Friday, March 4, 2011

Keeping it Real (Somewhere, Biutiful)

No actors.
(No directing of actors.)
No parts.
(No learning of parts.)
No staging.
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 [2006]), 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.

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