Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Action movies

A boy, working at a garage, does a favour for an elderly woman, and steals her wallet. A young woman discovers she’s going to lose her factory job and physically assaults her employer in protest. In both cases the characters are followed by the camera as though in hot pursuit—the word “dogged” always comes to mind. The camera is handheld but there’s no phony, pseudo-documentary shakiness. The décors and mise en scène are unadorned as can be, the close-ups often bracingly tight and off-kilter. Yet there is a sense of masterful control to how every moment unfolds, and the result is moment-to-moment riveting. The characters always have tasks, and the stakes are high.

The boy, Igor (Jérémie Renier), has been pulled out of school to work at the garage, but his father (Olivier Gourmet) winds up pulling him out of the garage too, so that he can focus his energies on assisting him with the maintenance of illegal migrant workers, one of whom falls prey to an accident and before perishing asks Igor to make him a promise, one which breaks through the boy’s preternatural cynicism. The girl, Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne), lives with her alcoholic mother in a trailer and is desperate to improve her situation, to have a normal life, above all, a job, something she seeks with a tremendous fierceness. Her energy seems uncontainable: in a single breathless sequence, we see her confront her mother’s lover, steal the bottle he’s brought along with him, smash the bottle, get chased by the boyfriend through the trailer park, then spot a guy on a dirt bike, tackle him to the ground and start to wrestle. It’s almost an action movie.

But let me clarify: the boy and the girl are in two different movies, the first being La promesse, the second Rosetta. But these films are connected by a strict yet liberating formal, narrative and, yes, moral rigour of the highest order. These films, the first made in 1996, the second in 1999, both new on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, represent a genuine revelation, not only for Belgium’s fraternal filmmaking collaborators Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who had made documentaries before producing two disappointing fiction films and needed to find a new, essentially sui generis way of working, but for cinema itself: they launched a body of work both radical and humble, austere and galvanizing. Each movie begins in media res, offers no exposition, no score, nothing beyond the diegetic; each demonstrates relationships only through action, and follows its protagonist with a rough and tumble loyalty that ultimately feels like the closest thing to true, deeper love that the movies can give us. The plights of Igor and of Rosetta are indeed dire, but the last thing these films want is to wallow in pity, and the stunning lead performances do nothing to ingratiate themselves. They crackle, they plunge, they examine—they move (in both senses of the word). The Dardennes won the Palme d’Or for Rosetta and would get another for L’enfant in 2005. Perhaps they’ll win another, because, since La promesse, theirs is also one of the most consistent bodies of work in cinema, and even if you were to peg them as having a formula, the work remains fresh because there is something in that formula that cannot help but come alive every time out: a pure, durable curiosity and belief in the power and the will of the underdog. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

The wrong side of the law

Set in Prohibition era rural Virginia, Lawless marks the fourth feature film collaboration between director John Hillcoat and musician, writer and occasional actor Nick Cave; it’s their second collaboration with Cave in the role of scenarist. Like Hillcoat’s The Proposition, which came from an original Cave script, Lawless, adapted from Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World—itself based on Bondurant’s own family history—follows the fates of three brutish brothers pitted against corrupt authorities. But The Proposition was a western set in Hillcoat and Cave’s native Australia, and was a far more distinctive and relevant piece of revisionist genre cinema. Much of what transpires in Lawless, by contrast, is as boilerplate as its title: the fraught fraternal hierarchy, the super-evil chief villain, the female characters neatly divided into Madonna and whore—even Cave’s score sounds kinda generic. The film is disappointing; whatever you thought of Hillcoat’s previous feature, The Road, which Cave scored, you couldn’t fault it for lack of ambition or aesthetic vision. Yet I can’t call Lawless a complete failure either.

The Bondurant brothers, Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LeBeouf), are hillbilly bootleggers whose business is encroached upon by outsiders, led by Chicago-based special agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), looking to get in on the profits. The story is told from Jack’s point-of-view, which is unfortunate given LeBeouf’s overworked earnestness, but Jack is indeed the one undergoing the most radical shifts in character: we see the boys as kids in an overfamiliar prologue in which wimpy little Jack can’t work up the gumption to kill a hog, something his stoic elder brothers do without hesitation. Forrest is the most enigmatic character; at a young age he claimed he and his brothers were immortal, and Forrest Bondurant’s uncanny real-life biography, peppered with a series of injuries that most of us would never survive, feels like the best reason to tell this story in the first place. I wish it was more about Forrest and his strange life, and that Hardy was more central to the film since he also gives what is by far the most compelling performance.

Lawless’ most flamboyant performance however would easily be Pearce’s. His Rakes is an improbable dandy: eyebrows plucked, hair slicked and dyed to an ebony sheen, wearing delicate gloves and pearly waistcoats. He looks like Satan’s golf tee. Sneering and preening and gleefully sadistic, Pearce’s choice to hurl himself right over the top is a perfectly reasonable response to this character’s absurdly overstated villainy; the character also reads as a closeted homosexual monster, a fairly lazy, offensive, outdated paradigm.

While I’m a huge admirer of Cave’s work in most other circumstances, I recognize that the script for Lawless is the sum of Cave’s weakest tendencies. Nonetheless I could still imagine a more appealing realization of that script helmed by a director with more of humour, sense of place and affection for character, however archetypical, than Hillcoat displays here with his ceremoniousness, overstated brutality and overly cutty violence. It’s been nearly ten years since David Gordon Green made anything even close to worthy of the promise of his debut, George Washington; I wish someone like Green, the kind of filmmaker we used to label “regional,” could get this kind of a gig. Even with all its clichés, it would still have felt more shook alive and lived-in and curious about the world and the mysteries of the past. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Like watching paint dry—in a really good way!

Few bodies of work in any medium have expressed the tension between photography and the world, between representation and expression, between memory and history, as that of the German painter Gerhard Richter: the blur or softening or tricks of light that envelop his photo-based work can also be detected in much of his abstract work. So there’s something almost inherently satisfying about the notion of making a documentary about Richter at work, of photographing the making of paintings whose content or aesthetic are founded in photography.

Largely devoid of commentary, Corrina Belz’s straightforwardly titled Gerard Richter Painting is primarily concerned with bearing witness to the moment when something mysterious comes into being, with tracking the turning points in Richter’s process, moments when he decides to revise the face of an entire canvas in a single broad gesture—moments about which Richter himself has relatively little to say. Which makes Gerhard Richter Painting an unusually physical movie, its key recurring image being that of the very fit titular octogenarian taking his massive flat brush and pushing it slowly and carefully across a work-in-progress. Squarely framed, the act appears mythical, almost Herculean, and the sound is equally impactful, that tremendous echoing whoomph as he lifts the brush away. These scenes are simultaneously meditative and exhilarating.  

The rest is the film is pretty interesting too: Richter preparing a number of major international exhibitions, building his 1:50 scale models; glimpses of Richter’s family; Richter’s chipper assistants taking lumps out of paint; Richter examining old photos and recalling childhood memories; Richter speaking of the secrecy involved in painting, but very matter-of-factly—there is no forced mystique to his countenance; he’s pretty much a friendly, smart, but no-bullshit kind of guy. (Every once in a while he reminds me of Anthony Hopkins.) There are also excerpts from earlier television documentaries about Richter dating from more than 40 years ago, and these are also fascinating. In one, the young Richter tries to dismiss the notion of the artist as purely cerebral, as working from clear and realizable intentions. “You can’t think while you’re painting,” he says. “Painting is another form of thinking.” And in this sense, Belz has successfully captured thought on film. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Must be doing something right to last 160 minutes

Less a story or even a proto-“network narrative” than a panoramic portrait of America’s Music City, Nashville was shot in the autumn of 1974, smack-dab in the middle of the New Hollywood decade, that brief golden age when big money flowed for the movie brat mavericks. With the commercial success of M*A*S*H and the creative peak of McCabe and Mrs. Miller still fresh in people’s minds, 1974 should have found Robert Altman at the height of whatever power and influence he’d ever glean, but United Artists turned down the project and Altman wound up making it with ABC. The budget was over $2 million, not exactly peanuts, but we’re talking about a movie with 24 main characters, a steady stream of often elaborate musical performances before huge audiences, a major car accident on the freeway, a public assassination, and god knows how many locations. So the shoot was hurried, cramped and chaotic by most standards. The driver of the truck that cruises through Nashville blasting political speeches was told to just keep trying to invade the production on a daily basis—that was the extent of his direction. Altman tells a story about how he never even saw costumes until he arrived at a location; occasionally he would get a complete stranger, hired (or not) as an extra, to swap outfits with one of his stars. Whether frenzied or fun times, such circumstances were the lifeblood of Altman’s best filmmaking, an aesthetic built on invention, resourcefulness and capricious mischief. Put mics everywhere and keep those cameras rolling: Nashville was made like a documentary. And much of it plays like a great party. 

But here’s what I forgot: while Nashville’s broad satire—‘200 Years,’ the stately anthem that kicks off the movie, is truly the dumbest, most ridiculous but of glitter-country patriotism imaginable—and teeming canvas left little room for sentiment, there comes a moment in the final third or so of its 160-minute runtime when we are suddenly greeted with a handful of scenes of subtle yet devastating emotional impact, most notably when Lily Tomlin’s married, unlikely gospel choir leader has to exit her hotel room tryst with Keith Carradine’s younger, handsome womanizing folk-rocker, and Carradine puts on a show of calling up another woman to take Tomlin’s place, like a guy who’s still got the munchies and needs to order another pizza. The movie ends with real-life singer Ronee Blakley’s fragile singing star—the closest thing to the real thing in Altman’s musical menagerie, she gives a strangely affecting performance—singing a song about her Idaho roots to a huge crowd before some freak pulls out a gun and shoots her for reasons no one really knows. Exiting stage left, Blakley’s taken away, bleeding, unconscious, her fate uncertain. Minutes later the entertainment resumes with Barbara Harris stalking the stage to sing ‘It Don’t Worry Me.’ The gospel choir joins in. The crowd settles down. Kids are held aloft. People look happy again. Maybe they’ll vote for that guy the truck keeps telling them about. The show must go on. And through Altman’s wry gaze that perseverance is neither cynical nor courageous. It’s just the way things are in this place like no other. Crazy shit happens. Might as well keep singing. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Close encounters of the charitable kind

Rural landscapes and dust-clouded roads; cocks, dogs and donkeys; horses dragging carts and kids on bikes: the emphasis is clearly on nurturing a sense of place in the tranquil, rather idyllic opening scenes of Argentine-Canadian director Andrés Livov-Macklin’s A Place Called Los Pereyra. The film tracks an encounter between Los Pereyra, a remote village without phones or electricity in the heavily forested region of Cacho, Argentina, and a group of teenage girls dubbed las Madrinas or “the Godmothers,” who until recently made annual trips to Pereyra from Buenos Aires, some 1,450 kilometers away, with the ostensible goal of helping Pereyra’s children to better appreciate education—the village only has one school, which ends at grade six.

The well-intentioned madrinas do what teenage girls from big cities do: they try to have fun, play games with the kids, flirt with a local teenage boy or two, and then leave. It's not unlike being a councillor at summer camp, and constitutes what is no doubt a formative experience for the girls. But how effective is this interaction? Is it all that educational (in the conventional sense)? What is the lasting impact of their visit on the village? Lyrical and attentive, the film neither commends nor condemns las madrinas, but by simply observing the encounter, and spending time in Pereyra before and after, A Place Called Los Pereyra prompts intriguing questions about the efficiency and aftereffects of such altruistic programs, while offering a portrait of a place, seemingly populated almost entirely by children and the elderly (people of working age have presumably gone elsewhere), that feels very much apart from much of 21st century society.

I spoke with Los Pereyra’s co-producer Hugh Gibson over breakfast earlier this week. Gibson is also a writer and director; his 2004 film ‘Hogtown Blues’ won the Audience Award at the Bilbao International Film Festival, and he’s since worked on a series of videos designed to promote Toronto’s Regent Park’s harm reduction program for drug users. Gibson’s story of making Los Pereyra is one of hard work and happy accidents. It’s also about the elusiveness of closure.
Producer Hugh Gibson    

JB: You and Andrés studied film at York University together, right? Is that where this project started?

HG: We knew each other a little through school, but we only got to know each other really well later, when we both had our thesis movies playing at the Montreal film festival. That was back n 2004.

JB: Was Andrés’ thesis film a documentary?

HG: Yes. Mostly about his grandfather. He shot it in Buenos Aires. You could see from that film that he had a particular eye. A poetic sensibility to his storytelling. After school he went back to Argentina and started developing this idea he got from friends who’d taken these charitable trips to distant villages when they were in high school. This sort of thing is practiced widely down there. Andrés always wondered what happens when people from privileged backgrounds go to these places—places that are the opposite of privileged—and then leave. These visitors descend as though from a UFO almost. What must the villagers think when they’re gone? What’s village life like when the visitors aren’t there? Andrés workshopped this idea at the Berlin Film Festival’s Talent Campus where, once more, we both happened to wind up at the same time, staying in the same dorm. I loved his idea. I was very interested in Argentine cinema, specifically after seeing Los Muertos and The Holy Girl. I really wanted this movie to be made. We met the guy who would compose music for the movie in Berlin too. Gary Marlowe. A German guy. It was a fortuitous trip.

JB: You compared these groups to UFOs. One of the film’s most interesting scenes is the one where the grandfather with the giant white face-spanning moustache is sitting on the fence in his boxer shorts, telling his grandson about these people who are coming to visit. What he describes almost sounds like science-fiction, or myth. As though Buenos Aires was Valhalla.

HG: Yes. It becomes a magical place in the kids’ minds.

JB: You guys spent so long preparing; when you started to see the footage, did anything really surprise you?

HG: There were big surprises. The whole trip to the zoo, for instance. None of that was planned. In previous years they had never left Los Pereyra. But this bus came along and took the kids on this field trip and yielded some extremely interesting material.

JB: The idea of these city girls taking these children from the countryside, who are clearly accustomed to living amongst animals, and bringing them to a zoo—it lends itself to being used as a metaphor for the whole project at its most ineffective. But the film smartly resists that metaphor; it doesn’t push it too hard. It would be a facile reading of the relationship between las madrinas and Los Pereyra.

HG: Andrés’ approach was always about keeping distance. Fly on the wall. There were never going to be any formal interviews or voiceover to fill in the gaps. So it follows that you’re not going to beat the audience over the head with big metaphors. There are hints and suggestions to follow, if you’re so inclined.

JB: There is one sequence that feels like a more overt editorial statement, the one where we cut between las madrinas having a party, dancing and singing along to the Rent soundtrack—I guess they brought a generator—while this boy sits alone by a campfire, until he gets up and says he’s going home.

HG: I would say that throughout the movie we just tried to find opportunities to emphasize certain differences. The culture clash. There’s a lot of that in the previous scene where everyone visits that family farm and we learn that children there hunt pumas. The food, the skinning of the goat carcass—we wanted to make clear how different are these two ways of life.

JB: You mentioned that the question that prompted the film had to do with the aftereffects of these visits. I wonder how you felt about the idea that a film crew, however small and unobtrusive, might also have a similar effect. You come, turn a spotlight on these people, and then vanish.

HG: A very good question. One that we struggle with to this day.

JB: Have the people of Los Pereyra seen the film?

HG: No. It’s been an ongoing challenge to bring a screening to them. The fact that that still hasn’t happened is not something I’m happy about. Our main contacts in the village were the teachers you see in the movie. They’ve since retired and moved away. Those who live there don’t have phones or email. They don’t have any way to play a DVD. We’ve been in talks with this government agency called CineMóvil. They bring movies to remote places; just imagine something like what you see in Spirit of the Beehive. We’ve wanted to work with them, but there’s been a series of setbacks that would be comical if it wasn’t happening to us. The truck broke down, the funding suddenly got cut—just one thing after another. But I hope it’ll happen soon.

JB: I’ve seen you’re work with Regent Park. Is making films about neglected or at-risk or unknown communities part of a bigger plan for you?

HG: I hope that anything I work on can give a perspective on the world that hasn’t been seen before, that can deepen people’s empathy and understanding for others, whether those people are in trouble or simply living on the fringes of modern culture. That’s what attracted me to Los Pereyra in the first place. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

While they were sleeping...

An hour before midday in the village of Midwich everyone went to sleep. People slumped over desks, tables, steering wheels and sinks, livestock lay in fields, limbs splayed, a woman was facedown in a cart full of cabbage, a head among heads, and a tractor drove in circles until it hit a tree. The military’s brought in to investigate and they too fall asleep. A plane is sent in to get a better view, and the plane goes down in a ball of fire. Then, some hours later, just as abruptly as they fell asleep, everyone wakes up (except for that most unfortunate pilot). No one knows what happened. Until two months later, when every woman of childbearing age in the village turns up pregnant. 

The opening scenes of Village of the Damned (1960) constitute a paragon of captivating economy. This fairly faithful adaptation of Wyndham Lewis’ The Midwich Cuckoos sets up its fantastic premise with chilling sobriety. Director Wolf Rilla’s coverage of each scene is clean, quick, and packed with information. Crucially, there is no music; Ron Goodwin’s score is smartly held off until we’re well into the story. Nothing in the atmosphere of this little British film eases us in; there are no genre tropes to console us; really weird shit is conveyed with realism. That’s why it’s scary. 

Then things get more interesting. Our hero, Professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders), probably in his early 60s, is married to Anthea (Barbara Shelley), a much younger woman. They seem very much in love. They have no children, to their great sadness. Anthea’s pregnancy comes as a miracle. Which is of course the problem. It is a miracle, or at least a phenomenon of elusive origin, just like the town’s newly pregnant teenage virgin, who must think she’s either mothering the Second Coming or some Satanic goblin. All these women appear to have gotten knocked up during that attack of collective sleeping sickness. They all give birth at the same time, far ahead of schedule, to eerily perfect little Aryan children with strange eyes. And the children grow with supernatural velocity, and they’re smart as whips. And they’re not friendly. And, it would seem, they’re telepathic. 

While never resorting to facile portent, Village of the Damned lets us know from the start that something deeply disconcerting is unfolding; it generates suspense by letting wonder just how it will unfold. I’m probably not spoiling much by telling you that the women of Midwich have been made the midwives of some hostile external force—without even being aware of it, they’ve been subject to a mass rape. The thing about the source novel’s title: cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, and then their offspring try to take over those nests. 

Sanders gives a performance of rare tenderness. The villagers imbue the film with a pleasing authenticity. But it’s the actors who aren’t supposed to seem like real people that stand out. The kids are really creepy, especially little Martin Stephens as the Zellaby’s child. Their vehement anti-sentimentalism has often been compared to that of the titular aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and both films have been rightly read as parables for the era’s anti-Communist anxieties. But beyond these potent political metaphors there is a more terrifyingly timeless reading, something to do with the shadow side of parenting. Who are these little monsters? And how could they have possible came from us?