Saturday, July 24, 2010

It's All a Dream: On the Okay-ness of 'Inception'

Reviewing Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010) in the Village Voice, Nick Pinkerton compared it (unfavorably) to an Olivier Assayas thriller, and there are some notable similarities between this film and Assayas' demonlover (2002), one of my all time favorites. Both films tell stories about corporate espionage that shuttle between Tokyo and Paris, and each has a scene in which a character is drugged during an international flight. However, where the infernal fantasies that eventually take over Assayas' film are terrifyingly real, and the movie's implications are deeply political (like Charles Chaplin's no less misanthropic Monsieur Verdoux [1947], it links big business with murder), Nolan's film is resolutely apolitical, and philosophically speaking, it's closer to a virtual reality thriller like David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) with its suggestion that nothing is real.

As some one who's favorably predisposed towards movies that attempt to represent the world we all live in, the more political the better, I'm not the ideal viewer for a film like Inception (or eXistenZ, for that matter), whose primary objective is to make me forget about that world for a few hours to the point of suggesting that it's no more real than the fantasy world onscreen. If I slightly prefer Cronenberg's film, which still seems to me a long way off from his best work, it's simply because he's a better filmmaker than Nolan. In contrast with eXistenZ, with its backwoods setting and the ooey-gooey organic-looking quality of the special effects, neither Inception nor any of its characters ever seem to have any blood pumping through their veins. The settings are all anonymously upscale (a Marienbad cocktail party in a Japanese palace; an expensive hotel in Matrix City; a spic-and-span Paris in which no one is ever heard speaking French), and the photography tends towards commercial-slick high contrast lighting. At one point, Ken Watanabe (Hollywood's all-purpose Japanese guy) gets shot in the chest--in a dream, of course--and thereafter, some one will periodically lift open his suit jacket to reveal a tampon stain-sized pool of blood on his shirt so as to remind us that he's dream bleeding to death without anyone having to get their hands dirty.

The plot has no connection with reality, even in the sense that dreams are a part of real life. The protagonist, Cobb (Leonardo DiCapprio), is a corporate spy who enters into peoples' dreams in order to steal their secrets. (Unless I missed something, the film never explains how he's able to do this, but really, who cares? Could there be any explanation more satisfying than, "It's a movie, numb-nuts"?) Living in exile after being framed for the murder of his wife (Marion Cotillard), Cobb, like Homeless Dad, just wants his kids back (they're back in the States with Granny). As the film opens, Cobb and his team botch a job, and their intended mark, a Japanese CEO, Saito (Watanabe), decides to make them a counter-offer: If Cobb can place an idea inside the mind of a competitor (Cillian Murphy), Saito will make the murder charge disappear with a single phone call. (If only Roman Polanski had his connections.) But to accomplish his goal, Cobb will have to confront his own personal demons.

The film tells us that implanting an idea in some one's mind is more difficult than extracting one (which is already impossible), and to do the job, Cobb and his team devise a plan involving four levels of dreams and dreams-within-dreams, reminding one of the cons-within-cons in David Mamet's House of Games (1987). And Nolan cross-cuts between parallel action in all four levels like D.W. Griffith on mescaline (alas, none of Nolan's razor-flat images has one-tenth the wonder of Griffith's gargantuan Babylonian sets in Intolerance [1916]). This proves to be a pretty nifty means of cranking up the suspense, with an SUV full of dream thieves on the top dream level plunging ass-backwards into a river in super, super slow motion. Since the further down you go into dreams-within-dreams, the greater the feeling of time expands (one waking hour at the bottom level feels like fifty years), the action in the second, third, and fourth levels all happens in the time that it takes for the SUV to hit the water. As I said, this has nothing to do with actual dreams as they're experienced by human beings, but as a variation on the ticking clock (i.e., the characters have to get in and do their thing before the car hits the water, waking them up), it's pretty neat.

As accomplished as the film is as an SF thriller, I can't help but wish that Nolan had found space in this two and a half hour movie to give his characters a reality beyond their function in the plot. Sometimes typecasting fills in the blanks (DiCapprio is traumatized by the death of his wife and living in a dream world for the second time this year; Michael Caine is fatherly and distinguished for about five seconds), but the younger actors, like Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, simply draw a blank. The former plays an architecture student, Ariadne, who's tasked with designing the levels of the dream world, but her real function in the film is to discover things about Cobb that the rest of the team is unaware of. Gordon-Levitt fares even worse: They post his character, Arthur, on the second level of the dream to distract the Murphy character's subconscious, which has Matrix-like goons chase him around a hotel with guns, while the other characters venture deeper into the mind to do the real work. When the SUV in the first layer goes off the bridge, this disrupts the gravity in the second layer (but not the third and fourth) so that Arthur spends most of his scenes floating in mid-air, like Kier Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

If the story, particularly the ending, contains echoes of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972), Nolan's high-gloss style and intensified continuity cutting are as far from the authentic griminess and meditative rhythms of Tarkovsky's work as one could possibly get. Of course, some one will point out that Nolan's film is essentially a fast-paced thriller, and wouldn't be well served by Tarkovsky's heavy, long take style. Still, I find it slightly ironic that, as the characters move "deeper" into the second and third levels of dreams-within-dreams, the film becomes increasingly reliant on external violence, as opposed to Tarkovsky's film, which is all talk and no action. Also, I wish... well, I was going to say, "I wish, for the sake of realism, that everything didn't look so gosh darn clean," but then I realized, just as I was about to type it, how utterly absurd the phrase "for the sake of realism" was in this context. This is what I meant about me not being the ideal viewer for this movie.

Rather unfortunately, in a farce resembling the plot of Life of Brian (1979), Inception was appointed, even before it opened, to be the film that saved the summer--which surely says less about the film itself than the overall wretchedness of most Hollywood movies that, when a moderately ambitious blockbuster does come along, it's praised well out of proportion to its modest but very real virtues. Much the same thing happened when Nolan's previous film, The Dark Knight (2008), appeared two summers ago. Faced with a prosaic, noisy, and undistinguished action movie, and a hammy performance by a recently deceased Heath Ledger, the critical community lost its shit, as if a girl who should really know better suddenly decided to drop her panties for the biggest schlub at the party. The film was widely read as a complicated political allegory, and Ledger's performance was praised as the greatest piece of screen acting since Renée Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928). I suppose it all depends on what you go to the movies looking for. And speaking as some one who'd generally rather see a film about something real, like Pedro Costa's movies about the slums of Lisbon, or demonlover for that matter, I can't see too much reason for getting so excited about a movie defined by its unreality, no matter how skillfully made it is.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Qu'est que Mumblecore? (On Cyrus)

I don't have a great deal to say about Jay and Mark Duplass' Cyrus (2010), an engaging and funny if not very distinguished romantic comedy, but I am intrigued, sort of, by the way people are talking about it. The Duplass brothers' previous films, The Puffy Chair (2005) and Baghead (2008), both unseen by me, were low-budget, low-fi "Mumblecore" movies, while this film, though resolutely low-budget and low-fi, features mainstream stars articulating clearly and is getting a much wider release (Ridley and Tony Scott are credited as executive producers). In his review of the film, Mike D'Angelo finds that the filmmakers don't seem to know whether they want to make an independent feature or go Hollywood, which begs the question: What exactly is the difference between an indie movie generally, and a Mumblecore film in particular, and most mainstream studio fare?

First of all, what is Mumblecore? According to Wikipedia, the term was coined by Eric Masunaga, a sound editor who's worked with Andrew Bujalski, to describe a small number of US directors whose handmade aesthetic helps to distinguish their work from the professional model of filmmaking associated with Hollywood and emulated by most independent features which turn up at the Sundance film festival (Frozen River [2008], Precious [2009], et al). A Mumblecore feature is shot on 16mm or video rather than 35mm, and the actors are more often friends of the director than experienced professionals. The brand takes its name from the tendency of the non-professional actors who appear in these films to mumble their lines, and most Mumblecore movies have their premiere at the South by Southwest Music Festival.

However, once you get past their homemade quality, a Mumblecore movie is anything but experimental. They rely on the same principles of story construction and continuity editing which have been the basis for commercial filmmaking for more than ninety years. The brand has even produced its own stars, with Greta Gerwig going on to appear in Noah Baumbach's Greenberg (2010). (Mark Duplass also makes a cameo, and Baumbach served as producer on Joe Swanberg's Alexander the Last [2009].) Contrary to what D'Angelo claims, it seems to me that, apart from Cyrus having an obviously low-budget look (which I guess is supposed to denote uncompromising artistry and realism), the Duplass brothers have transitioned rather seamlessly into professional filmmaking. In other words, Mumblecore isn't an attempt to break away from Hollywood so much as a means for aspiring directors like the Duplass brothers to get their foot in the door.

One might argue that in Cyrus, the protagonist, John (John C. Reilly), has the potential to alienate viewers. A desperate loser who evidently hasn't been on a date since his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), dumped him seven years ago (the film opens with Jamie walking in on him masturbating), John meets a woman, Molly (Marisa Tomei), at a party early in the film, and miraculously, she goes home with him at the end of the night. However, John begins to suspect that she's married because of the way she always leaves right away after intercourse, and one day, in stalker fashion, he decides to follow her home. Surely this is more characteristic of edgy indie fare than a safe Hollywood romantic comedy?

Actually, as David Bordwell argues in his book, The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (2006), starting in the 1970s, screenwriting manuals began to place a much greater emphasis on having a flawed protagonist, which becomes the basis for an internal conflict between what the protagonist wants and what they need. As an example, Bordwell cites Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), in which the protagonist is a workaholic who learns to be a devoted father: He wants to succeed in the business world, but he needs to be a good dad. Ironically, although indie movies are often associated with character-driven stories (in contrast with action-orientated Hollywood features), the plot of Cyrus is all external conflict.

The story charts John's substitution of one brunette mother figure for another. (In the first sequence, Jamie shows up at his house to tell him she's getting remarried.) However, since John's stalkerish tendencies never pose a threat to his relationship with Molly, the only obstacle to his goal (that is, to make it work with Molly) is an external one--namely, Molly's grown son, Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who sets out to sabotage their relationship. (Cyrus' attachment to Molly is mirrored in John's attachment to Jamie, and the irritation it causes her fiancée.) In the end, the character who grows the most is actually Cyrus, who learns to be less selfish in his relationship with Molly.

The plot moves through the four stages outlined by Kristin Thompson as the basis of Hollywood storytelling: setup, complicating action, development, and climax (sometimes referred to, more vaguely, as three acts and a turning point). Upon falling in love with Molly, John discovers that she has a grown son (setup). Although Cyrus pretends to like him, John begins to suspect that Cyrus is out to sabotage his relationship with Molly when his sneakers mysteriously disappear (complicating action). After John discovers his shoes in a closet, it's all out war between the two men, although they try to hide their mutual enmity from Molly (development). Things boil to the surface at Jamie's wedding when Cyrus gets drunk (echoing John's behavior at the party where he first met Molly), and attacks John in the bathroom. In the scene where John first confronts Cyrus, he takes his sneakers down from the closet, and he shows them again to Molly when breaking up with her in order to explain how the situation with Cyrus has become intolerable. (In screenwriting jargon, the breakup is "the darkest hour," where everything looks bleak for the characters.) Finally, seeing how despondent Molly is without John, Cyrus goes to his apartment to beg him to take her back (climax).

Stylistically, the film bears many of the hallmarks of what Bordwell terms intensified continuity, which isn't a violation of continuity editing, but rather continuity on steroids. This aesthetic is characterized by the use of long and wide lenses, close framings (often of one person, or an over-the-shoulder angle), fast editing even in conversation scenes, constant camera movement (in Cyrus, some handheld shots are punctuated with sudden zoom ins), and insane redundancies (I counted no fewer than four nearly identical establishing shots of Molly's house). In the hands of a director like Baumbach or Spike Lee, these can be effective tools, but too often, as is the case here (not to mention every Christopher Nolan movie), it seems to encourage unimaginative staging and découpage.

Politically, the film is essentially conservative. The sole obstacle to John having a normal (heterosexual, monogamous) relationship with Molly is her abnormal (vaguely incestuous) relationship with Cyrus, whom as they say, has boundary issues. (When John spends the night at Molly's for the first time, she tells him that she and Cyrus always keep their bedroom doors open during the night.) To put it in the most Freudian terms possible, the first thing Molly notices about John is his "nice penis," and it's Cyrus realization that Molly needs John to love her in a way that he can't (i.e., with his penis) that brings about the happy ending.

So, what can an indie film do that a Hollywood film can't? D'Angelo associates indie films with subtle character studies, and mainstream fare with broad comedies, but as we've seen, that's an inaccurate generalization. Tom Ford's slick Hollywood feature A Single Man (2009) is as subtle and character-driven as a low-budget item like Cyrus is broad. There are, however, experimentally-inclined US commercial filmmakers, such as Hal Hartley, Todd Haynes, Jim Jarmusch, Harmony Korine, Richard Linklater, and David Lynch, not to mention still more radical avant-gardists like Craig Baldwin, Ernie Gehr, and Michael Snow, and video artists like Gary Hill, Steve Reinke, and Bill Viola. Under the Mumblecore umbrella, there are those who are simply auditioning for a studio gig (like the Duplass brothers). But others, such as Bujalski, seem driven by a desire to see represented on film a segment of American life that's so far been ignored by the mainstream--although I wish that Bujalski's wholly apolitical films about the romantic entanglements of a bunch of boring white heterosexual hipsters, such as Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), were darker and edgier, like the Baumbach of Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Greenberg. In other words, Bujalski and the Duplass brothers could stand to learn a thing or two about flawed protagonists from the screenwriting manuals.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Wretched of the Earth (On Pedro Costa)

Broadly speaking, there are commercial movies and then there's everything else, films which sometimes get filed under categories like "avant-garde" or "experimental." Though none of them were exactly colossal hits, the first three features by Pedro Costa--O sangue (The Blood, 1989), Casa de lava (1994), and Ossos (Bones 1997)--are all nonetheless, technically speaking, commercial films in that they were shot on 35mm with a professional union crew; are a commercial length (in the area of ninety minutes); and most importantly, they all tell stories. Casa de lava (the only one of Costa's early films which I haven't seen) even features a recognizable star (Isaach de Bankolé, who's best known for appearing in films by such commercial figures as Claire Denis and Jim Jarmusch), though reports that he and Costa nearly came to blows over the fact that his character spends almost the entire movie in a coma suggest that, even then, the director's methods were rather at odds with industry norms.

Though they both tell stories, O sangue and Ossos are both full of lingering ambiguities. The latter, set in a slum neighborhood in Lisbon, is about the interactions between three impoverished characters and a middle-class nurse who adopts each of them in turn. Early in the film, a teenage girl, Tina (Mariya Lipkina), brings home a baby boy from the hospital, and the father (Nuno Vaz), who isn't given a name, takes him to a downtown area to beg for money in front of a metro station. Just prior to this, there's a long lateral tracking shot of the father walking down a sidewalk, holding a garbage bag which may or may not contain the baby. Outside a pastry shop, a sympathetic nurse, Eduarda (Isabel Ruth), gives him milk for the baby and a sandwich for himself. But after feeding the baby milk and bread crumbs in an alley, he's shown rushing him to the emergency room. There, he tells Eduarda that, should the baby die, it's her fault for giving him "bad milk"--a statement typical of his refusal to take any kind of responsibility. (Eventually, he and the baby move into Eduarda's apartment. And later, he'll abandon the baby in a corridor.) Although he's shown following Eduarda as she walks away from the pastry shop, it's never explained how the father got her name.

The other major character is a neighbor of Tina's, Clotilde (Vanda Duarte), who eventually becomes Eduarda's maid. Clotilde isn't the most responsible person either; in one scene, her husband (Miguel Sermão) finds her at a party and tells her that her children haven't eaten. It's strongly implied that Clotilde, Tina, and the father are all drug addicts (at one point, the latter passes out on a bed, and Tina, in the middle of a suicide attempt, drags his unconscious body into the next room), but we never seen any direct evidence of drug use in the movie.

Costa favors a de-dramatized style of acting, which has the effect of making his actors seem at times like vacant zombies--an approach that works wonderfully in a movie about hopeless drug addicts living in abject poverty. (Some of the actors are old pros, such as Ruth, who's appeared in films by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Manoel de Oliveira; but even the non-professional actors, like Duarte, who would go on to play herself in two of Costa's subsequent films, are here playing characters.) Writing about Costa's work, Jonathan Rosenbaum observes that his films aren't populated "so much by characters in the literary sense as by raw essences--souls, if you will" (and likens him in this regard to such exalted figures as Robert Bresson, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Demy, Alexander Dovzhenko, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Jacques Tourneur), but in a separate capsule review of Ossos notes that, "the Bressonian vacancy of the leads sometimes feels spooky rather than soulful." Like Philippe Garrel, Costa often lingers on his actors' faces in medium close-up as if they were painterly subjects, but even when the story comes to a halt, the film's dense ambient soundtrack is buzzing with offscreen activity.

To pursue a crude analogy between Costa and the marginal characters who populate his films, while mainstream figures such as Pedro Almodóvar, Noah Baumbach, Kathryn Bigelow, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and Martin Scorsese (to pick half a dozen names at random) can afford to live downtown, filmmakers like Costa are kept in a ghetto, invisible to the public. And just as a rich person can afford a bigger place, a huge blockbuster like James Cameron's Avatar (2009) will open on many more screens than a more specialized commercial movie, like Tom Ford's A Single Man (also 2009). If Costa started his career on the outskirts of commercial filmmaking--the Scarborough of cinema, if you will--with his fourth feature, In Vanda's Room (2000), it's as if he had dropped off the grid completely. Marking a radical break from the conventions of commercial cinema (which his earlier films at least nominally adhered to), this three-hour film was shot on video with a crew of less than five people, and it doesn't tell a story. A singular and unclassifiable work, it blurs the distinctions between fiction and documentary, as much of what we see looks like it's really happening. For instance, in contrast with Ossos, drug use is so ubiquitous here that very often one of the characters will be having a conversation while an unremarked upon syringe hangs out of his arm.

One might describe the movie as a kind of phenomenological documentary, in which each shot seems to say, "This is so." Included on the DVD as a bonus feature is Little Boy Male, Little Girl Female (2005), a video installation Costa made for a museum in Rotterdam incorporating footage from In Vanda's Room, which provides a window into how Costa shot the movie. On each side of a split screen, we see an unbroken take, of which only a small snippet was used in the feature. As the piece opens, we see on the left a building being demolished in the background, as passersby (who may or may not be aware that they're being filmed) move in and out of the frame; on the right, we see some of the film's stars doing nothing in particular. However, unlike a traditional, vérité-style documentary, which positions itself as an objective record of a pre-existing reality, Costa's film is reportedly a collaboration between himself and his actors, and the film's soundtrack is obviously constructed. During one scene in a living room, we hear a violin being tuned offscreen; Costa then cuts to a man tuning a violin, creating the illusion that the man is sitting in an adjacent space to the living room.

Structured as a series of days and nights in a slum neighborhood, the film is mainly about a woman named Vanda (Duarte), who--when she's not holed up in her room with her sister, Zita (Zita Duarte), smoking crack--goes door-to-door selling vegetables, and a neighbor of theirs', Nhurro, who's an intravenous drug user. As the film opens, Nhurro has just moved into a house whose previous tenant was a girl who tried to sell her baby, or left it in a trash can, or both, and gradually it's revealed that Vanda and Zita's sister has been sent to prison for some minor infraction, but there's nothing here that you could call a story (at least, not by the standards of a Robert McKee screenwriting seminar, the aim of such seminars being to make commercial films). Most of the film consists of the characters hanging out and getting high, tidying up (early on, Nhurro tells a fellow addict that he wants the place to be clean so they can feel at home), and trying to make money wherever they can.

For me, Costa's most difficult film is Colossal Youth (2006), even though, at first glance, it looks closer to a conventional narrative than In Vanda's Room as it has something like a protagonist, and indeed something like a plot. Again, the movie is structured as a series of days and nights in the life of its subject, Ventura (Ventura), a retired Cape Verdean laborer whose daily rounds involve visits to a loose assortment of wretched-of-the-earth types who comprise his adopted family. In an early scene, Ventura goes to the home of a young woman, Bete, who may or may not be his daughter, to tell her that his wife (whom we never see) has left him. Bete tells Ventura that he has the wrong house, but over the course of the film, the two gradually become more and more intimate.

What makes the film so difficult is Costa's willfully static staging of his actors, who remain seated or standing in one place during extremely long takes, and the trance-like quality of the performances (in contrast with the more naturalistic and energetic performances of In Vanda's Room). As David Bordwell often points out, when we look at other people, our gaze is instinctively drawn to high information areas like faces and hands, and looking at Colossal Youth a second time, I was able to downgrade my attention enough to focus on what the actors were doing particularly with their hands. The high point of the film in this regard is a long monologue delivered by a recovering drug addict, Vanda (Duarte), relating the pain of childbirth, in which her way of talking with her hands helps the viewer to imagine the scene she's describing. This sort of downgrading inevitably leads one to the question: Is this really the best use I could be making of my time, focusing so much attention on every minute gesture these people make? The film made me realize how most commercial movies are filled with big, exciting events, which are presumed to be the only ones worthy of our time and attention. (Accordingly, when I saw Lone Scherfig's An Education [2009] a few months back, I was disappointed that the heroine didn't suffer more.) Still, even after downgrading my attention, as the film went on I found myself becoming increasingly restless, and I'm left wondering: What makes the difference between an interesting downgrade movie, like Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), and one that's simply boring and a waste of time?