Saturday, June 20, 2015

Two masters, building with precious time

There are collaborations and there are collaborations. In the movies, as in the theatre, collaboration is usually something that occurs over a handful of hectic weeks, often between artists who just met. The result can be brilliant or banal, but it must be arrived at under duress. Time is money, and those who can’t become galvanized by pressure enter into a life in the movies or the theatre at their peril. That stage director André Gregory and playwright-actor Wallace Shawn have been able to collaborate on projects over much longer periods—most recently a period of 15 years!—is evidence of an uncommon devotion to the vagaries of long-term creative exchange. Okay, that and, most likely, some degree of privilege. But this privilege has not been squandered. On the contrary, their collaborations have resulted in some legendary theatrical experiences and three singular, spellbinding, rule-breaking works of cinema, all of which have been collected in André Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films, Criterion’s inspired new multi-disc collection. Taken as a whole, these films not only chronicle the cinematic manifestations of Gregory and Shawn’s more than 40-year relationship; they also function as a testament to the still-untapped potential for the movies and the theatre to inform each other in aesthetic, formal and thematic terms and, perhaps most importantly, in their processes.

My Dinner With André (1981) has been around and been beloved for an awful long time now—can we all finally agree that a talky movie is not an inherently inferior thing? That listening can also provide cinematic rapture? I can’t think of a better rainy afternoon movie. Nor can I imagine many of Richard Linklater’s finest and most innovative films (Slacker, Waking Life, the Before… series) being made without this precedent. Directed by Louis Malle and written by Gregory and Shawn, who play “André Gregory” and “Wallace Shawn” respectively, Dinner unfolds almost entirely around a single table, occupied by two men and occasionally loomed over by a blinking waiter with an amusing resemblance to Samuel Beckett. Dinner is about dialogue, and thus a study in contrasts: between the opening shot of an oil barrel on an abandoned, dingy street and the refined restaurant where our characters meet, eat and converse; between the easy elegance of Gregory, speaking in mellifluous tones of strange experiences in exotic locales in search of transcendence, and the squat, chinless Shawn, dressed all in beige, mostly listening and posing questions as a way of managing his unease—until he finally reveals his mixture of fascination and contempt for what could be deemed as Gregory’s misguided mysticism, spurred by an apparent nervous breakdown.

Gregory tells of going to the Sahara with a Japanese monk; undertaking deeply ambiguous theatrical exercises with Jerzy Grotowski; tracking uncanny coincidences in old copies of Minotaur; the ostensibly fascist overtones of The Little Prince. Gregory compares a few too many things to Nazis and the Holocaust and over the course of this often very funny but also very serious film. He comes off as both a fool and a wise man. He seems above all to want to be present in the world, and the feeling of being present, of heightened senses, is exactly what Dinner offers. Every time I watch it at home I think I’m going to hit pause at some point, to watch it in parts—and every time I lose track of time and take it all in in a single uninterrupted viewing.

Where the source material for Dinner was its creators’ relationship and personal experiences, the next two films look to works from two of the 19th century’s most canonical playwrights. Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), also directed by Malle, transplants Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to a crumbling Manhattan theatre long out of use, where Gregory and a group of actors—Shawn, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, and others—invite us to a sort of open rehearsal for a project that they have been exploring, with no particular plan for production, for the preceding five years. The actors use only a handful of props and dress in their own clothes. Their transition from talking about their lives to performing the text—in an adaptation credited to David Mamet—is so seamless you might not notice they’ve started until they begin to call each other by names different from their own. These roles have been lived in. We are transported. “A hundred years from now, will they remember us with a kind word?” one characters asks. This film was made almost exactly 100 years after Chekhov wrote Uncle Vanya, and his characters, all of them stuck in the countryside, in marriages or longings or business agreements they find deeply dissatisfying, are simultaneously so specific and so universal. The camerawork is subtle, beautiful and fluid, a marriage of theatrical intimacy with cinematic intimacy, documentary immediacy with exquisite artifice.

A Master Builder (2014) is Shawn’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s strange, difficult, alluring Master Builder Solness, devleoped by Gregory and the cast over a decade and a half and finally translated to the screen by Jonathan Demme. (Malle died in 1995.) Shawn plays Solness, an aging, ferocious architect who, in Gregory and Shawn’s interpretation, is on his deathbed, visited by what we suppose is an apparition of a young woman (Lisa Joyce) who by turns seems worshipful and oddly threatening, a mischievous angel. She recounts for him an occasion ten years previous on which he erected a church in her town, climbed its spire, kissed her 12-year-old lips, and promised her that one day he would build castles in the sky for them to inhabit. Whether out of guilt, self-disgust, dementia or the story’s falseness, Solness has forgotten all of this, but then remembers it, or participates in the fantasy, as she tells it back to him. Meanwhile Solness denies a talented young assistant the praise he so deserves and requires so as to forward his own career. Solness placates his unhappy wife (Julie Haggarty), who seems to both resent his neglect and dread his demise. Employing tight close-ups, ostentatious zooms and sudden impressionistic cutaways to views from a moving car, Demme’s approach, though working with Vanya’s ace cinematographer Declan Quinn, is entirely different from those taken by Malle in the preceding films, yet it is extremely effective for this project, taut and tense, riveting even, despite the play’s endless ambiguities and lengthy conversations. Demme has described A Master Builder as a haunted house story, and this is ultimately how it feels, a medley of phantoms, palpable objects and places, and carnal experience.

Criterion’s supplements are especially superlative—and too numerous to list here. Most are interviews outlining the extremely interesting development processes that I’ve only mentioned here. But I think my favourite is a conversation between Gregory, Shawn and Fran Lebowitz, touching on topics such as the truth and myth of “playing yourself,” the importance of small theatre, how the past is never really past, and working on something long enough to explore every cliché and then throw it away.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

His nest of salt

“You better buckle up,” Kurt Cobain’s mother said to him upon first hearing Nirvana’s Nevermind on her living room stereo, “because you are not ready for this.” Me and however many million other kids were, of course, more than ready. We were hungry, eager to identify, with no real notion as to what despair fuels such inspired, unholy, transcendent pop cacophony. Cobain was gone before we knew what hit us.

It is the despair, above all, that is the subject of Brett Morgan’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. This is not biography in any conventional sense. Exposition is largely, smartly relayed via archival materials and the tremendous wealth of diaries, drawings, music video outtakes, home movies and audio recordings entrusted to Morgan by the keepers of the Cobain estate. There are new interviews, but they are used sparingly, photographed in low light, sometimes framed in profile, and the subjects are few in number. We don’t hear from famous friends or collaborators or cultural commentators. Morgan keeps it in the family, speaking only with Cobain’s parents and sister, his first girlfriend, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, and, yes, Courtney Love. And that’s it. Most of what we see and hear is drawn from Cobain’s personal effects, the journaling and the drawings sewn together in a highly inventive manner that feels true to the spirit in which they were originally crafted. In some places Morgan employs animated reenactments that elegantly invoke a gloom and wonder that feels particular to the Pacific Northwest. He uses Cobain’s music as interpreted by Nirvana and others in unpredictable, resonant ways. True to its name, Montage of Heck is an intricate weave chronicling a life that seems to have always been perched upon the edge of some personal abyss. It’s an often brilliant movie. It is not a fun movie.

The trajectory itself is familiar: divorce, medication for hyperactivity, an adolescence spent breaking windows, smoking weed, and stealing booze. There’s an awful story of virginity loss and a first suicide attempt. In these stories we trace not only Cobain’s psychic fragility but also something of the resources for his art and personal politics. The first half or so of Montage of Heck feels guided by a musical sensibility that’s arguably akin to the darkness and exhilaration of Nirvana’s music, but the second half is deeply mimetic of Cobain’s more private desolation, perhaps to a fault. We dive long and deep into crudely made videos of Cobain and Love in their wreck of a home, playing, babbling semi-coherently. Love seems very pleased with her breasts. Eventually Love is pregnant and still the flow of drugs appears to continue. Eventually Frances Bean is born and there are questions as to whether or not the parents should have custody. Will fatherhood save Cobain from self-destruction? We know the answer, but still brace ourselves as Cobain’s life winnows down to a space in which only he is left, and then not even he. I wonder if this last section could be too much for some viewers. It’s too much for me, and Cobain kind of meant everything to me when he killed himself. But I admire Montage of Heck, and, for all the superfluous rock star profiles in this world, I think we might need this one.


Friday, June 12, 2015

An actress steps through the looking glass

En route to Zurich, where she’s to accept an award in his honour, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) learns that her old mentor, the reclusive Swiss playwright Wilhelm Melchior, has died. Delivered bluntly to Maria by Val (Kristen Stewart), her personal assistant, a resourceful young American, the news contributes to the growing sense of things ending for Maria, or at least transitioning into something else. Maria is in the midst of a messy divorce. Despite the obvious incentives, she’s declining to reprise her role in a super hero movie. She may or may not be accepting a role in a London revival of Maloja Snake, the Melchoir play that made her famous, except that when she first did the play 25 years ago she was the young seductress; this time around she’s to play the opposing role, that of the middle-aged business woman seduced and shattered by the younger woman, who would now be played by ostensibly talented celebrity train wreck Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz). The high-concept casting is tantalizing, and the director is said to be brilliant, but Maria feels vulnerable. She’s tampering with her legacy, acknowledging her age in a viciously age-phobic industry, stepping through the looking glass.

Which is not so different from what Binoche is doing by playing Maria, a character very close to Binoche, written specifically for Binoche by writer/director Olivier Assayas, with whom the actress worked on 2008’s exquisite Summer Hours. Clouds of Sils Maria brims with such slippage, between real life and the movies, between the play Maria is working up the courage to act in and the fraught dynamic between Maria and Val, who retreat to Melchoir’s home in the spectacular, mountainous Sils Maria to run lines and debate the underlying values in conflict in the play. Is it better to be young and arrogant or mature and wise? Certain elements of Clouds recall Ingmar Bergman’s Persona—the borrowed country home, the imperious actress and the fresh-faced helper in psychic face-off—while Maloja Snake is itself inspired by Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. These touchstones, like Binoche and her own stature as a star, are just some of the things hovering in our shared culture that Assayas is responding to and sculpting into something unique, arresting and ultimately haunting. The film is so rife of gestures, ideas, events, subtle little moments in which something suddenly changes. I first saw it nine months ago and it lingered in my memory as an uncontainable thing. I just watched it for the second time and had that peculiar experience of revisiting a film and remembering that films unfold one scene at a time.

While retaining a rawness, post-Twilight Stewart gives a far more crafted performance as Val than in anything I’d seen her do—the twitching and fidgeting has been reduced to a minimum. Moretz too seems to be adopting another, more intriguing register with Assayas and company. Jo-Ann spills over with faux-stoned bad girl affectations when Maria watches her on trash TV shows, only to transform into a young artist longing to reinvent herself when she and Maria finally meet. Binoche is as inventive, bold, playful and as adverse to the slightest falsity as she’s ever been. Her Maria is mercurial, capable of exploding into withering laughter, aware of her power while also aware that her powers could fail her any moment. In the film’s first part she’s the epitome of glamour; in the second and third she cuts her hair and scrubs her face clean. She looks her age, I guess, with a new nakedness, as if to say, If I’m going to be the older woman, let’s get this over with. She’s also radiant, as I imagine she always will be. But radiance quiets with time, and the film’s final, quietly brutal scene leaves Maria in a place similar to its first scenes: we see a woman on the move, between things, figuring out what to do next, and how best to survive the journey.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Deep trouble

At the bottom of the Black Sea things don’t decay much. Time stands still, or, rather, time continues, people die, but things don’t corrode. Rust sleeps. It’s like a deep-water museum down there, I guess. Is this because of what they call anoxic water? I dunno. This is a film blog, not a blog on hydrology. But I’m fascinated by these places in the world, dark deep places almost no one goes to, where such phenomena occur. It’s one of the things that drew me to Black Sea, this submarine movie that, despite the presence of Jude Law, apparently slid past the gatekeepers of theatrical distribution and has since surfaced online, on DVD, Blu-ray, et cetera.

Things don’t change much at the bottom of the Black Sea and, it turns out, things don’t change much in the manly world of submarine movies either. Written by Dennis Kelly and directed by Kevin MacDonald, the prolific Scottish filmmaker who did Last King of Scotland and a really quite good historical actioner called The Eagle, Black Sea is about a laid off, pissed off Scottish submarine captain (Law) who gathers a rogue crew comprised of Britons and Russians to find a sunken WWII-era U-boat rumored to hold an offering of gold bricks Stalin was trying bribe Hitler with as a way to forestall Nazi invasion. The movie in its essence could have been made in the 1950s, and, indeed, there are times you sort of wish it was, with Don Siegel or Sam Fuller or John Huston or the young Stanley Kubrick at the helm. Those versions might have been meaner and leaner, while still keeping the film’s political undercurrents, or over-currents, as in overstated currents, perfectly readable. But I’m okay with MacDonald’s version, which is certainly more tolerable than, say, a Michael Bay version, which would of course be something else altogether. MacDonald’s a little ponderous and a little sentimental at the end with the flashbacks and a little too fond of unmotivated camera movement. And he really could have tempered Kelly’s almost comically leaden foreshadowing. But the movie sails. Or sinks. You know what I mean.

It’s no spoiler to say things aren’t going to end well. Kelly bluntly facilitates dramatic tension by having Law recruit a murderous psychopath to be the group’s ace diver. Law actually knows the guy’s a psychopath, which is what I meant by comically leaden foreshadowing. That are there are no escape suits and they can’t use the radio and all the Brits and the Russkies fucking hate each other and can’t get over Law’s insistence that everyone, him included, get an equal share of the money. Yes, Black Sea charts the failure of Marxism in a sub-culture (heh-heh) corrupted by capitalist-generated greed. And by a psychopath. Did I mention the psychopath is played by Aussie actor Ben Mendelsohn? He’s pretty enjoyable. And Law, I must admit, hold his own, surprisingly, given that he has to command the respect of a bunch of really rough fellows. Konstantin Khabenskiy is very funny as Law’s lead partner-in-crime. Sergey Veksler is the crew’s sonar guy, the “the best ears in the Russian navy.” I love the image, a sea of calm in the midst of this very macho submarine movie, of Veksler perched Buddha-like on a stool, cups on his ears, eyes closed, just listening to echoes at the bottom of the ocean.