Friday, October 31, 2014

"I like the idea of Hollywood being incestuous, an enclosed ecosystem of ideas, with no oxygen, no new blood, everything recirculating and getting weaker... It was pleasing as a metaphor for what’s wrong with studio filmmaking.": David Cronenberg on Maps to the Stars

Charting a constellation of has-beens, hangers-on and hopefuls, of celebrity Caligaris, doting agents and pre-pubescent divos, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, written by Bruce Wagner, is a caustic tour of Tinseltown, overflowing with cruelty, avarice and panic. Yet it is not without pity. It’s depiction of Havana Segrand (a valiant Julianne Moore) pays equal attention to the middle-aged actress’ solipsism and genuine desperation. Above all, Maps transmits sympathy for the tormented children of Stanford Weiss (John Cusack), a motivational speaker and experimental therapist whose interrogatory methods would not be out of place among the clinicians in Cronenberg’s The Brood. Weiss’ daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a pyromaniac returning from prolonged exile, and son Benji (Evan Bird), a child star and recovering addict, are both deeply disturbed and capable of viciousness, yet Maps closes on a note of solemn condolence for these star-crossed progeny who never had a chance.

Infused with fecund themes of institutionalized backstabbing, paranoid psychosis, persistent ghosts and bad biology, and delivered with a clipped, elliptical rhythm and precisely honed mise en scène, what impressed me most about Maps were the things that Cronenberg and his regular collaborators (cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, editor Ronald Sanders, composer Howard Shore) brought to Wagner’s script, which Cronenberg has been trying to make for over a decade. As for the script itself, the jokes are more brittle than funny, certain scenes whither before they properly begin, and certain twists seem forced (see the sudden, heavily telegraphed accidental execution of a household pet). Ideas feel over-worked, dialogue over-written. Here’s Robert Pattinson’s chauffer/aspiring actor-screenwriter: “I was thinking of converting [to Scientology]. Just as a career move.” That second line is explanatory, and sort of kills the joke.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that, for all my reservations, Maps held me spellbound. Few directors can captivate so consistently by simply taking someone else’s material and making it utterly their own. But few directors are as singular in their sensibility as Cronenberg, who’s rounding out a pretty great year, one that’s included a new film, a major retrospective and exhibition at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, and the publication of his excellent debut novel Consumed. So it was a great pleasure, as always, to speak with Cronenberg, one of my favourite living filmmakers (and a consistently engaged and intelligent interviewee), at a Toronto restaurant last week. I had to share him with two other journalists, but our talk, which I’ve edited down a great deal, was fluid and fun.

David Cronenberg

Our conversation begins when one of my colleagues says he interviewed Cusack, and that Cusack described Maps to the Stars as a fever dream.

David Cronenberg: That’s better than satire, which is the description most often used but one that Bruce and I object to. I think the meaning of satire has been diluted. People these days call anything that’s nasty and funny satire. But if you think of Jonathan Swift, of A Modest Proposal and Gulliver’s Travels, those were real satire, real attacks on society employing fantastical elements. Maps is too realistic to be satire. Bruce claims that every conversation in the movie is something he’s heard, and I believe him. Yet there’s a sense in which everyone in Hollywood is in a fever dream, some state of high temperature, of agitation and anxiety. I think that’s an accurate appraisal.

JB: Perhaps something else that removes Maps from the realm of satire is the fact that its humour is undercut by desperation, sadness, rage and loneliness, something emphasized in the way you continually isolate characters in the frame, even in scenes with lots of dialogue.

DC: That’s exactly true. It’s the absurdity of the human condition that’s the source of the humour. When I was shooting, Julie Moore, being the intelligent, sensitive actress that she is, immediately saw what I was doing. She said, “I see you’re isolating us all. We’re all in our own little bubbles. I like the security of the frame on me.” She understood that it was a subtle way of suggesting that these people, though speaking to each other, are not really communicating. There are very few two-shots. Most audiences won’t notice that but they’ll feel it, that the characters never really seem to occupy the same space.

My other colleague asks if the film’s depiction of Hollywood has prompted objections within the industry.

DC: The film hasn’t screened yet in Hollywood, but I’m curious to see what happens there. I had a studio head come up to me in Cannes, after we’d screened. He embraced me, and said, “Your movie scared the shit out of me. I couldn’t sleep last night. The next morning I went to a party at the Hotel du Cap, and all I could see were scenes from your movie.” I don’t think there’ll be backlash. Most of the movie people who’ve seen it say, “That’s my life.” History of Violence is the closest I’ve ever come to making a studio picture, but, believe me, I’ve seen and heard things as absurd and extreme as anything in Maps.

JB: You’ve mentioned the importance of shooting in the States, but you shot Cosmopolis, which is such an emphatically New York narrative, entirely in Toronto, creating an idea of New York. Could Maps not have been made here, creating an idea of Los Angeles?

DC: No. Because of the veracity of it. It’s almost a docudrama. Whereas Cosmopolis was such an innately surreal, conceptual film. You hope that there’s human reality in Cosmopolis, but it’s buried deep. It’s very stylized. I wouldn’t have wanted to shoot in New York. It would have been too real.

JB: A situation not unlike Naked Lunch.

DC: Right. We couldn't shoot in Morocco because of the Gulf War, but I thought, this isn’t Morocco—this is Interzone. So a stylized, drug-addled version of Morocco that could be created in Toronto was actually better. No so with Maps. You really need to shoot in the iconic Hollywood spots. At one point I said, “I’m not doing any shots that don’t have palm trees.” [Laughs]

JB: Now that you’ve spent several years writing your first novel, giving yourself the opportunity to sculpt characters entirely on the page, has that changed how you direct actors?

DC: I don’t know yet. I was writing Consumed between movies. Which is difficult, by the way. I’d rather not do that again. Likewise it’s impossible for me to know if I would have written a novel the same way had I never directed a film. In writing the book I was very much wanting to visualize the space the characters were in, how they moved around a room, how they were physically. That was very important to me—and it felt like directing. Certainly more like directing than screenwriting, where you don’t do any of that. Screenplays are a pared-down, weird kind of writing where your prose style doesn’t matter. All that matters is dialogue and narrative structure. Yet I think I always had a very visual sense of bodies and how they occupy space and relate to each other. I think that came before I made movies.

My colleague, the one who interviewed Cusack, now talks about interviewing Pattinson. He says Pattinson told him that Cronenberg might be retiring from movies.

DC: I tempt fate or the Devil or whatever by saying this may be my last movie. I thought maybe Cosmopolis was going to be my last. Why? I’ve no idea. Maps? I had lots of fun doing it, lots of energy. You worry, “Am I getting too old? Is this too stressful?” Abbas Kiarostami, who’s the same age as me, says it’s too hard, that he can’t do it anymore. He’d rather just do his photographs. And he got me thinking that maybe I’ll do that too. I’ll just write novels. But then my accountant says no, I can’t afford to retire. You can’t make as much money writing novels, unless you’re Stephen King. So where do I find myself now? I don’t have a rule that says I’m not making more movies, but it would have to be something very seductive to keep me from writing my second novel. Because that’s what I’m doing right now.

JB: I’m relieved to hear that, because something I like about your later work is this interesting tension between the material, which for the most part hasn’t been obviously “Cronenbergian,” and what we might construe as a “Cronenbergian” approach to it—the way you make it your own. With Maps, one thing that struck me as very in keeping with your interests in this sense of biological determinism, this classical notion of incest as a catalyst for tragedy.

DC: Incest wasn’t the major attraction for me, though it makes perfect sense that you’d see that. As you say, it has resonances of Greek tragedy, and also modern genetic tragedy. We know now why incest is not a good idea. Culturally there’s resistance to incest, but occasionally a culture can overcome that. That was the case with the Egyptians, where a royal’s blood was so special that they couldn’t possibly mate with a commoner, and thus had to marry a sibling or cousin to keep the bloodline pure. They overcame the taboo and suffered for it, because there was a lot of genetic weakness in the succession of Egyptian royals. So it’s good trope. I like the idea of Hollywood being incestuous, an enclosed ecosystem of ideas, with no oxygen, no new blood, everything recirculating and getting weaker, as we see with sequel after sequel after sequel. It was pleasing as a metaphor for what’s wrong with studio filmmaking.

JB: So what was the major attraction?

DC: Bruce Wagner. His dialogue, his characters, the madness that’s so convincing. Very rare to find a script with that much power just jumping off the page. And, as always, I had to feel that no one else could do it, or would do it. And that was certainly the case with Maps. [Laughs] Bruce couldn’t find anybody else to do it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Eternal uncertainty and the trouble with knowing

A young Dutch couple Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) are on holiday in France. They drive a small car with twin bicycles mounted upright on the roof rack, like a pair of riderless horses, one over each of their heads. They wear unusually light colours, and Saskia, a playful, energetic strawberry blonde, radiates effervescent lightness—at one point she performs a Chaplinesque pratfall. Yet shadows loom. The couple traverses a long, dark tunnel, something out of a nightmare, and Saskia relays to Rex a recurring nightmare in which she finds herself trapped inside a golden egg. Then the car runs out of petrol—Rex’s fault—and Rex abandons Saskia to fetch a jerry can from the service station they already passed. They eventually continue on their way, but we are by now watching this immensely unnerving movie with a heightened alertness. We sense that everything, every glance or gesture or bit of happenstance, could be charged with portent. And we would be correct. We watch and wait for something or someone to vanish.   

The Vanishing (1988), the first, Franco-Dutch version of two version directed by the late George Sluzier, is newly available from Criterion and, while not a horror movie per se, is easily one of the creepiest things you could take in this Halloween. Based on Tim Krabbé’s novel The Golden Egg, it’s at once pulpy and profound, archetypical and innovative, employing an age-old anxiogetic scenario—a lover vanishes without a trace—in the service of a narrative that defies conventional strategies. Rather than build suspense regarding the perpetrator of Saskia’s kidnapping, we’re introduced to her kidnapper early on, before the kidnapping even occurs. Rather than ramp up tension in a compressed timeframe, we leap ahead several years in the middle of the film. The resolution, too, works counter to genre dictates, though I’d hate to spoil that here for those of you who haven’t seen this Vanishing.

One could even argue that the protagonist of The Vanishing is in fact not Rex but, rather, Raymond Lermorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), the middle-class family man and self-confessed sociopath responsible for vanishing Saskia. We see him make pivotal decisions and we learn a lot about his motivations, background and philosophies. He’s a nefarious figure, but also a seeker, animated by great questions: a man on a quest. In a bit of wordplay that, admittedly, probably only makes sense in English, Raymond attempts to entrap his victim by seeking assistance with a small trailer hitch. The word “hitch” gets repeated, and, likewise, Alfred Hitchcock is never far from the viewer’s mind. The Vanishing seems to have absorbed and brilliantly reconfigured elements of several Hitchcock films: The Lady Vanishes (1938), Psycho (1960), Strangers on a Train (1950), whose Bruno Anthony could be Raymond’s uncle.

But Raymond is not necessarily the most troubling character in The Vanishing, whose French title, it should be noted, is L’Homme qui voulait savoir or The Man Who Wanted to Know. Rex is just as obsessive a seeker as Raymond, but Rex’s is more single-minded: years after her disappearance, even after he’s gotten himself a new girlfriend, Rex must, at any cost, find out what happened to Saskia. This intolerance of ambiguity, or “eternal uncertainty,” as Raymond puts it, something of nearly theological force, is The Vanishing’s most psychologically fascinating and finally tragic element. And it’s one of the things that makes this film an enduringly eerie classic. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

No wife, no puppy, no car, the mysterious Jack Wick ain't got no-thing left to lose

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) resides in a vast modernist manor in the Jersey woods, its décor, like Wick’s wardrobe, so uniformly titanium and ash-coloured that for long stretches we could be watching a black and white film. Wick’s home resembles a luxury tomb, which seems apt: his beloved wife has died, though she had the foresight to arrange to have an adorable puppy delivered the day of her funeral to console Wick in his grief. But, in a perverse twist of fate, that goes to hell too: the spoiled idiot son (Alfie Allen) of some Russian Mafiosi (Michael Nyqvist) eyeballs Wick’s slick ’69 Mustang at a service station and decides to break into Wick’s house, beat him up, steal his ride and kill his puppy. At this point in John Wick we still don’t know much about who Wick is, but the fact that he doesn’t call the cops after the spoiled idiot son and his cronies depart should tell us something.

Turns out Wick’s a highly regarded contract killer who managed to go straight—and a former associate of the spoiled idiot son’s mighty powerful pa. Now that Wick’s lost his wife, car and pooch he’s pretty much got nothing left to do but kill the spoiled idiot son and whoever else gets in the way. That whoever else turns into, oh, maybe a hundred hired douchebags in tailored suits who get shot, kicked, punched, stabbed, head-butted, blown up and run over in dizzyingly quick succession. John Wick is a revenge movie. It was written by Derek Kolstad and is the directorial debut of stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski (though as of time-of-writing IMDb also says it's the directorial debut of actor/stuntman David Leitch). Its violence alternates between clean-cool and messy-ugly, it contains a pleasingly minimal amount of bullshit that doesn’t need to be there, it’s neither very distinctive nor completely generic and it uses Keanu’s natural placidity fairly well. 

Keanu does Lee!

But what I like best about John Wick is the colourful way it populates its comic book crime milieu. There’s a crack team of dead guy disposal experts who show up with Windex and body bags at the drop of a corpse; there’s a posh hotel that prides itself on being a non-partisan, killing-free zone for thugs of all stripes, a sort of Mafia Switzerland in the middle of Manhattan; there’s a crowded nightclub strewn with monochromatic psychedelia that allows Stahelski to stage a small homage to Point Blank, with Reeves casually assuming the Lee Marvin poses; there are sundry bad-asses (one of whom is played by Willem Dafoe) who might save Wick’s life or snuff it out depending on the number of zeroes in the commission. The film’s conceits are all wildly over-the-top but they’re mostly played out with minimal fuss, almost no scenery chewing, some gallows humour, and a nice little cameo from Ian McShane.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tanks for nothing

Repeat after me: “War is hell.” Now keep repeating that for over two hours and by the time you’re finished you might have some idea as to the cumulative insights gathered in David Ayer’s turgid World War II tank drama. It opens with U.S. tank commander Sergeant Collier (Brad Pitt) stabbing a man in the eyeball, which, I suppose, is some kind of clever performance of the title of Ayer’s preceding directorial effort, End of Watch. But I had to review Fury, so I kept on watching, as bodies were crushed to pulp under tank tread, as men on fire blew their brains out, as prisoners of war were repeatedly executed, as women are humiliated and surrender their bodies to invading soldiers because they know they have no choice. (I’ll let you decide how that differs from sexual assault.) Mayhem without energy, these dour scenes don’t even have the crassness to be perverse. What it has instead and in droves is this appalling, pretentious mixture of misanthropy and sentimentality, with endless peanut-brained justifications for superfluous raping and killing. There’s a scene in which a newbie (Logan Lerman), already traumatized by having to clean to clean up the bloody interior of the tank and discovering a sizable chunk of someone’s face, is escorted by Collier into a room littered with Nazis who suicided in anticipation of the Allies’ arrival. As though speaking on our behalf, the newbie asks, “Why are you showing me this?” And Collier, as though speaking on Ayers’ behalf, answers, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.” This is the zenith of what passes for wisdom in Fury.

If Ayer’s aim is to remind us of the infernal horrors of what many consider a just war (something that, for the record, countless, infinitely superior films have accomplished before this), I suppose he’s succeeded, but he deflates whatever value such a statement may possess by simultaneously constructing scenarios in which his characters are made to seem heroic, striking heroic poses, saying heroic things to the strains of heroic music. Which is to say, Fury is a dunderheaded apologia for war crimes, a morally inept work of grotesque nonsense exploiting historical suffering for the sake of pulpy so-called entertainment.

Fury is a fairly appropriate title (American Tank might have served just as well), but Ayer’s definition of fury has much overlap with stupidity or blunt nihilism. Collier proudly declares that he once promised to keep his crew alive, yet the film ends with an act of utterly gratuitous violence, a quasi-Wild Bunch climax that’s sure to get everyone butchered for absolutely no good reason. It’s April 1945, the war is nearly over, a mechanical failure stalls Collier’s tank at a country crossroads somewhere in Germany, hundreds of Nazis are spotted coming their way. Outnumbered and outgunned by a colossal margin, Collier’s crew of five could easily hide out in the woods, but instead choose to hold their ground for no apparent reason other than to keep killing and keep getting killed, to get that body-count as high as possible even when the war’s outcome is all but secured. 

That Ayer has managed to make a film even stupider than End of Watch is some kind of achievement. That he manages to exacerbate that stupidity with snatches of scoring from The Omen is almost, but not quite, impressive. Misguided in the extreme and weirdly boring, there is no genuine audacity here, and certainly no nobility. Of interest to tank enthusiasts and Shia LaBeouf completists only.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A tender distance

She’s a stout 60-year-old widow and cleaning lady of Polish origin. He’s a tall thirtysomething Gastarbeiter, or guest worker, from Morocco. We’re in Munich in the mid-70s. They meet one evening when she steps into the mostly empty bar she’s passed so many times, drawn in by the sensuous, foreign-sounding music. He’s at the bar, dressed in brown suit and brown shirt, hanging with his Moroccan buddies, turning down the sexual favours of a fellow barfly. “Cock broken,” he explains in broken German. The older woman orders cola and sits at a table. The younger man, egged on by his buddies, approaches her. They slow-dance and converse, and the conversation goes on and on, into the night, out of the bar, into the older woman’s foyer, where they take shelter from the rain, and, eventually, into her apartment. Despite its seeming unlikeliness, despite the overwhelming obstacles of rampant, ubiquitous racism, ageism and xenophobia, Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) become lovers, and the story of their love, as told in New German Cinema wunderkind-enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), is that rarest of things: a truly believable movie romance. It’s also a masterpiece. Criterion’s just released it on a beautiful Blu-ray, with a menu featuring a beautiful montage of Emmi and Ali slow-dancing.

Fassbinder wasn’t even 30 when he made this, his 18th film, which was inspired by two other films: The American Soldier (1970), Fassbinder’s early feature in which a character relays the story of a cleaning lady in love with an immigrant worker, and All That Heaven Allows (1955), Douglas Sirk’s melodrama in which Jane Wyman’s bourgeois widow falls in love with Rock Hudson’s young gardener. (In turn, Todd Haynes would draw inspiration from All That Heaven Allows and from Fear Eats the Soul to produce his 2002 film Far From Heaven.) Though Emmi and Ali’s love is threatened at every turn by the stupidity and cruelty of friends, neighbours, strangers, family and co-workers, Feat Eats the Soul, echoing Sirk, ends on a sombre but more optimistic note than the American Solider anecdote. But I would argue that more than anything that happens in its story, what makes Fear Eats the Soul so moving, fascinating and generous of heart is Fassbinder’s singular directorial approach—the same high style that you’d think would make the film alienating.

Few filmmakers have utilized aspects of theatre in any meaningful way. One of those few is Fassbinder, whose theatre practice was as prolific as his cinema practice. Right from the start, with those deep reds and yellows, there’s a sumptuous unity of production and costume design, lighting and photography, that both bears the influence of All That Heaven Allows’ Technicolor palate and at an expressionistic theatrical style—which creates a captivating contrast with the clean, muted acting of the cast, most especially Mira, a veteran thespian, and Salem, who appeared in several Fassbinder films and was for a time Fassbinder’s boyfriend. Above all, what distinguishes Fear Eats the Soul is Fassbinder’s loving, counterintuitive mise en scène. In scene after scene Fassbinder’s characters share the most intimate exchanges while his camera watches from a considerable distance, often with telling objects or framing devices in the foreground. There’s such tenderness is this distance, as though Fassbinder is holding his actors, cradling them, in the centre of the screen. He would continue to use framing (most memorably in a romantic scene that becomes a murder scene in Berlin Alexanderplatz), but I don’t know that any subsequent Fassbinder ever achieved quite the same feeling of belief in love as is found here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A marriage procedural

A pretty blonde head is stroked by a masculine hand that looks equally capable of tenderness or terror. The owner of the hand wonders what’s inside that head. “What are you thinking? What have we done to each other?” The story of a wife who goes missing and the abyss of suspicion her husband’s plunged into in the wake of her disappearance, Gone Girl undergoes several sea change-shifts, offering multiple perspectives then promptly prompting us to question the validity of those perspectives. Adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own novel and directed with characteristically cool precision by David Fincher, the film is murder mystery, domestic horror, the blackest of comedies, social satire—perhaps the only way of containing all these is to call it noir. Above all, it’s a forensic analysis of love turned venomous in decay. In keeping with many Fincher films, it reaches heights of intrigue and resonance by focusing on detail and causality: it’s a marriage procedural.

Nick and Amy Dunne (a brilliantly cast Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) moved from New York to Nick’s hometown of Carthage, Missouri after both lost their jobs and Nick’s mother fell ill. Was financial strain the source of their marital mire? Was it the confines of Carthage? Was it some inherent flaw in love’s DNA, something that went undetected during those early days in which each longs to fulfil the other’s bliss-blinded vision of their beloved? We know from Nick’s private conversations with his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) that things likely went south long before they moved to the Midwest, but after Amy disappears Nick is compelled to behave as though their marriage was idyllic. Once signs of struggle are found in his house the investigating detectives (the superb Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) clearly view Nick with suspicion. Once Amy’s disappearance makes the news it becomes fodder for a media machine eager to package tragedy into sensational narrative—and Nick’s initial resistance to ostentatious displays of grief immediately render him the potential bad guy.

But Gone Girl is most closely aligned with Nick’s point of view. We’re inclined to believe him, even when we know he’s no angel, even when Affleck is pleasingly low on affect. Yet Amy’s version of their marriage intercepts the Nick narrative: we’re offered passages from her diary that detail an protracted honeymoon period tainted only by references to a devious chin (a nice bit of business that playfully pokes fun at Affleck’s physiognomy). As the dueling plots thicken we wonder when Amy’s tale of marital bliss will overlap with Nick’s history of misery and suffocation. Gone Girl proliferates in subplots and slippery twists, accumulating crimes and misdemeanors, building toward a satisfying thriller climaxes and a denouement distinguished by its poisonousness as a date night movie, an even more unnerving mirror held up to married life than Before Midnight.

I mentioned noir. While Fincher’s supple classicism and delight in making the darkest mainstream movies imaginable recalls Hitchcock, throughout Gone Girl I kept thinking how much this material would have appealed to Billy Wilder, who was never better than when he met a script that could vindicate his cynicism with earned wit and a sense of lived experience. Flynn’s script depends on certain flights of artifice (which I will refrain from spoiling) yet resonates in countless ways. The concern with optics informing the story will no doubt come into play in the film’s reception: a woman can be accused of misogyny just as easily as a man, but the fact that Gone Girl’s primary authorship is divided between a man and a woman probably helps to navigate a minefield of gender representation—we’ll be discussing how that plays out for some time. For now we can simply surrender to this film’s seductive sway, its cool surfaces and wicked humour, its myriad traps and wrong turns which, like the Dunnes’ cat, we can only sit and silently witness. But wait, whose side does that sphinx-like tabby take in the end?