Saturday, August 28, 2010

They're Doing the Time of Their Lives (I Love You Phillip Morris)

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's I Love You Phillip Morris had its world premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, but its release has been pushed back several times and it's now tentatively scheduled to open in early December. Having seen the film (which was surprisingly easy to download), it's easy to see why a major studio would be hesitant about distributing it, and not simply because Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor play a gay couple, though it's impossible to explain why without ruining the film's best surprises. If you've seen Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa (2003), written by Ficarra and Requa, you know that these guys are fearless and uncompromising in their comic vision, and this film is even more audacious (and more political) than Bad Santa, which I wouldn't have thought possible before seeing the film.

The film begins with a title informing us, "This really happened," and if you look up Steven Jay Russell on Wikipedia (although I wouldn't recommend doing that until after you see the movie), you'll find that the film's most outrageous elements are based on fact. Russell was a deputy police officer and family man who became a con artist, and managed to talk his way into a job as the chief financial officer of North American Medical Management, where he embezzled thousands of dollars. (In the film, it's hundreds of thousands, and the exaggeration of this crime--and by extension, the swanky lifestyle the money was used to furnish, which the movie simultaneously parodies and celebrates--seems intended, paradoxically, to make Russell seem like more of a hero. If he stole less we probably wouldn't like him as much.) But what's really wild is how Russell was able to escape from prison repeatedly using various ruses and disguises.

The story, told largely in flashback, begins with Russell (Carrey) on a hospital bed waiting to die. In the film, as in life, he was put up for adoption by his biological mother, and while working as a cop, he used police resources to track her down. According to the movie's psychological shorthand, because he never knew his mother, Russell doesn't know who he is, and is therefore condemned to living a lie. After suffering a near-fatal car accident, Russell decides to come out as a gay man (as he's wheeled into the ambulance, he bellows, "I'm gonna be a fag! Faggot!"), only to discover subsequently that, "being gay is expensive," and turning to crime in order to support his lifestyle. In 1995, while doing time for insurance fraud, Russell met Phillip Morris (McGregor), whom the film makes out to be the love of his life. Their relationship is the film's weakest element, functioning merely as a motivation for Russell to steal and escape from prison. While the moms in Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right (2010) are more rounded characters who happen to be gay, for Russell, being gay is his whole identity: The only thing he knows about himself for sure is that he loves Phillip Morris. That said, I Love You Phillip Morris is indisputably the better film; it's more accomplished in terms of storytelling and craftsmanship, and unlike Cholodenko's film, it's actually funny.

Spoilers begin here.

If I had to guess why the studio seems so reluctant to release the film, I would assume that it's the part of the story where Russell pretends to be dying of AIDS in order to escape from prison, which is surely the most audacious segment of the whole movie on a number of levels--and yes, this really happened. Up till this point, our range of knowledge has been limited exclusively to Russell's point of view as he narrates his life story in flashback, although the filmmakers have already shown a taste for self-conscious narration. Earlier, for instance, after establishing that Russell enjoys (or appears to enjoy) having sex with his wife Debbie (Leslie Mann), when we subsequently see him thrusting away at some one off camera, it comes as a surprise when a man's head pops into the frame. In the narration, Russell says, "Did I mention I was gay?" as if it had simply slipped his mind to mention it, but Ficarra and Requa are actually being very clever about how and when they reveal certain things, and what information they withhold, so as to make the revelations about Russell's character even more surprising, and as viewers, we can't help but be aware of how skillfully they're manipulating us. (I'm reminded of that quote by Alfred Hitchcock, where he said that he wanted to play the audience like a piano.)

Similarly, it's only after Russell falls in love with Morris, and when he's arrested for embezzlement that we get a flashback (actually, a flashback within a flashback) in which we see Russell's previous boyfriend, Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro), dying of AIDS. In prison, Morris, who's angry with Russell for making him an unwitting accomplice (which requires him to be very, very stupid, considering Russell's lavish spending), says that he never wants to see him again, and the narration confirms that this was the last time Russell ever saw him. Needless to say, this is a particularly black period in Russell's life, so when we see him refusing to eat in the prison cafeteria, throwing up in his toilet, and then a shot of him lying on his bed, so thin that his rib cage is visible, one might conclude that he's attempting to kill himself by starvation. It's only then that a prison doctor informs him he has AIDS, which brings us back to the beginning, with Russell on a hospital bed waiting to die. At this point, the point of view shifts to Morris, who learns from another inmate that Russell has died. So when Russell then turns up at the prison, alive and healthy, impersonating Morris' lawyer, and Morris punches him in the face, we're in complete sympathy with his disgust at Russell. But, as Morris makes contact, Ficarra and Requa employ a freeze frame, and Russell takes over again as narrator, explaining how he did it over flashbacks to earlier events, filling in the gaps in our knowledge, in which we're encouraged to marvel at his daring and ingenuity in pulling it off, leading up to the unforgettable punch line, "And for all that time, all those doctors, all those nurses, all those facilities--not one of them ever thought to give me an AIDS test."

Ultimately, Russell's numerous prison escapes proved so embarrassing for the state of Texas, and then-Governor George W. Bush, that he was handed an absurd 144 year sentence, despite being a non-violent offender. There's now a campaign to have Russell released, and the film is clearly designed to generate sympathy for his cause, even if it's a little too clear-eyed about him to function as simple propaganda. As in Charles Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947), the film goes out of its way to make the people that Russell steals from as unsympathetic as possible. For instance, his decision to embezzle funds from the North American Medical Management was motivated less by greed than by his hatred of the stupid and racist people he was working for. Furthermore, according to the film, his scheme of investing medical cheques for the short time the company had them, and then pocketing half of the interest for himself, was actually making the company money. All things considered, Russell's crimes seem positively benign compared to the hucksters on Wall Street, who caused a global economic recession while raking in billions in bonuses for the good work they were doing.

Despite their audacity in asking viewers to sympathize with Russell, Ficarra and Requa are still operating within the bounds of traditional Hollywood filmmaking, and I know that I won't see a better crafted studio comedy this year (although Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World [2009] is more formally audacious in its Stephen Chow-derived live action-cartoon silliness, in terms of dramaturgy, none of the characters have the slightest shading or nuance, and the whole enterprise runs out of steam in the closing stretch), or for that matter, a funnier one. It's really, really funny. Seriously.

The Agenda-Setting Media, Cultural Relevance, and the Awesome Power of 'Vincere'

In Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chompsky and the Media (1992), Chompsky refers to the New York Times as "the agenda-setting media," and one of the most interesting facts I learned from the documentary is that the A.P. wire service announces the afternoon before what tomorrow's headline will be on New York Times, so that local media can follow suit.

Similarly, for a movie--particularly an independent movie--to be considered culturally relevant, it has to open in New York and Los Angeles, thus making it eligible for the Oscars, and be reviewed in major publications like the Times. For instance, Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right (2010) was undoubtedly the indie film event of the summer. It had a relatively wide release, garnered glowing reviews from most major reviewers, and the three leads (Annette Benning, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo) are all likely to be nominated for Academy Awards. Thus, an aesthetically bland liberal message picture is made to seem more culturally relevant than more adventurous indie movies, not to mention every avant-garde film, which happen to fly under the radar of large national publications (to say nothing of the Oscar race).

Now let me just say that I think that Manohla Dargis, Stephen Holden, and A.O. Scott are all doing a bang-up job over at the Times, and they do review a lot of small independent and foreign films. And I can't really fault Dargis for liking The Kids Are All Right more than I did. My point is simply that for a film to be considered culturally relevant--that is, to be considered worthy of being discussed in the national media--it needs to be relatively new (there's usually a gap of a few months or more between a film's festival premiere and its commercial release stateside) and playing on a certain number of screens. And the newer a film is, and the more screens it's playing on, the more relevant it seems. Lee Yoon-ki's My Dear Enemy (2008), which I belatedly caught up with in Montreal last spring, was reviewed positively in both the Times and the Village Voice, but was ignored by everyone else when it turned up in the States last fall, and Anat Zuria's documentary Black Bus (2010) still has yet to open there (perhaps because it was dismissed by a reviewer in Variety). Therefore, regardless of their individual merits, those films are going to seem less relevant to the national discourse on film than Cholodenko's film.

As somebody who writes about film strictly as an amateur (i.e., I don't go to press screenings and nobody's sending me DVD screeners come Oscar time), and who lives in a part of the country that doesn't get a lot of foreign or independent movies, I'm almost always playing catchup in writing about particular films. I prefer to write about the movies I see on my occasional trips to bigger cities like Montreal, because they're still relatively new (Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop [2010], which I saw in May, didn't open in Halifax until August); or at festivals prior to their getting a commercial release (the Atlantic Film Festival is just around the corner, so that's something I have to look forward to). When I do write about older movies, I prefer it to be à propos of a cinémathèque screening, as when I saw Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948) last spring, or at the very least, somehow related to something in theatres at the moment. For instance, although I didn't make the connection explicit, my short essay on Alain Resnais' L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) could be seen as a sort of followup to my piece on Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010), which was easily the most discussed, most culturally relevant wide release movie of the summer to the point that I was somewhat reluctant to write about it after so many others had already done so. Although I'm not some one who rushes out to see the latest blockbuster on opening weekend simply to be in the loop (accordingly, it took me a week or so to catch up with Inception), the idea is that I want to participate in a larger discussion about cinema.

So when I finally caught up with Marco Bellocchio's Vincere (2009), I thought I should write something about it for this blog, considering that it moved me like no film has in years (no new film, anyway). But at the same time, writing about it seemed vaguely futile, as if having come too late to the party. The film premiered in competition at Cannes more than a year ago; was praised by major reviewers, including Dargis and Roger Ebert; and is now on DVD (which is how I saw it). It's technically eligible for this year's Oscars, but Giovanna Mezzogiorno is about as likely to be nominated for best actress (despite being vastly more deserving, in my opinion, than Benning) as the United States is to elect a socialist president. (Maddow-Stewart 2012!)

The film is about the life of Ida Dalser (Mezzogiorno), a mistress and the possible first wife of Benito Mussolini (played as a young man by Filippo Timi), and her son, Benito Albino (played as an adult by Timi). The story begins in Milan in 1907, when the young Mussolini, Sr. was a socialist, who was both anti-clerical and anti-war. In the opening sequence, Ida sees him speak at a debate where he challenges god to strike him dead in the next five minutes, and when the time elapses declares that god doesn't exist, and falls instantly in love with him. Barred from entering politics herself (at one point, she's turned away from a socialist party meeting for being a woman), Ida, a passionate socialist, pins all her hopes on Mussolini, selling her business and all her possessions so that he can start the newspaper Il Popolo d'Italia.

The film shows Mussolini as a man lacking the slightest political conviction, willing to sell out any principle in his quest for power. There's an audacious, unforgettable sequence in the film in which Mussolini is awoken in the middle of the night by visions of his own greatness, and as if in a trance, steps out on to a balcony overlooking an empty courtyard while completely nude. A jeep drives by announcing the start of World War I, and Mussolini becomes an ardent supporter of the war, which he says (but probably doesn't believe) will be the war to end all wars. So anti-clerical is the young Mussolini that he tells Ida, "Whenever I see a priest, I feel like washing my hands," but after coming to power, he married his other mistress, Rachele Guidi (Michela Cescon), and in 1929 founded the Papal state. When he and Ida have sex, he never looks her in the eye, as if his true object of desire lay beyond her.

Inevitably, Mussolini casts Ida aside for the sake of his political career. Ida, however, persists in loving him--or rather, the man he used to be. (When Idea sees him in newsreels, Bellocchio uses footage of the real Mussolini as a means of distinguishing between the young socialist and the fascist dictator.) And when Ida refuses to go away quietly, she's locked up in an asylum, and Benito Albino (played as a boy by Fabrizio Costella) is placed in a boarding school. (To underline his isolation, he's only shown there during school vacations when all the other students are at home.) Before this happens, however, there is a curious sequence, possibly a dream, in which Ida and Mussolini marry, and she would insist until her death in 1938 that she was the first and legitimate wife of Mussolini, although a closing title informs us that the marriage certificate was never found.

The film contains two sequences of extraordinary power. After spending time in one institution presided over by bitchy nuns, Ida's transfered to one where she's cared for by a sympathetic anti-fascist doctor (Carrado Invernizzi). If the doctor is in love with her, his feelings never rise to the level of action because Ida is still hopelessly deluded about Mussolini. (I'm reminded of a line from Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves [1996]: "Love is a powerful sickness.") In one sequence, the institution has a movie night for the patients, and Bellocchio cuts between a scene from Charles Chaplin's The Kid (1921), Ida's reactions to it in close-up, and the doctor looking at Ida.

Later, Benito Albino, now a young man, sees his uncle, Riccardo (Fausto Russo Alesi, an actor who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Jon Lovitz), whom he hasn't seen since he was sent to the boarding school. Benito Albino follows him into a movie theatre with a date, and hands Riccardo a letter for his mother, which the latter is able to sneak into the asylum. (This of course never happened; the real Benito Albino was told that his mother was dead, and was adopted by a fascist family.) After handing him the letter, Benito Albino leans back and puts his arm around his date, and though out of focus and in the background, it's clearly Mezzogiorno he puts his arm around. After reading the letter, a sympathetic nun helps Ida to escape. When she arrives at Riccardo's, she's told that Benito Albino was informed and is on his way, but curiously, we never see their reunion, assuming it takes place. This is fine by me actually, as to have such a scene in the film would be a lie.

The most extraordinary moment in the whole film comes when Ida is led out of the house to the car taking her back to the asylum, where an angry crowd has gathered in protest--the only time we see any overt popular support for Ida's plight. As the car pulls away, we see out the window some of her supporters running alongside the car (echoing the scene in which Benito Albino was removed from Riccardo's home), and as the car passes a slogan painted on a wall ("Mussolini is always right"), Idea, in the foreground right, turns to face the camera directly. The film is boldly and shamelessly manipulative, and I mean that as a compliment.

With its onscreen text, liberal use of archival footage (beginning with the Dziga Vertov-inspired credit sequence), and the desaturated, highly textured cinematography by Daniele Ciprì, the film self-consciously harks back to the silent cinema, and the story is unabashedly melodramatic. Indeed, despite its basis in fact, one could read the film as a sort of fairy tale about an ambiguous mother whose masochistic devotion to a cruel father makes her implicit in the suffering of her child; imagine a less kinky version of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986). Wildly audacious and immensely moving, it makes cinema seem exciting again.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong: Mosque Edition

I just want to make one point regarding the controversy surrounding plans to build a mosque in lower Manhattan, two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. Opponents have attempted to portray the Imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, as a radical using a quote from a 60 Minutes interview in September, 2001 in which he said:

I wouldn't say that the United States deserved what happened. But the United States' policies were an accessory to what happened. [...] We have been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.

Now, maybe he could have phrased his point more sensitively, but to deny any connection between US foreign policy and the attacks on September 11; to go along with the idea that, "They hate us for our freedoms"--which President Bush trotted out in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, when a lot of stunned Americans were asking why, and which served as comforting self-deception--is to fundamentally misread the meaning of the attacks.

The attacks weren't aimed at centres of religious freedom and tolerance; they were aimed specifically at the economic and military institutions of the United States. The key word in World Trade Center is 'trade'. The twin towers were located in the heart of the country's financial district. For the attack to be an assault on freedom would mean first equating liberty with economic and military influence abroad.

The fact that the United States is the most powerful nation on earth means they have the power to impose their will on other countries, not always for the better. In the Middle East, the US financed and armed the Mujahideen when they were fighting the Soviets, and supported Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war--all towards the goal of protecting American business interests in the region.

In short, the controversy over Rauf's statement is simply another case of what happens when keeping it real goes wrong. According to the editors of the National Review, "While [Rauf] cannot quite bring himself to blame the terrorists for being terrorists, he finds it easy to blame the United States for being a victim of terrorism." So let's be clear: I don't think mass murder is ever justified, but the terrorists who crashed those planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon obviously thought differently. That's how they were able to do it, because they thought that American aggression in the Middle East justified killing a lot of innocent people. However, it's more comforting to believe that US foreign policy had nothing to do with it, and the terrorists hate America because it's too free and tolerant. Yeah, right. Have you seen the fuss they're making about this Mosque?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cross Country Checkup: The Kids Are All Right, Winter's Bone

Although it seems unlikely that many people today preserve strict monogamy, its ghost lingers on, manifested in guilt feelings, in the secrecy and furtiveness of 'infidelity'. The rationale for monogamy (surely by now thoroughly discredited) was based purely on the supposed sanctity of the patriarchal line, on the husband's need for assurance that his sons were indeed his... Victorian men were officially supposed to be monogamous, but few thought it really mattered.

[...] I assume that [Michael] Haneke, in
La Pianiste [2001], would have liked to show us everything, since one of the film's central projects is the demystification of sex. In a healthy sexual climate, full-frontal nudity (of both genders) and actual intercourse would be shown in movies as a matter of course--not as the latest form of titillation, but as casually as scenes of people eating their dinners. We need to see Isabelle Huppert sucking Benoît Magimel's cock, not because it would give us our latest thrill but because it is an intrinsic part of the scene, and to conceal it is to continue the repression that is the mere obverse of our 'liberation'.
—Robin Wood, "'Do I Disgust You?' or Tirez pas sur La Pianiste," CineAction no. 59: p. 56.

A stable relationship? What happened to traditional gay values? You know, hot, sweaty, rock-hard men slapping against each other in a dark room to a pulsing beat. No names.
—Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report, August 5, 2010.

The spirit of Stanley Kramer is alive and well in Lisa Cholodenko's eminently mediocre The Kids Are All Right (2010), which is simply the worst kind of liberal message picture: One in which any kind of formal or narrative experimentation has been studiously spurned in the interest of communicating a well-intentioned message to the widest possible audience. However, despite the film's smug, self-congratulating Look-How-Far-We've-Comeisms (the apex of which is a toast to an "unconventional" family in a film that's anything but), the depressing irony is that Rainer Werner Fassbinder was far more advanced in his treatment of a lesbian relationship thirty-eight years ago in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). Cholodenko's film suggests a toothless girl-girl dramedy equivalent to Brokeback Mountain's gay male tragedy, the Indigo Girls to Ang Lee and James Schamus' the Smiths. Not knowing whether there was an organized gay rights movement in Germany in the '70s roughly analogous to post-Stonewall America, it's tempting to hypothesize that Fassbinder had the benefit of not being a slave to a liberal movement (not that I imagine he would've cared anyway). Incidentally, it seems relevant that in Tom Ford's A Single Man (2009), adapted from a pre-Stonewall 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood, the narrator's mocking criticisms of liberal platitudes have been carefully excised from his monologue on the oppression of minorities, which is otherwise faithfully reproduced in the film.

It's true that I praised Ford's film in a previous entry written prior to my reading the book, and I'm not about to take that back. It's still an accomplished piece of filmmaking, embedding within a Dalloway-esque day-in-the-midlife-crisis narrative five flashbacks spanning sixteen years which are placed in reverse chronological order, and two dream sequences which bookend the film, as well as using extreme close-ups and slow motion to suggest a subjective gaze in a manner that recalls the best work of Martin Scorsese--to say nothing of the particularly fine, understated performance given by Colin Firth. Here, one has to give Cholodenko credit for framing her actors largely in medium and long shot, thus affording them the opportunity to act with their whole bodies, but her approach to sounds and images is strictly functional, and at times downright awkward. There's one shot of a kitchen in which a sink faucet is given more prominence than any of the performers (whose distance from the camera is exaggerated by the use of a wide angle lens) by virtue of being framed in the foreground centre, so that one almost begins to expect that the faucet will play an important role in the scene. (Perhaps Alain Robbe-Grillet would've appreciated how forcefully the faucet asserts the fact of its existence without being reclaimed by any human use.) And the one time Cholodenko gets fancy with the sound mix, turning down the volume on the ambient dialogue during a dramatically significant close-up, it's clearly "motivated" by the story, the subject being too absorbed in her thoughts to pay attention to what's being said around her.

In terms of narrative, the film couldn't be more conventional. Nic (Annette Benning) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a stable, monogamous couple living in an affluent suburban neighborhood with their bland teenage offspring, Joni (Mia Washikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), who are each afforded a minor subplot regarding their own burgeoning sexuality. The status quo is threatened when the kids decide that they want to meet their sperm donor dad, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who soon becomes almost a member of the family, much to Nic's consternation. Paul hires Jules to do some landscaping for him, and they wind up going to bed together, making Paul essentially the Other Woman. (Laser's discovery earlier in the film that both of his moms enjoy gay male porn has already established that one can be a total lesbo and still dig cock.) This leads to a crisis when Nic discovers the affair (cue dramatically significant close-up), with Jules ultimately deciding to go back to her wife, and Nic calling Paul an "interloper" (i.e., not a member of the family) before literally slamming the door in his face. In an epilogue, Joni moves into a college dorm room, and Nic and Jules happily reconcile.

The ideological thrust of the film is to validate Nic and Jules as a legitimate couple, so there's really no way the film could end without them reconciling. Similarly, in A Single Man, the protagonist, George Falconer (Firth), asserts emphatically and emotively that his sixteen-year relationship with his partner, Jim (Matthew Goode)--which we see in flashback, and which ended when the latter was killed in a car accident--was as real as any straight relationship, and that they'd still be together if Jim hadn't died. Fassbinder, on the other hand, doesn't feel the need to validate anyone's relationship, which liberates him from the shackles of political correctness. In The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Karin (Hannah Schygulla) goes back to her husband, and Petra (Margit Carstensen), far from being a noble victim, takes out her anguish on her teenage daughter (Eva Mattes), mother (Gisela Fackeldey), and mute assistant, Marlene (Irm Hermann), in an extraordinary extended sequence. It's unlikely that many of the people who are going to see The Kids Are All Right are ignorant homophobes whom the film's advertising campaign has some how tricked into buying a ticket and come out two hours later having been enlightened. So one has to ask: Why is this film a hit, both with audiences and reviewers? And I think the answer, depressingly enough, is that liberal viewers, like their conservative counterparts (think of Michael Medved), simply want to see a conventional movie that unambiguously confirms their values.

(Incidentally, if you want to see what the neoconservative take on the film is, I can direct you to Victor J. Morton's blog entry on it. Originally, I had intended to respond to Morton's piece in some detail, but I think his creepy and hateful essay--in which he describes artificial insemination as a "despicable perversion" that turns children into "manufactured products"--speaks for itself.)

And now the story of a poor family who had nothing, and the one daughter who had no choice but to keep them all together...

Although it has no overt political agenda, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone (2010) is a film that lays claim to representing a certain aspect of American society--particularly, the lives of poor rural whites in the Ozark mountain range. Early in the film, the teenage heroine, Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), observes a group of high school students carrying rifles into the gymnasium to practice military-style formations, and later she talks to a military recruiter about enlisting because she wants the forty thousand dollar signing bonus. Also, there's a scene in a character's living room in which a photo of a man in an army uniform is visible in the frame. Although no one in the film ever mentions the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, one inference I drew from the film is that the resources spent on the wars might've been used instead to help the disadvantaged communities whose children are actually fighting it. Rather than offering an escape from reality, the film wants to enhance our perceptions of it by showing us a glimpse of a section of the American populace that seems as remote to educated, middle-class liberals (the sort of people who typically go to see independent movies) as the nomadic Kazakh sheepherders in Sergei Dvortsevoy's Tulpan (2008). And as in that film, a great deal of craftsmanship has been enlisted in the service of absolute verisimilitude.

The question is then one of telling a story (or not telling a story), and the opening scenes of Winter's Bone suggest an American Claire Denis film. We see snatches of the characters' daily lives, but scenes aren't held together by any causal link, and the style affords each (non-)event an equal degree of (non-)emphasis. Ree is brushing her mother's hair when her younger brother comes in the room with a dog he just found. At the high school, Ree, who evidently had to drop out in order to take care of her two younger siblings, silently observes a home ec class in which students are given cabbage patch dolls to take care of. Because her family can't afford hay to feed their horse, Ree asks a neighbor if she'll let it stay with her lot. Well, that doesn't last very long before the plot kicks into gear, presenting Ree with a clear-cut objective, consequences, a deadline, obstacles; and a chain of cause-and-event takes shape which links one sequence to the next. In short, the film becomes a conventional thriller.

And as in a lot of thrillers, the characters seem to exist solely for the plot--a trait the film shares with Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010). In that film, if the protagonist had a dead wife, it's because Hollywood screenwriting manuals prescribe that characters have a personal demon which they need to overcome before they can achieve their goal. Winter's Bone isn't even that character-driven; every obstacle Ree faces is external to herself, and she pursues her goal with boundless self-assurance and doggedness. So it's appropriate that Lawrence plays her as a determined, self-reliant young woman who doesn't betray a lot of emotion; like a Buster Keaton hero, she never seems to ask for our sympathy. There's something stoic in the way that she and Granik trust the situation to be inherently compelling without attempting to make Ree particularly lovable.

If there's a Sundance spectrum, The Kids Are All Right and Winter's Bone err towards the conservative end of it. They, and countless other US independent films, including such recent examples as Courtney Hunt's Frozen River (2008) and Oren Moverman's The Messenger (2009), seek only to tell a good (read: entirely conventional) story, as opposed to self-conscious narrative experiments like Hal Hartley's Flirt (1995), Todd Haynes' Poison (1991) and I'm Not There. (2007), and Richard Linklater's Slacker (1991). If I slightly prefer Winter's Bone, it's because it doesn't seem to set out from the beginning to illustrate a predetermined thesis (for instance, that gays can be great parents), which reduces Cholodenko's film to pious agitprop. (Gays can also be lousy parents, which might produce a more interesting, Fassbinderian film. The fact that gays can't marry or adopt kids in the States simply because they're gay is unambiguously fucked up, but that doesn't mean that marriage is for everyone, or that all gays would make great parents.) However, setting a traditional thriller in a realistic milieu doesn't seem to me an ideal solution either, even if in the case of Granik's film, I find the results less offensive and exploitative than Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008), not to mention more entertaining (though still fairly grim). It plays like a juiced-up version of a Canadian social realist film of thirty or forty years ago, like Don Shebib's Goin' Down the Road (1970) or Francis Mankiewicz's Les Bons débarass (1980), which focused on marginal, disempowered rural characters (which is to not to say that either of those films were exactly masterpieces). I suppose it comes down to what sells, and the indie movies that typically get a big push--Alexander Payne's Sideways (2004), Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Jason Reitman's Juno (2007)--tend not to be the most challenging films. In fact, next to those movies, it's almost understandable why reviewers are making such a fuss about Winter's Bone.

Marienbad Explained

"It was absurd to suppose that in the novel Jealousy [1957] [...] there existed a clear and unambiguous order of events, one which was not that of the sentences of the book, as if I had diverted myself by mixing up a pre-established calendar the way one shuffles a deck of cards. [...] There existed for me no possible order outside of that of the book."
—Alain Robbe-Grillet, "Time and Description in Fiction Today," For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction (1963): p. 154.

In most (if not all) narrative experiments made in Hollywood, particularly those that play with time, there is the habitual assumption that there exists an objective chronology of events which is different from the order in which the film's sequences unfold. Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000), Gaspar Noé's Irréversible (2002), François Ozon's 5x2 (2004), and one episode of Seinfeld all tell linear stories in reverse chronological order, while Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989) and Doug Liman's Go (1999) tell multiple stories which are meant to occur simultaneously, following one set of characters and then moving back in time to follow another over the same period (in both films, a single night). Similarly, Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) and Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997) both show the same event (namely, a robbery) from multiple points of view, creating a layering of perspectives, and Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) begins with a botched bank robbery, and then moves back and fourth between the events leading up to it and those which proceeded it. Such films are sometimes referred to as "puzzle movies," the implication being that viewers are given the pieces of the story all in a jumble and are invited to sort them out, reconstructing the chronology of what happened.

Alain Resnais' second feature, L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961), written by Robbe-Grillet, is something rather different and more radical. The story is about a man, X (Giorgio Albertazzi), who meets a woman, A (Delphine Seyrig), at a ritzy European hotel. He believes they met there the year before and had an affair. She has no recollection of this, and he begins to tell her the story of their affair: how he asked her to come away with him, and she asked him to wait a year. The scenes representing his story are clearly demarcated from the present-tense story in various ways as "flashbacks," although as we shall see, the word is rather imprecise in this context. For instance, a shot of A walking in the hotel garden with one shoe is retroactively identified as a flashback later on, when X describes it to A as part of his story.

Sounds simple, right? What makes the film so unusually challenging is that the present-tense scenes don't follow each other in the way that we're accustomed to from conventional narrative films. Resnais will cut from X and A standing in a salon, the former extending his hand to her (see above), to a shot of the two of them in a in a different part of the hotel, in different clothes, X's hand still extended to her (see below). Yet this is neither a flashback nor a flash forward, words which imply a sequence of events. Here, there is only now. Now they are standing in one place, and now they are somewhere else. Or as Robbe-Grillet himself puts it, "The duration of the modern work is in no way a summary, a condensed version, of a more extended and more 'real' duration which would be that of the anecdote, of the narrated story. [...] The entire story of Marienbad happens in neither two years nor in three days but exactly in one hour and a half" (p. 152-53). The scenes representing X's story aren't objective flashbacks, or his memories, or the images they conjure up in A's imagination, but exist only in the mind of the spectator: "In his mind unfolds the whole story, which is precisely imagined by him" (p. 153).

Early in the film, there is a scene where A becomes frightened, and as she backs away from X, bumps into another woman, causing the latter to drop her glass, which shatters on the floor. Later, the film seems to return to this scene to show us what happened next, yet if these two sequences seem to represent two parts of the same continuous action, there is no overall timeline in which the viewer can place them. In a conventional film, like Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon (1992), X would meet A to tell her part of his story, and then make another appointment to see her again the next day. Here, they simply run into each other somewhere in the hotel, and the interval of time between each encounter is ambiguous. It could be several hours, days, years. Time has no meaning here; if we take Robbe-Grillet at his word, the interval between each encounter is is duration of the intervening sequences. These are often static tableaus of hotel guests, filmed with an elegantly tracking camera, or idle conversation; scenes of men standing in a shooting gallery, or X playing a game with A's companion, M (Sacha Pitoëff), using matches. M always wins, but from a purely narrative standpoint, the game is of no real consequence. Like Jealousy, the film is essentially the description of a static situation.

Consider the sequence which occurs forty minutes into the film: It begins with a group of people standing in a corridor, making idle conversation about something which may or may not have happened at the hotel the previous summer. They decide to go to the library to verify whether the story is true, and walking away, they reveal that X was standing there the whole time, hidden by another member of the group. He looks as though he's about to follow them when he notices something off-screen right.

A closer view of X reveals A approaching in a mirror. She stops when she sees him; it is evidently a coincidence that they should run into each other here, rather than an arranged rendezvous. (In many meta-narratives, such as Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon [1950], the listener is intended as a stand-in for the viewer who wants to see how the story ends, but here it seems that A would rather avoid him.) He explains to her what the group was just discussing, that the previous summer at the hotel it was so cold the lake froze, remarking, "That's surely wrong."

Following a close-up of A, there is a shot of the two of them standing on a balcony overlooking the garden, which is evidently a continuation of a flashback begun earlier in the film. Then there is a cut to a close-up of A in her room, which is virtually identical to the close-up we just saw of her standing in the hallway.

Over the latter shot, X says in voice-over, "One night, I came into your room," identifying this shot as also being a flashback, perhaps following the previous shot chronologically, although A's line on the balcony, "What do you want from me? You know it's impossible," hardly sounds like an invitation. The film cuts to a more distant, full body shot of A standing in her room. Looking offscreen left (presumably at X, as if to maintain the axis established at the beginning of the sequence in the corridor), she says, "Leave me alone, please." Finally, the film cuts back to X and A standing in the hallway, where she repeats the line. He says to her, "You're right, ice would've been quite impossible," as if responding not to what A says, but to what he himself said earlier. The same mirror is visible behind him, and the axis is maintained with X on the left and A on the right. However, while in previous shot in her room, A is wearing the same black dress as at the beginning of the sequence, now she's wearing a white coat, and X is likewise wearing a suit and tie instead of a tuxedo.

Of Jealousy (the third, and in many ways the most audacious of the four novels he published prior to L'Année dernière à Marienbad), Robbe-Grillet writes that the narrative was, "made in such a way that any attempt to reconstruct an external chronology would lead, sooner or later, to a series of contradictions, hence an impasse" (p. 154). In the case of Marienbad, the flashbacks at one point refuse to obey the narration (X insists the door was closed, but we see an open door), and are elsewhere contradicted the present-tense story. In flashback, we see M shoot A with a gun, but here she is alive and well in the present. In the final sequence, we see A and X leaving the hotel together instead of her asking him to wait a year--or is this part of the frame story in the present? If there is no past or future, only now, then last year is this year (and the next, and all others), and the flashbacks are not flashbacks but are happening right now, as if by saying, "One night, I came into your room," X were calling the event into existence. Does that clear things up?