NEW DVD REVIEWS: Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, Straw Dogs (Criterion Edition), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and The Truth About Charlie.
#0141 - FIVE ON A MATCH - "Twenty-five years ago," writes Stanley Kauffmann in his New Republic review of Laurel Canyon, "it would have guaranteed that a film was aimed for social-moral inquiry if it began with cunnilingus." It must be nice to write for a magazine that lets you use the word cunnilingus in your lede sentence, and it's encouraging to see that Kauffmann, after all his years as a film critic, still gets some smirking joy out of trying to goose his reader while setting up that most deadly of all propositions: talking about morality.
My own review didn't use the word "morality" - never mind cunnilingus - once, mostly out of a querulous fear of losing my readers anywhere over the course of a mere 400 or so words. You don't talk about morality lightly these days, mostly because moral arguments are treated so lightly that you have to bear down on the subject with much more than four hundred words to guarantee a hearing. Kauffman is similarly hindered by space, and after introducing the idea of a moral reading of Lisa Cholodenko's sophomore picture, lets it float free until the final paragraph of his review.
While most reviewers chose to turn their write-ups into praise for the unexpectedly carnal performance of Frances McDormand, Kauffmann goes against the grain again by essaying the beauty of Natascha McElhone instead. "In a medium that feeds on beauty continuously, it is unusual to see a face so striking that it makes most other attractive women to be mere contenders," Kauffman writes. "I can't remember any face since Sophia Loren's that was so uniquely captivating." So taken is Kauffmann with McElhone that he makes no mention of her baffling accent, a sexy slavic drawl coming from a character that's supposed to be, we learn late in the film, Israeli.
Even more baffling is his final paragraph, where he grips the hilt of the moral issue again, but with a curiously unsure touch that produces this queerly overwrought paragraph:
"Then there is the moral area, undiscussed but implicit. The film moves Sam and Alex into an area - certainly not a monopoly of the entertainment world - where promises and commitments ripple like images moving from real mirrors to distorting ones. This is hardly a new phenomenon in human history, but the flaunted anti-squareness of these times - anti-squareness even at considerable cost - can make principles seem ruefully out of reach."
If Cholodenko's film is tentative, even unwilling, to really examine the moral issues it raises, then Kauffmann's review is just as tentative, lapsing into vague imagery of mirrors - real and distorting - and curiously circumspect talk about "anti-squareness", careful not to make to explicit a case for either the squares or the anti-squares. I don't, frankly, understand what's so implicitly fearful about describing, simply and truthfully, the dynamic of the romantic triangle (or rather, pentangle) that comprises the film: A bright but unhappy young man (Christian Bale's Sam) returns to California with his straightlaced fiancee (Kate Beckinsale's Alex), and finds himself forced to cohabit with his mother (McDormand as Jane, a successful record producer), a freewheeling spirit who is the source of his emotional unease, and Ian (Alessandro Nivola), her much younger lover. While his fiancee finds herself on the verge of sexual entanglement with Sam's mother and her lover, the young man is guiltily drawn to his beautiful co-worker (McElhone).
The dramatic flow of the film lazily but unmistakably draws toward the moment - a hectic, overpeopled Los Angeles night-time moment - where both of these potentially disastrous infidelities move to their fruition. Sam is the first one to pull back - his self-control is the defining aspect of his character, a hard-won quality that he has obviously nurtured in spite of his mother. Alex has been less reserved, however, and after a cute but clumsy striptease (to the tune of Serge Gainsbourg's "Bonnie and Clyde") for her mother-in-law and her boyfriend in a penthouse bedroom at the Chateau Marmont, she has slipped into bed with the couple while an agitated Sam makes his way, missile-like, to the hotel and inevitable confrontation.
At the last moment, McDormand's Jane pulls back, leaving the bed for the bathroom and the unhappy realization that, as strange and unrestrained as her life has been, it would probably be a bad idea to "screw my son's fiancee". This is, I suppose, the area Kauffmann is talking about, the one with the mirrors and the rippling promises and commitments and such, but I can't help but wonder why he couldn't bring himself to call Jane's last-minute decision a moral one. It is, regardless of your gender or lifestyle, a bad idea to betray your children by sexually poaching their mates, and while I know the "anti-squares" will find this notion impossibly antique, I think you'll find a consensus supporting it, though perhaps not among the audience for a film like Laurel Canyon.
In the New Yorker, Anthony Lane takes a more rakish view of the film's sexual tangle, and one that might address its constituency a bit more closely than Kauffmann's muted unease. "Among its other accomplishments," Lane writes, "Laurel Canyon is to be congratulated for addressing the ever-topical question of whether, why, and, above all, where you should have sex with your mother-in-law-to-be." Rising to the challenge of reviewing a film like Laurel Canyon, Lane dons the lavender gloves and boutonierre of the Wildean sophisticate: "How on earth," he writes, "is a critic meant to take notes on a semi-incestuous intergenerational threesome?" It's the sort of bemused but titillated expression of pseudo-shock that most of Laurel Canyon's audience probably feels obliged to adopt when some voice, external or internal, is moved to ask: "Whoa. So what did you think about that, eh?"
What Lane gets right is how the game has been rigged against the squares, Sam and Alex, from the beginning: "By the rules of Hollywood, or course, the squares always lose. From the early moment on the plane, when Sam and Alex play Scrabble together (sample words: queasy, sweat), we can tell that they will be denied dramatic justice, and that Jane American Unplugged will carry the day, her cultural triumph as assured as that of the music she espouses."
Yes, the music. The band Jane is producing, with sexy, slithery Ian as the lead singer, is a neo-folkie, faintly retro Coldplay variant, whose music is written by Mark Linkous of amerindie darlings Sparklehorse, and performed on film by a pedigreed band that includes Lou Barlow(Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, Folk Implosion). It's also truly terrible, with some of the most excruciating lyrics I've heard in years, one key song in particular sounding like a mistranslation of America's "Horse With No Name". But it's supposed to be as powerful and undeniable as Jane's free spirit and the erosion of Sam and Alex's relationship in the warm ozone blast of Jane's world.
Because of this unfortunate assumption of artistic vitality, as implied as the unsoundness of Sam and Alex' relationship, the weakest moments of the film are in the recording studio, though if you've ever spent time involved in recording a record, you'll sympathize with how difficult it is to make this process seem anything but dreary. Alex is supposed to find herself drawn into Jane and Ian's world through the music, and Ian's seduction of Alex is apparently facilitated by the music he creates. Jane, unbelievably, asks Alex her opinion about the music, insisting, as Lane recalls, that "anybody with instincts knows about popular music. That's why it's popular, she tells Alex. either it pulls you in or it leaves you cold." Simple.
"At the risk of perversity," Lane then writes, "I would like to put in a word for the cold. Laurel Canyon functions best not as liberationist whoopee, but when it allows the cautious, too, to have their say not during the impending orgy but in the beautiful scenes of morning-after closeups, which survey the expressions of these fretful souls. Alex, Sam, and even Jane lie awake, wide-eyed at the sins they did or did not commit the night before; only Ian slumbers, a naughty baby, replete with immorality." You have to wonder how much of Lane's conspicuous display of Wildean moues and flutterings were preparation for his intention to use words like sin and immorality with an apparent understanding of their meaning.
After Jane's agonized decision not to sleep with his son's girlfriend, Sam arrives at their suite to find Alex in bed with Ian, not quite in flagrante delicto, but clearly in deshabille. One gets the impression that, during his tender youth, Sam has walked in on scenes like this many times before, though without the same personal stake. He explodes, and Alex runs after him, swearing that they - Ian and Jane - mean nothing to her, that she loves him, not them. There is crying, and hugging, and a provisional sense of forgiveness. Sam's incomplete infidelity with McElhone, however, is not addressed, and the film ends with Sam sinking to the bottom of his mother's steaming pool, like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, dragged down by the weight of his own unresolved issues. And so the film refuses to cheat us of the teasing possibility of some future freaky threesome, foursome, or fivesome, a polymorphous explosion that will be the final triumph of Jane America Unplugged.
If Laurel Canyon has any single major flaw, it's that it's an unconvincing film, where its characters are conditioned and herded along by the film's intention that we should find Frances McDormand's Jane sexy and undeniable, and that Sam's insistence that there's something dangerous about his mother is to be discarded as the overstrenuous ravings of the terminally uptight. What he - and she, and everyone - needs, it seems to say, is to get laid, and Jane is the person to do it.
I can't help but recall one of Spike Lee's more annoying failures, and there have been many - the miscegenation-themed Jungle Fever, where Wesley Snipes' affair with Annabella Sciorra destroys his marriage and incurs the wrath of an acid-tongued chorus of sistas. I read an interview with Sciorra where she described a confrontation with Lee over her character's motivation; Lee wanted her to be a sexual tourist, merely interested in tasting the virile brown sugar that was all Snipes' character was supposed to represent to her.
Sciorra disagreed, convinced that there was no way her character, an Italian and a Catholic, would have been drawn into an affair - with a married man, and a black one at that, no small incursion across racial lines, especially in Lee's world, where Italians and blacks are fated antagonists - if she didn't love him. Sciorra dug in her heels and refused to play her character as a de facto slut, and her decision made for one of Jungle Fever's more redeeming facets, a bit of emotional depth in a film, by a filmmaker, who up to that point had shown a lot of energy and style but not much depth. In the end, it obviously wasn't a refinement you could credit to its director, and Lee didn't shown a glimmer of that depth again until last year's haunting and undersung 25th Hour.
And so at the end, Kauffmann's verdict that Laurel Canyon is a film about morality - cunnilingus-inspired or not - is a bit unconvincing, if only because Cholodenko seems so unconvinced with Jane's single, viable moral decision. "I will not screw my son's fiancee," she says, but the last scene of the film seems to whisper "unless...", leaving the emotional fallout suggestively incomplete, teetering on the carefully undermined resolve and discipline of Bale's Sam, as he goes under, perhaps for the last time.
(posted 11:56am | 04.10.03)
#0140 - THE VERTIGO TOUR - A friend sent me a link to this fascinating website, a tour of San Francisco based on locations used in Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 piss-elegant creep-out masterpiece Vertigo. I've been working on a similar thing here in Toronto, based on old postcard views, but this is something remarkable, using just one fixed reference point - a film - as a basic source.
It's amazing to see how little the city has changed in some views, like the Brocklebank Apartments, or the intersection of Post and Stockton, where there's still a flower stand on the same spot after forty-five years. Sometimes the change is due to something as simple as trees maturing, as in the approach to Lincoln Park, but in other spots it's drastic, such as the former location of the St. Paulus Lutheran Church, which burned down and was replaced by some really dreary apartment blocks.
Most of the views are from the long sequence where Jimmy Stewart stalks Kim Novak around the city, but Hitchcock seems to have tried hard to remain on location throughout the film, even where he could have used a soundstage set, such as the front door of Stewart's apartment on Lombard, which still has the same mail slot and doorbell after almost fifty years. The Mission Dolores has grown a new facade in the intervening time, but it isn't as radical, of course, as the bell-tower Hitchcock added to the Mission San Juan Batista, where the film's two dramatic climaxes take place. Make sure you click on the link at the top, which takes you to Widescreen Cinema's Vertigo pages.
I'm trying to think of how many other cities could stand this sort of treatment. New York, of course, has been used as a location thousands of times, though only a handful of films use it as evocatively as Vertigo, and most of those have been directed by Woody Allen. Rome could be done easily - any number of Fellini films would serve as inspiration, as well as William Wyler's Roman Holiday. London and Paris are ripe for treatment, of course, and I'm sure Chicago has served as a backdrop for some notable film or two, though I can't think of one just at the moment.
My hometown, alas, has been the location for hundreds of films, though most of the time it's meant to stand in for another city - New York or Chicago, usually. Some enterprising individual might want to use those films - most of them TV movies or missteps in otherwise decent careers - as reference points for a tour. In my own neighbourhood, for instance, there's a building whose quaintly antique side entrance and iron fire escape has stood in for the lower reaches of Manhattan - Greenwich Village or the Lower East Side - on numerous occasions. When I lived in a loft just next door, I'd have to navigate around film crews every summer, and watch as set dressers would add graffiti and garbage to a seedy - for Toronto - but otherwise pristine corner.
(posted 09:25am | 04.09.03)
NEW REVIEWS! - Laurel Canyon: There was something - something moral - that bugged be about this film. More later. Seraphin: Heart of Stone: A historical melodrama from Quebec; they do this sort of thing really well in La Belle Provence, which is more than you can say about English Canada. A major problem, though - an underwritten character, an insufficiently baroque plot - makes this one fall short, though. NEW DVD REVIEWS: Red Dragon, Path to War, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, Femme Fatale, Jackass: The Movie, The Man from Elysian Fields and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season Two. Brent Ratner is a hack: from Jonathan Demme to Ridley Scott to Ratner - the Hannibal franchise has really devolved. I was fascinated by George Hickenlooper's The Man from Elysian Fields, though - the sort of film that probably didn't stand a chance (it went straight to video here in Canada) despite some really interesting performances, including the best onscreen turn Mick Jagger's done since Gimme Shelter. More later.
#0139 - THE AWFUL SPECTRE OF PEACE - A photo, and a story, that moved at work yesterday...
"A billboard featuring the poster for the new film What A Girl Wants is pictured at Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, California April 1, 2003 featuring actress Amanda Bynes giving a "V or peace sign." Sensitive to the controversial war against Iraq, studio executives announced April 1 that they have changed an advertisement for the film that features the 16 year-old star flashing a peace sign and instead have her placing her hand on her hip. - REUTERS/Fred Prouser"
I guess the marketing weasels at Time Warner have finally wised up. I mean, we all know that, to us frothing, bloodthirsty warmonger types, a peace sign is like garlic to a fucking vampire, or at least the ones that go to insipid tween-oriented comedies. Horrible, horrible peace. Hell, you wouldn't want to piss off the tween warmonger crowd, would you? They'd be all, like, "Eww, peace. I mean, who does that skanky ho think she is - Helen Caldicott? I don't, like, think so. I'm a be all like, MOAB on her ass, yo! Like, nuh-uh. Who died and made her Jane Fonda? Later, bee-yawtch."
This war is doing terrible, terrible things to people.
(posted 10:30am | 04.02.03)
#0138 - NEW DVD REVIEWS! - West Side Story special edition, Secretary, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy. On the subject of movie musicals, the Boston Globe has a somewhat disparaging piece on the expected wave of musicals to come in the wake of Chicago's Oscar, inspired by the news that Vin Diesel wants to play Sky Masterson in a new version of Guys and Dolls.
"Would somebody please tell Mr. Diesel that there are no car chases, gunfights, or extreme sports in Guys and Dolls?" writes Renee Graham, the paper's pop culture columnist. "Just a thought here, but isn't the true magic of all that singing and dancing on film derived from having people who actually know how to sing and dance?" With projects like Jesus Christ Superstar, Bye Bye Birdie and The Pajama Game being mooted, and stars like Cuba Gooding Jr. (okay, maybe) and Robert De Niro (no way) being considered, Graham has one thing to say: "Can you say dubbed voices?"
The hour-long featurette included with the West Side Story special edition lets us hear Natalie Wood's painful attempts to sing the role of Maria herself, a contractual obligation that convinced everyone to call Marni Nixon for the dubbed singing. What I didn't know was that Russ Tamblyn's "When You're a Jet" and Rita Moreno's "A Boy Like That" were also dubbed, as dubbing was standard studio practice then, so it's hard to imagine that dubbing real singers today will be anything like a betrayal of some putative, pure movie musical ethos. Whatever works seems to have always been the motto: If you have a Fred Astaire who can pull off a complex dance sequence in one, almost seamless take, go for it. If not, cut and dub and manipulate at will.
What's unhappy about the idea of a rush to revive the movie musical isn't just the paucity of well-rounded talent, which is likely to result in a lot of bland teen-pop stars being pressed into service, presenting the spectacle of actors who can't sing or dance and singers who can dance - in that stomping, graceless manner peculiar to modern choreography - but can't act, jammed together in overshot revivals of second-rate musical properties. It's the way that musicals will probably be quickly turned into marketing-led exercises in stunt casting, which Graham anticipates by imagining a remake of West Side Story with Jennifer Lopez as Maria and Ben Affleck as Tony.
After watching the original last weekend, it actually might not be that bad, provided they give Tony's big number - "Something's Coming" - to someone else, and cast the much more charismatic roles of Nardo and Anita with actors as remarkable as George Chakiris and Rita Moreno. Cynically, you could say that the flaw in Graham's otherwise right-on piece is the assumption that great movie musicals were always great art, and not mere accidents where business and talent collided in just the right way.
It's not impossible to imagine someone making a really good new musical, but I tend to think that trying to make it based on the model of the old, Broadway-inspired spectacular is a mistake. That era is over, and it's only when you watch something like the impromptu street-corner sessions and rap battles in a film like 8 Mile that you get some idea of where a whole new kind of musical can be made, based realistically on the sort of talents that have been cultivated since movie actors stopped taking voice and movement classes and started going to the gym.
(posted 10:12am | 04.02.03)
#0137 - CLASSICAL GAS - "In 20 years," writes David S. Hauck in the Christian Science Monitor, "Blockbuster won't be able to give away copies of Chicago, Lord of the Rings will turn up on late-night TV after Ginsu-knife infomercials. And kids will squirm as Grandma drones on about The Hours."
Hauck's prediction is provocative, if only because he assumes that we'll still have Blockbusters, late-night TV and Ginsu knives in two decades. I'd say that the likelihood of most of this year's Oscar nominees surviving the test of time is probably thin; the "golden age" of the studios produced a fair number of nominated classics, but the last couple of decades have been far less blue-chip; time has not been kind to films like Chariots of Fire, Out of Africa, The Last Emperor, Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy or Dances with Wolves. At sixty years' distance, however, the run of Oscar winners from, say, 1938 to 1943 - You Can't Take it With You, Gone With the Wind, Rebecca, How Green Was My Valley, Mrs. Miniver and Casablanca - still stand up, with only Miniver as a possible weak link.
Hauck's piece is one of a number of headscratchers published around Oscar time that try to imagine just what will be the classic films of our time. Hauck canvasses academics and fellow critics and comes up with some interesting choices: Stephanie Zacharek of Salon nominates Minority Report, The Truman Show and Mulholland Drive, as well as foreign films like Yi Yi and ChungKing Express; Ty Burr of the Boston Globe picks Pulp Fiction, Run Lola Run and Memento, and has a lot of hope for the highlights of the digital animation renaissance, like the Toy Story films, A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc.
Charles Dove of Rice University's Rice Cinema lists Fight Club and The Matrix, and Roger Ebert thinks that, of all of this year's best film nominees, only Gangs of New York probably stands a chance, but adds that he has a lot of hope for un-nominated films like Far From Heaven, Minority Report and Adaptation. Leonard Maltin thinks holocaust films are an important part of the canon, citing Schindler's List, The Pianist and Life is Beautiful.
Maltin's choices are the only ones I seriously doubt. The latter is more like some embarassing lapse I'd hope we'll try to forget in twenty years, while I've always thought Spielberg's contribution to the canon is too close to being one of those sanctimoniously "worthy", quality films, like A Man For All Seasons (best picture, director, actor and adapted screenplay, 1966), that won't hold up with the passage of time. As for Polanski's film, time will tell, though I'm still not convinced that he didn't do his best work during that tortured period of his life between Sharon Tate's murder and his "exile" to Europe, with films like Macbeth, Chinatown and The Tenant.
In the Boston Globe's weekend magazine, Ty Burr explores the whole issue in depth, in an interesting - and only intermittently maddening - essay on the "new classics", as chosen by a select group of film majors he canvassed, "because I wanted respondents who cared passionately about the medium". An interesting, if flawed tactic, if only because it's the dispassionate public, as much as critics, academics or film buffs, who tend to decide what will remain watchable with the passage of time.
Burr begins by citing the much-discussed 2002 Sight & Sound poll, whose most recent entries were the first two Godfather films. The films he found being cited again and again by his young repondents "are much too rude to land in the Sight & Sound poll or one of the American Film Institute's annual lists, and they're not nearly tasteful or sedate enough for an Oscar," Burr writes. "Even the critics don't like them. This, in part, is why they're loved."
Canonical favorites like Citizen Kane, 8 1/2, Metropolis, Casablanca and Kubrick's films popped up on the lists, alongside "offshore and relatively esoteric" choices like "Iranian movies, the Hong Kong art films of Wong Kar-Wai, (and) Krzysztof Kieslowski's astringent moral fables. They're the antithesis of Hollywood pap, yes," Burr writes, "and sometimes it's just easy to love a film when it's your secret."
In descending order, the master list Burr compiled reads like this: Pulp Fiction, The Godfather, Fight Club, Run Lola Run, Amelie, 12 Monkeys tied with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Big Leboswki, Memento, Boogie Nights tied with Magnolia, and - we should have known it was coming - The Matrix. As a list, it makes a statement, if only because it's oldest film - The Godfather - is the newest on the Sight & Sound poll, drawing a very definite line in the sand. "In short, Casablanca and Citizen Kane don't matter so much anymore," Burr writes, craning his neck to listen for shrieks of wheezing outrage from the Old Critic's Home and Geriatric Repertory Centre.
As Burr sees it, the new canon's films "speak to the ways in which a new generation percieves history, reality and even perception itself." If you look at it that way, there's no shortage of apparent self-regard evidenced in the choices his group made. Fight Club is described as being "about American manhood at the bleeding edge of the millenium ... an undeniable masterpiece that speaks directly to the ironic neuroses of our times. A modern Graduate, if you like, and if that scares the hell out of you, it's meant to." Dude, I am so, like, unsettled.
Run Lola Run is "life as a video game", and Memento is "a nifty metaphor for the plight of modern man if you've got a Philosophy 101 term paper to write." Paul Thomas Anderson's films are like "all 500 channels playing at once with a pitiless sense of forgiveness." (I'm still not sure what that means, but it sure sounds...bleak.) The Matrix, most suggestively described of all, is "a perfectly realized screen translation of the goth empowerment fantasy fueling so much of pop culture's music and comic books. It's also the ultimate adolescent nightmare that says your world is an illusion created by soulless machines (a.k.a. mom and dad)." Descartes in a pleather trenchcoat, in other words, dodging bullets in 360-degree slow motion while pondering "how many were the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true".
Burr's list, while reflective of the "dissociative" strategy apparently required to deal with a "mediated" barrage of images and information, also requires you to regard the youthful worldview of his test audience as indicative of a "shallow-range focus, withholding emotional involvement, indulging in bright self-conscious passions, fluidly shifting tonal gears, using irony as both a shield and a weapon" and "juggling multiple frames of reference."
It's a nice tour of the ontological anguish of bright young people, such as the fascinatingly-named Martin C. Martin, an MIT postdoctoral student who sent Burr his list:
"When I was young, I used to think that movies would tell you about the nominal topic of the movie - that a cop film would communicate what it's like to be a cop in real life. After I grew up a little, I realized this wasn't true, that they changed things to be more 'dramatic'. So then I became more disillusioned with films. But at a point I realized: Films aren't about their nominal topic. They're about the audience."
I imagine that young Mr. Martin must be a ball on dates. I don't know whether Burr intended to make the priorities and coping strategies of young people seem so scant and paltry by talking about video games and 500 channels and Nu-Metal goth comic book paranoia as if they've defined the rhetoric by which they view the world, but this quote from Phoebe Shackeroff, a 26-year old grad film student at USC talking about films like Citizen Kane or Casablanca, made my shoulders sink with a palpable twinge of dismay:
"We really haven't had to deal with a war that didn't look like a video game or last about as long. So we haven't personally had to deal with the loss and the sacrifice. I'm not sure if we have heroes in the classical sense of the word."
One has to wonder whether the 9/11 attack, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and whatever future conflict the uncertain future will no doubt bring might eventually wear down some of that shrugging, unimpressed sangfroid. The problem with making a list based on the tastes and prejudices of young people is that you end up with the tentatively-formed, uncertain reflection of a young person's worldview. There's no reason to doubt its sincerity, but there's every reason to expect (and hope) that worldview - or its totems and enthusiasms - won't survive the events the rest of their life will present to them.
I would hate to inhabit a world bounded by my tastes as a young man, over two decades ago. It would be a sorry, Salinger-tinged edifice of self-pity, revenge fantasies, and cynical, pre-emptive expressions of disillusionment, encapsulated by three films, all of which starred Malcolm McDowell: If..., O Lucky Man and A Clockwork Orange. Even just a few years ago, alone and maudlin with disappointed love, and the old habit of leftover Cold War fatalism, my world was defined by Scott Walker and Tindersticks records, and films like In A Lonely Place, Miracle Mile and Crimes and Misdemeanors.
I might have nodded when you called Citizen Kane and Casablanca classics, perhaps even pointed to my VHS copies on the shelf under the stereo, but these idiosyncratic choices were the touchstones of my life. I would carry previous favorites - American Graffiti, Network, Quadrophenia, Farewell My Lovely, Repo Man, The Chase, Star 80 - along with me, happy to enthuse over them but secretly aware that they didn't inspire the same, unequivocal thrill any more.
I may be wrong, but the day might come when a few of today's Fight Club enthusiasts come across their deluxe edition DVD copy in a dusty box at the back of a closet and chuckle at how much the Ikea scene once spoke to them. I'm not sure if that vestigial attachment makes a film a classic, just as I'm not entirely sure how much you can rely on youthful unease and the inevitable perception by an older generation that "young people just don't see things the same way we used to" for the basis of some future canon, or the enthusiasms of a moment to stand for anything but that moment, frozen in time, on the verge of being swept away.
(posted 01:23pm | 04.01.03)
#0136 - TSURIS IN AFRICA - Once I'd summed up my feelings about Caroline Link's Nowhere in Africa - just released here in Canada last week - I had a moment to pause and ask myself why, precisely, this film won this year's foreign film Oscar?
I still haven't seen the other four nominated films, since none of them have been released here yet (an annual dilemma that casts the whole category in a dubious light), but I have to wonder if this was really the best of the lot. It's hardly a terrible film, but it's far from the best foreign film I've seen in the past year; this year, not for the first time, not one of my favorites was even nominated. It's a dismay that other critics seem to share.
Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic gets off to a roaring start by calling Link's screenplay "serviceable" and her direction "generally sure", exactly the sort of thing I want to hear about a film that's won an award previously given to Fellini and Kurosawa. Kauffmann spends a lot of time detailing the plot, a sure sign of a critic who can't think of anything strong or notable to say about a film. His "one reservation about the film is that all the Kenyan people are good and generous. One or two miscreants would have helped."
I'm amazed that Kauffmann's able to hold back on this. He's never been afraid of delving into the poltical subtext of a film, and a less generous critic might consider Link's portrayal of the African characters, especially Sidede Onyulo's pivotal, "perfect" Owuor, as patronizing in that benevolent, "racially sensitive" way that obliges so many directors to treat non-white characters with kid gloves. At the end, the film leaves Kauffmann "wondering what Onyulo is doing now."
I was often left wondering what he - and Owuor - were doing throughout the whole movie. When we first see Owuor, he's reluctantly getting up from the floor near the fire to treat his malarial boss, Walter (Merab Ninidze). In a montage sequence cut with the journey of the bwana's wife and child from Germany to Kenya, the men develop a bond, based on Walter's helplessness and Owuor's obvious talents and common sense, a bond his daughter Regina, the film's de facto main character, will assume as soon as she steps onto the dusty soil of their ranch. At no point does Owuor abuse that bond, or use it to protest the shoddy treatment he receives from Walter's wife, Jettel (Juliane Kohler).
As Kauffmann sees it, Regina "becomes the pet" of Owuor; I'd say that, by the end, when Owuor is given Regina's dog during their curiously flat leave-taking, he has become their pet, set free to wander the bush like the adopted stray when the Germans return to Europe. It's hardly a subtle bit of imagery, and I'm frankly amazed that Kauffmann didn't find himself, as I did, struck by its casual insensitivity.
David Edelstein in Slate is a bit more troubled by the film's politics, as well as its acclamation. He imagines Spike Lee fulminating: "Wouldn't you know it? First movie set in Africa to win an Oscar in years and it's about Jews in Africa." Edelstein thinks the movie is fascinating, "as Driving Miss Daisy was, for what it says about the liberal Jewish longing to bond, retroactively, with the black 'help'... In its picturesque, genteel, unforced way, Nowhere in Africa makes the case for respect and harmony across the scary racial chasm."
Edelstein reads a bit more significance into the passive, affable depiction of the Africans surrounding Regina and her family: "...the Africans regard the Germans with a mixture of amusement and resentment that's more interesting for what doesn't get said." It might have been a better film if it had tried saying something more about that relationship, even if it had risked a less "correct" view of either the Africans or the German Jews, or even just lapsed into doctrinaire cinematic pamphleteering about colonialism and exploitation.
Edelstein, like Kauffmann, damns with faint praise, concluding that "the movie isn't boring, but it's shapeless, more like a memoir than a novel..." He concludes, with a sober shake of his head, that "there's something too refined and emotionally neutral about Nowhere in Africa, as if Link had directed with white gloves. Maybe she knew how loaded this African-Jewish subject was and didn't want to push it too hard. Maybe that's why she won an Oscar."
(posted 10:48am | 03.31.03)
#0135 - FRIENDS OF ROMAN, LEND ME YOUR EARS - "I've heard people ask how a pedophile can be cheered while Michael Moore, an American speaking his own mind, can be booed," writes Charles Taylor in Salon. "But the cheering of Polanski and the booing of Michael Moore by the audience at the Kodak Theatre Sunday night are both of a piece and show considerably more sophistication than has been noted."
You can take what looks like a clear moral position on the two most notable incidents of last weekend's Oscars - Polanski is a pedophile, rapist and fugitive from justice who shouldn't have been given an Oscar; Michael Moore is a brave artist who was right to make his acceptance speech into a platform for protest. Arguing against either of these positions, of course, puts you in much murkier territory: Polanski's life, while both apparently unpleasant and doubtless an influence on his work, shouldn't prevent his film from being judged favorably against its competition; Moore's bravery is only as admirable as his legal, protected right to make such a statement wherever he chooses to do so, and to deal with what an audience, with their own, protected legal right to voice an opinion, will be moved to respond with in kind.
I find it interesting that people who claim to prefer a sophisticated response to events far more clear-cut than this year's Oscar hullaballoos will stake out a shadowless stand on Moore and Polanski, right across the political spectrum. Polanski's crime should disqualify him from work, never mind awards; Moore's righteousness overshadows any apparent charges of falsehood, grandstanding, or ego that might mitigate his eager assumption of the pose of public scold and free-speech martyr. It's in light of this that Taylor chose to interpret that surprising chorus of boos, and the appearance of Polanski's victim in print and on television in the lead-up to the Oscars, stating that she thinks Polanski deserved to win, regardless of what he did to her.
In the past week, it's become known that some of the losing nominees for best documentary feature, invited by Moore to share the stage with him, were appalled when he began his speech, and didn't enjoy being corralled into appearing to support him. A.O. Scott, in the NY Times, wrote that some of the boos came from people who otherwise supported him. Critics who, like Taylor, might otherwise share Moore's opinions on the war and on Bush, have expressed their dismay at his obvious relish at playing the bad boy so publicly. Slate's David Edelstein suggested that Moore has positioned himself as the Rush Limbaugh of the left, with the same eager chorus of "dittoheads".
"(Moore) used the death of Iraqis and Americans to grandstand," Taylor writes, "to show that he wasn't going to be silenced by the Hollywood establishment, in a way that no one else who spoke against the war did that night. He craved those boos, and would have been disappointed if he hadn't gotten them..."
Taylor correctly identifies a sleazy double standard that has occasionally surfaced when discussing Polanski: "...if a prominent director were found to be abusing boys, the reaction would be far more vociferous. Girls, the argument goes, are going to be having sex with men anyway, which isn't the case for all boys who are sexually abused by men. There may be some ugly truth in that, some lingering vestige of a refusal to take rape seriously, to treat it as a female rite of passage and an understandable male impulse."
Anyone who's had to read the description of Polanski's initially cajoling, drug-assisted, ultimately brutal violation of his victim would have a hard time calling it a "rite of passage". There are better words available, the most succinct of which happens to be rape. No doubt some of the votes - and the applause - for Polanski were motivated by a heavy-eyed, continental shrug, a sham sophistication inspired by some faint shade of moral relativism ("Who's to say what's wrong?") and an eagerness not to appear prudish. This is the attitude that, ironically and fantastically, makes Polanski appear to be a victim.
What really complicates Polanski's winning nomination is the way that his victim, first in an op-ed in the L.A.Times, then on a "Larry King Live" appearance, detailed the specifics of the case, did nothing to underplay her suffering, but stressed that she thought Polanski's work should be judged on its own merits. Above all, she did not, as Taylor saw it, want to appear as a victim: diminished, grieving, "ceding power to her rapist" by making a spectacle of her pain.
Appearing with her lawyer on Larry King's show, she gave details of the almost quarter-century old case, and how a plea bargain was reached with Polanski's lawyer's, reducing the charge to "sex with a minor" to prevent her having to testify in court. It was the judge, by giving a press conference and stating that he was going to pursue the harshest sentence, who ultimately persuaded Polanski to flee the country. It was an action that, today, seems both craven and suspicious in that it allowed the judge to appear forthright without actually hearing the case or passing sentence, and encouraging Polanski to go into exile, removing any living reminder of the case from the Hollywood community, who could regret the director's awful, unfair fate without having to actually deal with him in person.
Taylor writes that neither his victim or her lawyer were surprised that Polanski skipped, and that her public profile on the eve of the Oscars "upset people's preconceptions of how she should react." I can even discern a more subversive agenda, with victim ultimately assisting her attacker's Oscar win in order to force Hollywood to deal with him - and her, by implication - as a member of their community, and not just some picturesque, tortured exile. Polanski, with Oscar in hand, is difficult to regard as any kind of victim right now, and might force the immoral sophisticates to haul their arguments into the cold light of day, where they'll be rightfully scorned.
I had no problem with Polanski winning the Oscar - it was a good film, the best film in the category, though what I regarded as the best film wasn't even nominated. I'll even make a case for Moore winning, if only to keep Bowling for Columbine and its director in the public eye, and thus subject to constant scrutiny. The Oscars are a lot of things, but no one but the most idealistic, naive, or uncritical mind will consider them arbiters of excellence, pure and simple. What they are is a record - social, political, and emotional - of the state of the film industry that year. This year's Oscars - compromised, selective, even anguished, in a trite sort of way - were, despite reduced television viewership, a perfect time capsule for this painfully fraught moment.
(posted 12:19pm | 03.30.03)