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.

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