Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Watching the River flow

The title is something of a misnomer, because Wild River (1960), Elia Kazan’s film about the Tennessee Valley Authority’s attempts to vacate landowners from a soon-to-be-inundated region during the Depression, is in fact a remarkably gentle, unhurried picture, one more about finding the tools to accept inevitable change than fighting the odds, one more about human behaviour and fading ways of living than high drama. A significant element in this gentleness in Montgomery Clift, who wasn’t Kazan’s first choice for the role of TVA administrator Chuck Glover, the man charged with convincing a formidable octogenarian matriarch named Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) to surrender ownership of an island in the middle of the Tennessee River that’s been in her family for generations. Kazan might have imagined Glover a smooth-talking avatar of progress with no special feeling for the unreasonable convictions of aging hillbillies, but what he got from Clift was something much richer, a performance of great compassion and melancholic admiration. Clift helps elevate this film to an elegy, and, along with his equally gracious co-star, Lee Remick, he also manages to make Wild River’s love story seem as natural as it is seemingly unlikely. This is a very special film, gorgeously crafted, socially poignant, brimming with detail of place and period, a lesser-known highlight in Kazan’s career. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox.

Wild River opens with devastating documentary footage of houses collapsing into rising waters and a man struggling to itemize the loss of his family members to the disastrous flooding that was common before the government began construction on the dam project that would simultaneously uproot an entire region and bring safety and electricity to its people. The image then shifts from black and white to colour, and we see Glover surveying this same valley seen in the documentary footage from the window of a small plane. He occupies a local office, praises the “rugged individualism” of the now notorious last hold-out Garth, and soon sets out to visit her island, upon which a sign reading TVA KEEP OFF has been posted right by the edge of the water—water which Glover will be tossed into by one of Garth’s more impulsive middle-aged boys. That first visit to Garth’s island will also mark Glover’s first encounter with Garth’s granddaughter Carol (Remick), a 19-year-old widow and mother of two. Carol is pretty, sharp, honest, and perhaps the only person who can convince the old lady to accept the federal government’s offer and make way for the flood. What draws Carol to Glover is not mysterious: she’s lonely and desperate, and he actually talks with her, with kindness and interest, and he represents a second chance at a life barely started. What draws Glover to Carol? Other than her youth, energy and loveliness? Perhaps she can be for him a souvenir, something precious to hold onto from the world that his employers are about to destroy in the name of progress.

Wild River doesn’t pick sides. That isn't the point at all. Both parties are right, but only one is doomed. From the start everyone tells Glover that there’s no way he’ll ever get Ella Garth off that island without force, and in the end it turns out to be true. All she needs is a little force, a little push—she doesn’t have the heart to move otherwise. But how does this film get from that starting stalemate to its final resolution? The answer is lovingly complicated, and needs to be seen to be understood. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Love streams, ebbs, branches off elsewhere

A poetic chronicle of love lost and found and spinning off into some beguiling crepuscular spiritual limbo, To the Wonder is the first film from Terrence Malick set entirely in the contemporary world. Coming less than two years after The Tree of Life, it is also a remarkable addition to Malick’s oeuvre for the swiftness with which it follows its predecessor. Malick bridges the mainstream and the personal in a manner unique in today’s marketplace; he manages to helm the most lavish and star-studded art films in the world. He is one of the cinema’s most stalwart recluses and secret-keepers, a Salingerian sorcerer typically steeped in genesis (and, it would seem, Genesis) for unusually prolonged periods; he is, or was, as famous for the lengthy gaps between his films—two decades and various industrial sea changes passed between the releases of Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line—as for those films’ unforgettable lyricism, their idiosyncratic voice-overs and hifalutin philosophical preoccupations. That To the Wonder arrives as expediently and with as relatively little fanfare as it does is in a sense a positive development. I like the idea that Malick, now nearing 70, is suddenly opting to try his hand at being a steady working filmmaker, rather than lording over major cinematic events and contending with all the unreasonable expectations that come with that. (How tired I am of hearing people weigh in on The Tree of Life as though it were the dawn of man… Mm, wait a minute…) Point is, I like that Malick might be willing to submit his muse to a more relaxed and less brooded-over process, to offer us more variations on his sui generis way of making films, even at the risk of failure.  

To the Wonder finds Malick taking what has emerged as the modus operandi of the second phase of his career to new extremes. The film is for the most part almost devoid of dialogue. All is montage and a disembodied chorus of voices speaking to their conscience, or their god, or their own existential reckoning. Malick has all but left conventional narrative and character development behind, and this liberation is often thrilling and adventurous. It also comes at a price. Malick, one of the few U.S. filmmakers of the ’70s who has retained the dogged integrity of that heady era, needs name-stars to make his work the way he wants to—i.e.: meticulously designed (by Jack Fisk), gorgeously photographed (by Emmanuel Lubezki), and wildly expensive compared to most films this idiosyncratic—and, though he recently managed to draw from Brad Pitt the finest performance of his career, it isn’t easy to find handsome mainstream actors sensitive to his style and its pitfalls. Enter Ben Affleck, for all his PR problems a perfectly likable persona and an actor of talent—but not so great at transmitting complex emotions with only body language and a downturned jaw at his disposal. He mopes an awful lot in To the Wonder, as the Oklahoman environmental inspector who falls in love with an elfin, mercurial, exotically beautiful Frenchwoman (Olga Kurylenko), and, later, with an American (Rachel McAdams), who seems very down-to-earth, who rides horses and seems as comfortable in his expansive, architecturally dull Midwestern milieu as the Frenchwoman is oppressed by it. In The Tree of Life, The New World and The Thin Red Line, Malick used women as idealized figures of beauty and consolation. In To the Wonder, by contrast, the women seem seem far more developed (and more interestingly embodied), and the male lead feels vaguely drawn. Meanwhile, the landscapes these characters inhabit are reliably evocative, an element that should be regarded as the content of the movie as much the story itself. I should mention that there is also a supplementary narrative thread involving a priest, played by Javier Bardem. Bardem’s passages are superfluous, a little wonky and perfectly in keeping with Malick’s cosmology.

What to do with a film like To the Wonder? It is seriously flawed. It is also crafted with a level of editorial expressionism, an attention to texture and rhythm and awe, that surpasses that of nearly everything else out there. I must be a true believer, because to my estimation any Terrence Malick film, even a seriously flawed one, is still a more wondrous cinematic experience than most. But even if you’re not a believer, even if you’re not easily seduced by this succession of twirling skirts, honey-dipped sunsets, bodies clinging, struggling or wandering, terrains both arid and damp, whispered confessions and visions of splendour, I dare say that, if you’ve ever been plunged into vertigo by love, if you’ve ever taken a chance on a life with someone who defies your set notions of how to live, if you’ve ever wondered how love can be so capricious, how you can feel such overwhelming desire for more than one person, then To the Wonder may captivate you. Okay, parts of it may. This simplest of story’s insights don’t come through exchanges of dialogue or elaborate dramatic turns but, rather, through the suggestive powers of confluence, the way that image and sound and ideas and faces mingle and blur. The film feels like a dance, one that stumbles here and there, like a deluge of emotions and sensations that can be felt acutely in passing but never held onto in any permanent way. So the corny title is also accurate. To the Wonder invites us to surrender to it, to wonder at love’s fleetingness and grandeur, even as it invites us to sniff at its pretensions and unfulfilled ambitions. Which of those two actions would you prefer to take on? 


Monday, May 6, 2013

Radiation addiction

Ever wondered what happened to that radioactive Pandora’s box that suddenly transformed Kiss Me Deadly (1955) from a terse, sordid, ultra-stylized little noir into batshit sci-fi apocalypse in the film’s final, unforgettable moments? Turns out it wound up in the trunk of a 1964 Chevy Malibu, driven by a rather peculiar scientist (Fox Harris) with only half a pair of sunglasses, some three decades later. Only now the hell-fiery whatsit has turned into a cache of alien corpses—or do I have it wrong? We first spot its/their emerald glow when said scientist is stopped by a ill-fated highway patrolman somewhere in Southern California, perhaps not too far from Kiss Me Deadly’s exploded beach, in the opening scenes of Repo Man (1984), British writer/director Alex Cox’s truly inspired, tonally singular, frequently hilarious, genre-gobbling feature debut.

What the hell is wrong with me that I hadn’t seen Repo Man before now? I was a little kid when it came out, but its cult status burgeoned rapidly in the months and years following its initial theatrical release. I remember it so often being showcased in the suburban Calgary video stores I would frequent. I somehow missed the appeal. Go figure. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

A film riddled with elaborate conspiracies, boggling cosmologies, rarely seen Los Angeles geographies, old cars and a trove of So-Cal hardcore soon-to-be classics, it follows one Otto (Emilio Estevez), a blank slate of a punk rocker from Huntington Beach who can’t get laid and can’t hold a stupid job long enough to save up any money, while his baby boomer burnout parents give all the family savings to some caffeinated televangelist who insists that God wants their money. Otto impulsively quits his gig stocking generic food items at the local grocery, making a show of shoving a fellow clerk into a pyramid of cans with the same oddball air of faux-aggression he applies to dumping a can of beer all over the floor of the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation, the small automobile repossession agency where he will soon find gainful employment legally stealing people’s cars, and getting chased and attacked by angry drivers who neglect to make their payments. Otto likes the money and he likes the thrills. He even seems to like his mentor, Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), the senior agent who manages to recruit Otto without Otto’s knowing. The job lives up to Bud’s promise, which happens to be one of this imminently quotable film’s many quotable—if often misquoted—lines: “Repo Man’s always intense.”

But is Repo Man intense? More like audacious, spastically inventive and wildly entertaining, an underground comic come to life, with an absurdly economical final act in which our hero is captured and escapes, is captured and escapes and is captured and escapes in short shrift. The film’s parade of memorable supporting characters help streamline what might otherwise seem a narrative derailed by detours: Sy Richardson’s Lite, Dick Rude’s Duke, Del Zamora and Eddie Velez’s Rodrqiguez brothers, and most especially Tracey Walter’s Miller, who outrages the other repo men with claims of John Wayne’s homosexuality and blows Otto’s mind with a philosophy centered around the universe’s “lattice of coincidence.” But Stanton is the film’s enigmatic and weary center and key emblem, a figure of bizarre resilience in Regan-era America. It remains one of this great character actor’s small handful of larger roles. It’s also probably still the most interesting use of Estevez, who is often seen in his bright white underpants. And it remains the best and most successful thing Cox has yet managed in an industry that’s never given him as big a break.