Saturday, April 27, 2013

Explosive youth

Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) were born with dawn of the bomb—on August 9, 1945, their mothers side by side in labour in some London hospital just as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were being decimated—and thus born into a dread-draped world that would thereafter seem always about to end. We meet them proper 17 years later, and when you’re 17 the world is always about to end. Which makes you cling to that one comrade who knows the score, understands the good fight and the woozy exhilaration of adolescent desperation, righteousness and possibility. The girls are best friends. They giggle a lot, dress alike, groom in tandem, hitchhike together and scan the culture for paths to higher meaning and purpose. Ginger, the more disciplined of the two, joins the anti-nuclear protest movement, and may become a writer. Near the film’s end, after much tumult, her father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), asks Ginger what she’s working on. “A poem,” she replies. “About the future.” Ginger & Rosa, the latest film from veteran English filmmaker Sally Potter (Orlando, Yes), is a coming-of-age story set in roughly the same heady period as Potter’s own youth. It is Potter’s poem about the past.

And it is a highly subjective view of that past. Ginger & Rosa adheres closely to its titular characters’ perspectives—Ginger’s most especially, since she emerges as the film’s protagonist—in the sense that people and politics and places come to us with the sort of texture and tone we might expect from an exceptionally smart and passionate teenager, but a teenager nonetheless. Ginger is lovingly imbued with nuance, complicated feelings and resonant contradictions, and Fanning, who is actually significantly younger than the role, and who was recently so wonderful in Somewhere, is nothing short of a revelation here. While many of the adults, embodied by actors as talented and intelligent as Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt, Annette Bening and Christina Hendricks, conform more closely to mere ideas of adults: tweedy, intellectual radical role models on the one hand, a martyr-parent on the other. Roland, interestingly, is a notable exception. Interesting because he’s also the most irresponsible and flawed, the key factor in the how the story suddenly pivots and Ginger’s already frail sense of domestic stability snaps completely. Roland is charming, pretentious, frustrated, inspiring, loving in his way and appalling in his way—the adult most like a teenager. He weeps over Schubert. He moves into a cramped apartment at one point, claiming that there is “a poetry in small spaces.”

And the film’s poetry, too, is in the smaller narrative spaces it inhabits. As Potter hurls us into the high and contrived drama of the final act, Ginger & Rosa loses something of its emotional precision and often exquisite sense of place and time, but in its earlier scenes, which seem unconcerned with momentum, are almost moment-for-moment captivating and transporting, deftly dressed, photographed, and edited to a spare but sensual rhythm. Like Olivier Assayas’ recent semi-autobiographical masterpiece Something in the Air, Ginger & Rosa gives us a window into a time when the question of balancing the personal and political was boggling and urgent. That it explores this question through the story of two young women, and does so sensitively and strikingly, makes it that much rarer among coming-of-age films, and immensely valuable. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Endless winter

And you thought our winter was interminable? The vitamin-deficient cast of The Colony are stuck living underground full-time in the midst of an ice age forecast for the not-too-distant future. Everybody seems crazy with misery and paranoia—a flu could easily wipe out the colony’s meager population. An extra-hammy Bill Paxton plays a trigger-happy veteran whose only source of engagement seems to come from getting rid of his fellow colonists the moment he catches them stifling a sneeze. “This isn’t right,” someone complains when Paxton marches a sniffly one out into the cold for an unceremonious execution that’s entirely against colonial protocol. “This is survival,” he replies with Schwarzeneggerian ponderousness. The hydroponic garden offers low yields and protein is scarce. Inhabitants mope around in unsexy layers of discount surplus store buys. Not even the rabbits seem to want to mate. Gilligan’s Bomb-shelter this is not.

Replete with an intermittent boilerplate voice-over (“One day it started to snow. It never stopped.”) riddled with redundant exposition, all of the film’s elaborate sci-fi trappings and awkward explication for murderous cabin fever are finally just laying the groundwork for what is essentially a dopey variation on the zombie apocalypse siege movie by another name. The good guys are attacked by a gang of cannibal freaks from a fellow colony, all of whom have astounding reflexes, top-notch combat skills and superhuman strength, which is funny when you consider that they’re severely malnourished. The aphasic bald trench-coated giant who seems to be the gang’s leader runs around in arctic weather conditions without a hat on. Laurence Fishburne is about the best things in the movie, but he gets killed in the first act. Canada’s own Julian Richlings shows up but is mostly just hysterical and famished. The violence is disgusting, phony looking and boring, and the landscapes are heavily digitized—could the not find appropriately wintry locations? Does Alberta not do service productions anymore? Do we really need to go to the movies in April to feel colder?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Space oddity

Douglas Trumbull made his directorial debut with a science fiction picture, set in outer space. Which seems like a no-brainer, given that he’d made his name supplying stunning special effects to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Andromeda Strain (1971). But Silent Running (1972) is not your run-of-the-mill genre exercise. It probably remains the only science fiction movie about gardening. (Or does WALL-E [2008] count?) It features songs written and performed especially for the film by Joan Baez. It stars Bruce Dern, who blows a gasket in several scenes, as Bruce Dern is wont to do. He plays Freeman, the ornery hippy gardener on a vast freighter fitted with geodesic domes filled with flora and fauna, miniature Edens kept adrift in space because the Earth is now devoid of plant-life. (Though, somehow or other, humans survive.)

One day Ground Control calls and says to nuke all the gardens and return to Earth so that the ships can be repurposed for commercial usage—the project backer isn’t NASA but American Airlines. (Now that's science fiction.) So Freeman goes rogue, murdering his colleagues, pushing through the rings of Saturn, and setting out alone, or rather, in the company of a trio of wobbly dwarf droids (actually amputees in robot costumes, walking on their hands) whom he teaches to perform surgery, plant trees, and play poker.

Edmonton's Metro Cinema is screening Silent Running next week as part of its Cult series, which, now that I’ve re-watched the film for the first time in many years, seems to be the right category. Like many cult films, its premise is juicier than its execution. There are an awful lot of gear shots, and shots of Dern’s pained visage, which I always find endearing but certainly has its limits. The droid humour quickly grows tiresome, much of the story in inert, and the ecological message is vague as can be—Freeman isn’t concerned about sustainable ecosystems, just “beauty” and “imagination,” which, oddly enough, are two things Silent Running lacks. Trumbull has proven himself some kind of genius—I interviewed him a couple of years back and he was simultaneously busy finishing up effects for The Tree of Life (2011) and coming up with a solution for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But his watchable debut feels like soft-headed ’60s didacticism. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

The inexhaustible poetry of Malick's murder song

They cross paths in a sleepy Texas town. He throws trash, she twirls baton. He’s a figure that seems to have walked out of a dream, or out of the movies, an orphan, without ties; she’s a child still, living with her widower father, waiting to be formed. Dressed in denim and a white tee stretched across his chest, he’s the handsomest man she ever met. He’s also very polite. And what is it that attracts him to her? Her gawky beauty? Her awe? Perhaps it is a matter of pure innocence—though in the end his naïveté seems even greater than hers, sustained by a peculiar solipsism which is unnervingly endearing, is perhaps a distinctly American, and leads to murder and folk-celebrity.

Terrence Malick’s feature debut remains so wondrous and strange—it never releases its mysteries, and it never gets old. Yet Badlands (1973) can also seem straightforward, almost a genre piece, a story of lovers on the run drawn from recent U.S. history: the senseless killing spree undertaken by Charles Starkweather and his captive/lover/possible collaborator Caril Ann Fugate in 1958. Malick’s couple falls far short of the violence and depravity of their models; violence is almost incidental to them, happening outside of their agency, largely bloodless or something that can be set fire to and feel dazzled and warmed by. Both are searching for roles to inhabit. Kit (Martin Sheen) is always acting, playing with some vague idea of the misguided antihero. Hands in his pockets, he declares, “I got some stuff to say. Guess I’m lucky that way.” But how to get anyone other than Holly (Sissy Spacek) to listen? Killing people always draws attention. They start with Holly’s father (a cameo role for the great Warren Oates), before moving elsewhere, living outdoors for a spell, stealing cars, crossing state lines. Kit’s kill-list seems bafflingly random; he’s making it up as he goes along, and preparing his public statements for his inevitable moment of capture. And all the while we hear Holly’s voice, floating dreamlike on the soundtrack, narrating their adventure as though it’s to be read in the pulpy pages of some variant of True Romance with a mildly surrealistic streak: “He wanted to die with me and I wanted to be lost in his arms forever… I spelled out entire sentences on the roof of my mouth where no one could find them.” Both characters focus themselves on speaking to posterity, not living in the moment but rather observing the moment from afar. Maybe that’s what makes it so easy to kill folks.

Immaculately crafted, imbued with music that never emphasizes dread (most notably the Carl Orff piece performed by children), suffused with the sort of images of nature’s glorious indifference that would become part of its director’s signature (see The Thin Red Line [1998] et al), Badlands plays like a propulsive narrative as you watch it but hovers forever in memory as a scrapbook of images and sounds: the wedding cake that spent a decade in the ice-box, the launching of a balloon, the little house on an arid plain filled with a life’s collection of curious useless objects whose meaning is lost with the death of its sole inhabitant. A most welcome addition to the Criterion Collection, Badlands new DVD and Blu-ray edition features a marvelous series of interviews with Malick’s steady production designer Jack Fisk and editor Billy Webber, and with Sheen and Spacek, so extraordinary both, speaking of how Malick saw something in them that no one else did, changed their careers as a result—and changed film history, too. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

What happens in Bundanyabba

The Australian film industry had more or less ground to a halt by the 1960s, but a pair of remarkable premieres at Cannes in 1971 helped spark what would become known as the Australian New Wave. Both were helmed by foreign directors, though they were Australian productions and told what were very much Australian stories, using the phantasmagorical desolation of the Outback to depict the frailty of civilization when confronted with barbarism and impulses older than memory. One of those films, Walkabout, has been widely seen, dubbed a masterpiece, and written about in these pages not so long ago. The other, Wake in Fright, is far too little seen, was long considered lost, but has recently been restored and re-released.

Based on Kenneth Cook’s eponymous 1961 novel, the film stays close to its protagonist, a handsome, big city, middle-class, casually snotty educator stuck teaching grade school in some impossibly remote village dubbed Tiboonda, a place with a bar no one goes to and a train station comprised of a platform  slightly larger than a diving board. John (Gary Bond) has plans to visit Sidney during school holidays, but a stopover in the mining town of Bundanyabba gradually and insidiously thwarts his trajectory. The aggressively friendly locals ply him with beer until his overstated contempt for them and their uncultured lifestyle is softened, and soon John is gambling away his earnings in some rowdy backroom game that involves nothing more than tossing coins, is waking in strange places (with a sinisterly charming Donald Pleasance), and going on horrific hunting trips in which kangaroos are slaughtered, their carcasses left to rot. John is initially repulsed, but something in him responds to all this, something drawn to oblivion, longing for permission to destroy without discretion. A local cop (legendary Aussie actor Chips Rafferty, in his final screen appearance) brags of Bundanyabba’s low crime rate, but notes that the town does have its share of suicides.

Elements of Wake in Fright recall the stories of Paul Bowles, or films like Woman in the Dunes (1964), but a key difference here is that the world that appears to be swallowing up our hero isn’t one of ancient ritual, unbreachable cultural difference or obscure, conspiratorial strategy; it is, rather, a sort of post-colonial hell, a chaotic cesspool of white male-dominated debauchery and corruption. No doubt the film was not popular within the Australian tourism board. Toronto-born director Ted Kotcheff would go on to make First Blood (1982) and Uncommon Valor (1983), perhaps because it was not difficult to sense in him a facility with tales of men in need of excuses to become animals. And I should emphasize the word “men” here, because Wake in Fright is nearly devoid of women, and the one woman that does appear (played by Sylvia Kay, Kotcheff’s spouse at the time) seems traumatized, cloistered and abused, accustomed to sexual assault as a sort of local pastime.

I suppose all of this reads as unremittingly dark, yet Wake in Fright takes some surprising turns and is interested in more than mere entropy. Call it a cautionary tale of sorts, and a great film about a time and a place and the dangers of classist arrogance. See it.