beings you can’t do this. We’re too slippery.

JB: Over the course of A Dangerous Method, Sabina Spielrein arguably emerges as an example of psychoanalysis’ capacity for self-betterment.

DC: Yes. As she says to Jung, “You cured me with his method.” Meaning Freud’s talking cure. The boundaries of psychoanalysis weren’t known—they were still inventing it. So you have to give Otto Gross a little credit here. He was a proto-hippy, questioning everything, and he was saying, “How do we know having sex with your patient is a bad thing?”

[Both laugh.]

DC: It was a legitimate question. “What if it turns out to be a useful component of this new therapy we’re inventing?” Of course, now it’s illegal. But Gross really changed Jung’s way of thinking. He shook him out of his bourgeois patterns, and Jung was forever after an advocate of polygamy. He lived that way. He had a wife, but he also had a mistress for the rest of his life. It seemed to work for him. I don’t know about his wife, though she too became a psychoanalyst and didn’t leave him and was very productive. So who’s to say that, even as a patient who became a lover, Sabina was in fact victimized? As it turns out, she was no victim. She was their intellectual equal and went on to have her own career.

JB: Something I find especially intriguing about the film is the way that Jung and Spielrein seem to cross paths while on what are essentially reverse trajectories, the former moving from groundedness to deep disquiet, the latter from hysteria to groundedness. They share a peculiar kind of love story I think...

DC: That’s exactly right. A very good point...

JB: Which makes me think that there are actually a surprising number of love stories in your work. The Dead Zone, The Fly and Dead Ringers are constructed to some degree around people falling in love. Crash and History of Violence prominently feature long-term love that needs to be renegotiated.

DC: When I was a kid I read a book called The Allegory of Love, by C.S. Lewis, which suggested that romantic love was a relatively recent literary invention, that it had never existed in ancient Roman or Greek literature or art. Whatever you want to call it, it does seem to be a very powerful force. And yes, I think it’s in almost all my movies, though it’s not often acknowledged, perhaps because it’s very subtle.

JB: I think there’s an interesting piece of writing to be done on the subject.

DC: Well, you could do it.

JB: I’m going to look into that! ...In the meantime, I’m interested in the question of restraint in A Dangerous Method. Most of your films depict catalytic events that allow some level of chaos to unfurl, but here—as in History of Violence, and perhaps Spider—taboo or heretical urges are only allowed to manifest in very particular safe zones. In this case, the zones of therapy or secret sex.

DC: Repression is interesting. In Freud’s formula civilization is repression. For me, each movie is a unique creature and tells you what it needs. In this case what it needed was control, because the era that psychoanalysis came out of was one of great control. You see it in the Belvedere Gardens, so beautiful yet so manicured—the boundaries were unmistakable. It was an era in which everyone knew his place. There was not a lot of fluidity. A lot of stability, but not much spontaneity. So the tone of the movie comes from the characters and the era, even the clothes, the high, stiff collars, and so on. Hysteria, we might say, was a spontaneous outcry against this general repression. Particularly of women.

JB: I enjoyed the film’s many almost subliminal elements that invoke this air of psychic unease. I think of the zig-zag floors, for example.

DC: Much of which was taken from photographs of the era. Both Christopher Hampton and I felt that the more accurate we could be, the more neutral, without tilting things one way or the other, the more revealing it would be.

JB: This is, obviously, an unusually talky movie. Much drama emerges through things spoken. That must be exhilarating in its own, quiet way, to be able to craft a story in which the subconscious can be articulated without much contrivance.

DC: That was one of the attractions, absolutely. A lot of people say, “Wasn’t it too talky? Too theatrical?” But it was a screenplay before it was a play, and even there, the characters talked a lot. It was called The Talking Cure. I liked that. I think Christopher was worried that I might want to cut back on that for so-called cinematic reasons, but I assured him that that was what makes this script great. A face talking is the thing that we photograph most as directors. To me that’s not theatrical—it’s the essence of cinema. If you have a great face saying great things, you have a movie.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Memory lane to Lund

Coming after Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and The Seventh Seal (1957), Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (also ’57) was the product of someone who’d fully arrived as an internationally acclaimed auteur. In terms of gravity it splits the difference between Smiles, a sex comedy of the highest order, and Seal, a medieval existential ensemble drama about futility and death; like the latter, it’s a road movie through which numerous supporting characters pass while our protagonist, septuagenarian professor Isak Borg (legendary Swedish director Victor Sjöström), travels to Lund for an honorary degree and along the way reviews his life’s regrets. The film, appearing not too long after Akira Kurosawa’s beloved and not dissimilarly themed Ikiru (1952), instantly became one of Bergman’s most beloved works.

I’ve been a Bergmaniac since my teens and must confess that Strawberries has never even cracked my top ten (bearing in mind that Bergman directed over 60 films). There are memorable dream sequences—the sun-blasted houses with their butcher paper curtains; the carriage carrying the coffin carrying the professor; the professor’s wife being ravished in the woods—but none as memorable or imaginative as dream sequences in several other Bergmans. The long flashback section at the summer house is a little boring (or anyway as boring as any sequence featuring both the delicious Bibi Andersson and the delectable Gunnel Lindblom can be). And those two self-serious young men in ultra-short shorts that the professor picks up are more annoying than anything else.

On the other hand, there’s the ingenious notion of having Marianne, the professor’s daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin, of the incredibly sensual mouth and quiet, captivating intelligence), tag along for the ride after having temporarily left her husband Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand). One of the film’s strongest sequences is the flashback to the moment Marianne confesses to Evald that she’s pregnant and intends to keep the baby; Evald tells her if she does they’re through; the last cut is brilliantly, brutally timed. There’s that endearing rural gas jockey (Max Von Sydow) who reveres the professor so much he won’t accept remittance for topping up his tank. “There are things that can’t be paid back,” he says. “Not even with gas.” And there is, of course, Sjöström, so relaxed yet so vulnerable, so elegant and somehow chilly. His performance is reason enough to see Wild Strawberries. That and those final two close-ups (courtesy of Gunnar Fischer in one of his last Bergmans) of Sjöström's tired, pale face, which, seemingly effortlessly, convey the sense of a whole life having passed before it, and the possibility of finding peace with that life’s drawing to a close.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Making headlines: Errol Morris' Tabloid

In 1977 Joyce McKinney, a 28 year-old model and former Miss Wyoming, journeyed to England on a mission of love. With apparently unlimited funds at her disposal and fearing possible violence, she’d hired a pilot and a couple of body guards to accompany her, but in the end her dutiful old buddy Keith May was her sole accomplice as, depending on who you believe, she either kidnapped or liberated Kirk Anderson, the dumpy 21 year-old Mormon missionary Joyce claimed was brainwashed by his church. Kirk was her fiancé, she says, and the love of her life. However willing or unwilling Kirk was, he wound up shackled to a bed in a cottage in the Devon countryside, a bed upon which Joyce, by her own testimony, administered three days of hot, therapeutic sex, just enough to temporarily bring Kirk back to his senses, but not enough to prevent his returning to the Church of Latter Day Saints and ultimately declaring in a courtroom that Joyce raped him. Rape? This made no sense whatsoever to our ever-cheerful, practical-minded anti-heroine. How can a woman possibly rape a man? Joyce asks. “It’s like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter.”

Sex, religion, abduction, bondage, a feisty, sexy, sly subject oozing with natural showmanship and sporting a delectable Southern accent: “Joyce McKinney and the Manacled Mormon” was perfect tabloid material. And perfect material for Errol Morris’ latest film, Tabloid. Morris (Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) has made a career of interrogating the sensational, but with McKinney it turns out that very little prodding was needed. Morris spent a single day in 2010 interviewing the still vivacious McKinney about the scandal and walked away with documentary gold. There’s this refrain that clings to every Morris project, something about how he looks down on his subjects or even wants to humiliate them, but I don’t buy it for a minute. Watching Tabloid again in preparation for this review it seemed to me that Morris was, if anything, completely seduced by McKinney. Like the many who did her bidding as she orchestrated the entire drama and media circus in the UK, Morris became a slave of sorts. How could you not? McKinney’s story, complete with ridiculous disguises and daring escapes, is just too good (to be true?), even with all her absurd allegations and bits of bawdy-folksy wisdom. McKinney is no fool. She says she was placed in a school for gifted kids because she had an IQ of 168, and, as with everything she says, you kind of believe her. The film’s most compelling question: does she believe herself?

In keeping with the titular theme, Morris smacks the screen over and over with gaudy, zippy, superimposed headlines, sometimes as a way of efficiently letting us know about contradicting facts (KIDNAPPED flashes over McKinney’s face as she claims Anderson’s consensual accompaniment to the love shack), sometimes just to emphasize certain favourite words of his subjects. (Peter Tory, reporter for the Daily Express, the tabloid who opted to print McKinney’s version of the events, clearly has a predilection for the term “spread-eagled,” which he employs whenever he refers to Anderson’s captivity.) And Morris keeps the dizzyingly entertaining Tabloid peppy and propulsive by jumping back and forth between McKinney and his handful of other smartly selected subjects: Tory, salty rival tabloid photog Kent Gavin, Salt Lake City radio host and ex-Mormon Troy Williams, still-horny-for-Joyce hired pilot Jackson Shaw, and one Dr. Hong, a Korean genetic scientist who supplies crucial commentary on Tabloid’s wonderfully WTF?! denouement, in which we find out about McKinney’s descent into agoraphobic reclusion and batshit home video making in the 1980s and her return to the public eye in the 2000s following the death and eventual rebirth of her beloved Booger, a canine so extraordinary he could answer the phone and retrieve beverages from the refrigerator.