Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Senior Class: Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood

According to a recent news item in The Telegraph, researchers at the University of Montreal set out to compare the views of men in their twenties who had never seen pornography with those of regular users. The problem was that they couldn't find anyone who had never seen porn. On average, the study found that single men in their twenties spend two hours a week watching porn, while men in relationships spend thirty-four minutes a week looking at it, and with no negative consequences.

I don't imagine that Woody Allen, who turns seventy-five in December, spends much (if any) time on the internet, where the study finds that ninety percent of wanking occurs. But watching his new film You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) again after reading about the study, it seemed that Allen's insights into the male psyche shed some light on why men are such compulsive masturbators.

A multi-protagonist comedy-drama set in London, the film's subject is the different ways people find of not dealing with certain harsh realities. The movie opens with Helena (Gemma Jones), a visibly frazzled middle-aged woman, going to see a fortune teller, Cristal (Pauline Collins), who tells her what she wants to hear and charges her for the service. We learn that Helena's longtime husband, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), has left her because he's going through a midlife crisis and wants to have a son. After an unsuccessful attempt at the dating scene, Alfie calls in a professional, Charmaine (Lucy Punch), who tells him what he wants to hear and charges him for the service. Alfie soon finds himself hopelessly in love with Charmaine and proposes marriage.

Alfie and Helena's grown daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), also wants to have a child, but she needs to find a job because her American husband, Roy (Josh Brolin), isn't working at the moment. Early in the film, she interviews for a position at a posh art gallery run by Greg (Antonio Banderas), whom she quickly develops a crush on. Meanwhile, Roy, a former medical student turned novelist, is anxiously waiting to hear from his publisher about a manuscript he submitted. If Roy had a Wi-Fi connection, he might distract himself by spending thirty-four minutes a week on the internet, but instead, he begins spying on Dia (Frieda Pinto), a professional musician who lives in the apartment across the street.

Neither Sally nor Roy believes in fortune tellers, but Sally goes along with Helena's fantasy as long as it makes her happy. Conversely, although Sally disapproves of Alfie's marriage to Charmaine, Roy thinks it might be good for him. On their first date, Charmaine tells Alfie that she's primarily an actress, leading Sally to ask, "An actress in what?" This is the movie's most explicit reference to pornography, yet Allen (perhaps without even realizing it) seems to be working out some of the implications of pornographic films and literature. As Kurt Vonnegut put it in his novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965), what pornographic books offer the reader are "fantasies of an impossibly hospitable world."

Here, the characters are all nursing their own hopeful delusions: Helena that Cristal can predict the future; Alfie that he's still a young man; Sally that Greg shares her feelings; Roy that he's a novelist. Perhaps Alfie is a little more deluded than the rest, and accordingly, his scenes with Charmaine are the film's most broadly comedic (even if Hopkins' performance is as understated as his work in James Ivory's The Remains of the Day [1993]). After all, several of Cristal's predictions do come to pass; Greg does say that he's having trouble at home, and Sally is an attractive woman; and we're told that Roy's first novel did show some promise. And if the delusion makes you happy, then why not? It's only when the characters' delusions start crashing against reality that the problems start. So naturally, the only character who finds some measure of contentment at the end of the film is Helena, who finds some one to share her delusions with.

The film is just brilliantly written. A lot of movies in recent years have had several intersecting story lines, but often with the characters isolated on separate continents. Here, where the characters all know each other, Allen is able to update us on the status of several different plot lines within the same scene. A key sequence here, which comes deep into the film, begins with Sally coming home in a state after learning that Greg is already having an affair with some one else. She finds Roy on the couch sipping a beer, and when she asks him if he's heard yet, he has to ask her, "Heard about what?" such is his present state of contentment with Dia that any anxiety he felt about his new book now seems like a distant memory.

As Sally moves about the room looking for an aspirin, she talks about how dissatisfied she is working for Greg (a complete reversal from her feeling earlier) and how she needs to start her own gallery (announcing a new goal for herself). Greg then gets a call from his publisher, informing him that his book's been rejected. And while he's talking on the phone, Helena shows up at the door to announce to Sally that she's had a breakthrough with Cristal, and now believes that she's lived before. Cristal had earlier predicted that Roy's book wouldn't be published because the timing wasn't right, and now Helena tries to reassure him by saying that maybe he'll be a writer in another life--which is manifestly not what Roy wants to hear.

As a rule, Allen's British films tend to be superior in craftsmanship to his recent American movies, even when the material isn't up to par, as in Cassandra's Dream (2007)--as opposed to Melinda and Melinda (2004) and Whatever Works (2009), which felt rather slapdash. (That said, I still liked the latter quite a bit.) Here, the cream-coloured production design by Jim Clay (who also worked on Match Point [2005]), and the light, airy cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond set just the right mood for the picture. Also, this is one of Allen's most inventively staged films with the actors in near-constant motion, often in extremely long takes with a mobile camera. But because Allen's technique is firmly "in the service of his material," as they say, you might not notice how masterfully constructed the film is unless you're paying attention. Nothing here happens by chance (seeing the film a second time, I realized just how obsessively colour-coordinated the film's palate is in every single shot), yet because Allen is so completely in control of the medium, it feels almost effortless. This is Allen at the top of his form.

I've seen Clint Eastwood's Hereafter (2010) twice, and I had a different response to it each time. The first time I saw the film, it just raped my tear ducts. But seeing it again, it put me in a more thoughtful mood--or maybe "thoughtful" isn't the right word, since I wasn't thinking about anything. Maybe the first time I saw the film I was responding more to the story, while the second time I was responding to the mood of the film.

This control of tone hasn't always been Eastwood's strong suit. Even in Changeling (2008), where he had a pretty good script by Michael Straczynski, the muted colour scheme and sombre, high contrast lighting seemed at odds with the cheerfully lurid story, and the performances were all over the map, from Angelina Jolie's aggressive Oscar-baiting as a saint-like single mom to Amy Ryan's streetwise prostitute to Jason Butler Harner, who attempts to outdo Peter Lorre in M (1931) for nervous excitability. Also, not to hate on Angelina Jolie just for being Angelina Jolie, but her lips are so big and so red, and everything else is so monochromatic and blue-grey, that they become the focal point of every single shot in which she appears. And you'll notice that whenever Jolie has a big, emotional close-up in the film, she always covers her mouth.

In this film, however, everything comes together in perfect harmony: The script, performances, cinematography, production design, sound mix, and score all work together to create a mood that's exquisitely subdued; this is one of the quietest American studio films of recent memory. Written by Peter Morgan, the film is a multi-protagonist drama which tells three separate stories, each one set in a different country, and its best scenes are often the saddest. One thread, set in San Francisco, involves a former psychic, George (Matt Damon), whose powers of perception make it difficult for him to have any kind of personal life. In an attempt to meet some one, George signs up for night classes in Italian cooking, where he meets Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), who's new in town and is looking to make new friends. The chemistry between these two provides some of the film's rare lighter moments, but when they go back to George's apartment and Melanie discovers his hidden talent, things take a sudden turn for the serious. Another story, set in London's East End, centres on twin boys, Jason and Marcus (Frankie and George McLaren), whose mum, Jackie (Lyndsey Marshal), is a junkie but not an unaffectionate one. When Jason is killed in a car accident, Marcus (the more introverted of the two) is placed in a foster home while Jackie gets herself sorted. Like Nicholas Ray, Eastwood seems drawn to stories about loners from broken homes.

The third story line is about a French journalist, Marie (Cécile de France), who almost dies in the 2004 Asian Tsunami. The sequence representing this event, though obviously done on computers, is nonetheless awesome because it gives you a sense of what it's like to be swept up in a fast-moving current which is less dangerous in itself than all the objects moving around in it (such as shopping carts and cars) that you can get caught on or crushed by. After getting whacked on the head, Marie sees a white light and lots of backlit figures which are supposed to represent the afterlife. (Just as the movie makes a point of not telling us which country she's in during the tsunami, the film's version of the afterlife is entirely nonsectarian. And later, there are broad satiric swipes at both Islamic and Christian whack jobs for good measure.) Upon returning to Paris, Marie finds that her heart just isn't in her work anymore, and her producer-boyfriend, Didier (Thierry Neuvic), suggests that she take some time off to write a book. But when she decides to write about her experience, she finds that no one wants to listen. According to the film, there is really is an afterlife and science can prove it, but the evidence has been suppressed by left-wing atheists in the media like Didier. In Switzerland, Marie meets a formerly skeptical doctor (Marthe Keller) who says that what convinced of an afterlife was that so many people reported seeing the same things, which is also true of UFO sightings.

Each story has a slightly different look, and in each one, the film seems to be referencing a particular genre associated with the different countries. The American story is like a superhero movie without any action scenes, complete with an origin myth (in this case, a childhood surgery gone wrong, rather than a mutant spider bite), and a hero who has to chose between using his powers to help total strangers and having a relationship with a nice girl. (George even says at one point, "It's not a gift, it's a curse!") The scenes in Britain are played for kitchen sink realism, and one early sequence is shot atypically with a handheld camera. And the Parisian story line, which takes place largely in steel-and-glass skyscrapers and fancy restaurants (reflecting the fact that the characters here are more affluent), is a politically tinged relationship drama. (Marie's first interview upon returning to her regular job as a news anchor is with a CEO whose company exploits third world labor, and before writing about her experience during the tsunami, she pitches her publisher a book about François Mitterrand.) The décor, particularly in Marie's apartment, tends toward bright, clinical whites, while the scenes in San Francisco and London emphasize blue and brown, respectively.

The film is not without its rough spots. Inevitably, the three stories converge at a book fair in London, where Marie is promoting her book. Marcus' foster parents take him there in order to meet their previous foster child, who has a job as a security guard. But Marcus, being the withdrawn kid that he is, asks if he can wander off on his lonesome for a while. George has just bought a copy of Marie's book when Marcus recognizes him from the picture on his website, which hasn't been taken down. But what exactly is George doing in London? You see, George's favorite author is Charles Dickens (more than once in the film, we see George listening to his works on tape), so when he needs to get away for a while, George decides on England. The first thing he does there is to visit Dickens' home, and it's there that he sees a poster advertising a reading of Little Dorrit (1855-57) at the book fair. Obviously all stories depend on coincidence, but as a character trait, George's enthusiasm for Dickens seems rather arbitrary. The cooking lessons make sense, because as the teacher (Steve Schirripa) says at one point, cooking involves all the senses (to add an acoustic element and set a romantic mood, the teacher plays Italian opera during class)--in other words, cooking is life. But why Dickens, and not any other British novelist, except of course that Dickens is by far the most famous? When Melanie notices a sketch of Dickens in George's apartment, he says to her, "People go on and on about Shakespeare, but Dickens is just as great" (never-mind that Shakespeare wrote plays and sonnets in the Elizabethan era, while Dickens wrote serialized novels in the Victorian era), which is the closest he comes to explaining his affinity for the author of Bleak House (1852-53) and Great Expectations (1860-61).

Of course, that's pretty minor next to the lapses in storytelling in some of Eastwood's other pictures, such as Million Dollar Baby (2004), where Paul Haggis' (Oscar-winning) script suddenly introduces a glowering German villainess to paralyze the heroine for no reason at all, and then has her disappear from the film entirely. But here, even when the screenplay stumbles slightly, the look and sound of the movie (when there is music, it's non-obtrusive) and the performances are so much of a piece with one another that the execution carries the viewer over any tiny flaws in the conception. And despite the heavy tone (the film's cinematographer isn't named Tom Stern for nothing), Eastwood shows a lighter touch than in any other film of his I've seen. In part I think that's because Morgan's script doesn't portray any of the characters as a pure villain; even when George gets laid off from his warehouse job, he's not mad at the foreman, who's just protecting the guys who have families. But also, notice how in the scene where Melanie first walks into the cooking class, an old man standing next to George straightens his collar a little bit. The old man is in the background of the shot and out of focus, but by placing the teacher (the apparent focal point of the shot) to the left side of the screen, and the old man in the direct centre of the frame, Eastwood subtly shifts the emphasis away from the teacher. And when you compare this nice little comic touch with some of the comic relief characters in Eastwood's other films, like a dumb blonde in the otherwise brilliant White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) who's trying to sell a screenplay about a dog, you almost can't believe it's the same director. This is Eastwood at the top of his form.

1 comment:

  1. Brother, you're an amazing writer. you should get paid for this. have you applied for any writing jobs?