Since I can't access this blog in China (well, I can, sort of, obviously, but it's a pain in the neck and I can't upload pictures), I've decided to move it elsewhere. So, for those of who you actually seem to enjoy my writing (a phenomenon I find personally baffling), set sail for The (New) World at http://lesamantsreguliers.wordpress.com, where you can find my belated response to David Fincher's Zodiac.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Friday, March 4, 2011
(No directing of actors.)
(No learning of parts.)
But the use of working models, taken from life.
BEING (models) instead of SEEMING (actors).
—Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph (1975)
Like the characters in her earlier Lost in Translation (2003), the subject--one hesitates to call him the protagonist--of Sofia Coppola's new film, Somewhere (2010), is a guy with what might be described as "white people problems." Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a B-list Hollywood actor who's so bored with his debauched lifestyle (he's evidently slept with more women than the hero of a Gabriel García Márquez novel) that when he hires identical twin prostitutes to perform a striptease for him in his swanky hotel room, he finds it a struggle just to stay awake. To be sure, the performance is not particularly erotic (though well rehearsed and impressive from an athletic standpoint, it lacks passion), and that bed does look super comfy, but that's beside the point. If he's bored, he should quit his moping and read a book or something.
Stylistically, Coppola appears to have been influenced by Monte Hellman's Two Lane Blacktop (1971), the counterculture road movie written by Rudy Wurlitzer. As in that film (as well as Coppola's previous movie, Marie Antoinette ), what little dialogue there is is of little consequence, and is overheard more than heard. The film opens with a static shot of Johnny's black sports car being driven around (and around) in circles, and there are many more shots to come of the same car being driven around Los Angeles--including the closing sequence in which Johnny takes his car out to the middle of nowhere, parks it beside a stretch of highway, and just walks away. I guess this is supposed to represent his walking away from fame and success, but while Coppola has a pretty solid grasp on what it's like to be rich and pampered and feel indifferent to it, she appears to have no inkling whatsoever as to how else a person might live. So the film simply ends there.
Between these bookending sequences, Johnny's eleven year old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), turns up at his door, and it's here that the film shifts into high gear. While Dorff is obviously an actor trying to seem like he's bored, Fanning really is a little girl. To be sure, there are moments when she's clearly acting, as when she breaks into tears at one point late in the film. But for the most part, although Fanning is a professional actress who's appeared in other commercial movies, what Coppola does with her resembles the use of non-actors by a director like Bresson in that she seems to choose her performers, not for their ability to transform themselves into a completely different person, but for who they intrinsically are. (That said, there's little to no evidence of any direct influence.)
It's impossible to tell just by looking at the film how much of the dialogue was prepared in advance, and how much was improvised by the actors. As in Federico Fellini's La dolce vita (1960), the numerous celebrities who make cameos here simply seem to be dropping by, as opposed to playing a scripted role--most notably, Chris Pontius from Jackass (whom one doesn't normally think of as an actor at all) as Johnny's childhood friend, Sammy. When the latter jokes with Cleo about her ballet teacher possibly being an alcoholic, his dialogue may have been written by Coppola for all I know, but it sounds like something that Pontius would actually say in that situation to get a kid to laugh, and Fanning's reactions seem spontaneous (Coppola doesn't cut away to a separate reaction shot). In other words, rather than asking her actors to become some one else, Coppola tailors each role to the personality of the performer to such a degree that the viewer isn't always sure where the real person ends and the performance begins. And if you agree with Jonathan Rosenbaum that much of what's described as cutting-edge in cinema entails a blurring of the usual distinctions between fiction and non-fiction (Bresson's films being a prime example), then this may be Coppola's most avant-garde film yet.
To admit that X may be by turns Attila, Mahomet, a bank clerk, a lumberman, is to admit that the movies in which he acts smack of the stage. Not to admit that X acts is to admit that Attila = Mahomet = a bank clerk = a lumberman, which is absurd. [...] An actor in cinematography might as well be in a foreign country. He does not speak its language.
By way of contrast, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful (2010) is a tightly scripted neo-realist soap opera about a protagonist with actual problems, and in the role of Uxbal--a midlevel criminal who's trying to raise two kids on his own while dying of cancer, and whose bipolar ex-wife is schtupping his brother--Javier Bardem deploys all his craft as an actor to transform himself into the character. (Similarly, I suspect that the interior scenes were mostly shot on sets, and that Iñárritu didn't actually shoot in the slums like Pedro Costa.) Set in the poorest districts of Barcelona, and shot with a handheld camera in often low lighting conditions, the film is clearly intended as a realistic portrayal of a certain segment of Spanish society--if not a corrective to Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008), also starring Bardem, which views Spain from the perspective of a rich American tourist (Scarlett Johansson, who played the lead in Lost in Translation). But while Somewhere inserts real people into a fictional story, Iñárritu uses stagecraft to create the illusion of reality.
Coincidentally, both this movie and Somewhere centre on flawed father-figures. Here, although Uxbal never knew his own father (an exile from Franco's Spain who died shortly after arriving in Mexico), he clearly sees himself as a father-figure not only to his children but to the Asian and African immigrants that he's exploiting (he prefers to think of it as helping). And there separate subplots involving his attempts to help different single mothers: A Chinese woman who babysits Uxbal's kids when she's not making knockoff purses in a windowless sweatshop run by gay Asian lovers, and a Senegalese woman whose husband is deported after being arrested for selling said purses on the street. Oh, and did I mention that Uxbal can talk to ghosts? No, seriously.
For the better part of two and a half hours, the film is almost unrelievedly grim, yet Iñárritu pulls back at the very end to provide Uxbal with a solution that I found unpersuasive. Although the movie has a nondenominational version of heaven, which is represented by a snowy forest where his eternally young father is waiting for him, that's little comfort to Uxbal who doesn't know what's going to happen to his kids when he's gone. His ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), is unstable and abusive, but the Senegalese woman, Ige (Diaryatou Daff), is good with the children, and when Uxbal sleeps in one day, she takes it upon herself to feed them and take them to school. Besides, she needs a place to live, and the rent on Uxbal's apartment is payed up until the end of the year. For this ending to work, one has to believe that a woman who's inside the Eurozone illegally, has no means of supporting herself, and already has one child to feed would choose, purely out of the goodness of her heart, to take on the responsibility of two additional children. Not only is this a stretch, it's borderline racist.
Iñárritu seemed like a promising director a decade ago when he made Amores perros (2000), but since then he's fallen into the trap of being an "important" Hollywood director. His English-language debut, 21 Grams (2003), was a morose and idiotic movie about mortality with a telenovela-level story line, and Babel (2006) was even more bloated and self-important (although I didn't hate it as much as everyone else, maybe because I had such low expectations for it). Biutiful is the director's first movie since his dude-vorce from screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, and although it sticks to a single protagonist and a mostly linear unfolding of events, it doesn't budge an inch from the ponderous tone and thematic concerns (mortality, cross-cultural interactions) that characterized Iñárritu's two previous features. But while this strikes me as his most successful and compelling film since Amores perros (damning with faint praise, I know), for his next movie I'd like to see him do a disreputable stoner comedy.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Songs of Innocence
A sicko incest fantasy with shocking bursts of violence, full frontal nudity, and symmetrical framings reminiscent of Chantal Akerman, Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth (2009) is, to start with, a curious movie for Greece to choose as its official submission for the Oscar for best foreign language film. Seeing as it doesn't have any stars and evidently didn't cost very much to make (it has only a few locations and a small cast), it's not the sort of film that usually wins industry awards. As a rule, instead of going to movies like this that achieve a lot without very much money, such awards typically go to films that cost a great deal and do virtually nothing.
By way of contrast, Canada's official submission this year was Denis Villeneuve's Incendies (2010), a Canadian-French co-production shot partly in Jordan about the civil war in Lebanon between Christians and Muslims. It's a good film, though not Villeneuve's best work (I prefer Maelström ), and next to Dogtooth, it looks rather insignificant and square. Nevertheless, I don't need to tell you which movie is widely expected to win the Oscar.
Of course, the real question is: How did Dogtooth get an Oscar nomination in the first place? When Greece picked it as its official submission, I didn't think it had a chance. When it subsequently turned up on the nine-film shortlist, it seemed like a random anomaly rather than a meaningful sign. And now that it's been nominated, I frankly don't know what to think. Might Academy voters be a lot hipper than I've been giving them credit for?
The movie is a deadpan fantasy about three young people in their late teens or early twenties, who still live at home with their parents, whose house is surrounded on all sides by a tall fence. They have no neighbors, and it gradually becomes evident that the three kids have all never been outside, having been brainwashed by their parents to fear the outside world generally and cats in particular. In one of the film's funniest sequences, the father (Christos Stergiolou) convinces them that a nonexistent older brother, who disobeyed him by going outside, was mauled to death by bloodthirsty kittens. None of the children have names, so the older daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia) is simply referred as "the eldest."
The father occasionally leaves the house to go to a nearby factory, where he has a desk job (or perhaps he owns the place). On a regular basis, he brings home one of the factory's security guards, Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), to sexually service his son (Hristos Passalis). This arrangement has been going on for some time already when the story begins, so we never learn how Christina got involved with the family. (The film is as stingy with its exposition as '90s Kiarostami.)
Living in captivity has not only made the children infantile but polymorphously perverse. Early in the film, when the son refuses to satisfy her pleasure, Christina offers the eldest a shiny trinket on the condition that she "lick" her. Having grasped the basic concept, the eldest is soon bartering with her younger sister (Mary Tsoni) for licks on the shoulder.
After letting go of Christina, the father decides that one of his daughters should take over her duties. And to decide which one should do it, the kids come up with a means of choosing between themselves that is probably the simplest and most logical. Needless to say, this is profoundly creepy on number of levels, yet the young actors in the film are all so attractive that much of the movie seems intended to titillate. One comes away from the film feeling slightly dirty for liking it, as opposed to a more nobly intentioned work like Villeneuve's.
The picture takes a largely modular approach to storytelling, in which each event is of roughly equal importance, and the scenes could be shuffled in almost any order. As in Akerman's even more radical Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), narrative progression is evident only in the slight variations on rituals repeated over the course of the movie, such as Christina's regular visits to the house. (It's her worldly influence on the kids that leads to the breakdown of paternal order, while in Akerman's film, it's the monotony of the heroine's daily chores that's driving her nuts.) Ultimately, both films build to desperate acts of violence, reminding one of Mark Peranson's term, "the cinema of orgasm," which he used to describe such films as Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny and Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms (both 2003).
(Again, compare this with Incendies, where the characters--both in the present-tense scenes and the flashbacks--have clearly defined objectives, and each event follows logically from what happened before in a tightly ordered sequence of causes and effects, leading ultimately to a big revelation that answers any unresolved questions and provides catharsis for the characters.)
In keeping with its approach to narrative, the style of the film tends toward static tableaux--often shallow, planimetric images of the characters framed against a wall (see above). The critical cliché about directors like Akerman, Douglas Sirk, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder "imprisoning" their characters in the frame, thus reflecting their metaphorical imprisonment by society, fully applies here. Rather than striving for naturalism, nearly every shot is composed and colour-coordinated in such a way that we're constantly being reminded that what we're seeing isn't a naturally occurring event, but something that's being done consciously for the camera. What's impressive about the movie is that there isn't a single composition that's predictable, yet every shot feels inevitable, and many of them are beautifully sustained over time by Lantimos' creative staging.
The very fact that the Oscars are treated as a news event, rather than simply a TV show, just goes to show how little difference there is between sycophantic "entertainment reporting" and bought publicity. At least the latter is honest about what it is, but the former--and the Oscars themselves--are closer to Stalinist propaganda, designed to trick us into better serving our corporate masters by rushing out to see the latest releases. You want to know what everyone's talking about, right? Well, they're talking about the Oscars--I know, I saw it on the news. So go see The King's Speech (2010) and watch the Academy Awards, or else you won't know what people are talking about at work on Monday morning.
In Canada, the news media has been trying to sell us on watching the Oscars by talking about the nominations for Incendies and Barney's Version (also 2010) as if they were a matter of national pride. When Roger Ebert predicted both films would win in their respective categories, the headline on CTV News was, "Ebert Gives Thumbs Up to Canada." The implication is that every person in the country has some personal investment in whether or not these films win an award, and it's our patriotic duty as citizens to watch the Oscar telecast. (Aren't we all living in a version of Dogtooth?) On the other hand, even if Lanthimos' film had never been chosen to represent Greece in the first place, and regardless of what country you happen to live in, it's still worth seeing for its intrinsic value. At the very least, it's a lot more fun than watching the Oscars.
Songs of Experience
A more traditional Oscar nominated film, Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine (2010) shares with both Incendies and David Fincher's The Social Network (2010) a flashback structure with two forward-moving timelines. And as in those films, the present-tense scenes are more concentrated, taking place over two days (and one night), in which a married couple, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling), whose marriage is disintegrating, leave their young daughter with Cindy's father (Jerry Doman) and spend the night in a cheesy sex motel in an attempt to reestablish intimacy with one another. The romantic evening is a miserable failure, and the morning after, Cindy gets a call from the hospital where she works as a nurse and leaves before Dean wakes up. (Dean then follows her to the hospital and causes a scene.) Finally, they go back to Cindy's father's house to pick up their daughter, where they get into an another argument and breakup for good. The film basically consists of a series of escalating arguments spaced out by flashbacks to happier days.
While the first two flashbacks, which take place prior to their first meeting, seem to belong exclusively to either Cindy or Dean, the subsequent flashbacks don't privilege one character's perspective over the other (at one point, the movie even cuts between them in separate locations). And the film's pseudo-documentary aesthetic (handheld camerawork, low lighting conditions) adds to the sense that these scenes are meant to represent an objective history of their relationship, rather than either one's subjective memories. However, unlike Incendies and The Social Network, here the flashbacks are not only expositional, explaining how the characters got to where they are (and in particular, the events that poisoned their relationship before it even started), but also comparative, so that we see young Dean getting beat up by Cindy's jealous ex-boyfriend (Mike Vogal) just before old Dean punches a doctor (Ben Shenkman) who's been putting the moves on Cindy. And later, the film cuts back and forth between the couple breaking up in Cindy's father's kitchen and the first time that Dean met Cindy's parents, when he came to the house for dinner.
What's interesting about the movie is how the flashback structure plays with our sympathies. When Cindy runs into her ex-boyfriend at a liquor store early in the film, we don't know anything about their past relationship, and it's hard to say based on their brief interaction whether or not he's a good guy. Subsequently, when Cindy brings it up in the car, Dean gets really upset. In that moment, we're likely to sympathize with Cindy, but as we learn more about the characters' past, we come to understand retrospectively why Dean reacted the way he did. If the movie ultimately seems to side with Dean, whose desire to keep his marriage together is what drives the entire plot, on a scene-by-scene basis, the film's mode of inquiry remains open-ended.
Notwithstanding the rather lovely final image, shot with a telephoto lens, of Dean walking away from the camera in the middle-ground, while people set off fireworks in the background out of focus, Cianfrance isn't doing anything very interesting in terms of mise en scène. So how much you like the movie is dependent largely on how you respond to the story and performances. Of the two leads, I found Dean the more sympathetic, simply because, as played by Gosling, he's this goofy, charming guy who's like a big kid--whereas Cindy, particularly in the present-tense scenes, often seems irritable and depressed (albeit justifiably so).
While both actors give very strong performances, knowing their past work in movies like Half Nelson (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), one is rather disconcerted by the absence here of politics of any kind. As with a lot of movies that come out of the Sundance Film Festival, it's refreshing to see a blue collar milieu portrayed in a mainstream American movie, especially when it's done as sensitively as it is here, yet the story is so specific to these two characters that feels like it's been neutered of any critical edge.
Saturday, January 15, 2011
You know, I kinda like Darren Aronofsky. Say what you will about Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), or The Wrestler (2008), not one of them was boring. And while his new film, Black Swan (2010), may not be very good, you can bet your ass it isn't dull. Aronofsky swings for the rafters with this one, and even if he doesn't pull it off, I'm still glad that he was willing to make the effort.
There's a fine line separating a film about hysteria from one that's simply hysterical, and Aronofsky boldly crosses it. The story is about a frigid ballerina, Nina (Natalie Portman), who still lives at home with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) in an apartment on the Upper West Side. As the movie opens, she's up for the lead in a production of Swan Lake, but while the director, Thomas (Vincent Cassell), knows that she can play the white swan, he isn't sure if she can play her evil twin. Eventually he gives her the part anyway (because the plot requires it), and to help her get into character, he tells her to go home and masturbate as a "homework exercise" (which she does, as if the idea had simply never occurred to her before). Apparently, nobody in this movie has ever heard of sexual harassment.
Oh, there's more. Like the white swan, Nina has her own evil twin, Lily (Mila Kunis), another dancer in the same company, who's as whorish as Nina is uptight (she always wears black, and has a giant, skanky tattoo of a lily on her back). Early in the film, while walking down a spooky corridor, Nina thinks that she sees herself walking towards her, when it turns out to be just a stranger in black. Later, when she suspects that Lily wants to steal her part, Nina starts to get confused about whether Lily is Lily or if she's Nina--as if, in addition to the part, she also wanted her face. At one point, Lily and Nina go back to her apartment, where Lily gives her oral pleasure... Or is it Nina giving Nina oral pleasure? This is Aronofsky's oh so delicate and subtle way of reinforcing the idea that Lily is supposed to be Nina's doppelgänger.
The movie has one idea about ballet, and it's incredibly facile: To play the black swan, Nina must become the black swan! Similarly, the characters are all miserable clichés: Nina is anorexic and obsessed with perfection; her mother is a failed artist who's living through her daughter; Lily is a slut, and therefore always late for rehearsals (as if there were some connection between promiscuity and tardiness). When Nina is confronted by the ballet's former leading lady (Winona Ryder) at a fundraising event, her mascara is running and she's holding her drink way up high where the camera can see it, so that we know at a glance she's drunk and upset (just one of many moments in the film that veer into self-parody). The movie relies so much upon this sort of visual shorthand and stereotyping that I seriously doubt the film's writers had any firsthand experience of the ballet world.
As for the dancing, Aronofsky only has one idea about how to film ballet: Shoot Portman from the waist-up with a handheld camera spinning around her really, really fast. Armond White has compared the film unfavorably to Kanye West's "Runaway" video, and it's not hard to see his point. While West's manner of filming his dancers strikes me as functional more than inspired (Jacques Demy he ain't), at least he seems to genuinely like ballet. Here, when Nina and Lily meet some frat boys in a bar, one of them asks, "Isn't ballet boring?" And judging by this movie, it looks like Aronofsky agrees with them.
In La Pianiste (2001), Michael Haneke covered much the same territory (domineering moms and sexual repression leading to madness and self-inflicted stab wounds), but like a million times better. Aronofsky's conscious model seems to be Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965)--again, a much better movie--and as in Pi and Requiem for a Dream, he uses non-diegetic sound effects and various horror movie tropes to place viewers inside the mind of a person losing their grip on reality. For instance, there are numerous moments when Nina suddenly backs into a person she didn't realize was standing right behind her. Ooooo!
What Haneke and Polanski have that Aronofsky lacks as a director is confidence and a gift for simplicity. In La Pianiste, there are several long close-ups of Isabelle Huppert just listening and thinking, and many scenes are played out in a single long take. Alternatively, Aronofsky shoots everything in close-up or medium shot, and covers even the simplest sequence from seemingly a dozen angles. This style is often a mask for uncertain direction: Cover everything and just pray that it comes together in the editing room. I'm not saying that's the case here necessarily, but just looking at the results, I'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
Because Aronofsky sometimes shoots the back of Portman's head with a handheld camera, some folks have been comparing his style here to that of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The difference is that when they do it, in films like La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), Le Fils (2002), and L'Enfant (2005), it's actually for a reason. By withholding reaction shots, and holding a shot for a certain length of time, they tend to objectify their characters. It's sometimes hard to know what they're thinking and feeling. In this film, Aronofsky gives us essentially standard coverage with lots and lots of reaction shots. According to the website Cinemetrics, Rosetta has an average shot length of 33 seconds, and in Le Fils, that number jumps to 70 seconds. I don't think there's a shot in Black Swan that lasts longer than seven seconds. (Requiem for a Dream, maybe Aronofsky's most aggressively edited film, has an ASL of 4 seconds.) This is not surprising since Aronofsky presumably doesn't want his film to be shown only in art houses, which would hurt its chances of winning an Oscar.
Incidentally, although to my knowledge Rosetta has never been released on DVD in North America, you can watch the film in its entirety on YouTube. The quality's actually not bad, and if you've never seen a film by the Dardennes, it's a better place to start than Black Swan.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Well, I'm against it [aging]. I think it has nothing to recommend it. You don't gain any wisdom as the years go by. You fall apart is what happens. People try and put a nice varnish on it, and say, well, you mellow. You come to understand life and accept things. But you'd trade all of that for being 35 again.—Woody Allen
The Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010) is a perfect example of the negative influence that Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) has had on the western. Ending like that film with an epilogue set in a graveyard at sunset, it is so slow and talky and sepia-tone and elegiac that it makes one long for the virility of a young man's western like Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (1959), which ended with John Wayne fucking Angie Dickinson (or at least that's how I remember it). The problem with modern westerns is that they need to lighten up and get laid.
When did westerns stop being fun? The original True Grit (1969), directed by Henry Hathaway, appeared at a transitional moment. It had been thirty years exactly since John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) made Wayne a star, and the popularity of westerns was in decline. With the war being fought in Vietnam, audiences were understandably weary of a genre associated with celebrations of ethnic cleansing, and it didn't help that Wayne was an outspoken supporter of that war. A few years earlier, Clint Eastwood had become a huge star for appearing in a series of gritty Italian westerns by Sergio Leone that positioned themselves culturally as demystifications of the west. And Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (released the same year as True Grit) went further still in its images of indiscriminate slaughter. The next decade saw even more revisionist westerns, and Wayne continued working steadily until 1976, when he made his final film, The Shootist, but the age of the western as a popular genre in Hollywood was essentially over.
These days not many westerns get made in Hollywood (notwithstanding those set on other planets, like Star Wars  and Avatar ), but when they do, they're invariably made by older directors for an older audience. Eastwood himself was a notorious womanizer in the 1970s (according to Wikipedia, he's fathered seven children with five women), and part of what makes his directorial debut, Play Misty for Me (1971), so personal and memorable (if not good, precisely) is the degree to which it reflects its maker's anxieties about the possible consequences of his promiscuity. Northern California in the late '60s was his happening, and it clearly freaked him out. But twenty years later when he directed Unforgiven, Eastwood was well into his sixties, so it's not surprising that he was thinking more about retirement than getting laid. That said, when it comes to making a genuinely mature western, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995) is virtually alone in offering a serious critique and revision of the mythology of the west.
Six years after Unforgiven, the Coens made their first film with Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski (1998), which wasn't a big hit at the time but seems now in retrospect possibly the definitive movie of its era, given how much sagging middle-aged male flesh there is on display here. Released in the same year as the Monica Lewinsky affair and Viagra, the film contains numerous references to the western (beginning with the opening shot of a tumbleweed), but far from the Duke and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, here both male leads are obese and hilariously ineffectual if not literally impotent. (There's even a minor subplot involving the potency of the Bridges' character's sperm.)
But where The Big Lebowski provides an affectionate ribbing of baby boomer anxieties about decreasing virility, in their subsequent neo-western, No Country for Old Men (2007), the Coens attempted to elevate the same concerns into something far more grandiose. Adapted from a 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy (who fathered a child in his seventies--what's he trying to prove?), it starred Tommy Lee Jones as a Texas lawman who's metaphorically impotent in the face of the world's evils, represented here by a sociopath with an obviously phallic cattle gun. Perhaps it's a sign of the times that even in a western as vigorous as Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) there would be jokes about male impotence.
By my calculation, Hawks was about fifty-four when he made Rio Bravo (roughly the same age the Coens are now), and Hathaway was eight years older when he made True Grit, yet neither film feels like the work of an old man. The latter film ends with the Duke giving a joyous display of his mastery of horse riding, set to an upbeat western theme with horns that go dah dah-nuh dah-nuh--an image that all but shouts, "I ain't dead yet, partner!" Bridges, on the other hand, seems to have modeled his performance after the alcoholic doctor in Béla Tarr's Sátántangó (1994). To say that the film lacks energy would be an understatement; it is a depressed and lethargic slog of a movie. I think what the Coens need is some Viagra and a weekend with Angie Dickinson.
Friday, January 7, 2011
How is that Terence Davies, conceivably the greatest of all British narrative filmmakers, is also one of the most neglected? To answer this question, one has to begin with what's been termed the cinematic apparatus: that is, the processes regulating the production, exhibition, promotion, and discourse around motion pictures. In short, theatres need a constant supply of new movies (or they'll go broke), but for customers to want to see a particular film--whether it's a blockbuster like Inception or an indie film like Winter's Bone (both 2010)--it has to be well promoted. For instance, the latter film might have disappeared into the void with hundreds of other low-budget features which are produced each year had it not been accepted by the Sundance Film Festival (where it won the grand prize) and received across-the-board rave reviews from the English-speaking press.
However, when it comes to films that can't be easily classified or summarized (unlike Winter's Bone, as good as it is), all but the most adventurous distributors tend to lose their nerve. And the majority of reviewers, whose allegiances are to the studios more than filmmakers or audiences, are likely to react to such a film with hostility. If you go to the Telegraph's website, you'll find their two-paragraph review of Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) from the film's 2007 rerelease buried under much longer reviews of the Adam Sandler film Reign Over Me, and a documentary called Hacking Democracy (2006) originally made for American television (both unseen by me), which are evidently much more important to the art of cinema than Davies' film.
Davies wasn't the first filmmaker to receive this sort of treatment, nor was he the last. One only has to think back to last spring and the uproar surrounding Godard's Film socialisme (2010) from reviewers like Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy. I've only seen the latter movie once, but I suspect that twenty-two years from now, when Winter's Bone and the rest of the year's Oscar contenders have all faded into insignificance, Godard's film will look almost as good as Davies' does today. But because the brilliance of both Davies and Godard--like that of Leos Carax, Pedro Costa, Philippe Garrel, Miklós Jancsó, Béla Tarr, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul--is more a matter of combining sounds and images than conventional screenwriting, their films don't fit into the steady, mindless flow of commercial movies that wash up on the multiplex every week.
Like his debut, The Terence Davies Trilogy (unseen by me), which consists of three short films made over a period of eight years (1976-83), Distant Voices, Still Lives is technically two shorts filmed two years apart. Both segments are set in Liverpool in the 1940s and '50s, and centre on the same working class family. Distant Voices opens (and closes) with the death of the family's tyrannical father (Pete Postlethwaite), which is followed sequentially by the marriage of the eldest daughter, Eileen (Angela Walsh), to a man who turns out to be just like him. Still Lives begins with the second daughter, Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), giving birth to her first child, and ends with her younger brother, Tony (Dean Williams), getting married. Much of the film's second half takes place at a local pub where the family goes to celebrate the birth of Maisie's baby, and these scenes, and the flashbacks they lead into, elaborate on the relationships between Maisie, Eileen, her childhood friends Micky (Debi Jones) and Jingles (Marie Jelliman), and the men they're married to. Needless to say, this brief description fails to do justice to the film's emotional intensity.
Unlike a traditional plot-driven movie, where Event A leads to B which leads to C, all in a logical sequence of causes and effects (even in films that play with chronology, like Memento ), Distant Voices, Still Lives consists of a series of discrete moments of intense emotion. Early in the film, while posing for a wedding photo, Eileen remarks to Tony, "I wish me dad were here." The camera then turns to Maisie, who says in voice-over, "I don't. He was a bastard." This leads into the film's first flashback, in which the father forces Maisie to scrub the basement floor before giving her the money to go to a dance. As she scrubs the floor on her knees, the father throws some coins on the floor and then viciously beats her with a broom. This episode doesn't have any far-reaching consequences, nor is it ever referred to again later; it's simply the first of several instances in the film where the old man physically abuses the female members of his family. (Although he's emotionally distant with Tony, we never see him hit the boy.) Adding to the feeling of narrative stasis are the film's planimetric tableaux stagings, in which the characters seem to be forever posing for family portraits.
Whereas a traditional narrative film would give specific reasons for the father's outbursts (something would happen to set him off), Davies makes no attempt to understand his behavior, leaving open the possibility that he's just insane. The only time his behavior seems even somewhat understandable is during a flashback to the Blitz. The children are all outside collecting firewood when the bombs start falling, and after narrowly escaping an explosion, they're finally led into a bomb shelter by a soldier. There, the father slaps Eileen (played as a child by Sally Davies) and orders her to sing a song. (Her rendition of "Beer Barrel Polka" is one of the most moving moments in the whole film.)
I don't know if Davies intended this, but I can't help but draw a parallel between the randomness and viciousness of the Blitz and the father's sudden outbursts, and his need to hear a song--any song--as a means of dealing with the reality of the bombings and the pleasure the other characters take in listening to music throughout the film. Earlier in the movie (which is later in the story), when Eileen and Micky want to go to a dance, the father remarks that the two of them are, "Bleedin' dance mad." Even under the most difficult circumstances, the characters stubbornly attempt to go on with their lives.
The achievement of the film is that, while the characters' feelings are presented as pure states of emotion, without the usual narrative justifications to get from one moment to the next, at no point do the film's emotions feel under-motivated. A good example of this is the film's second flashback, which begins with Tony (who's gone AWOL from the army) punching out the windows of the family home and shouting at the father inside, "Come out and fight me, ya bastard!" The next shot shows Tony inside, calmly offering his father a beer, his hand still bleeding from the broken glass. The third and final shot of the sequence shows Tony being dragged out of the house screaming by two fellow soldiers, and tossed in the back of a van. Later, in a separate flashback, we see Tony in the brig playing the theme from Charles Chaplin's Limelight (1952) on the harmonica, which seems especially fitting in that Chaplin was another British filmmaker who specialized in moments of strong emotion, but wasn't much of a storyteller.
Although it was made a quarter of a century ago (Davies began filming on Distant Voices in the fall of 1985), Distant Voices, Still Lives, as well as Davies' subsequent features, The Long Day Closes (1992) and The Neon Bible (1995), feel like movies from the future--despite the fact that all three are steeped in nostalgia for the Hollywood cinema of the 1950s. As with the best films of Godard, all three are so far ahead in terms of sounds and images that, in comparison, most commercial filmmakers just don't seem to be trying very hard. But until distributors figure out a way to market this kind of cinema, and reviewers find a way of writing about it (and I should note that Jonathan Rosenbaum has written about all three films at length), we're doomed to living in a world where the multiplexes are full movies and there's still nothing to see.