Even in the severely abridged version that was shown at the Atlantic Film Festival (cut down to a 140 minute feature from a five and a half hour miniseries), Olivier Assayas' Carlos (2010) is still rather a full meal: an engrossingly factual account of the career of international terrorist and media superstar Carlos the Jackal (Édgar Ramírez) spanning more than two decades. The film opens in 1973, when Carlos was ordered by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to shoot Joseph Sieff, a Zionist businessman, in London in retaliation for the assassination of Mohamed Boudia by Mossad, and it ends in 1994 with Carlos' capture in Sudan by French authorities. However, as ambitious and as gripping as the film is, one can't shake the sense that Assayas is playing it straight here in relation to his even wilder films like demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007); aside from the rock music on the soundtrack, I don't think this is noticeably different from what the Paul Greengrass version would look like. Eschewing interiority, the film takes a radically objective approach to its subject, only hinting at Carlos' relationships with the various comely women who swim in and out of focus over the course of the movie, including his marriage to Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldstätten) of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. There are obvious affinities between this film and Steven Soderbergh's Che (2008), but Assayas' (at least in its abridged version) is much more confident as storytelling, moving with an ease and forward momentum that eluded Soderbergh, who tended to get bogged down in pointless minutia.
The obvious high point of the film is its detailed treatment of the OPEC Raid in 1975, in which members of the FPLP under Carlos' command stormed a meeting at OPEC headquarters in Vienna, taking over sixty hostages (among them eleven ministers from oil producing nations), and in the process, killing an Austrian policeman, an Iraqi OPEC employee, and a member of the Libyan delegation. (The movie opens with a title card explaining that there are still grey areas in Carlos' life, and that the film has to be taken as a work of fiction. And looking at the Wikipedia entry on him, the OPEC Raid appears to be one of them, with various conflicting accounts of what actually happened.) According to the film, the idea for the raid came from Saddam Hussein (some say it was Muammar al-Gaddafi), who wanted the FPLP to assassinate two of the hostages--the finance minister of Iran, Jamsid Amuzgar, and the oil minister of Saudi Arabia, Ahmed Zaki Yamani (Badih Abou Chakra)--in order to advance his own goals in the region (namely, war with Iran). In both the film and in life (at least, according to Yamani's Wikipedia page), Carlos informed Yamani during the hostage crisis of his intention to kill him and the Iranian minister, but in the end (spoiler alert!), he cut a deal with the Algerian government for the release of all the hostages, and was kicked out of the PFLP for not carrying out his orders.
If the film's energy diminishes in the second half (as is also the case with demonlover and Boarding Gate), perhaps that's by design. Or maybe Assayas just can't keep up this level of intensity, which is less a serious failing than an indication of how tight the early scenes are. After getting thrown out of the PFLP, Carlos started his own group, the Organization of Arab Armed Struggle, and formed contacts with the East German Stassi. However, when he and Kopp were expelled from Hungary in 1985, Carlos was only allowed into Syria on the condition that he not pull off any further terrorist attacks. By the end of the Cold War, Carlos had become completely irrelevant, and at one point in the film, he's told that the CIA now thinks of him as a "historical curiosity" (a line reminiscent of the description of Michael Madsen's character in Boarding Gate as a "perfect cliché of bygone times"). As Carlos becomes increasingly ineffectual and obese, the film begins to feel almost like a remake of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980); in both movies, the protagonist's sense of stature is intimately tied up with the physical condition of his body. Here, Carlos finds himself a lame duck terrorist, adrift in a world that's stopped paying attention to him. Che Guevara was killed and became a martyr, but fate was much crueler to Carlos, who's still alive, sitting a French prison, a forgotten man.
I rather dread having to write about Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Howl (2010) simply because I don't know the first thing about poetry. The film opens in 1955 with Allen Ginsberg (James Franco, looking like the offspring of Matt Dillon and Lee Evans' characters in There's Something About Mary ) giving the first public reading of his poem "Howl" to an appreciative boho audience in a San Francisco café. Over the course of the film, we hear most or all of the poem, which is illustrated at various points by animated sequences in which we see, for instance, swarms of ephemeral white banshees flying sperm-like above city skyscrapers to represent Ginsberg's "Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night." Or at least I think that's what they're supposed to represent. Ironically, one definition we're given of poetry in the film is that it can't be explained, or else it would be prose. How are you supposed to illustrate a line like, "Who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night / with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls," and why would you want to? I'm asking.
The film also makes use of two related texts, both from 1957: An audio recording of Ginsberg talking about his early life and creative process, and the transcript of the obscenity trial that resulted from the poem's publication, both of which are reenacted for the camera using Hollywood actors. Mercifully, the film largely refrains from preaching the importance of free speech to a free society blah blah blah. Instead, the trial seems to have focused primarily on the question of whether "Howl" has any artistic merit, which required the lawyers for the defense (John Hamm) and the prosecution (David Straitharn), and their expert witnesses, all of them English professors, including Jeff Daniels in a virtual reprise of his role from The Squid and the Whale (2005)--alas, without the beard--to try to grapple with the meaning of the text in the author's absence (technically, Ginsberg wasn't on trial for writing "Howl," but his publisher for printing it). In other words, the film tries to make some sense of the poem for philistines like me who wouldn't know what to do with Ginsberg's poetry if they did read it. And in my uneducated opinion at least, that's a lot more interesting and useful than the usual biopic claptrap.
William D. Magillvray's Man of a Thousand Songs (2010) was the winner of the audience award at the Atlantic Film Festival, but I have two reasons for being dubious of this. One, it's a local production (well, Newfoundland. Close enough), so most of the people who went to see the film either worked on it or know some one who did, so of course they're going to mark "outstanding" on their ballots. Secondly, it's a music documentary, so if you like the subject, you're probably going to like the movie (unless, that is, you're a curmudgeon like me). All week long I've been trying to understand why people liked Johann Sfar's dreadful Gainsbourg (vie héroïque) (2010), which I saw in Montreal in the spring and was one of the big hits of the festival, and the best I could from anyone was, "I like Serge Gainsbourg." There isn't even that much music in the film, but maybe if I were a bigger fan of Gainsbourg's work, I'd be more interested in all the broads he schtupped between the Occupation of Paris and the mid-1980s. (The film ends just before L'Affaire Whitney Houston, maybe because she wouldn't schtup him--but then, why bother recreating something you can watch on YouTube?)
But I digress... Now, I don't want to skull-fuck a dead cat or nothing, but Man of a Thousand Songs is a rather unambitious documentary about Newfoundland singer-songwriter Ron Hynes that alternates between talking head interviews with Hynes and his nephew, and the former performing various gigs around the province. What the film lacks is a sense of urgency. The whole point of making a documentary is that you're filming an event that's unrepeatable, whether it's the Beatles' first US tour or Dave Chappelle's block party. So why is Magillvray making this film now? More importantly, the film lacks a structure, so even though it's not a long movie (ninety minutes), it just seems to go on and on and on. And without any attempt to place Hynes' music in a broader historical context, what we're left with is a walking cliché: The hard-living singer-songwriter whose early commercial success came to little, wrestling with his personal demons (i.e., cocaine). Didn't Jeff Bridges like just win an Oscar for playing exactly the same character?
Monday, September 27, 2010
Sunday, September 26, 2010
It's a funny thing about festivals: Watch any random sampling of movies in a concentrated period of time, and eventually a theme will begin to emerge. And the major theme of the thirtieth Atlantic Film Festival (at least in my experience) was death. The best film I saw by a rather wide margin was Apichatpong Weerasethakul's mystical Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) about a man dying of kidney failure in a Thai farmhouse. There, he's visited by spirits, recalls his past lives as an ox and a princess, and describes a vision he had of the future. Joe said in an interview in Cinema-Scope that he still believes in reincarnation, but that he has doubts and would like to see more scientific evidence. The film's ending suggests that we not only live again and again, but that we live multiple lives simultaneously.
I was also impressed by Woody Allen's atheistic You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), a multi-protagonist comedy-drama set in London that only seems to be about romance, but ends in an unexpected way that makes you realize that the real subject of the film, lurking just behind the merriment, is death. I left the theatre feeling profoundly satisfied, making this the festival's most unlikely feel good movie. And then there was Yael Hersonsky's powerful documentary A Film Unfinished (2010) about the making of a Nazi propaganda film in the Warsaw Ghetto in the Spring of 1942--not to mention Javier Fuentes-Léon's disappointing Undertow (2009), a magic realist coming out story set in a Peruvian fishing village that suggested a cross between Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Ghost (1990).
To this inventory, I have two more films to add. First, Mike Leigh's Another Year (2010) is about a woman growing old alone. The plot is about a year in the lives of a happily married couple named Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and Gerri's unhappily single coworker, Mary (Lesley Manville), and as the seasons change, so does the film's colour scheme, reflecting the emotional tenor of the movie as it moves from a sad, blue spring to a cheerful, green summer, followed by a tense, brown autumn, and finally a winter that's sombre and black. I felt that the film peaked with the third segment, and after that, since there's really nothing left to say about how miserable and sad and pathetic Mary is, the story seems to be spinning its wheels. Leigh's mastery is evident throughout (a seemingly offhand remark turns out several reels later to be an ingeniously subtle bit of foreshadowing), but overall this strikes me as the least of his films since Career Girls (1997).
As in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), Leigh's major insight here is that some people seem to have a natural gift for happiness which others simply lack. Leigh's most memorable characters are often the unhappiest--David Thewlis' existential drifter in Naked (1993), Brenda Blethyn and Timothy Spall as estranged siblings in Secrets & Lies (1996), the deranged driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) in Happy-Go-Lucky--and here Manville steals the show as a lonely woman heading into middle-age who drinks too much (even for a movie about British people, there's a lot of drinking in this film) and has a pathetic crush on Tom and Gerri's grown son, Joe (Oliver Maltman). I was hoping for a bit of spring at the end of the film's long, grim winter, but Leigh just fades to black on a note of despair, which I found unsatisfying. At one point in the film, Ken (Peter Wight), an old friend of Tom's who's even more of a loser than Mary, sports a t-shirt reading, "Less Thinking, More Drinking." And after a year with these characters, I felt like having a stiff drink myself.
The Dead Weight of a Quarrel Hangs
Incendies (2010)--Denis Villeneuve's ambitious new film about the civil war in Lebanon, adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad--is a kind of unofficial companion piece to Villeneuve's earlier Polytechnique (2009), another story about massacres and motherhood. (That film was a dramatization of the 1989 shooting at the École Polytechnique in Montreal.) After the haunting opening sequence of child soldiers having their heads shaved, scored to Radiohead's "You and Whose Army?," the story moves to Montreal where adult siblings, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux) and Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette), go to their lawyer's office for the reading of their mother's will. In the will, their mother, Narwal (Lubna Azabal), stipulates that Jeanne and Simon must deliver two letters--one to the father they never met; the other to a half-brother they didn't know existed--before they can place a tombstone on her grave. As Jeanne and Simon discover more about who Narwal was, there are flashbacks to her early life in Lebanon. As a young woman, we learn, Narwal fell in love with a Muslim refugee from Palestine, which was a disgrace to her Christian family. After giving birth to a son, Narwal was sent to live with an uncle in a city to the north, and the child was placed in an orphanage. (Importantly, Narwal's mother tattooed three dots on the baby's heel so that Narwal would be able to recognize him.) Several years later, when the war breaks out between Christians and Muslims, Narwal returns to the south in search of her son, and there she witnesses atrocities at the hands of Christian nationalists that radicalize her, leading her to fight on the side of the Muslims.
I'll leave you to discover subsequent revelations for yourself, except to say that I found the ending a little too dramatically perfect. Obviously all stories depend on coincidence to some degree, but here, the Big Reveal felt contrived in order to make the point that Villeneuve (and presumably Mouawad) wanted to make about this conflict. And while this is clearly the most ambitious feature that Villeneuve (a native of Trois-Rivières based in Montreal) has ever attempted, in terms of its overall narrative structure (which is essentially that of a procedural, not so very different from The Secret in Their Eyes ), it's also his most conventional with Best Foreign Language Oscar written all over it. In Polytechnique and now this film, Villenueve seems to find it inconceivable that he might somehow reconcile the flair for the fantastic that characterized his exciting early features Un 32 août sur terre (1998) and Maelström (2000) with his ambition to grapple with serious issues in his later work. Consequently, he's become precisely what I used to admire him for not being: another square, middlebrow Canadian director like Thom Fitzgerald or Sarah Polley.
La Nuit américaine
Two other themes of this year's Atlantic Film Festival were nighttime photography (I still contend that Uncle Boonmee has the best I've ever seen, in any of my past lives) and stories about young lovers. On the latter count, the best film I saw was obviously Xavier Dolan's Les Amours imaginaires (still the Québécois film to beat for 2010) for its Wong Kar-wai inspired slow motion shots of the two leads walking down Montreal streets, memorably set to Dalida's "Bang Bang," and because Dolan seems to get that these people are idiots, making this one of the funniest films of the festival. (Its treatment of imaginary loves is, in any event, a lot more enjoyable and less depressing than Another Year's.) I was also charmed by Ingrid Veninger's Modra (which I would hope is not the best English Canadian feature of 2010) about a pair of cute kids from Toronto who have a mostly cute time together in Slovakia, which I liked mainly for the beguiling lead performances by Hallie Switzer and Alexander Gammal.
I was less keen on David Robert Mitchell's The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010), even though next to Modra it's obviously more accomplished as storytelling and more ambitious (but not that ambitious), crisscrossing between several plot lines that unfold over a twenty-four hour period--a structure that inevitably invites comparisons with Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993). However, I wasn't sure if the film wanted me to feel nostalgic for my lost days of youth (in which case it failed because the kids don't do anything very exciting that would make me think, "Oh man, I was I were a teenager again"--quite the opposite, in fact), or whether it wanted to show things as they really are (in which case it's authentic but just not particularly interesting). I wanted either the film to be lighter and snappier, or better still, darker and angrier. As it is, it's enjoyable but slight.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) is one of Woody Allen's best and most fully realized recent pictures, a multi-protagonist romantic drama set in London that paradoxically handles a serious subject with a light touch. The film begins with Helena (Gemma Jones), an elegant middle-aged woman going to see a fortune teller, Cristal (Pauline Collins), as we come to learn, because she was so devastated when her husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), left her that she had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Going to the fortune teller gives Helena some measure of comfort, so her daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), indulges her illusions, but Sally's American husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), a struggling writer with a background in medicine, doesn't like it one bit--especially when Cristal predicts that Roy's publisher will reject his latest book.
I was surprised at first that the film ended where it does, because it doesn't wrap everything up very neatly, but then, as I thought back on it, I realized what Allen was up to, and it actually changed in retrospect my whole understanding of what the film was about. This is a film that works through misdirection, so that the real subject of the movie sneaks up on you, even though it's right there in front of you the whole time. It only seems to be about romance--Helena's new relationship with a widower, Jonathan (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), who shares her spiritual outlook; Alfie's sudden decision to marry a prostitute, Charmaine (Lucy Punch); Sally's crush on her new boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas); and Roy's infatuation with the South Asian girl next door, Dia (Freida Pinto). But the film is really about the certainty of death, and how people try to deal with that fact by having children, making art and literature, believing in an after life or reincarnation. And yet, even though it's a movie about death, and even though what happens to the characters is pretty harsh, as I left the theatre I felt an incredible sense of satisfaction, having seen a film that is so thoroughly entertaining and so cleverly written. This is Woody Allen at the very top of his form.
Les Amants canadienne
The first thing one notices about Xavier Dolan's Les Amours imaginaires (2010) in relation to his earlier J'ai tué ma mère (2009) is that, on this film, he had considerably more money at his disposal. And the characters in this movie--a stylish, funny, beautifully color-coordinated comedy about a trio of Montreal hipsters--are accordingly a good deal more affluent, even though none of them appears to have a job. (One gets an allowance from his mother; and though the other two have frequent sexual encounters with various strangers, we never see any money changing hands, so it's possible they're just sluts.) For better or for worse, Dolan establishes himself here as Canada's answer to Sofia Coppola, and the real significance of the film's epilogue, in which Louis Garrel makes a brief cameo, and which brings the narrative full circle, is that it extends Dolan's cool beyond Quebec's borders, putting him on the same plane as Christophe Honoré, another Nouvelle Vague-inspired movie brat (one who, incidentally, owes his entire career to Garrel).
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the film--in which best pals Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) vie for the affections of Nico (Neils Schneider), while outwardly pretending to be uninterested--is how much comic mileage it gets out of such a threadbare scenario. There's a fine line between knowingly making a film about vapid characters and simply making a vapid movie (for instance, I disliked Coppola's Lost in Translation when I saw it at the film festival in 2003, but I loved Marie Antoinette  enough to put it on my list of the decade's best movies), but I'm pretty sure that Dolan knows that these people are idiots. And as we know from J'ai tué ma mère, he's not particularly concerned with playing characters that are likable. However, although the film's central ménage à trois is calculated to remind us of Nouvelle Vague landmarks like François Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962) and Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à part (1964) (Chokri has a face like Jeanne Moreau and hair like Anna Karina), the story lacks the serious undercurrents of those films.
J'ai tué ma mère established Dolan as an eclectic stylist, apparently willing to try anything once, and though that eclecticism is still apparent here, Les Amours imaginaires is a much more deliberate film. It feels like the work of a director who knows what he wants to do and how to do it, rather than a novice still feeling his way around. Again there are direct-address confessionals, but this time Dolan doesn't embed them within the narrative as a video journal, or bother with the redundancy of filming these scenes in black and white in order to distinguish them from the movie's dramatic scenes. Also, there are several speakers instead of one, and none of these characters appear in the narrative proper. And again Dolan employs slow motion like it was going out of style, and his debt to Wong Kar-wai is even more apparent here when he films Francis and Marie walking to various dates with Nico in slow motion, scored to Dalida's "Bang Bang." What's new is Dolan's frequent recourse to a more handheld style of shooting (rather than the sustained static two-shots of his debut), and a fantasy insert of marshmallows raining down on Nico (but then, it may be the case that there were similar scenes in J'ai tué ma mère that I'm forgetting). This is one scary talented kid.
The Kids Are Pretty Cute
Speaking of kids, Ingrid Veninger's low-budget Canadian feature Modra (2010) is a cute movie about a pair of cute kids from Toronto who spend a mostly cute time together in Slovakia, which is evidently so safe that they can sleep outdoors on a public bench without anyone harvesting their organs (as would surely happen on any street in Canada). As the film opens, Lina (Hallie Switzer), a seventeen-year-old girl, decides to take Leco (Alexander Gammal), a boy she barely knows, with her to Slovakia when Lina's boyfriend suddenly breaks up with her the day before her flight. ("Have fun in Slovenia." "It's Slovakia, ass-hole!") At times, the film suggests a children's-strength version of Billy Wilder's Avanti! (1972), but with fewer plot contrivances. It's not particularly ambitious or original, but after a somewhat heavy weekend (A Film Unfinished, The Illusionist), I was in the mood for something light and beguiling, and on that level, Modra delivered.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
The Holocaust is different from other genocides in that there exists so much footage of it. How many people remember the Herero genocide, other than those who've read Thomas Pynchon's V. (1963) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973)? This time, the Germans kept meticulous records and made films because they wanted people to know what they were doing. Perhaps significantly, the best and most comprehensive film I've seen on the Holocaust, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985), doesn't incorporate any archival footage whatsoever.
The approach taken by Yael Hersonsky in his powerful documentary A Film Unfinished (2010) is directly the opposite of Lanzmann's in that it focuses like a laser on one particular event: The making of a Nazi propaganda film in the Warsaw Ghetto in the spring of 1942. Four reels of edited footage, running about an hour, were discovered in an underground film vault in Eastern Germany after the war, but why the film was made, why it was never completed, and the names of all but one of the technicians who worked on the film remain a mystery to this day. The documentary consists primarily of the surviving footage, including outtakes that show the same events being staged over and over from several different angles. The footage, which lacks a soundtrack, is contextualized by the reminiscences of Holocaust survivors watching the film in a screening room, as well as excerpts from the diary of Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Jewish Council in the Ghetto, who wrote daily about the making of the film (his diaries are also featured prominently in the latter portions of Shoah), and from the testimony given by Willy Wist, a cameraman who worked on the film, during the trial of a German officer.
The film, titled simply The Ghetto, attempts to present a comprehensive view of life in the Warsaw Ghetto, including ritual baths and circumcisions, with a particular emphasis on the supposed disparity between the rich and the poor, and the indifference of more affluent Jews to those dying in abject squalor. One survivor of the Ghetto estimates that there were between twenty and fifty people who could afford to buy food right until the end (at exorbitant prices), but the scenes in the film of rich, healthy-looking Jews thriving and enjoying their lives were obviously staged for the camera. But what were they trying to prove? Apparently, the filmmakers themselves didn't know; they filmed what they were told to film. My guess is that the film was intended as a rationalization for the liquidation of the Ghetto, which occurred shortly afterward, but when it wasn't finished on time for whatever reason, the film was simply abandoned. As a record of how the Nazis wanted the world to see the Warsaw Ghetto, A Film Unfinished is a fascinating historical document.
A Rabbinical school version of Scarface (1983), Kevin Asch's Holy Rollers (2010) takes place in a black-and-white universe in which everything the characters do is either a step towards Hashem, or a step away. As the film opens, its protagonist, Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), is an ultra-Orthodox George Michael (you better believe he's gotta have faith-a-faith-a-faith... Baby!) whose parents want him to become a Rabbi. Sam, however, wants to continue working in his father's fabric store so that he can make some extra money to buy his ma a new oven, and support the girl he intends to marry, who comes from a more affluent family. Leon (Jason Fuchs), Sam's best friend, is also studying to be a Rabbi, but his older bother, Yosef (Justin Bartha), watches porn, smokes on the sabbath, and wears a gold watch. It's through Yosef that Sam meets Jackie (Danny Abeckaser), an Israeli drug dealer who imports ecstasy pills from Amsterdam using Hasidic Jews as drug couriers.
Jackie introduces Sam to a life of fast money and fast women, not to mention flashier clothing. But temptation begets temptation, and before long, Yosef is skimming drugs off the top to sell on the side, and Sam enters into an Oedipal struggle with Jackie over the latter's girl, Rachel (Ari Graynor), a blonde temptress whose first step away from Hashem was to drop out of Hebrew school. Throughout it all, Sam remains fundamentally a nice kid. When trying to convince Rachel to run away with him to Lithuania (where they'll live with his grandmother!), Sam tells her, "I think we make a cute couple." On the other hand, Leon stays on the righteous path and marries the girl that Sam wanted to, while Sam, Yosef, Jackie, and Rachel all go to prison. A bit neat, don't you think? The film's message is essentially that you should just do whatever your parents tell you to do.
The film is very well made. I liked the style of the film (shadowy handheld realism with virtually no non-diegetic music), and Asch has a good handle on the tone of the material. And I liked Eisenberg, who's more of a leading man than Michael Cera. In short, it's probably the best after school special ever made. But to cite the last mainstream Jew-fest to hit the 'plexes, I was much more intrigued by the Coen brothers' A Serious Man (2009), which is all about uncertainty and doubt. (Incidentally, both films use selective focus to represent an altered state of mind.) This movie, on the other hand, for all its claims to taking place in the secular world, never seems to leave Rabbinical school.
Down by Law
Cameron Yates' The Canal Street Madam (2010) is a documentary profile of Jeanette Maier, a self-described "whore" from New Orleans whose arrest in the late 1980s attracted national media coverage and inspired a made-for-TV movie starring Annabella Sciorra. Yates began filming Maier in 2004 and followed her over a period of several years, and the resulting documentary suggests at different times a political activism doc, with Maier campaigning to have prostitution decriminalized; a feminist statement about how Maier has been exploited by men; and a reality show train wreck in which Maier (unwittingly?) makes a fool of herself on camera.
It's not so much that Yates portrays Maier in an unflattering light so much as that's how she portrays herself. After being interviewed by the local six o'clock news, Maier gets into an argument with her boyfriend, who thinks that she should be more careful about the language she uses to represent herself--for instance, instead of saying "whore," he thinks she should use the more politically correct "prostitute." Maier answers, not unreasonably, that "a whore is a whore is a whore" no matter what you call her. And her best friend thinks it's okay to say "whore" if you are one. All valid points of view. But surely it doesn't help Maier's cause to decriminalize prostitution when, while campaigning for local office, she stands on a street corner holding up a sign while giggling her boobs at passing motorists.
Let's agree that the prostitution laws in the United States are ineffective and hypocritical, targeting the prostitutes while protecting their clients. (The film touches on the dubious suicide of the DC Madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, after she decided to name names. And the undercover cop who busted Maier waited until after she sucked his dick before arresting her--or at least, that's how she tells it.) When you get down to it, the fact of the matter is that a woman with no education, no skills, no legitimate work experience, a criminal record, and three kids to feed can make a hell of a lot more money selling her ass than she can working at Denny's for minimum wage and tips. It's easy money, like teaching English abroad--except that you don't need a university degree to do it, and you don't pay taxes. (After her arrest, however, Maier started another business, selling candles for three hundred dollars a pop, and whatever she does with a customer afterward is simply for her own pleasure.)
Not surprisingly, all of Maier's children have criminal records. Her eldest son is an intravenous drug user; her daughter also became a prostitute; and her youngest son spent time in prison for an unspecified offense and now lives at home with his mother. Maier attributes her kids' problems to their having seen her being abused by the cops from the time that they were children, but this is obviously a self-serving rationalization so that she doesn't have to take any responsibility for her actions. My theory is that kids learn by example, and if they see a parent engaged in illegal activity, they're going to think it's okay. Do I need to tell you that Maier's mother was herself a lady of the evening? (Ellen Burstyn played her in the TV movie.)
Aside from infrequently asking a question while standing off screen, Yates mostly keeps himself out of the picture, letting Maier speak for herself. Watching the movie, I had the same queasy feeling that I got from Chris Smith's American Movie (1999), in which you sense that the people on screen aren't in on the joke. The curious thing about the movie is that Yates isn't pretending to be objective; rather, he seems to be giving Maier a platform to espouse her views. So when he includes footage showing her and members of her family in an unflattering light, I felt that he wasn't being entirely upfront about his intentions, either with Maier or the audience.
Monday, September 20, 2010
My Atlantic Film Festival experience began on Friday with two very different ghost stories, one of them brilliant: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) is an enchanting, hypnotic, visionary film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul that, like all of Joe's movies, combines a feeling of mythic grandeur with an irreverent deadpan sense of humor. When Uncle Boonmee's son, Boonsong (who disappeared six years earlier), suddenly returns having been transformed during the interval into a monkey with red eyes that glow in the dark, the ghost of his mother asks him why he let his hair grow so long.
Notwithstanding the pre-credit sequence involving a cow (presumably meant to represent one of Boonmee's past lives), the film opens with Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), his sister-in-law, Auntie Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and his chef, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) traveling by car to Boonmee's country home, where he receives dialysis treatment from a Laotian man who's in the country illegally. (Boonmee believes that his kidney ails are divine retribution for killing too many communists during the '60s.) The film alternates between naturalistic daytime scenes and fantastical nighttime sequences in which Boonmee is visited by spirits, recalls his past life as a faded princess who meets a smooth talking catfish, and during a trek through a cave, describes a dream he had of the future, which is represented as a series of still images in an obvious homage to Chris Marker's La Jetée (1963). The latter scenes boast the most impressive night photography I've ever seen. The images are so dark that I seriously doubt the film will work on video; even more than a 3D spectacle like Avatar (2009), this is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen.
A large part of what makes the film so entrancing--like Joe's Blissfully Yours (2002) and Tropical Malady (2004), and his avant-garde short Phantoms of Nabua (2009)--is its dense ambient soundtrack (chirping bugs, a waterfall, a low Lynchian rumble). Even when the characters are indoors, the natural world never seems far away. This is the sort of movie that some people feel the need to interpret symbolically, and Boonmee's vision of the future (which Joe has said is based on an actual dream he had) is obviously an allegory for the cinema, but I have a deep-seated resistance to this way of accounting for works of art, which reduces them to the level of the daily crossword puzzle. I think the simplest, and best, way to approach the film is to take it completely at face value as a sensuous experience. And I much prefer the ending as an open-ended question than as a definitive answer.
El Amor Prohibido
Set in a Peruvian fishing village, Javier Fuentes-Léon's Undertow (2009) is a perfectly watchable if utterly unnecessary magic realist melodrama that won't change anybody's mind about gays being real men. And just as it never occurs to Jack and Ennis to rent a loft in the Village, this movie's repressed fisherman protagonist only comes out to the community after his painter amigo con beneficios accidentally drowns, and the fisherman reconciles with his pregnant wife. Fox and His Friends (1975) it ain't.
To paraphrase Mike D'Angelo, it's getting to the point where I hope that gays achieve equality, not out of any humanist outrage, but simply so that filmmakers will stop treating gay relationships as an "issue." Hell, even if gays never achieve equality, somebody's gotta put a stop to this shit. I wonder if Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) keeps getting its release pushed back, not for its intimations of gay sex (Ang Lee and James Schamus' Brokeback Mountain  brought spit-lubed butt sex to the multiplex ages ago), but because it doesn't flatter viewers for their open-mindedness, and its Brechtian treatment of its protagonist (Jim Carrey, in his nerviest role to date) undermines easy identification with him at every turn.
Tati's Last Sigh
Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist (2010) is a relentlessly downbeat animated feature that's never less than pleasurable to look at and to listen to, but which ultimately left a sour taste in my mouth. The story--about a simple Scottish girl from the highlands who runs away to London with a French magician named Tatischeff--is based on an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati (né Tatischeff), but in contrast with the Utopian spirit of Playtime (1967), this film is closer philosophically to the glib miserablism of Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), which perverts the ending of Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957) to make the useless point that life stinks and only Hollywood escapism makes it bearable.
Even at his most melancholy, as in Mon onlce (1958), which mourns the disappearance of Paris' historic working class neighborhoods (and the sense of community therein), and the rise of sterile gated communities, Tati is never depressing because the bulk of the film is devoted to showing us what we're losing, how great life can be, and how much fun you can still have, even in the suburbs--provided, of course, that M. Hulot is around to keep things lively. When this film opens, in 1959, Tatischeff is playing to a deserted auditorium with an uncooperative rabbit. Only the Scottish girl believes in Tatischeff's magic, and to keep her illusions alive, he takes a number of demeaning jobs, first at a garage and then in the display window of a department store. There are some good laughs, thanks mostly to Chomet's taste for caricature (I especially enjoyed the effeminate British rock band), but the film is essentially a dirge, a long uninterrupted sigh of resignation. Whether this is due to Tati's original conception, or to the changes Chomet has made to it, is not something I can say, but the film is the same either way: a bummer.
Friday, September 17, 2010
To me, the most interesting fact pertaining to Lady Gaga appearing on the cover of Japanese men's Vogue in a dress made out of raw meat is that there exists a publication called Japanese men's Vogue, which got me thinking: What kind of man would read it? My first guess was high-earning homosexuals, who have more disposable income because they don't have kids. But then I remembered that, in neighboring South Korea, dressing like a dandy didn't necessarily have a homosexual connotation. For instance, in the early part of 2009, the most popular Korean TV show was Boys Before Flowers, which was based on a Japanese manga and TV series about a group of effeminate teenagers called the Flower Four, who attend an exclusive private school in Seoul. The leader of the group, Gu Jun-pyo (Lee Min-ho), would often wear fur-collared coats and had a perm, and two of the secondary flower boys would sometimes make catty comments about the plot ("All I know is that school hasn't been this interesting in years"). In short, the only way for it to be any gayer would be for the boys to join a glee club coached by Jane Lynch and Rock Hudson.
Anyway, like the Sex and the City movie (2008)--also very gay--which I saw with Heather in Busan, Boys Before Flowers was in large part a fantasy of posh living for the masses. The heroine, Geum Jan-di (Goo Hye-sun), is a girl from a working class background who's courted by two of the flower boys. And according to Wikipedia, "The drama series influenced men to take their appearance even more seriously and try to gain the 'pretty boy' image that existed among the F4 characters in the drama. More South Korean males started to wear cosmetics and viewers in South Korea and beyond started to notice overseas filming locations of the drama as possible holiday destinations."
However, while Boys Before Flowers and Sex and the City represent an overblown fantasy of conspicuous consumption, during the US Open, all the ads for luxury items assume that the people watching can actually afford German cars, French cologne, and diamond-encrusted watches (no, seriously, diamond-encrusted wacthes). Advertisers, of course, want to pitch their wares to the most educated and affluent segment of the population, because they have the most money to spend. So even if Grand Slam tennis draws fewer eyeballs than other major sporting events, the people who do watch it are precisely those whom advertisers are most eager to target. I remember back when I "studied" commerce, in one of my lectures the professor mentioned how certain brands were particularly eager to advertise during an obscure MTV series called Aeon Flux (1995) because it had the audience they desired. In other words, to judge by the ads, the people watching tennis on TV are more likely to have helped cause the global economic collapse than to have lost their jobs and homes because of it. (One of the main reasons for the economic meltdown, incidentally, was that a lot of poor people got hoodwinked into spending, or rather borrowing, like millionaires.) Conversely, I'm sure that Glenn Beck's TV show gets huge numbers, but one of his chief sponsors is something called Goldline, which is so obviously a scam designed to bamboozle the least sophisticated members of society (that is, the people who like Beck and Sarah Palin--not to mention Beck and Palin themselves) that it's become an easy punch line for The Daily Show.
Speaking of rich people, it's impossible to discuss the films of Wes Anderson without talking about wealth and privilege, since the subject is almost as central to his work as it is to Sofia Coppola's. Anderson's second feature, Rushmore (1998), was about a teenager, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, Coppola's cousin), who goes to an expensive prep school on a scholarship, and is so ashamed of his father (Seymour Cassel), who runs a barber shop, that he tells his classmates his father is a brain surgeon. Early in the film, Max befriends a self-made millionaire industrialist (Bill Murray) when the latter gives a talk at Max's school, in which he tells students like Max to take down the kids who were "born rich and are probably going to die that way" (which could refer to the industrialist's own sons, whom he despises). Anderson's subsequent film, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), was his first set outside of his native Texas, and it marks an overall shift in his orientation, with the rich kids taking centre stage. (Incidentally, one of the characters is a former tennis pro, and Anderson would later direct a commercial for a credit card company that advertises during the US Open.) And by the time of The Darjeeling Limited (2007)--written by Anderson with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola--it's simply taken for granted granted that the characters are fabulously wealthy without the film making any particular point about it.
The latter film invites comparisons with Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003), since in both a colonized Asian country serves as an exotic backdrop for a story about rich white people. However, the two films differ significantly in how they view the people who live in those countries. Coppola's film, set in Japan (which was occupied by the United States after World War II), is a racist's view of Tokyo. Of course, it's possible to make a film about a bigoted character without making a racist movie (Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino , for instance), but Coppola uncritically identifies with her characters' xenophobia, inviting viewers to laugh at how Japanese people mispronounce English words (it goes without saying that the American characters don't speak Japanese). In one of the film's broadest and ugliest scenes, a prostitute commands Bill Murray to "lip" her stockings, and then in case we didn't get the joke that Asian people are stupid, starts rolling around on the floor. On the other hand, The Darjeeling Limited, which is set in post-colonial India, sees the people there as people, even those that don't speak any English at all (although many do, India having the most English speakers of any country in the world), which is all you can reasonably expect from an American director making a film in Asia.
The story, about three brothers on a spiritual journey, can be divided into three large acts. As the film opens, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody), and Jack (Schwartzman) haven't spoken to each other in a year, but when Francis has a near-death experience, crashing his motorcycle, he asks his two brothers to come to India to join him on an adventure aboard the Darjeeling Limited and become brothers again. (Aside from Jack, who's a novelist, the brothers don't have any discernible source of income.) Like Wilson's character in Bottle Rocket (1996), Francis tries to micromanage everything, having his assistant, Brendan (Wallace Wolodarsky), print out a detailed itinerary for each day, as if one could build trust and find spiritual enlightenment on a schedule. However, the spiritual journey is an abysmal failure precisely due to the brothers' inability to trust one another, and when their constant bickering escalates into an all out brawl, the Chief Stewart (Waris Ahluwalia) kicks them off the train in the middle of nowhere. In the second part of the film, the brothers decide to abandon their spiritual journey and find the nearest airport. However, en route they see some peasant children who are about to fall into a canal. When they inevitably do fall in, the brothers jump in to try to save them, but one of the children doesn't make it. The brothers are invited to the funeral, and there's a flashback to the day of their father's funeral (which they missed due to their bickering). In the final section of the film, the brothers decide, instead of getting on the plane, to go see their mother, Patricia (Anjelica Huston), who's become a Catholic missionary at a secluded monastery. At each stage of the plot, the brothers attempt to perform a silly ritual involving three bird feathers. The first time they attempt it, when the Darjeeling Limited gets lost, they get sidetracked by bickering. After they get kicked off the train, they make a second attempt but do it wrong because of a miscommunication. But by the third attempt, at the monastery, they're in perfect harmony with each other.
It's indicative of the film's narrative density that I've had to leave a lot out of the above description, including the short film, Hotel Chevalier (2007), which is designed to be shown before the feature, and which the latter alludes to in a number of ways. In the short, Jack is hiding out in a ritzy Paris hotel, where he's been staying for over a month (he's only half kidding when he estimates that his bill so far is 750 million Euros, begging the question: Why doesn't he simply get an apartment?), when he receives a surprise visit from his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman). A cynic might view the whole thing as an advert for a posh lifestyle, down to the ex-girlfriend, whose chic androgynous haircut is obviously intended to remind viewers of Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle (1960), as if to say: If you crash at expensive hotels and listen to indie folk rock on your iPod, then you too can schtup anemic indie girls like ribby over here.
In the feature, this visit--like the incident at the garage that made the brothers miss their father's funeral--becomes the basis for an autobiographical short story written by Jack, which he reads to Francis and Peter near the end of the film. At the end of the short, Jacks' relationship with his ex-girlfriend is very much unresolved (they're neither broken up nor back together). Similarly, while aboard the Darjeeling Limited, Jack gets involved with an Indian woman, Rita (Amara Karan), who isn't sure whether she has a boyfriend, or if they just broke up, or if they're about to. Twice in the film, Jack, who knows the code for his ex-girlfriend's voice mail, jealously listens to her messages. The first time he does this, it's at a small train station during a routine stop. (Jack is even wearing his yellow Hotel Chevalier bathrobe at the time.) As Francis and Peter watch from the train, the latter betrays Jack's plan to flee to Italy, inspiring Francis to take Jack's passport. When Francis and Peter get into the brawl that will get them all kicked off the train, Jack maces them in the face, shouting when they come after him, "Stop including me!" Similarly, by spending the last year abroad, Jack has excluded himself from the family. (An important prop in both the short and the feature is the designer suitcase that Jack takes with him to Paris, which was part of a set owned by their father. We learn in the flashback that Jack discovered it in the trunk of their father's car on the day of the funeral.) However, after their visit to the monastery, when Jack reads his short story about the breakup to Francis and Peter, he adds the ending, "He would not be going to Italy." And when Peter pays him a compliment suggesting that the story is autobiographical ("I like how mean you are"), Jack doesn't try to deny it as he did earlier with a different story story based on the incident at the garage. At the end of the film, as a sign of their renewed trust, Francis returns to Peter and Jack their passports, but they agree that it's safer if Francis keeps them. And rather than getting on a plane, we see them boarding another train, the Bengal Tiger (obviously an echo of the opening sequence, in which Peter has to run to catch the Darjeeling Limited, but this time, leaving all their luggage on the platform), which one might infer is taking the brothers further into India rather than immediately back to the west.
Of Anderson's six features to date, half of them--The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)--are about patriarchs (and in two of those, as well as this film, Huston plays an estranged matriarch). In a sense, The Darjeeling Limited picks up where The Royal Tenenbaums left off, with the death of the father. (One could also see it as a bizarro world remake of Bottle Rocket, but instead of real life brothers playing unrelated friends, here you have three actors who aren't related and don't look alike playing siblings. And at one point, Jack wonders aloud if they could've been friends in "real life--not as brothers, but as people.") Early in the film, Peter confides to Jack that his wife, Alice (Camilla Rutherford), is seven and a half months pregnant with their first child (and to pay him back for spilling the beans about Italy, Jack reports this back to Francis--or was it the other way around?), but before he can become a father himself, Peter needs to first grieve the loss of his own. It was Peter's insistence on driving to the funeral in their father's car (in order to demonstrate to Francis that he was the one who was grieving the most) that caused them to miss the service in the first place. At the end of the flashback, when the three brothers are in the limo on their way to the funeral (which has already started, and which we never see them arriving at), Peter discovers that he's still holding the keys to his father's car, and a year later in India, he's still hanging on to them, as well as his father's prescription sunglasses. By superimposing Peter's grief for his father on top of that of an Indian peasant (Irrfan Khan) for his son, whose death Peter blames himself for ("I didn't save mine"), Anderson suggests a commonality bridging cultural, linguistic, religious, and economic differences that's denied to the characters in Lost in Translation, where Japanese culture is viewed as impenetrably weird.
During the flashback sequence, Francis learns that Patricia won't be attending their father's funeral, having evidently thrown him over for another father-figure, Jesus Christ. Her short haircut, incidentally, links her to Jack's ex-girlfriend, and during the brothers' visit to the monastery, she fiddles with a miniature music box fixed to Jack's suitcase, echoing one shot in the short film. Also, the brothers' visit coincides with Ash Wednesday, and the black soot on Patricia and the brothers' foreheads rhymes with an earlier sequence in which Rita puts a red dot on the same spot on the brothers' foreheads, suggesting another cross-cultural commonality.
At the risk of reviewing the audience, Anderson (like Coppola) essentially makes movies for rich white people--and I include myself as a member of said audience, even though I'm not really rich (not Sofia Coppola rich, anyway) and I'm not really white either (I could pass for Italian). In an essay on Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008) in CineAction!, Ajay Gehlawart writes, "'Crucial' for Boyle is that his film be seen as 'a Bollywood film in the sense that virtually all the cast and crew are from Bollywood,' yet also, crucially, not as a Bollywood film, in the sense that, 'it is a good story'"--which is to say that, in contrast with Bollywood pictures which are aimed at the broadest and least sophisticated audience, Boyle's film is intended for a relatively discerning western viewership. And The Darjeeling Limited assumes an even more sophisticated viewer. Significantly, its primary invocation of Indian cinema isn't Bollywood-style spectacle (as in the rather dreadful musical number behind the closing credits of Boyle's film), but Ravi Shankar's sitar music from Satyajit Ray's neo-realist inspired Apu trilogy: Pather panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957), and The World of Apu (1959). And in contrast with the ugly music video aesthetic and broad melodrama of Slumdog Millionaire, Anderson's style is as refined and elegant as Stanley Kubrick's, and his nice guy humanism places him in the same company as François Truffaut.
Anderson's films not only function as advertisements for luxury items (here, the brothers' suits and suitcases were designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton), but are themselves luxury items, and he's been as savvy about protecting his brand as Jim Jarmusch and Wong Kar-wai. (The Darjeeling Limited I hear will soon be coming out in a deluxe edition Blu Ray from the Criterion Collection with a cover designed by Anderson's brother.) A few years ago, some one remarked to me that they felt Rushmore was "pretentious" compared to a comedy like Penelope Spheeris' Wayne's World (1992)--which I also consider a masterpiece. At the time, I found that inexplicable, but now I think I understand what they meant. Anderson is an incredibly sophisticated filmmaker, arguably the most impressive now at work in the American mainstream (rivaled only by the likes of Noah Baumbach, Todd Haynes, Jarmusch, Spike Lee, David Lynch, and Terrence Malick). So no matter how much of a humanist he may be, making films for such a discerning, knowledgeable audience (i.e., hipsters) is inevitably kind of elitist.
Thursday, September 2, 2010
Have you ever met a hit man in real life? I haven't, but in films like Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control (2009) and now Anton Corbijn's less interesting The American (2010), they're portrayed as nameless, monastic, sharply dressed professionals who spend a lot of time in picturesque European cities where they perfect their craft in solitude. That they kill people is less important than the fact that they do it elegantly. In Corbijn's film, an American-born assassin who sometimes goes by the name "Mr. Butterfly" (George Clooney) flees to Italy after a pair of hired guns ambush him outside of his Scandinavian fortress of solitude. Once there, his handler, Pavel (Johan Leyson), assigns him to build a custom rifle for a female contract killer, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). We're evidently not supposed to be very concerned about who's behind the hit, who's in front of it, or why (Mr. Butterfly certainly isn't, trusting Pavel for much longer than is dramatically credible), because the second that you do stop to think about these things--and considering that the film doesn't have that many characters--it becomes painfully obvious where this is headed.
The schoolboy mythology of these films can be traced at least as far back as Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967), and Jarmusch brought a certain poignancy to it in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). Here--working from a screenplay by Rowan Joffe, based on Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentlemen (1990), which I haven't read--Corbijn sees it as an excuse for a George Clooney movie: Mr. Butterfly is another one of Clooney's bachelor workaholics who long to settle down with a good woman. As the film opens, Mr. Butterfly is living in a secluded cabin in Sweden, where he's kept company by a young lady (Irena Björklund). But when she learns a little too much about how he makes his money, Mr. Butterfly coolly shoots her in the back of the head. In Italy, when Pavel asks who she was, Mr. Butterfly replies that she was, "A friend." You see, Mr. Butterfly used to be a professional, but now he's going soft, making too many "friends." Pavel advises him not to make anymore, and sends Mr. Butterfly to a dusty secluded village to hide out for a while, which would be perfect if not for the fact that everybody he meets there speaks perfect English, including the local mechanic. He's played by Filippo Timi, who played Mussolini in Marco Bellocchio's Vincere (2009), and here he smolders his way through a brief walk-on role, as if auditioning to be the next Javier Bardem.
Needless to say, there is a woman. Her name is Clara (Violante Placido), and she is a prostitute. Never having been to a brothel anywhere, let alone provincial Italy, I have to take it as an item of faith that there are prostitutes this attractive and healthy-looking, although one wonders why Clara doesn't give it up and become a Hollywood actress. However, the town's population never seems higher than double digits (there are numerous scenes of Mr. Butterfly sitting in deserted cafés and walking along empty streets), which makes me wonder if a fully-staffed brothel would be economically viable. The way that the mechanic smolders, you wouldn't think that he has to pay for it. Neither, incidentally, does Mr. Butterfly, who's such a stud in the sack that Clara stops charging him and starts seeing him outside of work. One thing I absolutely can't accept is that, during one of their initial encounters, Mr. Butterfly would eat her pussy and kiss her on the mouth. How many dicks have been in those orifices that day alone? Then again, Mr. Butterfly appears to be the brothel's only client, and the room where Clara plies her trade is so clean and new-looking that it's almost as if it were designed and built specifically for their meetings.
Incidentally, Mr. Butterfly's name refers to his tramp-stamp tattoo, and at one point he's shown reading a book on butterflies. Later, during a rendezvous with Mathilde, set in an idyllic spot in the woods, a butterfly happens upon the scene, and he remarks that it's endangered. This sets up the final shot (spoiler alert!) in which, after Mr. Butterfly is killed, we see the same butterfly flying higher and higher, symbolizing his soul ascending towards heaven. Uh-huh. Oh, and did I mention that, early in the film, Mr. Butterfly befriends a local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonachelli)? When Benedetto asks him what he does for a living, Mr. Butterfly claims to be a photographer who's taking pictures of the area ('cause he shoots people, get it?). Benedetto then inquires if he's researched the town's history, and when Mr. Butterfly answers that he hasn't, Benedetto remarks, I kid you not, that Americans try to live without history. Thud.
This is Corbijn's second feature after Control (2007). That film, a biopic of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), was stately and professional but not brilliant; I watched it the same week that I first saw Todd Haynes' I'm Not There. (also 2007), and it didn't benefit from the comparison. This film is also stately and professional, like Mr. Butterfly, and it's enjoyable to the extent that you're willing to forget about plot and character, and simply soak up the mood and atmosphere of the film.
You could also say the same about The Limits of Control, which is an even sillier movie. How is it then that a reviewer like Roger Ebert could pan Jarmusch's film so viciously, and then turn around and award this one four stars? I could go all Rosenbaum and make the case that, while Jarmusch's film is in part an attack on American imperialism, The American, despite its title, doesn't engage with politics at all; like its protagonist, it tries to live without history. Mr. Butterfly doesn't work for the CIA, and the only people he kills are his Swedish friend with benefits and some generic henchmen who are trying to kill him. Mathilde's intended target, meanwhile, is Mr. Butterfly--a plot twist which calls to mind Martin McDonagh's recent In Bruges (2008), which was a more enjoyable hit man movie. In other words, the film views the idea of killing for profit "existentially," as something divorced from politics.
That's certainly a limitation that shouldn't be overlooked, but I don't think it accounts for the vast differences in how the two films have been received. (In Bruges, after all, alludes to the sex scandal in the Catholic church, although that aspect of the film has been largely overlooked by reviewers.) Rather, I think that The American, for all its moodiness and withholding exposition, is simply a more traditional sort of film--what Ebert would call, "a real movie." Mr. Butterfly never does anything as inexplicable as ordering two espressos in separate cups, or walking into an art gallery to look at one painting and then leaving. Ultimately, whether you prefer The Limits of Control or The American says as much about you as it does about the movies. And being the perverse guy that I am (I'm a huge fan of late Godard), I like The Limits of Control.